The Anti-Christian Bias of Many Scientists Harms Science Itself

By George Yancey Published on August 22, 2016

Last year Jean Decety and others published a study arguing that religious people tend to be less generous than others. It was paraded in many online journals as evidence of religion making people worse than they would be without it. A Google search will return many articles touting this research as proof of religious selfishness.

It did not warrant the attention. Not long after its publication I pointed out some fatal flaws in the study. In fact it was worse than I realized: I did not know at the time just how badly flawed it really was. Recently, other researchers have discovered that the original researchers did not code a key variable correctly. (For the statistically trained, I would add that the researchers coded a categorical variable — country kids lived in — as a continuous variable.) In all of my years of reading academic articles, I have never seen this mistake in a peer reviewed journal until now.

If I had a doctoral student make this mistake on a paper, I would wonder if he or she had ever taken a graduate level statistical course. Had I known the original author made such a basic mistake, I would have been harsher in my assessment.

Political Bias Skewing Scientific Responses

Still it got enormous positive attention. I contrast the support the media gave this flawed study to their response to Mark Regnerus’s work on same-sex parenting. Regnerus found evidence that children raised in same-sex parenting households may not fare as well as those in opposite-sex parenting households. For his efforts, his work was audited by an outsider critic (a most unusual move) and an investigation was requested by LGBT activists.

The American Sociological Association also went out of its way to criticize his study in a legal brief. There are activists who basically have made it their mission to try to make his life miserable. This in spite of the fact that at least some of his findings have been substantiated by other researchers.

I suspect we really do not know the full effects of same-sex parenting; we need more work to have a better sense of it. I also know that most properly conducted research has shown religious individuals to be more generous than non-religious individuals. However, my point is not that Regnerus is correct and Decety is wrong. My major point is the different way these research projects have been treated.

If Decety’s work had been scrutinized the same way as Regnerus’s work has been, we would have found his error much sooner. The study would have been quickly discredited, as it deserved to be, instead of being promoted on websites across the land.

So why were these two studies treated so differently? There is only one reason: bias. There are weaknesses in Regnerus’s work, but they pale in comparison to the miscoding miscue in Decety’s work, not to mention the other problems detailed by myself and others. So it’s not the quality of the studies that explain their differential treatments. You can put that argument to bed. One study sheds a bad light on religious persons, the other on same-sex couples; and that difference alone determined which one was more strongly critiqued.

Christians Who Distrust Science May Have Good Reasons

Within the Christian community there is a problem of mistrusting science. Part of the problem is internal: There are Christians with an anti-intellectual attitude. This is something we must confront. However, many Christians also have recognized the poor manner in which many in academia have treated them, in particular misusing the mantle of science to score political points against them. While Christians are sometimes too suspicious of scholarship, seeing conspiracy when it is not there, what we see in this Regnerus-Decety comparison is evidence that some of the mistrust is warranted.

In theory science should be a dispassionate arbiter, an objective guide in our attempts to learn about social and physical reality. Having reasons not to trust those who engage in this process makes it harder for Christians to appreciate science’s full benefits. This mistrust combined with the evidence that they will be denied a fair shake in academia at least partially explains why Christians are hesitant to become academics. So it is bad for Christians that they cannot have complete trust in science.

Christians’ Distrust Harms Science, Too

But it is also bad for academia that so many Christians mistrust science. A significant segment of our society is less supportive of scholarship, undermining the material and social support for academic research and making it more difficult to disseminate knowledge that betters our lives.

I have admitted that part of this mistrust problem is due to some of the anti-intellectual strain within Christianity. I hope some non-Christian scholars will recognize the role they, too, play through their transparently anti-Christian academic, social and political biases. If they would address that honestly it would help develop more respect for intellectual pursuits within the Christian community.

I choose to hope that non-Christian scholars will someday take the steps necessary to demonstrate objectivity and overcome their obvious biases. So far, unfortunately, I have been disappointed.

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