Scientific American uncritically blurbs flawed study making students think science and religion are compatible

April 14, 2017 • 3:30 pm

My big objection to science aggregation sites like Science Daily is that they don’t really do honest, critical reporting, but mostly parrot the bulletins issued by university public relations departments. The result is that readers get one-sided puffery of new results and no critical analysis. Science journalists often depend on such sources and, often lacking science training themselves, simply regurgitate the PR to the public. That leads to debacles like those “cephalopods can change their RNA to make themselves smarter” articles, every one of which was grossly distorted (I haven’t had time while traveling to discuss this at all, but I’ll tell you not to believe the press’s account).

But it’s worse when venues like Scientific American do the same thing. This happened when the magazine just wrote a short piece about a study by M. Elizabeth Barnes, James Elser, and Sara E. Brownell published in a recent issue of The American Biology Teacher.  The Barnes et al. paper describes a two-week module inflicted on college students at Arizona State University with the explicit aim of convincing students that evolution and religion are compatible. At the end, they surveyed the students about how they felt about the issue. As SA notes, the module seems to have “worked”:

On topics ranging from astrophysics to public health, rejections of scientific consensus can prove quite inflexible when bolstered by religious doctrine. But
 a new approach to teaching evolutionary biology appears to ease such tensions. It involves airing perceived conflicts between religion and evolution in the classroom rather than simply presenting a mountain of evidence for evolution. Such a curriculum could help biologists (most of whom claim to hold no religious beliefs) more effectively prepare students (most of whom profess belief in God) to meet the nation’s growing need for scientists and technologists.

Surveys filled out by 60 students before and after the module revealed that the number of students who perceived a sense of a conflict between religion and evolution at the start was cut in half by the end. . .
“If we encourage national policy documents that promote these teaching practices,” says study co-author Elizabeth Barnes of Arizona State, “perhaps we can increase acceptance of evolution among our students, future teachers and future political leaders.”

Perhaps, but I doubt it, as there’s no indication that the study actually promoted acceptance of evolution, and it also involved teaching a particular theological point of view in a public university, which violates the First Amendment. As I wrote in my own analysis of this study posted here in February, the work of Barnes et al. has conceptual and scientific problems:

My objection to this study is that it was tendentious, didn’t look at the effect of the mirror-image study, used small samples, and, most important, took a particular theological point of view, pushing it on students in a public (state) university. This module requires a special interpretation of religion—one saying that it is not at all in conflict with evolution. Yet many religionists feel otherwise.

In other words, the instructors, in a well-meaning attempt to get people to accept evolution, are propagandizing the students with theological views. That’s clear since they trotted in a religious scientist and let the students read accommodationist literature while denying them arguments about the incompatibility of faith and evolution, which I see as powerful. (Why else are most scientists nonreligious—far more so than the general public?) By pushing a particular view of theology on the students, I see the experiment as a First Amendment violation. Would it be any better if the professor propagandized the students with a view that science and religion are incompatible? For that, at least, is a philosophical rather than a theological view. But if they did that, they’d be excoriated. Such is the eagerness of Americans to “respect” faith—the tendency to believe without evidence.

But in my own view, they should leave the accommodationism or anti-accommodationism out of public school classes. Just teach the damn science, and let the students work out the issues themselves. To do otherwise is to push a certain view of religion on them, one that should be left to parents, private discussion, or preachers. The authors of this paper are going the route of Elaine Ecklund at Rice, who has devoted her career to accommodationism. It’s not a pretty endeavor. And it’s injurious because it lets the students retain their view that faith, belief without evidence, is a valid way to accept religious claims.

But my main issue with the Scientific American piece is this: why didn’t they do any critical analysis of the study rather than just parroting the results promulgated by the authors and by the Arizona State PR office? Why did they quote just the author and not critics like me? Here, at least, Scientific American is acting like Science Daily.

h/t: Roberto

16 thoughts on “Scientific American uncritically blurbs flawed study making students think science and religion are compatible

    1. Yes, it’s the home of Lawrence Krauss, as well as the Genomics Institute, some high-profile planetary astronomy projects, and more. It’s a Research 1 institution, and not merely in name only.

      …but it’s a large school, with a student body of some 50,000 or so and thousands of faculty and even more staff. Including, for example, Paul Davies — one of the more prominent accomodationist voices.

      Overwhelmingly, it’s a solid, respectable, praiseworthy institution doing great things. But any organization that large is going to have its fruitcakes.

      I mean, if even NASA has (blatantly unconstitutional and illegal) “research” programs into astrochristology, should it be any surprise that we’ve got somebody not quite as toxic such as Barnes?



      1. With Trump’s march against women I know there are worse things going on but religion inside agencies and state schools is a very bad thing as well. I went to some track meets at ASU, there in Tempe, long ago in Junior High. Just mentioning the irony of Lawrence, the school and the subject.

  1. What Science Daily and Scientific American too in this case are doing is not science and not journalism. Journalists are supposed to analyze and think, bringing all sides of an issue to light. Here we get only side lighting.

  2. A more interesting exercise that could have brought in religion tangentially would be to discuss how evolution up-ended ancient philosophical world views earlier adopted by religions and how both some (but not all) religions (evolutionarily) adapted to this, and how evolution makes non-belief easier (in Dawkins’ phrase).

    A key philosophical belief underlying a great deal of medieval philosophy and theology is the Neo-Platonic notion of the “Great Chain of Being” (with God at the top of the hierarchy and rocks at the bottom).
    (Wikipedia entry here: )
    If there is any older view that Darwin most decisively overthrew, it is this. Every attempt to reconcile any sort of religion with Darwin has to implicitly or overtly depart from this concept although it is woven deeply into the fabric of medieval thought.

    Maybe then talk about the diff between folks who take Genesis literally and those who don’t.

    Teach about this, make it a philosophy class, and bring in religion incidentally, and let the chips fall where they may.

    1. I should add I think Darwin raises a profound challenge to the traditional Christian understanding of fall and redemption, but some folks at BioLogos are trying to make it fly though no one at BioLogos is defending NeoPlatonism.

  3. I absolutely agree that the one and only position that a state run education program should have on this matter is to be pro-science, and to just leave the evolution versus creationism thing the hell alone. Maybe a prof can very carefully navigate through the area with a student, one on one (I wouldn’t if I could possibly help it), but for a whole class? That is ridiculous.
    I could spin this by saying that the approach from this… experiment.. is a to do a disservice to both science and religion, but what I really think is that it is a crappy way to teach science and critical thinking. In any case it appears to violate the establishment clause and that alone is plenty enough reason to just not do it.

  4. Not too long ago the Freedom from Religion Foundation released a report* and contacted, I believe, several U.S. universities about the inappropriate linkage of religious indoctrination and favoritism in sports programs at secular schools. What Prof. Coyne has written about here sounds like another instance of religious favoritism at a secular university.

    *College Football Chaplains Report:
    “Pray to Play – Christian Coaches and Chaplains are Converting Football Fields into Mission Fields”

    1. Of course in sports, its evangelical Christianity that gets privileged promotion. By contrast, in science forums it will be progressive liberal Christianity and perhaps Judaism that gets more exposure. As the venues are different, this really fails to amount to equal time. Play to pray proselytizing is the clearer 1st Amendment violation.
      But science-friendly religion is still not science per se, though it may have a place in a class on philosophy of science.

  5. I don’t see the Constitutional problem here. Are there versions of religion that are compatible with evolution? Yes. Is it permissible to teach students about religions in a state university? Yes: see history of religion classes, philosophy of religion, etc. Now if they presented the religion in question as The One True Version of Christianity, then there really is a problem. But so far, not in evidence.

    That said, the class that JonLynnHarvey describes in comment 4 would be a much better class.

  6. There needs to be some corrections here to Jerry’s characterization of theses authors’ work. These researchers are not teaching a religious viewpoint, they are teaching the philosophy of science and teaching students the variety of viewpoints that exists about religion and evolution, while making it clear that evolution is an established science, but that there are a variety of views on whether that science is compatible with religion or not even within the scientific community. The students can decide for themselves what to believe. It turns out a lot of them chose to take a compatibility stance after the instruction. Nobody is indoctrinating or pushing a religious viewpoint on anyone in this study. Jerry seems to be more ideologically motivated to try to make everyone atheists rather than letting people choose to take a compatibility stance if they so choose.

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