Belief among applied scientists

It’s finals week, and I’m trying to postpone grading exams and papers until I can’t avoid it. So, trying to waste half an hour on something not involving physics, I stumbled on the web site for Physicians and Surgeons for Scientific Integrity. This, evidently, is a new organization of MD-types who think there’s something wrong with Darwinian evolution — an ID-sympathizer group, in other words.

Now, it’s hardly news that many doctors are creationists of some kind or other. A 2005 poll of American medical doctors found that 34% agreed more with intelligent design than with evolution. I run across plenty of MD’s among ID advocates and creationists. It starts even at a student level. From my informal discussions with colleagues in our biology department, they have an impression that an appalling percentage (25%-30%) of their undergraduates are creationists. Truman is highly selective, and we get some very smart students, but they typically come from devout suburban Midwestern backgrounds. Christian groups are the largest student organizations on campus, and they do a good job insulating some students from the evil liberal/godless/evolutionist environment they fear faculty might provide. In any case, it also seems that the creationist biology majors do not typically go on to graduate studies in biology. Instead, they are largely pre-meds and pre-education students. In other words, they end up as medical doctors or biology teachers.

There’s a bit of the same in physics. From my experience (I admit this is anecdotal, I’m just speculating here), engineers and applied physics people are a lot more religious than straight physicists. That’s certainly evident in the large representation of engineers among science and technology professionals who are creationists or ID supporters. And again, I see it in my students as well. Many of my students who go on in straight physics absorb the predominant secular mindset in physics, but the engineering students I get just seem more religious.

The survey data I have seen from my reading in the sociology of religion seem to support this conclusion as well: people in more applied (as opposed to basic) science tend to be more religious in general and also more conservatively religious.

I’m not entirely sure about why this might be so. One reason has to be the different intellectual habits cultivated by basic and applied scientists. Applied scientists are more focused on obtaining concrete results, while basic scientists are more interested in big-picture explanations — we definitely take the overarching theoretical frameworks of modern science more seriously than our applied colleagues. So perhaps we find it easier to extend our lack of supernaturalism in our fields to a broader naturalistic perspective. Another reason has to be in how the careers of doctors, engineers, industrial chemists and so forth work. They are typically more closely connected to the broader communities they work in and therefore also to community religious beliefs. Basic scientists do tend to gravitate to the ivory tower stereotype. And then, there are probably some self-selection effects — I wouldn’t be surprised if the more religious students tend to be inclined toward a more applied direction even as freshmen.

But whatever the detailed reasons, the basic and applied sciences have very different internal cultures, and differing levels of religiosity is one way this shows. And I think this is a wrinkle that must be kept in mind whenever people talk about either institutional or intellectual conflict or harmony between science and religion. I have no doubt that strong, even fundamentalist religiosity can fit very well with highly technology-intensive careers. Basic science, however, is not as comfortable an environment for strong religion.