The back and forth here in comments and at Jason Rosenhouse’s blog has been interesting and stimulating in the last few days. The question of how the rise of New Atheism will or has changed public attitudes towards evolution, towards religion, and towards atheism/atheists are all important questions that have extracted gallons of ink from a lot of bloggers and book authors. But to date, I know of no attempts to measure those effects scientifically. This is odd, since all the advocates on all sides are heavily invested in science as a way of knowing about the world.
Part of the problem is that most of those engaged in this argument are not sociologists. We mostly seem to be biologists or philosophers by training. That makes things tough. We haven’t got certain training, and some of us may harbor silly biases that regard social sciences as “soft” and not worth the same rigor we’d apply to research in “hard” sciences.
This is easy to illustrate with an example. In my first post in this series, I noted this comment by Jerry Coyne:
How do we solve the problem? Many scientists—atheists and accommodationists alike—are trying to educate people about what evolution is and how much evidence supports it. Sadly, that doesn’t seem to be working very well, at least judging by how little acceptance of evolution has budged over the last few decades.
He’s arguing that the lack of any trend in belief in creationism or acceptance of evolution writ large over a long series of before-after comparisons is evidence that the interventions attempted across that time frame have been ineffective, and that we need a new approach.
My first reaction to that argument is always to wonder: what evidence have you got that the approach you propose would do any better? But there’s a simpler reason to reject this type of argument. It goes to something I learned at the University of Chicago, in a field ecology class taught by one of Coyne’s long-time colleagues at U of C. The textbook we used is the standard textbook, and I’m sure Coyne has a copy on his shelf that he teaches from and checks when he and his students are designing experiments. I emphasize this only to point out that the book’s content is bog-standard.
In the chapter on experimental design, it gives this guidance:
There is one fundamental requirement of all scientific experimentation:
Every experiment must have a control.
If a controll is not present, it is impossible to conclude anything definite about the experiment. In ecological field experiments there is so much year-to-year variation in communities and ecosystems that an even stronger rule should be adopted:
Every ecological field experiment must have a contemporaneous control.
Before-after comparisons are statistically powerful because every experimental unit can serve as its own control. … But unless there is a contemporaneous control, all before-after comparisons must assume homogeneity over time a dubious balance-of-nature model that has been found invalid time and time again in ecological work. Populations and communities change over time in ways we only dimly understand, and to achieve reliable statistical inference, we need [contemporaneous] spatial controls for all ecological experiments.
Does this apply to studies of human society, too? Surely no one would claim that human society is homogeneous over time in ways that are well-understood, so I have to conclude that, yes, this advice still applies. Making a claim like Coyne’s runs afoul of basic standards in his and my own field of study.
Absent an alternate universe where everything for the last 30 years is identical except New Atheism never took off, we have to use statistical controls to make the comparison Coyne wants to make in that quotation, and that all of us would like in order to assess the effects of New Atheism, of outreach efforts that NCSE and other nonprofits have undertaken, etc. This would let you make a statistical model of that alternate universe America, allowing us to assess our effects in the same way that climate modelers compare model Earths without anthropogenic carbon dioxide to the Earth we live on, and that economists use to compare the economic condition of an America that didn’t pass a major stimulus bill in 2009 with the America we live in.
To make predictions with such a model, here are a few things I think you’d need to know. I don’t think we know many of these things, and not being a sociologist, I’m pretty sure I don’t know any of them:
- How many people have read a book, seen a talk, heard a radio or TV interview, or otherwise engaged with the rhetoric of New Atheists? (book sales, library lending, YouTube videos, neighbor-to-neighbor conversations or book lending, and so forth)
- How many people have engaged with the rhetoric of New Atheists’ pro-evolution critics?
- How many people have engaged with the rhetoric of New Atheists’ anti-evolution critics?
- How many people have engaged with the rhetoric of theistic evolutionists (or the growing evangelical TE movement called evolutionary creationism)?
- How many people have engaged with pro-evolution or anti-evolution critics of TE?
- How many people have engaged with creationism?
- How many people have engaged with theistic, atheistic, or nontheistic critics of creationism?
- How many people follow new research in biology to a degree that lets them independently assess the strength of evolution?
- How many people have the knowledge necessary to be evolution educators?
- How many people are doing informal outreach on behalf of evolution?
- How much contact with an idea (such as evolution, New Atheism, TE, or creatioism) does it take to change someone’s mind?
- How many of the people who heard each of those different forms of rhetoric (NA, anti-NA, TE, anti-TE, etc.) were having their beliefs confirmed, and what fraction of the audience was actually in a position to change their mind thanks to the presentation? Is most of this communication preaching to the choir?
- What is the doubling rate for acceptance of a new idea that is being spread by the means New Atheism has spread? (This, I think, depends roughly on the number of advocates, the number of people they can reach, and the amount of time it takes to convince people, and probably other things I’m not accounting for.)
- How often do people’s views on evolution change on average?
- How often did people’s views on evolution change in the last 5 years? (Note that a stable poll only means that as many people joined a group as left it, not how quickly or how often the average member changed his or her mind)
- Why are people religious?
- Why do people reject evolution?
- At what rate does the rhetoric of New Atheism attract new converts?
- At what rate does the rhetoric of New Atheism turn potential converts away?
- Does New Atheism increase anti-evolution or anti-atheist political activism?
- Does New Atheism increase pro-evolution or pro-atheism/atheist political activism
- And many more!
I don’t know how to disentangle the effects of NAs on national surveys from the many other things that happened contemporaneously with the rise of NAs (there has been a less-widely heralded boom in pro-evolution evangelical books, for instance). I think NAs have had relatively modest reach outside their base, which, makes it unlikely we’d see big, easily detectable, effects, and any effect could be obscured by other influences. We need more data to suss it out, if it exists.
Rather than looking at national polls, which are crude instruments and can miss shifts within small subpopulations, I’d think that it would be more useful to do lab work, and to look at the broader literature on communications. Daniel Loxton did a nice roundup of a few useful studies in this realm, and Mike McRae looked at a wider sampling in the context of the “don’t be a dick” discussion.
Someone grounded in that body of research could develop some testable hypotheses about how folks might respond to NAs. Then you could do lab work, bringing in a large and representative sample of folks with views across the c/e spectrum. Do a pretest, then have some of them read a selection from Dawkins’ The God Delusion, others read from Ken Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God, and a control reading something unrelated to creationism and evolution and theism. Then do a post-test. Follow up a month later, and see how their views on science generally, evolution specifically, and on the relationship between science and religion have changed. Follow up a year later. What sticks, and what doesn’t? What do people remember? What do they convey to their friends? Then follow up the study with treatments that vary the extent of contact with New Atheist writings, to see whether people who read all of TGD, or watch a 2 hour talk by Dawkins, react differently than those with more fleeting contact with NA ideas.
That’s science, and I’d be interested in the results.
I can’t do that research. Given that educational background is a major predictor of evolution acceptance, it wouldn’t suffice to simply recruit a group of undergrads, so this would mean more effort than is typically needed in recruiting the study subjects, and I have neither the training nor the resources to do the study. But someone out there does, and maybe this post will inspire them to do some interesting and potentially very useful research. Maybe if other bloggers respond to this post, and tweet about it, and promote it, and make their own additional suggestions, this questions and a viable research project will wind up in front of a sharp young grad student in communications or sociology or political science, who will be able to take this project and run with it. I certainly hope so.