PseudoScience vs Religion -- Why Religious Kids aren't Less Altruistic

Recently atheists have been touting a bit of pseudoscience that claims to show that the children of atheists are more altruistic than the children of people of faith.

Sadly, since science is becoming a propaganda machine for liberal causes, we can no longer simply trust scientific research on controversial subjects. The pseudoscientific “Nuclear Winter” theory, since discredited, was supported by scientists who objected to Reagan trying to defend the U.S. against a Soviet nuclear attack. More recently the whole “global warming”…er “climate change” fiasco has been nothing more than a way to put a shine on the snake oil of socialism and rule by the “more intelligent” rather than the people.

The first major problem is that the study says nothing about atheists. The study compares people who say they aren’t religious with people who say they are. However, it turns out that when Pew surveyed Americans on their religions 68%, of those who identified as non-religious believed in God. Pew also found that only 2.4% of Americans identify as atheists that means that the majority of those “nones” who don’t say they believe in God believe in something else in the spiritual domain. The reality is that people who say they are non-religious are making a statement about their lack of affiliation with a given organized religion not about their belief in some higher power.

In the study, the term atheist is not even used. Hence even before we examine the extensive problems with the report its use as a prop for atheism is totally unwarranted.

But the study has many other major problems.

The largest error in the study is that they used a game, called the dictator game, as their measure of altruism. In the dictator game one person is given a resource, such as cash. That person then decides how much of that resource he gives to another, anonymous, person.

Because the children knew this was a game, for the studies conclusion to have any merit at all it must be true that everyone who is a cutthroat no-stakes poker player, or in the chase of children a highly competitive Chutes and Ladders player, must be lacking in real-life charity. Just in case common experience doesn’t indicate that people who can be fiercely competitive in a game can also be highly charitable, your best friend who’d lend you his last dollar but who will do anything to win at a game of flag football, one has to look no further than professional athletes who visit sick children.

Further, in the dictator game used in this study, the child who was allocating the resource had no reason to believe that by “winning” the game he’d be hurting the other child. So any competent sociologist would know that the dictator game could not be used as a viable proxy for real world altruism -- a child sharing their lunch with another child who forgot theirs for example.

Which leads us to another problem with the paper. The authors are neuroscientists, not sociologists. That’s like a structural engineer writing a biology paper -- the engineer is one smart guy, but he doesn’t really know much about biology. 

It also makes one wonder about why neuroscientists would conduct a sociology experiment -- a bit of bias or an axe to grind, perhaps? Further, the article was published in Current Biology, which appears to be a biology subject matter journal not a sociology journal, raising the question of who were the peer reviewers and what is their competence vis a vis sociology?

This is no small matter, given that a recent attempt to reproduce psychology studies found out that only 36% of the results could be replicated -- i.e. 64% of the results were meaningless. While no similar study has been done to date on sociology studies, the problems encountered in psychology studies are similar to those encountered in sociology studies -- i.e. people are highly variable and it’s difficult to control for all variations.

For example studies have shown that those truly poor but not on welfare are more charitable than the middle class. Without correcting for the economic status of the children, any results are meaningless.

It’s fairly clear from the study that the authors had an ideological axe to grind. They state:

More generally, they [the 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

That alone indicates the difference between the credibility of this study and say a study such as “Evolution: Anti-speciation in Walking Sticks” where the authors are unlikely to have any ideological axe to grind.

The fact that the sample population is odd is also a cause for concern. According to the paper the sample population consisted of 23.9% Christians, 43% Muslims, 27.6% not religious, 2.5% Jewish, 1.6% Buddhists, 0.4% Hindu, 0.2% agnostics, and 0.5% other.

While the study does break out the results for Christians and Muslims it does not really address any other faith. Hence any conclusion that increased secularization is good is totally inapplicable to nearly half the world’s population, a point the authors fail to mention.

As pointed out by Thomas D. Williams on Breitbart, the Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey shows that religious give much more of their money and time to charities than do people who aren’t religious. For example religious people gave, in 2000, on average $2210 per year to charity vs $642 for secular individuals and religious people volunteered 12 times a year, on average, compared to 5.8 times per year for secular individuals.

Hence even if one were to look past all the problems in the study a real scientist would be compelled to examine the behavior of adults in terms of altruism before making the sweeping approval of secularism the study extolls.

That is a clear indication of the bias of the study; if religious kids are selfish but religious adults aren’t, while non-religious kids aren’t selfish and non-religious adults are, how can we conclude that secularization is okay? Unless children control the money selfish secular adults bode ill for charity in an increasingly secularized world.

The author’s ignorance, or deliberate avoidance of, that conundrum is indicative of both poor research and conclusions that were based on the author’s desires not unbiased research.

A good rule of thumb to use if you’re a non-scientist is that if a “scientific” study about people, as opposed to say protons, is counterintuitive, there’s a good chance it’s wrong.

Tom Trinko graduated with honors from Cal Tech with a degree in Physics and he got his Ph.D in Physics from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He spent much of his career as a rocket scientist and is currently retired.

You can read more of tom’s rants at his blog, Conversations about the obvious and feel free to follow him on Twitter

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