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December 05, 2003

Scientists and their beliefs

In my pervious post on the religious beliefs of scientists I neglected to mention that Larson & Witham's data set was a sample of questionnaires returned from individuals they found in American Men and Women of Science. This was likely a somewhat more selective sample than the one used in the Carnegie study which showed more religious belief. In fact, the Carnegie study itself is likely biased, since it surveyed scientists who worked in an academic setting.

To review, here were the numbers:

The Carnegie study in 1969 of 60,000 Academics showed about a 25-30% "No religion" response for scientists[1].

The 1996 study by Larson & Witham of scientists (600 responded out of 1000 mailed) in American Men and Women of Science showed about a 40% non-belief and 20% agnosticism rate.

A 1998 follow-up that surveyed National Academy of Sciences members (the elite of the elite, 250 responded out of 500 mailings) gave a 95% agnosticism & non-belief rate!

The big picture is this: the average working scientist that you might meet on the street, is likely to have conventional beliefs. The woman working at DuPont all week might be at mass on Sunday morning, while the chemical engineer in Texas is plausibly at a Bible Study meeting when he isn't with his family or at the refinery.

But, and this is the big caveat that the mainstream media ignored when they did not react nearly to the same extent to the N.A.S. survey as to the American Men and Women of Science survey-the scientists who have high academic profiles and publish mainstream books and show up on Charlie Rose to discuss the latest social issue are likely to have unconventional beliefs. Many people don't know working scientists on a personal level, and so the only time they get to hear scientists talk is when the big personalities are making the rounds promoting a book. Anyone that has seen James Watson speak can easily glean in his voice the contempt for all in the world that is not Him, including God. This is probably a tendency of Great scientists today, but it does give the public an unflattering image.

fn1. It seems that if the general population is any clue around half of the people with "No religion" should be theists. On the other hand, I suspect some of the scientists who give a religion are like Freeman Dyson, not really believers in a personal God as much participants in the social life of their community and family. So though 25-30% is probably a high estimate for non-believers among academic scientists, I suspect it is a closer aproximation than among the general population because of the pecularities of scientists. Also, note that since 1970 the percentage who give the "No religion" response has increased by two to three times.

Posted by razib at 08:33 PM