Sunday, April 20, 2008

Science and Religion

I've been playing over at ScienceBlogs again. Matt Nisbet has an interesting post on what he calls the "atheists' delusion" about the link between science and atheism. Many who wish to draw this supposed link rely on studies that show greater levels of atheism/agnosticism in the scientific community than in the general population and argue from this that scientific knowledge has a negative effect on religious belief. (You can read my comments there, but I must warn you that I accidentally posted as "anonymous" on two of them. See if you can find me. haha)

The biggest problem with such arguments is the "correlation proves causation" fallacy. Just because two things happen "at the same time" doesn't mean they're related. One does not necessarily cause the other. In fact, these things may have no relationship between them at all or both may be caused by a third factor.

This is no more evident than when we note that NAS members are demographically distinct from non-NAS scientists and the general population in other ways that have been shown to have no relationship to scientific ability. For instance, women are slightly more than half of the population, 20 to 30% of people with doctoral degrees in science, about 15% of full professors at top research institutions, but only 6% of the NAS membership.

The correlation/causation folks like to argue that this demonstrates that women probably aren't as good at science. Remember the Lawrence Summers controversy at Harvard? The science says otherwise.

This NAS report on women in academic science and engineering examines the role that bias and institutional structures play in the dwindling percentages of women in the higher echelons of science and engineering compared to the lower levels. In fact, it concludes that women are underrepresented compared not only to their numbers but also to their qualifications. In other words, there are more women qualified to be in the highest levels than there are in the highest levels.

The same problems exist for racial/ethnic minorities and people from the lower rungs of the economic ladder. It is my hypothesis that the empirical data on barriers to women and minorities in scientific fields and the barriers that prevent lower class people from pursuing advanced education skew the numbers for religion as well. These groups are known to have greater levels of religion than the upperclass white males that make up the overwhelming majority of NAS members and the majority of scientists in general.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry if this is a double post; my previous try seems to have failed.

I commented again on that thread over at Framing Science, with some sorta relevant statistics.

Paul W.

6:15 PM  
Blogger Melinda Barton said...

Not ignoring you, Paul. Just VERY busy and a bit stressed for "classified" reasons.

6:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No problem. Hope you're doing okay.

I posted another comment on the article at framing science, giving some stats about high income and nontheism. Like the other correlations, it's significant, but not nearly big enough to explain the incidence of atheism in science, or in the NAS.

Paul W.

4:28 AM  

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