Informal Study Finds Bloggers Can’t Tell Fact from Fiction

Informal Study Finds Bloggers Can’t Tell Fact from Fiction July 28, 2014

Connor Wood

Confused computer guy

A study that made the rounds through the TwitFaceBlogosphere last week claimed that religious children can’t distinguish properly between fantasy and reality. The Huffington Post, the Friendly Atheist, RawStory, and the Democratic Underground each chimed in, all with headlines that were some version of “Children Exposed to Religion Have Difficulty Telling Truth from Fiction.” Of course, that’s not what the study actually shows. It shows that religious children believe religious stories. But more groan-inducing than the study authors’ conclusions is how quickly so many people jumped on the middle-school “laugh-at-religion” bandwagon, without stopping to, you know, think critically.

The original study, “Judgments About Fact and Fiction by Children From Religious and Nonreligious Backgrounds,” recently appeared in a pre-print online version of the journal Cognitive Science. Its authors, led by Boston University education professor Kathleen Corriveau, carried out two experiments to determine whether religious and secular children would differ in their ability to distinguish fictional characters and stories from real (or realistic) ones. For their experiments, the researchers recruited groups of kindergarten-age children from around Cambridge, Massachusetts. Some of the children had completely secular family and educational backgrounds. Others either attended church, a parochial school, or both.

In both experiments, the children were first asked to sort individual characters into “real” and “fictional” categories. For example, George Washington was a “real” character, while Snow White wasn’t. Importantly, children with both religious and secular backgrounds performed equally well on this task. (In fact, contrary to what Eliyanu Federman claimed at OnFaith, children who attended both church and religious school gave slightly more correct answers, and had a lower standard deviation in their scores, than the secular children, although these differences weren’t large enough to be statistically significant.)

Next, the kids were asked to show whether they believed a few different stories were “real” or “pretend.” In the first experiment, there were three types of stories: realistic, fantastical, and religious. Importantly, the stories were all taken from the Bible. Fantastical and realistic stories were simply modified to eliminate mention of God or miraculous events, respectively. Here are three versions of the story of Samson the researchers told the kids in the first study:

Religious

This is Samson. He was a very strong man, so when he was captured and tied to some pillars, he kept breaking the pillars and escaping. But one day, Samson’s long hair was cut and made him weak, so he prayed to God and became strong once again.

Fantastical

This is Samson. He was a very strong man, so when he was captured and tied to some pillars, he kept breaking the pillars and escaping. But one day, Samson’s long hair was cut and made him weak, so he used his magical powers to become strong once again.

Realistic

This is Samson. He was a very strong man, so when he was captured and tied to some pillars, he kept breaking the pillars and escaping. But one day, Samson got sick and lost all of his hair. When he got better, he did a lot of exercise to become strong once again.

Corriveau and her fellow researchers assumed that the religious children would rate the religious stories as more “true” than the secular kids, and that all children would generally think the realistic stories were true. These expectations were fulfilled: everyone thought the “realistic” stories were true, while only the religious kids thought the stories with God were true.

But the finding that’s been making the splash around the Internet was that the religious children also tended to think that the “fantastical” stories were true. Or at least more than the secular kids did. Does this mean that religious kids can’t tell fantasy from reality, or that religious kids just accept the validity of religious stories? In a second study, the researchers tried to answer this question by modifying the stories and changing the names of the characters. But all the stories still came from… the Bible. For example, the researchers used these derivations of the story of the parting of the Red Sea:

This is John. John led his people when they were escaping from their enemies. When they reached the sea John waved his stick. The sea separated into two parts, and John and his people escaped through the pathway in the middle.

This is John. John led his people when they were escaping from their enemies. When they reached the mountain John waved his stick. The mountain separated into two parts, and John and his people escaped through the pathway in the middle.

Again, secular children thought these stories were less believable than the religious kids did. Corriveau and her coauthors claimed  that this result shows that religious kids weren’t just recognizing Bible stories and calling them true, because the stories had different names (John instead of Moses). No, the researchers decided, the difference was that religious children simply couldn’t tell fantasy from reality. “Exposure to religion” (the kind of language used for animal-borne pathogens) might actually have altered the way that kids processed concepts of physical possibility.

This brilliant finding got Corriveau a lot of attention, and it got many bloggers a lot of clicks and frothy comment threads. But it’s wrong. Every one of the stories they used in their experiments was drawn directly from the Christian New and Old Testaments. The narratives’ structures and themes are directly derived from Bible stories. For example, in the story about John and the mountain above, John is fleeing from enemies with “his people” (a giveaway phrase for the Moses story). A barrier appears. He waves his “stick.” And the barrier parts in the middle, allowing his people to escape their enemies.

Tell me – if you saw this story someplace else, what would be the first thought in your mind? If you had any exposure to Abrahamic religions at all, it would be something like, “Huh. This sounds like the story about Moses and Red Sea, but with some things switched around and replaced. Weird.”

In other words, anyone with the slightest familiarity with the stories in the Bible – even a six-year-old – would probably have recognized this as a version of the Moses story. And if you’d been taught to believe that the Bible stories are true – even if not in the same way as other “true” stories – you’d feel pretty conflicted about calling it false outright.

If the researchers really wanted to see whether religious kids couldn’t tell reality from fantasy, they ought to have drawn their stories from European folk tales, or Lakota mythology, or the Hindu Puranas. If Christian kids in Boston believe that the White Buffalo Calf Woman appeared naked to two hunters en route to bringing the sacred pipe to the Lakota people, then maybe I’ll accept the authors’ conclusions. But that’s not what would happen. I’d bet money Christian kids and secular kids would be equally doubtful about the White Buffalo Calf Woman – or any story derived from non-Christian mythology, no matter how the authors tweaked the thematic elements.

As it stands, this study isn’t about truth judgments; it’s about cultural ones. In fact, the authors actually excluded several Jewish kids from their study, precisely because the Jewish kids might not recognize some of the stories drawn from the New Testament. Talk about biasing the sample! Of course, you could argue that the religious stories are clearly not true, and that therefore the point remains that religious kids are misled, but then this entire study would be raw tautology – which in fact is exactly what it is. If you define religious beliefs from the beginning as false, and then test whether religious children hold religious beliefs – well, you’re going to find that religious kids believe false things. But the Internet didn’t need a study to tell them this. They already believed it.

____

This post’s clever title is courtesy of my good friend and fellow religion researcher Jonathan Morgan, whose blog you can find here

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