Atheists Get Sweaty When Daring God

From Tom Rees of Epiphenom:

When you get anxious or emotionally aroused, you sweat. Not a lot, but enough to be detected using electrodes on the finger tips. And it turns out that if you take a bunch of atheists, and get them to dare God to do horrible things, they get sweaty.

A team from the University of Finland got 16 atheists and 13 religious people to read aloud statements like “I dare God to make someone murder my parents cruelly” and “I dare God to make me die of cancer.” Perhaps surprisingly, both atheists and the religious got emotionally aroused when daring God to do terrible things. In fact, if anything, the atheists were even more het up.


They went on to do another test, in which they got the atheists to simply wish for terrible things to happen. But that didn’t cause nearly the same reaction as asking God to do it.

But why? The researchers offer four explanations:

• that atheists implicitly believe in God, even if they don’t explicitly believe
• that atheists found it stressful because others, possibly their friends and family, do take God seriously
• that appealing to God may have been absurd or aversive to atheists, leading to a dissonance-related affect
• although the atheists do not currently believe in God, they may have done so previously and that may have influenced their reactions.

I like the first and fourth ones, which are related. Especially given that atheists may have a nagging fear that God is angry with them already—which may help explain the even higher response they give.

But I’d like to offer another potential explanation. I suspect that the mental act of asking someone to do something is different from simply wishing it to happen. When you ask another agent to do it, there is a potential mechanism whereby your request might actually happen.

OK, so atheists know that there is no God, but they are social creatures and the form of the statement is something that might trigger subsconscious anxieties despite their conscious dismissal. In fact, whatever the explanation, to me this seem like evidence that the social cognitive skills of atheists are perfectly intact!

Extreme Rituals Promote Prosociality

From Tom Rees of Epiphenom:

In a new study, Dimitris Xygalatas (along with colleagues from New Zealand, the Czech Republic, and Denmark) found evidence that extreme religious rituals can stimulate increased generosity—this time focusing on the Hindu community of Mauritius. The authors explain:

We examined two rituals that were part of the annual Hindu festival of Thaipusam, one of the most widely celebrated religious festivals the world over: a low-ordeal ritual involving singing and collective prayer (top picture) and a high-ordeal ritual (Kavadi; bottom picture) involving body piercing with multiple needles and skewers, carrying heavy bamboo structures, and dragging carts attached by hooks to the skin for over 4 hr before climbing a mountain barefooted to reach the temple of Murugan.

Along with the people who actually took part in the two different kinds of rituals, they also studied a group of Kavadi observers (nonperforming participants who walked alongside performers, are often related to them, and have themselves previously taken part in he ritual).

After the event, all the participants and observers were given a questionnaire, and also given the opportunity to make an anonymous donation to the temple.

They found that those who had taken part in the extreme ritual, as well as those who had observed it, donated more to the temple (as shown in the chart, which shows the average amount of donation in Mauritian rupees).

And it seems the painfulness of the ordeal was an important factor—the more pain the worshipper reported, the higher the donations. That went for the observers, as well as the active participants!

Intriguingly, the high-ordeal participants also had a more inclusive social identity. They were more likely to say that they felt themselves to be Mauritian, rather than Hindu.

Now, of course, it’s hard to tease out cause and effect in a study like this (are more generous, more inclusive people more likely to undertake painful rituals?). But either way, it’s a pretty remarkable result.

I would have predicted exactly the opposite. The high-ordeal participants have already made their contribution—and because people tend to total up their good deeds and balance them out with bad ones (which may be why Christians don’t tip so much after church services), I would’ve expected those who had suffered for their faith to personally donate less.

The authors comment that:

These results suggest that costly displays of group commitment (though apparently wasteful) may be conserved because they intensify prosocial behaviors and attitudes among the wider community (Henrich, 2009; Sosis & Bressler, 2003).

Which is all well and good, but runs up against the basic evolutionary problem we always have when the group benefits but the individual suffers. The problem is that it’s always better for you as an individual to duck out (see: Religion as a costly signal: why the idea is bunk).

If, however, by undergoing a painful ritual you persuade others to make sacrifices that somehow (directly or indirectly) benefit you, then it might just work …

One last thing: Why, do you suppose, the extreme ritualists ended up feeling warmer to society as a whole, rather than just to their co-religionists? After all, someone dedicated enough to skewer themselves in the name of their gods must surely have religious identification pretty high on their list of priorities?

Well, perhaps it’s to do with the fact that Mauritius, although a pretty mixed society by global standards, is still predominantly Hindu. The authors say:

identity always functions in a social context (Tajfel, 1984). In the context of a public ritual that recognizes the Hindu majority group, situated in a larger community whose members hold multiple identities, ritual intensity enhanced the superordinate national identity

How Religiosity and Science Literacy Interact: Evolution & Science Literacy, Pt. 2

From Dan Kahan of the Cultural Cognition Project:

This is the second of two posts on science literacy and evolution.

And religion.

And liberal democratic society as the naturally congenial but sometimes precariously raucous—or maybe better, simultaneously congenial and precarious because naturally raucous—home for science.

And how the common misunderstanding of what public “disbelief” in “evolution” truly signifies can actually interfere with popular dissemination of scientific knowledge. Plus compromise norms of respect for cultural pluralism that are essential to the practice of liberal democracy.

See? Get it?

OK, well, in the last post I described the vast body of long established but persistently—weirdly—ignored work that social scientists have amassed on the relationship between public “disbelief” in evolution and public understanding of evolution and other basic elements of science.

That work shows that there isn’t any relationship. What people say they “believe” about evolution is a measure of who they are, culturally. It’s not a measure of what they know about what’s known to science.

Indeed, many people who say they “believe” in evolution don’t have the foggiest idea how the modern synthesis hangs together. Those who say they “disbelieve” are not any less likely to understand evolutionary theory—but they aren’t any more likely to either.

That so few members of the public have a meaningful understanding of the workings of genetic variance, random mutation, and natural selection (the core elements of the modern synthesis) is a shame, and definitely a matter of concern for the teaching of science education.

But it’s a problem about what people “know” and not what they say they “believe.” What people say they “believe” and what they “know” about evolution are vastly different things. That’s what the ample scientific evidence on public understandings of science show.

In this post I want to add a modest increment of additional evidence corroborating this important point.

Read the rest of this entry »

Evolution & Science Literacy, Pt. 1

From Dan Kahan of the Cultural Cognition Project:

The idea that popular “disbelief in evolution” indicates a deficiency in “science literacy” is one of the most oft-repeated but least defensible propositions in popular commentary on the status of science in U.S. society.

It’s true only if one makes the analytically vacuous move of defining science literacy to mean “belief in evolution.”

It’s false, however, if one is interested in understanding, as an empirical matter, either what members of the public know about what is known to science or what the social meaning of “belief” in evolution is for members of culturally diverse groups.

Ultimately, I want to offer up some original data that helps to make my meaning clear.

But let’s start with some science of science communication basics. I’d be tempted to say they are ones that bear repeating over and over and over if I didn’t recognize that the persistence of disregard for them among popular commentators can’t plausibly be explained by the failure of those who have made or who are familiar with these findings to point them out time and again.

I start with these well-established findings, then, just so it will be clear what I see as the modest increment of corroboration and refinement to be added with the new data I’ll describe.

Getting clear on what’s already known is what I’ll do in this post, which is part 1 of a two-part series on evolution, ordinary science intelligence, religion, and (ultimately) how all of these are intertwined with the central constitutional difficulty of the Liberal Republic of Science. Part 2 is where I’ll get to the original data.

First, “believing in evolution” is not the same as “understanding” or even having the most rudimentary knowledge of what science knows about the career of life on our planet. Believing and understanding are in fact wholly uncorrelated.

That is, those who say they “believe” in evolution are no more likely to be able to give a passable—as in high school biology passing grade—account of “natural selection,” “random mutation,” and “genetic variation” (the basic elements of the “modern synthesis” in evolutionary theory) than whose who “disbelieve.” Indeed, few people can.

Those who “believe,” then, don’t “know” more science than “nonbelievers.” They merely accept more of what it is that science knows but that they themselves don’t understand (which, by the way, is a very sensible thing for them to do; I’ve discussed this before).

Second, being enabled to understand evolution doesn’t cause people to “believe” in it.

It’s possible—with the aid of techniques devised by excellent science educators—to teach a thoughtful person the basic elements of evolutionary theory! Everyone ought to be taught it, not only because understanding this process enlarges their knowledge of all manner of natural and social phenomena, but because seeing how human beings came to understand this process furnishes an object lesson in the awe-inspiring power of human beings to acquire genuine knowledge by applying their reason to observation.

But acquiring an understanding of evolution—that is, a meaningful comprehension of how the ferment of genetic variance and random mutation when leavened with natural selection endows all manner of life forms with a vital quality of self-reforming resilience—doesn’t make someone who before that time said they “disbelieved” evolution now say they “believe” it.

Empirical studies—ones with high school and university students—have shown this multiple times. Believe it or not. But if not, you are the one who is closing your mind to insight generated by the application of human reason to observation.

Third, what people say they “believe” about evolution doesn’t reliably predict how much they know about science generally.

This is one of the lessons learned from use of the National Science Indicators.

The indicators, which comprise a wide-ranging longitudinal survey of public knowledge, attitudes, and practices, offer a monumentally useful font of knowledge for the study of science and society. Indeed, they are a monument to the insight and public spirit of the scientists (including the scientist administrators inside the NSF) who created and continue to administer it.

Integral to the indicators is a measure of “science literacy” that has been standardly employed in the social sciences for many years. The indicators include a “knowledge” battery—an inventory-like set of “facts,” such as the decisive significance of the father’s genes in determining the sex of a child and the size of an electron relative to that of an atom.

The indicators include two true-false items, which state “human beings, as we know them today developed from earlier species of animals” and “the universe began with a huge explosion,” respectively. Test-takers who consistently get 90+ percent of the remaining questions on the NSF test correct are only slightly more than 50 percent likely to correctly answer these questions, which are known as “Evolution” and “Big Bang,” respectively.

That tells you something, or does if you are applying reason to observation: it is that “Big Bang” and “Evolution” aren’t measuring the same thing as the remaining items. In fact, research suggests—not surprisingly—that they are measuring a latent or unobserved “religiosity” disposition that is distinct from the latent knowledge of basic science the remaining questions are measuring.

What people are doing, then, when they say they “believe” and “disbelieve” in evolution is expressing who they are. Evolution has a cultural meaning, positions on which signify membership in one or another competing group.

People reliably respond to “Evolution” and “Big Bang” in a manner that signifies their identities. Moreover, many of the people for whom “false” correctly conveys their cultural identity know plenty of science.

Accordingly, many social scientists interested in reliably measuring how disposed members of the public are to come to know what’s known by science, particularly across place and time, have proposed dropping “Big Bang” and “Evolution”—not from the survey regularly conducted by the NSF in compiling the indicators, but from the scale one can form with the other items to measure what people know about what’s known to science.

This proposal has raised political hackles. How can one purport to measure science literacy and leave evolution and the big-bang theory of the origins of the universe out, they ask? Someone who doesn’t know these things just is science illiterate!

Well, yes, if you simply define science literacy that way. Moreover, if you do define it that way, you’ll be counting as “science literate” many people who harbor genuinely ignorant, embarrassing understandings of how evolution works.

Plus, you’ll necessarily be dulling the precision of what is supposed to be an empirical measuring instrument for assessing what is known—since people who do know many many things will “say” they “don’t believe” in evolution. They’ll say that even if they—unlike the vast majority of the public who say they “believe” in evolution—are able to give an admirably cogent account of the modern synthesis.

Indeed, you’ll be converting what is supposed to be a measure of one thing—how much scientific knowledge people have acquired—into a symbol of something else: their willingness to assent to the cultural meaning that is conveyed by saying “true” to Evolution and Big Bang, as many people who do, and for that reason, without having any real comprehension of the science those items embody and without even doing very well on the remainder of the NSF indicator battery.

Even then, the resulting “scale” won’t be a very reliable indicator of “identity,” since most of the remaining questions are ones that people whose identities are denigrated by answering “true” to Big Bang and Evolution are ones that bear no particular cultural meaning and thus don’t reliably even single out people of opposing cultural styles.

But insisting that the measure that social scientists use to study “science literacy” include Big Bang and Evolution under these circumstances will still convey a meaning.

It is that the enterprise of science is on one side of a cultural conflict between citizens whose disagreement about the best way of life in fact has nothing to do with the authority of science’s way of knowing, which in fact they all accept.

A “science literacy” test that insists that people profess “belief” in propositions that its citizens all understand to be expressions of cultural identity is really a pledge of allegiance, a loyalty oath to a partisan cultural orthodoxy.

Steadfastly insisting that the state teach its citizens what science genuinely knows (about evolution, the origins of the universe, and myriad other things), and even more critically how science comes to know what it does, are essential to enabling culturally diverse people to attain happiness by means of their own choosing.

But insisting that they pledge allegiance to a particular cultural orthodoxy doesn’t advance any of those ends. Indeed, it subverts the very constitution of the Liberal Republic of Science.

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