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Please Repeat the Question

To the Editors:

As an undergraduate in psychology in the 1930s, I took a course in social psychology. One of the topics was questionnaires about attitudes. I took an instant dislike to the whole process when I encountered a questionnaire on racial attitudes. I found a true/false question that displayed a hostile racial attitude toward African-Americans regardless of your response. Since then I have seen many questionnaires where hidden assumptions on the part of the authors produced questions that an informed subject would be unable to answer.

I was reminded of this when I saw the question "how evolution and religion relate" in Gregory W. Graffin and William B. Provine's column "Evolution, Religion and Free Will" (Macroscope, July-August). I would have to answer "both B and C." Yes, "religion is adaptation, a part of evolution" and yes, science, in this case evolution, and religion are "mutually exclusive tenets." Can we, like the White Queen, believe "six impossible things before breakfast"?

I can certainly accept the conclusion of evolutionary psychology that religion, in its multifarious (if not nefarious) forms helped clans, tribes and nations to grow and prosper ("adapt"). I also believe that the content of any religion today is untenable, that only science is a "way to know."

Morton Nadler
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

To the Editors:

In "Evolution, Religion and Free Will," Drs. Graffin and Provine conclude from their survey data that, although most evolutionary biologists identify themselves as philosophical materialists, they also regard evolution and religion as not competing. However, this conclusion does not cleanly follow from the survey results.

On the science-vs.-religion survey question, Drs. Graffin and Provine assume that those who chose response B ("religion is a social phenomenon that has developed with the biological evolution of Homo sapiens...") would disagree with response C ("[religion and science] are mutually exclusive magisteria whose tenets indicate mutually exclusive conclusions"). They conclude that "These eminent evolutionists view religion as a sociobiological feature of human culture, a part of human evolution, not as a contradiction to evolution." But a respondent who agreed with option C and deemed religion a failed competitor with science in the search for truth, would probably also agree with B and might prefer its fuller explanation of the nature of religious belief.

Mark Alford
Washington University in St. Louis

Drs. Graffin and Provine respond:

Several letters reflected the concern that the multiple options on the questionnaire are not mutually exclusive. Any number of truthful statements can be offered to a person, but certain ones will more accurately describe their worldview. This doesn't render the other statements false, it merely demonstrates the preferred worldview of the respondent.

Here is an example. Say we ask a respondent to choose one of the following statements that best describes her view: A: I believe that organisms result from the creative law of natural selection B: I believe that organisms result from automatic laws of nature without intervention of creative forces C: I believe that organisms are intelligently designed. All of these options could be deemed correct by one who studies natural science. Choosing option A, however, says something about the respondent: She clearly believes in natural selection as a creative force in nature; possibly the respondent is a neo-Darwinian. A naturalist who chooses B is somehow put off by the characterization of natural selection as a creative force. This person is not likely from the neo-Darwinian school. A person who chose C is clearly either a deist or a theist, a rarity among distinguished natural scientists.

Some respondents simply left a question blank if none of the statements correctly characterized their viewpoint. Such cases were rare.

The high return rate and the scarcity of critical comments about the questions in the written portion of the questionnaire led us to believe that the study adequately characterized the spectrum of opinions among evolutionary biologists.

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