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Some Americans consult religion about science questions

When it comes to questions about science, evangelical and black Protestants and Mormons are more likely than the general population to turn to religion for answers.

The new study is the first to measure whether people would actively consult a religious authority or source of information with a question about science, says lead researcher Elaine Howard Ecklund, a professor of sociology at Rice University and director of its Religion and Public Life Program.

“Our findings suggest that religion does not necessarily push individuals away from science sources, but religion might lead people to turn to religious sources in addition to scientific sources.”

The study in Public Understanding of Science is based on a survey of 10,241 Americans who provided information about their confidence and interest in science, their religious characteristics, and their political ideology. The sample included a wide range of people, including all religious groups, as well as those who say they are nonreligious.

“There is good reason to believe some look beyond scientific sources of information when questions arise about science.”

“People have many places to look for scientific news and information: the internet, books or documentaries by science popularizers, museums, or social media,” Ecklund says.

“But there is good reason to believe some look beyond scientific sources of information when questions arise about science. Some segments of the public, for example, are skeptical of the scientific community when it comes to topics like climate change, evolution, or vaccines.”

The general survey population was more likely to consult a scientific source than a religious source when seeking answers to scientific questions. The same is true for mainline Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and other non-Christians.

But for evangelical Protestants, black Protestants, and Mormons, the gap between the likelihood of consulting a scientific source or a religious source was more narrow.

While 16 percent of all survey respondents said they would be somewhat or very likely to consult a religious leader for answers to their science questions, this number jumps to 29 percent when just looking at evangelical Protestants or black Protestants and 25 percent when looking at Mormons.

Similarly, 31 percent of evangelical Protestants, 30 percent of black Protestants and 31 percent of Mormons said they would be somewhat or very likely to consult a religious text for answers to scientific questions, compared with 18 percent of overall respondents.

When asked whether they would be somewhat or very likely to consult people at their congregation about such questions, 27 percent of evangelicals, 26 percent of black Protestants, and 31 percent of Mormons said yes, compared with 16 percent of overall surveyed respondents.

When asked about their views on consulting scientific sources, 37 percent of those surveyed said they would be somewhat or very likely to consult a book written by a PhD scientist for answers to their questions, compared with 34 percent of evangelical Protestants, 39 percent of black Protestants, and 46 percent of Mormons.

And 53 percent of the general surveyed population said they would be somewhat or very likely to consult a scientific magazine, compared with 50 percent of evangelical Protestants, 52 percent of black Protestants, and 66 percent of Mormons. Finally, 49 percent of all survey respondents said they would be somewhat or very likely to speak with a person working in a scientific occupation, compared with 46 percent of evangelical Protestants, 43 percent of black Protestants and 55 percent of Mormons.

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The findings provide helpful implications and insights for science communication, the researchers write.

“In order to reach the large swath of the US population who are religious, scientists and science communicators should be targeting religious leaders and communities,” Ecklund says.

“If religious leaders are indeed already being approached with questions about science, it’s possible they simply need the information in hand in order to translate accurate scientific information to the public or to connect religious people with scientists themselves.”

Other coauthors are from Rice University, the University of Nevada-Reno, and West Virginia University.

Source: Rice University

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