Study: In science vs. religion debate, Francis Collins is more effective than Richard Dawkins

People are more likely to be influenced by a scientist who believes in harmony between religion and science than a scientist who sees the two in conflict, according to new research published in the journal Public Understanding of Science. 

Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, Bill Nye “the Science Guy,” Neil deGrasse Tyson, Lawrence Krauss — these are among a number of scientists who have refused to stay cloistered in the world of academia, and proactively reached out to the public to help everyone understand science. These science popularizers have helped educate the public about astronomy, biology, physics, and other areas of knowledge. But many of these figures have also been vocal in the debate over the relationship between religion and science.

No two figures represent the opposites sides of this debate better than Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins. Dawkins — an evolutionary biologist, former Professor for Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford, and outspoken atheist — argues that science and religion make competing claims about the world around us, and science has clearly won. Collins — a geneticist, current director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, and devout Christian — believes that science and religion can work together to provide a fuller understanding of reality.

The study, conducted by Christopher P. Scheitle of West Virginia University and Elaine Howard Ecklund of Rice University, suggests that Collins is initially more effective at influencing perceptions regarding the boundaries between religion and science.

The researchers used data from the Religious Understandings of Science study, which surveyed 10,241 U.S. adults. The study asked half of the respondents if they had heard of Dawkins, while the other half was asked the same question regarding Collins. Some of respondents who had not previously heard of Dawkins or Collins received a description of the respective scientist.

The description of Collins read: “Dr. Francis Collins is a geneticist who has directed the Human Genome Project and the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Collins is also an outspoken Christian who has said that God is capable of performing miracles and that religion and science are ’entirely compatible.’”

The description of Dawkins read: “Dr. Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and emeritus fellow at Oxford University. Dr. Dawkins is also an outspoken atheist who has said that the existence of God and miracles is ’very improbable’ and that religion and science are in conflict with each other.”

All of the respondents were then asked about their view of the relationship between science and religion.

“For me personally,” the survey asked, ”my understanding of science and religion can be described as a relationship of … 1) conflict … I consider myself to be on the side of religion; 2) conflict … I consider myself to be on the side of science; 3) independence … they refer to different aspects of reality; 4) collaboration … each can be used to help support the other.”

The researchers found that significantly more people had heard of Dawkins than Collins. About 21 percent of respondents were familiar with Dawkins, while only 4 percent were familiar with Collins.

Reading a short biography of Dawkins’ did not appear to influence respondents view on the relationship between science and religion. There was no significant difference between those who read a description of Dawkins and those who did not.

However, reading a short biography of Collins did impact the respondents’ views. Specifically, reading a description of Collins shifted respondents towards a collaborative view of science and religion.

People might be influence by Collins view of science and religion because it comes as a surprise, the researchers said, while Dawkins view of science and religion is expected.

“It could be that even though they are not familiar with Dawkins, reading about a scientist like Dawkins does not come as a surprise to most people,” Scheitle and Ecklund explained. “So, when they are given an example of a type of person they assumed to exist, then they are unmoved by it. On the other hand, it is possible that the existence of an accomplished and high-profile scientist who holds Francis Collins’ views on religion and the religion–science relationship does come as more of a surprise to many people.”

Being exposed to Collins’ point of view can shift people’s attitudes, but whether Dawkins’ point of view can counteract this remains unanswered — a limitation the authors noted in their study.

“How would learning about other religion–science ambassadors affect the views of these individuals now that they are aware of Collins?” Scheitle and Ecklund wrote. “Indeed, although we did not have a condition in our experiment that examined this, it would be interesting to know if the Collins effect would remain if individuals were simultaneously given a description of Dawkins.”

7 Comments

  1. Avatar

    > The study, conducted by Christopher P. Scheitle of West Virginia
    University and Elaine Howard Ecklund of Rice University, suggests that
    Collins is initially more effective at influencing perceptions regarding
    the boundaries between religion and science.

    The study proves that people prefer a comforting lie to an uncomfortable truth. Nothing new here.

  2. Avatar

    It’s too bad Collins is wrong. Religion is most obviously man made. Which of the thousands of creation myths helps us understand the scientific origins of the universe? Which explain physics?

    It may explain sociology, psychology, and history, but not the science of reality.

      • Avatar

        Doesn’t mean Collins can’t be wrong. Which of the thousand religions man created is correct? The one that explains lightning? Or earthquakes? Or echoes?

  3. Avatar

    I’ve always understood that science endeavours to explain the ‘how’ whereas religion endeavours to explain the ‘why’. They are two quite different questions and consequently have two quite different answers. I also understand that the fact that things have come together as they have is in itself little short of miraculous and make it more rather than less likely that there is a creative being/mind behind everything. Many of the religious writings may be more myth than historic reality but that doesn’t invalidate them as an attempt to convey truth in a manner understandable to the cultures being addressed at the time. People have to make up their own minds as to whether they want to believe if life has any underlying meaning or purpose or if we are merely the product of chance and come from nowhere to nowhere. Personally it makes more sense to believe that there is a purpose and meaning than that there isn’t.