A recent study by Corriveau et al. published in Cognitive Science purporting to examine the differences in abilities to distinguish fantasy from reality between children from religious and non-religious backgrounds received a surprising amount of media attention. It was, for example, featured recently on the BBC, the article covering the study on the Huffington Post has been shared over 23,000 times and the I fucking love science summary has over 81,000 shares. The narrative presented in the paper and the popular press summarises the research as revealing that children exposed to religion are deficient in their ability to distinguish between fantastical and realistic narratives (in comparison with children from secular, non-religious backgrounds). The findings are also argued to undermine the claims of researchers, like Justin Barrett and Jesse Bering, that we are “Born Believers” or possess a “Belief Instinct“, since the secular children do not display the same deficiency in reasoning. Unfortunately, these narratives are themselves largely a fantasy as the research fails to provide strong evidence for either of these claims. I detail the reasons why below.
– This post is a copy of an article I wrote for The Religious Studies Project
(although it has not been published yet) –
A few weeks ago, I attended the International Association for the Cognitive Science of Religion’s (IACSR) 5th Biennial Conference. The theme this year was focused on addressing the state of the field, 25 years after the cognitive approach to religion (CSR) first appeared (at least in its modern incarnation). I contributed to these efforts by presenting a critical review of the Minimal Counterintuitiveness (MCI) literature, and a short poster that detailed a recoding of a previous study on MCI items in Roman prodigies (Lisdorf, 2001) (for those who may be interested, the recoding reversed the original pattern reported). However, I’m not going to review my own talk (for obvious reasons), nor do I intend to offer a thorough account of the entire conference, instead I’d just like to point out some personal highlights and my impressions of the conference overall.
*With thanks to the illustrious Jonathan Jong for the title!
A flurry of recent research in the cognitive science of religion (CSR) has suggested that from our childhood we are “teleologically promiscuous“- detecting purpose readily behind everything from birds to rocks, “intuitive dualists“- distinguishing between physical bodies and immaterial minds, and possess a “hyperactive agency detector device” (HADD), which makes us quick to worry about what caused that twig to snap in the bush behind us. All of these factors (and more beside) are said to make us “Born Believers“ in the words of Justin Barrett, a psychologist specialising on religious thought (and my former supervisor). However, even if we accept such accounts, then an important question remains: what exactly are we ‘born to believe’ ?
The field of the Cognitive Science of Religion involves approaching religions and religious beliefs from a scientific perspective and examining whether part of the enduring popularity of religion can be explained by the cognitive features and evolutionary history shared by all humans. A central finding/theory that has emerged from this field, primarily due to the work of Pascal Boyer and Justin Barrett, is that almost all religious dieties and icons, despite their apparent diversity, can be placed into a ‘Minimally Counterintuitive’ (MCI) template. What this means is that they possess most of the expected and intuitive aspects associated with a particular category of things, for instance a zombie like a normal person moves around under its own power, seeks food, is subject to gravity, sees with its eyes and so on. However, MCI concepts also involve one or two violations of our intuitive assumptions, so in the case of zombies this means that the biological assumption of mortality/being susceptible to injury is violated. Zombies are dead and they typically don’t seem that bothered by injuries that would be of significant concern to a normal human. The MCI template then can be presented as:
Intuitive assumptions of an ontological category + 1/2 violations of those assumptions
... although this form of acupuncture may carry slightly greater health risks.
So while killing time on facebook researching new science articles I came across this short Guardian article containing a startling headline announcing that:
“Dozens killed by incorrectly placed acupuncture needles”
But before I could begin hunting for news stories about the recent activity of an acupuncture themed serial killer the sub heading informed me that a “survey reveals punctured hearts and lungs among causes of death over past 45 years”. Despite my general lack of statistical competence even I can work out that ‘dozens’ of deaths across more than four decades does not work out as a particularly scary statistic and certainly not one that warrants such a sensationalist headline. In fact as the first paragraph of the article explains the total recorded deaths numbers 86 over 45 years which works out as an average of around 2 deaths a year.
What makes this figure even less impressive is that the number was obtained from worldwide reports including those from Japan and China. Two deaths a year from a treatment that is performed on millions of people, multiple times every year is really not something which people should worry about. Winning the lottery would appear to be more likely than dying from a botched acupuncture treatment.
On the 16th April 2010, another episode of the pro-parapsychology show Skeptiko addressing the topic of Near Death Experiences (NDEs) was posted by its host, Alex Tsakiris. This was part of a series of episodes looking at NDEs and featured the return of a previous skeptical guest Dr. G.M. Woerlee. Dr. Woerlee is an anesthesiologist and has written a couple of books on NDE from a skeptical perspective. As for the content of the interview itself, I recommend anyone interested in NDEs ignore the dismissive title and introduction and take a listen, as there is some good discussion to be heard.
The first thing to note about the episode is that the interview itself is actually quite balanced. Alex makes his case for why NDEs are simply unexplainable by current medical knowledge and Dr. Woerlee responds by presenting and discussing the natural explanations for NDEs. As you might predict, Alex does not find such explanations compelling and Dr. Woerlee similarly does not find Alex’s conclusions- that NDEs prove dualism correct and that consciousness can survive bodily death- to be convincing. However, despite the disagreement a respectful tone is kept throughout the interview and Alex gives Dr. Woerlee the time to present his case and respond to points he raises.
Skeptiko is a pro-parapsychology podcast which attracts a mix of ire and exasperation from the skeptical community due to its misleading title and the tendency of its host, Alex Tsakiris, to promote the show as being an agenda free exploration of ‘controversial science’. A quick listen to any episode of Skeptiko will confirm to an impartial listener that the host, far from being ‘agenda-free’, possesses a painfully evident bias which infusses the entire character and tone of the show. Tsakiris tends to fawn over guests who are on to promote forms of parapsychology he supports and is openly hostile to- the point of occasionally berating- skeptical guests.
In light of the above, and to try and redress some of the bias inherent in the show, I have decided that I will try and offer some skeptical commentary on the Skeptiko shows as Alex adds them and I get time to go through them. It is unlikely that this will have any impact on Alex or the fans of his show, but it might mean that someone who listens to Skeptiko without an agenda and then does a google search on the topic could come across an alternative perspective rather than falling further down the Skeptiko rabbit hole.
So without further adieu, here are my thoughts on ‘Skeptiko episode 100: Dr. Garret Moddel Brings Psi Research to University of Colorado Classroom‘.