A study published in the journal Public Understanding of Science suggests that celebrity scientists tend to foster greater acceptance of evolution among the public. However, when scientists are perceived as a threat to religious identity, they may end up lowering acceptance of evolution among religious audiences.
Most scientists are in agreement 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 toward evolution. Given the influence of mass media, the researchers proposed that celebrity scientists likely play a key role in shaping public attitudes about evolution.
To explore this, the researchers recruited a nationally representative sample of the British public and additionally 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 whether their views on evolution have changed over time.
The questionnaire also assessed familiarity with four celebrity scientists and two celebrity creationists and asked respondents to indicate whether each celebrity’s attitudes toward religion were very positive, positive, neutral, negative, very negative or whether they did not know.
In general, respondents who were more familiar with celebrity scientists were more likely to say that their attitudes toward evolution had changed to becoming more accepting of evolution. However, familiarity with the scientists had different effects depending on a person’s religious background.
This was particularly true when it came to familiarity with 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 becoming more accepting of evolution. But among certain religious respondents (Pentecostals and Muslims), familiarity with Dawkins was instead tied to becoming less accepting of evolution. Importantly, this was only true among respondents who reported that Dawkins had a negative view of religion.
“This finding supports the idea that some religious believers’ views of evolutionary biology may be affected when they perceive Dawkins as identity-threatening,” Unsworth and Voas say, adding that, “celebrity scientists affirm or threaten people’s non-religious or religious identities may be very much more persuasive with regard to evolution acceptance than whether people understand and are convinced by the scientific evidence the celebrities present.”
The findings were not always straightforward. For example, familiarity with David Attenborough, a well-known producer and presenter of natural history documentaries, was linked to becoming more accepting of evolution among Anglicans, Independent Evangelicals, and Pentecostals. But among Muslims who were educated outside the UK, familiarity with Attenborough was tied to becoming “both more and less accepting of evolution.” The study authors propose that this may be because the topic of evolution was not a salient topic for Muslims who were educated outside the UK and are likely migrants. Both coming to Britain and exposure to Attenborough documentaries likely increased their awareness of evolution and led them to choose a stance on evolution, either rejecting or accepting it.
Overall, the researchers conclude that their findings demonstrate that people’s views on evolution do change. Bringing evolutionary science to religious audiences may be most impactful if threats to religious identity are avoided.
The study, “The Dawkins effect? Celebrity scientists, (non)religious publics and changed attitudes to evolution”, was authored by Amy Unsworth and David Voas.