How 'science popularizers' influence public opinion on religion

How 'science popularizers' influence public opinion on religion
Elaine Howard Ecklund. Credit: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

Two prominent scientists with drastically different views on the relationship of science and religion - Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins - have an equally different influence on these views among people who are unfamiliar with their work, according to new research from Rice University and West Virginia University.

For the study, sociologists examined whether two high-profile " popularizers"—scientists who attempt to help the understand science and how it relates to people's lives—make the public more or less likely to view science and as being in conflict. The researchers found that people's perceptions of the religion-science relationship were not influenced when they read about a scientist who believes science and religion are in conflict (Dawkins); however, reading about a scientist who believes both institutions influence and guide each other (Collins) shifted respondents toward a collaborative view of religion and science.

Rice University's Elaine Howard Ecklund said that the findings might be explained by what is likely a "significant difference in the perceived credibility of Dawkins and Collins." She is the Herbert S. Autrey Professor of Sociology at Rice and director of Rice's Religion and Public Life Program.

"The Influence of Science Popularizers on the Public's View of Religion and Science: An Experimental Assessment" will appear in an upcoming edition of the journal Public Understandings of Science. The research is part of a larger study, Religious Understandings of Science (RUS), which explores how religious Americans think through complex scientific issues. Ecklund is the principal investigator for the RUS.

Dawkins is a renowned British evolutionary biologist and also an atheist and critic of creationism and intelligent design; Collins is the director of the National Institutes of Health and an evangelical Christian. "Dawkins has been a very vocal and aggressive supporter of the idea that religion inherently clashes with science and that science inherently undermines religion," the researchers wrote. "On the other hand, Collins has presented himself as evidence that religion and science can not only coexist but that they can even enlighten each other's claims." Each has published best-selling books, given many interviews and participated in debates on their respective views of the science-religion relationship.

"While Dawkins and Collins might both be perceived as having the credentials to make them an expert, research has shown that the U.S. public is generally distrustful of atheists and views them more negatively than most other ethnic, religious and minority groups," said Christopher Scheitle, an assistant professor of sociology at West Virginia University and the paper's lead author. "On the other hand, religious individuals are often perceived as more trustworthy, especially as viewed by other religious individuals."

The RUS featured a national survey of over 10,000 Americans. Part of the survey asked individuals if they had previously heard of either Dawkins or Collins. The RUS survey revealed that Dawkins was more widely known among the 10,000 survey participants than Collins (21.4 percent recognition versus 4.3 percent recognition).

Some of the participants who said they were unfamiliar with Collins were provided a biographical description highlighting his views on the religion-science relationship. This group of survey respondents was 15 percent more likely to agree that religion and science can coexist after reading about Collins. In contrast, participants who said they were unfamiliar with Dawkins and read about his life and views appeared to be completely unaffected and reported no change in their individual viewpoints.

Ecklund noted that previous research shows that people are more likely to listen and accept what a public figure is saying if they see themselves as similar to that figure.

"Given that there are more people in the U.S. population (and hence in our data) who would identify as a Christian than atheist, Collins is likely to have more impact with that audience," Ecklund said.

Ecklund said that the experiment's findings have important implications for how institutions and their representatives shape public opinion.

The John Templeton Foundation funded the study. The paper is available online at

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Jun 18, 2015
It doesn't help that Dawkins does have an air of pomposity about him.

Brilliant as he is, atheism really needs a more relatable public figure. Not some self-absorbed asshole like Penn Jillette, although he does appeal to the conservatives with his libertarianism.

Here's the basic difference explained: https://www.youtu..._ldNRNtM

Jun 18, 2015
Collins is right... they do not have to be in conflict with each other. Reality (science) often guides our morality/spiritual beliefs. For example, I think the observations of homosexuality in other animals has helped calm the moral judgement against human homosexuals. I think many people now believe God created homosexuals and however you define God, it/he/she really did. Whether you believe it's genetics or environment, it's something that was out of the hands of the individual... a higher power if you will.

Morality/spirituality hopefully direct science as well though I wish it had more influence than it does. We have to find better ways to conduct research than to use the bodies of other animals as testing grounds. It would also be nice if science wasn't used to create better ways to kill humans in battle. A true spirituality or moral/religious doctrine can help with that. Science alone, with no higher guidance, tends to go astray.

Jun 18, 2015
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Jun 19, 2015
A foundation that advocates non-overlapping magisteria (Templeton) funds a study that concludes that supporters of non-overlapping magisteria (Collins) are more effective at engaging the public. The conclusions of this study may perhaps be true, but until it is replicated by a group without such blatant vested interests it doesn't pass the smell test for me.

Jun 20, 2015
On second thought, no need for replication is necessary- this study by design comes to its conclusions. If you select a non-random sample of religiously-minded folk, then ask them whether or not they are more swayed by someone who shares their worldview or an outsider, homophily effects alone will have them favoring the person who shares their beliefs (the authors admit this directly). You would probably see a similar (albeit more blunted) effect if you included an advocate for Islam or Judaism. This study is also lacking in the sense that they only included Dawkins. Why not have other figures, such as Neil deGrasse-Tyson or Carl Sagan? Why target Dawkins in particular? Why not focus on the traits of such individuals rather than the individuals themselves? By focusing on two specific individuals alone this study lacks generalizability.

In brief, the results are probably not spurious, but this still reeks of bad faith.

Jun 22, 2015
Ecklund, known to make claims that are the exact opposite that her statistical surveys show, are now making personal attacks on non-religious. A science troll, not really meriting response. ah well, it is a pretence for social science, so here goes:

Funny how Ecklund _still_ has to make claims against evidence, despite out to smear her opponents.
- Dawkins has a place on his site called "Convert's Corner", it has many hundreds of entries witnessing to how he has made people come around to the evidence of the incompatibility between science and religion.
- Collins has none such, and his and Ecklund's only evidence is that Collins can hold two conflicting views at the same time (as any person can). Never mind the facts of the actual subject matter.


Jun 22, 2015
- Dawkins books sell well, especially in US; Collins books do not sell well. " Collins is likely to have more impact with that audience" is rejected by history, and it shows Ecklund's research is missing what she is supposed to study.

Well then, here is an attack repartee: It is likely that the former nun's brain is still mushed by religion, based on above evidence. Ecklund is certainly not contributing to "Public Understandings of Science"! And of course Templeton is buying the pretense of 'result' for big sums.

Bad faith, indeed!

Jun 22, 2015
The thread isn't too bad, it is certainly not much longer than Ecklund deserve (no response). The usual erroneous claims though:

@Eikka: "Dawkins does have an air of pomposity".

Not for observers. Both Dawkins and Harris are as softspoken and down to Earth as people come. You may want to study a video with Dawkins.

@jeffensley: "Collins is right."

Collins, Ecklund and now you are erroneous. Is smoking healthy just because a doctor can smoke? Is pedophily okay just because priests practice it?
No. Consequently we can't tell if science and religion is in conflict by studying people with cognitive dissonance. We must study the subjects, not the idiotic strawman.

@docile: "Science itself is based on belief".

Prove it! Your parading around accepted science as if it was faulty is not evidence for your claim, it is evidence against it: science can arrive at facts despite individual persons like you trying to promote an unsupported opinion.

Jun 22, 2015
By the way, here is a timely result on cognitive dissonance like Collins's, Ecklund's et al.

"You have to engage with that cognitive dissonance about whether or not that's actually a thing you would be able to do." The big danger for a party is that voters who can't reconcile their previous support for different candidate might simply sit out the general election." [ ]

This is likely a factor behind that despite Ecklund's assertions that falsely claiming that science can be combined with belief in magic such as religion just because it can be combined in a person - but with resulting cognitive dissonance - the US population is rapidly loosing faith and moving into the "none [of that erroneous magic]" domain.

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