In the past week, a debate has been building surrounding this provocative paper, which concludes that religious belief, rather than political ideology, better explains why some people resist the science on issues like climate change, evolution, and stem cell research. "Partisan identification is not generally predictive of attitudes toward contested scientific issues," the paper asserts.
Is that really right? I have to say, I'm pretty skeptical.
First, let's concede the obvious: The rejection of evolution is deeply intertwined with certain religious beliefs. The same goes for embryonic stem cell research, where resistance is wrapped up with religiously grounded views about the sanctity of life.
But at the same time, we also know that these causes tend to be taken up on the religious right, not the religious left. And as for climate change? While there are some hints of a religious component to climate science denial -- for instance, if you think we live in the "end times," you really have no reason to worry about the planet -- the vast bulk of research concurs that this phenomenon is strongly tied to conservative economic beliefs, not religious ones.
But why opine on all this an un-grounded way -- we need data. And fortunately, Yale researcher Dan Kahan -- who has so much public opinion data on hand that he often shares it in blog posts, rather than journal articles -- has provided it. In three charts, he examines the relationship between political ideology, the intensity of one's religious beliefs, and one's views about contested science issues. And the upshot is -- well, let's save that for the end.
First, here's what Kahan finds about the climate issue:
As these data show, being more religious somewhat dampens your agreement with climate science on the left side of the political spectrum -- oddly -- but as you move to the right, it's increasingly a wash. It's hard to see how anyone could look at these data and claim that religion is more important than politics in determining how people feel about climate change.
However, evolution presents a much better case for that argument. Here's how the data look on that issue:
Here, religion obviously matters a great deal: On both the left and the right, people who are very religious are considerably less likely to accept evolution than those who aren't. But among the more religious in particular, evolution rejection also increases as you move toward the political right. In other words, it looks like there really is a "religious right" effect on this issue.
Finally, there's the stem cell issue. Check it out:
Here the story is different again. Now, there's clear movement on the issue from left to right, but also a notable gap between the religious and irreligious. Politics and religion are both pulling weight in shaping people's views.
So what's the upshot? Obviously, both politics and religious beliefs contribute to science resistance, and the relative influence of one over the other varies on an issue-by-issue basis. The role of religion is very strong on the evolution issue, far weaker on the climate issue, and somewhere in between on the stem cell issue. And if you picked other issues to examine, you would assuredly find different results yet again.
What this exercise underscores, most of all, is that when people deny science, they do it because they think it conflicts with their personal identity. But many elements go into each of our identities, with both politics and religion constituting vital components for many people.
In light of this, it really doesn't make much sense to assert the power of one over the other.