Evans, M. S. (2012). Supporting science: Reasons, restrictions, and the role of religion. Science Communication, 34(3), 334–372. doi:10.1177/1075547011417890
Evans interviewed 62 people ages 18–79, asking this question:
Let us say someone proposed a 10-year-long moratorium on basic scientific research. Their reasons are (a) we need to assess our current data, (b) we need to get consensus on policy positions resulting from research findings, and (c) we need to think about the moral or ethical implications of science. Would you support such a plan?
The three reasons were listed so that respondents could choose one of them to make their claim for or against scientific research.
To do this work, Evans used “snowball sampling,” in which he reached out to members of religious organizations in his community in order to identify strongly religious people. He approached these people to interview them and then asked each interviewee to help identify other research participants with strong beliefs. He also included people who did not claim a religion. This procedure produced a sample with relatively strong—but diverse—beliefs, including Roman Catholicism, atheism, fundamentalist evangelical Christianity, spiritualism, and Unitarianism.
Only two respondents immediately said they would halt research; both of whom were older fundamentalist Christians. The other 60 respondents firmly supported scientific research, employing multiple argumentative tactics. According to Evans, they “invoked and then moved along multiple reasons, values, and narratives in order to find ways to continue their support for science” (p. 349). For example, one respondent relied on the story of her grandfather dying a year before a treatment for a particular type of heart disease was invented to justify continued scientific work. Others mentioned “progress” and worried that knowledge would be lost if research were halted.
Evans drew on methods of communication research that emphasize why and how individuals make up their minds about scientific issues. To get at people’s decision-making process, Evans used in-depth interviews. This method allowed him to investigate the various nuanced reasons that people support both scientific research and their religious principles.
Implications for Practice
This research may be particularly important for practitioners who frequently communicate controversial topics with a diverse audience, such as students or museum visitors. It serves as a reminder that people have complicated beliefs and make decisions about science based on constellations of factors from across their lives. This article challenges us to think about the assumption that religious people might fundamentally disagree with scientific pursuits. Informal science practitioners can consider communicating in ways that help people clarify the constellations of factors that influence their own beliefs.
Readers who want to know more about the religious make-up of the U.S. can read this report:
Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. (n.d.). Statistics on religion in America report. Retrieved from http://religions.pewforum.org/reports#
Evans encourages us to visit the following website to learn about religion in the U.S.: Association of Religion Data Archives. (n.d.). U.S. and World Religion Statistics and Data. Retrieved from http://thearda.com