Children, religion, and distinguishing fact from fiction


prayOne of the less attractive traits of the non- (and especially, the anti-) religious is that we can sometimes allow confirmation bias to lead us into believing rather uncharitable claims regarding the role of religion in society, or the effect that a religious upbringing can have on children.

Confirmation bias – the tendency to favour information that confirms what you already believe and disfavour contrary evidence – is of course not unique to us heathens. It’s just that as one of them, I’m concerned about the bad PR we (hello, Prof. Dawkins!) sometimes generate. So, I’m inclined to be wary when I read headlines like this, in the HuffPo:

Children Exposed To Religion Have Difficulty Distinguishing Fact From Fiction, Study Finds

The headline creates the impression that children brought up in a religious environment might well think that Harry Potter is real, perhaps lives just up the street, and that maybe there’s a chance that you might become a wizard too if luck shines her light upon you.

What a popular website reports that a “study finds” isn’t always a neat fit to what the study actually says. So if you have access, I’d recommend that you read the paper by Corriveau, Chen and Harris yourself, or alternately at least read the more sober take on it that was published by Vox.

To briefly summarise, the paper describes how 5 and 6 year-old children from religious, parochial and secular backgrounds were presented with Biblical stories in original and modified (one including “magic” but no God; the other a realistic version) forms, and then asked to express a view on whether the protagonists were real or fictional.

Here’s one of the stories (the story of Joseph) in its three forms, quoted from the paper:

This is Joseph. Joseph was sent to a mean king in a land far away. However, God sent Joseph many dreams warning about terrible storms, and Joseph used those dreams to tell the king how to protect his kingdom from the storms. The king was so amazed by Joseph and they became friends.
This is Joseph. Joseph was sent to a mean king in a land far away where there were terrible storms. Joseph used his magical powers to see into the future, and told the king how to protect his kingdom from the storms. The king was so amazed by Joseph and they became friends.
This is Joseph. Joseph was sent to a mean king in a land far away where there were terrible storms. The king realized that Joseph was very good at looking at clouds and predicting when there would be rain. The king was so amazed by Joseph and they became friends.

Vox summarises the lead author’s response as follows:

What was most interesting to Corriveau, however, was how children classified the fantastical story: while secular children classified it as pretend 87 percent of the time, religious children only did so about 40 percent of the time. To Corriveau, this suggests that “religious children have a broader conception of what can actually happen.” In other words, she told me, “religious exposure may influence the way in which children mark the boundary between factual and fictional, allowing for a more likely suspension of disbelief.”

It’s not obviously true that having a broader conception of the range of possibilities is a bad thing – in fact, it seems rather banal to observe that one of the fun things about childhood is being able to engage in flights of fancy. I don’t have data on this, but I’d imagine that most of us did so to varying degrees.

Our imaginations might not have led us all to imagine the same sorts of things, but whatever it was that we imagined, those imaginings were not only enjoyable (well, leaving aside nightmares), but also conducive to creativity both then and in later life.

Fantasy, as with chemical substances, can be good or bad depending on the dose – it’s not yet a problem when we simply observe that 5 or 6 year-olds with exposure to religion are more credulous when hearing tales of people doing magical things. In fact, we can’t rule out the possibility that at that age, and depending on how it progresses, that it’s actually a good thing, and that it’s the secular children who are impoverished.

I’ve said this before, and while I know that many of my heathen friends and colleagues don’t agree, the majority of religiously-educated children who grow up to be religious adults don’t regard their religious texts as literally true. Even Dawkins’ (who has spoken of teaching kids they might go to hell as “child abuse“) own research suggests that to most Christians in the UK, the Bible hardly features in their lives at all, even as moral guidance never mind as a guide to reality.

In other words, we don’t have good reason (from this study) to say that because religiously-educated children are more credulous, we end up with defective adults. I’m not suggesting that it’s impossible that this is the case – just that we don’t yet know that it is.

Using studies like this to make claims like that is perhaps just as fantastical as the thing you’re objecting to – and more to the point, it’s an obnoxious thing to do.

Has #trolleyology gone off the rails?


6a00d8342025e153ef01538e3a45b7970b-600wiI first heard about “the trolley problem” as an undergraduate philosophy student in 1991, as one of the countless thought-experiments moral philosophy uses to probe our intuitions regarding right and wrong, and whether we are consistent in our judgements of what is right/wrong. The problem, for those of you who don’t know it, is presented by its creator (Philippa Foot) as follows:

Suppose that a judge or magistrate is faced with rioters demanding that a culprit be found guilty for a certain crime and threatening otherwise to take their own bloody revenge on a particular section of the community. The real culprit being unknown, the judge sees himself as able to prevent the bloodshed only by framing some innocent person and having him executed.

Beside this example is placed another in which a pilot whose aeroplane is about to crash is deciding whether to steer from a more to a less inhabited area. To make the parallel as close as possible it may rather be supposed that he is the driver of a runaway tram which he can only steer from one narrow track on to another; five men are working on one track and one man on the other; anyone on the track he enters is bound to be killed. In the case of the riots the mob have five hostages, so that in both examples the exchange is supposed to be one man’s life for the lives of five.

Continue reading

Day 4 at #TAM2014


downloadThis year’s TAM concluded yesterday, with Randi remarking (during the closing address) that this was the best TAM he’d attended. Seeing as he’s been to all of them (13 in total, I think), that’s a strong statement. All I can say is that it’s the best of the two that I’ve attended, and that’s largely due to the high quality of the majority of the talks.

As usual, there were many good evenings and afternoons with friends old and new, but that was simply a bonus. The panels, talks and informal discussions were tremendously rewarding on an intellectual level, not only in terms of skeptical activism, but also for me as a teacher of critical thinking, in that many of the participants are involved in the same or overlapping fields. Continue reading

Day 3 at #TAM2014


I’d wager that everybody’s batteries run dry at some point over the four days of TAM. Not their cellphone batteries, I mean (even though this is true also), but rather their ability to remain awake for yet another interesting-looking talk. Yesterday – day 3 – was the day I ran out of juice, so I don’t have all that much to report, given that I missed a fair number of sessions.

Elizabeth Loftus’s talk was the first I attended. If you don’t know her, she’s a psychologist with a special interest in memory and how it can deceive us, and this was indeed the topic of her talk, titled “The memory factory“. She took us through some very interesting examples of how eyewitness reports are far less reliable than one might think (or, hope), and left me thinking that I’d hate to be in a situation where my fate depended on someone else claiming they saw or didn’t see something! She’s published a bunch of books on the topic, so there’s plenty to read if you want to know more about this.

Then next session of note to me was Steven Novella on “How to think like a skeptical neurologist“. Steve Novella has been on quite a few panels this year, but has been consistently worthwhile. This talk was on the difficulties of teaching medical students how to diagnose patients, in light of cognitive shortcomings like the representativeness heuristic. Most people who read my posts would be aware of who Novella is, but if you’re not – and care to listen to podcasts – I’d highly recommend The Skeptics Guide to the Universe, a podcast that pre-dates Facebook, Twitter and the like.

The last two sessions of the day were presented by two of the most effective and inspirational science educators out there. First up, Eugenie Scott, a physical anthropologist, and formerly Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education. One of the things we have her to thank for is her role as one of the scientific advisors to the plaintiffs in the Dover trial, which resulted in the ruling against teaching creationism or intelligent design in public schools.

Her talk focused on hoaxes, pranks, urban legends and frauds. Besides the many humourous examples of pranks that she presented to us, her talk was a sobering reminder of the harms that can sometimes accrue from our not being sufficiently skeptical of stories we circulate via word-of-mouth or the media.

One particularly sad case she related was that of Oliver, the “chimpmanzee” who came to prominence in the 70′s and 80′s as a purported chimp/human hybrid. Unfortunately for Oliver, he ended up appearing more human than he was via abusive treatment such as removing his teeth, and Scott used this to remind us that we need to extend the net of possible victims in hoaxes beyond merely “our” sort of animal, the human sort. This seems an opportune time to remind you, or let some of you know, about sites like Snopes and the Museum of Hoaxes, both of which catalogue ways in which we have been (and continue to be) deceived.

Last up, Bill Nye (“the science guy”), previously a mechanical engineer at Boeing and now a science educator. This is one you simply have to watch when the TAM videos are released in (if history is any guide) 6 or 7 months time. While he did perhaps spend a little too long speaking about the debate he recently had with the nutbag creationist Ken Ham, the talk was nevertheless an inspirational – and highly entertaining – example of how to communicate complex ideas in an accessible fashion. (Though, I must confess that it’s fun hearing about just how strange Ken Ham’s beliefs seem to be!)

Immediately after the Nye talk, we decamped to the speaker’s reception, where we got to hobnob with Randi, Dennett, Tavris, Novella, Gorski and too many others to mention. Some of the magicians who are involved with TAM, or simply hanging around TAM, did some mind-boggling close-up card magic right at the tables too, which was quite the treat.

Now, it’s midday on the last day of TAM, and I’ve already concluded my talk, which I’ll most likely right a little something about tomorrow. For now, I’ll close with the news that 13 Reasons To Doubt, a book of essays by myself and other Skeptic Ink writers, was released yesterday, and is available as an e-book from Amazon.

Day 2 at #TAM2014


10522439_10204090633403483_1996658285948963115_nAs was the case last year, the second day of TAM is rather brutal – there was a complete day of programming, running from 09:00 until around 18:30, followed by various dinners and then concluding (for some, of course) with Penn & Teller’s Bacon and Donut party.

We left the bacon madness at 01:00 or so, meaning that the phone call at 07:00 was rather unwelcome. It was also rather pointless, seeing as it was from some Spanish person who has been calling us since the early days of July, even though our Spanish has not improved one iota since the first of her 8 or so attempts to share her thoughts with us. Continue reading

Day 1 at #TAM2014

Yesterday was the first day of official programming at TAM (see yesterday’s post for my Day 0 experiences), and it was as much fun, and as stimulating, as expected. The problem is: with such a packed schedule (well, to be honest, with every night involving a few cocktails at the bar until late in the night), it’s going to be difficult to post updates that are as comprehensive as I’d like. I’ll try to do better tomorrow (if circumstances – those being Penn & Teller’s Bacon and Donut party – end up allowing for a post at all).

A brief recap of the day:

My first scheduled appearance was the panel on skeptical blogging, which went well on the whole. We surveyed aspects of the good, bad and ugly with regard to skeptical blogging, and even though parallel sessions ended up thinning the crowd a little, it was great to meet a few of my colleagues on SkepticInk, and I hope that those who attended got some value from the thoughts we shared. It was recorded, and I’ll post a link to anything that emerges from that process when it/if comes out.

The other two panels that I attended yesterday were very good – one, on teaching critical thinking in college curricula, will end up being very useful for my “real” job (namely, teaching critical thinking at a university). The other, on science-based medicine, provided some great ideas and resources for combating pseudoscience and lazy scientific thinking.

Many of the panelists on both were very good, with Harriet Hall, David Gorski, Steve Novella and Ray Hall standing out as folks to watch if you’re interested in these sorts of things. At the welcome reception, I also had a chance to chat for a half-hour or so with Steve Novella on some of my interests, like dietary fads and Professor Tim Noakes’ “real meal revolution”. He was dismayed to hear of the populism that is gaining traction in South Africa in scientific matters, to the detriment of sound scientific thinking.

And the last session was a screening of the Randi documentary “An Honest Liar“, which you should really try to see if you get a chance to. It’s currently doing the festival circuit, but the director and producer assured us that cinema and digital releases are to be expected later in the year.

Other brief highlights: it was of course great to see Dan Dennett again, and he regaled us with stories of a Greenland philosophy of mind cruise he and other big hitters recently took part in. DJ Grothe looks like his batteries haven’t run flat just yet, and AJ’s don’t seem capable of running out, ever. He greeted us all with big hugs, even the friends I’m travelling with, whom he’d never met before.

Okay – I’m running late for the welcome, and then the first session for today: “Can rationality be taught?“, with Dennett, Drescher, Galef and Lilienfeld.

Patriotism served as pabulum


Those of us who think about morality and the endless complexities of trying to get along – and progress – in a heterogenous country/world can take a breather for a moment, as Communications Minister Faith Muthambi has developed a strategy to “improve patriotism, social cohesion and moral regeneration” in South Africa.

Her plan is to start teaching basic moral philosophy in primary school, introducing children to ideas like the social contract and reciprocal altruism, so that they can begin to understand that morality isn’t about mindlessly applying some or other set of instructions but rather about thinking things through with a concern for human (and other) welfare. Continue reading

Suarez, and inconsistent vs disproportionate responses


Those of you who watch football might have heard of Luis Suarez, and in particular of his habit (if three instances counts as a habit) of occasionally biting opponents in the heat of battle. I want to briefly offer a distinction for your consideration, because – as is so often the case on social media – the reactions to his most recent offence have tended towards the hysterical.

The most recent offence occurred in a World Cup game where Uruguay beat (and in consequence, eliminated) Italy. Suarez. The video below clearly shows Suarez lining himself up for a chomp at Chiellini’s shoulder, and Fifa are currently discussing how long Suarez should be banned for (6000 has the scoop on that, by the way).

There’s no question that Suarez deserves sanctions of some sort. And this is where the distinction comes in: one can – and should – separate the issue of what a proportionate punishment would be from the issue of whether we’re treating this case as we treat similar (or worse) offences.

Just like in the last World Cup, when Suarez handballed against Ghana, some folk seem to want him hung, drawn and quartered. The reaction was disproportionate then, especially in South Africa, perhaps thanks to our bizarre adoption of Ghana as our surrogate team. Suarez is a nasty piece of work, as far as I can tell – there’s the three instances of biting, the racism, and the fact that he’s rather good yet plays for Liverpool.

But despite this, we shouldn’t let the fact that biting someone seems particularly strange – animalistic – obscure the fact that biting someone is a far less serious offence than repeated violent play, of the sort that can break legs and end careers. Our reactions to Suarez are inconsistent with our reactions to other serial offenders, who offend in ways other than biting.

Take Pepe as example, with reference to the video below:

Pepe attracts cards fairly frequently – 42 yellow cards and 5 red cards over the years 2008 to 2012 – as one might expect after watching that clip. Yet while the intensity and regularity of his violence attract comment from football fans along the lines of “he’s a dirty bastard” or what have you, I don’t see many people calling for a lifetime ban or many months of suspension.

But tell me: would you rather play against Suarez, with the possibility that he might take a bite of your arm or shoulder, or against Pepe, who might kick you in the head while you’re lying on the turf? As disreputable as Suarez might be – and this fantastic ESPN profile is worth a read, to see his history in this regard, as well as the lengths people go to to defend him – his offences are more notable for their sheer oddity than for their brutality, and we should keep this in mind when calling for his head.

CAM regulations “draconian, misleading and insulting”, says Leon Louw


The South African Department of Health (DoH) published regulations related to complementary medicines in 2013, and these regulations have left Leon Louw, executive director of the Free Market Foundation, somewhat displeased. In the opening paragraph, he tells us:

In the name of science, they might promote rather than curb scams and pseudoscience. Instead of protecting consumers, they erode access to products and information. They subject supposedly unscientific Cams to supposedly scientific allopathic standards. Notwithstanding the regulations and the pretentious explanatory memorandum, the difference between the two is smaller than protagonists of science assume.

Those “supposedly”‘s – along with scare-quotes around words like “unscientific” and “scientific proof” at other points in the column – seem to signal that Louw thinks the DoH has fallen prey to some sort of biased “scientism”, whereby they expect that CAMs should satisfy criteria that (according to Louw) even allopathic medicine cannot. Continue reading