Planet Money’s MTurk episode

The NPR podcast Planet Money (of which I am a fan) just released an episode that looks at Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk)- a website where people are paid small sums of money to complete online micro-tasks (like categorising photos or writing transcripts of recordings). The site is named after an 18th Century chess playing ‘robot’ that was actually controlled by a hidden person (see above). This is an elegant analogy for the modern MTurk platform where anonymous workers complete Human Intelligence Tasks (HITs) like a well oiled machine. If you want a slightly more in-depth and accessible introduction then I’d heartily recommend listening to Planet Money‘s short episode (available here).

However, while the episode does provide a useful introduction, as a researcher who has run a variety of studies on MTurk, I also have some specific (/pedantic) reservations with what their portrayal. In some ways the Planet Money reporters went to a lot of effort to dig into the topic: interviewing one of the founders of MTurk and embedding a ‘secret message’ in an MTurk task so that they could speak to some actual workers. Yet  I still found listening to the episode frustrating, due to some surprising misrepresentations that implied a low level of fact checking. I realise what follows will likely be too ‘insider baseball’ for most people, but for those who have some interest in how research on MTurk works, below are some of the biggest inaccuracies/pet peeves I had with the episode. (more…)

Japanese Firewalking Festivals


Japan has a well deserved international reputation for having some of the most lively, bizarre and dangerous festivals in the world.  Most of these are organised by various Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines and typically involve receiving blessings which can be channelled into all kinds of practical, or devotional, benefits. However, despite the ubiquitous nature of Japanese festivals, and their general high attendance levels, Japan consistently ranks amongst one of the lowest countries in the world for overt religious belief, coming last in this 2012 survey by Gallup. This seeming paradox can be resolved in a number of ways; one solution is to argue that Japanese festivals aren’t really religious just ‘cultural’ but this seems to be somewhat contradicted by the high level of involvement of religious authorities, the array of religious images and motifs and the fact that most events take place at, or near, temples and shrines. Another alternative is to emphasise that religion in Japan is much more concerned with practice than personal belief and hence, while most people may be personally non-religious they are practically religious, as and when is culturally appropriate. This explanation is more compelling to me but I would add to it that, while Japanese people en masse show a lack of engagement with official religion, there is certainly no shortage of ‘folk’ beliefs in supernatural forces (such as ghosts or spirits) or pseudoscience (i.e. blood type is widely believed to determine personality) in Japan.

Regardless of the motivations underlying people’s participation in festivals, what is indisputable is that a large amount of Japanese people chose to participate in the events every year and thus, as a researcher working on the social and psychological effects of collective ritual participation, Japan provides a rich environment (indeed, that is a large part of why I now live in Sapporo). From amongst those that attend festivals, a much smaller amount also chose to participate in extreme ritual events, such as cold water immersion (misogi 禊) and firewalking (hiwatari 火渡り), and these are the events on which I am currently conducting research. Motivation for participation in such events can be framed as due to some form of religious devotion but obligation and tradition have been more frequently invoked, at least by the participants I’ve spoken to. However, seeking any single explanation for participation is inevitably a doomed endeavour, as motivations are always multifaceted and many operate below the levels of conscious awareness. As such, it’s often valuable to look not just at what people report but also what they do. This is why my current research attempts to collect both behavioural and self reported data. I won’t go into details in this post about the specific measures I use but there are some recent studies which provide useful illustrations of how behavioural measures can be productively employed in this area.


Can religious children distinguish fantasy from reality? (YES…)

Christian Kid


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.