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Orwellian Analytics: Christians, Atheists, and Bad Statistics

Angry God

A recent Live Science press release, titled “Believers Leave Punishment to Powerful God,” opened with the memorable words:

"Believing in an involved, morally active God makes people less likely to punish others for rule-breaking, new research finds."

Which is equivalent to saying that non-believers are less forgiving, less compassionate, less merciful, and—oh, let’s just say it: they are worse people. Don’t get mad at me. This is research!

But then maybe this summary is too telegraphic. Because the very same research that proves atheists are more bloodthirsty than theists also proves “that religious belief in general makes people more likely to punish wrongdoers — probably because such punishment is a way to strengthen the community as a whole” (emphasis mine).

In other words, theists are less forgiving, less compassionate, less merciful, and just plain worse people than atheists. Except when they aren’t and when their roles are reversed.

The press release explains the conundrum thusly: “In other words, religion may introduce two conflicting impulses: Punish others for their transgressions, or leave it to the Lord.”

This is the power of statistics, a field of science which, given the routine ease with which two opposite conclusions are simultaneously proved, we may now officially dub Orwellian Analytics.

Research Shows...

 
The paper which this popular article was based on is titled “Outsourcing punishment to God: beliefs in divine control reduce earthly punishment” by Kristi Laurin and three others. It was published online in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

After a lengthy introduction arguing that all morality (except presumably the morals of the authors) can be reduced to urges induced by evolutionary “pressures,” and defining something called “altruistic punishment”, the authors describe how they gathered small pools of WEIRD young people (i.e. Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic undergraduates) and had them play games. The results from these games told the authors all they needed to know about who enjoys punishment more. Incidentally, about the punishment, they said this:

"Prior to effective and reliable secular institutions for punishment, large-scale societies depended on individuals engaging in ‘altruistic punishment’—bearing the costs of punishment individually, for the benefit of society."

And did you know that “According to theory”—are you ready?—“Though administering punishment benefits society as a whole, it has immediate costs for punishers themselves.” Who knew?

Experiment one corralled “Twenty undergraduates” who “participated in exchange for course credit.” That’s one more than nineteen, friends. The supplementary data (which is mysteriously left out of the main article, but which is linked there) shows that these participants contained 8 whites and 9 Asians, with 1 black and 1 Arabic left over; 10 Christians, 1 Buddhist, 1 Hindu, 1 Muslim, 1 “Other”, and 6 Atheists. The authors claim to have “measured participants’ belief in powerful, intervening Gods, and their general religiosity.” Which makes you wonder how they classed the Buddhist and “Other.” No word on the breakdown of how participants answered the “religiosity” question.

But the next part is more fascinating: “We then employed the 3PPG–an economic game commonly used to measure altruistic punishment.” I'm struck by the words “commonly used.” It must be common, because there isn’t word one in the paper or supplementary material of what this creation is. But I can reveal to you it is the “Third-Party Punishment Game,” a frivolity invented by academics designed to flummox undergraduate participants in studies like this. More about that another day.

The “game” runs so (sorry for the length, but do read it):

"Player A receives 20 dollars, and must share that money between herself and player B in two-dollar increments, without input from player B. In the second stage, player C [who presumably knows what A did], who has received 10 dollars, can spend some or all of that money to reduce player A’s final payout: For every dollar that player C spends, player A loses three dollars. Player A’s behaviour does not affect player C, all players are anonymous and expect no further interactions, and punishing player A costs player C money. People treat sharing money evenly between players A and B as the (cooperative) norm; thus, player C’s willingness to punish player A for selfishly violating this norm can be taken as an index of altruistic punishment of non-cooperators."

In other words, Player C looks at how much A gave B. If C thinks this too low, C sacrifices some of his own money to reduce the amount A kept. But A and C got the money for free and since these are students we do not know if A actually knew B in real life, or if C knew either. For example, if I as A and Uncle Mike as B and Ye Olde Statistician as C were to play this game, I would split the money with Uncle Mike and Ye Olde Statistician would go along. This is because we were pals before the game commenced. But if we were enemies, something entirely different would occur. The authors never mention if they look for these kinds of effects in this or in any experiment. Leave finding flaws and contrary evidence for others.

But never mind, because C giving up some of his play money is scarcely the same thing as C desiring that a child rapist be tossed in jail to rot, even though C knows that the cost of the rapist’s cell will be taken from his wallet. But C in real life hardly knows even that. C knows that he pays taxes and that some of his taxes go to prison upkeep, but those taxes also go to pay for the fuel to ferry the president around on Air Force One from fund raiser to fund raiser. That is, most of us Cs don’t think that ponying up taxes is altogether altruistic.

The authors are mute on this objection, too.

Enter The P-value

 

"We regressed participants’ levels of altruistic punishment [amounts of money] on their God beliefs and their religiosity (both centered around 0) simultaneously…participants who believed more strongly in a powerful, intervening God reported less punishment of non-cooperators, β = -0.58, t(17) = 2.22, p = 0.04; whereas more religious participants showed a trend towards reporting greater punishment, β = 0.33, t(17) = 1.67, p = 0.11."

And there it is. Theists reported less punishment and more punishment. Except that the p-value for the “more punishment” isn’t small enough to excite. (And a linear regression is at best an approximation here.) The authors also discovered “more religious people tended to believe in powerful, controlling Gods.” The correlation wasn’t perfect, but neither should it be when you mix Buddhists and Christians. Let’s don’t forget that this regression model only included 6 atheists for its contrast.

The really good news is that “Given the strong correlation between religiosity and conservatism (r = 0.52), we conducted an additional analysis including conservatism in the regression. Results are reported in table 1; we found no evidence that conservatism explains the religion–punishment association.” Sorry, Chris Mooney.

The authors did four more studies, all similar to this one, but with increasingly complicated regression models (lots of interactions, strong hints of data snooping, etc.). The findings don’t change much. In their conclusion, however, they include these strange words: “In our research, we found it necessary to remind participants of their beliefs for these beliefs to influence their decisions.” This sounds like coaching, a way to induce results the authors expected.

So what's the real lesson here? That one of the largest science sites on the Internet has no problem squeezing a complex mass of data into a terse and misleading headline.
 
 
(Image credit: Steve Dease)

Dr. William M. Briggs

Written by

Dr. William M. Briggs is an Adjunct Professor of Statistics at Cornell University, where he acquired both an M.S. in Atmospheric Science and a Ph.D. in Statistics. In addition to teaching, William works as a consultant with specialties in medicine, the environment, and the philosophy of, and over-certainty in, science. He blogs at wmbriggs.com.

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  • Mike

    Interesting morning read, thanks.

  • I doubt that the students have been coached. Why coach students to give such strange results? Or maybe the coaching didn't work?

    Thanks for the article.

  • Gavin Wheeler

    Do the rules on "snark" just not apply to articles, as opposed to comments, or does this article somehow not qualify as 'snark'?

    • no, doesn't qualify...next question.

    • GCBill

      If you browse through the archives, your question will be answered. [Some authors get a free pass.]

  • "So what's the real lesson here? That one of the largest science sites on the Internet has no problem squeezing a complex mass of data into a terse and misleading headline."

    Agreed. Not only large science sites on the internet, but all kinds of media report science very poorly.

    Pro-sociality and religion is, needless to say, an extremely nuanced and complex area of study. Any behavioural psychology study is going face these challenges.

    From his tone, it appears that not only does Dr Briggs have concerns with this study, he finds it laughable.

    What we do not read in his criticism is any substantive criticism of the methods or findings. He says "I can reveal to you it is the “Third-Party Punishment Game,” a frivolity invented by academics designed to flummox undergraduate participants in
    studies like this. More on this another day."

    Instead of explaining what it is, why it is academic frivolity, we get a repeat of his sarcastic banter and appeals to trust him. Fine, we will await your take down of this at a later date.

    We also do not get a statement that the findings are wrong, statistically insignificant and so on. I think this is strange as these issues are squarely within his expertise. He hints at this but does not actually say it.

    We also do not find any context of this study in psychology or pro-sociality, which is unsurprising as it seems Dr Briggs is not an expert in this area.

    If you are interested in what someone who does make his career investigating this issue thinks, and for a review of a larger range of study and in context check out this video of Doctor Professor Luke Galen:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uFADer5rtfk&list=UUNmQqcwSc04sY9Xa7HEvMqw

    • Ye Olde Statistician

      statistically insignificant

      ROFL! As if in a non-random sample of 20 students the concept had any validity!

      But here's another:
      “Given the strong correlation between religiosity and conservatism (r = 0.52)..."

      Only a social "scientist" would suppose that an r² = 0.25 would be a "strong" correlation! No engineer would stir himself over such a thing.

  • GCBill

    Player A’s behaviour does not affect player C, all players are anonymous
    and expect no further interactions, and punishing player A costs player
    C money.

    But A and C got the money for free and since these are students we do
    not know if A actually knew B in real life, or if C knew either.

    I took "anonymous" to mean none of the students knew who the others in each particular interaction were (even if they did, in fact, know them). You could easily accomplish something like this by saying "[anonymous] A gave [anonymous] B only $2 out of an allocated $20. Would you like to [description of punishment procedure]?" If the undergraduates knew who else was participating in the study (or if the classes they were taken from were small enough that they could reasonably guess), then I suppose they could still make punishment decisions based on their opinions of the other students. But the potential confound in this case would be some awkward aggregate of opinions ("I'd really like to punish A if it's Dave, but Frank is OK"); a probabilistic mishmash of nepotism and contempt unlike the scenario which Briggs describes.

    Funnily enough, I actually think the study would be better if it were conducted in the way Briggs thinks it was, and so propose a different criticism. Depending on the size of the community in question (many pre-institutionalized punishment communities would be considered "small" by today's standards), it's actually very plausible that C would know A personally (or at least of A's reputation). So if the researchers are trying to measure "altruistic" interactions in such communities, it's questionable to what degree they should even be examining anonymous punishment. I highly doubt the village thief would remain anonymous for long.

  • David Nickol

    I am not sure what this has to do with theist-atheist dialogue to which Strange Notions is dedicated. The researchers seem to take no position on the truth or falsity of religious belief but are merely studying the effects of having such beliefs.

    Dr. Briggs seems to have no sympathy for this kind of social science research. For example, he refers to the third-party punishment game as "a frivolity invented by academics designed to flummox undergraduate participants in studies like this."

    He is highly critical of this particular instance of science reporting, and I don't think I am going out on a limb to presume he doesn't believe this is an isolated instance.

    In defense of the authors of the study, their section entitled (b) Limitations and future directions makes it clear to me they are quite aware that their 20-subject study is very close to the beginning of the discovery process regarding these issues than some kind of definitive pronouncement.

    As for the reporting in Live Science, I would not be too quick to criticize it. As Brian Green Adams points out, science reporting is frequently not up to the standards we would ideally hope for. (I might add, this is true of all reporting. Having once been near the center of events reported in the New York Times and Time Magazine, I'd say the media got things about 80% correct—no major distortions, but incorrect or fuzzy on the details. Reporters do not have the luxury of spending limitless time on any particular story they are writing. They have deadlines.)

    My initial thought was at least this was an original piece written for Strange Notions, but I then discovered it originally appeared on Dr. Briggs's own site back in May.

    • I think the point of Dr. Briggs article is that academic atheists use pseudo-science and non-applicable statistics to make their case. And might this not be an appropriate thesis for a blog on theism vs atheism? (And good left-over articles are even tastier the second or third time around.)

      • If that's his thesis, he offered no evidence whatsoever to defend it. He criticized two social scientists for having a sample size of 20. If Briggs were to make any sort of generalizations about "academic atheists" from this one study, he'd be working from a sample size of 4 (the authors of the study)! and he doesn't even know if his sample is atheist academics. One of the co-authors could have been a Christian.

        If Briggs purpose was to criticize academic atheists, that would make his article the most ironic article on Strange Notions. Out of charity, let's assume that was not the purpose of his article.

        • Well Brandon, you have a point. I think Briggs' criticism is possibly implicit. By the way, as a physicist I regard the term social scientist as an oxymoron... (sorry if that's too snarky, but it's evidenced by the bad science and statistics in the paper).

          • I don't know if it's snark or not, but the offence isn't against me. I generally hold a pretty low opinion of social sciences as well.

            What sort of physics do you do?

          • Ignatius Reilly

            By the way, as a physicist I regard the term social scientist as an
            oxymoron... (sorry if that's too snarky, but it's evidenced by the bad
            science and statistics in the paper).

            Have you read the actual paper or just Briggs' straw man? Social Science deals with very important questions and uses scientific methods. Does religion have utility is a very important question that is not answered by physics, and we can scientifically answer questions like are religious persons more likely to give to charity than their non religious counterparts. Of course we have to be careful about confounding variables and sloppy research, but it is incorrect to claim that psychology is not a science.

            You may say that many social scientists research is inconsequential, but I could also say that about physicists. You can say that social scientists use bad statistics, which will no doubt be true at time, but in this particular instance, the only person that I see mischaracterizing statistics (and science) is Briggs.

            A very fundamental question about religion is does it do more harm then good? I would say it does, but I am very much interested in what social science has to say about it.

          • Ignatius, I think you have a different notion of what science is all about than I, as a physicist, practicing for 50 some years (published, reviewed, panelist, grad students) have. I follow Fr. Stanley Jaki's dictum that science is that which can be quantified and measured to see if theoretical predictions can be true or falsified. This was not done in the paper reviewed by Briggs and is not done generally by "social scientists". Religion can not be subjected to quantitative tests, nor can ethics, esthetics, love, and a vast domain outside of science.

            And I'll add two more things to educate you (I hope) about science:

            Lord Kelvin:

            In physical science a first essential step in the direction of learning any subject is to find principles of numerical reckoning and practicable methods for measuring some quality connected with it. I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely in your thoughts advanced to the stage of science, whatever the matter may be.

            Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize Winner:

            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=viaDa43WiLc

          • Ignatius Reilly

            Ignatius, I think you have a different notion of what science is all about than I, as a physicist, practicing for 50 some years (published, reviewed, panelist, grad students) have.

            Is this an argument from authority? I will take you as an authority on whatever subfield of physics you do research in, but not on this.

            I follow Fr. Stanley Jaki's dictum that science is that which can be quantified and measured to see if theoretical predictions can be true or falsified.

            I am not a fan of Jaki, but I do not see how that definition precludes social sciences. I would add repeatability.

            This was not done in the paper reviewed by Briggs and is not done generally by "social scientists".

            So, if we have one paper that fails to live up to the standards of science, all of social science is no longer science. That does not follow. Briggs failed to mention a single statistical mistake that the paper makes, while making statistical mistakes of his own. Certainly BF Skinner's experiments on conditioning or Asch's conformity experiments are scientific. The effects can be measured and the experiments are repeatable.

            Religion can not be subjected to quantitative tests, nor can ethics, esthetics, love, and a vast domain outside of science

            I can quantify religious belief by frequency of church attendance, frequency of prayer, self-reporting, or by beliefs.

            We cannot quantify ethics, but we can try to quantify moral choices and the reasons for moral choices. Crime data vs poverty is an example.

            I could possibly quantify aesthetic reactions by a brain mapping. Same with love.

            Are there things outside of science? Yes, but social science is not one of them. We can try to find a scientific answer to almost any question, but in many situations it is difficult to plan a proper experiment that gathers good data and eliminates as many confounding variables as possible.

            And I'll add two more things to educate you (I hope) about science

            Why is it that theists are always claiming they can "educate" atheists on matters that the atheists may know a good deal about? Is it easier to do this than actually demonstrate something? You have not shown that social science is outside Jaki's definition of science; a definition that is not universally accepted. I have provided social science experiments that are quantifiable, repeatable, and predictive. Why is that not science?

            Personally, studying physics helped lead me on the path of abandoning my Catholic faith, and not for the usual reasons. (Aka God is no longer necessary, because science explains everything.)

            The same Lord Kelvin who said in 1900: "There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement." It appears Kelvin missed a confounding variable of his own - all the experiments done in physics thus far were with objects moving slow and sufficiently massive.

            Many academic social scientists do more consequential research than academic physicists.

          • "I can quantify religious belief by frequency of church attendance, frequency of prayer, self-reporting, or by beliefs."

            Really? And can you quantify God in the same manner?

            "Many academic social scientists do more consequential research than academic physicists"

            Please cite two comparisons.

            It is not, in the space of a brief comment, possible to fully outline the underpinnings of my philosophy of science. And if I have given the impression that I think science is superior to all other disciplines, I apologize. That is not so. I get irritated when other disciplines try to cloak themselves with a prestigious quantitative cloak that is not merited or, as in the paper critiqued by Briggs, fallaciously applied. Indeed, there are, as many philosophers of science have pointed out, serious limitations in how science works and what science can tell us.

            Now with respect to your state position advocating scientism:

            "Personally, studying physics helped lead me on the path of abandoning my Catholic faith, and not for the usual reasons. (Aka God is no longer necessary, because science explains everything.)"

            If you do believe the science explains everything, your horizon is severely limited. See any of the references cited in "Tipping the Sacred Cow of Science: Confessions of a Science Agnostic"

            http://rationalcatholic.blogspot.com/2014/06/confessions-of-science-agnostic.html

            or not.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            "I can quantify religious belief by frequency of church attendance, frequency of prayer, self-reporting, or by beliefs."

            Really?

            Do you disagree? Perhaps you could give some evidence as to why you don't think I can approximate religious belief using those metrics.

            And can you quantify God in the same manner?

            It would be hard to quantify something that doesn't exist. However, I believe it was Aquinas who notes that we can partially understand God by understanding his creation. In this creation, we see an immense amount of suffering, misery, chaos, and ugliness. Is this what God is like?

            I'll agree that many academics in the non-hard sciences do more consequential work than some academic physicists...so what does that go to prove?

            It disproves your assertion:

            I follow Fr. Stanley Jaki's dictum that science is that which can be quantified and measured to see if theoretical predictions can be true or falsified. This was not done in the paper reviewed by Briggs and is not done generally by "social scientists".

            Social sciences do scientific research. Yes, there is bad social science, but that does not make it any different from any other human endeavor.

            But please cite statistics or other evidence to show the proportion of social scientists who do work more significant than is done by physicists.

            This was not my claim. I only claimed that some social scientists do research that is more consequential than some physicists. Just as I claimed that some social scientists do legitimate social science.

            than do the flood of suckers of the public teat, climatologists who fake data and statistics to promote AGW, but so what.

            I take it you mean anthropic global warming? Can you give an example of faked data? As I understand, the data collected at Berkeley was collected by skeptics. This issues is not a priority for me (i.e. it is not a primary voting concern), but I would be interested if you would expound on your claim.

            And with respect to your statement that "Science explains everything" ...are you serious or just trying to be sarcastic?

            I did not say that. To restate, I said that there are things outside of science, but sometimes things that were once thought to be outside of science can be brought into the scientific realm by an ingenious experiment.

            Please see "How the laws of physics lie" by Nancy Cartwright or "The Scientific Image" by Bas van Fraassen, or other references cited in "Tipping the Sacred Cow of Science..."http://rationalcatholic.blogsp...
            or not

            I have quite a stack of books to read. However, I will take these under advisement.

          • Ignatius, I'm just going to reply to one of your counter-arguments because I don't think you're capable of breaking the bounds of whatever prejudice against God you have.
            Here is an easy argument to counter your social-science proposition that religious belief can be quantified by frequency of church attendance, etc.
            Consider someone who live in the wilderness, 100 miles from a Church but is a deep believer, attends once a month, or someone in a country where a traveling priest visits once a month (this is the case in many Latin American and African countries) but yet is a deep believer; compare that to a spouse who attends church daily because of spousal pressure but has no deep beliefs; one can multiply such examples.
            And as for self-reporting...again, that's the sort of data sociologists like to believe, but, like the paper on which Briggs commented, they are houses built on sand.
            There is more truth to anecdotal reporting from good psychiatrists, such as Oliver Sacks, than all the pseudo-quantitative fakery that sociologists and such indulge in.
            And your other arguments can be countered in a similar fashion but I have better things to do.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            Ignatius, I'm just going to reply to one of your counter-arguments because I don't think you're capable of breaking the bounds of whatever prejudice against God you have.

            But I would assume that an all-powerful God would be able to break these supposed bounds of prejudice. You really don't know anything about me, but thank you for confirming "my prejudice" that Christians have no difficulty in judging others without adequate information.

            Consider someone who live in the wilderness, 100 miles from a Church but is a deep believer, attends once a month, or someone in a country where a traveling priest visits once a month (this is the case in many Latin American and African countries) but yet is a deep believer; compare that to a spouse who attends church daily because of spousal pressure but has no deep beliefs; one can multiply such examples.

            Straw man. I would not design a study without first trying to eliminate confounding variables. Obviously I would not compare data from the first world with data from the third world and draw conclusions.

            compare that to a spouse who attends church daily because of spousal pressure but has no deep beliefs; one can multiply such examples.

            That is why we have control groups.

            And as for self-reporting...again, that's the sort of data sociologists like to believe,

            Evidence for this assertion? Crime data vs poverty is a trivial counter-example.

            like the paper on which Briggs commented, they are houses built on sand

            Actually, neither you nor Briggs has produced a substantive criticism of the paper. Briggs complained about news reporting, and showed that he actually does not have a good understanding of statistics.

            And your other arguments can be countered in a similar fashion

            So poorly with unsubstantiated assertions?

          • As I said above, one does not try to argue against the fallacy of invincible ignorance (look it up on Wikipedia), against those whose beliefs are set in stone, but to save my time, and for the benefit of those who might read these comments here are arguments against scientism presented better and at greater length than I can

            http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/scientism-and-the-integrity-of-the-humanities

            http://www.crisismagazine.com/2014/charged-grandeur-god

            and Google "Scientism Refuted" for shorter pieces.

            By the way, your argument ad blusterum (without facts or logic to back it up) that Briggs' criticism of the statistics is baseless, shows the weakness of your position.
            I will pray for you Ignatius.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            As I said above, one does not try to argue against the fallacy of invincible ignorance (look it up on Wikipedia), against those whose beliefs are set in stone,

            Exactly what am I invincibly ignorant about, and what evidence have you provided that I am simply ignoring?

            My main points of contention are that:

            1) Social scientists can do legitimate science. They don't always do it, but it can be done.

            2) There are questions that seem to be outside the realm of science, but can perhaps be brought into the realm of science with ingenious experiment.

            3) Religious belief can be quantified.

            but to save my time, and for the benefit of those who might read these comments here are arguments against scientism presented better and at greater length than I can

            I am not a believer in scientism. There are truths that are outside of science. That there are infinitely many primes cannot be scientifically demonstrated. I don't need to read an article to know that.

            I don't understand how you get to label various soft sciences as unequivocally unscientific, and then when I push back I become a believer in scientism steeped in invincible ignorance.

            By the way, your argument ad blusterum (without facts or logic to back it up) that Briggs' criticism of the statistics is baseless, shows the weakness of your position.

            Except Briggs doesn't actually criticize the statistics beyond mentioning that the sample size is to small. He also does not substantially criticize the method of the study, or why the statistical methods chosen should have been different. If you see such criticism, please enlighten me. I have read the article several times and read the study and I do not see anything in Briggs' article besides straw men, snark, condescension, and a willingness to take the authors of the study out of context.

            Regardless, if it turned out that this study made a serious error and was invalid, it would in no way disprove that social sciences can actually do legitimate science.

      • Abe Rosenzweig

        Do the academics in question state that they are atheists?

        • They don't have to...their bias is shown by 1) their thesis and 2) their conclusion.

          • Abe Rosenzweig

            Thanks for sciencing me such a scientific science answer, scientist.

          • Well, you're welcome...and here's a good link to boost you up,

            "She blinded me with Science"

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-FIMvSp01C8

          • Ignatius Reilly

            The hypothesis is that religious and non religious have the same attitudes toward punishment. We then take data to see if that hypothesis explains the data. We have no idea about the religious affiliation of the scientists.

          • who are the scientists you're talking about? they can't be the authors of the article, who are not scientists.

  • To quote Mark Twain, "there are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics".