Monday, September 04, 2006

On even more poorly-executed research

The Guardian - Humans 'hardwired for religion':

The battle by scientists against "irrational" beliefs such as creationism is ultimately futile, a leading experimental psychologist said today.

The work of Bruce Hood, a professor at Bristol University, suggests that magical and supernatural beliefs are hardwired into our brains from birth, and that religions are therefore tapping into a powerful psychological force.

Right off the bat, this is obviously flawed - 'beliefs' are not instinctual. Actions are instinctual; beliefs are the result of observation and interaction. No child is born knowing that a spider is poisonous; however, the urge to avoid spiders is the result of our spider-wary ancestors not coming too close to venomous arachnids. The action is passed on, but one must learn the rationalization for oneself.

"I think it is pointless to think that we can get people to abandon their belief systems because they are operating at such a fundamental level," said Prof Hood. "No amount of rational evidence is going to be taken on board to get people to abandon those ideas."

Incidentally, there was no research cited in relation to religion. Hood's "experiments" involved only the concept of irrationality itself:

"For example, many people would be reluctant to part with a wedding ring for an identical ring because of the personal significance it holds. Conversely, many people are disgusted by an object if it has associations with 'evil'."
Another experiment involves asking subjects to cut up a photograph. When his team then measures their galvanic skin response - ie sweat production, which is what lie-detector tests monitors - there is a jump in the reading. This does not occur when a person destroys an object of less sentimental significance.

Now, Hood should have asked his subjects to cut up - or 'part with' - an item that has obvious sentimental value to someone else. Perhaps a portrait of a stranger's family. Otherwise, my reaction to this is simply that people would be unwilling to destroy family photographs because we're all inherently narcissistic. Instinctually, one's greatest desire is to preserve oneself and our genes, and avoid harming anything to which one has a personal connection. Yes, it appears complex, but that's because we are complex creatures. Our genetic qualities have more venues for expression than a chipmunk's.

He told the annual British Association Festival of Science in Norwich that the standard bearers for evolution, such as the biologist Richard Dawkins and the philosopher Daniel Dennet, had adopted a counterproductive and "simplistic" position.

"They have basically said there are two types of people in the world," he said - "those who believe in the supernatural and those who do not. But almost everyone entertains some form of irrational beliefs even if they are not religious.

Note how Hood dodges the issue of religion. He's trying to say that religion is natural, but then tries to replace the concept of religion with irrationality. He fails to establish that religion is just a result of irrationality, and one that can - and should - be avoided.

In his lectures, Prof Hood produces a rather boring-looking blue cardigan with large brown buttons and invites people in the audience to put it on, for a £10 reward. As you may expect, there is invariably a sea of raised hands. He then reveals that the notorious murderer Fred West wore the cardigan. Nearly everyone puts their hand down.

Unfortunately, it is just a stunt: the cardigan is not West's. But it illustrates the way even the most rational of people are can [sic] be irrationally made to feel uncomfortable.

Simple explanation: People want to preserve their reputation, and avoid association with people perceived as bad. Thus, their chances of passing on genes are not reduced.


At 9/05/2006 7:27 PM, Blogger David said...

Idunno, don't you think it's possible that religious belief has some genetic component? A mutation that had some minimal survival value to have survived. I just find it difficult to reconcile that fact that I know a number of otherwise very very intelligent people who insist on belief in God, based supposidly on rationality. It's like a virus.

Btw, there are actually 10 kinds of people in the world; those who understand binary and those who don't ;-)

At 9/08/2006 9:38 PM, Blogger breakerslion said...

Religious belief does have a genetic component. This has been proven through stimulation of specific areas of the brain. (I'm lazy tonight. Look up a Nova program on the brain.) Those areas of the brain have been artificially augmented through unnatural selection. The religious part of the brain is co-opted from that which houses sexuality, hence the prudish/ecstatic stripe in all religion. This inhibition keeps that part of the brain from fulfilling its intended purpose and instead experiencing ecstasy through imaginary relationships with a super mommy-daddy. This is in essence a permanent state of childhood. Those that did not believe in the Big Boojum of the Shamans were ostracized or murdered. We who are less susceptible to being mentally masturbated in this way are throwbacks and/or mutants.

At 9/09/2006 9:27 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

So does it cause belief, or just make belief easier?

At 9/15/2006 8:47 AM, Blogger beepbeepitsme said...

I am not convinced that god belief has a genetic component and I don't see that the scientific studies point to this at all.

I remember reading about the study of "the god part of the brain" where certain parts of the brain were stimulated and the patients believed that they had had a "religious experience."

They believed they had a religious experience because they already believed in the possibility of religious experiences.

In a society where god belief is prevalent, tickling a part of the brain of a god believer and then claiming that that part of the brain is evidence that religious belief has a genetic component, is like testing for mathematical aptitude after 30 years of mathematical training and then being astounded that someone can perform calculus.

At 10/18/2006 2:29 AM, Blogger Steve Tilley said...

Love the Fred West cardigan story.

I'm not so convinced by the poisonous spider stuff. I don't think I'm programmed to avoid spiders that are dangerous before I learn about them. I think those who do avoid them survive longer than those who don't, so they get to breed.


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