US biologists ‘biased’ against evangelical students, says study

Researchers say that conservative Christian beliefs do not necessarily conflict with belief in concepts such as evolution

January 30, 2020
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US-based biologists rate prospective PhD students who disclose evangelical Christian beliefs more negatively than other applicants, according to an experiment that reopens the debate about the relationship between religion and science.

The study, conducted by researchers at Arizona State University, says that perceptions of bias against people with religious beliefs could be deterring Christians from pursuing academic careers, which could in turn be contributing to the decline in public trust in science in the US.

The authors say that it is not necessarily a given that evangelical Christians reject key scientific concepts such as evolution, and that scientists should be wary about basing their judgements on stereotypes.

In the first stage of their experiment, the researchers asked 494 biology faculty based in US universities to rate applications from potential PhD students that were identical apart from references to being president of either a campus Christian association, atheist association, or activity-based association.

In this part of the study, they found no significant differences in scientists’ perceptions of religious and non-religious applicants.

In the second stage of the experiment, a further 261 biologists were asked to rate PhD applications that were identical apart from references to either a mission trip for the evangelical organisation Campus Crusade for Christ, or voluntary work for the United Nations Children’s Fund. The former application was accompanied by a recommendation letter emphasising the student’s faith, while the latter had a letter emphasising their commitment to service.

This time the researchers found that scientists regarded the evangelical Christian applicant to be significantly less hireable, competent and likeable. Views on hireability and competency were unaffected by the religious views of the academic completing the response, but atheists showed a stronger bias when it came to likeability.

The study authors – Elizabeth Barnes, Jasmine Truong, Daniel Grunspan and Sara Brownell – emphasise that the applications indicated nothing about the student’s political attitudes or views on evolution.

They also conducted a survey of 664 students which found that 52 per cent felt that discrimination against Christians was a problem in science, and 35 per cent felt that it was not uncommon.

The researchers say their experiment, published in Plos One on 29 January, indicates that bias against Christians in general may be less prevalent than is often perceived. They acknowledge, however, that evangelical Christianity has historically been associated “with anti-science attitudes and conservative sociopolitical beliefs that are relatively uncommon in academic culture”.

But, they add, such stereotypes “are not necessarily accurate when applied to an individual person”, and argue that mitigating perceived bias could improve the public’s perception of scientists.

“By having more Christians in science, we can have more representatives for science to communicate to the Christian public,” Dr Barnes said.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Lack of faith in religious PhDs

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Reader's comments (2)

I can't see why science and religion have to be at odds. Firstly, even if you do believe in a Creator, or some intelligence behind the universe, this doesn't invalidate studies of scientific principles, any more than knowing that St Pauls Cathedral London had an architect (Christopher Wren) means we can't, shouldn't, study what architectural principles he used to design the cathedral. Secondly, several academic disciplines could actually back up religion; history or geography for example. So religion shouldn't hate science. Even the physical sciences, if it turns out there is such design in the Universe that a random Big Bang couldn't account for it all. After all, we are very lucky to live in a Universe where atoms have 2 inner electron shells, 2 and 8, because otherwise we'd have no carbon, no element with 4 bonds to make complex molecules for life. And a simpler system of first shell of 8 electrons wouldn't do the job because then life would depend on beryllium. These numbers, 2 and 8, had to pre-exist before the Big Bang. So it's just as well that in the fusion reactions of stars, three helium nuclei can stick together to make oxygen, which can then fuse with another helium to make carbon, so we have a carbon-oxygen-hydrogen rich universe (rather than one with just hydrogen and helium, or hydrogen, helium, lithium, beryllium and not much else, ), or else we just wouldn't be here. Either there are a billion billion other universes in the Multiverse where that 2 and 8 electron shell system didn't happen, or where the nuclear (weak, strong) and gravitational forces were the wrong ratios and atoms, planets, stars, never formed (so no life) or there actually is some kind of god (or superintelligence, same thing to us) who set our universe's 'numbers', the Constants, pre Big Bang. Which is it? Well you decide. But let's have science and religion onside, not against each other.
It would have added to the interest of the study if they had included Buddhism and Islam.

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