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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Evidence of media bias: airbrushing Christianity out of the (positive) news story

Christians are pretty used to having the positive fruits of our faith being erased from history. The media will happily tag the label ‘Christian’ to ranting or philandering pastors when they hit the headlines, the atrocities of the Crusades or Westboro Baptist Church.

Yet in the secular media, our faith is rarely, if ever, associated with the true inspirations of Christianity: Martin Luther King, William Wilberforce, Josephine Butler. Such people are presented as modern day humanists, rather than the devout and conservative believers in Christ that they really were, motivated by their faith.

So it’s also the case for modern believers.

Earlier this year, successful rugby player Jason Robinson talked to an ITV programme about how he once contemplated suicide. What changed? His Born-Again team-mate, Va’aiga Tuigamala, talked to him about God, and Jason found new life in Christ:

I honestly believe the Lord sent him. He came to me and said: ‘I’m concerned about you. I had a dream about you last night. You were stood on top of the world and as I watched, slowly from underneath you, the world started to crumble.’ The Bible talks about repenting [changing your mind] and asking the Lord into your life. That’s what I did. After I said it, I felt something lift. Had it not been for him I certainly wouldn’t have the hope that I’ve got now. And hope is something that people can’t take away.

Yet, most of the secular media that reported the story totally ignored the main part of the story. Reports from The Guardian, The Daily Mail, The Mirror, and the ITV website, all totally ignored that it was Christian faith that changed Robinson’s life.

There was a brief mention in The Telegraph, Wigan Today, and the Yorkshire Evening Post, but it’s very brief.

Is there anything we can do about this? I’m seeing more and more anti-Christian rhetoric and propaganda on social media, even in people I’d have thought would be open and tolerant.

In the meantime, read about Jason’s faith in his own words from a Christian site:

A player called Va’aiga Tuigamala (Inga) joined my club, Wigan.  As I watched him it was obvious that he had something I did not have, something that I wanted.  He played the same game as me, but didn’t need all the going out and drinking that I did. He was at peace with himself.  He was the happiest man in the place.  I talked to him about it and he explained his faith.  I became a Christian.

(Does believing in Jesus Christ make a difference?) I am leading a better and more fulfilled life than I ever lived. I have been a better father, a better husband, and 100 times better morally than I was before.