Teachers in Focus Magazine, September 2000

Rigid Dogma


By Mark Hartwig

If you took a group of conservative Protestant ministers and a group of scientists, which group would contain the most open-minded researchers? Honestly, who do you think would do the most empirical research before reaching a conclusion, and be the least likely to cling to that conclusion in the face of contrary evidence?

To most people, the question hardly seems worth asking. After all, science deals with objective facts, while religion is largely a matter of dogma and belief. But when psychologists Michael Mahoney and Bob DeMonbreun conducted a study on that very question, they made a fascinating discovery.

In their study, Mahoney and DeMonbreun compared three different groups on a brief "research" task. One group consisted of 15 conservative Protestant pastors. The other two groups consisted of 15 psychologists and 15 physical scientists, respectively. All the psychologists and physical scientists held Ph.D.s and worked full-time as academic researchers.

The task was to discover a simple mathematical rule. Participants were told that the number-sequence "2, 4, 6" fit this rule, and were asked to discover the rule by coming up with other sequences and testing them: i.e. asking if the sequence worked. If they thought they had discovered the rule, they could state their hypothesis and see if it was correct.

Interestingly, the study found that the ministers behaved more like scientists than the others did: they generated more tests and fewer hypotheses, waited longer before announcing their first hypothesis, and returned to failed hypotheses far less frequently than either the psychologists or physical scientists. To top it all off, more ministers discovered the rule than physical scientists.

When I first read the study, I was astonished. But as I reflected on it, I discovered that the real surprise wasn't the study. It was my own astonishment.

You see, I should have known better. Growing up in the Evangelical subculture, I've had a lifetime of contact with conservative Protestant ministers. And with rare exceptions, I have found them to be thoughtful, cautious people. In fact, two of my own pastors had left successful engineering careers to enter the ministry--and brought their hard-nosed thinking skills with them.

Yet experience had rained on me in vain. For I was still captive to what philosopher Nicholas Rescher has called the "peculiar and distorted doctrine" of scientism, the view that science is the "be-all and end-all of rationality." I had accepted the notion, widespread in our culture, that science was somehow set apart from other disciplines--that it placed a greater premium on such things as objectivity, testability and consistency.

But I was wrong. Objectivity, testability and consistency are the hallmarks of all good thinking, and may be pursued not only by scientists, but historians, philosophers, literary critics, theologians and--yes--even pastors.

We should keep that in mind as we approach important controversies, such as gay rights, school choice or the origins debate. No group has a lock on rationality--not even the "experts." And when we start thinking that they do, we should ask ourselves why. Is it really true?

Or were we just not thinking?