When you assume . . .

godgeneThere’s been something of a trend among a certain subsection of evolutionary anthropologists to explain religion as the product of a gene. Not that there is any evidence of a religion gene, mind you. Heck, not that there’s any evidence that such a gene is possible! But if there was, you see, it could explain Methodists.

Reporters, who report on science about as well as they report on religion, love these stories. I came across one such article published by ABC News. Written by Ewen Callaway, it was originally published by New Scientist, which means it’s not as bad as some of these stories tend to end up. But it’s still bad. The headline, which is in no way backed up by the story, is “Religion Is a Product of Evolution, Software Suggests.” Here is the chunk about the software program constructed by James Down, an evolutionary anthropologist at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan:

To simplify matters, Dow picked a defining trait of religion: the desire to proclaim religious information to others, such as a belief in the afterlife. He assumed that this trait was genetic.

The model assumes, in other words, that a small number of people have a genetic predisposition to communicate unverifiable information to others. They passed on that trait to their children, but they also interacted with people who didn’t spread unreal information.

The model looks at the reproductive success of the two sorts of people — those who pass on real information, and those who pass on unreal information.

Under most scenarios, “believers in the unreal” went extinct. But when Dow included the assumption that non-believers would be attracted to religious people because of some clear, but arbitrary, signal, religion flourished.

“Somehow the communicators of unreal information are attracting others to communicate real information to them,” Dow says, speculating that perhaps the non-believers are touched by the faith of the religious.

Argh. The truth is that Dow, not a software model, suggests that “Religion Is a Product of Evolution.” He crafted a software model with the necessary assumptions to elicit the conclusion he’d already suggested. Way to just swallow the study hook, line and sinker, Callaway! There is just no way that a study this weak should receive media play. Assumptions underly the entire study — not evidence or facts. A computer simulation may be useful, but it is not a scientific fact. No experiments were performed, no data were collected.

If you assume the existence of a religion gene and then assume that gene has an advantage in the population, it does nothing to advance the debate about why religion exists to build a software program designed around those assumptions.

Check out that second-to-last paragraph. It shows that Dow just reworked the study until it came up with the answer he was looking for. The reporter should have been much more critical. Even if the reporter wanted to assume an evolutionary explanation for religion, a much more critical article could have been written. The irony that this software model — based on completely unproven assumptions — would be used by ABC News to denigrate religious belief is too much.

Stories like this don’t serve science or religion well.

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  • Stoo

    “Religion is a product of evolution, software suggests”

    Not “proves”. It’s just suggesting that if there was a genetic basis, it could be an evolutionary advantage. I think you’re reacting badly to stronger claims than have actually been made.

  • Brian Walden

    I feel there’s been stories about the God gene for years. The thing I always wonder is why does the coverage always focus on such a gene disproving religion? The Abrahamic religions believe that man is created in God’s image. If science can one day definitively point to a certain combination of genes that makes a person more or less likely to be religious, then from the perspective a member of one of those religions that only supports the claim that God made man to know Him. If we’re ever able to pinpoint those genes or understand the chemical reactions going on in a believer’s brain when they pray, praise be to God.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Stoo,

    The software neither proves nor suggests that religion is a product of religion. It simply shows that if you assume that religion is a product of evolution, that it’s in a gene, and you assume that such a gene has an advantage, then this is how it would work out.

    It’s a bad sotry.

  • http://www.skepticalmonkey.com Ted Goas

    Mollie, it’s not a bad story! I rather enjoyed the blockquote and your article, along with Stoo’s and Brian’s comments. I, too, have read several stories (and even a book) focusing on the concept of a God gene. Perhaps this Time story was written for someone who is more unfamiliar with the concept (kind of like that Wired article on The New Atheism a year or two ago). I haven’t really enjoyed anyone’s take on the God gene; maybe it’s a tough topic to tackle.

    I haven’t read an article that proves anything. They all just offer another way to explain how some humans embrace religion while others deny it.

    I haven’t heard anything to make me believe that genetics has anything to do with God or religion. Has anyone else stumbled upon something?

  • Jerry

    I changed one word a bit and found that some people have a genetic predisposition to be modern MSM reporters:

    The model assumes, in other words, that a small number of people have a genetic predisposition to communicate unverified information to others.

  • Stoo

    “It simply shows that if you assume that religion is a product of evolution, that it’s in a gene, and you assume that such a gene has an advantage, then this is how it would work out.”

    Right, so, it suggests that religion *could* provide evolutionary advantages if certain conditions were met.

    I’m really lost as to what your problem is. You’re still arguing as if someone had come along with “software disproves god”.

  • Dave

    The experiment itself has a basic flaw: It depends on a distinction between “real” and “unreal” information, as though paleolithic humans had already developed the scientific method and had a means to distinguish real from unreal claims.

    This is nonsense. If someone told a paleolithic hunting group where there was game, and when they got there the game was gone, does that mean the information was “unreal?” If someone claimed to a paleolithic village that cooperation was better than isolated effort in building a longhouse, and that proved to be the case, is that information “real?”

    Also, from what we know about non-literate contemporary societies, hunter-gatherer discourse is permeated with talk of spirits. There’s no distinction between the naturalistic and the spiritual; that comes much later.

    Finally the very phrase “God gene” is dangerously awry. From serious brain-study experiments done by a late friend of mine I’m persuaded that religion probably arises from established brain functions, but that doesn’t mean there’s a gene for it. A gene is found on a strand of coding DNA and produces a protein. Not everything about life has “a gene” for it — we would, eg, probably look in vain for a gene for scratching our heads while puzzled.

    That a reporter would swallow all of this uncritically speaks very poorly of his competence to do science journalism.

    NB: The report makes it sound like there’s a serious divide between the notions of religion being an artifact of other brain functions and it having an adaptive purpose in our evolutionary history. If it was thrown up as an artifact and proved adaptive, it would spread. The “divide” is between the two halves of the process of random mutation and natural selection. Another point against the reporter.

  • http://perpetuaofcarthage.blogspot.com/ Perpetua

    Hi Mollie,

    It is quite ironic that this article is spreading information that is not factual.

    I agree with you that it is just a model based on his assumptions. And I don’t like the way it leaps from “unverifiable information” to “unreal information”.

  • Don

    cur alii, alii non

    Who knew the answer could have been so simple?

  • Martha

    Oh, Mollie, why did you do this to us?

    That’s just so unbelieveably terrible.

    “the desire to proclaim religious information to others, such as a belief in the afterlife. He assumed that this trait was genetic.”

    That’s not a religion gene, that’s a teaching gene! It’s amazing how many people have “the desire to proclaim information to others.”

    Oh, but we’re not talking about teachers, scientists, or journalists, we’re talking about “unreal information”.

    “The model assumes, in other words, that a small number of people have a genetic predisposition to communicate unverifiable information to others.”

    This means YOU if you ever, say, told your kids the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Or put money under their pillow and told them it came from the Tooth Fairy.

    Aren’t you ashamed of yourselves, you lying fantasists? Deceiving little innocent children like that! And not just children: “They passed on that trait to their children, but they also interacted with people who didn’t spread unreal information.”

    Oh, the horror! Picture the scene: charming, intelligent, young factual information-disseminators are quietly yet diligently sitting around, inventing the wheel, fire, weaving, and indoor plumbing.

    Being disseminators of factual information and not LIES LIKE RELIGION, they are of course supremely attractive. Hence, the uncouth, knuckle-dragging, violent and ugly religion-disseminators are lurking in the background, just waiting to club these unsuspecting folk over the heads, drag them back to their cold, damp, smelly caves, and force them to – shudder! – “interact”.

    And they’ll probably make them do the washing up afterwards, as well.

    Will nobody think of the children?!

  • Martha

    Stoo, I think the problem is the bad reporting, where the science is completely misunderstood and it’s all been tidied-up to read as though “computer model set up proves that religion is genetically-based”.

    I mean, from the description of it, this guy could have decided that “To simplify matters, Dow picked a defining trait of telling bedtime stories: the desire to proclaim fairytale information to others, such as a belief in ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’. He assumed that this trait was genetic.

    The model assumes, in other words, that a small number of people have a genetic predisposition to communicate unverifiable information to others. They passed on that trait to their children, but they also interacted with people who didn’t spread unreal information.

    The model looks at the reproductive success of the two sorts of people — those who pass on real information, and those who pass on unreal information.

    Under most scenarios, “believers in the unreal” went extinct. But when Dow included the assumption that non-storytellers would be attracted to fairytale people because of some clear, but arbitrary, signal, bedtime tale-spinning flourished.

    “Somehow the communicators of unreal information are attracting others to communicate real information to them,” Dow says, speculating that perhaps the non-tellers are touched by the imagination of the fairytale reciters.”

    In other words, he arbitrarily postulated the existence of a G3B (“Goldilocks and the Three Bears”)gene, devised an experiment with that lobbed in, and tweaked the model until it spat out the result he wanted.

    I imagine that’s not exactly how Mr. Dow went about it, but you couldn’t tell from the way it’s written.

  • Jay

    The reporters are clueless. (But then, except for Technology Review and some trade journals, such reporters generally have no science background).

    All a mathematical model proves is the consequence of the assumptions. So if you assume that there is a God gene, people will try to spread the God belief. (Just like the AIDS and Ebola viruses want to be spread).

    But this doesn’t tell us anything about whether the assumption is reasonable, let alone true.

  • Stoo

    “In other words, he arbitrarily postulated the existence of a G3B (“Goldilocks and the Three Bears”)gene, devised an experiment with that lobbed in, and tweaked the model until it spat out the result he wanted.”

    I’d be really careful talking about a “result he wanted”. Cos it’s very easily inverted and spat back at most of the people here.

    Also given that
    A: religion is obviously around and
    B: we’re assuming it’s an inherited trait

    then…isn’t “tweaking” the experiment the right way to go about it? Testing different variations until one gives a result matching reality?

    As has been pointed out the assumption might be wrong, but that’s another matter. I’ve heard the idea floated that religous belief might be a holdover from our nature as children to trust adults, as opposed to a separate trait that helps survival.

    Also if the initial simulation doesn’t come up with a “religion

  • Julia

    The model looks at the reproductive success of the two sorts of people — those who pass on real information, and those who pass on unreal information.

    Couldn’t this indicate that who like to pontificate on baseball statistics and those who like to blah, blah about the characters in “Sex and the city”?

    Somehow the communicators of unreal information are attracting others to communicate real information to them,” Dow says, speculating that perhaps the non-believers are touched by the faith of the religious.

    Perhaps the people who like to talk about “Sex and the City” are attracting the people who like to spout baseball statistics?

    I’ve seen that happen. On the other hand, I haven’t seen too many successful mating couples who both like to spout baseball statiscs or who both like to gas about “Sex and the City”.

  • Martha

    My point, Stoo.

    There’s a difference between (1) setting up an experiment and throwning variables at it, and (2) deciding in advance what the result you want is and then discarding any inconvenient bits of data that don’t fit.

    I think the guy probably did the former, but the way the story is written makes it sound like the latter.

    “Under most scenarios, “believers in the unreal” went extinct. But when Dow included the assumption that non-believers would be attracted to religious people because of some clear, but arbitrary, signal, religion flourished.”

    If ‘most scenarios’ didn’t give the expected result, he’d say “Okay, that hypothesis isn’t working out”.

    “Including the assumption” which then gives you the result you wanted but contradicts the other scenarios sounds like (not saying that it is, am just saying it sounds like) tweaking to get what you want.

    Probably just badly written because the science and the methodology isn’t understood, and besides, the story is all about religion in your genes which is this month’s favourite flavour.

    I’m waiting for when the genetic explanation as the universal panacea is discarded in favour of quarks, or hyperspace, or granite. There will be stories about how science has PROVED religion can be explained because it’s all down to quarks/hyperspace/granite.

    And just as poorly written and ignorant of the science.

  • Dave

    Martha, regarding your post #15:

    Explaining how the healthy human brain gives rise to religion does not invalidate religion. We know how the eye discerns colors but that does not disprove the existence of rainbows.

  • Don

    Dave,
    Actually the beef for some of us here is the whole idea that the “human brain gives rise to religion,” healthy or not. The model is flawed because it begins with the assumption that religion must be created by us, and not *given* to us. Therefore, since it is irrational for grown people who have lots of hunting and gathering to do to waste their time sitting around singing hymns and listening to preachers, there MUST be some evolutionary benefit.

    And, since the whole religion business is such a drag on economy and society, it must have some kind of connection to sexual reproduction to make it last. After all, isn’t sex the only thing worth pursuing in the end? (That’s sarcasm, so don’t bother to go after it.)

    The problem with the “research” is the false (or at least unproven) premise. The problem with the journalism is the inability to see why people would have a problem with that.

    I’m reminded of a line from Michael Gerson’s book about a guy asking if Gerson actually believed that someone rose from the dead. He was told (by a journalist, no less) that yes, in fact, he did. A lot of people do. They’re called Christians.

  • Matt

    Reporters, who report on science about as well as they report on religion…

    A hearty “amen” from this professional scientist!

    I wouldn’t give the story any credit for having been previously published in New Scientist. My experience with that publication (quite apart from religion) is that it tends to pick and present science-related stories based primarily on salaciousness, rather than responsible reporting.

  • Don

    Maybe I should make that last connection explicit.

    A lot of people, including a lot of Christian people and people of other faiths, do not assume that the human brain invented religion.

    A journalist should probably recognize and respond to that.

  • Chris Bolinger

    I changed one word a bit and found that some people have a genetic predisposition to be modern MSM reporters

    Thanks for the laugh, Jerry! I needed it, stuck at an airport for eight hours before back-to-back red-eyes.

  • Stoo

    “The model is flawed because it begins with the assumption that religion must be created by us, and not *given* to us. ”

    Well no that’s not a flaw, it’s an as-yet unproven premise that is rejected by believers.

  • Brian Walden

    “The model is flawed because it begins with the assumption that religion must be created by us, and not *given* to us. ”

    Well no that’s not a flaw, it’s an as-yet unproven premise that is rejected by believers.

    Stoo, a person can’t live his life as a science experiment. The man who waits for science to prove religion true or false will die waiting for an answer. We all have to make decisions about our lives that, while using reason, do not meet the standards of the scientific method.

    If expiriment #1 is being conducted to explore whether or not genetics have an affect on how religious a person is, then the question of whether or not religion is man-made is irrelevant. It’s outside the scope of the experiment.

    If experiment #2 is being conducted to explore whether or not religion is man made (I’m not really sure how this can be empirically proven, but I’m not a scientist), a scientist can propose a hypothesis one way or the other but shouldn’t assume either way.

    The point Don was making is that journalists often cover experiment #1 as if it’s expiriment #2. In fact, they often make it seem as if scientists themselves can’t tell the difference between the two. If that’s true, our scientific community is not in a good state right now.

  • http://pursueholiness.blogspot.com Pastor K

    Heck, not that there’s any evidence that such a gene is possible! But if there was, you see, it could explain Methodists.

    Ummmm. Am I then to assume, Molly, that my Methodism is because I’ve got the dominant gene pairing compared to the recessive Missouri Synod Lutheran gene pair? ;-)

    Reminds me of a song … “Don’t it make my brown eyes blue…”

  • Dan

    Why do people only look for a “God gene”? If our beliefs are genetically determined, why not also look for the “Marxist gene,” the “Freudian gene,” the “relativist gene,” the “atheist gene,” the “enivornmentalist gene,” the “flat earth gene,” the “contraception gene,” and the key to it all, the “Darwin gene”? It would be interesting to know what reproductive disadvantage has made Freudians and Marxists reach the verge of extinction.

    What a journalist really needs to do is explain how this “God gene” fits into evolutionary theory because I must confess it really is beyond me. The Dow model assumes that religious parents successfully pass their “God gene,” i.e., their faith, on to their children. If only it were so! If the “God gene” is being passed on to children, why do we see atheism on the rise in Europe and to some degree in the U.S.? Is atheism suddenly beginning to provide reproductive advantage or is the “God gene” just having bad luck in the gene mutation game? Also, how does evolutionary theory account for the fact that those who have the “God gene” seem to tend to have large families while those who don’t have the “God gene” but have the contraception gene instead seem to have many fewer children?

  • http://optimus-stoo.livejournal.com stoo

    There may well be evolutionary explanations for other aspects of behaviour, if that’s what you mean. Like, our natural curiosity that gave rise to the scientific method. ;-)

    I wonder if the focus is on religion as a means of kinda fighting back, given all the creationist and ID stuff giving scientists a headache.

    Also if religion was an evolutionary beneficial trait, we’re probably talking over tens of thousands of years. Which might not apply any more. Or other social factors over-rule it.

  • Dave

    Don (#17) wrote:

    [...T]he beef for some of us here is the whole idea that the “human brain gives rise to religion,” healthy or not.

    You have every right to be irked by the hypothesis but brain scientists have every right to pursue it. This is one of those instances highlighting the virtue of tolerance.

    BTW the specification “healthy human brain” is a welcome departure from the scientism that assumes religion to be a product of unhealthy or incompletely developed human brains, an attitude underlying some of the attitudes you cite sarcastically in #17.

    Brian (#22) wrote:

    The man who waits for science to prove religion true or false will die waiting for an answer.

    The brain researcher and friend I mentioned, Eugene d’Aquili, lived and died a devout Roman Catholic. He found no contradiction between his faith and his research. You raise a bit of a straw man here about the scientific investigation of religion.

  • Dave

    Stoo (#25) writes:

    I wonder if the [scientific] focus is on religion as a means of kinda fighting back, given all the creationist and ID stuff giving scientists a headache.

    Stoo, having known people in the field, I don’t think this describes their motivation at all. They are interested in what science can say about a field in which very little scientific investigation has been done. If anything, they are going up against a prevailing attitude among scientists that science should leave “that sort of stuff” alone. Eg, it took some lobbying to get an AAAS panel about religion into existence.

  • Martha

    Dave, certainly. My beef is this:

    (1) okay, it’s a popular science type account of what was going on, but before doing a splashy cover all about the latest proof that it’s all in your head, please dear journalists, UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT!!!

    (2) “The model assumes, in other words, that a small number of people have a genetic predisposition to communicate unverifiable information to others. They passed on that trait to their children, but they also interacted with people who didn’t spread unreal information.”

    Well, now: two points here. (a) “unverifiable” does not line up as neatly with “unreal” as all that, I’m afraid.

    Mary sends Johnny to the shop for groceries. She gives him ten euro. He comes back with the messages and gives her three euro change. She can VERIFY that the groceries cost seven euro (10-3) by checking the groceries in the bag against the till receipt to see if items correspond and then adding up the totals for herself.

    Johnny tells Mary he loves her. You tell me any method, apart from Mary choosing whether or not to believe him, that she can verify this. That information is unverifiable, but that does not make it unreal.

    (b) This is a bit broad-brush for religion alone. Under this heading (“to communicate unverifiable information to others”), you can include telling fairy stories, watching movies, writing poems, acting – heck, the whole gamut of human creativity.

    Which then boils down to: some humans are creatively disposed and some are not.

    Well, there’s a startling revelation.

    (3) Genes alone are not a sufficient explantion. I could have the gene for knitting báinín sweaters, but I haven’t expressed it yet. In other words, there’s a complex system of interactions which we are only at the tip of the iceberg of investigating as to why we do what we do and which behaviours are genetically disposed and which not; the old nature versus nurture argument is alive and well and still kicking.

    (4) It’s one scenario; an interesting one, granted. Did this guy assume the ‘unverifiable information’ gene was recessive? Is that why he needed to add in “some clear, but arbitrary, signal” to boost reproductive success?

    And what was this clear but arbitrary signal? I’d love to know. Religion gives power and status, so the unbelievers wanting a slice of that marry into the believer families? But that only kicks us back to why SHOULD religion give power and status.

    In other words, what is the benefit of communicating unverifiable information? Why do we prize it sufficiently to reward it?

    (5) In sum, it’s not the suggestion that religious behaviours may have a physical basis that annoys me; it’s the leaping to conclusions that “aha! science has proved it’s all baloney!” when science has made no such claim in the first place.

  • Brian Walden

    Brian (#22) wrote:

    “The man who waits for science to prove religion true or false will die waiting for an answer.”

    The brain researcher and friend I mentioned, Eugene d’Aquili, lived and died a devout Roman Catholic. He found no contradiction between his faith and his research. You raise a bit of a straw man here about the scientific investigation of religion.

    Dave, what are you talking about? I believe, like all good Catholics, that good religion and good science will never contradict each other. More than that they compliment each other, both revealing the truths of the world we live in.

    Stoo said that the assumption that religion is man-made is “an as-yet unproven premise that is rejected by believers.” I contend that simultaneously the assumption that religion is God-made is an as-yet unproven premise that is rejected by non-believers. The point I was making is that you can’t live your life according to the scientific method. If you do you’ll cripple yourself, you won’t be able to believe anything. We can’t know everything, at some point we have to take all the data we have and use our reason to draw our own conclusions from it.

    I agree with you that there is no contradiction between your friend’s faith and his life’s work. I agree that science can offer valuable insight into religion (look at post #2). But at the same time, can you name one man in all of history who went to his grave with scientific proof of his convictions? By science’s own definition, is it even capable of examining that which is outside of the scope of empirical experimentation? Where exactly is the straw man in my argument?

  • Dave

    Martha (#28), you may have missed my earlier comment that was extremely critical of the report covered in the story, in terms consistent with yours.

    Brian (#29) writes:

    Dave, what are you talking about?

    I am talking about the straw man you constructed relating to scientists who study religion waiting for science to confirm their religion.

    The point I was making is that you can’t live your life according to the scientific method.

    I haven’t suggested that and I don’t think stoo has either.

    [...C]an you name one man in all of history who went to his grave with scientific proof of his convictions? By science’s own definition, is it even capable of examining that which is outside of the scope of empirical experimentation? Where exactly is the straw man in my argument?

    “[...C]an you name one man in all of history who went to his grave with scientific proof of his convictions?” is your straw man. I don’t quite agree with the limitation that you place on science here — “experimentation” would exclude astronomy and archaeology — but with a little tweaking I can go along with it.

  • http://www.anthroufo.info/ Fresh Prof

    As a cultural anthropologist who does research on scientific and religious fields, I’ve tried to get a handle on evolutionary psychology’s treatment of religion to be able to teach it to my students. The “God gene” argument, which is a variant of an old philosophical materialist claim filtered through mid-70s sociobiology, has yet to really convince me that it can adequately account for both species-wide and culturally-specific religiosity. I respect Dow’s ethnographic work on religion in Latin America, but even adjusting for the usual journalistic distortions I have reservations about the insights possible for computer modeling of this type. (The same goes for what William Sims Bainbridge has attempted with “God from the Machine”.)

    The most plausible evo-psych argument I have read (cf. Pascal Boyer “Religion Explained”) is that natural selection helped humans craft cognitive tools–like the propensity to attribute agency to ambiguous perceived movement, or a “theory of mind” that allows us to infer motivations in other organisms–that we subsequently repurposed as a belief-ritual system that can be defined as “religion.” So no gene for “God” or “religion,” but brain architecture and social interaction that support religiosity.

    And yes, social scientists do overwhelmingly approach religious belief/behavior as human creations. We have nothing meaningful to say one way or another about the ultimate reality of spirit(s), the afterlife, etc. So I cringe when one of my colleagues asserts (or is interpreted as asserting) a metaphysical claim like “There is(n’t) a god” because (a) it’s not what we do, and (b) we don’t have the tools to do it if we wanted to.

  • Chris Bolinger

    And yes, social scientists do overwhelmingly approach religious belief/behavior as human creations.

    Isn’t a key part of the scientific method the assumptions that underlie your hypotheses? If you approach religious belief, i.e. belief in God, as a human creation, then aren’t you making an assumption that God is a human creation?

    So I cringe when one of my colleagues asserts (or is interpreted as asserting) a metaphysical claim like “There is(n’t) a god” because (a) it’s not what we do, and (b) we don’t have the tools to do it if we wanted to.

    I interpret that you and all of your colleagues are making the same assertion because of your premise that belief in God is a human creation. To adopt your desired stance that you have nothing meaningful to say about the ultimate reality of things in the religious domain, you must alter your approach from “religious belief is a creation of man” to “religious belief may be a creation of man or a may be a consequence of the existence of God”.

  • Dave

    Chris (#32):

    It would be seen as cultural imperialism for social scientists to study beliefs of other societies (eg, Pacific Islanders or Amazon Basin natives) as creations of their culture, but give special deference to the Judeo-Christian beliefs of their own culture. Decades of anti-colonial correction to the thinking of earlier generations of social scientists have produced a standard of using the same grid for examining the beliefs of any society.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Dave, if that’s the case, then social scientists need to stop whining when people expose their assumptions and how those assumptions influence scientists’ assertions and the arguably fair interpretation of those assertions. And reporters need to spend more time explaining the assumptions and the boundaries that they impose.

  • Dave

    Chris, I don’t hear any whining and I don’t see any exposure. What this post and its comments are about is a poorly crafted and/or poorly described computer experiment, and a reporter’s inability to spot the flaws in it. That doesn’t invalidate social science on the subject of religion that has nothing to do with brain activity. It does taint by association other, valid brain-activity reseach on religion, which is a pity but not a journalistic shortcoming.

    I don’t know if the reporter bought into the militant atheist position that brain science showing possible origins of religion in that organ prove that religion is false. But a bad job of critiquing the experiment leaves the possibility open.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Dave, the “whining” comment was in response to #31. To be fair, I should have written “cringing” instead of “whining”. As for little exposure of the assumptions of social scientists, I agree with you. Reporters rarely discuss the assumptions behind any scientific hypothesis or theory. Instead, they quote scientists as if those scientists were stating facts, not evidence in support of a theory or hypothesis that rests on assumptions. If “math is hard”, then science is harder, at least for reporters. And religion is next to impossible! :-)

    It must amaze today’s scientists that scientists before the 20th Century — Newton, Kepler, etc. — discovered anything, given that the vast majority of those scientists had an underlying assumption of a Creator God. Today, scientists that operate under that assumption are ridiculed and ostracized by the “mainstream” scientific community and the “mainstream” press that covers it. Ironic.

  • Dave

    Chris (#36, 2nd para):

    Prior to Darwin, there was no naturalistic answer to the big question, “Where did all this come from?” Evolution by natural selection provided a naturalistic alternative to Creator-God deism.

  • Maureen

    Evolution by natural selection provides an answer to where “all this” comes from? Including the universe?

    Yeah, all them universes, breeding and eating and dodging predator universes…. :)

    Of course, even were that scenario true, it would not explain where and how “all this” comes from. It certainly does not do anything to explain the why of it.

    Sigh. It’s sad to see some atheists claim to be scientific and logical, only to indulge in nothing but illogical repetitions of the few elements of their belief system they think they understand. Where are the logically rigorous atheists of yesteryear?

  • Dave

    Maureen, we’re getting far away from journalistic analysis, but I’ll try to respond to the non-snark parts of your #38.

    After Newton, the mechanism of the larger universe as it was then grasped seemed to be understood. But what was completely without explanation was the layered, interactive, mutually adaptive natural world we see all around us. An educated, intelligent person — including most Enlightenment scientists and the US founding fathers — would have been embarassed to not have an idea where that came from. That’s the change that Darwin introduced. One person said, “Darwin made it intellectually respectable to be an atheist.”

    I’m in sympathy with your pining for an older generation of atheists. The new crop don’t understand that their opposition is 21st Century religion, not 14th Century religion or New Age vapours.


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