Field of Science

Science can't prove that! How rejecting evolution leads to rejecting science

Recent studies have shown that, at least in the USA, science and religion don't really mix. Religious people tend to have worse understanding of science, and scientists are, of course, far less religious that the general population (probably because they start out that way, before they ever get to university).

We also know that religious people are much more likely to reject evolution. You think there's a connection here? Well, no doubt. But new research suggests that the connection runs deeper than you might assume.

Geoffrey Munro, of Towson University in Maryland, has shown that people who are confronted with scientific evidence that conflicts with their beliefs are more likely to reject science as a source of evidence. Rather than modifying their beliefs, they move the goalposts!

What he did was to show undergrads some brief research summaries that had been tweaked so that the results either supported or refuted the notion that homosexuality is linked to mental illness. Of course, for some of these undergrads the 'research' they were shown conflicted with their beliefs, and for some it supported their beliefs.

Then they were asked about what information sources they would turn to to help them decide about whether the US should have the death penalty. They could choose from scientific research (into whether or not it reduces violent crime, what the cost to taxpayers was, etc), or from a variety of other opinions: from crime experts (judges, prison wardens), or moralists (religious leaders, philosophers), families of victims, or supporters or opponents of the death penalty.

The results were clear. People who had just read research that conflicted with their beliefs about homosexuality were less likely to see the value of science in helping them decide about the death penalty.

And when they were asked to choose the one source they would turn to first, there was a dramatic drop in support for science - from 54.3% for people who's beliefs were previously confirmed by science, down to 24.4% for those whose beliefs were previously refuted.

This fits in with the attitudes of the religious towards evolution. There are a large number of Americans - some 30%, if you crunch the numbers -who understand the theory of evolution, but they simply reject it because it conflicts with their beliefs.

If Munro is right, then the inevitable consequence is that these people will also become sceptical of science in general.

And in case you're wondering whether these undergrads changed their beliefs towards homosexuals at all as a result of the scientific research they were shown (whether it conflicted or agreed with those beliefs), then the answer is "no". Not a jot!

[Edited to delete 'subjective opinions']

ResearchBlogging.orgMunro, G. (2010). The Scientific Impotence Excuse: Discounting Belief-Threatening Scientific Abstracts Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 40 (3), 579-600 DOI: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2010.00588.x

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. Let's bare in mind that science is not an exact science. Statistics, particularly neyman-pearson, are there as a guide to aiding decision-making in one's beliefs. The results of a single study do not determine one's beliefs. Even a few replications of the study shouldn't. Statistics are not a decision mechanism, even after many replications (e.g. meta-analyses) it should not lead to a yes-no decision (cf. Oakley, 1986 [unfortunately out of print] or Dienes, 2008 for a more accessible explanation), but they should provide a hint of credibility to an argument and theorising that arises out of them.The research participants may presume that this is the result of the latest research - in which case it most certainly should be taken with a pinch of salt.

  2. I'd imagine they also wouldn't change they're opinion because they were only shown one report on findings about homosexuality and mental illness, whilst there are many, many more reports showing that the relationship is erroneous. Perhaps this 'rejection' is simply an informed skepticism: after all, science is collaborative, 1 bit of research is only a part of the whole.

  3. Yeah, my fist thought upon reading a report like that would not be to question science, but rather ask about the methodology, source, peer review process, etc. And just because a conclusion is reached, what exactly does the conclusion really say? All too often, even an abstract will say something that sounds definitive, yet misrepresents what the actual report says...

  4. As presented, this study was terribly flawed. If you want people to rationally decide if the US *should* have the death penalty (a moral question), then they should read academic philosophy papers on the subject---academic philosophy is NOT mere subjective opinion and does not deserve to be in the same category as religion, or the anecdotal evidence from judges, etc. In fact, for the question of whether or not the US should have the death penalty, the natural sciences can't help at all.

  5. @Angry Philosopher: I agree that philosophy enters into it, but as stated in the post, the natural sciences do have something to do with it, minimally on the level of whether it is an effective deterrent. (Hint: It's not.)

    Obviously there are more philosophical concerns involved than just deterrence, but if you don't think that deterrence (or lack thereof) is a big factor in many people's opinion on the death penalty, I don't know what to tell you...

  6. I'm not too surprised that people didn't change their beliefs. It's worth noting though that they were shown 5 studies (not 1), and that half were shown versions of the studies that rejected the idea that homosexuality is linked to mental illness. They had no effect either.

    What is interesting is that, whatever people's original beliefs were, they came out of the study believing them more strongly - regardless of which version of the scientific studies they were shown!

  7. Angry Philosopher: Fair point, and I simplified a bit for the sake of brevity & impact. However, the key point is not whether philosophical discourse is rated highly or lowly. The key point was that their judgement of science (meaning empirical evidence, including social science), was affected according to whether their beliefs had previously been confirmed or disconfirmed.

    No doubt the same would apply if the study was repeated but using philosophical analyses as the target text. It's really about how people resolve cognitive dissonance. At least in the case of this study, they do it not by changing their beliefs, but by changing the value they put on different sources of evidence.

    Just for the sake of clarity, here's the verbatim on how Munro defined other sources of information:

    opinions from experts in crime and punishment like judges and
    prison wardens, opinions from experts of morality like religious
    leaders and philosophers, opinions from the families of murder
    victims, and essays on the topic written by supporters and
    opponents of the death penalty

  8. I don't think the conclusion that people react to conflicting scientific evidence by rejecting it (and strengthening their prior beliefs in the process) is scientifically warranted here.

    (Though in no way am I disputing that is possible and even highly likely; in fact I believe I have seen research on this I found more convincing, and basically the same conclusion was reached. I'll rummage through my hard drive and see whether I can turn up a reference.)

    It seems that (in this context) the following conclusion would be equally valid:
    Seeing scientific evidence that conflicts with my prior beliefs leads me to realize that I hold these believes for a non-scientific reason, and that in turn leads me to turn to non-scientific sources in the next step. What happens in this model is not so much that the people are 'driven away from science' but rather their predilection for other (maybe in some way metaphysical) considerations is made more salient.

    I am largely making this point to counter the general concept of "non-scientific=bad". In this model people would be acting entirely rationally and defensibly, even though that may be a little bit counter-intuitive.

    However, I am blissfully unclear on whether that is a more or less optimistic interpretation.

  9. " If you want people to rationally decide if the US *should* have the death penalty (a moral question), then they should read academic philosophy papers on the subject---a In fact, for the question of whether or not the US should have the death penalty, the natural sciences can't help at all. "

    As a Social science major with a Phil minor.... why are sociologists the red-headed step-children of American academia?

    So yes, if you have deontological intuitions - no amount of science is going to change your opinion on the *ought* of the death penalty.

    If you have consequentialist intuitions - social science has a lot to do with the *ought* of the death penalty. One of the key arguments for the death penalty is the so-called "deterrent effect" - and if soc/criminologists one after another, through the years, show there is no deterrent effect - it doesn't matter what your a priori assumptions (er, axioms!) are about the death penalty as a deterrent.... let the data speak for itself.

    Anyway.... the angry philosopher brings up a point I want to make tied into the post - people assume there are things that science "can't help at all." While he was specific about natural science - I don't know if he was referring to biology or empiricism in general - but either way....

    Philosophy can tell you all about relations of ideas and logical necessity. But a priori philosophy doesn't tell us about the world that is. A posteriori philosophy - er, natural philosophy - er, science - can.

    This is why thousands of years after Plato we're still basically working on the same old non-empirical questions - and on the empirical ones we've had a literal explosion of knowledge in the past 100 years. I don't expect much to change.

    Science tells you what actually is.

    The philosophical intuition might be, "that humans are rational and self-interested, harsher penalties make the cost of crime higher, therefore people are less likely to commit crime ".

    But social science over the years has proven it wrong.... perhaps by starting with the number one thing I find a lot of "academic" philosophers don't realize about the world they live in - a lot of people, especially criminals, aren't rational actors. Axioms are basically just assumptions. And many a philosophical argument boils down to assumption....

    Long live Hume?

    But what I don't understand is how someone can understand the scientific method, its advantages to all previous methods of human knowledge, and its findings (in this case evolution) - and then deny it....

    So maybe it's a case of they just really don't get it.... and we need to start teaching skepticism and natural inquiry in kindergarten?

    In talking with a theistic apologist about using argumentum ad verecundiam (appeal to authority) - he mentioned that when you use the scientific method you appeal to the authority of the authors of the scientific method.

    I think what they are missing out on is that the scientific method isn't something arbitrarily made up by somebody one day long ago - I think the very concept of critical skepticism and empirical investigation is lost on them - they will never understand what science really is, or why we should trust it.

    Creationists deny evolution because they don't like it.
    They think scientists deny creationism because scientists don't like it.
    They fail to miss that scientists are led by a pretty impartial, rigorous, objective, and skeptical methodology that diminishes personal bias and subjectivism.

    Sorry for the long rant.
    I'm just overly concerned with the scientific regress I see around me. Tom, I have a funny story for you if you want to send me an e-mail!

  10. All philosophical issues aside, I think what is really cool about this study is the implications for basic cognitive biases. People use information they agree with, and dismiss that which doesn't fit their preexisting beliefs. It's faith based information processing. The implications for scientific issues are pretty straightforward, and I just posted a set of results showing how beliefs in evolution have a strong negative impact on scientific literacy. What this study does is provide a mechanism for how that happens. The implication is that this statistical association between rejecting evolution and scientific illiteracy is not simply an artifact of low intelligence predicting both. Instead, it suggests that people with strong religious beliefs reject scientific information, and ignorance follows.

  11. Umm, this is a VERY obvious point that hasn't been made...
    Don't people dismiss ANY data that does not conform to their prior view? Not just statistical/empirical data?

    Why didn't the study cover the other side of the coin?

    I'm more likely to reject religion or high philosophy if it conflicts with my base values just as I am more likely to reject science if it conflicts with my base values.
    Same for everything else.

    What's new in this study?

    Also... death penalty supporter here... not for reasons supported by science... rather by a crude cave man instinct (but not 'frivolous' death sentencing like in the US or China, I guess)

  12. "Don't people dismiss ANY data that does not conform to their prior view? Not just statistical/empirical data?"

    Perhaps that's the difference between rational evidentialists (the scientifically minded) and Joe 6-pack.

    The honest scientist follows the data to the best of their ability - not their superstitions and cultural bias.

  13. The conclusion of this study may be true, but I do not think that it is done properly. I do not think that the death penalty is a good subject for a scientific study.

    There are two major questions here: Does the death penalty deter the crime of murder? While studies may indicate that it doesn't, most people think that it does because it probably does deter them, so they base their opinion on their own experience. I do not see this as unscientific per se.

    The other issue is fairness and justice. This is really not question that is open to scientific inquiry and it is hard to argue that some one who deliberately takes the life of another for no good reason should not forfeit his/her own life. My the way in Muslim law the penalty for murder is usually "blood money."

    My point is that people are most likely to reject findings of science based on personal experience, not beliefs. If science wishes to make a point, then it should take this into account.

    Now if evolution means that life is created by random events without purpose or meaning, then evolution does go against the experience of all people who know that statistically random events could not create the world as we know it which is not random or without meaning.

    If science insists that this definition of reality must be the basis for accepting scientific truth, then it will be rejected. This does not have to be the case nor should it be the case, because science should not allow one flawed theory to determine its view of reality.

  14. Relate: The fact that it's not at all clear that science is the best way to decide on the death penalty is why they chose it. If it was obvious one way or the other then everyone would answer the same. They needed something where there would be differences of opinion, and where opinions could change.

    They showed how these opinions could be changed by a seemingly irrelevant factor, which is what makes the study interesting.

    I think your understanding of evolution is flawed (it's not random), but that's a discussion for a different thread!


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