November 9, 2015

To each according to his needs

There’s a fairly overblown story in the Guardian about religion and altruism

“Overall, our findings … contradict the commonsense and popular assumption that children from religious households are more altruistic and kind towards others,” said the authors of The Negative Association Between Religiousness and Children’s Altruism Across the World, published this week in Current Biology.

“More generally, they call into question whether religion is vital for moral development, supporting the idea that secularisation of moral discourse will not reduce human kindness – in fact, it will do just the opposite.”

The research found that kindergarten (update: and primary school) children from religious families scored lower on an altruism test (a version of the Dictator game).  Given ten stickers, non-religious children would give about one more away on average than religious children.

 

While it’s obviously true that this sort of simple moral behaviour doesn’t require religion, the cause-and-effect conclusion the story is trying to draw is stronger than the data. I’m pretty confident the people quoted approvingly wouldn’t have been as convinced by the same sort of research if it had found the opposite result.

The research does provide convincing evidence on another point, though: three-dimensional graphics are a Bad Idea.

religion

 

avatar

Thomas Lumley (@tslumley) is Professor of Biostatistics at the University of Auckland. His research interests include semiparametric models, survey sampling, statistical computing, foundations of statistics, and whatever methodological problems his medical collaborators come up with. He also blogs at Biased and Inefficient See all posts by Thomas Lumley »

Comments

  • avatar
    Bart Joy

    Unfortunately, us non-academics don’t have access to this article, but I would still be interested in hearing why you say that “the cause-and-effect conclusion the story is trying to draw is stronger than the data”. What problems did you find in this study that we should be aware of when reading similar studies?

    2 years ago

    • avatar
      Thomas Lumley

      The problems aren’t with the study, it’s just that one study of one behaviour in children isn’t going to settle much about the degree to which religion affects ethical behaviour.

      2 years ago

      • avatar
        Thomas Lumley

        Expanding a bit: there are (as the story says) some religious people who think basic ethical behaviour is impossible without religion, just as there are some non-religious people who think it’s not possible for a devoutly religious person to be a scientist. People like that aren’t going to care about data.

        Even when you decide to ignore those people, there are still plenty of extremists on all possible sides who wouldn’t regard these sorts of results as very surprising no matter which way the difference went. In the terms of Deborah Mayo, this isn’t a severe test of any hypotheses held by anyone worth taking seriously.

        It’s nice that the difference slightly favoured kids with non-religious families, but it’s not going to add much to any discussion of fundamental questions of ethics.

        The same sort of thing on a larger scale would be interesting, although it would get increasingly hard to define ethical behaviours in a way that didn’t beg the question.

        2 years ago

        • avatar
          Bart Joy

          Hi Thomas,

          Thanks for the reply.

          In summary, this is what I’m taking away:

          * Be careful of grandiose inferences being made from a small, focused study.
          * Take into account the biases that the study authors and media *always* bring to their writing.
          * Scale is important – either more or larger studies can make stronger claims. This one study will/should cause few readers to change their current stance on religion and ethics.

          Thanks again – I’m trying to work on my critical reading (aka. BS detector).

          Bart

          2 years ago

  • avatar
    Thomas Lumley

    Yes, that’s a good summary

    2 years ago