Awe-inspiring documentaries could turn people away from science

An angel came down that night
Image via KayYen/Flickr

By Christian Jarrett

Science documentaries often go heavy on awe. In his immensely popular TV shows, the pop star turned physicist Brian Cox is frequently depicted in awesome landscapes, staring into the distance, moody music in the background, reflecting on awe-inspiring facts about nature, such as that we are all essentially made of star dust. It seems like a powerful way to engage people in science. Just one problem. A new study in Emotion suggests that when people who hold religious beliefs experience feelings of awe, this makes them even less likely to believe in science as a valid way to understand the world. Moreover, feelings of awe could encourage the non-religious to endorse less credible scientific theories that emphasise order over randomness in the universe. 

Piercarlo Valdesolo at Claremont McKenna College and his colleagues began by asking 127 university students to rate their strength of religious and supernatural beliefs, and then had them watch one of three 5-minute nature videos, designed either to inspire awe, amusement or no particular emotion.

The awe-inspiring video featured a montage of clips from the BBC’s Planet Earth series, mainly featuring sweeping shots of awesome landscapes, while the amusing video featured comedic clips from the BBC’s Walk On The Wild Side show, and the neutral video was an unexceptional news clip from 1959. Emotional checks confirmed the videos had the desired effects.

After they watched the videos the participants answered 10 questions about their belief in science, such as “We can only rationally believe in what is scientifically provable”. Across the whole sample, there was no effect of video category on subsequent ratings of belief in science. But crucially, there was an interaction with religiosity. Among religious-believers, but not the non-religious, those who watched the awe-inspiring video subsequently recorded less belief in science as compared with those who watched the other video types.

In two further experiments, the researchers tested the effects of the same videos on hundreds more people recruited via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk survey website, but they altered the way they measured belief in science. Feeling awe reduced religious people’s belief in scientific order (for example, measured by agreement with statements like “the principles of science provide order and predictability to the world”); conversely there was a trend for awe to increase non-religious people’s belief in scientific order, but this wasn’t statistically significant. Finally, feeling awe increased non-religious people’s support for a theory of evolution that emphasised the role of order and structure over another that emphasised the role of randomness.

“These findings suggest that awe drives theists’ away from scientific explanations,” the researchers said, “… but only tentatively suggests that awe drives secular individuals toward science. Indeed, it seems that awe attracts nontheists to scientific explanations to the extent that science is framed as explicitly providing order and explanation and eschewing the importance of randomness in the process (disconcerting to those interested in promoting an accurate understanding of evolution)”.

Awe and scientific explanation

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

One thought on “Awe-inspiring documentaries could turn people away from science”

  1. It is entirely possible to be a scientist AND hold to religious beliefs. An old saying goes: ‘God is ‘who’, science tells ‘how”.

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