Neil deGrasse Tyson’s 7% problem and why it’s not a problem

I wish to open this post by reminding you all this is not a study, and it should not be viewed as one. This is merely an observation of my own setting. It comes from personal discussions with peers and students. This is merely an anecdote. (I write this because I’ve noticed my blog used increasingly as a reference in Internet forums).

If you’re an atheist and enjoy Neil deGrasse Tyson (like I), then you’ve probably heard him mention the 7% problem. You probably agree that it’s a problem. That is, 7% of elite US scientists still believe in a personal god. He’s not pulling this number out of thin air. This number comes from a 1998 poll conducted by Edward J. Larson and Larry Witham, using methods previously employed by James H. Leuba in 1913 and 1933. The results of the 1913, 1933, and 1998 surveys are below:

lawson witham study

Yes, I know the numbers don’t add up at the bottom under 1998. This is taken from the original paper. But I don’t know the cause of the discrepancy, nor do I know the actual stats. For the purpose of this post, ignore it.

SOURCE: Nature 394, 313 (23 July 1998) | doi:10.1038/28478 (See link above)

Remember, this survey polled only leading scientists. Outside of this small population, the number of scientists is relatively quite large. If we look to Pew data from 2009, we see a stark shift towards belief in god among scientists generally. The percent of scientists who believe in god jumps to 33%. That’s not a slight increase; it’s a massive surge (of course, I think evangelical types would still be dismayed that this number isn’t 100%).

Farther down the page on the Pew article, researchers break down the results by fields. We have biological and medical (32%), chemistry (41%), geosciences (30%), and physics and astronomy (29%). Missing from this list are several fields, including my own: political science (then again, to be honest, poli-sci only barely meets the qualifications to be a science).

Belief in god, to me, appears very common in political sciences. While the most elite political theorists disregard religion as having no explanatory power on power politics (or how to mitigate it), I’ve personally noticed a general trend towards belief in a personal god. This number might shift down towards 50% as level of education rises. That is, belief in god dwindles with the Ph.D, but undergraduate students are essentially a religious bunch. But still, some of my most respected peers spend the week completely ignoring the roles religion plays in international politics, but they’re at the pew on Sunday. Their Facebook posts are filled with religiously inspirational quotes. They wear religious jewelry. Indeed, at first glance they resemble the general public in regards to religiosity, even if roughly half are non-believers.

Shifting gears

Something else I want to talk about that I’ve noticed is even the most devout Christians and Muslims, et al, in political science view religion as a data point. Sometimes that data point is a point of criticism (for example, Jewish political scholars are often the first to throw Israel under the bus). In other words, despite their religious beliefs, political scientists appear to genuinely look at religious belief objectively when constructing hypotheses and testing them out. I’m very much commending these scientists for this.

While physics and biology, by definition, have zero room for religion, social scientists bring it into the discussion, but, even if they’re bible thumpers on Sunday, they do so without giving preference to their religious beliefs, and they are willing to gut their beliefs if our theories don’t support them.

The takeaway

Neil Tyson is frustrated that 7% of elite scientists still believe in a personal god. I don’t see this as a problem. In hard science it doesn’t matter if scientists believe in god. God is absent from their models. Furthermore, if we look at what is happening in the academic halls of political science, which might have significantly more believers than physics, it appears god is still irrelevant. Like I said, this is merely based on my own observations, but let’s be honest: I’ve never seen a paper published in Political Science Quarterly that claims god is the author of war (or anything). If a field chock full of believers can ignore their faith, I’m certain the 7% elite in the hard sciences can do the same. To me that’s not a problem.

About Rayan Zehn

I'm a political scientist.
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5 Responses to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s 7% problem and why it’s not a problem

  1. Pingback: Education Does Matter | Amusing Nonsense

  2. Dan says:

    By simply looking at any scientist that might be struggling with whether or not we evolved or created shows you what the problem is with a scientist that believes in god,
    And yes there are christian colleges that still teach that point of view

  3. ocelot says:

    Fuck science and fuck your theory. Jesus will punish you all.

  4. M. Margo Wakefield says:

    Could God have “created” the process of evolution?

    • Rayan Zehn says:

      I suppose anything is possible, but we wouldn’t be able to answer that question until we had demonstration that at least one god exists and that it is capable of creating such a process. For now this idea is a non-starter.

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