Are religious children less altruistic? Bad science and anti-faith propaganda in The Guardian

I am on a bit of a writing break at the moment – but felt I should very quickly respond to this report of a recently published scientific article. The Guardian’s headline is “Religious children are meaner than their secular counterparts, study finds” and it’s been published elsewhere, including the Daily Mail, Time and other esteemed outlets.

This is rubbish, and worthy of The Guardian’s excellent former ‘Bad Science’ columnist Ben Goldacre. Why?

  1. Social science experiments such as this have limited application to the wider population, for a number of reasons. Psychological experiments often test issues in artificial ways that can’t be extrapolated to real life.
  2. This particular study seems to have a serious design flaw: the use of the ‘dictator game’ as a measure of altruism, when it has been critiqued to be more a measure of susceptibility to peer pressure. See this post from John Baskette for details. Even if it was a good measure of altruism, the other problems with such experiments still apply, and experimenter demand effects are common confounding variables.
  3. The fact that this study is in a biology journal, when it is a social science study, makes me wonder if it was rejected from journals where a rigorous and learned peer review would have taken place. Biology and psychology are very different disciplines, with very different experimental designs.
  4. The children being tested were from USA, Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey, and South Africa. Are these countries representative of people as a whole? How did they select the religious children, from which kind of religious communities were they? As anyone who has faith will know, even within one particular religion, there is wide diversity of practice and belief. There is very little information on sampling – how the researchers chose the schools and children involved, which seems as though it would have a crucial effect. For example, if their USA school was one run by the Westboro Baptist Church, it’s likely that Christian children would not be representative of Christian children as a whole!
  5. The researchers appear to have a particular axe to grind. They say at the end: “More generally, they call into question whether religion is vital for moral development, supporting the idea that the secularization of moral discourse will not reduce human kindness—in fact, it will do just the opposite.” To make such a politically loaded statement in the conclusion of a research article indicates a degree of experimenter bias.
  6. The fact that the experimenters claim their findings ‘robustly demonstrate’ less altruism in religious children, and omit all the usual qualifications about generalising from experiments that are in good quality social science papers, again suggests experimenter bias and poor interpretation.
  7. There are other experiments that could suggest that religious people are more altruistic. These are barely mentioned in the paper. Of course, such experiments also have limitations in how they can be generalised and should have lots of qualifications too. But they should surely be given more weight and discussion in a report that finds the opposite?

[Update] Since I wrote this, more learned souls have been pointing out other problems. George Yancey points out the lack of control variables, along with other similar criticisms; and William M Briggs points out problems with the statistical analysis. And atheists who have understanding of the social sciences are pointing out the problems with this study.

This article is so poor, that I’m sure I could find more flaws if I spent more time on it, but I’ve just whizzed through. It’s a shame that it is being taken seriously by media and public alike. Please add any other flaws you see in the experiment in the comments below.

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7 thoughts on “Are religious children less altruistic? Bad science and anti-faith propaganda in The Guardian

  1. Of course it’s horse droppings: instinct alone should tell us that people who grow up in a religion whose second greatest commandment is “Love your neighbour as yourself”, and which emphasises care for the needy, are going to be more altruistic than those who grow up being dripfed “survival of the fittest” and “do whatever makes you feel good”.

    And that instinct should make us wary.

    The truth about all this can be found in “Who Really Cares” by Prof Arthur C. Brooks, in which he examines huge numbers of surveys of charitable behaviour and finds that religious conservatives (who emphasise personal responsiblity in both achievement and altruism) are the most charitable and secular liberals (who want the poor to be looked after by government but often give very little themselves – i.e. are happy for the needy’s needs to be met as long as they don’t have to be the ones doing the meeting) are the least charitable.

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  2. Addition: It was also found (in Brooks) that it is committed church attendance, indicative of sincere belief, that correlates with the most generosity, whilst nominally religious people were often far more stingy.

    I imagine that this vital fact has escaped this particular survey.

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  3. That’s an excellent initial response. Thank you.

    As a physicist, although I was quite wary of the tone of the article and the lack of information about sample selection – it’s not a simple random, representative population sample – I simply didn’t feel I had the background to do what you just did.

    I’m also suspicious of using self-reported observance as a proxy for religious integrity in a context where the religion is probably part of the culture.

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  4. Pingback: Study fails to show religious kids to be more selfish! | john baskette

  5. Another bizarre point. The report says: “religious people are more likely to
    report higher rates of intended giving, but in fact, a careful metaexamination of the studies measuring actual behavior shows that there is little evidence for such a positive relation”.

    Where is that “careful metaexamination”? The footnotes refere just to one “metaexamination” by Roy Sablosky, a militant secularist that writes about other statistical works things such as:

    “The first thing to note about Barna [poll house] is that they are evangelists. This does not immediately invalidate everything they say, but it should make us suspicious of their methodology, their results, and their reporting. Too strong, you say? Remember that an evangelist is basically a liar. If you haven’t read me before, that may sound pretty extreme, but it’s a simple fact. Evangelism is lying for a living. Helping churches prosper is central to Barna’s stated mission – and you can’t do that without lying”.

    His web is mainly anti-religious militant discourse, more than social science. And that is the only “metaexamination” in this strange work, strangely financed by -they say- Templeton Fundation. http://yashwata.info/2010/07/15/charity1/

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  6. Pingback: Follow up on the study showing how selfish religious kids are! | john baskette

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