Inside the government, beyond the police, behind the chemist’s, and in your Times Online

Posted: September 9, 2009 in atheism, bad science reporting, wtf?
Tags: , , , , ,

Via Pharyngula

(Before I start, I want to make it clear that I think that both Hood’s and Boyer’s research is totally legitimate science, and something worth looking at more closely. What happened is a blatant case of bad science reporting, complete with the journalists’ ignoring the researcher’s pleas for accuracy and the journalist’s distorting the facts from start to finish)

The nays:

Next time, please do inform me of the upcoming Really Nincompoop and Idiotic Brain Science and Bad Brain Science Reporting Week in advance, so that I can prepare more visual aids.

Featuring myself, beating my head against the wall.

Anyway, to the point: when I checked this morning, fresh of out primordial oozing goo of pseudoscientific stupidity* emerged three homeopaths, one enema, and a really stupid article titled We Are  Born to Believe in God, by Jonathan Leake and Andrew Sniderman.

(Brief googling reveals that Jonathan Leake is a science journalist, usually writing about Those wacky scientists, making cows that give skimmed milk, lol, and also, about Intrepid Briton Otters. He’s also got environmentalist-themed articles here, but at this point, I’m afraid to look.

Also, I’m uncertain which of those people, or if all of those people, are the Andrew Sniderman. There appear to be at least two different people here, though; one of them from the US, one from Canada. This doesn’t really matter, because as we will soon find out, the whole mess is Leake’s fault, anyway)

Let’s just steam roll it with valid criticism, shall we?

ATHEISM really may be fighting against nature: humans have been hardwired by evolution to believe in God, scientists have suggested.

*Yawn* Translation from Idiot to English: opposing my cause may well be fighting against nature (…). Also, this time, no scientists actually suggested any such thing.

But, why need facts when you can have a shiny header?

They suggest that during evolution groups of humans with religious tendencies began to benefit from their beliefs, perhaps because they tended to work together better and so stood a greater chance of survival.

This is an idiotic statement, which might suggest 4 different things: 1) that the authors believe that every religious society has organised religion, which is as clear a sign of western bias as I’ve ever seen, 2) that religious people are morally superior to non-religious people, which makes them better cooperators, and LOL HOW DUMB IS THAT?, 3) that the authors are conflating correlation and causation, 4) that the authors somehow believe that cooperating groups whose membership is based on religion are somehow better at cooperating than other groups which begs the question of  LOL WHUT???

He (Richard Dawkins) has long argued that religious beliefs result from poor education and childhood “indoctrination”.

Because no argument against atheism is complete without at least one Dawkins straw man. I’m not even going to deign that with a comment, only? The scare quotes? The “indoctrination”? It actually should be indoctrination without the scare quotes. You know, moulding people’s minds in such a way that they won’t ever question what you taught them, which is especially despicable as it’s children we’re talking about.

Or at least I am.

It’s hard to tell what Leake&Sniderman are doing. What with them being so totally insipid.

His work is supported by other researchers who have found evidence linking religious feelings and experience to particular regions of the brain. They suggest people are programmed to get a feeling of spirituality from what is nothing more than electrical activity in these regions.

Who is the “he”? The “he” is Bruce M. Hood from Bristol Cognitive Development Centre, author of SuperSense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable. He is quoted as saying,

“Our research shows children have a natural, intuitive way of reasoning that leads them to all kinds of supernatural beliefs about how the world works”.

Yeah. This is most certainly true. There are also lots of experiments that show that stories where there is one supernatural or abnormal thing disrupting the otherwise perfectly normal narrative, like talking bushes, horses on fire, tooth fairies and such, are particularly easy to remember when you are the owner of a human brain**.

This, however, by no means should be taken as a proof that “human brains are hardwired to believe”. What it means is that religious concepts are easy to remember and parse for a human brain, and nothing more.

In one study he found even ardent atheists balked at the idea of accepting an organ transplant from a murderer, because of a superstitious belief that an individual’s personality could be stored in their organs. “This shows how superstition is hardwired into our brains,” he said.

Uh-huh. The stuff about transplant was intended to illustrate the psychology of the contagion system in our brains, and the essentionalist leanings of our brains, and not that our brains evolved to believe.

Unsurprisingly, this is also what Hood himself says in his blog, when complaining about being completely misrepresented by Leake. Apparently, when Leake showed him what he wrote, Hood wanted him to correct the mistakes, but was ignored. Yay, science journalism at its most awesome!


I’ll have to remove my sarcasm gland one day, because of the constant irritation caused by inaccurate science journalism and the resultant swelling. It’ll be all the science journalists’ fault.

I’ll sue.

Some researchers argue that humans’ innate tendency towards supernatural beliefs explains why many people become religious as adults, despite not having been brought up within any faith.

This is a joke, right? Because, show me a person from any western culture that was raised with absolutely no faith in their social environment, ahahahahaha. I’d be very thrilled to meet them.

I’d be also very thrilled to meet a unicorn.

“It is a small step from this to conceptualising spirits, dead ancestors and gods, who are neither visible nor tangible.” Boyer holds out little hope for atheism. “Religious thinking seems to be the path of least resistance for our cognitive systems,” he said. “By contrast, disbelief is generally the work of deliberate, effortful work against our natural cognitive dispositions — hardly the easiest ideology to propagate.”

Yeah, sure, go and quote-mine Boyer, why not. He wrote a book too, though, and it’d be better to read the book than this.

It’s also very ironic, considering both of the above scientists seem to be atheists, as far as I know***.

And finally, for the Incoherent Opinion of the Better, Holier than thou Side:

“I am quite sure there will be a biological basis to religious faith,” Reiss said. “We are evolved creatures and the whole point about humanity is that we are rooted in the natural world.”

LOL WHUT. Does the reverend want to say that we’ve evolved in such a way as to hinder us from non-believing? WHAT ABOUT FREE WILL!

Well, that made baby Darwin cry.

Finally, the yays:

I’ll have to read SuperSense now, ’cause it seems interesting. YAY.

*At this point I’m half-convinced that the pseudoscientists engaged in brain science have a shared repository of Really Bad Ideas.

Or a hive mind.

** As usual, I’d absolutely recommend Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained, because it explains that and much more, and has a great bibliography.

*** See Hood for this post (hardly anything a theist would write, huh?). And Boyer writes in his book, scoffing at a Catholic priest, how he can’t see why it would be any more absurd to believe in witches with flying innards than in zombie carpenters (rough paraphrase).

  1. pillowscrapbook says:

    I don’t remember working hard on my disbelief… my dad is an atheist and my mom is a weirdo, who sort of believes in god, but doesn’t go to church and has no idea about organized faith whatsoever, and she also believes in conspiracy theories, esp. now while she’s getting older… to the point I was baptized when I was six, because my aunts found out about it and made a rant, but I didn’t really go to church much after that, only when the school forced me to. And I haven’t attended religion classes since 7th grade, it just seemed stupid to me what was said there, and the teacher wanted me to learn prayers without explaining what these words really meant. so I think that it came pretty easily to me the “not believing”, because I wasn’t exposed to open and regular indoctrination. And I think that Poland is the best proof to destroy the ridiculous thesis that: “cooperating groups whose membership is based on religion are somehow better at cooperating than other groups”. I mean we have always been a seriously religious country, but we have also been the most disorganized society in the whole Europe. I think Norwid, wrote a poem or an essay about that ;)

  2. atwitter says:

    Mhm. Right, I don’t even remember when I was a believer, either. My parents tried to make me go to church with “but it’s our cultural heeeritaaaage”, only, they are lazy Buddhists themselves, so, I always thought it was unfair that I’d have to go to church when they would stay home and read newspapers =_=.

    Also, the priests would go on and on and on about abortion or whatever, so.

    Also, NOT CONSPIRACY THEORIEEEEEEEEEEEEEES *SNAAAAAAAAARL*. I mean, dear Darwin, it’s so hopeless. I’ve got an aunt like that. The more you try to show her that, nope, reality: it is not like that, she feels validated, in a weird “YOU ONLY TRY TO CONVINCE ME BECAUSE I’M RIIIGHT” sort of way.

    Um, yeah.

    And the thesis about cooperation… I think, as far as I remember what Boyer and others wrote, it was mostly about a group that’s formed on the basis of religion, and because members have to invest a lot, they are unlikely to defect.
    Also, because you’re going to be shunned or something in case of defection, the cost of defection is higher than the potential profit, so you’re even less likely to defect.

    But this means defecting *from the religious group*, and not “I swear I won’t steal your car!”, so there.


    Mmm, snarling is fun :D

  3. I think on the indoctrination point the key is what you emphasize—that regardless of any natural predilections to believe in a divinity or other vaguely supernatural and otherwise superstitious causes, religious traditions still exploit those natural sensibilities to give those normal and untrained intuitions hardened shape and to insulate them from critical demands of justification. That’s the real issue as I think you’re getting at it and as the article quoted misses completely.

    It’s a big part of this key error of inferring from belief (or natural disposition to belief) in a divine metaphysical principle immediately to concrete religious interpretations of that possible metaphysical principle. It’s the unjustified leap of citing a need for a first cause as a justification to believe in things said in the Bible about the personal divinity who has a plan for the universe. The former, even if accepted on philosophical grounds, simply gives no credence to the idea of the latter and it’s appalling how quickly people leap from the one to the other.

  4. atwitter says:

    There are all sorts of things that are easy to remember, or easy to believe for human minds. This doesn’t make them logical, right, natural, inevitable or anything like that. What matters is that you’re raised surrounded with logical fallacies like that, perpetrated also by people you care about, and by the time you *can* think for yourself you might have invested too much to be actually able to.
    There was fail all around this time, though. When I first found the article on Pharyngula, it seemed like PZ didn’t even read it, and didn’t realise it was bad journalism, not bad science. Then, there was a gigantic dogpile of a couple hundred comments before anybody caught on.
    And why Leake wouldn’t accept Hood’s corrections is completely beyond me. Oh, humanity *facepalm*

  5. […] piece of, er, something, clearly must have done something similar before, or at least described the antics of intrepid Briton otters, I and my trusty Google-fu skills braved the dark enemy fortress, and here’s what we […]

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