So you think science has a problem?

By Ken Perrott 15/07/2012

There are a number of opinion piece writers, usually  philosophers of religion or accomadationist atheist philosophers who really hate  today’s vocal atheists. Particularly if those atheists are also scientists. They often pretend to be concerned about the reputation of science. “These gnus should STFU,” they argue, “because it’s just turning people away from science.” And science needs all the friends it can get with the current attacks on climate and evolutionary science.

In my review of Elaine Ecklund’s book Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think I argued this position, which she also was pushing, is mistaken (see Are scientists hostile to religion?). That in fact the data just doesn’t support it. If these people were really looking at the data properly perhaps they should be telling militant Christian activists to STFU – because polls show that people are losing the respect they used to hold for ministers, priests and the church. The data I referred to is in the graph below.

%age of US public considering professions of “very great prestige.”

Now the Gallup polling organisation has revealed data showing a steady decline in the public confidence of the church and organised religion:

Forty-four percent of Americans have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in “the church or organized religion” today, just below the low points Gallup has found in recent years, including 45% in 2002 and 46% in 2007. This follows a long-term decline in Americans’ confidence in religion since the 1970s.

See the graph below:

via U.S. Confidence in Organized Religion at Low Point.

Perhaps its time for these writers of opinion pieces to start considering the data that is staring them in the face. Rather than their knee jerk whining about the gnus and public respect for scientists they should write about a real phenomenon.

After all there are plenty of  factors they could speculate on as explanations for the public decline of confidence. As the article points out child molestation by Catholic priests and cover-up by church leaders appears to have had a noticeable effect. One could also consider the role that conservative religion plays in US politics today, the ongoing demands to be allowed to continue discrimination by religious bodies, interference in education, moral hypocrisy, and so on.

Perhaps these horrible gnus may have also been having an effect. Just not in the way these commenters claim.

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0 Responses to “So you think science has a problem?”

  • Atheism is as much of belief as any religion, the key tenant of which, ‘there is no god’, is not falsifiable. Some scientist are justifiably averse to pontificating Atheist whom imply science, as a framework, lends weight to their belief. Atheism, like any religion, is “not even wrong” ( There is potentially more to lose by the corruption of science by its “practitioners” than the beliefs held by others. It is a shame that some scientists don’t have a philosophical awareness of their own discipline.

    • Opensciece – I think most scientists don’t like to see their science used opportunistically and dishonestly. But imagine the problem of evolutionary scientists or climate scientists having to put up with the common dishonest pseudoscientific claims made by creationists and climate deniers. You can see why they need to speak up from time to time. So it is disingenious to accuse them of militancy or pontificating.

      I really don’t think atheists are the main offenders here – most of us are happy for people to have their own beliefs as long as they don’t impose them on us. And just look at all the theist claims that are made about science being based on Chritianity, etc., as well as straight claims of fact which contradict science. Look at the intelligent design Wedge strategy aimed at replacing modern science with a theistic science by removing the current requirements for evidence and validating against reality.

      If you think there is an any corruption of sience by scientists themselves speak up about it. Be specific.

      But I think the data shows that science maintains a well deserved respect in public eyes – whereas religion has lost much of the respect it formerly had. One reason has been its attempted interference with science.

  • Interesting first graph Ken…My student’s wouldn’t be allowed to publish with an x axis that is so misleading. Nevertheless, it looks like no real different in % who regarded priests etc in v high esteem, but a slow decline in the first 20 years in % who regarded scientists in v high esteem followed by a plateau. Any idea why this was so? Anything to do with the cold war ending preceded by a greater distrust in technical solutions to solve the world’s problems?

    btw I think you are right in saying that “most of [scientists] are happy for people to have their own beliefs as long as they don’t impose them on us.” I think most non-scientists would say the same. Most religious people I know also do not like the idea of imposed beliefs (if actually imposing a belief is at all possible). Having said that, I can not help but think there is a logical inconsistency as the statement is effectively attempting to impose on others the belief that imposing beliefs is wrong!

    • Know what you mean about the x-axis. Still that’s the data and although the discussion of Ecklund’s conclusions related to the period 2000 -2010 I thought it best to put the complete data in (might think about altering it but it’s just a blog post and it would be less cluttered to actually remove the ore-2000 data).

      Yes, the early decline could relate to the post atomic bomb era and a general reaction against science and technology. Mind you with this sort of data I also wonder if it reflects changes in polling techniques – at least in part.

      As for logical inconsistency – you are starting to sound like WL Craig! Anyway, being the species we are I suspect it is utopian to think we could ever remove this tendency. Still it’s a personal ideal to aim for.