Monday, May 14, 2012

How Religion Corrupts Minds and Undercuts Science

By Hos

Among human organs, brain is a very good example of evolutionary development. There are many structures in the brain (loop of Meyer, aqueduct of Sylvius, foramina of Luschka and Magendie, etc) that increase the vulnerability of cerebral structures to pathological processes, and could have been avoided by a designer. The truth is, despite the reputation of the brain for being a true wonder, there is so much waste and inefficiency in it that it resembles a work by Rube Goldberg, like the one above.

At the functional level the situation isn't any better. The different parts of human mind, having evolved separately and patched together in the haphazard way, could in fact do with a lot of streamlining. This has been the subject of a full pop science book.


What is highly dismaying, then, is the prevalence of creationism among neurosurgeons, who seem to blind to their own field of work. This is nothing new. For a number of years, Michael Egnor, MD, a neurosurgeon from SUNY at Stony Brook, has been peddling creationist material for the Discovery Institute. As you might expect from a creationist, he isn't totally sold on the separation of church and state, either.


Bad as Egnor is, he is far from the only creationist neurosurgeon with an academic affiliation. It gets worse, much worse.

Meet Ben Carson, MD. Dr Carson is the head of pediatric neurosurgery at Hopkins, and a devout Seventh Day Adventist.

As a surgeon, his reputation is beyond compare; as a thinker outside his own field, he sucks. When it comes to evolution, this is the gem Dr Carson gives us: "Ultimately, if you accept the evolutionary theory, you dismiss ethics, you don't have to abide by a set of moral codes." Adding that if you accept evolutionary theory, "you have no reason for things such as selfless love".

(I always hoped creationists had a clue about what they were criticizing. Alas, if I keep looking for that I will die of old age).

Now how do I know that Dr Carson's creationism is motivated by religion? Because he, himself, tell us so. Read the full interview here. (On Adventist Review, for heaven's sake.) I was pleased to see there was some push back against the decision at Emory University to bring in Carson for their commencement speech.

How is it that one of the most brilliant brain surgeons in the world can be so incredibly ignorant (bordering on idiotic) about a scientific theory that has been the backbone of biology and geology for 150 years? The answer is one word: Religion. As long as religion infects minds, you can expect ignorance peddling from the shining stars of even the top institutes of higher education in the world.

For those who advocate a Chris Mooney style approach, I have a question. Can you honestly say that in a situation like this, the best approach is too tell Carson that there is nothing wrong with his religion, it is just that he is misguided about its interplay with science? (Alas, that is a rhetorical question; it was tried, and it didn't work.) Or would it be more productive to start writing letters, warn the audience about Carson's anti-science views, and try to have the commencement speech canceled (as the staff and students did at Emory, and as Richard Dawkins did in the case of Ben Stein at the University of Vermont in 2009)?


Carl said...

Richard Dawkins also coined the term memes which is culture passed on from one generation to the next like genes but memes are your religion your way of thinking do to how your parents teach you so creationists are pretty much set in their dogma at a early age. So just give your child to a preacher at a early age where they are more susceptible to suggestion and you will have them the rest of their lives. Religion the ultimate virus.

Gary Berg-Cross said...

Hos asked "Can you honestly say that in a situation like this, the best approach is to tell Carson that there is nothing wrong with his religion, it is just that he is misguided about its interplay with science?"

Speaking for myself there is no either or here. It is a matter of where I might chose to focus my attention for Carson's audience. An audience who buys into his particular religion isn't going to be easily swayed by my direct arguments listing all the things wrong with their religion and their beliefs. There's plenty to point to about that already, but this is for an audience who might not be aware of the arguments. I wouldn't consume too much time unless there is a new audience and/or issue to investigate and create a meme for the topic.
I would be more interested in stating a case for the existence of morality outside of their religion, and this might be directed to a larger audience where the contrast may be easier to assimilate. Having people understand humanist morality is VERY important. The way we do it implies something about our values.
Stating a case for the reality of evolution is important and has been done well. New, but usually weak and disingenuous counter arguments and styles spring up from time to time and call for efforts to point out the errors or hidden agendas in them. That's important and the way we do it is also important.

Explicit Atheist said...

Gary, the belief that there is an omnipotent omniscient omnibenevolent and judging god is pre-requisite to thinking that god belief is requisite to morally. A god that doesn't know, or doesn't care or doesn't act on whatever it knows, may as well not exist since humans can ignore it. So the theism is the foundational belief here, and it is also a weak link, much weaker than the logic that goes from such a god does exist to therefore we behave ethically. So like it or not, pointing out that if we don't build our beliefs about what exists ground up from the evidence then we confuse fiction for fact seems to me to be a better approach.

Gary Berg-Cross said...

Mathew, what you say about the chain of belief makes sense and is a logical approach to see theism as a foundational aspect of religious moral thinking. The point that I (and others) add to this is that logical arguments don't always get listened to so one may use our knowledge of what does influence people's
"thinking" as an additional approach.

Strict logic is not a set of rules which often govern human behavior because humans may have various intents and beliefs that led to conflicting goals. For example:

Don wishes to speak to whoever is in charge.
The person in charge is Mary.
Therefore Don wishes to speak to May.

Unfortunately, Don may have a conflicting goal of avoiding Mary (maybe he owes her money). So strict logical reasoning by itself can be misleading in real life.

Hos said...

Yeah, so let's instead go with the assertion that belief is not the basis of action. Whatever it takes to free religion of all responsibilty. Becasue of course we, the intellectual elite, understand the motives of the faithful better than they do.

Gary Berg-Cross said...

It might be better to argue that how people explicitly talk about their belief is not always a reliable predictor of their actions. People's deeper motivations are often rationalized and direct attack on those rationalizations often moves the 'argument' to other rationalizations. If one has decent time to engage in extended public conversation, particular in group, you may be able to uncover the deeper reasons and perhaps start to change some minds over time.

There is no conscious argument here to absolve religion (and other ideologies that distract from rational-empirical styles) of responsibility. One may argument that this approach lets them off the hook, while I might argue that the attempt is to hold them there over time and not for an glorious moment.

On the argument that some "intellectual elite" is tell the rest of us they know the faithful better than we, well I don't resonate with the elite label, but I do look to social scientist professional for our current understanding of the domain. That doesn't immediately give us an effective strategy, but it should inform one.

Hos said...

Yeah right, social scientists would understand the motives of the faithful better than the faithful themselves. The academia v the masses. Because motivationa have to be somehow esoterically "deeper", it can't possibly be that they believe what they say they believe?
And of course the best way to change minds is to try to identify those deeper motives, not expose religion for the horrors it inspires. Because eye tracking studies tell us so.

Gary Berg-Cross said...

Again you frame this as an either-or binary choice rather than a mixed, contextually sensitive approach which does what is judged best in terms of different audiences and topics. And you seem not to be aware that I suggest that scientific knowledge be used by the community rather than just the scientists as change agents, which they may not see as their role.
But if you want to say that an academic like Dawkins might speak on how understanding memes might be used by the community, that is OK with me.

Hos said...

Well that is a straw man argument, because I never suggested that mixed motives never exist. Sometimes one stands out more clearly though. For example, when it comes to denialism of evolution, which is the subjecr of this post,motive number one is religion. Evidence for that is overwhelming and I am not going to repeat it here. Denying that religion is the motivator is just as delusional as denying evolution itself.

Gary Berg-Cross said...

Evolution denial is pushed by certain fundamentalist religious groups, but anti-intellectualism,political ideologies, low science knowledge in general and other values are also an important part of the mix in denials. The role of mixed motives is probably a reasonable thing to consider. Rather than being a straw men the argument is a rather general prototype.

Hos said...

See. While Dawkins is often accused of arrogance, I find his critiques a lot more so. Deniers himself claim that their ideology is based on religion (look up the Wedge Document if you don't do what that is, for example). But of course, who are they to tell us? We, the psychologists and sociologists, know creationism better than the creationists. And we have the gall to accuse Dawkins of arrogance. I wonder though, why don't all those other factor do not cause social movements against the periodic table?

Gary Berg-Cross said...

(Evolution) Deniers can can justify themselves with religion, but then again they may hate elite scientists too and like climate deniers just not want those guys to be proven right. Belief is often not a single factor, but a system of sub-beliefs that get rationalized.
We know that half or so of American adults reject any notion of evolution as shown by surveys.

A 6 yr old study by Miller, Scott and Okamoto published in Science (11 August 2006) begins to tell us why. They hypothesized that a mix of cutural variables, degree of fundamentalism religiosity, political conservativeness, and ignorance of basic science, accounts for a significant proportion of the difference between American and Europeans in their attitude toward evolution. To test this they used structural equation modeling -SEM models representing competing hypotheses & comparing them quantitatively. SEM cannot prove the correctness of a particular hypothesis (indeed, philosophically speaking, no empirical proposition can be proven with complete certainty), but it is an excellent 1st step toward assessing how well the available data fit whatever causal models the investigators think reasonable to consider.
religious belief. It turns out that the effect of fundamentalist religious beliefs on one's attitude toward evolution is twice as strong in the US than in Europe; Americans really are influenced by their strict religiosity more than their European counterparts. Second, political positions. Again, Miller et al's intuitions were supported by the data: pro-life attitudes – which in the US are more strongly associated than in Europe with the political platform of conservative parties – made it significantly more likely for someone to reject evolution. Moreover, if one self-identifies as a conservative, one is also more likely to both hold fundamentalist religious views and be pro-life, and the two factors add to each other's effect in decreasing one's acceptance of evolutionary theory. Finally, science literacy. While overall understanding of the basic facts of genetics was actually slightly higher among Americans than Europeans, there was a definite positive relation between such understanding and acceptance of evolutionary theory. In other words, the more one knows about science, the less scary evolution becomes. (from

Hos said...

Really sweet:
"It turns out that the effect of fundamentalist religious beliefs on one's attitude toward evolution is twice as strong in the US than in Europe; Americans really are influenced by their strict religiosity more than their European counterparts."
It is clear that Mooney's studies apply to you. The study YOU YOURSELF ARE CITING UNDERCUTS YOUR POSITION. But you refuse to change your mind.You are as driven by ideology as any fundamentalist.
Oh, and political conservatism? Itself caused by religiosity. Not an independent factor.

Gary Berg-Cross said...

Evolution is a strong case for religious influence, but even it is a mix of (related) factors. That the evidence and the interpretation. I would also hypothesize that ther areas have other topics have a mix where religion is not the first factor, but a factor in a mix of factors. It's that type of model which data supports.

Hos said...

Well, that is precisely what the tobacco industry used to claim: cancer is a complex and mulifactorial phenomenon (true), hence it is unfair to blame it on smoking (false). Ultimately going down this path brought them a RICO conviction.

Gary Berg-Cross said...

The Miller, Scott and Okamoto study is not like an advocacy science study funded by Big Tobacco. It's much better to say that tobacco is the leading cause of cancer and here is the magnitude of effect with a comparable list of other interacting factors.
But one part of the real argument here is what a study of effective techniques to make smokers quite might be. Here is a little bit of what experts have argued about this.

"Do you bite your tongue every time a family member or friend lights up or steps outside for a smoke? Or maybe you've tried the opposite tack: nagging. Neither approach works, experts say. What has helped thousands of smokers to quit, they point out, are the following simple strategies.

1. Keep the focus on you -- not on the smoker

Saying "I hate it when you smoke" is likely to provoke an equally negative response. But talking about how the person's smoking affects you might just lead to a breakthrough, or at least a moment of connection. If you hate the way the house or car smells, say that. If you're getting to the point that you avoid kissing your smoker unless he's come straight from brushing his teeth, that's an important point to make. State your feelings as simply as possible in a way that sounds personal rather than accusing.

2. Trap to avoid: Anger. It's important to distinguish between the anger you might feel about a smoker's habit and your own underlying worries that prompt those feelings. Maybe you heard the smoker in your life cough and felt a pang of worry before lashing out in frustration, for example. Try expressing that feeling of concern instead of the frustration, experts say, and you'll get much better results.

3. Keep it positive.

In order to quit smoking, smokers must come to the realization that they want something else more than they want to smoke, experts say. Usually this takes the form of some very basic pros and cons; smokers have to want better health and freedom from addiction more than they want the temporary pleasure of smoking. When the smoker in your life expresses an interest in quitting -- even if it's just a passing comment -- help him think about how his life would change for the better without cigarettes.


Hos said...

Oh, you mean the study you yourself quoted but then ignored its main point?

Gary Berg-Cross said...

The study I quoted from supports the idea that evolution denial is pushed by certain fundamentalist religious groups, but also anti-intellectualism,political ideologies, low science knowledge in general and other values. As I said they are also an important part of the mix in denials. The role of mixed motives is probably a reasonable thing to consider.
I hope that my later posting on tactics to change behavior like smoking makes the point on taking personal psychology into account.