Nerd-tastic

2016/01/22

I’ve been listening to a new podcast lately – “Talk Nerdy”, by Cara Santa Maria.

CaraSantaMariaIt’s awesome – a delightfully personal approach to various science-based topics – news,issues, whatever. I will have more to say about this podcast and particular episodes in the future, but for now I just wanted to share the latest thing from it.

In this week’s episode, Cara talks to Kevin Roose about a project they have both worked on – a new series of mini-documentaries called “Real Future“. (Follow that link – you can watch the episodes free online!) As I write this, three episodes are available, each between ten and thirteen minutes long. The general idea of the show is to present technology in society, and how the current state of things points us to a future few of us may expect to live in. What do these new technologies mean for how we will need to structure our relationships, our society, and our laws? What can they mean for real people?

In the first episode, Kevin Roose visits the operator of a website that hosts (among other things) revenge porn. And even though I had listened to the podcast and heard the surprise ending to that documentary, I found myself drawn into the story and … well, I really don’t want to give away the ending. I think it’ll be worth thirteen minutes of your time to check it out! The personal story is intriguing, and the perspective on our current technological culture is thought-provoking.

In the second episode, another host (Alexis Madrigal) follows a drone pilot as she tries to make her mark on this new sport at the first ever National Drone Championships in the US. I half-expected the sort of breathless, unengaging reporting you get from motorsports commentators. Instead, Madrigal manages to connect with the pilot and uncover a personal side to this sport that I would never have expected. It was alarmingly moving.

The third episode is hosted by Cara Santa Maria, and takes a look at Vocaloids, popular singers big on the Japanese music scene right now which are entirely digital creations – in some cases created by corporate music operations, and in some cases by anime enthusiasts. We see the phenomenon – which some people are aiming to import to America – from the fans’ perspective, from the perspective of a Vocaloid creator, and from the perspective of an outsider (Cara herself). A curious intersection of different attitudes to a new technology.

All three episodes are remarkable in their professional and unexpectedly cinematic visuals. In a very short time, they each weave a narrative that engages you and provokes you to think. As someone already short on time, but always keen to have more to think about, it is the perfect format for me. And they’ve hit the sweet spot for subject matter and tone too – technology, with the social perspective.

I can’t wait for the next episode to come out. I don’t care what it’s about – I already know it’s going to be awesome.

Truth is stranger than fiction

2016/01/18

Of course it’s stranger. What else would you expect?

I mean, truth comes from out there – the world outside our heads. Fiction comes from human minds. Naturally fiction will seem more comfortable and familiar to those minds, and truth will sometimes seem alien and strange.

That is all.

Love and machines

2016/01/17

I recently listened to the Tapestry episode about the human tendency to get attached to robots. It was very interesting.

The episode covers various things – including repeated references to hitchBOT. No, not a robotic reincarnation of the Hitch. It was a hitch-hiking Canadian robot that was destroyed (some say “murdered”) by someone in August 2015.

One point made in the episode is that humans’ emotional reactions to robots makes them valid objects of ethical consideration. I’ll mention a couple of things that came up. Let me know what you think.

First, consider Paro, a robot seal designed for therapeutic use with elderly people. It is used in the way that pet animals are sometimes used. It is not alive in the same sense, but it also avoids problems of hygiene and allergies that may make live animals inappropriate for use in some situations.

paro

Now, is it problematic to use robots in a way that is designed to get people to form emotional attachments to them? Is there something wrong with using them as a replacement for live animals? On that note, is there something wrong with using non-human animals as a replacement for human companions?

I don’t think so. These all seem okay to me. But I can see how these applications may make some people uncomfortable. And of course, there is the potential to abuse that emotional connection. You could program the robots to gather personal information or to encourage excessive attachment. A really unscrupulous company might even use the robots to manipulate elderly customers to pay more money to keep the robot alive and happy, or to upgrade it, etc.

So, while the basic idea is fine, I think this is something we should keep an eye on (as with any technology, new or old).

Now, what about Spot, a robot that walks like a dog? Here is a video of Spot being put through its paces:

At a couple of points, people test the robot’s stability by pushing it with their feet. Kicking it. It is remarkably good at staying upright, but its dog-like scrabbling with its feet reminds us of a live dog that is being kicked. Check out the comments on the to see how some people react emotionally to seeing this.

Without going down the (fascinating but fraught) rabbit hole of “can machines feel pain/pleasure”, there are still some interesting moral questions here.

For example, if someone kicks a robot (or vandalizes one, as happened to hitchBOT) with malicious intent, is this just abuse of property, or is it a more serious problem? One researcher interviewed on the Tapestry episode pointed out that willingness to destroy a robot is correlated with low empathy scores overall.

I don’t think someone should be jailed for attacking a robot in the same way they should be jailed for attacking a person. But willingness to attack a human-like robot is evidence of the same antisocial character traits that make someone willing to attack an actual human. Surely we shouldn’t just ignore the risk such people pose.

What do you think? Is this still just the fevered dreams of science fiction fans? Or do we need to consider these issues now, before the corporations and other unaccountable entities decide for us how these things will work in our lives and our laws?

What deserves to be called “god”?

2016/01/12

You know what I hate? I hate when I start preparing an argument, and my research tells me that my own favoured position is the unsupportable one.

I recently listened to an interview on Tapestry with Nancy Ellen Abrams, an atheist who has written a book called A God that Could be Real.

Abrams-GodThatCouldBeReal-cover

Essentially, Abrams was an atheist in a twelve-step program. Many of the steps refer to a higher power. She wanted to work through the steps honestly, without compromising her integrity by pretending to have a belief she didn’t have.

In encourage you to listen to the interview – it’s just short of a half-hour long, and contains much more than what I’ll summarize here in my response to it. Go ahead – this post isn’t going anywhere.

Okay, now that you’re back, what do you think?

In a nutshell, Abrams sat down and tried to think of what could actually exist that might deserve to be called “God”, and she came out with something that, to me, does not sound supernatural or theistic in any conventional sense. An emergent “aggregate of human aspirations” thing.

Now, I would be inclined to say that this is not a god. It checks none of the boxes I have for what makes something a god. All-powerful? Nope. All-knowing? Nope. Perfectly good? A person? Nope and nope. So why would Abrams call it “God”?

Well, remember that this non-theistic god she envisioned allowed her to pursue the recovery she sought. It filled the role that a more conventional god fills for many others following a twelve-step program. So, at least for herself, Abrams has a good reason to treat this concept she arrived at as “god”, for the purposes of her recovery. Fine.

But should anyone else take on her definition?

This is an instance of a theme we come across perennially in atheist circles. Someone proposes “why don’t we call X ‘God’ – then could you get on board?” And X may be humanity, or a Platonic good, or love, or the “idea” of a god, or any number of things. Most people I know who identify as atheist reject the move because we already have a meaning for the word “god” – one that enables us to communicate all sorts of important ideas. If we accept the revisions people offer, we begin to lose the convenience of this label for our discussions. We are supported in this by conservative religious types, who don’t want their idea of the “true God” to be diluted by liberal religious ideas.

Abrams’ presentation highlights a side of the argument that I think gets less traction than it should in atheist circles: the idea of what “deserves” to be called “god”. As a linguist, I would say this points to the connotation of the word “god”, as opposed to the denotation. (See here for a primer on the connotation/denotation distinction, if you aren’t familiar with it.) The atheists (myself included) lean on what we see as the denotation of the word “god”, while the liberal religous types (I think Abrams now identifies in this group) focus on its connotation.

There is a temptation to say that denotation is the “true” meaning of the word, and connotation is just those emotional and cultural accretions that gather around it. But, as I teach in my Linguistics 101 class, that doesn’t capture how language really works.

Consider the words “dad” and “father”. They share a denotation – they both point to a male parent. But the connotations are worlds apart: the aphorism “Any man can be a father, but it takes someone special to be a dad” is not contradictory, but hinges on the distinction many people have between the connotations of the two words. That difference is personally important. In fact, you could imagine a person becoming attached to a male parental figure who is not, in fact, technically their father, and coming to call him “Dad”. Would that be wrong? Of course not.

So, not only is connotation important, but it can sometimes be more important than denotation in deciding whether a word is appropriate to use in a particular situation.

Coming back to the word “God” and Abrams’ redefinition, where does that leave us? Well, when I listen to how she came to the definition, it seems that connotation was important – she needed a meaning that served the emotional and spiritual needs of the twelve steps – while denotation was negotiable – anything in the meaning that wasn’t believable was expendable. She was in an analagous situation to the person who calls “Dad” someone who is not their father.

Should Abrams have less freedom to redefine “God” than other people have to redefine “dad”? Of course not. There is nothing special about the word “god” that puts it above other words, outside the rules for how we use and modify words.

Of course, that’s not the whole story.

What about those of us who want to use “God” in the more conventional sense – the sense we share with conservative religious people?

I’d say we’re still entitled to use it as we will. But, if our goal is communication and understanding, we should remember how other people use it. (This is true of any word we use – particularly those on which a discussion hinges.) Words mean what people use them to mean.

When I had listened to the interview with Abrams, my first thought was that it’s fine for her, but she shouldn’t expect anyone else to pick up the new meaning.

But what does that position mean? It means that I’ll grant more rhetorical points to conservative religious people – who are generally very far from me in terms of values and beliefs – than to liberal religious people such as Abrams – who are often right next door, sometimes in the same house as me (just speaking a slightly different language).

Yes, it still bugs me that they use language differently from me. Just like it bugs me that people use “affect” and “effect” differently from me, or they (to my mind) confuse “climatic” and “climactic”. So I have a choice. I can take my stand on the aesthetics of language use, or I can focus on the content and the meaning behind our different uses of words.

When I look at it that way, getting upset because not everyone speaks the way I want them to seems rather petty and self-defeating. The fact is, liberal religious people are natural and obvious allies of mine – and of yours, I suspect.

Sure, I’ll keep getting upset when people use language “wrong”. But I know that my irritation is entirely about me. They are doing the same thing people have done since the dawn of language. They are adapting and recruiting existing words and concepts to describe new ideas and new ways of dealing with old ideas. Nobody – not all the English teachers in the world, not the Académie Française – has ever managed or will ever manage to halt the fertile evolution of language. Trying to do so is a fool’s errand.

On the other hand, we live in an age where secularism is widespread, and growing. We live in a more rationally-governed, hopeful time than ever before. And if we can identify our many allies – people who share our secular values but not, perhaps, all of our beliefs or language – then we have a chance to spread secularism even more widely and deeply.

That is a mission worth working for. That is a mission worth swallowing a bit of linguistic irritation for.

Okay, that got a little more grandiose and ranty than I intended. But I think you get the idea. I would really like to know what you think. Do you agree with me? Am I missing some important fact about language or reasoning? Please let me know in the comments.

 

A new anti-abortion meme

2015/12/05

I am apalled and saddened that yet another person has taken the hate-tinted rhetoric of the anti-abortion movement as inspiration to actually kill, injure, and terrorize people. I am not surprised, but it is still awful. (And no, contrary to some people’s hype, this does not mean that I think all anti-abortion activists are terrorists. Only the ones who incite terror. Many of the others make a climate where those toxic attitudes can fester and grow – this doesn’t quite make them terrorists, but nor does it leave them entirely blameless.)

Anyway, this article is not about that.

This article is about a rhetorical trick that I first witnessed a few months ago on my own campus, here at the University of Alberta. An anti-abortion display was up in the Student Union building, by the “UAlberta Pro-Life” group. and I was curious how my in-person discussion skills would measure up. So I approached the stall, politely asked about their stance (do they advocate banning abortion – not okay – or do they simply try to persuade people not to choose abortions – perfectly fine, if done sensetively). I saw a leaflet with this message on it:

‘It’s a girl!’ shouldn’t be a death sentence.

Canadian law allows for babies to be aborted if the parents want a child of the other sex. Most often, it is girls who are aborted.

Well, that is rather dismaying. I tried probing for more details, but apparently the display was meant to get people to come to a film screening the group was holding a few days later. The person at the stall gently deflected my questions, suggesting I come to the showing. I excused myself and moved off.

Not long after, I noticed this at an LRT station:

sex selection ad.jpg

So it’s not a one-off. This seems to be a new angle in the rhetoric employed by the anti-abortionists. And it’s (at least in the ad) very subtle: unless you catch the rhetorical dog whistle “Every life begins at conception”, you might not even know that this poster is about abortion at all, and that the group sponsoring it opposes all abortions.

I can see the appeal of this tactic. There is no “we want to take away your rights” message up front. There is just a vague and (please note) number-free warning about a cultural practice that many of us find rather barbaric.

What could be wrong with trying to combat that?

Well, nothing.

Until you try to work out how you could prevent this. Do you deny access to the tests that reveal the baby’s sex? What if these tests, like the now-ubiquitous ultrasound scan, also have other medical functions? That’s not on.

Do you perform the tests, but refuse to tell parents the sex of the child? This is the path taken in some places – such as some NHS hospitals in the UK (ref, ref), including the one where Deena had ultrasound scans during her pregnancies. This can work, but it is easy to circumvent and has a very paternalistic air to it.

Or do you restrict abortion access? For example, only allow abortions before such tests are carried out. Or (also rather chillingly Orwellian) impose a cultural test: if the parents are from a culture with a reputation for sex-selection, then they are denied access to abortions, or denied information about their baby’s sex.

I want to be really clear here: the idea that one should abort a female fetus just because it is female is abhorrent, and has no place in a modern liberal democracy such as Canada.

What I’m worried about is letting in a solution that is worse than the problem. I am worried about just what these anti-abortion groups are probably hoping for: that disgust at sex-selective abortion will drive us to take away important, hard-won rights of women to bodily autonomy and reproductive choice.

But then, I’m a liberal – in the classical sense, of wanting to retain as much liberty as I reasonably can for me and everyone else in society. When someone says “We need a law“, the first response should be, “Have you tried everything else first?”

But that’s the tough part. Because in this case, “everything else” includes all sorts of hard work that involves actually getting to know people, engaging with them. It involves public awareness campaigns. It involves educating and empowering women across the country, from all cultural backgrounds, about their rights and options. It involves making the full spectrum of reproductive options known (comprehensive sex education!) and available to people who are old enough to reproduce.

Some of these things are icky and uncomfortable. Some of them go against other values that many in the anti-abortion camp hold. Reproductive choice? Sex education? Empowering women? No, it’s much easier to just get a law passed. Then we don’t have to think about it – it’s the doctors, lawyers, and courts who can deal with it, in a nice, sanitary, invisible way.

In this article, I have not discussed the arguments for or against keeping abortion legal and easily available to women. There is a time and place for that discussion. In my opinion, that time and place was during Henry Morgantaler’s long campaign. Since January 1988, Canada has had no legal impediment to abortion access. I encourage you to read this fascinating summary of the history of abortion law in Canada.

At some point in the future, I may spend some pixels on the dead-obvious reasons why even fetal personhood rights should not bar a woman from exercising control over her own body. But for now, I am happy to say that our current prime minister, Justin Trudeau is upholding the values of most Canadians on this issue: that abortion is a woman’s choice, end of story. (Justin Trudeau is the son of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, who as justice minister in 1967 introduced the bill that started to make abortion legal in Canada.)

 

Correction: Linguistic war on terror

2015/12/03

A week ago, I posted my thoughts on an attempt to rebrand the currently ascendent terrorist group in the Middle East with a name – Daesh – which avoids any implied legitimacy to their claims to (1) represent Islam and (2) be a state.

The article I linked to sounded quite authoritative in saying that the organization in question – ISIS, ISIL, Islamic State, Daesh, whatever – hates being called Daesh.

On Facebook, a linguist friend of mine pointed out this article, in which the author combs through actual publications by the group and finds evidence to suggest they are indifferent to, not incensed by, the name “Daesh”. The article is from Cracked, whose reputation for careful and serious journalism neither I nor my friend can vouch for.

This is an appropriate place to remind everyone that I am not a journalist, by training or ambition. I can do Google searches like anyone, and I find conflicting reports. I do not have the time or expertise needed to vet these and try to sift out a more coherent answer for you, my loyal reader (or readers).

What I can say is that, based on my first-hand experience with Islam and Muslims (some, but not lots), the terrorists do not represent that religion. And they most certainly do not deserve to be called a state. So, regardless of how they feel about it, I think it’s appropriate to call them Daesh. All three of the other common names in the media – ISIL, ISIS, and Islamic State – implicitly reference the group’s conceit that they are a state and that they are Islamic.

Let’s not grant them that, eh?

The linguistic war on terror

2015/11/24

Okay, that title may be a little grandiose.

But I’ve just read this amazing article about Daesh – a name being used in various places to refer to the organization that would like you to call them the “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria”, or “ISIS” for short.

For those who are wondering, the correct Arabic pronunciation of “daesh” is something like [daʕʃ]*. It is difficult for me to be more precise or certain, because (a) I do not know Arabic and (b) Arabic acronyms are exceedingly rare, so there may not be clear conventions on how to pronounce them. Language Log comes through with corpus-based observations of [dæʃ] (“dash”) from Barack Obama, or [dɐ.ɛʃ] (“duh-esh”) or / [dɐ.ɛʃ] (“dush”) from the French press. So it’s not hard to pronounce, though it may be a little while before we settle on a standard English-world pronunciation.

What is wrong with just calling them “ISIS”? Several things.

First up, that’s what they want you to call them. Calling them “ISIS” affirms three lies they would like us all to swallow: that they are legitimately Islamic, that they are a state and deserve to be treated as such, and that they have some claim on Iraq and Syria. (The “ISIL” alternative just uses a different English translation – “Levant” – for the Arabic word otherwise translated as “Syria”).

Now, I am no religious scholar, but when you have legitimate Islamic spokespeople from around the world declaring that you are violating the dictates of Islam, it’s pretty safe to say you don’t represent Islam. [References here, here, here, and all over if you look for them.]

As for being a legitimate “state”, Daesh are really just a bunch of thugs terrorizing people, displacing millions of people from their homes. This is not what a state does.

Anyway, back to the linguistic side of things. This new name for them, Daesh, seems to have been produced by Arabic-speaking opponents to strip them of any dignity that using their self-selected title would give.

Not only does it deny the legitimacy of the several claims embodied in the other name; it also, apparently, carries various pejorative connotations. Daesh is, in fact, just an Arabic acronym for the same words that we translate to “ISIS” or “ISIL”. But it sounds like it comes from the pre-Islamic period of Arabic history – a time that is associated with demons and ignorance in the minds of Arabic speakers. Also, as I said, acronyms are very rare in Arabic, so apparently the use of an acronym itself makes the group seem less legitimate.

Alice Guthrie, author of the article, tells us,

As al-Haj Salih [the Syrian activist who coined the term] very gently and firmly expresses to me by phone when I interview him for this piece, ‘If an organisation wants to call itself ‘the light’, but in fact they are ‘the darkness’, would you comply and call them ‘the light’?’ The second, and equally important, point that al-Haj Salih stresses to me is another take on why a neologism is insulting: it’s an obviously fictitious name, for an obviously fictional concept.

I doubt Guthrie or anyone else believes that calling them something else will solve all the problems with Daesh. They are still killing, still displacing, still terrorizing. But the points made in that passage are important. Let’s use language consciously – not just to label, but to describe and express reality.

It reminds me of how Stetson Kennedy infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan and shared their secret rituals through the Superman radio show during the 1940s – dramatically undercutting their recruitment. [Source here and here.] Some people might want to join an organization people hate and fear. Nobody wants to join an organization that others are busy laughing at.

So let’s keep fighting Daesh. Let’s support the military fight against them; let’s help their victims; and let’s poke fun at them by using a name that undermines their claims to legitimacy. The following graphic, which I reproduce from Guthrie’s article, references a play on words from Daesh – making the terrorists into donkeys:

Daesh_mock_400_267

‘Da’ish’ becomes ‘Ja’hish’ – “The state of donkeys in Iraq and Syria”.

Thanks to a Facebook friend for pointing me to Guthrie’s article.

Footnote:

* I suppose I should apologize to the non-linguists out there for the use of the International Phonetic Alphabet. As a phonetician, it is the obvious place to go for representing unknown pronunciations, especially those that include sounds not found in English. If you need help working out this pronunciation, check out this chart. This is one of the things I teach in my day job.

 

Where is this blog headed?

2015/11/14

Well, I’ve now polished off the latest series of posts. What next?

In posting those reviews from the conference, I discovered that even after long periods of neglect, this blog retains some readers who come back for more as soon as there is more to be had. This is unexpected and tremendously encouraging, and I thank all of you for sticking with me.

Looking back, this blog has tracked through some interesting developments and transformations in my life. I started it in the early blush of learning about Humanism as a philosophical and practical outlook on life, when I was still working out how it fit me as a personal identity.

Since finishing my PhD, I have become more involved in research and teaching, leaving less time for writing.

Although the research and teaching continue today (and, I hope, will do so for many years to come), I find myself entering a new phase, where I write not because life is unsettled and I need to process it, but because life is becoming settled and I need to make the effort to keep my mind active in those areas that are important to me.

And so Deena and I went to the Alberta Secular Conference. We listened, asked questions, talked. I wrote a series of posts on it (indexed here). A couple of other developments came out of the conference that I may share with you before long.

In wider news, this year has seen a left-leaning party (the New Democratic Party, or NDP) given a majority mandate in the Alberta provincial government, and a centrist party (the Liberal Party of Canada) in the Canadian federal government – both replacing conservative governments that had become complacent and abusive in their exercise of power. I grew up in this province, in a rural community with conservative leanings. This May was the first time in my life that the Progressive Conservative Party was not in power. It is an invigorating time, here at Friendly Humanist headquarters.

I still find that I really enjoy writing – to crystallize my thoughts, to trigger discussion, dissent, and possibly even reasons to change my mind.

I am also, for the first time since high school, working on a long work of fiction. I am currently in the middle of my first ever crack at NaNoWriMo.

So, back to the opening question. What next?

Well, I am currently in a glut of creative outpouring – blog ideas, novel writing, the odd poem. So I suspect that you’ll get at least a weekly post for the foreseeable future. (Currently, my foresight has about a 2-week horizon, in case you’re wondering.) I am contemplating some more book reviews, as well as some local activism-related things (growing, at least in part, out of the conversations at the above-mentioned conference).

If any of my other creative bears fruit – published fruit, that is – I promise you’ll hear about it. I’ll be shouting it from the rooftops, including the rooftop of FH HQ here. (Oh dear. I think I’ll need another acronym for my headquarters. I just sounded that out in my head, and it wasn’t what I expected. Not Friendly at all. Oh dear.)

If there is anything that you, my loyal readers (or you others, my random wandering-in-off-the-Internet readers), would like me to tackle here, please let me know. Nothing motivates me like knowing someone is already waiting to read what I’m about to write. (That’s what got me started on NaNoWriMo this year: my wife asked for a novel for Christmas.)

Until next time!

Actually, Innigo, it means *exactly* what he thinks it means

2015/11/13

Okay, today I’m going to contradict a foundational cultural meme in order to make a subtle point about the philosophical discussion of religion. I think this is going to go well. :)

Everyone everywhere has seen The Princess Bride, and so everyone everywhere is aware of the “Inconceivable” line. Here it is nicely packaged up on YouTube (one of at least a dozen such montages):

The gist: one character (Vizzini, played by Wallace Shawn) repeatedly describes events that surprise him as “inconceivable”. Eventually, one of his henchmen (Innigo, played by Mandy Patinkin) replies,

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Classic. You can find riffs on the “Inconceivable” line all over the Interwebs (eg, 1, 2, 3). And Innigo’s reply gets at least as much play (eg, 1, 2, 3).

I am here to suggest that, in fact, that word means exactly what Vizzini thinks it means.

You see, Vizzini uses it to respond to things that he had thought were impossible. He was unable to conceive of them. They were inconceivable. His lines were, in fact, a comment on himself, not on the physical possibilities. And (spoiler alert) it is this shortcoming of his own imagination that leads to his demise. He fails to imagine that the Man in Black can be as devious as a Sicilian when death is on the line.

What Innigo seems to think it means is “impossible” – as in, something that cannot happen, independent of what people think.

Innigo’s confusion is comparable to that of certain people when discussing philosophical concepts. Consider this delightful dice example from Tracy Harris:

The difference Tracy addresses in the video between what is actually possible and what seems possible based on our limited knowledge – in other words, what is conceivable.

So, based on what seems to me to be the common-sense meanings of the words “inconceivable” and “impossible”, I think that Vizzini actually uses “inconceivable” in the right way, and it is Innigo who is slightly confused.

For all the Princess Bride fans out there, please don’t mistake me. I am not criticizing Innigo or praising Vizzini. Even as a linguist, I do not see linguistic perspicacity as a crucial virtue for distinguishing protagonists from villains.

What do you think? Does that word mean what I think it means? Do you agree that the distinction between “conceivable” and “possible” is worth attending to in our discussions (for example, over the existence of the supernatural)?

Religion and kids: the latest study

2015/11/12

I think I’ve heard variations on this headline from just about every direction in my social media over the last few days:

“Study find non-religious kids more altruistic than religious kids”

It is based on a study published in Current Biology – a study which you can find and read for yourself here.

My reactions to the initial study were mixed. On the one hand, this is not a surprising result. I’ve already heard of research which suggests rule-based moral education interferes with actual moral reasoning in children and adults. (I can’t find a reference to back that up, so I have to hold even that belief tentatively right now. If you can point me to work on this, please let me know and I’ll add it in.) Since a good number of religious traditions focus on rule-based morality (“thou shalt” and “thou shalt not” because of what a book says), it is natural to suspect that people taught in that way will have impaired moral reasoning.

On the other hand, just about every study of social interest which hits the headlines gets distorted according to various agendas and narrative impulses (to support one or the other side, or just to make things sound more interesting). So I was prepared, on eventually reading the paper, to discover that its data supported none of the claims coming to me, primarily via the nonreligious people in my networks.

So much for initial skepticism – I had, I think, neutralized much of the impulse to uncritically accept claims just because they conformed to my preconceptions. But this was an actual study, peer-reviewed and published in a respectable journal. So there is something to learn, and I am fortunate to be trained in interpreting social science research. So I have read through the paper. Here is my attempt to report what I think it really says, and does not say, and what interesting questions we might want to ask next to probe the implications further.

The key number I was looking for was at the end of this sentence:

Results from a linear regression with number of stickers shared as the dependent variable and age (1-year bins), country of origin, socioeconomic status (SES), and religious identification of the household (dummy coded) suggest that age (βstandardized = 0.39, p < 0.001), SES (βstandardized = 0.16, p < 0.001), country (βstandardized = 0.1, p < 0.01), and religious identification (βstandardized = −.132, p < 0.001) are significant predictors of sharing, (model r2adjusted = 0.184).

The beta values indicate the size of each effect – and you see that age is about three times the magnitude of religion. That is, if we are taking these as causes of sharing, a kid’s age has 3 times the effect on sharing that the kid’s family’s religion has. But for me, it’s the last value that I was hunting for. The adjusted r², indicates how much of the variation in sharing is accounted for by the variables observed (age, country, SES, and religious identification). In this case, taking all three of these factors together, we are only able to account for about 18% of the variation in sharing.

What this means is that, even if there are no flaws in the study (and oh boy, there are flaws – see below), and the effect is really real, it doesn’t tell us all that much about any particular kid. The variation between individual kids, or kids within a particular religion, is several times as large as the observed variation between kids from different religious backgrounds. (This was a point that Lynn Honey, in her stats talk at the recent Alberta Secular Conference, made in general. Don’t just ask if there’s a difference between group A and group B. Ask if the difference is large relative to the unexplained variation.)

One thing that was almost completely lacking from the paper was an acknowledgement of mixed-belief marriages. A year ago I read an excellent book about the topic, and it was disappointing to see it left out of this analysis – although that could just be because of the small sample size. In the study, only Christianity, Islam, and nonbelief had large enough samples to be included in the main analysis. I would be curious to see whether diversity (kids with parents or communities with a mix of different religious or other identities) affects kids’ ability to empathize.

I am also struck that we are told only about select tests that the authors made. While I find p-values very useful, one way they become suspect is if people do a lot of tests and only report the ones they find interesting. What were the negative results? How can I know that the few results we are told about are the whole story, or just the bits of the story that make for a tidy conclusion? This is a problem with any study whose analyses are not pre-registered – ie, just about any social science research published these days. But it is a problem.

Last, I want to point you to a couple of other articles people have written criticizing the study and/or the conclusions that laypeople are drawing from it, which I came across after intially drafting this post. They contribute interesting different perspectives that add to the picture above.

According to Matthew: “No, atheist kids are not more altruistic than religious kids”

A secular writer who makes similar points to mine. Curiously, he ends his explanation of why we can’t draw firm conclusions from this study by stating that “this study does at least provide evidence that atheist kids are not less altruistic than religious kids.” As one commenter put it, “you can’t have it both ways”. I would say that “at least this study does not confirm that atheist kids are less altruistic than religious kids.”

George Yancey: “Fatal flaws in that religion and generosity study”

A religious writer. While I agree with him that the study isn’t as conclusive as some of the headlines suggest, his critique itself is unfortunately error-ridden. For example, he says the study should have controlled for parental education. It did (at least for maternal education). He also complains that the authors conflated “mercy” with “morality” in their study of punitiveness. I don’t think they did. In fact, throughout the paper they clearly separate their discussion of the altruism test (the dictator game) and the test of punitiveness. It is clear to me that the authors think these two tests measure distinct things.

Both of these articles highlight a crucial problem with the dictator game – the central test of altruism – which I had missed. They claim that, rather than testing altruism, it may simply test obedience. This seems very plausible to me. The test was set up like this:

  • The experimenter gives the child some stickers.
  • The child is then invited to share some stickers with another (unseen) child by putting them in a separate envelope while the experimenter’s back is turned.
  • The number of stickers shared is used as the operational measure of altruism in this study.

Yes, an altruistic child will tend to put more stickers in the envelope. But so will a more obedient child. Without deeper knowledge of the psychological literature, I am forced to take this as a profound flaw. I have my expectations about whether nonreligious kids will, on average, tend to be more obedient than religious kids. But we’re doing science here, and my empirically un-tested expectations carry little weight.

So the conclusion? Well, it may sound dismissive, but I think this study tells us very little. It does fail to confirm the stereotypical religious expectation that religious people are more altruistic than non-religious people. But it also fails to soundly refute it.

With appropriate follow-ups, it may become a useful bit of evidence in the picture of how our beliefs shape our moral behaviours. For now, it is mainly useful as a cautionary tale in interpreting scientific results.

The best thing about this paper? It is freely available for anyone to read and examine. And this, in my mind, puts it a step ahead of many better-designed studies that are locked behind paywalls.


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