Field of Science

'Virginity Pledges' are worse than useless

The US (like the UK only worse) faces a major problem with teenage pregnancy, abortions, and sexually transmitted diseases. A common sense approach to fixing this problem - and one that works well in the religion-free countries of Europe - is better sex education.

An alternative, promoted by religious conservatives, attempts to persuade kids not to bonk, and then pretends that they won't break their promise on this. It may sound comical, but it's deadly serious. In 2008, the US government spent $204 million on these so-called abstinence-only sex education (AOSE) programs. Janet Rosenbaum, of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, explains:
A sexual abstinence or "virginity" pledge is an oral or written promise to refrain from sexual activity, usually until marriage, administered after a multi- or single-session curriculum in religious youth groups, parochial and public schools, or large group events. The virginity pledge and 6-hour curriculum were created in 1993 by an evangelical Christian organization. The idea was subsequently spread by other Protestant and Catholic groups, which created pledges for their own AOSE programs for both religious and secular adolescents. By 1995, 13% of American adolescents reported having taken a virginity pledge.
Rosenbaum's study, just published in the journal Pediatrics, used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a nationally representative sample of grade 7 to 12 students interviewed in 1996 and again in 2001. Rosenbaum took the sample of pledgers, and matched them with a sample of non-pledgers who were as similar as possible in all other respects (so they were highly religious, felt bad about sex, etc).

There was absolutely no difference between the two groups in the incidence of premarital sex. This is the whole point of AOSE programs, and this study shows that they fail miserably. They are a waste of money, built upon shoddy, religiously-motivated thinking.

So they didn't change the chances of premarital sex. But the AOSE programs did have one significant, and substantial, effect. Of those teens who did engage in premarital sex, they significantly increased the chances that it would be risky. As shown in the figure, pledgers were significantly less likely to use birth control and much less likely to use a condom.

Why should this be? Rosenbaum explains:
Despite having had similar birth control attitudes 1 year before pledging, virginity pledgers were substantially less likely than matched nonpledgers to protect themselves against STDs and pregnancy, consistent with earlier studies.

Virginity pledgers may be less likely to use condoms and contraception because many abstinence programs cause participants to develop negative attitudes about their effectiveness.

More than 90% of abstinence funding does not require that curricula be scientifically accurate, and a 2004 review found incorrect information in 11 of 13 federally funded abstinence programs, primarily about birth control and condom effectiveness.
In other words, these abstinence programs are worse than useless because they actually discourage teens from using contraception. And they do this by feeding these kids religiously-motivated, scientifically inaccurate information. How bad can a government program get?

J. E. Rosenbaum (2009). Patient Teenagers? A Comparison of the Sexual Behavior of Virginity Pledgers and Matched Nonpledgers PEDIATRICS, 123 (1) DOI: 10.1542/peds.2008-0407

Christmas cheer

Two good news stories for the festive season from both sides of the Atlantic. In the UK, The Guardian reports that attendance at Church of England Sunday services is predicted to fall by a further 90% over the next decade, essentially turning it into a fringe sect. And in the USA, The Wall Street Journal reports that increasing numbers of churches are going bankrupt.

Turning to the Guardian item, it's based on forecasts by Christian Research and published in their annual report:
According to Dr Peter Brierley, former executive director of Christian Research, by 2030 just under 419,000 people will attend an Anglican Sunday service. By 2040 the number will be down to 217,200, falling to 153,800 five years later. By 2050, if the trend prediction is correct, only 87,800 will be attending.
It's a bit of a mystery where they get these numbers from, and it's worth noting that religious attendance in the UK is diversifying. What's more, many people hold Christian beliefs of one form or another and yet rarely step foot inside a church. This is certainly the Church's argument:
The Reverend Lynda Barley, head of research and statistics for the Archbishops' Council, said the figures represented only a "partial picture" of religious trends, adding: "Church life has significantly diversified so these traditional statistics are less and less meaningful in isolation."
In other words, people are still Christian, they just don't feel the need to go to Church. It even has a name: believing but not belonging. Now, this is interesting to social theorists because a leading contender for explaining why patterns of religious participation vary from place to place is Rational Choice Theory (RCT). RCT is derived from free market economic theory, and basically assumes that there is a constant demand for religious 'goods' (i.e. religious services, promises of salvation etc). If what the religious organisations in a given area are offering is attractive, then people will sign up. If not, then they won't bother.

The argument goes that one reason why religion is unpopular in Europe is that we have monolithic state churches. Because they are shielded from competition, and because membership is more or less assumed (in the case of many Scandinavian countries, it is literally assumed), these state churches don't really go to much effort to make what they're offering attractive. They also try to be all things to all people. So religious attendance is low.

The 'cure' is to break the monopoly and encourage a free market in religion. Which is where the article from the Wall Street Journal comes in. In the USA, religion is very much a business like any other. And like many other businesses, they've been overoptimistic about how much custom will come their way:
"There have been too many churches with a 'build it and they will come' attitude," says N. Michael Tangen, executive vice president at American Investors Group Inc., a church lender in Minnetonka, Minn. "They had glory in their eyes that wasn't backed up with adequate business plans and cash flow."
As a result, churches are closing. It seems that part of the reason the business plans were so flawed is the promises by the faithful of donations and church attendance weren't fulfilled:
The 125-year-old Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church, of Jacksonville, Fla., borrowed about $2.6 million in 2002 to add a new education wing, reflecting pool and tower. In addition, the church's 1,200 members pledged $1 million to the building campaign, but two-thirds of that money was never actually donated, according to the church's pastor, the Rev. John Allen Newman. A quarter of the congregants soon stopped attending church, says Mr. Newman, so weekly collections started to dwindle.
This wouldn't surprise neutral observers. It's been known for 15 years that there's a very large discrepancy between the numbers of people who answer yes to the question 'Did you go to Church last Sunday' and the numbers of people who actually do (see this article from In other words, in public people like to portray themselves as religious (especially in a country like the USA, where atheists face a lot of negative stereotyping), but their private lives are a different matter.

Part of the boom came about because many religious people in the USA have convinced themselves that religion is undergoing a revival in their country. In fact, religious attendance has flatlined since 1990 (see Presser & Chaves, 1990). Just goes to show that faith and business plans are not ideal bedfellows.

And meanwhile, back in the UK, Christian Research has also estimated church attendance for all Christian denominations (see figure, pinched from Ruth Gledhill at The Times). The decline in overall church attendance is even steep than the decline in Church of England attendance (in percentage terms)! In the UK at least, and notwithstanding the assumptions of Rational Choice Theory, it really does seem like Christianity is in terminal decline.

Christian researchers accused of misrepresentation

The Family Research Council, based in Washington DC, is "a Christian organization promoting the traditional family unit and the Judeo- Christian value system upon which it is built" (yep, they really do think that the idea of 'family' is a Jewish invention...). They have the usual values that we've come to expect from extremist Christianity.

Anyway, earlier this month they put out a study claiming that "children have fewer problems at school and home when they live with both biological parents and frequently attend religious services". But it turns out that not only have they spun the data till it screams, but they also took a decidedly dodgy approach to presenting the facts.

For example, they claim that the study supports marriage, but in fact the survey data that they used in the study doesn't say anything about the marital status of the parents! All it talks about is whether the care-givers are the biological parents, and not whether or not they are married. So that is an impossible conclusion to draw.

Furthermore, the effect of religious attendance was minuscule - far more important was family stability. This is something that the study authors themselves acknowledge (“One of the things that we say in the report is that the behavior problems were more closely related to the intact two-parent family than to a lack of religious participation, Zill said.”), although you don't find any mention of it in the Family Research Council's press release or associated publicity.

According to two independent academics from West Virginia, there are a number of other flaws both in the study and in the way that the Family Research Council has presented it. WVS Public Broadcasting reports:
Besides these inconsistencies, two researchers in West Virginia say the study does not stand up to academic scrutiny.

Joseph Scotti is a professor of clinical child psychology at West Virginia University. He says the study skews the data and doesn’t reach any meaningful conclusions.

Prof Scotti's gripe is that the data have been presented in a way that makes tiny differences look much bigger than they actually are:

Scotti says the study presents data in ways that wouldn’t be considered valid by most social scientists. Charts are organized so even miniscule differences appear significant. There is also the question of whether any parent-child activity would help reduce behavioral problems.

Take a look at this chart, for example. The axes have been trimmed to exaggerate the differences between the bars. What's more, in a proper scientific study, you would be given a statistical assessment (some kind of analysis of whether the differences are down to chance). With this study, you get no such assessment - probably because the differences are so small that they are just random noise.

There are more problems. Although attending religious service may be associated with somewhat better behaviour, it's not at all clear that religion has anything to do with it. Just as likely, participating in any regular, structured activity (like sports) will have a similar effect.

“My first question would be is it the structured activity and being involved with activities that keep kids out of trouble, regardless of whether it’s religious or scouting or volunteering or whatever it is,” Scotti added.

The other academic quoted, Marybeth Beller (a political science professor at Marshall University) agrees with Scotti:

“Two things must be noted. The first is that the magnitude of that relationship is very small. It varies by two percent in some of their correllation and up to three percent in others. But a three percent difference is just that; it’s a very small magnitude,” she said.

But, she also goes on to point out another important fact: the authors don't even attempt to take into account other factors that are known to affect the behaviour and academic achievement of children.

For example, children in poor families are underacheivers and also are more likely to live with non-biological parents. But perhaps it's the poverty and deprivation that's causing the underachievement, and the loss of one-or-other parent is neither here nor there.

This is not a new idea. I rapidly found a study published by the US Census Burea in 1998 which showed that, after accounting for socioeconomic factors, the effects of marital status dissappeared. To be fair, there's a lot of research on this topic, and the exact effects of marriage are not clear (and probably vary according to culture anyway). But there's not even an attempt to account for this sort of thing in the Family Research Council's study.

Finally, even supposing that such an effect exists, what would be the take home message? Maybe it would be that we should encourage marital stability. But it might also be that we should be providing more support and social acceptance to the children of families whose parental bond has broken down.

Spirituality linked to brain damage

Brain activity changes when people undergo spiritual or religious experiences. This isn't surprising, of course, since it's the brain that generates these mental states. Studying just how brain activity changes as people think religious thoughts or experience spiritual or transcendental experiences gives a window into how they are generated in the brain and how they link to other kinds of experiences.

The religious tend to take a dualist approach to these kinds of results, arguing that these changes in brain activity are somehow just a signal, or only part of the story. The actual spiritual experience is generated somewhere else, and the brain activity is just the physical manifestation.

But this argument crumbles if spiritual experiences can be generated by actively changing brain activity. There is some evidence already that this is so. Most famously, Michael Persinger at Laurentian University has found that using electromagnets to stimulate the temporal lobe can generate spiritual feelings (although recently Swedish researchers were not able to duplicate his results).

So what's the connection to brain damage? Well, a new study by Brick Johnstone and Bret Glass at the University of Missouri-Columbia has found that people with evidence of brain damage to their right parietal lobes score higher on a standard measure of spirituality.

What they did was to assess 26 adults with modest traumatic brain injury (they were all walking wounded, able to function in the outside world) to a battery of tests of brain function. What they were expecting to see was that brain damage in the right parietal lobe would increase spirituality, but that damage to the frontal lobe or left temporal lobe would decrease spirituality.

In fact, damage to the frontal lobe did not seem to have any effect, and although there was a slight signal with damage to the left temporal lobe, it wasn't statistically significant.

Interestingly, the effects of damage to the right parietal lobe match with previous studies looking at brain activity in meditating Buddhist monks. When they achieved a transcendental state, activity in their parietal lobes was also quelled.

So it seems that shutting down this part of the brain seems essential for at least some aspects of religious experiences. Why this particular bit of the brain? Well, it's all to do with how we figure out where we are, and how we relate to the world around us. As Johnstone & Glass explain:
From a neuropsychological perspective, the right hemisphere allows for individuals to define themselves in relation to the immediate environment, the here-and-now. The right parietal lobe is generally associated with awareness of the self relative to other objects in space, awareness of the self as perceived by others in social situations, and the ability to critically evaluate one’s own strengths and weaknesses (such as insight). Disorders of the right hemisphere involve a diminished capacity in the ability of the self to function in the immediate environment, including difficulties localizing the body in space...
In other words, it's this bit of the brain that figures out where you are in time and space. If it breaks down, you'll experience some pretty freaky sensations - which, if you are so inclined, the rest of your brain will interpret as a religious experience.

Brick Johnstone, Bret A Glass (2008). Support for a neuropsychological model of spirituality in persons with traumatic brain injury Zygon, 43 (4), 861-874

Science research decisions: risks and benefits or morals and ethics?

Some more survey results today. Tis the season for it, it seems! This time its the 8th Annual Virginia Commonwealth University Life Sciences Survey. The survey covers a bunch of issues related to US public attitudes to life sciences. They surveyed about 1000 people, and also asked them about their religious beliefs. A frightening 42% of the sample were biblical fundamentalists - who reckon the Bible is the literal word of God.

They asked one quite peculiar question (see the graphic). Surely the moral and ethical issues depend upon the risks and benefits? Clearly the people who came up with these questions are not Utilitarians!

Anyway, this is the only question that they analyse by religious beliefs:
Religiosity tends to correlate with views about scientific decision‐making. Those who are more religious tend to say that decisions should be based on the moral and ethical issues involved (44%); 39% of this group say the risk‐benefit analysis should be primary. Those who are less religious clearly side in the opposite direction; 69% of those for whom religion is not important say decisions should be based on a risk and benefit analysis.
I guess there are no surprises here. I'd interpret it like this: people who are not religious think that decisions should be made on the merits of the issue itself, taking into account a careful analysis of the pros and cons.

The religious, on the other hand, think that it doesn't matter whether the research itself is beneficial or harmful. If it conflicts with what they think their god wants, they don't like it and want to stop it.

Between the Devil and Darwinism

The 2008 Harris Poll is out, and shows that more Americans believe in the Devil (59%) than accept the reality of evolution by natural selection (47%). Still, that's a slight improvement over last year, when the figures were 62% vs 42% (but it's within the margin of error), and at least they're doing better than Kazakhstan (just).

The high levels of belief in the Devil has nasty implications for society at large. Back in 2006, Gary Jensen (a criminologist at Vanderbildt University) showed that so-called 'passionate dualism' - i.e. religious worldview characterised by intense beliefs in a clash between good and evil - is a major cause of homicide.

Hat tip: AMJ

Creationism in the Islamic World

Salman Hameed, an Astronomer at Hampshire College, Massachusetts who also runs a blog on Science & Religion, has an article in this week's Science Magazine on attitudes to creationism in the Islamic World. The article is well worth reading, as are the other links on his related blog post. It deals not only with attempts to reconcile (or otherwise) Islam with evolution, but also on the woeful state of science teaching in many Islamic countries.

I wanted to pull out just one bit to focus on, and that's a 2006 survey of belief in evolution across a range of predominantly Muslim countries. As you might expect from this group of poor, mostly highly religious countries, acceptance of evolution is very low.

But look at Kazakhstan! It's a middle income nation of about the same per capita wealth as Turkey (and poorer than Malaysia) but substantially higher acceptance of the science. The factor that marks Khazakstan out from the other countries surveyed is, of course, its Soviet past.

In other words, most people in Kazakstan grew up under the influence of alternative world view (Communism). This to me is evidence that modernisation, wealth, communication or investment in teaching is not enough if you want to wean people away from evidence-free thinking. You need also to provide an alternative perspective that allows people to diminish religion.

In the West, this was provided by the Enlightenment, which paved the way for modernity. However, the Islamic world is faced with the problem that 'modernity' is associated with foreign domination and a colonial past, which makes it easy for a reactionary religious figures to portray modernizers as somehow betraying their countries' values. In an interview with the New Scientist, Salman says:
In some instances, evolution becomes a symbol for Western dominance and a sign of modernity. Evolution can act as a lighting rod, as a symbol of the West and everything that is bad about the West - usually translated as material culture or materialism.
In his Science article, Salman argues that progress can be made within the Islamic world view, and cautions that:
...efforts that link evolution with atheism will cut short the dialogue, and a vast majority of Muslims will reject evolution.
Well perhaps. But the example of Kazakhstan, with its history of Communist-inspired atheism, suggests otherwise. Maybe what Islamic countries need more than anything is a hefty dose of atheism - enough to trigger a paradigm shift to enable them to break free of the stranglehold of religious conservatism.

God or science - but not both!

So, one Big Question that remains after the recent research on attitudes to nanotechnology is whether this is a general effect - is there any fundamental obstacle to people holding scientific and religious ideas at one and the same time? Does religion really displace science, and vice versa? Data published today suggest that it does.

This research is about framing - about how setting up people's preconceptions can affect the way they think. What the researchers (Jess Preston of the University of Illinois and Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago) did was to get people (OK, students) thinking about 'explanations' in specific ways. They did two experiments.

In the first, they gave their subjects brief passages talking about a couple of 'big ideas' in science - namely the Big Bang theory about the origins of the universe and the Primordial Soup hypothesis about the origins of life. But there were two versions - one weak and one strong. As they put it:
In the Strong Explanation condition, each passage concluded with a statement that ‘‘this was the best scientific theory on the subject to date, and does much to account for the known data and observations.” In the Weak Explanation condition, each passage concluded with a statement that ‘‘this was the best scientific theory on the subject to date, but it does not account for the other data and observations very well, and raises more questions than it answers.”
Then they did a priming experiment, in which they tested how fast their subjects reacted to positive and negative words after being subliminally primed with either the word 'God' or the word 'Science'.

In the second study, the passages used to frame the subjects were related to god:
Participants in the explanation condition were instructed to: ‘‘list SIX things that you think God can explain.” Participants in the control condition were given the instructions: ‘‘list SIX things that you think can explain or influence God.” Existing research demonstrates that this manipulation can influence the subjective value of religious beliefs, with those using God to explain other events reporting that religion is significantly more meaningful and important to them than those identifying events that could explain God’s actions.
Then these subjects did the same priming experiment as the first batch.

So here's the bottom line: if you are put in a frame of mind that says scientific explanations are dodgy or uncertain, or if you are put in a frame of mind that says 'God' is a good explanation, then your subliminal, automatic response to 'God' is made more positive and your response to 'Science' is made more negative. And the reverse happens for the opposite framing.

In other words, positive feelings towards scientific explanations or religious explanations really do seem to be flip sides of the same coin. As one goes up, the other goes down.

The implications of this are really important. What they suggest is that if you put people in an environment in which 'God' is presented as a reliable and useful way to understand the world, then that will turn them off scientific explanations. Not consciously after a period of reasoned deliberation, but their subconscious, gut feelings. Similarly, if you emphasise the uncertainties in scientific explanations, you will bolster positive attitudes to religion. Science and religion really are fundamentally incompatible.

This is a great article for many reasons, not least of which is the introduction on 'Explanation and Belief', which is a wonderfully lucid (and short!) review of just why scientific and religious beliefs are in opposition. The PDF is available here.

Oh, and, as a postscript: Epley was the guy who previously showed how loneliness can make you think religiously.

J PRESTON, N EPLEY (2009). Science and God: An automatic opposition between ultimate explanations Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45 (1), 238-241 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2008.07.013

Give us our midwinter festival back!

The war on Christmas continues to bubble, with politically correct jobsworths insisting that traditional Christian symbols like pine trees and fairy lights are banned from the workplace. In Essex, we hear today, a choir has been forced out of a winter festival because their carols were 'too religious'. According to the Daily Mail the Chairman of the Prayer Book Society, with the alarming name of "Prudence Dailey" (surely a spoof?) moans:
'These politically correct winter festivals seek to make Christmas part of a 'multi-faith' mix and hark back to pagan winter solstice observance.
Well of course he's right there. Christmas is a traditional mid-winter festival that's been hijacked by the Christians, and we atheists would very much like it back. It wouldn't need to change much - most Christmas traditions date back to pagan days or have zero Christian content. All we would lose are those wretched nativity plays!

But, let's be politically correct here - we need to give Christians some time to celebrate their beliefs, no matter how weird. As one disgruntled parent said:
'It's ridiculous that you can't sing religious songs. It's Christmas - when can you sing them?'
There's some good news on this front too. The Australian astronomer Dave Reneke has calculated that Jesus was most likely born in June:
He believes the famous Christmas star of the Nativity story was in fact a spectacular conjunction of the planets Venus and Jupiter. They came together forming an unusually bright beacon of light that may easily have looked like a newly formed star….Using a computer program to track the planets’ movements through the centuries, he arrived at the date June 17 in the year 2 B.C. (ABC News Blog)
I smell the makings of a compromise! Let's move Christmas to mid-summer, and let the moral majority get on with our traditional mid-winter party.

How the BNP stokes fear and hatred

The July 2005 terrorist bombings in London handed the BNP a propaganda coup, which they exploited to maximum effect. In the 2006 election, the BNP polled over 238,000 votes, compared with just 3000 votes in 2000. The BNP is now the most successful fascist party in British history.

So a new analysis of the BNP's portrayal of Muslims in the aftermath of the bombing is acutely relevant. Two psychologists from Surrey University have analysed articles written by prominent members of the BNP in the aftermath of the attacks, and pulled out the common themes. BPS Research Digest reports:
Quoting extracts from the BNP articles, Finlay and Wood say the arguments resemble a conspiracy theory and they identify the use of two tools of persuasion in relation to Muslims in Britain: the "accentuation effect", which is the attempt to portray outgroups as homogeneous and distinct from ingroups; and "essentialism", which is the idea that members of a given group all share important, essential qualities.
In other words, muslims are all the same, and they are different from us. It's classic out-group posturing, appealing to deep-rooted instincts from our tribal past.

God-damned nanotechnology

Earlier this year this blog reported on different attitudes to nanotech around the world. At the time the guy who did the study - Dietram A. Scheufele at the University of Wisconsin - reckoned that the differences were in part due to differences in the prevalence of religious belief.

Well, now he's done the analysis to back this up, and it's been published in Nature Nanotechnology. It turns out that the level of religious fervour is the most important factor in determining public acceptance to nanotechnology.

The correlation held even after controlling for other factors that influence attitudes to nanotechnology, like science literacy, educational performance, and levels of research productivity and funding directed to science and technology by different countries. And not only are religious countries more against nanotech, they are also less likely to think that nanotech is useful. In other words, their religious-based dislike of the idea of nanotech crosses over and affects their beliefs about the utility of it.

The survey findings, says Scheufele, are important not only because they reveal the paradox of citizens of one of the world's elite technological societies taking a dim view of the implications of a particular technology, but also because they begin to expose broader negative public attitudes toward science when people filter their views through religion.

"What we captured is nanospecific, but it is also representative of a larger attitude toward science and technology," Scheufele says. "It raises a big question: What's really going on in our public discourse where science and religion often clash?" (Press release)

So why do religious people have the heebie jeebies about nanotech? The study doesn't answer that one, although it is likely to be similar to their abhorrence of hybrid embryos. It smacks of human beings getting too clever for their own good and playing god.

But the implications for science communication are clear. This research fits into a wider picture of how public attitudes to science are shaped. Simple communication of facts will not change attitudes to science. You need to change worldviews.

Dietram A. Scheufele, Elizabeth A. Corley, Tsung-jen Shih, Kajsa E. Dalrymple, Shirley S. Ho (2008). Religious beliefs and public attitudes toward nanotechnology in Europe and the United States Nature Nanotechnology DOI: 10.1038/NNANO.2008.361

The happiness bug

Robert Ingersoll, the seminal 19th century American humanist, famously said that "The way to be happy is to make others so." What he meant was that one of the most important sources of our own happiness is being surrounded by happy people.

Now some remarkable new evidence has demonstrated just how the happiness-inducing effect of happiness ripples through society. It turns out that not only does having happy friends makes you happy, but your happiness is bumped up further if your friends' friends are happy. In fact, there's a measurable effect all the way out to friends of friends of friends - three degrees of separation, in other words.

What the study did is use the famous Framingham Heart Study, which was set up sixty years ago in Massachusetts, USA, to track the factors that lead to heart disease. They enrolled 5,000 people in the original group, and have continued to monitor not only them, but their children and also added in extra people to keep the numbers up as members of the original group die.

The new study takes advantage of the fact that among the huge range of data recorded, the participants were also asked about their close friends. This enabled the researcher to use network-analysis tools to work out who was connected to whom as they followed them over the decades. Because all the participants at least started off in the same town (Framingham), many of them were friends, or friends of friends, of each other. They also rated each participant as happy or unhappy, based on their responses to several items on a questionnaire.

What they found was that having a happy friend increases the odds that you'll be happy by 16%. But if your friend's friend is happy, even if your friend is not, that still increases the odds that you'll be happy by 10%. And out at the third degree of separation it still bumps up your happiness chances by about 5%.

The study also revealed some fascinating info on who makes us happy. It turns out that nearby friends and next-door neighbours have the biggest effect. Living with a spouse, or having brothers or sisters nearby, also has an effect, although somewhat smaller. People who live further away don't increase your happiness, no matter how emotionally close they are to you. For happiness to be passed on, frequent contact is required!

As the researchers point out, these results have social policy implications. For example, a government action that makes one person happy (or unhappy) will also make those near to him or her happier. So the benefit is greater than you might at first think. As the researchers say:
Our findings have relevance for public health. To the extent that clinical or policy manoeuvres increase the happiness of one person, they might have cascade effects on others, thereby enhancing the efficacy and cost effectiveness of the intervention. For example, illness is a potential source of unhappiness for patients and also for those individuals surrounding the patient. Providing better care for those who are sick might not only improve their happiness but also the happiness of numerous others, thereby further vindicating the benefits of medical care or health promotion.
There are important implications for all this. Clearly, making individuals happy brings wider benefits for society. It's yet another example of not only the reality of society, but how interlocked we all are. We're all in this together.

J. H Fowler, N. A Christakis (2008). Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study BMJ, 337 (dec04 2) DOI: 10.1136/bmj.a2338

Hallucinating the dead

Scientific American has an interesting article on the hallucinations that people experience when they mourn the death of a loved one. Apparently such hallucinations are the most common form of psychosis seen in otherwise mentally normal people.
Mourning seems to be a time when hallucinations are particularly common, to the point where feeling the presence of the deceased is the norm rather than the exception. One study, by the researcher Agneta Grimby at the University of Goteborg, found that over 80 percent of elderly people experience hallucinations associated with their dead partner one month after bereavement, as if their perception had yet to catch up with the knowledge of their beloved’s passing. As a marker of how vivid such visions can seem, almost a third of the people reported that they spoke in response to their experiences. In other words, these weren’t just peripheral illusions: they could evoke the very essence of the deceased.

Trouble in the Ark

Does using myths to teach kids amount to religious education? From Down Under comes this story of a man who's withdrawn his kids from a school that's using the Noah's Ark myth to teach 5-year-olds about animal noises.

Mr Williams complained that his daughter, Kathleen, now 5, was asked to make the "sizeable" replica of Noah's Ark during her prep class at Gabbinbar State School, "despite the fact that Queensland Education bans prep children from taking part in religious education programs in state schools".

Mr Williams said the Ark replica was later pinned to the classroom wall, and the teacher showed his daughter a DVD "with a Genesis theme and a book about Noah's Ark".

The school denies the claim, saying the children were shown a video of Evan Almighty -- a comedy about a man who builds a replica of Noah's Ark -- and a book about the Ark as part of a unit of study on animals and the noises they make.

Now, Evan Almighty is strong on Christian propaganda. Trouble in the Ark (pictured above) seems pretty innocuous though, and seems like a good choice for teaching kids about animal noises. In a sane world, it shouldn't be a problem to use myths (Christian or other) as part of teaching kids about the world around them.

Australia, however, has gone slightly crazy under the influence of the previous government - the Liberal Party, who were in power from 1996-2007.

Mr Williams's complaint said Christian groups had been emboldened in their efforts to "spread the word" in state schools by a Howard government program, launched in October last year, to fund chaplains in state schools.

Under the $90million School Chaplaincy Program, schools can apply for up to $20,000 a year to employ a chaplain to mentor students.

An evangelical group called Scripture Union has placed 500 chaplains in Queensland state schools in the past year, including 40 per cent of primary schools and 80 per cent of high schools.

It sounds like an absolutely horrendous state of affairs, and enough to make you very sensitive to the schools use of religious themes in teaching!

Is Britain really lonelier than ever?

There's a new report out today, commissioned by the BBC, documenting the social changes in the UK over the last 40 years. According to the headline on BBC News, Life in UK 'has become lonelier'. Apparently the major cause is mobility - people commute further, and relocate more easily. Cue the commentators announcing the slow destruction of our society. Mark Easton asks Are we watching Britain's communities dying? Well, are we? That rather depends on what the numbers are, and how you interpret them.

The report itself, from the Social And Spatial Inequalities group at the University of Sheffield, can be downloaded from the BBC News website. Here's how they measure 'loneliness' (p23):
  • numbers of non-married adults multiplied by a weight of 0.18
  • number of 1-person households multiplied by a weight 0.50
  • number of people who have moved to their current address within the last year multiplied by 0.38
  • number of people renting privately multiplied by 0.80
In other words, they use an old fashioned idea of loneliness - if you're not married, and especially if you live on your own, then you're lonely. Now of course these things have both increased in the last 40 years, but that's not quite the same as saying that people are necessarily lonelier. Perhaps fewer people get married, and more people live alone, because these days you can do both these things and still be connected. Society has changed.

And they use the number of people who have relocated as a measure of loneliness! Then they claim that a major cause of loneliness is relocation. It's circular logic.

Here's the dumbest quote from the BBC news report:
One key factor in reducing the sense of belonging in a community is having a large student population.
Well of course it is, using their definition! Students tend to be not married, to have moved recently, and to live in rented accommodation! But in reality, students are among the least lonely segments of society.

So in fact all this report has revealed is that society has changed, not that people are more lonely. They haven't for example, asked people if they are more lonely. Now, some would argue that marriage and living with someone else is still important in reducing loneliness. And other evidence (not in this report) suggests that traditional social ties (belong to formal groups, like church associations) is on the decrease.

But some sociologists are challenging the idea that even this means that we are getting lonelier, according to a feature in New York Magazine last month: Alone Together. The article - well worth reading throughout - makes the case that a few strong ties are being replaced by a multitude of weak ones (social acquaintances rather than deep friendships). So in fact the nature of society is changing, which means the relationships we form are changing.

So what sociologists are measuring as a decline in 'social capital' is, in fact an artefact. Sure, the things that traditionally defined societal relationships are on the decrease. But it's not that loneliness is increasing. It's more that the places and ways in which people seek friendships are changing.