[JAC note: Reader Sigmund and I had some correspondence about the paper discussed below. This inspired me to ask him to write a guest post about it, and he kindly complied.]
While there may be fifty ways to leave your lover, there is only one way to teach evolution.
At least that’s what we’ve been told. The accommodationist strategy of recent years advocates that the public voice of evolutionary science should exclusively be that of theistic evolutionists.
I would try to empower the messengers that they (religious folks) will listen to, people who are more like them, people who they trust. That means people in their community, pastors, scientists who are religious, people who are closer to them and can speak a bit more of their language and may be able to move them. It will still be very hard. You will still trigger a lot of resistance, but I think there will be more openness than, kind of, the frontal assault from someone with whom you have very little or nothing in common: an atheist.
In contrast, the alternative approach, supported by the Gnus, emphasizes the advocacy of accurate science without recourse to religious views.
Until recently, however, little study has been done on the question of which approach works best or whether additional factors may enhance or detract from the success of particular strategies. While no single study could hope to address all the variables that affect this question, it should be possible to address individual elements.
One such analysis was recently published in a science journal, attracting claims from commenters on the Richard Dawkins forum that it discovered ‘the bleeding obvious’, from Uncommon Descent that it was a ‘push poll’ (a dishonest marketing technique win which biased questions are used to push one particular viewpoint) designed to attack ‘Intelligent Design’, and even from The Intersocktion, claming that it showed the error of the new atheist approach and the value of the accommodationist strategy.
According to Jamie L Vernon, the new contributor to Chris Mooney’s blog The Intersection, we finally have what we’ve all been waiting for—evidence that proves the dangers posed by the New Atheists. “Surprise!—the most effective tactics are not those used by Richard Dawkins and the “New Atheists.”
Well? Are any of those accusations correct?
Well, no, no and no—although not necessarily in that order.
Let’s briefly go through the paper to see what questions the authors addressed, what results they found, and, finally, what conclusions we can draw from this analysis.
The study in question, “Death and Science: The Existential Underpinnings of Belief in Intelligent Design and Discomfort with Evolution”, by Jessica L. Tracy, Joshua Hart and Jason P. Martens, was published by the online journal PLoS One at the end of March. The authors, based at the Department of Psychology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver and the Department of Psychology, Union College, Schenectady, New York, described their aim as being to examine “the psychological motives underlying widespread support for intelligent design theory (IDT), a purportedly scientific theory that lacks any scientific evidence; and antagonism toward evolutionary theory (ET), a theory supported by a large body of scientific evidence.”
The authors began with a hypothesis: “heightened mortality awareness would lead individuals to embrace IDT and reject ET; in other words, shifting one’s opinion on these theories is a “terror management” strategy, stimulated by the basic need to maintain psychological security”. This is a complicated way of saying that thinking about dying will make people less supportive of materialistic views of life and more supportive of teleological ideas such as ‘Intelligent Design’, presumably because ‘Intelligent Design’ is frequently associated with a supernatural designer, namely God, who supposedly offers a handy life extension in the form of an eternity in heaven.
The authors carried out five separate studies to address the question.
In all five studies, the authors began by manipulating “mortality salience” (MS induction) in their test subjects. What this means, in effect, is that they got the subjects to think about their own mortality, by getting them to write about feelings aroused by thinking of their own death. As a control, half the students were asked to write about feelings aroused by imagining a generalized negative thought, in this case dental pain. This allowed the authors to examine whether heightened thoughts about death and mortality have an effect on the acceptance of one or other of the subsequently presented test options.
The test was a two-part procedure. Following MS induction, the participants were asked to read two passages of text, both 174 words long, that were pastiches of views on evolution or intelligent design. The first (the ‘Evolutionary Theory’ choice) consists of sentences from The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, while the other (the ‘Intelligent Design Theory’ (ID) choice) consists of sentences from Darwin’s Black Box, written by Michael Behe and from the foreword to “Science and Evidence for Design in the Universe, by Behe, William Dembski, and Steve Meyer.
Both texts are similar in tone and content, and advocate for their choices by suggesting that the respective theories are of fundamental importance in science, are overwhelmingly backed by the evidence and are supported by many scientists and philosophers.
(If you know anything about biology, the Behe text will automatically induce a reaction of WTF!)
Importantly, neither text makes an explicitly religious claim—the Dawkins text has nothing in it that could not be said by theistic evolutionists such as Ken Miller or Francis Collins. The passages did not present the reader with a choice between philosophical naturalism and ID but, rather, between the current scientific consensus of evolutionary theory and ID.
The second part of the test was a series of six questions that, according to the authors, assessed the participants’ “views about the author’s expertise and their belief in the theory referred to in the passage.” Specifically, participants rated each author, using a 9-point scale, on intelligence, knowledge, agreement with his views, and truth of his opinion. They then rated their agreement with two statements, on a 5-point scale: ‘‘Evolutionary [Intelligent design] theory is a solid theory supported by a great deal of evidence’’ and ‘‘Evolutionary [Intelligent design] theory is the best explanation we have of life’s origins.’’
The use of six questions in this analysis, rather than a single agree/disagree choice, allowed the authors to employ certain statistical techniques, common to the social sciences, that test the internal consistency or reliability of a series of test scores from a sample group. This method also allowed the authors to examine whether the results reflected negative reactions to the authors, Dawkins or Behe, rather than to evolutionary theory or ID. In the words of the authors: “we wanted to ensure that results are not due to an effect of mortality salience on attitudes toward these two authors but not the theories, so we also ran all analyses using 2-item scales comprising only the last two items, which asked about views toward the theories but not the authors.”
So, does heightened mortality salience (MS) affect whether a test subject chooses Evolutionary Theory or Intelligent Design? According to the paper the answer is yes, but in ways that differed depending strongly on which type of subjects were tested and whether additional factors were involved.
Five separate studies were performed on either groups of psychology students, life science students, mixed university students, or a group of nonstudents selected to represent the general population.
The results from the first three groups studied (psychology students, general university students and general public) seemed to show a partial agreement with the authors’ hypothesis—mainly showing that increased MS caused a drop in support for evolutionary theory rather than an increase in support for ID in groups 2 and 3. Group one, however, showed increased support for ID without a significant drop in support for evolutionary theory.
The last two studies, however, are of particular interest.
The authors looked at 269 UBC psychology students, with half the students instructed to read a passage by Carl Sagan. The text in question encouraged a naturalistic search for meaning in the universe.
There is a two-part result for this study. The first group, who didn’t read the Sagan passage, produced a result very similar to that of study one (no significant change in support for evolutionary theory but a statistically significant increase in support for ID after MS stimulation.) But the second group—those people who had read the Sagan text—provided very different results, showing a significant increase in support for evolutionary theory and a significant decrease in support for ID.
No control text was read by the non-Sagan half of this study and this point is noted by its authors, who suggest that a control would have been a neutral passage, which they think would have been of little use. It is questionable whether that is the correct interpretation. An alternative explanation might be that reading an additional text supporting the scientific consensus in the Dawkins text and described to the participants as coming from ”one of the world’s most famous scientists” might be construed as an argument from authority that would increase support for evolutionary theory. In such case a suitable control passage might significantly alter the result.
This involved 99 UBC undergraduate and graduate students from the life sciences who followed the same protocol as study one. This group showed a similar result to the ‘Sagan group’ of study 4 (increase in support for evolutionary theory and decrease in support for ID following MS stimulation.)
In other words biology students, in contrast to the population at large, are immune to the negative effects of induced mortality salience and, in fact, become even more supportive of evolutionary theory in such circumstances.
Okay, so how do we interpret these results? Are we confident that they are accurate, and reflect how psychological manipulation affects acceptance of evolution in society at large? There are clearly some problems with the study. The samples involved are not particularly large, I am wary about the way the authors altered the protocol for study group 3 and, as I mentioned before, the result of study 4—the most novel of the entire analysis—is at least questionable due to the control problem On the other hand, some of the trends discovered seem to be replicated within the study. For instance, the result of study 1 is mirrored in the first (non-Sagan) part of study 4 and the result of study 2 reflects that of study 3, indicating that amongst the general population an increased MS causes a negative response to evolutionary theory (although it doesn’t increase support for ID).
But does the study say anything about the value of accommodationism versus confrontationalism?
Perhaps. The result of study 4, if validated, indicates that emphasizing a naturalistic search for meaning in life (the Sagan passage) strongly ameliorates the negative effect induced by heightened thoughts of mortality.
Interestingly, however, this naturalistic approach is not one that theistic evolutionists advocate! Rather’ it’s much closer to the public approach of prominent Gnus like Dawkins. The passage from Sagan, below, disavows the supernatural aspect that is the common feature of theistic evolution. While it doesn’t attack religion per se, it is essentially a passage promoting a viewpoint of philosophical naturalism, or to put it in its proper scare quotes, “atheism”.
It is very reasonable for humans to want to understand something of our context in a broader universe, awesome and vast. It is also reasonable for us to want to understand something about ourselves. And understanding the nature of the world and the nature of ourselves is, to a very major degree, I believe, what the human enterprise is about. Truth should be pursued, and science helps us pursue it; science gives us meaning. All we have to do is maintain some tolerance for ambiguity, because right now science does not have all the answers. This tolerance goes with the courageous intent to greet the universe as it really is, not to foist our emotional predispositions on it but to courageously accept what our explorations and knowledge tell us. The more likely we are to assume that the solution comes from something outside science, the less likely we are to solve our problems ourselves. If we are merely matter that is intricately assembled, is this really demeaning? If there’s nothing in here but atoms, does that make us less, or does that make matter more? We make our purpose. And we have to work out what that is, for ourselves.
In summary, the study suggests that public advocacy of evolution might be most effective when combined with an appeal to a materialistic approach to the search for meaning in life. At present this is more a suggestion than a conclusion (the ‘Sagan effect’ was unfortunately tested only on psychology students rather than the general public). The finding that distinct groups react in diverse ways to the same stimuli suggests that an optimal approach should include multiple approaches. Whatever way you look at it, this study is not good news for the accommodationist strategy.
I think we can agree with Intersocktion poster Jamie L Vernon that “this article offers fertile territory for discussion on ways to improve communication strategies for those of us who wish to effectively reach those in the religious community,” although one suspects that Jamie didn’t realize that message of the paper is actually that advocating atheistic world views improves the acceptance of evolution.