Friday, September 11, 2015

Religion Makes You Stupid!?

Today, a guest post by Cameron English.


Every few years, a psychologist at a university somewhere around the world publishes a study linking religious belief to poor critical thinking or a lack of intelligence. Given their controversial nature, these studies generate a lot of media attention and headlines like this begin popping up in Google news: Belief In God, Critical Thinking Butt Heads.

These papers are not only very common, but they're usually flawed to the point of being useless, and they all tend to share the same flaws. So in order to preempt the next bogus study, we decided to produce a generic rebuttal you can use to debunk this particular brand of bad social science research, whenever it makes an appearance.  

As a science writer, I've lived by a rule over the last few years that has served me very well: the more scandalous the headline, the shoddier the research behind it. Count on it. “Religion makes you stupid” studies are a textbook example of this rule in action. We're going to focus on two primary issues to illustrate why this is so.

 The first problem to look out for is one that plagues other sciences as well: reliance on self-reported data. More specifically in this case, studies linking religious belief to a lack of intelligence are usually based on surveys filled out by college undergraduates.

These students make convenient study subjects if you're a university researcher, because you don't have to pay them much (if anything) and they study where you work. But they're also still in their formative years, only just beginning to grapple with important questions—like whether or not they believe in God— so their understanding of the world is very malleable. Research also tells us that we get smarter as we age. Drawing conclusions about how religion affects the broader society based on what undergraduates tell you is a pointless exercise, then. 

But let's use the headline I mentioned above to explore the problem in more detail. Participants in that study were asked to perform critical thinking exercises like answering math questions, and those people were less likely to give affirmative answers to questions about faith ("what role does faith play in your daily life?") compared to a control group.

That may seem like an interesting study design at first glance, but I could run the same experiments  and demonstrate that critical thinking has no impact on religious belief. All I would need to do is enlist scientists who also happen to be religious (50 percent of scientists fit this description) and subject them to the same critical thinking tests. Would this hypothetical study have found that critical thinking hampers faith? Given that many scientists today (many throughout history did as well) actually see their work as confirming their religious beliefs, I'd say the answer is no.

Of course the flaw in the study design should be obvious at this point: the results change based on whoever happens to be involved. A more accurate interpretation of the data, I suggest, is that the less educated people are, the more likely critical thinking will pose a problem for how they view the world.

Now this leads us to a couple of important points about framing. How you define and measure intelligence greatly influences the results of these studies. Does a person's IQ accurately reflect how intelligent they are? Possibly, though math and vocabulary tests can't tell you much about general intelligence, and those are precisely what psychologists rely on when they want to correlate intelligence with certain behaviors or beliefs.

The bigger problem with how these studies frame the issue, though, is their definition of “faith.” For the purposes of the studies we're discussing, “faith” is usually defined as an evolved behavior, a gut reaction to natural phenomena that our ancestors had no better explanation for. In essence, they take Mark Twain's definition of faith and dress it up in evolutionary psychobabble.

But it's inaccurate to treat religious belief as something people cling to based on intuition and absent evidence. People do, in fact, become religious as a result of careful, critical study. The field of apologetics is a testament to that fact, and it also belies the evolutionary explanation that religion exists solely because believers are too dumb to comprehend the world around them.

In many cases, the problem isn't the belief system that people embrace, but how they approach it. In reality, all people are liable to avoid critical thinking depending the circumstances. There's nothing special about believers in this respect. Confirmation bias an unfortunate characteristic of human nature: people are prone to believe what they want to believe regardless of the evidence, Christian, atheist, or Muslim—it doesn't matter. We all have to be conscious of our own biases.

So the next time one of these studies makes headlines, remember the rule: the more scandalous the headline, the shoddier the research behind it. A careful look at the study will probably confirm that you're dealing with junk science.   

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