Correlation and causation, science and religion

Sometimes someone tricks me into reading Jerry Coyne's blog.  He tends to trot out the same bad arguments, sometimes it's worth pushing back.  For instance, he recently set out to demonstrate that science and religion are incompatible, in part because of:

the well known data on the greater prevalence of nonbelief among scientists than among the general public. In the elite U.S. National Academy of Sciences, for example, only 7% of members accept a personal God, with 93% being agnostics and atheists. In the U.S. general population, these figures are almost exactly reversed. And, of course, in our BioLogos post yesterday, president Darrel Falk noted that “Evangelicals are fourteen-fold under-represented among the scientists at the nation’s leading universities.”

For every brilliant scientist who accepts a personal God, there are more than thirteen who reject one. Doesn’t Tallmon wonder why that is?

Set aside that Falk is talking about evangelicals, not theists.  That's amusing, but the errors at hand go far deeper.  Coyne's love for this statistic on the religious beliefs of NAS members does him no favors.

First, for the reasons Jean Kazez has pointed out:

What's really hard to do, if you're being fair and logical, is both dismiss religious scientists as any evidence at all for science-religion compatibility and also use formerly religious scientists as some evidence for science-religion incompatibility.  

If he wants to say that Francis Collins doesn't prove anything about the compatibility of science and religion, then neither do atheist scientists.  And if atheist scientists prove something, then so do theistic ones.

Second, because the questions Larson and Witham used to get those stats on the religiosity of National Academy of Sciences members are weird (not their fault!, they were repeating questions used in the teens and '30s).  The scientists were asked which of these best described their own views:

I believe in a God in intellectual and affective communication with humankind, i.e., a God to whom one may pray in expectation of receiving an answer. By "answer" I mean more than the subjective, psychological effect of prayer.

I do not believe in a God as defined above.

I have no definite belief regarding this question.

Someone can be a theist and still not believe in a God as defined there.  Such a person would show up as an atheist in Coyne's interpretation of Larson and Witham's study, but would not be an atheist.  Larson and Witham even point this out in their 1996 paper, noting a respondent who wrote in the margin: "Why such a narrow definition of God? I believe in God, but don't believe that one can expect an answer for prayer."  This is far from the standard way to identify atheists, and I don't know of any surveys that use a directly comparable question.  When the General Social Survey asks people whether they believe "There is a God who concerns Himself with every human being personally," 14% disagree and 14% neither agree nor disagree.  That's far more than the mere 7% who said they "don't believe" in God or say there is "no way to find out" if God exists, or the 9% who say they believe in a higher power but not God.

This doesn't erase the difference between scientists and the public, but it does complicate the use of these data.  That all but 7% of scientists reject a rather narrow sort of God doesn't mean they're all atheists, and we don't know how many would assert a belief in some more standard definition of God.

There is, another, deeper, flaw in using these statistics about how many National Academy of Sciences members in 1998 rejected belief in this kind of God.  Until quite recently, about 90% or more of NAS members were men.  I can't locate statistics on the racial and ethnic breakdown of the NAS, but I'd bet large sums of money that African Americans are under-represented, as are Latinos.

If the under-representation of theists in the NAS were proof of the incompatibility of science and religion, what do these other demographic divides tell us?  If Coyne pointed to those trends and claimed that women are worse at science than men, I think he'd have a serious problem, just as he'd have a problem in pointing to the NAS membership to claim that African Americans are worse at science.  So why does anyone think this is a good argument when applied to religion?

P.S.: The first round of Larson and Witham's surveys were conducted while Larson was a fellow of the Discovery Institute, while Witham and Disco' are old friends. Given Coyne's usual guilt-by-association approach to the Templeton Foundation, I find his endorsement of Disco.-backed research intriguing.

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If he wants to say that Francis Collins doesn’t prove anything about the compatibility of science and religion, then neither do atheist scientists. And if atheist scientists prove something, then so do theistic ones.

What you are saying here is equivalent to using those smokers who don't get cancer, to argue that smoking doesn't cause cancer.

If one is going to adopt the position of "There are religious scientists" as evidence for compatibility, then the fact that most scientists aren't religious becomes quite relevant if one is to remain intellectually honest.

Coyne's comment reads to me like he was demonstrating how this line of thought, even were it meaningful, would still not support compatibly claims given the statistics on the subject.

By Bruce Gorton (not verified) on 17 Jul 2012 #permalink

Bruce: Or maybe Coyne is the equivalent of people who claim a correlation between autism rates and vaccination rates means vaccines cause autism. Correlation is not causation. Making the link between cigarettes and cancer took more than just showing a correlation.

By tfk on 18 Jul 2012 #permalink

In reply to by Bruce Gorton (not verified)

The reason so many scientists abandon religion is that it is very difficult to reconcile religious "revealed truth" with the scientific method of empirical observation. I am quite prepared to believe in your god when you demonstrate to me in a rational, observable and objective way that he exists. Until then, I will not. I prefer to know than to believe, and if I cannot know this god, I certainly cannot worship it or obey its rules. I have little respect for in-your-face Christians, but a great of respect for those who actually live the tenets promulgated by Jesus in the Bible. You can always tell who is Christian out of love and who is Christian out of fear.

It's kind of sad to see antitheist scientists using the same rhetorical tactics as pseudoscientists to defend their position.

You make a slight error, in presuming that one must jump from "incompatibility" must equate to "bad at science".

Well, actually there is an incompatibillity with science and women. The main difference between that conflict and the conflict between science and theism is that the former is at the level of science as a social/anthropological institution, and the latter appears to be at the level of science as a philosophical discipline.

Women appear to have trouble with science primarily because science-as-institution has lots of prejudiced bigots, not because of inherent difficulties with the philosophical (EG: mathematical) underpinnings. The theist problem is more that the results of the philosophical discipline tend to conflict with their theology.

A slight secondary difference is that the problem with women may be decreasing over time, while the problem with religion may be increasing. However, I'm not sure the evidence supports either of those very strongly.

Abb3w: First, I'm simply matching Coyne's rhetoric. Second, who is to say that there's not a conflict between science-as-institution and religion? Religious scientists report a lot of pressure not to discuss their religion, for instance in Ecklund's interviews. Third, there's no evidence (at least none on offer) that scientists are less religious today than they once were.

By tfk on 18 Jul 2012 #permalink

In reply to by abb3w (not verified)

Josh Rosenau

Coyne's argument includes stats on non-scientists, essentially the US public as a whole. Not only that but he has in his paper, tied average scientific literacy in multiple countries to their rates of god-belief.

So far as I am aware the anti-vaccination crowd fail to make a similar true comparison with their stats.

The comparison to smoking is much stronger, as the statistics on the various health dangers of smoking are in comparison to the public at large and to non-smokers.

By Bruce Gorton (not verified) on 18 Jul 2012 #permalink

As I've noted, Coyne's reliance on ecological correlation (country-level correlations) is problematic. The fact that states with more immigrant have higher rates of literacy doesn't mean immigrants are more literate, after all.

Antivaxxers actually do use such ecological correlations, too. They'll point to low rates of autism diagnoses in countries with fewer vaccinations as supposed proof of their utterly false claims:…

Antivaxxers also compare autism rates in vaccinated and unvaccinated populations, which is the equivalent of Coyne's reference to nonscientists. Indeed, the dramatic differences in the questions asked of scientists and nonscientists in the questions Coyne relies upon make the comparison to the antivaxxers' dishonest comparisons even more apt. You say the antivaxxers fail to make "a similar true comparison." Whether Coyne's comparison is "true" is debatable at best.

I've read Coyne's paper, and wasn't impressed. It's bad science:

By tfk on 19 Jul 2012 #permalink

In reply to by Bruce Gorton (not verified)

My latest favorite of Coyne's is this from his post about Eugenie Scott:…

I am baffled that somebody can affirm the notion that evolution is unguided in a public document [the Humanist Manifesto III], yet have that same view removed from a statement of the American Biology Teachers. It’s not because the notion of unguided evolution is a theological one, for the notion of unguided anything is a precept of science derived from experience.

The fact that Coyne can't tell the difference between science and a "manifesto" says volumes about why he is always baffled when it comes to philosophy.

By John Pieret (not verified) on 19 Jul 2012 #permalink

"Religious scientists report a lot of pressure not to discuss their religion, for instance in Ecklund’s interviews."

What form is their discussion?


Well, they're not being paid to preach at work, are they.

Wow, read Ecklund. That's not what these folks are talking about. They describe pressure to cover up the fact that they attend church at all because they feel like doing so could hurt their careers. These are not proselytizers.

"If one is going to adopt the position of “There are religious scientists” as evidence for compatibility"

I present to you the spectacle of Roy Spencer.

He's a religious scientist.

But, and here is where the demonstration of incompatability lies, where his religion and science disagree, Roy will definitely and unashamedly take his faith's side. Read up on his assertion that the Genesis story (which one?) is, to him, a more scientificly accurate description of how life appeared in its forms and the universe was made than any other treatease on the subject.

Many christians are merely social christians. England is full of them. If there's any church the englishman would decide not to go to, it would only be CoE he'd not go to, he wouldn't deign to not go to any other church.

There is also the case of a religious biologist who, having a career in biology ahead of them, found that they could no longer reconcile the science they KNEW correct and the faith they believed in. And chose to throw away the knowledge in order to keep the faith.

Wow: One extremist does not demonstrate incompatibility. If it did, then one non-extremist (e.g., Ken Miller) would suffice to show compatibility!

It does demonstrate why there is incompatability.

And that was two examples.

And that wasn't an exhaustive link.

Not doing too well, are we.

Religion, for abrahamic traditions, is written by the infallible god and saying its wrong is blasphemy, a sin, and punishable by torture.

Science is written admitted by humans and saying a scientist has it wrong is mean, naughty and means you're a poopy-head.

A rather extreme difference and is the basal cause of incompatability between science and what you're calling religion.

Jason, are those people just trying to gain a martydom?

They're denied one in reality, therefore they have to manufacture one.


A quick perusal has this little gem jump out at me.

The study and book complain that there's only one view of religion in science - the protestant religion. And much is made of this being incorrect.

Yet for examples of "named" people all are christians.

When the figures of how religious people are, the figure inclufes deists who would agree completely that the discussion of whether there is a god or not is pointless.

But that doesn't count, because the study only considers christianity as religion.

Which is what is considered the facts in the USA. See for example a state that is now busily trying to remove a law that was to give state aid to religious svhools. Fine when it was meant for christisn schooling. But when a muslim faith school used the same loophole, this was NOT what they meant by aiding faith schools - only christian faith was considered possible.

Wow: What in hell's unholy name are you talking about? Are you claiming that Ecklund's work acts like religion is synonymous with Protestant Christianity? Because that's complete bullshit.

And if the comment you addressed to "Jason" was actually a reply to me, I'd urge you to a) read comments more carefully and b) read the book more carefully. Or at all.

"Not doing too well, are we." Speak for yourself, as I couldn't make heads or tails of the word salad in that comment.

Josh, this thought may help you reconsider the facts.

Saying religion and science are incompatible isn't the same as saying religious people and science is incompatible.

Most religious people just go "Well, I believe there's a god" and that's all. There's nothing of the rules and faith screed of the religion in them. When science says that creatures evolve, this doesn't impinge on their faith, since their faith isn't that god created everything, merely that there IS a god. When science says that god doesn't make the rainbow, no problem: god still exists to them.

But religion doesn't exist in these people. The faith meme is practically nonexistent.

Religions, however, are antitheical to science.

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Wow: You refer to "facts" you want me to "reconsider," but don't actually offer any factual claims. I see a bunch of gross mischaracterization of how religious people think, with no sources cited to justify the obviously incorrect claims. The idea that "religion doesn't exist" for "most religious people" hardly seems worth addressing, as it's self-refuting.

You claim that religion and science can be incompatible without "religious people and science" being incompatible. I don't see how. If the ideas are incompatible, that should have consequences for people. If there are people who can reconcile the two, it suggests that the issue is not science and religion per se, but certain kinds of religion which are incompatible with science. And I suspect that if we could remove the self-contradictions and ambiguous terminology (faith meme, faith screed, etc.), we'd find that you're arguing that some kinds of religion are incompatible with science, and some aren't.

No, I'm refering to facts and poining out you aren't considering them.

Do or don't, but at the mo, you're ignoring them.
Science and religion are incompatible.

Scientists, the scientific method and people who are religios *may not be* incompatible.

Examples of ones that are incompatible, but you wave them away with "that's only a few examples", but that is all that's needed to show why RELIGION is incompatible with science.

PS why are you telling me off for you not having any facts? Not my fault.

Wow: You didn't make any factual claims, and I can't consider facts you didn't offer. You advanced some personal opinions (which don't make sense) and made false statements about a book you apparently haven't read.

Your 4th and 5th sentences seem to be contradictory, but since the 5th is only a sentence fragment, its meaning isn't really clear.

I have facts. I offered facts. You've studiously ignored them.

I think people need to define their terms.

What does "compatability" mean?
What do "science" and "religion" mean?

As with arguments about "free will", arguments about the (in)compatibility of science and religion seem to involve lots of people arguing passionately without defining what they are actually arguing about. And when they do eventually define their terms, it turns out they were talkign about completely different things.

By GravityIsJustATheory (not verified) on 14 Sep 2012 #permalink