Summer Break

We’ll be back here on September 2—but you can always follow us on Twitter (@scireltoday). We’ll continue to share news and stories from around the Web there over the next couple of weeks.

Thanks for reading SRT.


August 8, 2014

© 2014 Microsoft CorporationWhy Would Affirming Belief in Scientific Progress Seem to Reduce Environmentally Friendly Behavior?
Marijn Meijers and Bastiaan Rutjens attribute these results to compensatory control theory, which states that humans have a strong desire to see the world as “meaningful, ordered, and structured.” According to this school of thought, if we’re convinced some powerful force—be it God or science—has things under control, we can comfortably remain passive. But fear of chaos leads us to take things into our own hands, increasing our motivation to take action. (Tom Jacobs, Pacific Standard)

How Mobile Phones Affect Face-to-Face Social Interactions
Feelings of “interconnectedness” (rated by agreement with statements like “I felt close to my conversation partner”) were reduced for pairs in which a mobile device was placed on the table or held by one of them. Similarly, “empathetic concern” (measured by items like “To what extent did your conversation partner make an effort to understand your thoughts and feelings about the topic you discussed?”) was rated lower by pairs in which a mobile device was brought into view. (Christian Jarrett, BPS Research Digest)

Morality in the Brain
Using new technology, brain researchers are beginning to tease apart the biology that underlies our decisions to behave badly or do good deeds. They’re even experimenting with ways to alter our judgments of what is right and wrong, and our deep gut feelings of moral conviction. One thing is certain: We may think in simple terms of “good” and “evil,” but that’s not how it looks in the brain at all. (Carey Goldberg, CommonHealth, WBUR)

Q&A
Daniel Dennett

Carey Goldberg: More than once lately, brain scientists have told me, “You won’t get your answer here. That’s the purview of philosophy.” The drill goes like this: They boggle my mind with the ways they’re beginning to be able to dissect and tweak the brain processes that underlie our moral selves, from decisions to judgments to feelings. I eventually ask something like, “But if it’s all the brain, if it’s all biology, then what does that mean for free will? For moral responsibility? Blame for bad deeds? Credit for good?” And they reply, a bit apologetically, “That’s not a scientific question. It’s a normative one. Try philosophy.” So I did. (CommonHealth, WBUR)

MUSIC
Religion Evolves

A preview EP showcasing songs from the upcoming Baba Brinkman album “The Rap Guide to Religion,” which explores the study of religious behavior from an evolutionary perspective.


August 7, 2014

© 2014 Microsoft CorporationBrain Mechanisms of Determining Punishment
New research illuminates how the human brain decides the severity of a criminal’s punishment, scientists say. Several brain regions do battle in determining the appropriate level of justice, depending on the person’s level of guilt, a study has found. Often, people demand swift and severe punishment, particularly when the crime involves bodily harm to others and is relayed in gruesome detail. Yet certain brain regions can override this gut emotional response when the harm was not intentional, regardless of how shocking the incident was. (Christopher Wanjek, Live Science)

Judging the Trustworthiness of Faces (That Aren’t Consciously Perceived)
The human brain can judge the apparent trustworthiness of a face from a glimpse so fleeting, the person has no idea they have seen it, scientists claim. Researchers in the U.S. found that brain activity changed in response to how trustworthy a face appeared to be when the face in question had not been consciously perceived. Scientists made the surprise discovery during a series of experiments that were designed to shed light on the neural processes that underpin the snap judgments people make about others. (Ian Sample, theguardian.com)

Is a One-Way Mission to Mars Insane?
Here’s how Mason Peck responded to the question: “There are many motivations for becoming one of the first settlers on Mars, none of them insane in my opinion.” (Vince, Mars One Exchange)

Rosetta Spacecraft Arrives at Its Comet Destination
(and Is Already Sending Back Amazing Images)

For more than a year, it will take pictures and gather data, and it will also send a lander down to the surface, all in a quest to help us understand the origin and evolution of the solar system. In so doing, it will tell us something of our own origins. (Tom Yulsman, ImaGeo, Discover)

TELEVISION
The Leftovers

On mainstream television, “religious,” and especially “Christian,” is usually a euphemism for well-behaved and mildly inspirational, as in shows like Touched by an Angel or 7th Heaven. But six episodes into its first season, The Leftovers, the HBO drama, has proven itself to be the exception: It is a show whose central concerns are not just religious but theological. It asks the question, what would have to happen for us to take religion seriously again? And would the world be better off if we did? (Adam Kirsch, New Republic)


August 6, 2014

© 2014 Microsoft CorporationHow to Identify a Narcissist
Researchers have discovered the quickest way to tell if someone is a narcissist: Simply ask them. A new study describes a single question that appears to be nearly as accurate at identifying narcissists than a commonly used narcissist diagnostic test 40 items long. And that single question is this: “To what extent do you agree with this statement: I am a narcissist. (Note: The word ‘narcissist’ means egotistical, self-focused and vain.)” (Deborah Netburn, Los Angeles Times)

Our Surprisingly Strong Emotional Reactions to Fictional Stories
A recently published study finds people incorrectly believe they will have a stronger emotional reaction to stories that are based on fact, or ones that are set in the recent rather than the distant past. Based on this inaccurate belief, people “may choose to see a play about their home town, watch a basketball game live on television, or read a novel based on a true story, but miss out on seeing a more enjoyable play about a distant city, watching a more exciting game recorded earlier, or reading a more entertaining fictional novel,” write Jane Ebert of Brandeis University and Tom Meyvis of New York University. (Tom Jacobs, Pacific Standard)

Hero Brains
Marco Zanon and his colleagues scanned the brains of 43 young adults (30 women) while they took part in a virtual reality experience of a disaster. (Christian Jarrett, Brain Watch, Wired)

Benefits of Social Inequality
New research suggests that in the distant past, groups of hunter-gatherers may have recognized and accepted the benefits of living in hierarchical societies, even if they themselves weren’t counted among the well-off. This model could help explain why bands of humans moved from largely egalitarian groups to hierarchical cultures in which social inequality was rife. How such hierarchical structures gained ground and then proliferated is one of the big mysteries in social evolution. (Sid Perkins, Science)

The Latest on Homo Floresiensis
One article points out what are said to be flaws in the original research reports. The second one describes evidence suggesting the individual was born with Down syndrome. (John Noble Wilford, The New York Times)

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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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