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Are Religious Kids Really Less Altruistic?

Altruism

Heard about that scientific study which scientifically shows non-religious kids are scientifically more altruistic than unscientific religious kids? The Guardian summarized it thusly: “Religious children are meaner than their secular counterparts, study finds: Religious belief appears to have negative influence on children’s altruism and judgments of others’ actions even as parents see them as ‘more empathetic’.”

Scientifically speaking, this is crap. Here’s why.

The scientific science “study” The Guardian cites is the peer-reviewed article “The Negative Association between Religiousness and Children’s Altruism across the World” in the journal Current Biology by Jean Decety and a bunch of others. Biology? Never mind.

Authors gathered kids, 5 to 12, from the US, Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey, and South Africa and asked them a bunch of scientific questions, scientifically quantified those questions, produced scientific statistics, and then made scientific propositions about the whole of the human race. Say, are there differences in behavior between 5- and 12-year-olds? That doesn’t sound like a scientific question, so never mind.

Here’s how to you can replicate their study at home. First, define altruism. Go on, I’ll wait.

Have a definition in mind? I’m sure it’s correct and matches everybody else’s definition in precise detail, details like no-greater-love, supreme sacrifice, kindness, patience, love, and so on, right? Well, maybe not, but never mind. Instead, think about how you would quantify your definition. Quantification makes your definition scientific. Science means unquestionable truth.

Was your answer about quantification the “Dictator game”? Like this (from the Supplementary description)?:

"[C]hildren were shown a set of 30 stickers and told to choose their 10 favorite. They were then told “these stickers are yours to keep.” Children were instructed that the experimenter did not have the time to play this game with all of the children in the school, so not everyone would be able to receive stickers. Children were finally shown a set of envelopes and informed that they could give some of their stickers to another child who would not be able to play this game by putting them in one envelope and they could put the stickers they wanted to keep in the other envelope. Experimenters turned around during the child’s choice and children were instructed to inform the experimenter when they were finished. Altruism was calculated as the number of stickers shared out of 10."

Yes, this scientifically captures every possible nuance of the scientific concept of altruism, doesn’t it?

Now define “religiosity” for kids. I’ll wait again.

Have it? Ha ha! That was a trick question. The authors never assessed the “religiosity” of kids; they did it for the kids’ “caregivers” instead. How? The authors asked parents to name their religion. They also asked parents questions like “How often do you experience the ‘divine’ in your everyday life?” They took pseudo-quantified answers from these and combined them scientifically with a quantification of religious attendance and derived a complete scientific quantification of “religiosity.” This was assigned to each kid in the study.

After that, “Children completed a moral sensitivity task programmed in E-prime 2.0 and presented on ASUS T101MT Touchscreen computers…” My goodness! How scientific! An ASUS T101MT! Just think how dramatically the results might have changed had they used an ASUS ROG G752! Or an ACER C910-C37P!

You know what happened next. Wee p-values through the terrible abuse of regression on the pseudo-quantified answers. A picture showing one of these is below. Notice the wee p-values? That makes the findings scientific.

Study

All those dots are the answers to the pseudo-quantifications for each kid. The flat surface is the regression (expressing this and nothing else: the change in the central parameter of a normal distribution representing uncertainty in “altruism”; did you think it was something different?). Notice almost none of the dots are near this flat surface? That means this model has no real predictive value. Which, scientifically speaking, means this study is crap.

Finally, no paper would be complete without wild, over-reaching theorizing about cause. The authors say their findings “contradict the commonsense and popular assumption that children from religious households are more altruistic and kind towards others”. People everywhere are taking this literally. At this point, I’m just too tired to make a joke about science.
 
 
(Image credit: PsyPost)

Dr. William M. Briggs

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Dr. William M. Briggs is an Adjunct Professor of Statistics at Cornell University, where he acquired both an M.S. in Atmospheric Science and a Ph.D. in Statistics. In addition to teaching, William works as a consultant with specialties in medicine, the environment, and the philosophy of, and over-certainty in, science. He blogs at wmbriggs.com.

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  • Lazarus

    We have a result in mind. Let's go and find some facts to support that. Sort of.

    • David Nickol

      There is a difference between a study like this being unsound and being rigged to come up with a particular conclusion. Is there any evidence that it is the latter rather than the former?

      • Since when can intention ever be figured out with the kind of confidence you require?

        • Ignatius Reilly

          There was this Regnerus study that seemed to be rigged rather than just unsound.

          I would argue that this study was not rigged, because there doesn't seem to be a rigging mechanism in the study.

          • There is that study; Christian Smith offers a very interesting take on it in The Sacred Project of American Sociology, which is at severe odds with what you have probably encountered. The basic problem, according to Smith, is that while the Regnerus study wasn't perfect, if one applied the standards which were applied to it (including appointing the most hostile auditor possible), much social science research would be similarly indicted. I suggest a look at stuff that doesn't replicate.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            It had serious problems in methodology. He did not study stable homosexual parents versus stable heterosexual parents. He studied heterosexual parents versus failed and unstable relationships.
            If Christian Smith thinks all studies make similar errors, then I have reason to think less of his other opinions.

          • GCBill

            But let's say Smith is right about those other social science studies: it seems like the correct response would be to condemn them too, not to lower the bar!

          • It had serious problems in methodology.

            Again, the question is: "How much other social science research had similarly serious problems in methodology?" The question is whether the standards are being differentially enforced, such that they line up with an ideological slant. Note that Christian Smith is up-front about there being what one might call a "pro-gay stance" in response to the Regnerus paper. Also note that the auditor himself said this:

            [The auditor] did not find that the journal’s normal procedures had been disregarded, or that the Regnerus paper had been inappropriately expedited to publication, as some critics have charged. He also vigorously defended … the editor. “If I were in [the editor’s] shoes,” he writes, “I may well have made the same decisions.” Because the reviewers were unanimously positive, [the editor] had little choice but to go ahead with publication, according to [the auditor]. He goes on: “My review of the editorial processing of the Regnerus … paper … revealed that there were no gross violations of editorial procedures—the papers were peer-reviewed, and the ‘peers’ for papers on this topic were similar to what you would expect at Social Science Research.”

            This auditor, Darren Sherkat, was about the most hostile auditor one could find. And yet, he wrote the above, as reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education. This doesn't mean the paper was perfect. It means precisely what the audit says. No gross violations happened, as if there is anti-gay bias which is out of control in comparison to other extant bias. I am concerned that this is like a ton of cars regularly traveling 80 mph in a 65 zone, when a cop suddenly picks out a red sportscar going 78 mph out of pure bias.

            If Christian Smith thinks all studies make similar errors, then I have reason to think less of his other opinions.

            I said nothing which would entail such a ridiculous position.

          • Mike

            the study showed nothing more than that if parents are not related to their kids they do worse. and they do even worse when kids don't have gender diversity at home ie only males or only females.

            not surprising actually but ppl made a big whoop out of it.

          • It conflicted with the liberal sacred project, you see.

          • Mike

            nature always has the last word though.

          • Was that an allusion to The Abolition of Man?

          • Mike

            amazing how the naturalists all of a sudden become Gnostics when the issue involves their pet political cause!

          • Well, empiricism and rationalism are two extreme poles which really need to be merged. Conservation of momentum: if some group of people go wrong in one direction, others will go wrong in the opposite direction. Maybe this happens internally in the mind, too.

          • Mike

            bc there just weren't very many stable ones there apparently. plus you can't cherry pick data can you?

          • Ignatius Reilly

            Is that a serious objection or are you just teasing me?

          • Mike

            no i am being serious.

            apparently random sampling revealed something like only 12 out of thousands where the child stayed with the same 2 same sex parents for more than the 10 year cut off or whatever it was.

            the idea is not just that gender diversity in the home is important for kids but that stability is and these unions are by Nature less stable and ample research bears that out apparently.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            Honestly, I really don't have the energy to go back and forth with you on this one. You are very wrong though.

          • Mike

            i understand. anyway i am not wrong. gender diversity in the house is a good thing for all children.

          • Mike

            sorry just found it:

            ok here it is:

            out of 2,988 respondents, only 40 children reported living with two lesbian women for three years or more, which is not a long time. Only 2 out of the 15,000 screened spent a span of 18 years with the same-sex relationship spent a span of 18 years with the same two mothers.

            from here:

            http://www.familystructurestudies.com/summary

          • David Nickol

            apparently random sampling revealed something like only 12 out of
            thousands where the child stayed with the same 2 same sex parents for
            more than the 10 year cut off or whatever it was.

            What is the source of this information? Random sampling of what?

            the idea is not just that gender diversity in the home is important for
            kids but that stability is and these unions are by Nature less stable
            and ample research bears that out apparently.

            Cite the research, please.

            Why is it that when the social sciences present a finding like the one discussed in this thread, they are "crap" and "garbage" and not real science, but when they present negative findings about same-sex unions, they are something close to divine revelation?

          • Mike

            i am referring to the regnerus study so i am sure you can find it online. apparently that was the main issue that the family structures data simply didn't have very many stable same sex unions, actually apparently almost none. he also didn't 'create' the data as i understand it but used the massive survey results to analyze it.

          • Mike

            ok here it is:

            out of 2,988 respondents, only 40 children reported living with two lesbian women for three years or more, which is not a long time. Only 2 out of the 15,000 screened spent a span of 18 years with the same-sex relationship spent a span of 18 years with the same two mothers.

            from here:

            http://www.familystructurestudies.com/summary

          • David Nickol

            But that is precisely what is wrong with the Regnerus study. It was taken as a study of "gay parenting," but most children in the study were not raised by same-sex parents.

            “Of the 236 respondents identified by Regnerus (2012a) as living in a LM [lesbian mother] or GF [gay father] household, we identify only 51 that can plausibly be coded as being raised for at least a year in a same-sex couple household.” [emphasis original]

            Those who defend same-sex marriage are defending the right of those gay people who want to make a permanent commitment and (possibly) raise children together. The couples in the Regnerus study were largely opposite-sex married couples (or unmarried opposite-sex parents) who had homosexual "affairs."

            The stability of same-sex marriages (or marriage-like arrangements) is a separate issue and was not the subject of the Regnerus study. Same-sex marriage is such a new phenomenon that there is only beginning to be sufficient data to do studies on the longevity of same-sex unions.

            The problem with the Regnerus study was that there wasn't enough data to do a reasonably sized study about the children of same-sex marriage, so Regnerus studied something else and it was widely taken to be a study of same-sex parenting.

          • Mike

            ok here's the issue. it seems that you folks want to cherry pick the data, so you want to select the ss couples BASED on their longevity whereas to me that's begging the question and not actually studying ss unions effect on kids or the correlation btwn ss unions and kids well being but studying the effect of having say 2 very rich lesbian corporate lawyers who live in san fransisco raise kids.

            don't forget that unless you load the dice you have to study the ss unions that ACTUALLY exist in the real world which is exactly what he did. most ss unions are NOT all white and rich so you have to study the actual effect of ss unions on kids.

            he i think specifically said it was not on so called gay parenting but of having a ss union in a child's life. don't forget that MANY if not most children in these households are biologically related to one parent and in many cases were once with both parents so the dislocation the breakup itself has an effect. couple that with the new situation in which there are no males or no females and on top of that that the people are actually modelling behavior that the child is extremely unlikely to have him/herself (ie 98% of the kids are 'straight' and yet have no one in house to model that to them) and you get even more "problems issues trouble adjusting etc".

            BUT that doesn't mean the PARENTS ARE BAD! this is a big misunderstanding. what it shows is only that biology and normal sexuality matter (normal as in 97% of all ppl ARE attracted to the opposite sex per biology) not that gay ppl are BAD parents bc i don't think we need a study to tell us that they can be JUST AS good as so called straight parents.

            do you see what i mean?

          • Lazarus

            Mike

            I've not been following the argument, but from the little that I have gathered, does your post here not concede that any adverse findings would be attributable to the issues you raised, like poverty, race and so on? If two white ss rich corporate lawyers can raise a child well, does that not defeat the criticism you have? You seem to argue for those other factors to be included, but then jerky we are assessing the effects of those factors, not ss unions, or not in isolation.

            Please correct me where I may have misunderstood you.

          • Mike

            so the study was called the new family STRUCTUREs study and it looked to see what effect those diff. structures had on well being. and so the issues as i said at the bottom is not whether actual gay PARENTS can be great as it is obv to my mind from reason alone it seems that they can be but whether the actual structures of families have an impact.

            obv. wealth etc can and does off set or mitigate the negatives of various structures but to only study say rich white lesbians raising boys would to my mind not study structure per se but parenting style i guess. and to include only stable gay unions would require only including stable natural families as well as you couldn't include divorced/out of wed lock 'straight parents' and only stable gay parents bc that would be biased.

            the study took a random sample of all kinds of family structures and looked to see how they correlated with outcomes and obv it showed that the further you move away from natural families that stay together for life the worse the outcome.

            how do you interpret that? well to me it seems regnerus did NOT say that that meant that gay parents are bad which makes sense to me but actually that gay STRUCTUREs are in fact bad. to see the effect of actual gay parenting then yes you'd have to compare say 2 rich white lesbians raising boys to a rich white mother and father raising their own natural/biological children. in this case the diff may be smaller or more 'hidden' by wealth so to find the effect of just the parenting you'd have to control for wealth and see how things look.

            i suspect again that they would look worse for gay couples but again mostly bc of the actual STRUCTURE not the day in day out actual parenting skills or what have you. however by structure i would include the fact that in the home it is extremely likely that the child will not identify sexually with the parent ie he/she will 98% be straight whereas the parents are not. obv if this causes strain the other way round it would cause strain this way.

          • Lazarus

            Thank you, that part there ...

            "... as it is obv to my mind from reason alone it seems that they can be ..."

            clarifies what I wanted to ascertain.

          • Mike

            you're welcome.

            yes i don't see any reason why someone who is only attracted to people of the same sex couldn't be even a perfect parent. for all we know there are many many so-called gay or bi parents in so-called straight families.

          • it seems that you folks want to cherry pick the data [...]

            I'm not sure that's right. See the following exchanges:

            DN: It may be true that they have vastly oversimplified the two concepts and made some sweeping conclusion, but the way altruism and religiosity are defined and measured in the study is quite clear.

            LB: I was quite careful, to ask whether the word 'altruistic' was used in a way such that the communication to the intended audience of the paper is accurate. I carefully deconvolved this from the science news cycle. If you want, we can talk about whether weird-ass operationalized definitions of words are perfectly A-OK; it maybe that it's just standard to do this. I am inclined to say that it risks doing violence to the integrity of words, though. The result of such violence is confused thinking. For example, it may enhance clarity of human thought (based on human psychology) to say 'dg-altruism' instead of 'altruism', in this case.

            However, there is a way in which something completely unacceptable has happened, and that is how the research has been communicated to the public. It is beyond insane to expect the public to read 'altruistic' and appropriately redefine that word to mean "the output of the dictator game". I almost want to call this 'evil', because it is either intent to deceive the public, or gross negligence which ends up deceiving the public.

            +

            DN: [...] but the way altruism and religiosity are defined and measured in the study is quite clear.

            YOS: Oh, the way in which they were defined was clear. What was not clear was whether they actually defined altruism and religiosity.

            LB: Strictly speaking, a nominalist doesn't care about the matter you've described. Words are just tools.

            YOS: Basically, the measured thing had nothing to do with altruism, but the authors (who may also have been nominalists) wrote as if it did.

            LB: The true nominalist doesn't care if [s]he uses a word to mean X in one location, and Y in another location. The true nominalist eschews the very existence of natural kinds. To the true nominalist, 'similarity' is merely a construct of the mind, with zero guarantee that said construct exists 'out there'. Roger Olson rails about nominalism is the most focused way yet in his blog post yesterday, The “Catastrophe of Nominalism”. I left a comment where I somewhat object, where I push "open transcendentals".

            So, if the Regnerus folks want to define 'gay parents' however they would like, on what basis can @davidnickol:disqus judge? He was perfectly happy for another study to operationalize the term 'altruism' via the dictator game. If Regnerus wanted to operationalize the term 'gay parent' via "had a gay encounter at one point", he ought to be allowed to, by David Nickol's very standards. Unless I have erred in my reasoning?

          • Mike

            i am not sure if you've erred but the study was about STRUCTUREs of families not specifically parenting skills what ever that means.

          • But that is precisely what is wrong with the Regnerus study. It was taken as a study of "gay parenting," but most children in the study were not raised by same-sex parents.

            How many of the children in the altruism study were 'religious'?

          • David Nickol

            How many of the children in the altruism study were 'religious'?

            If you read the "altruism" study itself rather than newspaper accounts of it, I think you will find that it never refers to "religious children." But I am bewildered by your question. What is your point?

          • My point is that you appear to be judging:

                 (A) Regnerus by the popularized account
                 (B) the "altruism" study by the paper

            This allows you to:

                 (a) accept the popular meaning of 'gay parent'
                 (b) accept the strange meaning of 'altruistic' and 'religious'

            Yes, "strange" is arguable. But there is nonetheless an important asymmetry, it seems to me. Am I wrong about this?

          • David Nickol

            Am I wrong about this?

            Yes.

            I am discussing not merely the Regnerus study itself, but also the reception it received. Consequently, I said,

            The problem with the Regnerus study was that there wasn't enough data to do a reasonably sized study about the children of same-sex marriage, so Regnerus studied something else and it was widely taken to be a study of same-sex parenting.

            Regarding the meaning of "gay parent," as you may recall, Regnerus surveyed "young-adult children of a parent who has had a same-sex romantic relationship." In the study itself, he refers to a mother who has had a same-sex relationship as a "lesbian mother (LM)" and a father who has had a same-sex relationship as a "gay father (GF)" Even Regnerus himself later admitted error in that he had no information as to whether these men and women self-identified as gay and lesbian. I personally have known many men who, by any reasonable criteria, would be considered gay and who self-identify as gay who nevertheless had at least one heterosexual relationships. Having a heterosexual relationship does not make a person a heterosexual any more than having a homosexual relationship makes a person a homosexual. So as Regnerus himself acknowledges, the study was off base in referring to gay fathers and lesbian mothers. (And aside from straight people who have "gay" affairs, and vice versa, there are also at least some true bisexuals.)

            Regnerus himself was well aware (despite errors in his language) that he was not studying same-sex marriage or same-sex couples who chose to commit to each other and raise families together, a fact that he has clearly acknowledged. However, the study itself was hailed by many organizations who considered it damaging ammunition against same-sex marriage. Regnerus himself said in an interview:

            Q: Some might say this study reveals evidence that gay and lesbian parents would benefit from access to the relative security of marriage. What are your thoughts on that?

            A: It’s possible. How gay marriages would function for children is an empirical question, but it’s only answerable in the future, after ample numbers of cases have accrued, after considerable time has expired, and when the respondents are old enough to speak and reflect about it, as the respondents in my study have.

          • I am discussing not [A] merely the Regnerus study itself, but also [B] the reception it received.

            Do you think the authors of the OP are targeting [A], [B], or both, when it comes to the altruism study?

            Regarding the meaning of "gay parent," as you may recall, Regnerus surveyed "young-adult children of a parent who has had a same-sex romantic relationship." In the study itself, he refers to a mother who has had a same-sex relationship as a "lesbian mother (LM)" and a father who has had a same-sex relationship as a "gay father (GF)" Even Regnerus himself later admitted error in that he had no information as to whether these men and women self-identified as gay and lesbian.

            Why is this relevant? You were 100% happy to let 'altruism' be defined as "score in the dictator game"—a definition many see as completely perverting the word 'altruism'.

            Regnerus himself was well aware (despite errors in his language) that he was not studying same-sex marriage or same-sex couples who chose to commit to each other and raise families together, a fact that he has clearly acknowledged. However, the study itself was hailed by many organizations who considered it damaging ammunition against same-sex marriage.

            Yes, and how the altruism study was popularized is something to complain about. I think I've been very clear about this, and about making the relevant distinction.

          • David Nickol

            Do you think the authors of the OP are targeting [A], [B], or both, when it comes to the altruism study?

            It appears to me that Dr. Briggs was targeting (1) the altruism study, (2) the reception and reporting of the altruism study, and (3) to a certain extent, the social sciences themselves.

            Why is this relevant? You were 100% happy to let 'altruism' be defined as "score in the dictator game"—a definition many see as completely perverting the word 'altruism'

            I do not recall describing myself as "100% happy" about anything. What I said was the following:

            It may be true that they have vastly oversimplified the two concepts and made some sweeping conclusion, but the way altruism and religiosity are defined and measured in the study is quite clear. This may be wholly inadequate in "real life" or religious thought, but as far as I can tell (I am not big on reading these kinds of papers), the authors are perfectly straightforward in their definitions and their methodology.

            If that sounds to you like some kind of endorsement of the study, that was not my intention. I have not declared the altruism study a good study and the Regnerus study a bad study.

            It does seem to me, though, that the Regnerus study itself is very loose with the terms gay and lesbian. For example, in the abstract, Regnerus says:

            The results are typically robust in multivariate contexts as well, suggesting far greater diversity in lesbian-parent household experiences than convenience-sample studies of lesbian families have revealed.

            I suppose one might argue that there is an implicit definition of lesbian-parent as the mother of a child in the study who at some point, while living with the child, had a relationship with another woman. But as I have argued, a woman who has a sexual relationship with another woman is not necessarily a lesbian. Also, what are lesbian families? As I have pointed out before, even Regnerus himself acknowledges a mistake in designating the parents in the study "gay fathers" and "lesbian mothers."

            But perhaps more importantly, your questions to me seem to imply that I should approach every study in the social sciences with the same level of criticism. I don't think Dr. Briggs or Jane the Actuary called the altruism study "crap" and "garbage" (respectively) because they thought it was, judged solely by its statistical methods, among the worst they had ever seen. It was because they were offended by implied criticisms of religion in the study that they apparently considered some kind of threat. From my point of view, the altruism study (funded by a pro-religion foundation) is utterly trivial and of no threat to parents who want to raise their children in a religious environment. I really doubt that you will see it seized upon by atheist or anti-religious organizations to somehow get parents to give up their "religiosity" for the sake of their chidren's "altruism." Even though the news accounts I read seemed to accept the findings of the study uncritically, I rather suspect that the average reader reacted to the study as described in the news media with much the same contempt as Dr. Briggs or Jane the Actuary.

            However, the Regnerus study (funded by a conservative organization that campaigns against gay rights), even if not problematic itself (which it was), was seized upon by other anti-gay organizations in their battle against gay rights in general and same-sex marriage in particular. There are millions and millions of people out there who are more than ready to think the worst of gay people, who already think they shouldn't marry or raise children, and who will take the Regnerus study as a confirmation of their own prejudices.

          • If that sounds to you like some kind of endorsement of the study, that was not my intention.

            No, my point was that you seemed to:

                 (A) accept the operationalization of 'altruism'
                 (B) reject the operationalization of 'gay parent'

            Even though in both cases, the operationalization of the word made it out to be something extremely different from what a person would generally understand when that word is employed. This seems like a double standard.

            But as I have argued, a woman who has a sexual relationship with another woman is not necessarily a lesbian.

            Can you see a similar argument being used to criticize the dictator game as 'necessarily' indicating anything related to how some people understand 'altruism'?

            Also, what are lesbian families? As I have pointed out before, even Regnerus himself acknowledges a mistake in designating the parents in the study "gay fathers" and "lesbian mothers."

            My understanding is that he admitted that it's actually not right to nominalistically operationalize words, which is opposed to your own stance.

            But perhaps more importantly, your questions to me seem to imply that I should approach every study in the social sciences with the same level of criticism.

            This is relative to expectations and purposes, so it's not clear what you're even saying, here.

            It was because they were offended by implied criticisms of religion in the study that they apparently considered some kind of threat.

            Yes, because when an article like that is popularized—or, when thousands of articles like that are popularized—with nominalistically operationalized words, or other nonsense, you get the phenomenon described in The Psychology of Religion, Fourth Edition: An Empirical Approach (recommended to my by atheist James Lindsay):

                Serious defects that often stemmed from antireligious perspectives exist in many early studies of relationships between religion and psychopathology. The more modern view is that religion functions largely as a means of countering rather than contributing to psychopathology, though severe forms of unhealthy religion will probably have serious psychological and perhaps even physical consequences. In most instances, faith buttresses people's sense of control and self-esteem, offers meanings that oppose anxiety, provides hope, sanctions socially facilitating behavior, enhances personal well-being, and promotes social integration. Probably the most hopeful sign is the increasing recognition by both clinicians and religionists of the potential benefits each group has to contribute. Awareness of the need for a spiritual perspective has opened new and more constructive possibilities for working with mentally disturbed individuals and resolving adaptive issues. (476)

            A study doesn't have to be a huge deal all by itself to have a negative impact. One can be murdered by a thousand nicks as well as one properly placed sword thrust. Surely you've seen talk about 'microagressions' as of late, and while some of it is surely nonsense (e.g. seeing Einstein's face in the noise), not all is. Nonlocalized, thousand-nicks discrimination is quite effective. Just twist the meaning of a word here, pervert it over there, and you can get somewhere in the long term.

            However, the Regnerus study (funded by a conservative organization that campaigns against gay rights), even if not problematic itself (which it was), was seized upon by other anti-gay organizations in their battle against gay rights in general and same-sex marriage in particular. There are millions and millions of people out there who are more than ready to think the worst of gay people, who already think they shouldn't marry or raise children, and who will take the Regnerus study as a confirmation of their own prejudices.

            Sure, but how much of this is the responsibility of Regnerus, and how much of it should be used to say that the Regnerus study itself was [significantly?] worse than average? The alternative would be to attack how science is popularized. But I don't see that being done. It's like folks cannot, or will not, properly deconvolve the processes and causes and effects.

          • From my point of view, the altruism study (funded by a pro-religion foundation) is utterly trivial and of no threat to parents who want to raise their children in a religious environment. I really doubt that you will see it seized upon by atheist or anti-religious organizations to somehow get parents to give up their "religiosity" for the sake of their chidren's "altruism." Even though the news accounts I read seemed to accept the findings of the study uncritically, I rather suspect that the average reader reacted to the study as described in the news media with much the same contempt as Dr. Briggs or Jane the Actuary.

            Does the following at all change your opinion:

            Robert Woodberry: “Religious Children are Meaner than Their Secular Counterparts” proclaimed a headline in the Guardian. “Religious Kids are Jerks” raved the Daily Beast. Hundreds of other newspapers and blogs touted similar articles: the Economist, Forbes, Good Housekeeping, the LA Times, The Independent. All these articles were based on a 4 ½ page research note in Current Biology by University of Chicago professor Jean Decety and six other scholars.

            ? I will note that you carefully qualified which negative effects would not be endured from this study being popularized in the way it was, with:

            (1) an idiosyncratic, operationalized definition of 'altruism' being taken as equivalent to the popular conception of 'altruism'

            (2) a confusion between 'religious parent' and 'religious child' (the study measured the former, not the latter)

            Perhaps it would be wise to relax "which damage", and merely ask if "significant damage" will be incurred. I would like you to record your thoughts for the future, to make a prediction which, if falsified, will actually cause a change in your belief structure, in the belief structure which caused you to form the "it's not a big deal[, damage-wise]" opinion you seem to hold.

      • Lazarus

        The study is so poorly done, with so little apparent concern for sound scientific principles, that I for one have my doubts about the study's objectivity. See also Jane the Actuary's piece on it at Patheos Catholic.

        • Ignatius Reilly

          Which doesn't meant that the study was rigged. The funding source would have indicated that the study should have been rigged the other way.

          Link to the Jane the Actuary's piece?

          I'm not sure I consider the study poorly done with little concern for scientific principles. There is a middle ground here.

          • Lazarus

            It's over on Patheos Catholic.

            http://www.patheos.com/blogs/janetheactuary/2015/11/about-that-generous-atheist-kids-study.html

            The most neutral position I can agree with would be that the study is incomplete, unsatisfying, unreliable and of no practical use.

            I say again that I am not arguing for the converse of the finding, that somehow the children of religious parents are more compassionate. I am saying that this study takes the question not much further.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            It is okay to have a small beginning. Every study doesn't have to be revolutionary

          • Lazarus

            In general I agree. With the loaded arguments that we see bandied about in religion though, and the potential for cherry-picking and misuse that this conclusion brings about, I would have liked to see a bit more rigor and accuracy.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            Isn't that the fault of people who misuse the research and not the actual researchers?

            For instance, if Jane is correct, this study could be redone using only children from one culture. This would invalidate her objection. If we see the same correlations, we could then try alternate ways of measuring altruism and alternate ways of measuring religiosity.

          • Lazarus

            You have my thoughts on the study. People who misuse this, or any other study, would certainly deserve their share of blame. Let's however not stray too far away from what is a poor and, I would say, irresponsible study.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            I guess we just shouldn't study religion in general, because people might misuse the conclusions or people may bandy about loaded arguments.The study is not poor and it is not irresponsible. It is a beginning for future research. Research should not be beholden to the poor state of public discourse.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            The contention is not that it was rigged, although the chief author seems to be on record as anticipating and approving of the interpretation he put on the result. It is only that from a statistical point of view the "study," like so many in the voodoo sciences, is crapola.

          • David Nickol

            It is only that from a statistical point of view the "study," like so many in the voodoo sciences, is crapola.

            It would be informative, then, to get somebody with a Ph.D. in statistics to explain why.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Briggs has one.

          • David Nickol

            Yes, I know.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            This came as a great surprise to me. His objections are not those of someone who has a great deal of experience in statistics or this type of research.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            It is only that from a statistical point of view the "study," like so many in the voodoo sciences, is crapola.

            Sigh. Briggs gives us zero reason to believe that the study is voodoo science and crap. I view studies like this as a baseline for further research. I am not going to claim that non-religious children are more altruistic. I am not going to write a sarcastic OP with zero substance and plenty of snark. If I ran a website devoted to respectful dialogue, I would never have posted the Briggs piece. If I ran a website devoted to interesting and insightful bloggers, I would never post a Briggs piece.

            I think I'm going to take a break from this site. I'm not interested in the sorts of articles that we have been gifted lately.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            I view studies like this as a baseline for further research.

            It isn't, though. It's just publication mongering. It is so methodologically ill-conceived that a real scientist would blush. Look at the correlation coefficients, for truth's sake. Who one earth beside a social "scientist" would think them worth reporting? Because a parameter test said that are "significantly" different from r=0? (making various assumptions about models).

            There were plenty of statistical comments on Brigg's blog from people who understood and engaged. For example, here:
            http://wmbriggs.com/post/17238/#comment-145727
            or here:
            http://wmbriggs.com/post/17238/#comment-145823

          • Ignatius Reilly

            Do I think this study has great methodology? No. Do I think the study could possibly be improved by more careful researchers? Yes.

            When you do research you report what you find. A null result is still helpful. An uncertain result can still be helpful. There is a greater deal of uncertainty in the social sciences.

            So, in order to get anything interesting out of Brigg's blogs I have to read the comments?

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Or you would have to be cognizant of the statistical issues. I don't think his essay really belongs here, since it was about statistical issues rather than religious. The only religious aspect was the authors' hyped conclusions.

            And possibly per-conceived conclusions:
            http://www.forbes.com/sites/jvchamary/2015/11/05/religion-morality/2/

            Or his scientificalisitc conclusion:

            More generally, [these results] call into question whether religion is vital for moral development, supporting the idea that the secularization of moral discourse will not reduce human kindness—in fact, it will do just the opposite.

            in which you will note he pretends that he has measured far more than he actually has.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            Or you would have to be cognizant of the statistical issues. I don't
            think his essay really belongs here, since it was about statistical
            issues rather than religious.

            Which is supposedly the point of this piece. To make us cognizant of the statistical issues. I don't have the inclination to examine these types of studies. Briggs could have a valuable little blog (essays are written by the likes of Montaigne) if he cut back on the sarcasm and wrote real analysis.

            Wouldn't a null result evidence your quotation?

          • David Nickol

            Who one earth beside a social "scientist" would think them worth reporting?

            What is clouding the discussion, in my opinion, is the implication that fields like sociology are pseudoscience and sociologists are charlatans. If that is the case, there is no difference between a good study and a bad one, so what is the point of discussing the study at hand? It's like arguing about whether the daily horoscope is better in the New York Daily News or USA Today.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            That's a good point; though I would say "charlatan" is going too far. Most soft "scientists" are guilty of no more than physics envy. They dress up in white lab coats and imitate the outward forms of the natural sciences. But the variables they investigate are not "out there" like velocity or mass or valence.

            What is the point? Way too many people take the stuff way too seriously -- as if these conclusions really were scientific.

          • David Nickol

            What is the point? Way too many people take the stuff way too seriously -- as if these conclusions really were scientific.

            Yes, I think there is a real danger that, as a result of this study, now millions and millions of parents around the world will reign in their religiosity for fear their children will be stingy when it comes to sharing stickers.

          • David Nickol

            Link to the Jane the Actuary's piece?

            Jane the Actuary disagrees with Dr. Briggs's conclusion that the study "stinks" and is "crap." She says it is "garbage."

          • Ignatius Reilly

            Jane's objections could be overcome by simply doing the same study with people out of the same culture. Would Jane object to the methodology?

            If not, this study is not garbage, because it sets up a baseline for future research.

          • David Nickol

            I am no expert on analyzing this kind of study, but if stronger correlations for "altruism" are obtained by grouping the children by culture or country of origin than by "religiosity" of parents, then the study is either seriously flawed and/or dishonest. But if this issue occurred to Jane the Actuary, one hopes it occurred to those who reviewed the study for publication. Surely the authors of the study have the data that would either confirm or refute Jane's criticisms.

  • Paul Brandon Rimmer

    It's studies like this that make me think Feynman was right about certain 'other fields' than physics. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EYPapE-3FRw&t=5m9s

    • That's Enlightenment mythology. There is such a thing as:

           (1) more vague than physics
           (2) less vague than unfalsifiable

      This is not a null set. However, there are significant obstacles to overcome, as Kenneth Gergen points out in Toward Transformation in Social Knowledge, as Richard J. Bernstein points out in Beyond Objectivism and Relativism, and as we see in the introduction to Interpretive Social Science: A Second Look:

          The time seems ripe, even overdue, to announce that there is not going to be an age of paradigm in the social sciences. We contend that the failure to achieve paradigm takeoff is not merely the result of methodological immaturity, but reflects something fundamental about the human world. If we are correct, the crisis of social science concerns the nature of social investigation itself. The conception of the human sciences as somehow necessarily destined to follow the path of the modern investigation of nature is at the root of this crisis. Preoccupation with that ruling expectation is chronic in social science; that idée fixe has often driven investigators away from a serious concern with the human world into the sterility of purely formal argument and debate. As in development theory, one can only wait so long for the takeoff. The cargo-cult view of the "about to arrive science" just won't do. (5)

      Now, that was written after the positivist time of Feynman, but I suspect there were enough indicators for Feynman to know he was wrong. Humans navigate with ambiguous data all the time. Indeed, data in the biological sciences is becoming more vague over time, requiring hidden Markov models and Monte Carlo statistical techniques. The discovery of the Higgs boson itself was a remarkable feat in statistics; in the discovery speech, they told of how hard they had to work, to ensure that they weren't doing the equivalent of injecting Einstein's face into the data.

      • David Nickol

        That's Enlightenment mythology.

        The Enlightenment! Oh, that the world had never taken that fateful wrong turn!

      • Paul Brandon Rimmer

        I think you are using "vague" in two senses. Theories can be vague or data can be vague. If the theory is vague enough, any data can be used as evidence for it.

        The discovery of the Higgs Boson in noisy data is only possible because the theory of the Higgs Boson is not vague.

        A vague theory is not a good start, even when the data is clean. Vague theories with noisy data are nonsense, or in other words, sociology. ;)

        • If the theory is vague enough, any data can be used as evidence for it.

          Yes. You just agreed that the middle is not excluded:

          LB: There is such a thing as:

               (1) more vague than physics
               (2) less vague than unfalsifiable

          That was precisely my point.

          A vague theory is not a good start, even when the data is clean. Vague theories with noisy data are nonsense, or in other words, sociology. ;)

          Have you actually looked at state-of-the-art sociology? I actually know reasons for why a lot of it was bad; shall we discuss them? To start, I would heartily suggest reading the 3-page preface to Donald E. Polkinghorne's Narrative Knowing and the Human Sciences. This establishes that the "by-the-numbers" ontology of human being is utterly terrible, and a significant reason for why a great deal of human sciences research was terrible. We could also look at:

              The time seems ripe, even overdue, to announce that there is not going to be an age of paradigm in the social sciences. We contend that the failure to achieve paradigm takeoff is not merely the result of methodological immaturity, but reflects something fundamental about the human world. If we are correct, the crisis of social science concerns the nature of social investigation itself. The conception of the human sciences as somehow necessarily destined to follow the path of the modern investigation of nature is at the root of this crisis. Preoccupation with that ruling expectation is chronic in social science; that idée fixe has often driven investigators away from a serious concern with the human world into the sterility of purely formal argument and debate. As in development theory, one can only wait so long for the takeoff. The cargo-cult view of the "about to arrive science" just won't do. (Interpretive Social Science: A Second Look, 5)

          After that, Charles Taylor's 1971 Interpretation and the Sciences of Man (2000 'citations') would be good (it's also included in the above book).

          After that, Richard J. Bernstein's Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis would be a logical step.

          As you can perhaps see, I've done some reading related to sociology. I've also talked to a sociologist in his 70s, who told me that one reason sociology has sucked is that sociologists turn up dirt that makes the authorities look bad, and they tell the sociologists to back off. He himself was told that multiple times! Somehow, I don't think "more science" will solve this particular problem...

          • Paul Brandon Rimmer

            I think I'm too prejudiced against sociology for the discussion to be worthwhile, and too busy to really read anything about sociology.

            I think Feynman also leaves room for the middle region. You need to quantify love, but the range can be enormous! So long as the error bars are small enough that the data can lie outside the predictions.

          • Do you believe that any facts, within the domain of sociologists, are true? That is, do you have beliefs in the domain which sociologists consider to be where they are best at examining reality? How confident are you in these beliefs? You seem like an unusual person so this generalization may not apply, but I find that many folks who disparage sociology simultaneously hold beliefs at odds with social science research. :-|

            You might be right about Feynman, but he seemed pretty binary in his speaking, as if one has to be like physics to have the possibility of aiming at truth. My best man, a longtime faculty member at Caltech, was on multiple thesis committees with Feynman. When I next see him (this weekend), I will ask him about this matter. :-)

          • Paul Brandon Rimmer

            That is, do you have beliefs in the domain which sociologists consider to be where they are best at examining reality?

            Yes. For example, the belief that a child's future trajectory in life is determined largely by genetics, and not much at all by how they were raises. Also, that children grow up happier and healthier with a more hands-off approach (although, ultimately, it doesn't matter much, because of the genetics reason).

            How confident are you in these beliefs?

            Not at all. Interestingly, I got both of these from an economist getting interviewed on the Rationally Speaking podcast. He was looking over sociology and psychology studies to get his results. It was interesting. Not very convincing to me, but interesting.

          • Yes. For example, the belief that a child's future trajectory in life is determined largely by genetics, and not much at all by how they were raises. Also, that children grow up happier and healthier with a more hands-off approach (although, ultimately, it doesn't matter much, because of the genetics reason).

            Can you explain how you have attempted to falsify both these beliefs? I point you to this sociological research:

                The presumption that one knows exactly what modernity is all about rests, in turn, on the deceptions of familiarity. An individual is generally ready to admit that he is ignorant of periods in the past or places on the other side of the globe. But he is much less likely to admit ignorance of his own period and his own place, especially if he is an intellectual. Everyone, of course, knows about his own society. Most of what he knows, however, is what Alfred Schutz has aptly called 'recipe knowledge'—just enough to get him through his essential transactions in social life. Intellectuals have a particular variety of 'recipe knowledge'; they know just enough to be able to get through their dealings with other intellectuals. There is a 'recipe knowledge' for dealing with modernity in intellectual circles: the individual must be able to reproduce a small number of stock phrases and interpretive schemes, to apply them in 'analysis' or 'criticism' of new things that come up in discussion, and thereby to authenticate his participation in what has been collectively defined as reality in these circles. Statistically speaking, the scientific validity of this intellectuals' 'recipe knowledge' is roughly random. The only safe course is to ignore it as much as one can if (for better or for worse) one moves in intellectual circles. Put simply: one must, as far as possible, examine the problem afresh. (The Homeless Mind, 12)

            :-|

          • Paul Brandon Rimmer

            I don't think these beliefs are very scientific. The guy I listened to talked about twin studies and adopted kids studies. It seemed like too many variables involved to falsify anything.

            But it agrees with my common sense. However reliable that is. I don't know how to falsify it.

          • I don't think these beliefs are very scientific.

            Sorry, which beliefs? Those espoused in my excerpt, or yours?

            The guy I listened to talked about twin studies and adopted kids studies. It seemed like too many variables involved to falsify anything.

            But then the results don't qualify as 'knowledge', do they?

            But it agrees with my common sense. However reliable that is. I don't know how to falsify it.

            Doesn't science specialize in testing common sense? For example: Milgram experiment § Results.

          • Paul Brandon Rimmer

            Mine and the guy I listened to. It is the best guess I have at the time.

          • Ahh, ok. My general experience is that when I advance:

                 (1) my own ideas
                 (2) which "are [not] very scientific"
                 (3) but instead "the best guess I have at the time"

            , I get chewed out for being 'wrong' in one way, another way, or multiple ways. You are fortunate to [apparently] not have that experience.

          • Paul Brandon Rimmer

            Some reasons I've avoided conflict over my opinions:

            I try to be honest about my uncertainty
            I'm uninterested in convincing others of my way of thinking on matters where I'm highly uncertain
            I respect that others may disagree with me

            This doesn't work for everyone. Sometimes people chew me out. If that happens, I tell those people I'm not interested in discussing the issue further and to go mind their own business.

            Conflict on these sorts of things is pretty minimal.

          • Interesting. Even after I learned all the protocol-words for expressing uncertainty and 'my opinion', the treatment I described has remained. Maybe I just didn't do it well enough, but I am increasingly suspecting that it has to do with the particular ideas which I advance.

          • Paul Brandon Rimmer

            Possibly, or maybe the way you advance them. If people keep bothering you about your own opinions, and you don't care to convince them to change their's, I recommend that you stop talking to them. Tell them to mind their own business and cut it off.

            Is this happening in real life or simply online? If it is happening mostly online, maybe it's a combination of the ideas and the audience.

          • It happens everywhere, IRL and online. On the other hand, I also attract people to me who love where I'm going with things, and help me take them further. For example, I got a non-Christian IRL interested in Alistair McFadyen's The Call to Personhood: A Christian Theory of the Individual in Social Relationships, via this excerpt:

                The doctrine of the fall means that the question of the right practice of relations (ethics) has to be relocated. The ethical question cannot be equated with possession of the knowledge of the difference between good and evil, for that is precisely the form of self-possession which led to the fall. Adam and Eve thought they could dispute what God's Word really meant, get behind it to judge both it and God.[35] The assumption that we have the capacity to know the difference between right and wrong and to act upon it is in itself and on its own already a corruption of the image. It isolates one from God and others because what is right for one and others is assumed to be already known. The assumption that one already knows what is right stops communication because no new information or external agency is necessary. In what follows I will describe the image and its redemption as a relational process of seeking what is right in openness to others and God and thereby to the fact that one's understanding and capacity are fundamentally in question.

            The choice between good and evil implies that people are already in touch with reality and their only task is its administration . . . The choice between good and evil calls elements within our environment into question: the real ethical question calls us into question.[36]

            Consequently the focus on our own possibilities is replaced by an emphasis on our need of, and thereby our relations with, God and others. (43–44)

            He met with me at the local coffee shop this morning and we got down and dirty with this and three other passages, establishing the concept that everyone has "a unique perspective on God" (the term poiēma might help), such that if everyone heeds McFadyen's advice above, they'll get:

            For the earth will be filled    with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD    as the waters cover the sea.(Habakkuk 2:14)

            via

            In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. (Eph 1:7–10)

            So, while I get a lot of crap, I also find solid gold, and a few others give me solid gold. I think I'm going to prefer crap + gold, over mediocrity. That might be a false dichotomy, but to make the dichotomy 'false' might take more skill than I currently have! By the way, said atheist might not be an atheist, but neither of us really knows. We went through faith without works and works without faith, which he appreciated. But still there is unknown. I suggested he pray for more fire to put himself out there more, despite the crap that he gets (kind of like the crap I describe getting, I think). He was a little weirded out about praying, but wants the additional fire enough that he'll probably work it out. I also told him that there are probably people better than I for teaching him how to pray. I can articulate passages like the above excerpt nicely, but other things I suck at.

        • Ignatius Reilly

          An Indian born economist once explained his personal theory of reincarnation to his graduate economics class. If you are a good economist, a virtuous economist,’ he said, ‘you are reborn as a physicist. But if you are an evil, wicked economist, you are reborn as a sociologist.A sociologist might say that this quote shows what is wrong with economists: they want a subject that is fundamentally about human beings to have the mathematical certainty of the hard sciences . . . . But good economists know that the speaker was talking about something else entirely: the sheer difficulty of the subject. Economics is harder than physics; luckily it is not quite as hard as sociology.-Paul Krugman

          The theory that Briggs referenced above (Religious people are more altruistic) is not irredeemably vague. Yes, it is predicated on what we mean by religious and what we mean by altruistic, but still it is something that we can study carefully.

          The real objection to the study is whether or not something like a dictator game can capture altruism. Briggs fails to make that objections and manages to mangle other scientific concepts.

          • Paul Brandon Rimmer

            You reincarnate to harder and harder subjects until, eventually, you get to subjects that are so hard, nobody knows anything. ;)

          • Ignatius Reilly

            When I took electronics, the physics department decided to help the psychology department with some kind of study that some students were doing for their graduating thesis. We had to answer a 25+ page questionnaire, and the question didn't seem very scientific to me. My professor didn't seem very impressed either, at least that is what I inferred form the look we exchanged after I turned the pager in after answering 2 questions.

  • David Lentini

    Thanks for covering this. I read the Guardian article and paper, but haven't had time to gird my loins to take this pièce de merde on. This article only shows that psychology had earned its title of "pseudoscience".

    The key, I suspect, is political. There is a growing push by the éites to destroy families and religion, especially Christianity and even more so Catholicism. Articles like this will soon show up at school boards and legislative hearings with calls from the "experts" to "save the children" by banning religious practices and taking children away from their parents.

    And did you note how the authors admit their conclusion is completely contradicted by history (i.e., lived human experience), but they conclude, of course, that history must therefore be wrong: "Who 'ya gonna believe? My p-values or yer lyin' eyes!"

  • Well, in another and less perfect world, suppose I was given what they told me was the 'golden rule' of all 'faiths': Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Unfortunately, feeling the imperfection of 'my' world, I really wish it would all end. However, in following the 'rule', I end up killing my neighbour and thereafter attempting to kill myself, after coming to an understanding that no one was going to do it for me. Upon my 'rehabilitation', although the diagnosis is that I am 'insane', I yet find myself in a more 'scientific' world, where I can discover the limitations of language, and yet still believe that I have indeed found a more perfect world because there is a more perfect rule: Love thy neighbour as thyself for the love of God. Surely, with such guidance, I will never ('do that') to myself or another again!

    This 'religious' paradigm of morality was questioned however, both with respect to it's external utility, *pragmatic self interest"and whether it was necessary in order to develop internal 'moral' 'virtue'.. Various alternative interpretations were suggested: that such aspirations as Truth, Wisdom, even Science? should/would/could be that which is aspired to, rather than God. Indeed, I was assured that because these concepts were less 'vague', they would consequently lead to a more altruistic love of one's neighbour. Indeed, many advised that love of neighbour had to be given a priority, even to 'love of self'. if one were to be 'truly' altruistic..Such was the scientific,pragmatic, perhaps behaviorist viewpoint, as I was able understand it. I merely thought back to the interpretation that could be given to the 'do onto others' rule, and began to realize how little I really understood, or perhaps 'knew' my neighbour even within a 'pragmatic' context..

    Yet, as an alternative, if I were to be 'purely religious', surely 'love' didn't necessarily entail 'being in the world' at all. Indeed how could my 'inner world' ever be transparent to 'anyone' (and indeed, could the 'idea/reality' of God, evolve from an 'awareness' that consciousness is not evidently knowable through external observation?) Indeed, within a 'scientific' or a 'statistical' analysis how could those intentions, many of which are not within one's own awareness, be documented, and the results applied not only within the context of scientific 'generalities' but with regards to specific individuals.. Would such suggestions of a 'privacy of conscience' allow me to feel safe and secure within my 'person', even under the watchful eye of the scientific objectivity found within the sciences of psychology, directed to a 'classification' rather than an experiential understanding of my 'subjectivity'' Indeed, perhaps I could avoid the dictator games of science, in the same way that the 'religious' might learn to avoid the 'devil'. Or perhaps it would be possible to 'do' the 'right thing', in order to meet the criteria of psychological examinations, as long as I didn't indulge in my propensity for irony/sarcasm/satire, which could indeed be considered blasphemous, even without an overt acknowledgement of the existence of any 'God'. Yet, a compensating 'people pleasing' also could surely not meet the criteria of a scientifically based altruism. . Within such a heuristic enterprise as undertaken in a 'gay science' of 'life', the lessons needed to be learned in order to develop a correct methodology, would surely be as difficult for the scientist as they are within possibly a more 'abstract' context in which imitation and role modeling exemplify the 'rule' within the 'religious' community.

    Perhaps it was a matter of definition: if I could learn to sort out the possibly 'non-worldly' agape from various definitions of 'brotherly love- (may you supply the correct Latin term); as well as distinguish a Humean sentimentality, from....., (well actually getting involved with eros did lead to a bit of trouble, but that would be another topic), I could indeed develop the mapping needed for a 'scientific awareness' of the interior territory of my mind. Though, science often affirmed that I was indeed living in what was described as an idealized perfect world, made possible through mathematics, I was still tempted to think that it could be even a more perfect world, if only Aristotelean or Thomistic philosophy, could solve my problem of choosing between alternative paradigms of altruism, (whether and when I might follow the rules of duty or the rules of love within any particular context, and when, and how these rules could even be regarded as either principles or mere platitudes) through argument alone.

    Perhaps, the scientists and/or atheists, (who I often find are as fond of argument as is the case in other forms of evangelization), could give me some assurance that we all live to some degree within the reciprocity of a 'true' altruism. Perhaps the hypothetical and propositional logic can be more productive than those ancient syllogisms. Yet, it can be as difficult to be judged according to the 'standards' of particular scientific theories as it is to endure the guilt and shame often entailed in learning to 'bear one's cross' . It is also difficult to develop an appreciation of the needs and abilities of particular individuals, at particular times, and within the ever-flowing possibilities of unique circumstance.. Perhaps science is truly attempting to understand, without bias, without self-righteousness, what makes us 'human', and/or capable of 'suffering the divine' (yes, I did appreciate reading that analogy in a recent post!) Perhaps life truly is fundamentally based on a need to develop an 'adequate' methodology, whether scientific or religious..The possible 'danger' is that some day we will no longer say 'Only God Knows' but rather 'Only Science Knows', as perhaps would be the case if there was a complete accord with respect to an acceptance of today's post..

    Edit: As usual I edited, and re-edited, again and again, because I find I never 'say it right'. I've probably said too much, and possibly my use of irony is a 'crutch' for not being up to par with those epistemological parameters that seem to set the standard for examining both religious and scientific 'ontologies'.. Anyway, I love the challenge of reading these posts. I would have no other way, for instance, of finding access to some of the 'countless links', that might prove to be a realized opportunity to learn something about 'science. Unfortunately, I'll never be able to read, let alone 'know' or understand it all. Altruistically, if not authentically, I remain "yours" !!!!??.

  • ferlalf

    Nice review. I think more detailed criticisms would be great.

  • See also sociologist George Yancey's Fatal Flaws in that Religion and Generosity Study, with comments on his blog entry. Among other books, Yancey is the publisher of:

    Compromising Scholarship: Religious and Political Bias in American Higher Education
    So Many Christians, So Few Lions: Is There Christianophobia in the United States?

    He is also a contributor to the relatively new website Heterodox Academy, which looks at political, religious, and ideological bias in the human sciences. Steven Pinker is also listed as a contributor. To bolster the charge of bias, such that it might apply to the study being discussed, see the following from The Psychology of Religion, Fourth Edition: An Empirical Approach (recommended to my by atheist James Lindsay):

        Serious defects that often stemmed from antireligious perspectives exist in many early studies of relationships between religion and psychopathology. The more modern view is that religion functions largely as a means of countering rather than contributing to psychopathology, though severe forms of unhealthy religion will probably have serious psychological and perhaps even physical consequences. In most instances, faith buttresses people's sense of control and self-esteem, offers meanings that oppose anxiety, provides hope, sanctions socially facilitating behavior, enhances personal well-being, and promotes social integration. Probably the most hopeful sign is the increasing recognition by both clinicians and religionists of the potential benefits each group has to contribute. Awareness of the need for a spiritual perspective has opened new and more constructive possibilities for working with mentally disturbed individuals and resolving adaptive issues.
        A central theme throughout this book is that religion "works" because it offers people meaning and control, and brings them together with like-thinking others who provide social support. This theme is probably nowhere better represented than in the section of this chapter on how people use religious and spiritual resources to cope. Religious beliefs, experiences, and practices appear to constitute a system of meanings that can be applied to virtually every situation a person may encounter. People are loath to rely on chance. Fate and luck are poor referents for understanding, but religion in all its possible manifestations can fill the void of meaninglessness admirably. There is always a place for one's God—simply watching, guiding, supporting, or actively solving a problem. In other words, when people need to gain a greater measure of control over life events, the deity is there to provide the help they require. (476)

    • David Nickol

      Thanks for providing the link to the Yancey article. Would that the OP were something along those lines. It is not perfectly clear to me whether Dr. Briggs is saying this is a bad study, or that the social sciences simply can't say anything about altruism or religiosity: "First, define altruism. Go on, I’ll wait. . . . Now define 'religiosity' for kids. I’ll wait again."

      I have a book that I confess I haven't read but am tempted to dig out and consult called Experiments in Ethics by Kwame Anthony Appiah. The promotional text (probably from the flap copy) on Amazon says in part:

      Some moral theorists hold that the realm of morality must be
      autonomous of the sciences; others maintain that science undermines the
      authority of moral reasons. Appiah elaborates a vision of naturalism
      that resists both temptations. He traces an intellectual genealogy of
      the burgeoning discipline of "experimental philosophy," provides a
      balanced, lucid account of the work being done in this controversial and
      increasingly influential field, and offers a fresh way of thinking
      about ethics in the classical tradition.

      Appiah urges that the relation between empirical research and morality, now so often antagonistic, should be seen in terms of dialogue, not contest. And he shows how experimental philosophy, far from being something new, is actually as old as philosophy itself. Beyond illuminating debates about the connection between psychology and ethics, intuition and theory, his book helps us to rethink the very nature of the philosophical enterprise.

      Anecdote: One day I returned from my lunch hour with a copy I had just bought of Hans Kung's Does God Exist? which is a hefty, 840-page tome. One of my co-workers who saw the book asked, "What is his answer?" I said, "It says here on the flap that his answer is yes." My co-worker said, "I would have just bought the flap."

      • I get that the OP is what I call "binarified" (binary-ified), but that doesn't mean you can extract nothing good out of it. It just means that it is an approximation to a possibly-valid argument, and you've gotta figure it out. It also may be an in-style response to the simplifications that pop out of the science news cycle, but also the peer-reviewed article's usage of the term 'altruism', largely simpliciter. That seems like sloppy writing, honestly. Where is the study that tests whether the dictator game well-represents what your average reader of this article will understand as 'altruism'? I think the first bit of the last paragraph of the article is egregious:

        Overall, our findings cast light on the cultural input of religion on prosocial behavior and contradict the common-sense and popular assumption that children from religious households are more altruistic and kind toward others.

        Here, the word 'altruism' is supposed to mean something much more than what is revealed by the dictator game. Right? This sentence is predicated upon the dictator game being representative of what the intended recipients of this article would understand as 'altruism'. The second half of the paragraph:

        More generally, they call into question whether religion is vital for moral development, supporting the idea that the secularization of moral discourse will not reduce human kindness—in fact, it will do just the opposite [29].

        Clearly, this is intended to push for the secularization theory. It's a wonderful example of what sociologist Christian Smith describes in his The Sacred Project of American Sociology. It's also hideously ideological, in that "human kindness" requires two things:

             (A) altruism (Christianity says 'grace' and 'mercy')
             (B) justice, e.g. avoiding harming other people

        Actually, Nicholas Wolterstorff argues in Justice: Rights and Wrongs that the Hebrew notion of 'justice' includes 'charity'. But anyhow, the study here shows that religion is correlated with (B), and I think any sane person will see that (B) is required for "human kindness". And yet, the paper indicates that "less religion" ⇒ "more human kindness"!

        What kind of hogwash is this?

        ———

        I have a book that I confess I haven't read but am tempted to dig out and consult called Experiments in Ethics by Kwame Anthony Appiah.

        I'm all for x-phi. We still have to deal with isought, but knowing how most people actually believe (and act—the two can be divorced) would be beneficial. You might like Eric Schwitzgebel's On Aiming for Moral Mediocrity and especially his Aeon article Cheeseburger ethics, where he reports that professional ethicists are no more ethical, on average, than other people.

        Anecdote: One day I returned from my lunch hour with a copy I had just bought of Hans Kung's Does God Exist, which is a hefty, 840-page tome. One of my co-workers who saw the book asked, "What is his answer?" I said, "It says here on the flap that his answer is yes." My co-worker said, "I would have just bought the flap."

        Heh. I think you might like Noam Chomsky's lecture, "The machine, the ghost, and the limits of understanding"[1]. One of the things he points out is that in the last few hundred years, we've been dissolving questions into nothingness, so that our idea of what might possibly be answerable has been shrinking. I'm reminded of the Star Trek TNG episode Remember Me, where Beverly Crusher finds herself in a shrinking universe. Harry Blamires gets at this phenomenon:

            The puritan would straightway point out that these three writers have been branded as obscene. By that fact alone perhaps one can measure the tragedy of their alignment against the Church. For each of the three has, in his own way, brought a keen imaginative penetration to bear upon the grotesque griefs and helpless endeavours of twentieth-century man. Each of them has got to grips with man's lostness, his bewilderment, his rootlessness. If you wish to meet, at a level of deep compassion and tenderness, with the soul of modern man, face to face with all the baffling paraphernalia of contemporary civilization, turn to Beckett's novels and to his plays. Nowhere more poignantly yet humorously are we searched out and known. Here, on a knife-edge between laughter and tears, one lives through an aching yet farcical bewilderment which lacks even the clarity of doubt, the rudder of defined uncertainty. For this angst, unrealized and unfaced, is no more than a frowning crease on the forehead and a curling smile about the mouth. Yet it is fathoms deeper than the intellectual's crude scepticism or the shallow chop-logic of the discussion group. Here is a bafflement of the soul—an inner cluelessness prior to that state of organized interrogation at which one can ask: "What is the meaning of life? What is the purpose of anything?" Here is a primitive lostness which allows for nothing so confident as a question (for to ask a question is to presuppose a possible answer, a system of logic, a rationale at the back of things). Here one fumbles for the very means of utterance. There is nothing so articulate as doubt. (The Christian Mind, 10)

        There's something quite intense about only being able to ask a question if you have some hope of answering it. I want to examine that phenomenon more.

        [1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D5in5EdjhD0

        • David Nickol

          I get that the OP is what I call "binarified" (binary-ified), but that doesn't mean you can extract nothing good out of it. It just means that it is an approximation to a possibly-valid argument, and you've gotta figure it out.

          I am sorry, but the OP—which on Dr. Briggs's own site is titled Here’s Why That Study Claiming Religious Kids Are Less Altruistic Stinks—is crude, sarcastic, and uninformative. Let's just take one example:

          After that, “Children completed a moral sensitivity task programmed in E-prime 2.0 and presented on ASUS T101MT Touchscreen computers…” My goodness! How scientific! An ASUS T101MT! Just think how dramatically the results might have changed had they used an ASUS ROG G752! Or an ACER C910-C37P!

          Fair, valid, or relevant criticism of the study and its results? You could mock any paper in this manner.

          It is in no way clear to me whether the author is attempting to discredit this particular study or any attempt by the social sciences to measure such things as altruism and "religiosity," although it seems like the latter. It may be true that they have vastly oversimplified the two concepts and made some sweeping conclusion, but the way altruism and religiosity are defined and measured in the study is quite clear. This may be wholly inadequate in "real life" or religious thought, but as far as I can tell (I am not big on reading these kinds of papers), the authors are perfectly straightforward in their definitions and their methodology.

          By the way, nobody has pointed out that the study was funded by that notorious organization that attempts to destroy all that is good, and true, and Christian in the world—the John Templeton Foundation! What more proof do we need of anti-Christian bias???

          • Let's just take one example:

            After that, “Children completed a moral sensitivity task programmed in E-prime 2.0 and presented on ASUS T101MT Touchscreen computers…” My goodness! How scientific! An ASUS T101MT! Just think how dramatically the results might have changed had they used an ASUS ROG G752! Or an ACER C910-C37P!

            Fair, valid, or relevant criticism of the study and its results? You could mock any paper in this manner.

            Yep, that's egregiously stupid. However, I prefer to take a person's best criticisms, not his/her worst criticisms. Plenty of people make dumbass criticisms.

            It may be true that they have vastly oversimplified the two concepts and made some sweeping conclusion, but the way altruism and religiosity are defined and measured in the study is quite clear.

            I was quite careful, to ask whether the word 'altruistic' was used in a way such that the communication to the intended audience of the paper is accurate. I carefully deconvolved this from the science news cycle. If you want, we can talk about whether weird-ass operationalized definitions of words are perfectly A-OK; it maybe that it's just standard to do this. I am inclined to say that it risks doing violence to the integrity of words, though. The result of such violence is confused thinking. For example, it may enhance clarity of human thought (based on human psychology) to say 'dg-altruism' instead of 'altruism', in this case.

            However, there is a way in which something completely unacceptable has happened, and that is how the research has been communicated to the public. It is beyond insane to expect the public to read 'altruistic' and appropriately redefine that word to mean "the output of the dictator game". I almost want to call this 'evil', because it is either intent to deceive the public, or gross negligence which ends up deceiving the public.

            By the way, nobody has pointed out that the study was funded by that notorious organization that attempts to destroy all that is good, and true, and Christian in the world—the John Templeton Foundation! What more proof do we need of anti-Christian bias???

            Actually, this is evidence that the John Templeton Foundation isn't as much of a 'taint' to research it funds than some folks seem to think. :-|

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Yep, that's egregiously stupid

            Nah. It's simply a mockery of an egregiously stupid scientificalistic-sounding statement by the authors of the paper. What is accomplished by stating what brand of computer was used to crunch the data? The task was "programmed in E-prime 2.0 and presented on ASUS T101MT Touchscreen computers." Really? There may be times when a scientist will need to specify the device he used to process his data -- whether he used Excel or Minitab, for example -- but usually not. It just sounded like unrequited technophilia on the part of sociologists.

          • I guess I'm a bit more sensitive to details, since my wife has gotten repeatedly burned by biophysicists and biochemists not specifying enough detail. I likewise have been burned by insufficient/​wrong details when trying to get an STM32F407 up and going. Grr!

            I will trust the person who (i) has the requisite competence; (ii) has looked to see if the details in this case were actually required, or instead used for hifalutin purposes. You have appropriately weakened my [now prior] agreement with David Nickol, and introduced more uncertainty. Pedantry for the win no?

          • LMyFirstLetter

            Funny thing, they spend very few words on how they took the sample, which from the little that can be understood was not random, not representative.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Strictly speaking:not even a sample, but a "chunk." See Cochran or Deming on Sampling Theory.

            And then they drew inferences about people in general!!!

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            the way altruism and religiosity are defined and measured in the study is quite clear

            Oh, the way in which they were defined was clear. What was not clear was whether they actually defined altruism and religiosity.

          • Strictly speaking, a nominalist doesn't care about the matter you've described. Words are just tools.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Except that the authors insisted that they were talking about altruism and religiosity and not about sticker-sharing and parents' reports. Did any of the children intend to share their stickers with their siblings and neighbors rather than trust that the shady researchers really would pass those stickers on to other kids "who could not play the game with us today." Did the researchers actually pass out those "shared" stickers? Did some kids withhold stickers on the suspicion that the researchers would not do so? Does the number of shared stickers represent the degree to which the kids gave a rat's patoot about stickers at all? (If one thinks stickers are worthless crap, one might be inclined to "share" all of therm.)

            Basically, the measured thing had nothing to do with altruism, but the authors (who may also have been nominalists) wrote as if it did.

          • Except that the authors insisted that they were talking about altruism and religiosity and not about sticker-sharing and parents' reports.

            The true nominalist doesn't care if [s]he uses a word to mean X in one location, and Y in another location. The true nominalist eschews the very existence of natural kinds. To the true nominalist, 'similarity' is merely a construct of the mind, with zero guarantee that said construct exists 'out there'. Roger Olson rails about nominalism is the most focused way yet in his blog post yesterday, The “Catastrophe of Nominalism”. I left a comment where I somewhat object, where I push "open transcendentals".

            Basically, the measured thing had nothing to do with altruism, but the authors (who may also have been nominalists) wrote as if it did.

            Agree. But that's because I reject nominalism. I also reject [traditional] realism about universals, and instead think that Colin E. Gunton's "open transcendentals" are the best way to think about the matter of meaning and reference. But anyhow, the key is to reject nominalism. Until you do that, the atheists have you in their pocket. (Yes, the scary atheists who regularly cause me to shiver me timbers.)

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            The true nominalist doesn't care if [s]he uses a word to mean X in one location, and Y in another location.

            But the true statistician does; especially if he is trying not to mislead readers. Unless by "reader" in one location you mean "watermelon" in another.

            To the true nominalist, 'similarity' is merely a construct of the mind

            Although one may wonder whether there is something "out there" in virtue of which the mind finds a similarity.

          • But the true statistician does; especially if he is trying not to mislead readers. Unless by "reader" in one location you mean "watermelon" in another.

            I like watermelons.

            Although one may wonder whether there is something "out there" in virtue of which the mind finds a similarity.

            BURN IT!

      • Ye Olde Statistician

        It is not perfectly clear to me whether Dr. Briggs is saying this is a
        bad study, or that the social sciences simply can't say anything about
        altruism or religiosity:

        A lot of the first, a bit of the second. Sociology simply is not a science in the Scientific Revolution/Enlightenment sense. That does not mean there can be no rigorous study of people in large groups; only that it is not "science" in the way physics, chemistry, and most of biology are sciences. But no one says "science" is the only way of knowing.

        It takes more than wearing a white lab coat and imitating the outward forms of science to change cargo-cultism into science. Even the very objects of study are themselves acts of interpretation, contingent on a collection of arbitrary reductions and dubious categorizations. Even the observations are not and cannot be objective. A questionnaire is not an "instrument," no matter how often that term is used.

        But the study seems so badly conceived and the results so over-interpreted that it also qualifies as badly done even in the generous context of social "science." Consider that you cannot make inferences from a sample to a population unless the sample was taken at random from within the population. One doubts the sample was random (or stratified-random, or cluster-random) and it was certainly not taken from the human race in general, but from only certain cities.

        We further note that the reported differences were for children of "religious" households Msharing = 3.25, SD = 2.46 and "non-religiously identifying" households Msharing = 4.11, SD = 2.48. That is, the mean number of stickers shared was about three in the one case and four in the other. And this difference of less than one sticker (0.86) was ascribed to the parents religious identity, as if there were no other differences between the two groups save the one by which they were labeled!

        We won't even go into the problems of using normal models on ordered categorical data and pseudo-numerical data. Or that a multi-linear model was employed for the regression. (Is there some reason why the relationship if any might not be curvilinear?) And the mountain labors and brought brought forth a mouse. The correlation coefficient was r=-0.408 for age and 0.173 for "religiosity". That is, even assuming that these are valid to begin with, only 17% of the variation in altruism is "explained" by its relationship with age, and only 3% by its relationship to religiosity. That is, 97% of the variation in altruism has to due with whether households are religious.

        Notice that the difference was statistically significant only in terms of the model used and applies only to the parameters of the model. So far as predicting whether a child will or won't share more or fewer stickers, throwing darts would do as well.

        There's more, which Dr. Briggs alluded to, having to do with the meaning of p-values, with treating a (very very weak!) correlation as if it was causative, etc.

        And -- when you cannot measure something of interest -- you simply measure something and call it the thing of interest. You can get away with this in science and engineering -- measuring hardness (eg) instead of tensile strength, or viscosity instead of degree of polymerization, or radiation backscatter instead of density of coal. But in such cases, the relationship itself is understood, and the errors of estimate are propagated through the transfer function.

        Publish or perish is a terrible curse in academia, as it results in half-baked partial results.

        • Sociology simply is not a science in the Scientific Revolution/​Enlightenment sense. That does not mean there can be no rigorous study of people in large groups; only that it is not "science" in the way physics, chemistry, and most of biology are sciences. But no one says "science" is the only way of knowing.

          Given stuff like Avoiding the pitfalls of single particle cryo-electron microscopy: Einstein from noise, do you think that biophysics and related fields, where heavy statistical modeling is required to extract data from lots of noise, might start looking more like sociology, in the noisy/​vague sense you seem to be deploying? It seems to me that there will be an increasing need for a 'hermeneutical dimension', which is one of the frustrating, apparently-unique aspects to the human sciences.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Statistics is useful for modelling systems in which there are more than a handful of units, but the units behave identically, more or less: thermodynamics works because the molecules in such a system can be treated as identical particle. Hence, the mean value can replace the individual values in analyses.

            Statistics does not work so well in systems in which the units interact in various ways, so that, as von Hayek noted in his Nobel laureate speech, you have to take into account not just the properties of the units, but also how those unites are connected with one another.

            One cannot, for example, calculate a valid mean from data that are not in a state of control. Otherwise, the average human being would have one testicle. [See, e.g., W.E.Deming, The Statistical Adjustment of Data]

          • Statistics is useful for modelling systems in which there are more than a handful of units, but the units behave identically, more or less: thermodynamics works because the molecules in such a system can be treated as identical particle. Hence, the mean value can replace the individual values in analyses.

            This is basically completely wrong when it comes to single-molecule biophysics. The idea is that bulk assays only give you statistical averages, when you want to know the actual distribution of different behaviors. What's tricksy is that currently, many biophysicists throw out a significant chunk of their data, instead of saying that they've explained 60%, while at least trying to at least roughly characterize the 'residual'. I'm trying to get my wife to popularize the claim "Show me your residuals!", so that she gets credit for thinking that this is a very important thing to do in biophysics, before it hits mainstream. My wife is a biophysicists by PhD training and is pretty well up-to-speed on biochemistry in her postdoc.

            Statistics does not work so well in systems in which the units interact in various ways, so that, as von Hayek noted in his Nobel laureate speech, you have to take into account not just the properties of the units, but also how those unites are connected with one another.

            Welcome to biology, to Life Itself. :-)

            One cannot, for example, calculate a valid mean from data that are not in a state of control.

            Are you aware of how CCDs operate outside of thermal equilibrium? The crazy thing is that most EEs are taught equations only valid within thermal equilibrium. And so, vast swaths of opportunity are essentially defined out of existence.

        • Garbanzo Bean

          "That is, 97% of the variation in altruism has to due with whether households are religious."

          I think you left out the word "nothing"; "That is, 97% of the variation in altruism has NOTHING to do with whether households are religious."

  • David Nickol

    Note: Our goal is to cultivate serious and respectful dialogue. While it's OK to disagree—even encouraged!—any snarky, offensive, or off-topic comments will be deleted.

    Dr. Briggs says, "Scientifically speaking, this is crap." Apparently that is serious and respectful. I will remember that for the future.

    Although based on the evidence presented, it sounds like I would find little to praise in the study discussed, I thought the OP was crap. It has far too much sarcasm, little straightforward analysis, and seems to be yet another case of a Strange Notions contributor picking an easy target.

    • cminca

      Honestly David if you expect SN to hold the religious to the same standards it hold the non-religious you really haven't been paying attention.

    • Ignatius Reilly

      Well said. I don't really have the time or interest to look deeply into the study. There are definitely some flaws in the study, but that is how this type of research can work. Later researchers can try to fix the flaws or find other clever ways of measuring the data.

      The problem with this OP is that Briggs fails to make a single substantive criticism of the study. He is quite sarcastic and condescending. Ironically, he manages to make several errors in his OP.

      If these are the sort of articles that are going to be posted here, I'm going to spend my time reading other things.

      • Ye Olde Statistician

        Actually, the criticisms were quite acute to those versed in statistical science, though most of them were off-loaded to other essays regarding regression, p-value, and so on.

        • Ignatius Reilly

          As someone who is reasonably well-versed in statistical science, I cannot say I found Brigg's criticisms to be remotely acute. They were really just frustratingly snarky. You realize that the p-value for the study was <.001. I haven't found Brigg's articles to be particularly interesting, and he gives us zero reason to suppose that the offloaded criticisms are relevant to the study in question.

          The best criticism have more to do with methodology (to what extent can dictator games measure altruism) and sampling methods rather than the p-value and the regression analysis.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            You realize that the p-value for the study was <.001

            Whoopty-do. That only means that the estimate of the correlation coefficient is probably not zero. But virtually any set of real-world data would exhibit non-zero slopes on some variable or other. That's why we taught students in our statistical training classes not to confuse statistical significance with substantive significance.

            The reported estimate of the correlation coefficient of sticker-give-away on parents' reported religious activities (actually a blend of two different "scores") was 0.173, meaning that about 3% of the variation in sticker-count was associated with variation in religious practice in the household. So even if the low p-value were meaningful, the reported results were not. Notice too that the difference in the mean number of stickers shared by the two defined groups (4.11 vs. 3.25) was less than one (0.86). No self-respecting engineer or scientist would have made such sweeping generalization (or even much bothered with) an r^2 = 0.03

            And a normal-based linear regression on a discrete "score" is problematic. The "religiosity" axis is not a ratio scale.

            And as you can see from the graph reproduced, there is no skill in the model. We don't even know the confidence bounds on the plane, let alone the prediction bounds!

            This is not a baseline for anything but "scrap this approach."

          • Ignatius Reilly

            Sociological researchers tend to deal with smaller correlation . You realize that what you just wrote was 10x more substantive than the OP and the piece by Jane the Actuary.

            I believe for older children the correlation coefficient was somewhat higher around 0.4. I believe the correlation coefficient for the smoking lung cancer link was around .4.

            This is not a baseline for anything but "scrap this approach."

            Which is a good thing to know. Or perhaps there is not much variance in altruism between the religious and the non-religious. Another good thing to know.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Sociological researchers tend to deal with smaller correlation

            That does not make the small correlations meaningful. (Or the sample any more adequate, or...)

            You realize that what you just wrote was 10x more substantive than the OP

            The OP was originally written for an audience more statistically informed. This was not the first such study that Briggs has deconstructed and he long ago began referring details to specific posts about those details.

            Or perhaps there is not much variance in altruism

            Or sharing dumb stickers that were just given to me is not an altruistic act. But yes, the difference in sharing was on the average less than one sticker between the two groups, supposing "religiosity" as the only factor that differed between them.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            The OP was originally written for an audience more statistically
            informed. This was not the first such study that Briggs has
            deconstructed and he long ago began referring details to specific posts
            about those details.

            I don't think you have accurately described the population of Briggs readers. People who are statistically informed really shouldn't see much value in Briggs waxing over freshman stats like p-values and regression. Not sure why anyone would see something of value in his over the top analysis and conspiracy theories. To each his own, I guess.

            Or sharing dumb stickers that were just given to me is not an altruistic
            act.

            Exactly. This is the best criticism.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            waxing over freshman stats like p-values and regression.

            So long as social "scientists," who learned of them in watered-down Stats 101 courses, cite them in their cargo cult, there will be a need for exposure. It does get repetitive after a while, seeing Pat Moynihan's forecast come true..

          • Ignatius Reilly

            I don't have as low opinion of the social scientists as you do. Many of them will check with statisticians at their respective universities to make sure they are using sound methods.

            Personally, I like a little more depth than Briggs provides, and certainly don't care very much for his unfunny sarcasm. But again, to each his own.

          • LMyFirstLetter

            You realize that the p-value for the study was <.001

            And do you realize that this is true only if the hypotheses behind the regression (i.e. the absence of other confounding factors) are true, and both Briggs and Ye Olde Statistician are making clear that they are definitely not?

            If one wants to be technical, see also this comment already pointed out by YOS.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            And do you realize that this is true only if the hypotheses behind the regression (i.e. the absence of other confounding factors) are true, and both Briggs and Ye Olde Statistician are making clear that they are definitely not?

            From what Briggs has said I see not reason to believe that they chose bad statistical methods. If you think otherwise, you are welcome to quote the Briggs passage which shows my error.

          • LMyFirstLetter

            From what Briggs has said I see not reason to believe that they chose bad statistical methods.

            Then you just did not read the article. He doesn't explain every detail: as he says in his own blog, the paper is just wrong from head to tail, so he'd have to write much more than this. But he points out the most obvious, irreparable issues: that the study does not measure what it claims to measure and that one of the variables in the regression has no scientific standing whatsoever! These two flaws are not even statistical per se, but alone they make the study irredeemable: no matter what statistical analysis you come up, the wee p-values you calculate just don't mean anything.

            Say I make a study that by a simple regression compares the number of attacks attempted at Risk! with the result of a questionnaire that puts together in a number the propensity to read comics, their grade of violence, nudity etc, concluding that those who read comics are more violent: what would you make of the fact that whatever p-value I calculate is "statistically significant"? This is exactly what's happening here.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            Then you just did not read the article

            I've sadly read it two or three times. I even read the links Briggs inserted. I intend not to read Briggs in the future, but I read this article.

            He doesn't explain every detail: as he says in his own blog, the paper is just wrong from head to tail, so he'd have to write much more than this.

            Asserting something is completely wrong without telling us why it is wrong is useless.

            But he points out the most obvious, irreparable issues: that the study does not measure what it claims to measure and that one of the variables in the regression has no scientific standing whatsoever!

            All the bold and italics for emphasis really aren't necessary. Good, so it should be easy for you to quote Brigg's criticism with regard to this point.

            These two flaws are not even statistical per se, but alone they make the study irredeemable: no matter what statistical analysis you come up, the wee p-values you calculate just don't mean anything.

            I've been saying the flaws in the study are not statistical for some time. I don't see Briggs identifying them.

            concluding that those who read comics are more violent: what would you make of the fact that whatever p-value I calculate is "statistically significant"?

            No, because attacks in RISK are not a good measure of violent behavior. Now show me where Briggs does the same analysis of Dictator Games as a measure of altruism.

            Again, it is easy for you to show me wrong. You just have to quote Briggs making a meaningful criticism undrenched in sarcasm.

          • LMyFirstLetter

            Sorry, but we, like Briggs, actually like sarcasm in front of such absurd "measures".

            By your same logic, you did not explain why Risk! is not a good measure of propensity to violence, you only affirmed that.

            At least, by translating Briggs's words in "not sarcasm" you can make some cogent points (altruism is difficult to define, contain in itself aspects of "sacrifice, kindness, patience, love", is "nuanced"... all things absent in the 0-10 stickers-sharing definition. They combined different pseudo-quantifiers. The regression sucks and predicts nothing. They confound cause and correlation)

          • Ignatius Reilly

            Sorry, but we, like Briggs, actually like sarcasm in front of such absurd "measures".

            And l like my sarcasm to be funny and insightful. I also like my statistical analysis to have more depth. But that is just me. To each his own.

            By your same logic, you did not explain why Risk! is not a good measure of propensity to violence, you only affirmed that.

            We are having a conversation, and I was outlining points of agreement. Briggs wrote an OP. OP's tend to contain argument.

            At least, by translating Briggs's words in "not sarcasm" you can make some cogent points (altruism is difficult to define, contain in itself aspects of "sacrifice, kindness, patience, love", is "nuanced"... all things absent in the 0-10 stickers-sharing definition.

            So, I have to infer substantive criticism out of Briggs's articles?

            Briggs says:

            Yes, this scientifically captures every possible nuance of the scientific concept of altruism, doesn’t it?

            I suppose this is where I am supposed to infer everything that you just said. Actually. I was more focused on how Briggs makes a rather egregious error. We don't need to measure every nuance of altruism, but rather find a clever way to measure a significant portion of what it means to be altruistic or things that are related to altruism and more easily quantified.

            For instance, we could measure what types of person donates more of their time to charity. Or donates more money.

    • Mike

      hold on he said the study is crap not that the intentions are crap or the ppl!

  • Dhaniele

    A much more practical question and one that is easier to study: who are more altruistic (volunteering, donating money, etc.) , adults who practice some religion or adults who are not religious? Maybe that question is too easy and the results less pleasing to the ones who put together this experiment.

  • Certainly studies of the effect of religion on pro-social behaviour are frought with challenges. Definitions of pro-sociality, religiosity, and so on are potential confounders as are many other issues. For example, how does one measure religiosity, by church attendance? Have we controlled for the social support structures of the church? And so on.

    Definitely this article is using a very narrow approach to "altruism" and a very broad one with "religiosity". Still, one presumes that the hypothesis is, if religion makes a child more altruistic, one would expect the kids with more religious parents to give away more stickers. This study found no such signal.

    Certainly the study may be confounded, which is why we shouldn't rely on single studies.

    See Luke Galen's work on pro-social studies of the religious vs non religious.

    At the end of the day, as an atheist I am inclined to accept that religion, in general, does result in more pro-social behaviour. Unfortunately, this does not imply to me that the claims of religions are true, or that any deities exist.

  • ClayJames

    Looking at how this study was talked about by many atheistic defenders of science and reason, it never ceases to amaze me how little scientific vigor is actually applied by many of them. Reminds me of the prayer studies that they love to quote.

  • Dhaniele

    Another study worth doing and rather precise would be to survey an American prison and see what percentage of the inmates attended weekly Sunday services when they were children. Then compare it with the non-prison population. Maybe, however, the authors of this study would not like the easily foreseeable results.

    • Mike

      i was thinking of comparing inmates who attend bible study in prison vs those who don't and then seeing which group showed less aggression and more mental health.

  • Doug Shaver

    At this point, I’m just too tired to make a joke about science.

    Good, because this paper doesn't justify any jokes about science. At most, if the whole experiment was as poorly done, poorly analyzed, and poorly reported as you insinuate, it would justify jokes about people trying ineffectually to use science to make an ideological statement.