Unscientific American

A recent Scientific American article, boldly entitled Losing Your Religion: Analytic Thinking Can Undermine Belief , is a wonderful example of the depths to which researchers are willing to dive to find their worldview revealed in a set of poorly designed experiments. The methodology employed is not appreciably different in kind from that used by various native gurus when interpreting the patterns of tea leaves, or pork entrails.

The type of popular nonsense parroted by such publications as Scientific America should not be surprising. This is their job. They have taken it upon themselves to be the torchbearers of scientific progress, no matter how trivial and unsophisticated. Given the opportunity to show that people of faith are the intellectual equivalents of cro-magnon man, the walls of the editorial office were certainly abuzz with excitement.

The article begins with its salutary thesis, written in language that reveals the revelry which accompanies its content:

“People who are intuitive thinkers are more likely to be religious, but getting them to think analytically even in subtle ways decreases the strength of their belief, according to a new study in Science. “

This is a rather meaningless claim, as the study itself talks of neither religion nor establishes with any degree of certainty what an “intuitive thinker” is. However, that doesn’t stop them from trying:

“One of their studies correlated measures of religious belief with people’s scores on a popular test of analytic thinking. The test poses three deceptively simple math problems. One asks: “If it takes five machines five minutes to make five widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets?” The first answer that comes to mind—100 minutes—turns out to be wrong. People who take the time to reason out the correct answer (five minutes) are, by definition, more analytical—and these analytical types tend to score lower on the researchers’ tests of religious belief.”

If the definition of analysis or “analytical” is “the ability to correctly answer deceptively simple math problems” then we can be assured that—by definition—that person’s ability to do so constitutes them being “more analytical.” But that is not the definition of analysis or “analytical”. Analysis, as a methodology, is a ubiquitous enterprise. There exists religious analysis, legal analysis, moral analysis, ethical analysis, systems analysis, etc. Having thrust upon them the various laws and methods for determining whether an animal is kosher, people who answered five are not necessarily determined to answer correctly in the case of whether giraffe meat is kosher, much less so a species of fish.

The original claim that people who are intuitive thinkers are more likely to be religious is diminished significantly by the fact that the above test doesn’t determine intuitive power to any degree. If intuition is a measure of the inability to answer a question correctly given all the necessary information, then we need to redefine intuition as well.

The ancients saw the sun rise in the east, and set in the west. Given the amount of information they had, it was an analytical process not an intuitive one that brought them to the wrong conclusion about the solar systems workings. It was further analysis that brought the daring Copernicus and Kepler to the conclusion that it was the solid body on which they stood, that revolved around the moving body which they observed. It was also an analytical movement that brought about the quantum revolution. But it was an intuitive movement, what is called fluid intelligence, which allowed Einstein to see and notice that E=mc^2, and that Newton stood on shaky foundations. The analysis and testing came after and it was proved correct. By limiting the capacity of the intuitive and “analytical” to strictly the mathematical and the obscure, the study advances nothing as it relates to religion, thinking, analysis, and intuition. As Einstein admitted in a conversation with his fellow Berliner William Hermanns:

 “The truly religious man has no fear of life and no fear of death—and certainly no blind faith: his faith must be in his conscience. Then he will have the intuition to observe and judge what happens around him. Then, he can acknowledge that everything unfolds true to strict natural law, sometimes with tremendous speed.” (My emphasis)

While being a sentiment that might not be well received by the theist, it is a damning observation for this rather pathetic display of scientific hubris.

The Lame

The article further goes on to present another experiment:

But the researchers went beyond this interesting link, running four experiments showing that analytic thinking actually causes disbelief. In one experiment, they randomly assigned participants to either the analytic or control condition. They then showed them photos of either Rodin’s The Thinker or, in the control condition, of the ancient Greek sculpture Discobolus, which depicts an athlete poised to throw a discus. (The Thinker was used because it is such an iconic image of deep reflection that, in a separate test with different participants, seeing the statue improved how well subjects reasoned through logical syllogisms.) After seeing the images, participants took a test measuring their belief in God on a scale of 0 to 100. Their scores on the test varied widely, with a standard deviation of about 35 in the control group. But it is the difference in the averages that tells the real story: In the control group, the average score for belief in God was 61.55, or somewhat above the scale’s midpoint. On the other hand, for the group who had just seen The Thinker, the resulting average was only 41.42. Such a gap is large enough to indicate a mild believer is responding as a mild nonbeliever—all from being visually reminded of the human capacity to think.

This argument boggles the mind. We are told that analytical thinking causes disbelief. Besides being a rather weak correlation, the evidence presented to bolster this claim is the varied reactions to pictures, to images that advance a mood, and thus a disposition,a feeling, a sense, an intuition. The very thing they set out to prove is that analytical thinking causes disbelief, but we are in possession of evidence that tells the opposite story. According to a proper “analysis” of this study, it is more likely that biased and forced intuition causes disbelief (or belief) than analytical thinking.

No analytical thinking is taking place here, and to say so is idiotic. But it is said, “such a gap is large enough to indicate a mild believer is responding as a mild nonbeliever.” Nobody but the writer of the article has any idea what the hell that means, but we should accept it as so because it is Scientific American. There is, however, another line of evidence that needs to be considered, a concept pop-science magazines cherish in the abstract but ignore in the particular.

The Vital

The Scholastics of the medieval period were the most analytical people in history. Their rapiers of logic were so sharp they could mince the very air they breathed. And it was minced devastatingly. Pierre Abelard brought his teacher to his logical knees over a dispute regarding universal definitions. The ever “analytical” St. Thomas Aquinas carried the reader of his magnum, “Summa Theologica,” to the very horizon of human understanding. Moshe Ben Maimon, in his “Guide For The Perplexed,” was a master of textual exegeses.

Despite all of our scientific “advances” the philosophic tradition is still an open and thriving movement. None of the great questions have been answered: what caused the universe? What causes the stability of the universe? What is the human mind? And if not what, why? David Hume having advanced a methodology against natural Theology, he opened a Pandora’s box of uncertainty. He readily showed that we can’t even account of the necessary and sufficient causes between two observed events, thus he became a radical empiricist. He had no patience for analysis. His epistemology was forever transfixed in the past tense: that happened, but there is no way of knowing that that will happen again given the same circumstances. He demanded that we all just look around, and keep looking. Steady your gaze.

Steady your gaze on this. The researcher demands of the faithful:

“If God exists, and if believing in God is perfectly rational, then why does increasing rational thinking tend to decrease belief in God?”

This is a question isn’t it? Given the fact this study does not prove that “increasing rational thinking tend(s) to decrease belief in God,” and that the historical record is anathema to it, we can say for sure that any lapse of analytical thought is in the person who intuitively believes that this study is worth more than the digital paper it’s written upon. There is no equivalence between analysis and rationality, a disappointing equivocation, to end a disappointing screed of nonsense.

Other examiners of the research proclaim their excitement:

“Any one of their experiments can be reinterpreted, but when you’ve got [multiple] different kinds of evidence pointing in the same direction, it’s very impressive.

If any one of these experiments can be reinterpreted, how can we conclude that we have multiple different kinds of evidence pointing in the same direction? This is just a question, and just an intuitive sense.

So that we can leave the authors of this study with a modicum of intellectual integrity and thus give them a fair shake, it is important to include this spectacularly insightful declaration:

“The researchers, for their part, point out that both reason and intuition have their place. ‘Our intuitions can be phenomenally useful,’ Gervais says, ‘and analytic thinking isn’t some oracle of the truth.’’’

If this study proves anything, it is that scientists find themselves in a position to not accept the conclusions of their arguments, and thus not give us any reason to either. This is surely the most insightful thing to glean from this monumental display of collective scientific stupidity.


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