Most British scientists cited in study feel Richard Dawkins' work misrepresents science

October 31, 2016, Rice University
Richard Dawkins speaks on the Rice campus in 2011. Credit: Jeff Fitlow

Controversial British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins is well-known for his criticism of religion, but a new Rice University study of British scientists reveals that a majority who mentioned Dawkins' work during research interviews reject his approach to public engagement and said his work misrepresents science and scientists because he conveys the wrong impression about what science can do and the norms that scientists observe in their work.

The findings in "Responding to Richard: Celebrity and (Mis)representation of Science" appeared in a recent edition of Public Understandings of Science and are part of a larger Religion Among Scientists in International Context study. The RASIC study includes a survey of over 20,000 from eight countries. In the United Kingdom, 1,581 randomly sampled scientists participated in the survey, and 137 of them also participated in in-depth interviews.

Although the researchers did not ask questions about Dawkins, 48 scientists mentioned him during in-depth interviews without prompting, and nearly 80 percent of those scientists believe that he misrepresents and scientists in his books and public engagements. This group included 23 nonreligious scientists and 15 religious scientists. Approximately 20 percent of scientists interviewed – 10 scientists all identifying as nonreligious – said that he plays an important role in asserting the cultural authority of science in the public sphere. One biologist surveyed said Dawkins has "quite an important place in society" in his criticism of creationism and intelligent design.

Elaine Howard Ecklund, the study's principal investigator and the Herbert S. Autrey Chair in Social Sciences at Rice, said that some scientists, independent of their religious beliefs, do not view Dawkins as a good representative because they believe he conveys "the wrong impression about the borders of scientific inquiry."

"Scientists differ in their view of where such borders rest," said David Johnson, an assistant professor at the University of Nevada in Reno and the paper's lead author. "And they may even view belief in a deity as irrational, but they do not view questions related to the existence of deities or 'the sacred' as within the scope of science."

"Some people like Richard Dawkins," said a nonreligious professor of biology. "He's a fundamental atheist. He feels compelled to take the evidence way beyond that which other scientists would regard as possible. … I want [students] to develop [science] in their own lives. And I think it's necessary to understand what science does address directly."

A nonreligious physicist said, "He's much too strong about the way he denies religion. … As a scientist, you've got to be very open, and I'm open to people's belief in religion. … I don't think we're in a position to deny anything unless it's something which is within the scope of science to deny. … I think as a scientist you should be open to it. … It doesn't end up encroaching for me because I think there's quite a space between the two."

Dawkins has "gone on a crusade, basically," another professor of biology said. "Although there is a lot of truth behind what he says, he does it in a way that I think is deliberately designed to alienate religious people."

Ecklund said it is important to note that none of the scientists interviewed questioned Dawkins' integrity as a scientist. Rather, they were critical of his representation of science to the public.

"In general, scientists in interviews emphasized promotion of science over the scientist, diplomacy over derision and dialogue over ideological extremism," she said.

Johnson said he hopes the research will help scientists learn to communicate science without alienating the public.

"The best science communication does not begin with insults and arrogance," Johnson said. "It encourages curiosity, open-mindedness and appreciation for science."

Explore further: How 'science popularizers' influence public opinion on religion

More information: D. R. Johnson et al. Responding to Richard: Celebrity and (mis)representation of science, Public Understanding of Science (2016). DOI: 10.1177/0963662516673501

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1 / 5 (1) Nov 05, 2016
Oy. The Ecklund crusade is now a tirade.

- Public engagement by scientists are often criticized by peers. [ ]

- The limits of science is a contentious and content-less subject. [ https://en.wikipe..._problem ]

But besides that, other people's opinion have nothing to do with whether or not Dawkins' analysis is correct. The only reason Ecklund made this ghoulish attempt at analysis is so that it could inject a notion of false concern: "Johnson said he hopes the research will help scientists learn to communicate science without alienating the public. "The best science communication does not begin with insults and arrogance," Johnson said. "It encourages curiosity, open-mindedness and appreciation for science.""

1 / 5 (1) Nov 05, 2016
[ctd] Dawkins is famous for his levelheadedness with critics, and is a popular bestseller. His "The God Delusion" placed four on New York Times Hardcover Non-fiction Best Seller list, and has sold in 3 million copies. [ https://en.wikipe...Delusion ] It has 4 770 000 hits on Google.

Ecklund's "Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think" has 4080 hits on Google.
not rated yet Nov 06, 2016
So, wait, 1,581 scientists were surveyed
137 were interviewed
48 mentioned Dawkins
38.4 (80%) of them said Dawkins misrepresents science. That's 28% of the interviewed sample and 2.4% of the survey sample.

How the hell does that constitute "most scientists"?

Oh, right, it's "most scientists cited in study" - you all just fell for a clickbait article worthy of the yellow press.
not rated yet Nov 07, 2016
Whether it is the extremist atheist or the extremist religious; both will speak and can speak the loudest but neither deserve any audience.

Their goal is the sole destruction of the others, it is not a worthy cause to support or spend resource on, it is chaos & destructive. Avoid extremism! Support and cherish variety in our society.
1 / 5 (1) Nov 07, 2016
Whether it is the extremist atheist or the extremist religious;

What is an extremist atheist?

Don't confuse atheism with anti-theism.

Avoid extremism! Support and cherish variety in our society.

Fallacy of the middle. In some questions there simply are right answers and wrong answers - for example in public education and public policy, because the middle-ground between fact and fantasy is still a falsehood. That is Richard Dawkins' point as well.

Religion is simply incompatible with a lot of modern life because it substitutes the thinking and debating and compromizing part of public and private discourse with superstitious irrational dogma, and it will occupy all the space you give it because it's just too convenient to appeal to people by holding the mask of God. Religion and irrational faith are the demagog's mainstay.

1 / 5 (1) Nov 07, 2016
Of course that isn't saying you can't have religion if you so wish - it's just a reminder that if you play silly games, you win stupid prizes.

People like Dawkins are simply a reaction to the status quo where you have to hold your hand on a Bible and say "I believe in the lord almighty", or you can't be the president of the people - that it is even a question in the process of selecting effective leadership.

The irony is that the same people would be aghast if the president made the same pledge to Lord Vishnu, or vice versa it would start a riot in a Hindu country to demand a pledge to Jahweh - yet it's all the same. It's the church of the land, and you can't pretend that your faith in it is merely a private matter, or a matter of "cultural diverstity", especially when the same religion is fundamentally trying to dominate the society like Christianity or Islam does.
5 / 5 (2) Nov 07, 2016
It's fun how this brings out the religion-bashers. Dawkins makes some excellent points...sometimes...but he is no expert on religion. He knows evolutionary biology. There are plenty of scientists who find no conflict between their faith and science. Some claim their faith better informs their scientific pursuits and vice versa. Faith and science address entirely different realms of human experience. Only those with a passing understanding of one or the other see them as incompatible.
not rated yet Nov 08, 2016
There are plenty of scientists who find no conflict between their faith and science.

Just like there are schitzsophrenics who nevertheless feel they are sane.

The two philosophies of knowledge are just incompatible, and when one leaks to the other, they both start to fail. A religious scientist tends to be a bad scientist because they hold axioms which they cannot and will not doubt, and fundamentally try to shoehorn everything to fit their preconcieved notions.

On the other side, a scientific religionist finds themselves falling out of faith because they aren't satisfied with a dogmatic fixed view of the world, and like the deists who believed that the world will prove the existence of God, they're just left with shrinking gaps of knowledge and increasingly meaningless words.

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