Latter-day Saints and Science
by Mark W. Cannon
The Olympics showed Utah and Latter-day Saints to the world at their best, revealing that we are much more than many journalists and some of the public may have supposed.
Here’s another myth-busting fact. For 80 years every study has shown that in relation to population Utah was number one in spawning scientists; that the scientists produced from Utah are much more LDS than the LDS proportion of the Utah population; and that two recent studies show that over 90 percent of the LDS scientists believe that “Joseph Smith, Jr. was inspired by God in the formation of the Mormon Church.”
People only become scientists by proving their intellect, their rational pursuit of truth based upon demonstrable evidence, and their skepticism of that which is not readily credible. So the remarkable record of an overabundance of objective scientists who believe in and are faithful to and active in the Church must be astounding to people with frozen preconceptions. It appears that no other Church can demonstrate its overwhelming believability to scientists. This article provides you some stimulating facts that will help you in dealing with self-important scoffers.
Church Emphasizes Learning and Science
To understand the dynamic and positive impact of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) on people’s lives, it is important to understand the LDS emphasis on learning in general and on science in particular. This is underscored by a few examples.
. LDS are repeatedly urged to “seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith,”(3) and to “study and learn, and become acquainted with all good books, and with languages, tongues and people.”(4)
. The first Church President, Joseph Smith, made it clear that “One of the grand fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism’ is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may.”(5) He emphasized: “We should gather all the good and true principles in the world and treasure them up, or we shall not come out true ‘Mormons’.”(6)
. The second President, Brigham Young, admonished: “Let [the members] be educated in every useful branch of learning…”(7) He wrote: “How gladly would we understand every principle pertaining to science and art, and become thoroughly acquainted with every intricate operation of nature and with all the chemical changes that are constantly going on around us!”(8) He emphasized that: “‘Mormonism’ embraces all truth” including “scientific”.(9) He asserted: “Our religion will not clash with or contradict the facts of science in any particular.”(10)
LDS strong emphasis on learning and science has led to a remarkable record.
For example, in 1850, only three years after the first Mormons trudged some 1300 miles to the desolate Salt Lake Valley, they created the University of Deseret (now the University of Utah)-the first co-educational university (admitting women and men) west of the Mississippi River.(11) Utah, which has always been predominantly Mormon, has always been at or near the top in the average number of years of education attained by its citizens. For example, it was reported in 1984 that Utah was highest of the 50 states in the “median number of school years completed by adult population”, with 12.8 years. Utah was also first in “percentage of adult population with high school diploma”.(12) Despite an influx of immigrants into Utah, it continues to be high. In October, 1995, with 90.2 percent of adults age 25 and over having high school diplomas, Utah was fourth highest of the fifty states.(13)
In 1994, Utah was the top state in both Advance Placement Exams taken, and those passed for college credit, in relation to the number of high school students-and Utah is consistently at or near the top.(14) A recent study showed that in 1996, Utah tied North Carolina for the highest percentage of high school students who took upper level mathematics classes.(15) The duties of citizenship are taken seriously. For example, a study of presidential elections from World War II through 1988 revealed that Utah had the highest average turn-out of voters of any state.(16)
Production of Mormon Scientists
More specifically, in the production of scientists, LDS have been extraordinarily fruitful.
. Since science promotes objective rational thinking and progress, E.L. Thorndike, of Columbia University researched the the states of birth of scientists listed in the 1938 edition of American Men of Science for the Carnegie Foundation. He found that Utah (which was majority LDS) was the highest producer of scientists as a percentage of the population of a state. Utah was 45 percent higher than the second highest state, Colorado, which also had LDS citizens.(17)
Dr. Thorndike later studied the origins of outstanding men using Who’s Who, Leaders in Education and American Men of Science. Utah again was the most productive state, far ahead of Massachusetts, the second ranking state. This study was published in The Scientific Monthly(18) in 1943. Thus many of these high achievers were born in the 1800s, during which time, Utah was struggling to make the arid desert blossom as a rose. Despite privation, the teachings of the Church caused people to sacrifice and strive to obtain excellent educations and to contribute to the larger society.
. A study by H. E. Zabel of American Men of Science – 1944 found that Utah was again first as the birthplace of 1065 scientists per million. The second state was Colorado with 657 per million.(19)
. The number of scientists in the 1949 edition of American Men of Science had nearly doubled since Thorndike’s original study of the 1938 edition. A University of Utah doctoral dissertation by Richard T. Wootton showed Utah as the most productive of scientists, followed by Idaho, the state with the second highest LDS population.(20)
. The number of scientists in the 1962 edition of American Men of Science almost doubled again. Despite almost quadruple the scientists in the original Thorndike study, Utah still had a commanding lead for first in the number of scientists born in the state per million population, followed by Idaho which had a large LDS population.(21)
. Using a different approach, the University of Chicago Press published a study of the institutions from which scientists in the 1921 and 1944 editions of American Men of Science had obtained their undergraduate degrees. In relation to their number of graduates, Mormon-owned Brigham Young University (BYU) and Utah State and University of Utah produced future scientists at an average rate of 150 percent of the rates of MIT and Harvard, 200 percent of Stanford, 300 percent of Duke, 1,280 percent of University of Southern California, and 4,700% of Georgetown University.(22)
. Science in 1974 published a study of those who had obtained Ph.D.s from 1920 to 1961 and the institutions from which they had obtained their baccalaureate degrees. The productivity of each state in producing future scholars was calculated. Utah ranked first of all states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. in overall production of scholars. Significantly, it ranked 30 percent higher than the second highest state, Iowa. In sub-categories, Utah ranked first in producing future Ph.D.s in biological sciences, third in physical sciences, first in social sciences, second in education, and sixth in the arts and professions.(23)
. The author, BYU Professor Kenneth R. Hardy, did a follow-up study of undergraduate origins of Ph.D. recipients from 1962 to 1981 and found that BYU continued to be extraordinarily productive of natural and social scientists and the Utah universities continued to rank first in producing men (but not first in women) who went on to obtain Ph.D.s.(24)
. Richard Wootton, former President of the BYU Hawaii campus and professor emeritus of Arizona State University did a more recent study of the locations of the undergraduate degrees of American Men and Women of Science: 17th edition, 1990. Utah was again the top state in production of scientists and was substantially higher-21 percent-than the second highest state, Delaware.(25)
. The results of the studies up to and including 1992 were so remarkable that I asked Dr. Wootton if he would be willing to redo his 1992 study in the year 2000 to see if his findings held up in the fast changing contemporary world. He proceeded to study the States that awarded undergraduate degrees to scientists listed in the 1998-99 Edition of American Men and Women of Science. Utah again was number one. However, its lead over second state, Delaware, undoubtedly influenced by the increasing number of children of Du Pont scientists who also became scientists, was narrowed.
Although other states’ rankings changed, Utah has consistently been the highest state, and generally much higher than the second highest state, in producing achievers listed from 1920 to 1999. Also, Idaho, with the second highest percentage of Mormons, consistently ranked high in ratio of scientists who were born in Idaho to population.
To test the impact of the LDS Church, Wootton studied the proportion of LDS and non-LDS scientists from Utah in his studies of scientists. He found that LDS scientists were a substantially higher share of Utah produced scientists than the LDS percentage of the general population in Utah.(26) For example, Wootton reported that the LDS proportion of Utah’s population in 1906 was 55 percent. Whereas the proportion of Utah-born scientists who were LDS in Wootton’s study of American Men of Science in 1949 was 76 percent – almost 40 percent higher than the LDS share of the population near the median birth year of the scientists.
1. Mark W. Cannon served as Administrative Assistant (deputy for planning, management and liaison) to the Chief Justice of the United States, Warren E. Burger, for 13 years. He also served as Staff Director of the Commission on the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution; Director, Institute of Public Administration, New York; Chairman, BYU Department of Political Science; Legislative Assistant to Senator Wallace Bennett; Administrative Assistant to Congressman Henry Aldous Dixon. He was a founding owner of Geneva Steel. He obtained his Ph.D. at Harvard University in Political Economy and Government.
2. Thanks are expressed to the many LDS scientists who mastered disciplines and made contributions that made this study possible. Thanks also to Richard Wootton who, in the 1950’s, devoted vast time to studying the beliefs of Utah-born Mormon scientists and, in the 1990’s, of a new wave of Utah educated Mormon scientists. Thanks also to James V. Tredway for assistance in preparing this paper.
3. Doctrine and Covenants, 88: 118; also 107:14.
4. Ibid., 90:15.
5. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 313.
6. Ibid., 316.
7. Journal of Discourses, 12:122.
8. Ibid., 9:167.
9. Ibid., 9:149.
10. Ibid., 14: 116, May 14, 1971.
11. The early emphasis on education of women may have contributed to a number of firsts for LDS women including (1) Wyoming and Utah were the first U.S. Territories or States to grant women suffrage, with women actually voting first in the United States in Utah in 1870; (2) The first woman elected to a State Senate in the United States was Dr. Mattie Hughes Cannon in 1896; (3) The first all-female town council in the United States was Kanab, Utah in 1912; (4) The first woman elected to a term in the United States Senate who was neither the wife nor the daughter of a politician was Paula Hawkins of Florida in 1980.
12. Deseret News: Church News, June 10, 1984, p. 3.
13. Interview with Pattie Bowles, Utah Board of Education, May 6, 1998.
14. “Utah and National Advanced Placement Performance, 1994”, prepared by Utah State Office of Education.
15. Education Week: Quality Counts ’98, January 8, 1998, p.79.
16. Mark W. Cannon, “Civic Duties”, Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Daniel H. Ludlow, Ed., (Macmillan, 1992), Vol. 6, p.285.
17. E.L. Thorndike, “The Production, Retention and Attraction of American Men of Science”, Science, 92 (August 16, 1940): 137-41. See also E.L. Thorndike, Science News Letter, August 31, 1940. In order to compare populations among the states that were comparable, these studies were of the white populations of each state.
18. E.L. Thorndike, “The Origin of Superior Men”, The Scientific Monthly, 56 (May, 1943): 424-33.
19. H.E. Zabel, “Iowa’s contribution to American Men of Science, Seventh Edition”, cited in Richard T. Wootton, Saints and Scientists, (Mesa, Arizona: EduTech, 1992), opposite p. 25.
20. Richard T. Wootton, Op. Cit., pp. 24-5.
21. H.E. Zabel, “Statistical Abstract of American Men of Science, Tenth Edition”, cited in Wootton, Op. Cit., p. 25.
22. R.J. Knapp and J.B. Goodrich, Origins of American Scientists (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), pp. 12, 325-27.
23. Kenneth R. Hardy, “Social Origins of American Scientists and Scholars,” Science 185 (Aug. 9, 1974): 497-506.
24. Unpublished study by Kenneth R. Hardy. Interview, May 4 and 5th, 1998.
25. Wootton, Op. Cit., table opposite p. 58.
26. Wootton, Op. Cit., p. 27 ff.
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