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.

Comments

  1. #1 zachvoch
    July 16, 2010

    If anything, this post at least shows that it is extraordinarily difficult to draw broad conclusions like “approach X is increasing support of stance Y.” Even if we were to accumulate a wide number of studies addressing each of your proposed predictions, the number of possible confounding factors is still immense.

    In the meantime, I feel that it is appropriate that each person try several different approaches and determine the most successful approach based on their experience. This is of course not sufficient to make a broad claim about the superiority of any given approach, rather, it is that there is no necessary reason to stick with one type of rhetoric.

    For example, I’ve had some (at least apparent) success by directing Christians with concerns about evolution toward Ken Miller. Out of honesty, I still note my disagreement with many of Miller’s stances, but that’s not a reason to avoid recommending an otherwise solid source. In other cases, I’ve had a backlash effect by recommending liberal Christian sources. One has to note potential reactions on the fly, and the key one that I have noticed is the tendency of those emphasizing One True Christianity to react less than well to theistic evolution. In these cases, I’ve often had more (again apparent) success by explaining the variety in atheistic thought, countering the tendency to see “others” as monolithic.

    So, in my experience, there is no “best approach.” It is of course context-dependent.

    Probably the best one success I have had is in not even arguing directly for the belief in evolution, but rather the acceptance of evolution as an important social and scientific reality, believe it or not. So, the goal here is not to win converts but rather to remove the motive to opposition. Once evolutionary theory is not perceived as a threat, minds will hopefully open, or at the very least, not be forcefully closed.

    Being from the Bible Belt, and from a Southern Baptist family, the experience I have had with the mentality has been tremendously helpful. I know the elements and memes and can recognize the source of many of the assumptions. But, I can not expect my own experiences to be the general case.

  2. #2 Pen
    July 17, 2010

    I’m really, really sympathetic to your idea, but here’s the rub. You would like science to tell you how this particular cultural situation will develop, and preferably, how to make it develop in the way you want.

    I’m rather afraid that as far as these questions go, we are living in the equivalent of the pre-Darwinian age. Just about all we know is that people in the past had different ideas from those they have now, so we strongly presume they will also have different ideas in the future.

    We have no reliable theory of how/why this happens, despite some sketchy attempts (and if we did, it might, like evolution, have more of an explanatory than a predictive power). At the moment we have a hard time even with retrospective analysis, even for recent situations with all the evidence we could ask for. Try asking yourself scientifically about this analagous but retrospective situation: why did the gay rights movement emerge and grow when it did? How were its actions connected to opinion change in the general population, and which actions contributed most to promoting acceptance? Has the increased prominence and acceptance of homosexuality changed how heterosexuals perceive their own sexualities and relationships and if so, in what way? How would you exclude other causes of change?

    Secondly, we have no reliable knowledge of a mechanism of cultural change analagous to gene theory (and if we did, it would probably take a while to learn to use it to achieve a desired effect, as with genetic modification). We have a bunch of ancestral techniques for shifting cultural change in the direction we think we want by persuading and teaching others (just as people bred animals pre-Darwin). Some of these techniques probably don’t work at all, and some of them might. A lot of very rich and powerful people and organisations would be very interested in knowing which ones really work, and still we have no reliable answers. I would guess that trying to find out which ones are which in the lab would be a bit like trying to predict the effects of global warming on fruit fly evolution by bringing up a few generations in a warm tank.

    Despite all the negativity I just spewed, I am aware of a few experiments into opinion change in general. This one, reported by Goldacre, seems quite relevant to your suggestion for an experiment: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/jul/03/confirmation-bias-scientific-evidence

    I’m sure we could do more along these lines. But the interesting thing about those experiments like this that I do remember coming across is that they seem to produce negative results, whereas, obviously, as I said, we know opinion change does happen, we don’t think it’s entirely random or arbitrary and many of us feel it must be steerable. How, when, at an individual or population level (think about evolution again for this one), we don’t know, and we don’t have any methods for finding a general answer.

    Truly, I would be very happy if a bunch of sociologists turned up here and told me all about lots of great methods and theories I’ve never heard of. I’m sure I could find a good use for them.

  3. #3 Mike Haubrich
    July 17, 2010

    Josh –

    What if we use this story as one of the things we would have people read before studying evolution?

  4. #4 Mike Haubrich
    July 17, 2010

    Given this, Josh:

    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.

    Why do you think that the “New Atheists” are being blamed and shamed so much?

  5. #5 Ophelia Benson
    July 17, 2010

    While you’re waiting for Josh’s reply, I’ll offer mine. (That’s an oblique way of saying I know you didn’t ask me, I’m just offering my reply because I’m here and I feel like it.)

    I think there are a lot of reasons, of course, but I think some of them are that it’s fun, it’s safe, it’s fashionable, it pays.

    Superficial reasons, in other words. It’s something to do. There’s copycat or bandwagon effect. There’s a nice feeling of righteousness (based on the idea that “new” atheists are bullying believers, which is presumably based on the idea that believers have the weaker case and that it’s bullying to point that out).

    Deeper reasons are more puzzling, to me. I’m puzzled that at a deeper level people aren’t worried by the McCarthyesque overtones of all this blaming and shaming, and by the reactionary anti-secular implications.

  6. #6 zachvoch
    July 17, 2010

    I’ll also give an unrequested answer to Mike.

    There is a strong incentive for science advocates struggling to reach out to the religious to disassociate themselves from culture warrior straw men of “evolutionism = atheism”. Of course, the simple way to do this is “hey, there are plenty of Christians who accept evolution,” but there is also a tendency to perceive oneself and want oneself perceived as in the “middle” somehow.

    This way, it’s not “creationists are the extremists”; one can say “new atheists and creationists are the extremists.” This way, the defense of evolution does not come across as anti-religious. This way, one can say “hey we don’t like those anti-theistic atheists either!”

    So, New Atheists function as a sort of scapegoat.

    This isn’t the only reason. For others, they make attribution errors of the following sort:

    Dawkins: X criticism of fundamentalism.
    Liberal religious type: Hey, X criticism doesn’t apply to me! Dawkins is making a straw man argument of religion. He knows nothing of my theology!

    So, there are basic breakdowns in perception and communication to blame also. Similarly, this error also comes from atheists who come from liberal backgrounds or who live in a religiously liberal environment. This is also true of many academics who study religion. I feel that the bulk of the criticism is of this type, not tactical or cynical.

    And of course, once the crossfire begins, careers and reputations hang in the balance, so the rhetoric tends toward the personal and partisan.

  7. #7 M.
    July 17, 2010

    “What evidence have you got that the approach you propose would do any better?”

    That is a good question, and if there are people who can get funding to test it, I would be very interested to see the results.

    However, may I note that “you have no evidence you’ll do any better” is not that great of a reason to stick to a strategy that has failed miserably in the past?

    Ok, we haven’t yet tested Ken Miller – but is he really radically different from, say, Gould? And we DO know how much effect Gould had on acceptance of evolution in the wider society (essentially zero).

    Do we now keep doing what hasn’t worked in the past, until someone does a properly controlled experiment on the new approach?

    Or do we keep trying until we find an approach that does work?

  8. #8 Josh Rosenau
    July 18, 2010

    Mike: The New Atheists claim, with no evidence, that current strategies in evolution education and advocacy are dishonest and ineffective, and that the people implementing that strategy are not just dishonest, not just ineffective, but patsies and collaborators on a par with Neville Chamberlain. Why on earth would I doubt them?

    Why are they “blamed and shamed”? Maybe those of us who work on evolution education day in and day out have seen how the “evolution = atheism” red herring acts as a sticking point in every conversation with potential allies. Sometimes we can get around it, and sometimes we get a quote by some New Atheist thrown back at us. In almost every effort, the first necessary step to blocking creationist efforts or improving science education has to be defusing that same red herring, and New Atheism’s whole argument is that this experience is useless and erroneous and somehow like enabling Nazis to conquer Europe. Hard to fathom why that might generate some ill will.

    Toss in a few years of these same polemics: long on vitriol and proudly dismissive of the existing scientific, philosophical, theological, and sociological literature on science education, science communication, and science/religion studies, and I leave it as an exercise for the reader to figure out why I might hold New Atheism in some disregard.

    Ophelia: You are a daily reminder of the ways in which mind-reading doesn’t work.

    M.: “we DO know how much effect Gould had on acceptance of evolution in the wider society (essentially zero)” We know this how? Are you a mind-reader, too? Or have you got some sort of actual basis for that quantitative assertion, like pre- and post-test data for people reading Gould? Don’t point to stable polling, since I already addressed the reason that’s not an argument in the original post.

  9. #9 Matti K.
    July 18, 2010

    Mr. Rosenau: “…and I leave it as an exercise for the reader to figure out why I might hold New Atheism in some disregard.”

    OK, you do not like the “NA”s. So? You are not going to change anything by expressing your dislike. Just like no one expects you to change your style and opinions just because your politicial opponents do not like them.

    Give solid evidence of “NA”‘s harmful effect on science education, so your message might get accross. If you don’t have it, you cannot expect a sceptic bunch to take your word, even though many of them think you are a nice guy.

    BTW, is your contempt of “NA” strictly personal, or can we expect NCSE as an organization to put some flak on “NA” in the future?

  10. #10 Dave W.
    July 18, 2010

    Josh Rosenau actually thinks that there’s no evidence that the accommodationist strategy of telling religious people that their faith is compatible with science, knowing all the while what the words “faith” and “science” mean and understanding their associated philosophies, is dishonest? The argument is the evidence.

    That’s actually the biggest problem in this debate: too many people (like Rosenau) don’t seem to realize that it’s a political discussion. Science can inform politics, but it’s not the only thing that does. Rosenau should know this, insisting (as he has) that morality is not scientifically determinable, and politics is little more than a constant argument about a sort of governmental morality (in this case, the governance of atheist behavior among themselves).

    And wow:

    Why are they “blamed and shamed”? Maybe those of us who work on evolution education day in and day out have seen how the “evolution = atheism” red herring acts as a sticking point in every conversation with potential allies. Sometimes we can get around it, and sometimes we get a quote by some New Atheist thrown back at us. In almost every effort, the first necessary step to blocking creationist efforts or improving science education has to be defusing that same red herring, and New Atheism’s whole argument is that this experience is useless and erroneous and somehow like enabling Nazis to conquer Europe. Hard to fathom why that might generate some ill will.

    Since the “evolution = atheism” meme predated “New Atheism” by decades, it’s hard to fathom why you don’t blame the creationist sources. Nice strawman you’ve got on “New Atheism’s whole argument,” too.

  11. #11 Mike McRae
    July 18, 2010

    Unfortunately, communications and pedagogy are damn complex fields that can’t provide easy answers in concise social experiments. In the past, academics have come up with wonderful learning models that work well in specific contexts, only to watch them fall apart the moment a few seemingly insignificant variables are altered. For rationalists to decide how to effectively communicate their message it’ll take more than a Sunday afternoon focus group or a simple questionnaire. It’ll take getting cozy with the literature and investing appropriate amounts of time and funding. It’ll take talking to those who work in the field, such as sociologists and anthropologists.

    Given the grass roots nature of the rationalist surge, few are willing to do this, preferring to simply hope the scattergun approach is more effective while asserting their own anecdotes and personal experience is sufficient as evidence of their own efficacy.

    Meanwhile, the limited time and resources available are being committed to efforts that we have zero evidence of working. If it wasn’t about their own methods of communication, skeptics would have a field day pointing out how illogical and unreasonable this ‘blind faith’ approach would be.

    There is a lot of argument in sci-com circles these days pressing for a percentage of any funding that goes into a communications project to be allocated to evaluation. I’d make the same suggestion to rationalist groups; if you’ve got the numbers and the funding to do something, reduce the amount devoted to the primary effort and look at devoting it to evaluative procedures. Pool resources with other grass roots groups. Do what skeptics do best – develop protocols for good, well designed tests that see if their outreach works as intended.

    This isn’t something a few ad-hoc, half-hearted surveys will fix. It requires a cultural shift amongst rationalists to not view resources spent on evaluation of their communication measures as a waste of time and money, and to assess their outreach efforts with the same critical eye they do all other things in society.

  12. #12 PZ Myers
    July 19, 2010

    We do have evidence that current mainstream strategies don’t work, and it’s the same polling data you’ve been complaining about for the last few days, and the same polling data the NCSE frequently cites: public attitudes towards evolution haven’t changed in 30-40 years, with roughly half the American populace in the creationist camp.

    I don’t know about you, but I think the state of American science education is deplorable and a near-complete failure. We should be deeply ashamed. That we’ve managed to keep it from getting even worse doesn’t sound like success to me. It stinks of defeat.

    I’ll tell you what, though. You keep holding the defensive line. That’s fine. You needn’t bother with all the sniping when the offensive unit comes on tqhe field, though. We’re going to run the ball and throw a few passes and see if we can’t advance the line a bit…and ignore the guys who think the game is all about preventing goals by the other side, and nothing else.

    Oh, and if what we’re doing doesn’t work ini a few years, we’ll change it up. The one thing we won’t do is this endless, cautious turtling. That’s had its run. It doesn’t work.

  13. #13 Matti K.
    July 19, 2010

    PZ: “I don’t know about you, but I think the state of American science education is deplorable and a near-complete failure. We should be deeply ashamed.”

    Are you referring now to biology or science in general? I can understand that religious delusions can make learning biology difficult. After all, “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” (Dobzhansky).

    But how about other sciences? Are things really that bad in USA? If there are, could it be possible that there are other reasons than religiosity behind such developments?

  14. #14 Josh Rosenau
    July 19, 2010

    PZ, I’ve tried to explain, repeatedly, why you cannot just point to a stable time series and say that what we’re doing now hasn’t worked. You can only do that if assume total homogeneity of all other conditions, and insist that creationists have been inactive, or that their efforts are having zero effect. And that doesn’t seem terribly likely. Possible, but unlikely.

    Otherwise, all we can honestly say is that everything we’re doing and everything creationists are doing are roughly canceling each other out, and that we need a more sophisticated study to sort out the effect either of those groups are having, or what effect new entrants into the fray (who are, as you sometimes insist, not so new) might be having.

  15. #15 Zach Voch
    July 19, 2010

    Josh,

    I think that what PZ is saying is a little different. Not that current approaches are completely ineffective, but that it only serves to hold the `defensive line’, as against this: “You can only do that if assume total homogeneity of all other conditions, and insist that creationists have been inactive, or that their efforts are having zero effect. And that doesn’t seem terribly likely. Possible, but unlikely.”

    So, they do not “work” in the sense that they do not achieve the desired effect: a steady increase in popular acceptance of evolution. If the current state of affairs is not satisfactory, then the point holds. The current data does not yield much more than that, but at least it does at least yield that.

    I agree with your posts, Rosenau, that it would be preemptive to judge any particular method as counterproductive, or unhelpful, or whatever else, since we do not have the data necessary to draw such a conclusion. I hope that more studies become available.

    However, this applies both ways, and I want to make sure that you emphasize this: it is just as preemptive to claim that New Atheists are unhelpful as it is to claim that Accommodationists are unhelpful, up to acceptance of evolution. So long as this is clear, I have no serious objections. With this in mind, I hope you can empathize with New Atheist posters who react angrily to an article or opinion piece that blames “extremists, including New Atheists” for the state of science education.

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