Science and Religion in Conflict? Interpret However You Want!

Late last week we took a look at Pew's study on the conflict of Religion and Science in order to discuss how a single study can spawn a whole bunch of headlines.

We also touched briefly on our observation that the study left a lot to be interpreted, and we wanted to look even deeper into this to see how hard it is to boil a really complex reality into simple, clear conclusions.

So let's look again at the headline graph:

The contrast here may suggest that there is a "disconnect from reality" in much of the group that believes religion and science are "often in conflict," as few Americans see their own views as in conflict. 

We've immediately got a number of problems with this graph. The first is that these two results are not comparable. Specifically, we might ask, "what does 'often' mean?" If Americans think that a 30% incidence of conflict between science and religion is a fairly frequent amount, then they're totally right to say that in general, religion and science are "often" in conflict. The fact that these sets of bars look different tells us nothing at all. 

Second, and perhaps more importantly: I think intuitively we can surmise that most people don't think that "science" conflicts with their beliefs, as science is a process of discovering reality. More likely, those that hold heterodox view on science are likely to have less confidence in the scientific consensus than those who hold orthodox views. 

Let's take climate change as an example. We'll say the orthodox view is that climate change is happening, man-made, and dangerous (we'll use polling and review from a Scientific American article to back up the claim that this is the orthodox, or most common, view in the US). Those who hold the heterodox view (or are climate change "skeptics") would be unlikely to say that their position "conflicts with science." There's just a large number of people that believe there isn't a consensus among scientists, and many aren't even affiliated with a particular religion.


Another example is evolution. We'll say that the orthodox view on evolution is that humans evolved in some way over time, rather than always existing in their current form. For those that attend church once per week or more, 39% say that science and their religious beliefs conflict, but 49% say that humans have existed in their current form since the beginning of time.  That 10% gap is largely explained by the fact that this group of Americans is also much less likely to believe that there is a scientific consensus about the orthodox position on evolution.


In other fields, the ambiguity of the study muddies the situation further. Pew has begun to ask questions about policy on offshore drilling, or medical ethics, that have increasingly little to do with either religion or science. But the authority behind Pew's name implies that whether one holds a particular policy position on one of these issues suggests that one sides "with religion" or "with science."

Ultimately, Pew has created a study that opens itself to be interpreted in several different ways. Two of these are totally opposite: that among Americans, religion and science are in conflict, or that they're not -- and that such a position is a lot of hype. One could also interpret the study to mean that only religiously unaffiliated Americans think that religion and science are in conflict, but more religious people don't find it that way ("and therefore..." gets really interesting). Or, one might conclude that unaffiliated Americans see what is a real conflict between religion and science, and religious people fail to see it.

Our own reading of this study suggests that there is nothing interesting to be concluded from it. Questions like "do your personal beliefs conflict with science?" are too fundamentally flawed to tell us anything. Asking Americans about their opinions on offshore oil drilling or climate change and correlating their answers with religious groups tells us nothing about whether their beliefs conflict "with science" or not.

The moral of the story is this: even when we're not reading Fox or Vox, we have to keep our brains turned on. Subtle bias or simply insufficiently well thought-out survey design can lead to fairly disastrous consequence if one is too quick to accept the authoritative conclusions of a trusted body. It's a tall order to demand total self-reliance in the gathering of information, and the world would be a lousy place if we never had any trust in expertise or media sources.

But we should always have our skeptical hats firmly fixed on our heads. 


Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.