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January 19, 2008

Richard Florida

By the Numbers

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The U.S. National Science Board released its biannual report on science and engineering indicators. It's an incredible compendium of information and data on US, global, state and regional research and innovation. But the report also took time to comment on cultural issues.  As the NY Times reports:

Many Americans remain ignorant about much of science, the board said; for example, many are unable to answer correctly when asked if the Earth moves around the Sun (it does). But they are not noticeably more ignorant than people in other developed countries except on two subjects: evolution and the Big Bang. Although these ideas are organizing principles underlying modern biology and physics, many Americans do not accept them.

“These differences probably indicate that many Americans hold religious beliefs that cause them to be skeptical of established scientific ideas,” the report said, “even when they have some basic familiarity with those ideas.”

I addressed the board a couple of years ago. We talked at length about the growing culture divide affecting American science. This is not just a question of religion, many Americans are more than skeptical, they dislike, are fearful of and are angered by the institutions which develop science and help provide the broad eco-system of innovation. They view leading universities as places filled with "immigrants, liberals, weirdos, atheists" and so on, who's views are antithetical to "family values." Universities add fuel to this fire by remaining walled off from their communities and in many cases disdainful of them.

The anti-science, anti-university drum-beat in American life has thus far remained somewhat muted. Just wait a few years: if something isn't done - and as bad as things are now, I'm not at all sure what that might be - this is a powder-keg waiting to blow.


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Brian Hollar

I think there is a far larger problem of anti-religious bias, particularly among academics, than there is an anti-science or anti-university bias among the rest of the population. The view that academia is filled with liberals and atheists, while not true in an absolute sense, certainly is from a relative one compared to the rest of the US. (In several academic disciplines, it is close to being true in an absolute sense as well.)

I am currently working on my PhD in economics at George Mason University, with a concentration in the "economics of religion". (Similar to the sociology of religion, except using economic analysis to understand religious behavior.) I think there is a far larger problem with academics mis-perceiving religious people than there is vice-versa. GMU Professor Larry Iannaccone has done some excellent research in this area.

I have over 40 posts on the economics of religion on my blog: http://thinkingonthemargin.blogspot.com/search/label/economics%20of%20religion?max-results=100

Here one of my recent posts, commenting on how disbelief in evolution does not equal scientific illiteracy: http://thinkingonthemargin.blogspot.com/2008/01/belief-in-evolution-scientific-literacy.html

It’s important for academics to extend the scientific method of inquiry to investigating societal and economic claims about religious people, rather than assuming the preconceptions of others to be true. We just might be surprised by what we discover that we never knew before and how many of our stereotypes of others are unfounded.

Here are many of Professor Iannaccone's papers on the economics of religion. Highly recommended! http://www.religionomics.com/old/erel/S2-Archives/S21_Publications.htm


Brian - Thanks for the comments. Yes, indeed: Many academics are areligious and quite a few are atheists. Me personally, I agnostic when it comes to religion. Individuals should be free to believe or not believe as they like. The problem is academia gives off the sense that its views are somehow better than those of the rest of the population. Even if individual academics don't do this personally, that is the perception out there in the community. You've said it much more clearly than me, but that is more or less what I said to the National Science Board (sorry if I garbled it in the post). There is a huge cultural and class divide between academia and the larger community, and a large part of it comes through the lens of religious values. Academics and universities may choose to ignore it, poo-poo it of look down on it, but it is not going away. Regardless, my advice was academics and universities need to understand and acknowledge this gap, and begin to figure out new ways to better connect with their communities if they want continued public (and financial) support.

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