Field of Science

Sick women don't go to church

OK, so that's not how this new study is being headlined elsewhere (e.g. Religious Feelings Associated with Women's Lengthier Survival). But that's essentially what it has shown. Here's what they did (see below for a reference to the paper).

They used data that have been collected from over 90,000 women who took part in the Women's Health Initiative, a study that was designed to look at the effects of hormone replacement and diet. But as part of the study, the participants were also asked about their religious lives - their religious affiliation, whether and how often they went to church, and whether religion provided them with 'strength and comfort'. They tracked the women for around 8 years (on average), and recorded whether they had any heart disease, or whether they died for any reason.

What they found was that women who went to church were actually at a higher risk of dying. Something similar could be seen for religious comfort - women who got comfort from religion were more likely to have a heart attack or die. And women who said that they were 'affiliated' to a religion were 50% more likely to die!

The explanation for this is fairly straightforward: people who are sick start to think about death, especially their own, and as a result they start to get religion. It's called Terror Management Theory. They turn to religion to relieve their anxiety.

But what the study authors wanted to know was whether there was an effect of religiosity on health after adjusting for this, by taking into all the other factors that are known to affect health. So they made statistical adjustments for a whole host of these (such as age, income, health history, behaviour, depression, and life satisfaction).

After making all these adjustments they found that there was no relationship between any measure of religiosity and the chance of getting heart disease. And there was no effect of religious belief or religious affiliation on the chance of dying. But - and this is the key result that made the headlines - women who went to church at least once a week were about 10% less likely to die over the course of the study than other women. They looked at the causes of death, but there didn't seem to be any pattern.

So what could the cause for for this be. Well, despite the best efforts of the investigators, you can't rule out the possibility that women who were sicker simply found it more difficult to get to church. In other words, maybe there was something about these women's health that was not being picked up in the survey, but was still affecting behaviour.

However, it is interesting that it was church going, and not religiosity, that seemed to have the effect. Maybe participating in group activities, like church going, makes people happier, and this has some effect on health. And maybe it is nothing to do with church per se - maybe participating in any kind of activity has this effect.

Precisely that was shown in a study earlier this year (by Dan Ariely and colleagues). What they found was that regular church going did indeed cause a real and sustained increase in happiness. But that other activities, such as taking regular exercise or doing yoga, were just as effective.

Is this, then, the lesson for humanists? That if we are to work for a society free of religion, then we also need to recognize the essential social role that's currently filled for many people by religion. And do something about it.
Eliezer Schnall, Sylvia Wassertheil-Smoller, Charles Swencionis, Vance Zemon, Lesley Tinker, Mary Jo O'Sullivan, Linda Van Horn, Mimi Goodwin (2008). The relationship between religion and cardiovascular outcomes and all-cause mortality in the women's health initiative observational study Psychology & Health, 1-15 DOI: 10.1080/08870440802311322

D MOCHON, M NORTON, D ARIELY (2008). Getting off the hedonic treadmill, one step at a time: The impact of regular religious practice and exercise on well-being Journal of Economic Psychology, 29 (5), 632-642 DOI: 10.1016/j.joep.2007.10.004

Oldest known soul belongs to a Hittite called Kuttamuwa

“I, Kuttamuwa, servant of [the king] Panamuwa, am the one who oversaw the production of this stele for myself while still living. I placed it in an eternal chamber and established a feast at this chamber: a bull for [the god] Hadad, a ram for [the god] Shamash and a ram for my soul that is in this stele.
That's the inscription on a stele unearthed this summer in South-Eastern Turkey, and newly deciphered (University of Chicago Press release). According to the excavator-in-chief, it's the earliest known written evidence for the belief in the existence of a soul:
“Normally, in the Semitic cultures, the soul of a person, their vital essence, adheres to the bones of the deceased,” said David Schloen, an archaeologist at the university’s Oriental Institute and director of the excavations. “But here we have a culture that believed the soul is not in the corpse but has been transferred to the mortuary stone.” (NY Times)
Now, strictly speaking what we are talking about here is not simply belief in a soul that continues after death. After all, that is a belief that is widespread, notably of course in Ancient Egypt, with its penchant for mummification. And the Neanderthal burials at the Shanidar Cave in Israel seem to show some kind of belief in an afterlife.

But what's unusual about this one is that body seems to have been cremated. For many religions - including relatively modern ones like Christianity - the body and the soul are intimately linked, so that destruction of the body implies destruction of the soul. No such concerns seem to have troubled Kuttamuwa, who seems to have been pretty confident of a fruitful (and well fed) existence even after having been burned to a cinder.

SuperSense by Prof. Bruce Hood (Bristol University)

If you like Lewis Wolpert's book 'Six Impossible Things before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief' you'll also probably enjoy...
About SuperSense by Prof Bruce Hood

President elect Barak Obama played a game of basketball the morning of his victory in the Iowa primary, and continued the tradition the day of every following primary.

Superstitious habits are common. Do you ever cross your fingers, knock on wood, avoid walking under ladders, or step around black cats? Sentimental value often supercedes material worth. Do you believe in an afterlife?

Belief in things beyond what’s rational or natural are common to humans. Where do such beliefs come from and why do most of us have them? I think that it’s partly to do with believing what we are told but I also think there is another more personal reason.

Humans are born with brains designed to make sense of the world and that sometimes leads to beliefs that go beyond any natural explanation. To be true they would have to be supernatural. With scientific education children can learn that such beliefs are irrational but because they operate at an intuitive level they can either be resistant to reason or lie dormant in otherwise sensible adults.

Therefore it is unlikely that any effort to get rid of supernatural beliefs, or the superstitious behaviors that accompany them, will be successful. Moreover, these beliefs are essential in binding us together as a society. We are inclined from the start to think that there are unseen patterns, forces and essences inhabiting the world. This way of thinking is unavoidable, and it may be part of human nature to see ourselves connected to each other at this deeper level.

In the vein of Blink, I explore how we may be pre-wired with a mind design that creates our “SuperSense” that shapes our intuitions and superstitions and is essential to the way we learn to understand the world and in binding us together as a society.

Read reviewers comments here.

SuperSense is published in UK June 2009

SuperSense Cover

Are near death experiences akin to hibernation?

The neurological basis of near-death experiences remains a bit of a mystery, despite a number of theories. The main problem is that death is, of course, a one-way ticket. Then there is the problem that death is not a precise event - it tends to be a steady process during which the normally highly-regulated functions of the body gradually degrade.

And yet despite these problems there do seem to be characteristic features of the experience - bright lights, feelings of well being, and out of body experiences - that tend to be reported by people who have been close to death. Many of these sensations can be triggered in healthy people. Out-of body experiences can be induced by tricking the senses, as well as by directly stimulating the brain. What's more, many of the hallucinatory experiences reported can be induced using ketamine, which blocks a neurotransmitter called glutamate. And here's where it gets interesting.

A Dutch cardiologist has suggested that near-death experiences are in fact related to hibernation. Hibernating animals protect their brain cells by decreasing the number of receptors for glutamate. This stops them going into a kind of toxic spasm as the oxygen levels drop.

Perhaps, when close to death, the human brain goes into a state similar to hibernation. Maybe this explains the hallucinations, and also the disinhibition of memories (your life flashing before your eyes).

C. van Tellingen (2008). Heaven can wait - or down to earth in real time Neth Heart J, 16 (10), 359-362 Full text on PubMed Central

Newsweek on why we're superstitious

Last week's Newsweek has a rather good article on the psychology of superstition: Why We Believe:
The studies are an outgrowth of research on religious faith, a (nearly) human universal, and are turning out to be useful for explaining fringe beliefs, too. The emerging consensus is that belief in the supernatural seems to arise from the same mental processes that underlie everyday reasoning and perception.
Here's a flavour:
  • "In the absence of perceived control, people become susceptible to detecting patterns in an effort to regain some sense of organization," says psychology researcher Bruce Hood of the University of Bristol
  • Something as common as loneliness can draw us to the paranormal.
  • ...we are programmed to impute vitality to even inanimate threats...
  • That we are suckers for weird beliefs reflects the fact that the brain systems that allow and even encourage them "evolved for other things," says James Griffith, a psychiatrist and neurologist at George Washington University. A bundle of neurons in the superior parietal lobe, a region toward the top and rear of the brain, for instance, distinguishes where your body ends and the material world begins. Without it, you couldn't navigate through a door frame. But other areas of the brain, including the thinking regions in the frontal lobes, sometimes send "turn off!" signals to this structure, such as when we are falling asleep or when we feel physical communion with another person (that's a euphemism for sex).
  • "We see the Virgin Mary in a potato chip or Jesus on an underpass wall because we're using our existing cognitive structures to make sense of an ambiguous or amorphous stimuli," says psychologist Mark Reinecke
  • Christina Puchalski, director of the George Washington Institute for Spirituality and Health, felt her dead mother's presence "with me in a very deep and profound way, emanating from a certain direction," she says. "Maybe if you're thinking very strongly about that person, your mind is creating the sense that he is there."
  • When the mind was evolving, failing to make an association (snakes with rattles are to be avoided) could get you killed, while making a false association (dancing will make it rain) mostly just wasted time, Michael Shermer points out. "We are left with a legacy of false positives," he says. "Hallucinations become ghosts or aliens; knocking noises in an empty house indicate spirits and poltergeists; shadows and lights in a tree become the Virgin Mary."
  • "People view evil as something physical, even tangible, and able to infect the sweater" as easily as lice, Hood says. "The idea of spirits and souls appearing in this world becomes more plausible if we believe in general that the nonphysical can transfer over to the physical world. From there it's only a small step to believing that a thunk in an empty house is a footstep."
  • during human evolution, our ancestors developed what is called a hypersensitive agency-detection device, says Benson Saler, professor emeritus of anthropology at Brandeis University.
  • No matter how many times neuroscientists assert that the mind has no existence independent of the brain, "we still think of our essence as mental, and of our mind as being independent of body," says Fordham's Guthrie. "Once you've signed on to that, existence after death is really quite natural."

Another argument from design

Another argument from design, this time from Richard Swinburne, a theologian at Oxford University and author of the book Is there a God? Swinburne is featured in a PBS documentary (Closer to Truth: Cosmos, Consciousness, God) - the same documentary that earlier brought us the thoughts of Robin Collins (see It's no surprise that the universe is habitable)

As with Collins, Science and Religion Today provides some space for Swinburne to summarize his case. Now, Swinburne is a top theologian, so it should be pretty robust, right? Let's take a look...

First off he reminds us that there is a lot of order to the universe - things seem to happen quite neatly. He accepts that this isn't a total surprise, of course (we wouldn't be here to wonder about it otherwise). And as any weatherman can tell you, there's an awful lot of chaos out there too. So far so hum.

It's then that he drops his clanger:
An explanatory hypothesis is probably true insofar as it is simple and leads us to expect otherwise unexpected data.
This is an extraordinary claim! It seems to be a mangling together of Popper's idea that falsifiability is at the heart of how we understand the world around us (i.e. the scientific method), and Occam's razor.

Falsifiability is a powerful tool to separate truthful ideas about how the world works from mistaken ones. But the key to falsifiability is not simply that a hypothesis 'leads us to expect otherwise unexpected data'. In fact, a true hypothesis should make some prediction about what will happen in the future that we wouldn't otherwise have been able to predict. And, crucially, we then have to go out and observe this prediction, and see that it comes true. Russell's Teapot may well exist somewhere out there near the orbit of Mars, but it's a prediction that's utterly inconsequential (and therefore unscientific) because we have no way of observing it. It's a hypothesis that's not falsifiable.

Occam's razor, on the other hand, tells us nothing about what's true or not. What it does say is that, faced with two hypotheses that explain the observable data equally well, we should stick with the simplest one until we get some new data in. It doesn't mean the simplest explanation is true. In fact, it often turns out that the explanations are more complicated than we first thought. But what it does say is that you shouldn't confabulate complex theories unless there's a practical reason to do so.

Together, these two 'rules of thumb' are a fantastic guide to sorting out the duff from the sublime. Swinburne's version, however, leads us into a kind of madness.

For example. The sun rises every day. Now that's pretty unexpected - all things being equal you'd expect it to stay in the same place. So here's a hypothesis: it's pulled round by a giant invisible turtle. That's pretty simple, right? After all, I wrote it in only 8 words. It's a simple hypothesis that leads us to expect the unexpected. By Swinburne's argument, that must mean it's probably true!

But of course it isn't true. In fact it's a stupid hypothesis. The reason it's stupid is that only 'predicts' what we already knew. So it doesn't increase our power to explain the world. And it falls foul of Occam's razor because it's invented a new entity - the turtle - but not actually helped us to explain and understand the world. We would be better off without it.

Keep that turtle in mind as you read Swinburne's article.

29% of teachers think creationism should be taught as science? I don't think so!

That's the headline in the Guardian's article: Creationism should be taught as science, say 29% of teachers. Sure enough, they have the data to prove it:
29% said they either disagreed or strongly disagreed with the government's guidelines on teaching evolution which states that "creationism and intelligent design are not part of the science national curriculum programmes of study and should not be taught as science". Fifty-three per cent agreed or strongly agreed with the statement.
But who are these chumps, and is it fair to malign the whole teaching profession because of what they think? Well yes, it would be if the survey was worth a damn. But it isn't. Just take a look....

First, it's not a survey of teachers, but a survey of people who've signed up to the Teachers TV website (OK, they reckon that 95% of them are teachers). What Teacher's TV did was send out a questionnaire to the 10,600 individuals on their email list (so that's a self-selected sample of 10,000 out of around 400,000 primary and secondary school teachers in the UK). These are not science teachers, but any teachers (infant school teachers, art teachers, religious studies teachers...), many of whom have no understanding of or input into science teaching.

Of these only 1210 responded! So what we have reported as the views of 'teachers' is in fact just the views of those 11% who could be bothered to respond. And of course, you know who they are. They're the ones who have a bee in their bonnet about creationism.

So, more realistically, it could be that as few as 3% of teachers favour teaching creationism (assuming that the Teachers TV email list is a representative sample of teachers, which it probably is not).

248 of the respondents said they were science teachers. 18% of them said that creationism should be given the same weight as evolution. That's just 45 science teachers. In the whole of the UK! I don't think it justifies the headlines, to be honest.

This is similar to the daft reporting by The Telegraph of an earlier study: Creationism should be taught in science lessons, say teachers. Apparently:
Some 36 per cent of teachers quizzed said they believed a divine hand played a role in the creation of humanity, while 28 per cent said it should be raised in lessons.
But who are these teachers that they quizzed? Well, they are a mix of 66 science teachers and religious education teachers. So what we have here is probably 100% of religious education teachers thinking that there was a divine hand at work, and 0% of science teachers.

The Telegraph's reporting is shoddy and particularly disappointing, because what they've done is turn the science teacher's very reasonable response (that religious interpretations should be discussed if they crop up) into a headline that says that teachers think creationism should be taught in science lessons. In other words, is exactly what science educators were warning would happen as a result of Reiss's call for creationism to discussed in science lessons. The media doesn't understand the difference between tackling religious-based objections to evolution (which science teachers mostly accept that they should do), and teaching creationism as an alternative to evolution (which they almost universally think that they should not).

What makes humans different

Stanford University Newswire has a report today on the work of Michael Tomasello, an evolutionary anthropologist at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig.

Tomasello's research focuses on the social learning skills of chimpanzees and young children. What he's shown, among other things, is that human children are instinctively nice. Not all the time, of course, or even most of the time. But they are sometimes altruistic, and that sets them apart from chimpanzees.

Lest you think he's asserting there is no such thing as the "terrible twos," Tomasello made clear the cooperative behavior he studies is "relative to nonhuman primates." In other words, kids are quite altruistic when compared to apes. They gesture to communicate that something is out of place. They empathize with those they sense have been wronged.

They have an almost reflexive desire to help, inform and share. And they do so without expectation or desire for reward, Tomasello said.

"There is very little evidence in any of these cases that children's altruism is created by parents or any other form of socialization," Tomasello said of his experiments.

Of course, that doesn't mean that all our altruistic impulses are built in. They develop as we learn and are shaped by our culture and environment. But, according to Tomasello, it's a skill that the great apes can never learn.

Put through similar experiments as the children, apes demonstrate an ability to work together and share but choose not to. While a child's initial reaction—or sense of guilt or shame—might guide his decision to share some candy with the other child who helped him get it, a chimpanzee has no problem working with another ape to get a piece of food but will keep the spoils to himself.

Tomasello also wrote a piece for the NY Times back in May: How Are Humans Unique? In it he goes into more detail about how we differ from their nearest relatives - that even as children we believe in shared goals and commitments, and have a capacity for collective thinking. But there's a downside to these skills.

Of course, humans beings are not cooperating angels; they also put their heads together to do all kinds of heinous deeds. But such deeds are not usually done to those inside “the group.” Recent evolutionary models have demonstrated what politicians have long known: the best way to get people to collaborate and to think like a group is to identify an enemy and charge that “they” threaten “us.” The remarkable human capacity for cooperation thus seems to have evolved mainly for interactions within the group. Such group-mindedness is a major cause of strife and suffering in the world today. The solution — more easily said than done — is to find new ways to define the group.

Who was it that said that religion is comforting to those on the inside, and terrifying to everyone else?

Woods! Hamilton! Obama! Let’s hear it for miscegenation!

What have the world’s greatest golfer, champion racing driver and liberal hope for the US presidency got in common? Well one thing is that they are all mixed race. All are products of miscegenation.

What a word. Who would care?

But it’s not long since many people, not just those of us of mixed race or having partners of other races, cared deeply. Miscegenation was illegal in Nazi Germany, in 16 of the states of the USA until 1967, and in South Africa until 1985. And in many other countries, including the UK, it was legal but widely disapproved of.

Most of the anti-miscegenation laws were based on the view that there was distinct white race and that it was better than other races. Scientifically speaking the first point is more than doubtful; there is more genetic variation within each so-called race than between races. The second point is equally hard to defend. It was, after all, members of the white race who invented concentration camps, atomic bombs and fascism.

Orthodox religion has, unsurprisingly, also been hostile to miscegenation. From the Dutch Reformed Church (known to English-speaking South Africans as the Much Deformed Church) to American fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell. As recently as 2000 the Bob Jones University – a Southern fundamentalist outfit – was unrepentantly hostile to inter-racial dating. Students who offended could be expelled. (BJU is, of course, the source of the Reverend Ian Paisley’s doctorate.)

These backward attitudes were not unique to the churches – indeed they were widely held by many westerners throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. But they survived longest in these religious ghettos.

So let’s recognise the success of these, and other, products of miscegenation. Long may they prosper! And let’s hope we’ve seen the last of the prejudice that would have prevented their births.

Problems of interpretation

I am a member of the London Borough of Brent Teenage Pregnancy Advisory Board, so I look out for articles of posible relevance.

Articles that I review will tend to be biased towards the English language.
The Internet has a natural bias towards the USA.

I receive a Reuters News service - and saw this just now:

[Teen pregnancy linked to sexy TV shows: study
03 NOV 2008 07:06 GMT

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Exposure to some forms of entertainment is a corrupting influence on children, leading teens who watch sexy programs into early pregnancies and children who play violent video games to adopt aggressive behavior, researchers said on Monday. ]

Following through I find in the way of direct quotes from the main researcher the following:

"Our findings suggest that television may play a significant role in the high rates of teenage pregnancy in the United States," and "We're not saying we're establishing causation, but we are saying this is one factor that we were able to prospectively link to the teen pregnancy outcome,"

Note, as I know you will, the words 'may' and 'prospectively' and 'United States' in the above quotes not to mention, but I will, 'We're not saying we're establishing causation...'

Given the big news story around in the next couple of days - fingers crossed for having the 1st President with a vowel (aeiou) at the end of their surname {shouldn't say that sort of thing here, should I? } - maybe this won't get much coverage today in the UK or the USA. I am fairly certain though that it will get a mention, if not a whole program sometime soon on daytime TV, and the unqualified claim will be:

Sexy TV shows responsible for teen pregnancies.

What to do? What to do?

Was it ever thus?

A Nobel Laureate Reflects on the Universe, God and the Nature of Discovery

Herbert A Hauptman is a pioneer of x-ray crystollography, and winner of the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1985. Now 91, he's written a short memoir (actually, he was interviewed by D J Grothe, of the Center for Inquiry, who then wrote the book).

There's a review of his book - On the Beauty of Science: A Nobel Laureate Reflects on the Universe, God and the Nature of Discovery over at Buffalo News (Hauptman lives in Buffalo, NY). Here's some excerpts:

“On the Beauty of Science” is a sure-to-be-controversial call to arms, as Hauptman argues forcefully that science and religion are incompatible and that Americans must learn to think more critically about science and other issues.

“I believe there is a direct negative connection between belief in religion, especially fundamentalist religion, and public scientific illiteracy,” he writes ...

... It’s not just a matter of too little knowledge of science, Hauptman writes. The problem is compounded by too much belief in religion, ghosts, angels and alternative medicine, to boot.

“I believe that from an early age, most children in our society are inculcated in superstition and mumbo-jumbo, and so there is no development of the scientific approach to looking at the world,” he writes. Hauptman points out that surveys show 60 percent of all scientists are nonbelievers, but 90 percent of top scientists — members of the National Academy of Science — identify themselves as atheists.

Hauptman also tries to figure out why people are religious, and he wonders if human beings have a predisposition to be religious.

Hauptman contends that the fact that the universe is orderly doesn’t provide evidence for God’s existence, and he writes that there isn’t an “ultimate meaning” for life.

But, he continues, “Even if there is no God and life is ultimately meaningless, you don’t end up loving your wife any less than you would if there were a God.” Then he takes on the view held by some that, without belief in God, nothing keeps atheists from acting badly.

“But if that is the reason that you believe in God, because you are afraid of what might happen if you aren’t a decent person, that’s not a very good reason either,” Hauptman writes.

He goes further to argue that science has done far more for humanity than religion, pointing to the development of air travel, computers and modern medicine as examples.