Time Off

We apologize for the break (due to travel and other commitments), but plan to be back soon.
You can always follow us on Twitter (@scireltoday), where we’ll continue to share news and stories from around the Web.

Thanks for reading SRT.


January 21, 2015

sotuScience in the State of the Union
President Barack Obama reiterated his commitment to addressing global warming in his annual address to Congress on January 20, describing the perils of rising temperatures as the greatest threat facing future generations. (Jeff Tollefson and Sara Reardon, Nature)

On Gender and Religious Belief
A big gender divide exists between men and women in their 40s in belief in God and life after death, a poll suggests. Of the British men surveyed, 54 percent said they were atheists or agnostics compared with only 34 percent of women. The study also showed that Muslims in the survey had the fewest doubts about the existence of God and the afterlife. The research involving more than 9,000 British people born in 1970 was analyzed at the University of Essex. (BBC News UK)

What If Heaven Is Not For Real?
Adam Frank: For many folks, what’s most terrifying about death is the ending of their own being. Each of us is, naturally, at the center of a remarkably vivid life. We’re center stage in our own dramas of love and hardship, victory and defeat. The idea that it could just end, that we could just end, evokes nothing short of horror for many people. As Woody Allen famously put it: “Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering—and it’s all over much too soon.” But this kind of existential terror never made a lot of sense to me. (13.7: Cosmos and Culture, NPR)

The Edge’s Annual Question
What do you think about machines that think? (Edge)

MOVIES
Ex Machina

The best science fiction often tackles the oldest questions. At the heart of Ex Machina is one of our toughest intellectual knots, that of artificial consciousness. Is it possible to build a machine that is not only intelligent but also sentient: that has consciousness, not only of the world but also of its own self? Can we construct a modern-day Golem, that lumpen being of Jewish folklore which is shaped from unformed matter and can both serve humankind and turn against it in certain conditions? And if we could, what would happen to us? (Anil Seth, New Scientist)


January 20, 2015

the-red-towerWe Find Surrealistic Art More Reassuring After We’ve Been Reminded of Our Mortality
It has long been argued that, in the face of existential threats, art can evoke a comforting aura of collective meaning and transcendence. That’s a fairly obvious dynamic with sacred works, but it can also be true of secular images that serve as poignant reminders of the beliefs that give one’s life meaning. Somewhat counter-intuitively, a research team led by psychologist Verena Graupmann of DePaul University reports surrealistic art can serve this same purpose. It argues that the disconcerting quality of such works allows viewers to liberate their thinking “from mundane limitations and fears” and forge “a connection with a more holistic level of meaning.” (Tom Jacobs, Pacific Standard)

Personal Story Editing and Happiness
Researchers are studying whether the power of writing—and then rewriting—your personal story can lead to behavioral changes and improve happiness. The concept is based on the idea that we all have a personal narrative that shapes our view of the world and ourselves. But sometimes our inner voice doesn’t get it completely right. Some researchers believe that by writing and then editing our own stories, we can change our perceptions of ourselves and identify obstacles that stand in the way of better health. (Tara Parker-Pope, Well, The New York Times)

SLIDESHOW
Five Bizarre Rituals—and Why People Perform Them

Rituals can be found in every human group and society, yet they are remarkably difficult to define. One thing they all have in common is being outside the everyday—they do not make sense in terms of cause and effect. Another is that they serve as a badge of belonging and a kind of social glue to unite the people that perform them. This helps explain some strange characteristics associated with the most powerful rituals. (Kate Douglas, New Scientist)

PODCAST
“What Is It Like to Be a Psychopath?”

Cognitive neuroscientist Kent Kiehl discusses his research and personal experience working with “those without conscience.” Scott Barry Kaufman and Kent demystify the historically fascinating illness as it relates to criminal activity, genius, evil, flourishing, the brain, gender, and treatment. (The Psychology Podcast)

BOOKS
The Moral Arc

Today most people are sickened at the idea of merriment at an execution. (Many are disturbed that executions take place at all.) We recoil from other once-common practices, too: slavery, the mistreatment of children, animal cruelty. Such shifts in attitude or belief surely constitute a form of moral progress and suggest, for once, that civilization is advancing and not receding. How such progress came about is the fascinating question at the heart of The Moral Arc, an ambitious book by Michael Shermer, a prolific science writer and the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine. (Sally Satel, The Wall Street Journal)

EVENT
Are We Real When We Are Online?

Today at 7 p.m.
Must we be virtuous in the virtual world? What is the nature of the connections we make when people don’t know the whole story? Join panelists Judith Donath of the Harvard Berkman Center, Rabbi Matt Soffer of Temple Israel, and the Rev. David Thom of Cambridge Roundtable for a lively discussion on the ethics of Internet anonymity. Moderated by Rabbi Geoff Mitelman of Sinai and Synapses, and presented by MIT Hillel and Sinai and Synapses.


January 16, 2015

© 2015 Microsoft CorporationHostile Attribution Bias
On a crowded city sidewalk, a stranger knocks hard into your shoulder. Aggressive gesture or innocent mistake? In the split second it takes to lock eyes with your might-be assailant, your mind may already have supplied an answer to that question. Many of us, in situations like this, exhibit something called hostile attribution bias: a tendency to err on the side of assuming malevolence in the intentions of others. (Pacific Standard)

Empathy for the Pain of Strangers
Being around strangers can cause people stress and, in turn, make them less able to feel others’ pain, new research suggests. But giving people a drug that blocks the body’s stress response can restore that sense of empathy, scientists said. What’s more, the same effect shows up in both humans and mice. (Tia Ghose, Live Science)

Getting Kids to Be Honest
While many parents looking to increase their children’s honesty might opt for one of two diametrically opposed options—the carrot of reward, or the stick of punishment—this new research shows there’s an important third route to take: appealing to the better angels of kids’ nature, and encouraging honesty because it will make others happy. (Dan Jones, BPS Research Digest)

Observing Someone Cold Can Make You Feel Cold
Why did people sync up their responses to their cold counterparts? Neil Harrison, a neuropsychiatrist who led the study, has a theory: matching someone else’s physical response can help us live together more harmoniously. “Mimicking another person is believed to help us create an internal model of their physiological state which we can use to better understand their motivations and how they’re feeling,” he said in a release. (Erin Blakemore, Smithsonian.com)

Scientific American Survey: Do We Have Free Will?
Gary Stix: An article in the January issue of Scientific American by philosopher Eddy Nahmias addressed this debate, coming to the conclusion that we are endowed with free will, even if, at times, a lot of mental processing is going on before we become conscious of it. The article—and the intrinsic fascination with this question—prompted us to run a survey of visitors to our site, asking their opinions on this philosophical perennial, now being debated anew because of the brain scans that question free will’s existence. The results are now in. (Talking back, Scientific American)

Q&A
Scott Atran

In the wake of terrorist attacks last week on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a Paris supermarket, the world has struggled to understand the combination of religion, European culture, and influence from terrorist organizations that drove the gunmen. Scott Atran, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, studies such questions by interviewing would-be and convicted terrorists about their extreme commitment to their organizations and ideals. Atran recently returned from Paris, where he talked with members of the shooters’ communities. He spoke with Nature about what he discovered. (Sara Reardon, Nature)

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Expert Opinion

From Gregory Paul, an independent paleontologist and researcher who examines the relationship between religion and society:

In recent years, there has been lots of discussion and debate about whether atheism or theism is on the rise around the world. A good deal of the answer can be found in results from the International Social Survey Program. In its Religion II survey conducted in 1998 and Religion III survey sampled in 2008 and just released (why the ISSP is so tardy in releasing its results is obscure), the ISSP asked the same set of questions in 28 countries, allowing assessment of gross longitudinal trends over a decade (because their Religion 1 poll in 1991 asked different questions in far fewer countries, it is not very longitudinally useful).

% Don’t believe in God % Theists overall % No doubt God exists
1998           2008 1998          2008 1998           2008
Great Britain 9.6              17.7 46.2           36 22.5            16.8
Austria 6.8              9.3 51.3           40.8 32.4            20.8
Netherlands 17.2            19.8 44.2           36.7 26.4            21.1
Australia 10.2            15.6 52.2           43.5 28.6            25.1
Norway 11.7            17.7 42.5           37 18.4            15
Ireland 2.4              4 77.3           67.5 49.8            45.1
New Zealand 7.9              12.5 52.9           46.4 30.9            28.2
Spain 8.6              9.7 64.7           59.5 45.8            39.2
Italy 4.1              5.3 73.5           69.5 48               42.9
Sweden 16.8            19.5 25.8           24.9 12.3            10.3
France 19.1            21.9 38.8           37.3 20.1            17.5
Denmark 14.7            18.4 34              33.4 13.6            13.4
United States 3.2              2.8 77.5           78.2 62.8            61.3
Switzerland 4.3              8.5 44.5           45.1 28.3            28.8
Germany west 12.1            10.5 41.3           48.1 23.4            27.2
Germany east 54               53 15.7           16.5 9.4              8
Japan 10.6            8.7 13.2           16.4 4                 4.4
Northern Ireland 3.7              6.8 74.4           67.4 50               45.2
Portugal 1.9              4 84.8           72.9 60               54.4
Czech Republic 20.3            37.3 30.4           23.9 17.1            23.9
Hungary 12.8            15.3 51.6           42.4 31.1            23.2
Latvia 9.2              18.3 38.9           36.9 22.9            21.7
Poland 2.4              3.3 81             76.4 70.5            62.9
Russia 19.7            6.1 40.2           58.2 23.8            33.9
Slovakia 11.1            10.4 56.7           59.8 40.8            41.6
Slovenia 14.2            13.6 39.4           40.7 22.9            24.2
Chile 1.5              1.7 91.4           90.5 81.4            82.3
Cyprus 1.6              1.9 84.8           70.2 65               59
Philippines 0.7              0.8 82.3           92.5 79               82.7

(Note: Bold lines indicate an increase in atheism. First World countries are ordered starting with largest decrease in overall theists and progressing downward.)

A complaint I have about the new ISSP survey is that it failed to requery on opinion on the Bible in a large number of countries, including the United States (!), leaving us unable to reaffirm the Gallup record of a strong long-term decline in American biblical literalism. Nor did it repeat the question on regular attendance at religious services, another serious loss of longitudinal sampling that will hopefully be corrected in 2018.

Because there are only two samples, at each end of the 10 years, the trends for a given country must be taken with a dose of demographic salt, especially when the difference is not statistically significant. Even what looks like a major shift in a particular nation may be a statistical fluke. If there were no general overall pattern apparent, there would be little change to report.
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Is Atheism Increasing at the Expense of Theism?


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