October 24, 2014

Ezekiel J. EmanuelWhy I Hope to Die at 75
Ezekiel J. Emanuel: Doubtless, death is a loss. It deprives us of experiences and milestones, of time spent with our spouse and children. In short, it deprives us of all the things we value. But here is a simple truth that many of us seem to resist: living too long is also a loss. It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. (The Atlantic)

Collective Mourning Online
Christina Chaey at Fast Company wonders, “should our thoughts on the dying remain a private affair?” Or “is it fair to bring others into our own, deeply personal experiences with death through very public mediums?” Katy Waldman at Slate asks, “Is it somehow more tasteful, even nobler, to keep grief private?” (Anna Altman, Op-Talk, The New York Times)

Asking Americans About Praying
It was a small survey, especially when compared to the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, which interviews more than 35,000 respondents. But small or not, the LifeWay survey reveals some interesting features of America’s prayer life. Almost half of those surveyed said they pray at least once every day, while nearly a third say they pray several times a day; 83 percent think at least some of their prayers are answered, while 14 percent do not know. But what are those prayers? (Casey N. Cep, Pacific Standard)

Mormon Temple Garments
The basic argument goes that the garments are not so different from the nun’s habit, the Jewish prayer shawl, or the robes of a Buddhist monk. And all of these tie into a much more earthbound concept—something psychologists call embodiment, or embodied cognition. (Melissa Dahl, Science of Us, New York Magazine)

A Rabbi’s Review of “The Rap Guide to Religion”
Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman: Since I am always looking for interesting and intelligent perspectives on the interaction of science and religion, when a friend of mine told me about this project, I had to go see it. And I was deeply impressed. (The Huffington Post)

October 23, 2014

Nature Special- The hobbit at 10Revisiting the Hobbit
The remains of the tiny hominin Homo floresiensis (nicknamed the ‘hobbit’) still raise supersize questions 10 years after the publication in Nature of their discovery in a cave on the remote island of Flores in Indonesia. This collection of reporting, comment, and research—new and from Nature’s archives—examines the controversy surrounding the origins and validity of this species, including whether it belongs in our genus, Homo. (Nature)

When Humans Interbred With Neanderthals
The oldest DNA of a modern human ever to be sequenced shows that the Homo sapiens who interbred with the Neanderthals were very modern—not just anatomically but with modern behavior including painting, modern tools, music, and jewelry. Some previous estimates had placed the first interspecies liaison much earlier, before the emergence of these features. The new DNA sequence shows it actually happened in the middle of an age called the Initial Upper Palaeolithic, when there was an explosion of modern human culture. (Michael Slezak, New Scientist)

The Influence of Money on Emotion
In the latest research in this field, a team led by Yuwei Jiang have shown that exposing people to pictures of money, or to money-related words, reduces their emotional expressivity and makes them more sensitive to other people’s expressions of emotion. The researchers think the effect occurs because money primes a business mindset, and in business the cultural norm is to conceal emotion. (Christian Jarrett, BPS Research Digest)

More on Judging People by Their Faces
Christopher Olivola, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University, makes the case against face-ism, in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences. In light of many recent articles touting people’s judgmental abilities, Olivola and Princeton University’s Friederike Funk and Alexander Todorov say that a careful look at the data really doesn’t support these claims. And “instead of applauding our ability to make inferences about social characteristics from facial appearances,” Olivola said, “the focus should be on the dangers.” (James Hamblin, The Atlantic)

Vodou: Sacred Powers of Haiti

The Field Museum’s new exhibit skips myths and misconceptions in favor of a rich cultural anthropology case study. Through centuries of hardship, poverty, and turmoil, the spiritual practice of Vodou—that’s the correct spelling—has helped Haitians find meaning and even express their creativity through visual arts and music. More than 300 authentic objects from Haiti will be on display, some accompanied by video interviews with practitioners. (Gemma Tarlach, Discover)

October 22, 2014

November-2014-coverSocial Robots
In recent years, a growing number of researchers have demonstrated that making robots more social—creating the perception that they are more sentient than a mere machine—can vastly improve how we work with them. Some activities, they argue, we simply perform better when we are in the presence of someone who supports us and shares our goals. In Japan, roboticists are taking the idea a step further. Isn’t life simply sweeter when we’re with another? Why be alone, they ask, when you don’t have to be? (Adam Piore, Popular Science)

Spiteful Behavior and Cognitive Skills in Preschoolers
Smart kids are apparently quicker to grasp the concept of competitiveness, and sense the advantages of impeding the success of others. “We find that higher cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children,” conclude C. Katharina Spiess of the Free University of Berlin and Elisabeth Bügelmayer of the German Institute for Economic Research. “This relationship is even more pronounced among boys.” (Tom Jacobs, Pacific Standard)

More on Heroes and Altruists
It’s worth noting that the hero and the altruist are made of slightly different stuff. While both act admirably, only one has, by definition, a superhuman, preternatural aura. That distinction raises the question of whether what we value in heroism is a kind of transcending of what we take to be our frail or selfish wiring. Generosity might retain its gleam if it’s innate—but does heroism count as heroism if we’re predisposed to it? (Katy Waldman, Slate)

Does Being ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ Really Mean Anything?
Adam Frank: Many of the “Spiritual But Not Religious” are trying honestly to understand what it means to be both spiritual and scientific. That’s why they represent a category that won’t be going away anytime soon. Nor should we hope they’ll go away. (13.7: Cosmos and Culture, NPR)

Cosmic Queries: Primate Evolution

Paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall of the American Museum of Natural History is back in the studio to help Neil deGrasse Tyson and Eugene Mirman answer fan questions about where primates came from, and where we’re going. (StarTalk)

October 21, 2014

© 2014 Microsoft CorporationMotivated by Love or Hate?
Asked why some of their fellow citizens supported bombing in Gaza, Israelis reported they were 35 percent more motivated by love for fellow Israelis than hate, while they thought just about the reverse for Palestinians’ motivations for firing rockets into Israel. Palestinians, meanwhile, ascribed more hate than love to Israelis, though they thought fellow Palestinians were about equally motivated by love and hate. An additional survey of 498 Israelis found that the more they perceived differences in the two parties’ motivations, the less likely they were to support negotiations, vote for a peace deal, or believe that Palestinians would support such a deal. (Nathan Collins, Pacific Standard)

Are Factual and Religious Belief The Same?
Tania Lombrozo: Consider the following two statements of “belief”:
Devon believes that humans evolved from earlier primates over 100,000 years ago.
Devon believes that humans were created less than 10,000 years ago.
These claims are clearly at odds. Since they can’t both be true, Devon holds contradictory beliefs. Right? Maybe not. A new paper by philosopher Neil Van Leeuwen offers a third possibility: That factual belief isn’t the same as religious belief. Even though we use the same word, our attitudes towards their respective propositions—that humans evolved thousands and thousands of years ago, that humans were created quite recently—could differ considerably. (13.7: Cosmos and Culture, NPR)

Seeking Stars, Finding Creationism
George Johnson: Congeries of stars have given way to congeries of galaxies, but astronomy—one of the grandest achievements of the human race—is still fending off charges of blasphemy. These days the opposition comes not from the Vatican, which operates its own observatory, but from a people with very different religious beliefs. (The New York Times)

The Language Myth: Why Language Is Not an Instinct

Alun Anderson: I came away excited. I found that words aren’t so much things that can be limited by a dictionary definition but are encyclopedic, pointing to sets of concepts. There is the intriguing notion that language will always be less rich than our ideas and there will always be things we cannot quite express. And there is the growing evidence that words are rooted in concepts built out of our bodily experience of living in the world. (New Scientist)

The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self—Not Just Your “Good” Self—Drives Success and Fulfillment

Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener: The good news is that a whole range of negativity—of beneficial negativity, mind you—has nothing to do with being a jerk. Negative emotions can also help you focus on the situation at hand. When you are about to drill a hole in the wall, chances are that you pay close attention to the measurements involved as well as to the position of your hand. The anxiety associated with the downside risk encourages you to drill in exactly the right spot. (Science of Us, New York Magazine)

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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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