Friday, November 4, 2016

Misrepresenting Science

Elaine Ecklund from Rice Universtiy has stirred the pot again, with the publication of yet another paper, which appears in the journal Public Understanding of Science, about a study that makes questionable use of data relating to scientists' views of the compatibility of science and religion.  The data includes a number of opinions by Dawkins opponents in the scientific community.  The study is titled "Responding to Richard: Celebrity and (mis)representation of science".  That title alone should alert readers to the potential for bias in its findings.  Ecklund has revealed her own bias by tweeting: "British scientists really, really dislike Richard Dawkins, our new study discovers".  This appears to be the biased opinion of Ecklund herself, rather than the actual majority view of scientists.  Her view is not supported by the data in her own study.

The study is based on "48 in-depth interviews conducted with biologists and physicists at universities in the United Kingdom".  It should be noted that this data was not collected for the purpose of this particular investigation, but extracted from a broader study, also conducted by Ecklund, titled Religion among Scientists in International Context: A New Study of Scientists in Eight Regions (RASIC).  The Dawkins study used only the 48 responses where Richard Dawkins' name was mentioned during the interview, from among a total of 137 interviews in the RASIC study.  Of those 48, 38 of them expressed an unfavorable view of Dawkins.  Although the RASIC researchers didn't explicitly ask any questions about Dawkins, it is not at all clear what they did ask, or why Dawkins' name came up so frequently in the responses.  It seems likely that these interviews discussed the topic of "celebrity scientists with anti-religion views", or something similar to that.  There must have been something that prompted those responses, and it would be useful to know what it was.

Without knowing exactly what questions prompted the responses in these interviews, and without having a survey that was designed specifically for the objective of this study, with the purpose of eliciting scientists attitudes toward Dawkins, it is impossible to assess whether these responses are applicable only in some limited context, or whether they are representative of scientists in general.  From this study, we don't know anything at all about the attitudes of the 65% of scientists interviewed who said nothing at all about Dawkins.  Therefore, this Dawkins study conducted by Ecklund appears to have very limited scientific value.  Judging from its title, it seems to be little more than a personal dig against Dawkins.

Nevertheless, it was publicized in the Rice University news release: Most British scientists cited in study feel Richard Dawkins’ work misrepresents science.  Please notice that the title is carefully worded to convey the impression that scientists believe that Dawkins misrepresents science, but it is easy to overlook the fact that this statement is true only for scientists that were cited in the study, not for the scientific community in general.  It might just as well have said that 72% of scientists interviewed did not express negative attitudes toward Richard Dawkins, but for some reason, that fact was not mentioned in the news release, or Ecklund's study.  You have to read it carefully to realize that it only applies to a subset of scientists, and that subset seems to be cherry-picked.

The story was then picked up by other popular news outlets with a religionist agenda.  For example, EWTN (the Catholic media outlet) grossly misinterpreted the facts of the study.  Their story says "Most UK scientists think Dawkins atheistic crusade misrepresents science", which is simply not true at all.  But it is easy to see how they might think that, based on the misleading way Ecklund and Rice University reported her study results.  The EWTN story goes on to explain the difference between science and scientism, which is basically that non-materialistic views, which don't reject the idea of souls and miracles and other religious beliefs, are compatible with real science, but any scientific view that is more empirically based (like that of Dawkins) is just scientism.  And Ecklund's study serves to confirm their belief that Dawkins misrepresents real science.

In a similar manner, Christian apologists, such as Mikey at Shadow to Light and Reppert at Dangerous Idea have latched onto this story as evidence that their long-standing hatred of Richard Dawkins is well justified.  By taking an un-critical view of the story, they are able to confirm their bias.  But as much as they are willing to believe anything that agrees with their own prejudices, there's no genuine scientific backing for those opinions.  It has been pointed out that Ecklund's work is funded by the Templeton Foundation, a pro-religious institution whose mission is to infiltrate religion into the scientific community.  They pay people like Ecklund to make pro-religious findings like this one.  This is no different from the "scientific studies" funded by the fossil fuels industry that show no link between fossil fuels and global warming.  The studies are not objective.  They take a selective view of the data.  They have an ideological agenda, and present non-scientific findings in accordance with that agenda.  This is a misrepresentation of science, and it serves the purpose of confirming the biases of a shallow-minded audience.


  1. From this article here is the real meat behind the survey in question......

    ".. detailed survey of almost 1,700 scientists at elite American research universities -- the most comprehensive such study to date. These surveys and 275 lengthy follow-up interviews reveal that scientists often practice a closeted faith. They worry how their peers would react to learning about their religious views.

    Fully half of these top scientists are religious. Only five of the 275 interviewees actively oppose religion. Even among the third who are atheists, many consider themselves "spiritual." One describes this spiritual atheism as being rooted in "wonder about the complexity and the majesty of existence," a sentiment many nonscientists -- religious or not -- would recognize. By not engaging with religion more fully and publicly, "the academy is really doing itself a big disservice," worries one scientist. As shown by conflicts over everything from evolution to stem cells to climate policy, breakdowns in communication between scientists and religious communities cause real problems, especially for scientists trying to educate increasingly religious college students."

    Amusingly, of the 1,700 scientists, one religious [I assume] scientist thinks the academy is doing itself a big disservice because it won't fully and publicly engage with religion. But the most interesting and telling observation, however, is how religious scientists seem: [a] not to possess any courage of their convictions, thereby [b] are cowered into practising their faith in the closet, and [c] are too embarrassed to openly express their faith with their peers lest they be ridiculed.

    I suspect there is a real reason underlying that predicament. And it ain't Richard Dawkins, who happens to be a most convenient whipping boy to which Eckland can direct her ire. Perhaps Eckland's research could have been a lot more intellectually rigorous, productive and useful by drilling down into finding out why religious beliefs are so epistemologically tenuous, unqualifiedly tendentious at best in any substantive way, is only one [Christianity] of a thousand competing religions each claiming to be the one and only source of truth, as an explanatory paradigm that must by its very nature conflict with science, at every level of reality.

    The rest of this article is simply an exercise in accommodationist pablum papering over the real issue of marrying religious superstition with scientific explanation and understanding. The two are synonymous with alchemy and chemistry, astrology and astronomy, numerology and mathematics.

  2. Ecklund has long been spewing out this kind of garbage. When she wrote Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think, Jerry Coyne took issue with her bizarre analysis of the data, here. She draws conclusions about how religious scientists are that have no justification from any objective view of the data.

  3. Jerry Coyne weighs in on Ecklund's recent paper here.