Famous scientists tend to sway the public towards greater acceptance of evolution, but not when religious identity is threatened.
A study published in the journal Public understanding of science suggests that famous scientists tend to foster greater acceptance of evolution among the public. However, when scientists are seen as a threat to religious identity, they can end up reducing acceptance of evolution among religious audiences.
Most scientists agree that humans evolved millions of years ago from primate ancestors. But not all members of the public accept this theory. Study authors Amy Unsworth and David Voas wanted to explore factors that might be associated with changes in public attitudes towards evolution. Given the influence of the mass media, the researchers proposed that famous scientists probably play a key role in shaping public attitudes towards evolution.
To explore this, the researchers recruited a nationally representative sample of the British public and further pooled five religious samples – Anglicans, Catholics, Muslims, Pentecostal Christians, and Independent Evangelical Christians. All participants completed a survey that assessed their belief in evolution and asked them if their perspective on evolution had changed over time.
The questionnaire also assessed familiarity with four scientific and two creationist celebrities and asked respondents to indicate whether each celebrity’s attitudes towards religion were very positive, positive, neutral, negative, very negative, or if they did not know. .
In general, respondents who knew famous scientists better were more likely to say that their attitude towards evolution had changed to become more acceptance of evolution. However, familiarity with scientists has had different effects depending on a person’s religious background.
This was especially true when it came to getting to know Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist and atheist who proclaims that religion and science are incompatible. Among non-religious respondents and Catholics, familiarity with Dawkins was associated with an increased likelihood of more accepting of evolution. But among some religious respondents (Pentecostals and Muslims), familiarity with Dawkins was more related to a lower acceptance of evolution. Importantly, this was only true among those respondents who said Dawkins had a negative view of religion.
“This finding supports the idea that some religious believers’ views on evolutionary biology may be affected when they perceive Dawkins as a threat to identity,” Unsworth and Voas say, adding that “famous scientists claim or threatening people’s non-religious or religious identities can be far more compelling in accepting evolution than whether people understand and are convinced by the scientific evidence presented by celebrities.
The conclusions were not always straightforward. For example, familiarity with David Attenborough, a well-known producer and presenter of natural history documentaries, was linked to a greater acceptance of evolution among Anglicans, independent evangelicals and Pentecostals. But among Muslims who were educated outside the UK, familiarity with Attenborough was linked to becoming “both more and less accepting of evolution.” The study’s authors suggest that this may be because the subject of evolution was not a salient topic for Muslims who were educated outside the UK and are likely migrants. The coming to Britain and exposure to Attenborough’s documentaries likely heightened their awareness of evolution and led them to choose a position on evolution, either rejecting or accepting it.
Overall, the researchers conclude that their results show that people’s views on evolution are changing. Bringing evolutionary science to a religious audience can have more impact if threats to religious identity are avoided.
The study, “The Dawkins effect? Famous Scientists, (Non) Religious Audiences, and Attitude Shifts in the Face of EvolutionWas written by Amy Unsworth and David Voas.