Field of Science

No, Christianity is not the root of modern science!

Medieval Europe was, on the whole, notable for two things: an large amount of Christianity and an absence of anything remotely resembling modern science. Given that the Christian Dark Ages were preceded by a pagan (OK Greek) enlightenment, it's tempting to see the two as connected. On the other hand, modern science developed in Europe against a background of Christianity - so perhaps modern science would never have developed without Christianity.

Christians of course, would like to think so. In an article in the April issue of Catholic Insight, Donald DeMarco makes the case and, at least as he argues it, it's exceptionally weak.

The bulk of the article is taken up with an "Appeal to Authority" style defence of the work of Pierre Duhem, who in the first decades of the 20th century wrote a mammoth, 10 volume treatise on Medieval science - demolishing claims that the Medieval period was scientifically barren.

Later historians have criticised his claims that there was a continuum of scientific development from the Medieval period through into the enlightenment, arguing instead that the renaissance represented a revolution (in Kuhnian terms, a paradigm shift). According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

At the beginning of an essay on void and infinite space, Koyré quotes a passage from Duhem that has become infamous: “If we were obliged to assign a date to the birth of modern science, we would undoubtedly choose 1277, when the Bishop of Paris solemnly proclaimed that a multiplicity of worlds could exist, and that the system of celestial spheres could, without contradiction, be endowed with straight line motion” (1906-13, II.411; see also 1913-59, VII. 4). Koyré calls the two theses from the condemnations of 1277 “absurdities,” noting that they arise in a theological context, and rejects Duhem's date for the birth of modern science; he remarks that Duhem gives another date elsewhere, corresponding to Buridan's impetus theory being extended to the heavens, but dismisses it also, saying that “it is as false as the first date” (1961, 37n). For Koyré, the introduction of Platonic metaphysics, the mathematization of nature, marks a break with the Aristotelian Middle Ages.
The debate over when, exactly, the antecedents of modern science occurred is a fascinating topic, but it's bizarre that DeMarco should make it such a focal point of his argument. Whenever the modern scientific outlook took hold (and it's still far from being a majority opinion even today), it clearly did so against a background of Christianity. To argue that, therefore, science was born from Christianity is a classic case of attribution bias.

You can see this from the arguments DeMarco put forwards to support the hypothesis that Christian theology somehow promotes a scientific outlook. Here they are in full:
  • The notion that God’s creation is ordered means that the physical universe is organized in a rational manner that is consistent, unified, and free of contradiction.
  • The notion that man is created in God’s image gives him the confidence that he is capable of discovering the orderly pattern of nature.
  • Since every thing that God created is good, it is worthwhile to uncover and utilize the good wherever he finds it.
  • The idea that creation took place in time and came out of nothing, and the linearity of time, played important rules in the development of modern science
Yes, that's right. DeMarco is actually arguing that, without Christianity, we would never have figured out that there are patterns and order to the world around us, that we can figure out those patterns, and that discovering new things is cool! Oh, and we wouldn't have found out that things tend to happen one after the other.

It makes you wonder how on earth the Greeks and the Chinese, who made advances that put Medieval Europe in the shade, managed without the fortifying effects of Christianity. What's more, it makes you wonder why it took 1500 years of Christianity before modern scientific notions began to be developed. It also ignores the fact that the early philosophers of science, such as Hume, were decidedly non-religious.

Religion does not inspire science - but the work of Duhem does show that is not necessarily opposed to science. In fact, as a general rule, religion approves of science - with one exception. And that's when science comes up with results that religion doesn't like. Whenever there have been major cultural movements rejecting science, it has always been at the instigation of religion (think of heliocentrism, the age of the earth, evolution, and now stem cell research).

And one more thing. It's generally accepted by historians of science (e.g. John Gribbin) that the Renaissance was a revolution - a time when the old, dogmatic approach to learning was overthrown, and a new openness came to the fore.

In other words, it was the death of dogmatism, and the emergence of freethinking. And when dogmatism and free thought clash, you know which side the religious will be on, and which side the humanists, don't you!

Does God believe in carbon control?

Climate change is one of the big issues of our time, with a major ethical dimension. It's times like these that we could really do with some clarity from God on what He wants from his worshippers and - why not - maybe some advice on the science as well..

The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant group in the USA, is trying to help. On March 10, they released a statement with the news that God wanted us all to reduce our carbon emissions. Science, they said, cannot be dismissed simply because you don't think God will like it:
Though the claims of science are neither infallible nor unanimous, they are substantial and cannot be dismissed out of hand on either scientific or theological grounds. Therefore, in the face of intense concern and guided by the biblical principle of creation stewardship, we resolve to engage this issue without any further lingering over the basic reality of the problem or our responsibility to address it. Humans must be proactive and take responsibility for our contributions to climate change--however great or small.
However, The Weekly Standard reports that other prominent Southern Baptists have taken umbrage at this declaration, pointing out that their 2007 resolution cast doubt on the science behind climate change, said that climate mitigation would hurt low income nations, and what's more we should stop funding scientific research into the whole issue (presumably on the grounds that it would likely produce more results offensive to God). The Southern Baptist President, Frank Page, was forced into an apology:

"Seldom have I seen such a reaction," he complained. "I have been called names that I have not been called in my entire life." He apologized for creating an impression that the declaration officially represented the church.
Then the moral majority struck back, with a letter to US Senators opposing reductions in greenhouse gas emissions:
Joining with other conservative groups such as the Family Research Council, the Southern Baptist-backed letter complained that the bill's "underlying assumption" about human-induced climate change is "highly questionable."
So there you have it. God is officially against climate change mitigation. Or maybe not. Strangely enough, in the UK God seems to be strongly in favour of mitigation.

What's the bottom line here? Simply this: in turns out that God is in favour of whatever the general consensus is in the community. Religion, as a tool to help with modern ethical dilemmas, is useless. We are seeing something similar with embryo research.

The Weekly Standard concludes with an intriguing paragraph. The churches' position on climate change, it says, is nothing to do with ethics - and all to do with PR and proselytization!
Overly conscious of stereotypes about their "fundamentalist" controlled church, Page and many of the other Southern Baptist signers of the Global Warming declaration seem more determined to disprove that they are "uncaring" than substantively address climate change. Following groups like the National Association of Evangelicals, they seem to believe that favorable media attention will enhance their prestige and their evangelistic outreach. But most Southern Baptists probably think differently, intuiting that churches thrive more when they are culturally contrarian than when they succumb to convention.

Kids are naturally prosocial

One for the "You don't need religion to be good" files. A new study just out in the journal Cognition has looked at co-operative behaviour in three-and-a-half year olds. The Greater Good blog explains:
Olson and Spelke ran three related studies in which the children were introduced to a “protagonist” doll which, at certain times, benefited from pro-social behavior from other dolls. The children were then given the opportunity to direct the protagonist doll either to share or not share a resource (for example, stickers, pennies) with other dolls.
The results: the kids showed an innate predisposition to indirect reciprocity - "I help you, someone else helps me". This is a key feature of human society, since it allows the formation of co-operative groups large enough for individuals to be unknown to others that they might come across. It's key to the development of towns, for example. This new study shows that it is a product of our evolution. Olson and Spelke write:
Observations and experiments show that human adults preferentially share resources with close relations, with people who have shared with them (reciprocity), and with people who have shared with others (indirect reciprocity). These tendencies are consistent with evolutionary theory but could also reflect the shaping effects of experience or instruction in complex, cooperative, and competitive societies. Here, we report evidence for these three tendencies in 3.5-year-old children, despite their limited experience with complex cooperative networks. Three pillars of mature cooperative behavior therefore appear to have roots extending deep into human development.
Indirect reciprocity works from an evolutionary perspective because it allows individuals to enhance their reputation - and those individuals with a high reputation are more likely to gain the trust and co-operation of others. The mathematician Karl Sigmund discusses his perspective on indirect reciprocity in an essay hosted on The Edge.

K OLSON, E SPELKE (2008). Foundations of cooperation in young children Cognition, 108 (1), 222-231 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2007.12.003

48% of Brits are atheist or agnostic

In a new survey by Christian pressure group Theos, 48% of respondents declared themselves to be either agnostic (26%) or atheist (22%). They kept this a bit quiet in their press announcement, preferring to concentrate on the fact that just over half think that Jesus rose from the dead in some way - although only 30% agree with the Christian belief that he was physically resurrected.

A 48% "no religion" response is pretty remarkable - even better than the BHA survey last year which concluded that 36% of the population are humanists. Theos blames this on a dodgy sample - but that doesn't stop them claiming that the poll shows that the UK is Christian! In fact, in other surveys the numbers of non-believers are a little smaller, but not by much. The latest wave of the World Values Survey, for example, found that 28% of Brits do not believe in god and 40% do not believe in life after death (i.e. are not Christian, Muslim or Jewish).

Theos scored another own goal back in 2006 with a survey in which 42% agreed with Dawkin's statement that faith is "one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eliminate".

With enemies like these, who needs friends!

Hat tip: A Thinking Man

Scud Stud & the Shroud of Turin

I couldn't be bothered to watch the BBC's latest act of obeisance to the credulous. Happily, The Heresy Corner has taken it to pieces.

Catholics on human-animal hybrids: basically they're yucky

Cardinal Keith O'Brien, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, has used his Easter Sunday sermon to try to influence the forthcoming Commons debate on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill.

In a key part of the sermon (full text here), he complains about the creation of human-animal hybrids as a research tool:

What I am speaking of is the process whereby scientists create an embryo containing a mixture of animal and human genetic material. If I were preaching this homily in France, Germany, Italy, Canada or Australia I would be commending the government for rightly banning such grotesque procedures.

However here in Great Britain I am forced to condemn our government for not only permitting but encouraging such hideous practices.

So why is O'Brien so worked up? What, exactly is his problem? To me these issues are interesting because, for obvious reasons, the Bible offers no advice whatsoever on them. They must, you would think, pose a major challenge for those who still believe the Bible to be the word of God (either literally or metaphorically). How can you make an ethical judgement if God omitted the topic from his treatise?

But it's not a problem for Cardinal O'Brien. He just thinks it's yucky, and that's that. He doesn't justify his position by anything so crude as a reference to the Bible. And it's clear that he hasn't a clue about the science, or even what it is that the bill is proposing. What he does say, for example, is:
It is difficult to imagine a single piece of legislation which, more comprehensively, attacks the sanctity and dignity of human life than this particular Bill.
So let's be clear here. What the bill will allow is the creation of an embryo using somatic cell nuclear transfer into an animal embryo. In other words, genes from an ordinary (non-embryo) human cell are transferred to an animal cell. The only animal genes remaining are in the mitochondria. No human embryo is destroyed. The Lancet explains (free registration required):
The Sept 6 ruling applies to a procedure in which the nucleus of a human somatic cell is introduced into an animal egg that has had its nucleus removed. The altered cell is then stimulated to begin embryonic development. Stem cells can be harvested from the embryo, a process that usually destroys it.
In other words, this is a technique that offers the potential for unlimited supply of stem cells without destruction of human embryos that occurs using conventional techniques. Sure, potentially there are ethical concerns (if these embryos were implanted, say). But nobody's proposing to do that. So what's the problem again? Oh that's right , it's yucky! As The Lancet concludes:
The promise of this research is, indeed, great. Somatic- cell nuclear transfer will allow the production of stem cells that will enable us to develop new treatments for diseases that are today incurable. And it is possible—though far from certain—that these techniques might one day make it possible to create cells that can be used to replace damaged or lost tissue. This argument is not to say that there should be a Faustian bargain to obtain the benefits of stem-cell research regardless of ethical cost.


Anon. Animal-human hybrid-embryo research. The Lancet 2007;370:909. DOI:10.1016/S0140-6736(07)61420-2

Wondering why the markets have gone tits-up?

This in yesterday's Telegraph:
Jim Porter (not his real name), chief technical analyst for one of the largest banks in Britain ... uses heliocentric astrology to predict the direction of the international financial markets.

Millions of pounds' worth of commodities, shares and currencies are traded on his command. His decisions may affect the values of your pension and your home, and perhaps decide how long you hold on to your job.
It's hardly surprising that the world's markets are in turmoil, with chumps like this in charge! The problem is that markets are inherently unpredictable, and city analysts daily take high stakes gambles - with the success or failure largely outside of their control.

It's a profession where superstition is likely to thrive. Numerous studies show that supersitious behaviour increases alongside the 'desire for control'. As The Guardian has reported:
Ask a psychologist, a sociologist or an anthropologist what makes us superstitious - why we queue in market towns for tarot readings, why we fill in our lottery tickets with the same lucky ballpoint every time, and risk back injury avoiding the cracks between paving stones - and they will tell you the same thing. When people feel that they have no control over events, they will suspend their belief in the rational and step into a world where the rules seem more flexible.


Prosperity and Unbelief: A benign circle?

A new article in The Atlantic draws attention to research by the Pew Global Attitudes Project in 2007. This research shows a strong negative correlation between GDP per head and religiosity, ie the most religious countries are the poorest. (Except for the USA and Kuwait!)

The author argues that increasing income reduces religious commitment - and even quotes John Wesley in support! That's very plausible. But it's also likely that religiosity depresses income through its hostility to this world and resistance to innovation and critical thought. Indeed, both may be true - a positive feedback loop.

To test this we'd need to track wealth and religiosity over several decades. I wonder if anyone has done so.

Telling people what's right doesn't mean they'll get it!

Psyblog has a nice case study on how hard it can be to get people to take on board simple scientific facts when those facts conflict with their intuitive beliefs. In this case: how does the eye see. It turns out that a surprising number (around half) of US college students thought that seeing involves the eye sending out some kind of search beam - i.e. the ancient Greek model usually attributed to Empedocles.

But the really strange bit was found in later studies, in which the participants were actually given relevant textbook passages to read before being asked how vision works. It had virtually no effect. Psyblog comments:
Actually we shouldn't be surprised by this. A fair amount of research has already been carried out into tackling misconceptions in science. It turns out that people are remarkably resistant to changing their beliefs. Immediately after being told the correct concept clearly enough they may get it right, but only for a short time. Soon after it will often spring right back to their original, incorrect belief.

No doubt this also reflects the classic problem that simply telling people the correct scientific explanation has virtually no effect unless they have some underlying feel and understanding for what's going on. As the proverb has it:

"Tell me, and I'll forget. Show me, and I may not remember. Involve me, and I'll understand"

You're wrong Prof Gray: more phones does mean less religion

John Gray, Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics, has a long article (The Atheist Delusion) in today's Guardian. The targets are familiar ones, albeit dressed up a bit (quick and unfair summary: atheists believe things, so they're no different from the religious; Stalin and Mao were atheists, therefore attacking religion leads to genocide).

Happily, however, one of his complaints is not waffly and opinion based - it's demonstrably wrong. And it's this one...

He attacks claims that modernisation brings with it a slow sapping of religion. Now, you may think that's a slam dunk, but unfortunately Prof Gray is not up to speed with the facts. Here's what he says (my emphasis):
The positivists believed that with the development of transport and communication - in their day, canals and the telegraph - irrational thinking would wither way, along with the religions of the past. Despite the history of the past century, Dennett believes much the same. In an interview that appears on the website of the Edge Foundation ( under the title "The Evaporation of the Powerful Mystique of Religion", he predicts that "in about 25 years almost all religions will have evolved into very different phenomena, so much so that in most quarters religion will no longer command the awe that it does today". He is confident that this will come about, he tells us, mainly because of "the worldwide spread of information technology (not just the internet, but cell phones and portable radios and television)". The philosopher has evidently not reflected on the ubiquity of mobile phones among the Taliban, or the emergence of a virtual al-Qaida on the web.

Now, I don't know the statistics of mobile phone use among the taliban (and neither does Gray), but I do have data on the number of telephone lines and mobile phones per capita in a variety of countries around the world (including Afghanistan). You can download them youself from the US Government Census). And there are also national-level data on a number of religious variables, such as the number of people who pray (a better indicator of belief than just asking people if they believe). These can be obtained from the World Values Survey and the International Social Survey.

Put these data together, and you get the graph shown. A clear and strong link: as the number of phones goes up, the number of people who pray goes down. Now, there are a number of possible reasons for this link. It's likely a mostly indirect effect - the richer a nation is, the more phones. So there may be an effect of wealth (although the correlation with phone lines is actually stronger than the correlation with per capita GDP). The number of phone lines is also correlated with other factors, such as education and literacy.

But, crucially, these are all indicators of modernisation themselves. So, Prof Gray, you are wrong on this count. Modernisation is sapping away at religion, and it will continue to do so.

Stoned Moses: an update

Thaddeus Nelson over at Archaeoporn has been through Benny Shanon's recent paper (the one which proposed that Moses was on drugs - see earlier post). It's a pretty cogent response, pointing all the areas where Shanon's hypothesis is pretty, erm, flaky.

Principle among his objections are that Shanon repeatedly seems to see the Bible as a kind of real history, rather than a collection of myths and legends that may (or may not) have some distant grounding in actual events. Moses was clearly not a Shaman, the events probably never took place as described (or at all), and there are plenty of other explanations for what's being described. Nelson also downplays the claims for entheogen use in other middle eastern traditions.

Shanon also cherry picks his evidence. None of this rules out the possibility that entheogens were used by the Israelites and influenced their mythic stories, but the positive evidence is pretty slim:
In the end his approach and the outcome mirror the research of scholars who over analyze and cherry pick the bible to find evidence of aliens in theophany. I certainly do not mean to say that there is no possibility that the Israelites used entheogens, but that there is at present no archaeological evidence and textual evidence is questionable at best.
One of Shanon's hypotheses that is testable is his idea that acacia tree roots from the Sinai, when mixed with harmal (a shrub), produces a hallucinogenic brew. He doesn't seem to have tested this himself (although he has tested a similar concoction using a Brazilian acacia species.

It seems like a simple way to check his theory. Any volunteers?

Templeton Prize goes to Michael Heller

Th NY Times reports that Michael Heller, a professor at the Pontifical Academy of Theology, in Krakow, Poland (sounds like something out of The Golden Compass, but it's a real place!) has won the $1.6 million Templeton Prize - awarded by the eponymous American billionaire fund manager who's currently a tax exile in the Bahamas.

The news reports are a bit vague on what Heller's done to win the dosh (the prize is awarded "for progress toward research or discoveries about spiritual realities"). It seems that he is an advocate of 'non-overlapping magisteria'. In other words, critical thinking and rational thought alone can't give us 'meaning' - we have to pretend there is a sky fairy to get that.
In a telephone interview, Professor Heller explained his affinity for the two fields: “I always wanted to do the most important things, and what can be more important than science and religion? Science gives us knowledge, and religion gives us meaning. Both are prerequisites of the decent existence.”

How pretence in sky fairies gives you meaning is not explored. Nor is the interesting question of why it so happens that people with no belief in a sky fairy still manage to lead lives that are every bit as meaningful and fulfilled (if not more so).

Still, the prize will be awarded by Prince Philip, who's always good for a laugh (and is perhaps trying the wrest the title of barmiest royal from his son...)

How good is the evidence?

I am a member of the Brent Teenage Pregnancy Partnership Board I keep my eyes open for articles that might have some relevance to the task of trying to reduce the number of teenage pregnancies. There is clearly also a connection with preventing STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) .

Today I came across this article with the headline:

"Quarter of U.S. teen girls have sex-related disease"

at the end on the 2nd page I read:

"The findings were based on data from 838 girls who took part in a nationally representative health survey in 2003 and 2004. They were tested for various STDs."

I have never studied statistical analysis, or really understood the principles of carrying out sound surveys etc. but apart from noting the fact that the survey is already 4 years out of date I have a gut feeling that 838 girls isn't a large enough sample.
Any comments?
p.s. I have made a small effort to find the original report but without success

Religion has no effect on antisocial behaviour

In fact, there is a trend the other way - the less religious a society is, the lower the levels of antisocial behaviour. At least according to a new study out today in Science.

The study took groups of students from 15 universities around the world and studied them as they played a game of co-operation. Players could either keep tokens for themselves, or contribute them to the common pot for the benefit of everyone. They were also allowed to punish players they thought were freeloaders, in an effort to keep them in line.

In some groups, the freeloaders hit back, punishing the others in a tit-for-tat cycle of anti-social behaviour. In these groups, co-operation the same as elsewhere at the start, but rapidly plummeted.

The red bars on the graph above show the levels of anti-social behaviour - worst in Saudi Arabia (Riyadh), Greece (Athens), and Oman (Muscat); best in the USA (Boston), Australia (Melbourne) and the UK (Nottingham).

Lead author Simon Gaechter, Professor of the Psychology of Economic Decision-Making at The University of Nottingham, explained:
"Our results correlate with other survey data in particular measures of social norms of civic co-operation and rule of law in these same societies. The findings suggest that in societies where public co-operation is ingrained and people trust their law enforcement institutions, revenge is generally shunned. But in societies where the modern ethic of co-operation with unrelated strangers is less familiar and the rule of law is weak, revenge is more common.
In an accompanying commentary, Herbert Gintis, (professor of economics at the Central European University), said:
“The authors’ empirical results show that the advanced market societies with democratic institutions produce an ethic of spontaneous cooperation, with a strong altruistic dimension, that likely accounts at least in part for their material success and legitimacy, says Gintis. He adds that the results must be validated and extended before we firm conclusions can be drawn.
One of the potential explanations the authors looked at is the relationship between antisocial punishment and the national score on a "traditional-secular" scale, derived from the World Values Survey. They found no relationship (see supplemental material online):
With regard to the value orientations investigated by Inglehart and co-workers we find that the dimension “traditional vs. secular-rational values” has no explanatory power (probably because in this dimension we do not have much variability across the societies of our subject pools)
Now, there are a number of problems here. Students are not necessarily representative of wider society. More highly educated people tend to be less religious and more secular, and this relationship might be stronger in countries in which few people have access to higher education.

Furthermore, a country like the USA may score low on secular-rational values, even though there are outposts of common sense. So Boston may not be representative. Lastly, secular values are highly correlated with the factors that were found to influence antisocial behaviour (democratic societies with high levels of civic trust) - so teasing out the explanatory factors is tricky.

But what this study does do is bang yet another nail in the coffin of the argument that secularisation and removal of religion from the public sphere is bad for societal health.

B. Herrmann, C. Thoni, S. Gachter (2008). Antisocial Punishment Across Societies Science, 319 (5868), 1362-1367 DOI: 10.1126/science.1153808

Gintis H. BEHAVIOR: Punishment and Cooperation. Science 7 March 2008:1345-1346. DOI: 10.1126/science.1155333

Expensive magic is more effective

You don't need me to tell you that money can have a powerful effect on the mind. What is surprising is just how unaware people can be of its power. For example, a study published in January found that slapping a high price tag on cheap wine makes makes the pleasure centres in the brain (the medial orbitofrontal cortex) of the people who drink it shine brighter on an MRI scan.

Now another study, published in the March 5 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association (Paper, Press Release), has shown that a similar thing happens with the placebo effect. Now, this is interesting because, to the extent that the 'miracle cures' of the god botherers have any basis in reality, they can be explained by the placebo effect.

It's already known that you can up the power of a placebo by increasing the intensity of the ritual surrounding it. Ben Goldacre explains:
We know from research that four placebo sugar pills a day are more effective than two for eradicating gastric ulcers (and that’s not subjective, you measure ulcers by putting a camera into your stomach); we know that salt water injections are a more effective treatment for pain than sugar pills, not because salt water injections are medically active, but because injections are a more dramatic intervention; we know that green sugar pills are a more effective anxiety treatment than red ones, not because of any biomechanical effect of the dyes, but because of the cultural meanings of the colours green and red. We even know that packaging can be beneficial.
In the new study, the willing subjects were given mild electric shocks, and also what they were told was a pain killer (in reality a sugar pill, of course). But there was a twist:
Half the participants were given a brochure describing the pill as a newly-approved pain-killer which cost $2.50 per dose, and half were given a brochure describing it as marked down to 10 cents, without saying why.
The result? 85% of those given the 'expensive' sugar pill got pain relief. Remarkably, so did 61% of those given the cheap pill!

So the moral for purveyors of miracle cures (shaman, Catholics and evangelicals alike): charge as much as the suckers will pay. They will thank you for it!
Plassmann, H., O'Doherty, J., Shiv, B., Rangel, A. (2008). Marketing actions can modulate neural representations of experienced pleasantness. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105(3), 1050-1054. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0706929105

Waber, R., Shiv, B., Carmon, Z., Ariely, D. (2008). Commercial Features of Placebo and Therapeutic Efficacy. JAMA, 299, 1016-1017.

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Moses: druggie or what?

The newswires are buzzing with a new hypothesis put forward by Benny Shanon (professor of cognitive psychology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem) that the visions that Moses had were likely drug-induced. The paper actually appears in the first issue of a new journal, Time and Mind. No doubt the publishers were looking for some free publicity - and it looks like they got it. Religious types are grumbling at the sacrilege of it all

The paper is free to access (see link below), and has some interesting things to say. Prof Shanon has a long track record in the study of herbal hallucinogens, particularly in relation to mystical experiences. His theory is that the visions they generate are not culturally determined, but are a product of the specific pharmacological effects of the drug.

He points out that religions the world over have a central role for psychoactive drugs as a way to experience god or the spirit world. Not only the South American religions, but also religions of the old world such as Hinduism (soma, the magical nectar) and Zoroastrianism (Haoma). There's even some evidence of their use in early Christianity and Islam. The practice is so common that the term entheogen (something that brings you to your inner god) is frequently used in preference to the term psychoactive.

So if the ancient Hebrews had access to entheogenic plants, it would be rather surprising if they were not used as part of the mystical experience. Given this, what actual evidence is there in the Bible? Well, quite a lot - but most of it tendentious.

For example, the visions described (bright lights, time dilation, synaesthesia) show some similarities with the visions reported by individuals who have taken ayahuasca, a brew from South America that contains an alkaloid (DMT) and monoamine oxidase inhibitor and is a potent hallucinogen.

In one remarkable passage (Exodus 33:12-23), God is described as being visible, with a body and back but a face that can't be seen. Similarly, in Ayahuasca-induced hallucinations, human forms appear but the faces commonly cannot be made out.

There are also passages in the bible describing the use of acacia wood to make ritual artefacts. And acacia wood, when mixed with another shrub that has been suggested as the source of Soma, contains (like ayahuasca) both an alkaloid and a monoamine oxidase inhibitor.

So the ancient Hebrews had the means and the motivation for drug-induced religious experiences. And a lot of the Bible certainly sounds very trippy. Does all this add up to evidence that Moses was on drugs? Not really, but it's certainly possible.

The Bible was written long after Moses lived, and so contains only a folk memory. Assuming the visions described in the bible have some physical basis, then they might well describe the experience of drug-induced hallucinations. Why shouldn't they?


Shanon, B. Biblical Entheogens: a Speculative Hypothesis. Time and Mind, Volume 1, Number 1, March 2008 , pp. 51-74(24)

Beer and science don't mix

Via EvoPhylo, a Czech study on the effects of beer drinking on scientific output - and the news isn't good. After controlling for age, the more beer a scientist drank, the fewer papers they published. And the beer drinkers got fewer citations per paper too.

What's more, scientists living in Bohemia (beer-swilling sybarites) have a worse publication record than those living in Moravia (upstanding temperates).

The author goes on to note, somewhat glumly:
Importantly, publication success directly influences both financial income and social status both of which are known to affect fitness (Hopcroft 2006, Hauber 2007). Thus, quantity and quality of publications may have far reaching consequences for social success of academic workers and, consequently, may affect their biological success as well.
In other words, scientists who lay off the beer probably have more sex. The paper is Grim 2008 - a sure case of nominative determinism!

Still, the study was done on behavioural ecologists - maybe there's still hope for other scientists.


Tomáš Grim. A possible role of social activity to explain differences in publication output among ecologists. Oikos 2008 doi:10.1111/j.2008.0030-1299.16551.x

Open access text

A new theory of moral psychology

Natural Rationality reports on a paper just out in the February issue of Judgement and Decision Making that puts forward a new psychological model for moral reasoning (well, it's actually an iterative development of earlier theories).

The major novel idea the authors propose is that moral reasoning is no different from other kinds of deontic reasoning.

So-called "deontic propositions" are statements about things that you may, should or should not do. So all moral propositions are a kind of deontic proposition, but deontic propositions also include things like cultural taboos. The authors give an example: you shouldn't eat peas with a knife. This is a deontic proposition that isn't a moral proposition, it's just something you shouldn't do in polite society. Similarly, if you play table tennis there are certain rules you have to stick to.

The insight in the new paper is that nobody's ever come up with a reliable way of telling apart moral propositions from deontic ones. Some propositions are clearly one or the other, but many lie in the middle somewhere. And since nobody's come up with a way of telling them apart, perhaps that's because they're basically the same.

This doesn't of course, mean that all morality is just cultural. What they do point out is that, although some moral judgements are accompanied by an emotional response, some aren't. Emotions aren't a sound guide to what's moral or not. And neither is anything else.

The present theory goes beyond other current accounts of moral reasoning in that it aims to dissolve any appeal to a special mechanism for moral reasoning. When you think about moral issues, you rely on the same independent mechanisms that underlie emotions and cognitions in deontic domains that have nothing to do with morality, such as games and manners. Your evaluations of the morality or immorality of actions depend, in turn, on unconscious intuitions or on conscious reasoning, but your beliefs do not always enable you to reach a clear decision about what is right and what is wrong, or even about whether the matter in hand is a moral issue.
The paper is open access, and has a great, brief introduction to earlier theories of moral psychology and where they fall short.


Bucciarelli et al. The psychology of moral reasoning. Judgment and Decision-Making February 2008;3(2):121-139