William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Decline Of Participation In Religious Rituals With Improved Sanitation

All the world's religions, in bacterial form.

All the world’s religions, in bacterial form.

Answer me this. Earl at the end of the bar, on his sixth or seventh, tells listeners just what’s wrong with America’s science policy. His words receive knowing nods from all. Does this action constitute peer review?

Whatever it is, it can’t be any worse than the peer review which loosed “Midichlorians—the biomeme hypothesis: is there a microbial component to religious rituals?” on the world. An official paper from Alexander Panchin and two others in Biology Direct, which I suppose is a sort of bargain basement outlet for academics to publish.

The headline above is a prediction directly from that paper, a paper so preposterous that it’s difficult to pin down just what went wrong and when. I don’t mean that it is hard to see the mistakes in the paper itself, which are glaring enough, for all love. No: the important question is how this paper, how even this journal and the folks who contribute to it, can exist and find an audience.

Perhaps it can be put down to the now critical levels of the politicization of science combined with the expansion team syndrome. More on that in a moment. First the paper.

It’s Panchin’s idea that certain bugs which we have in our guts make us crazy enough to be religious, and that only if there were a little more Lysol in the world there would be fewer or no believers.

Panchin uses the standard academic trick of citing bunches of semi-related papers, which give the appearance that his argument has both heft and merit. He tosses in a few television mystery-show clues, like “‘Holy springs’ and ‘holy water’ have been found to contain numerous microorganisms, including strains that are pathogenic to humans”. Then this:

We hypothesize that certain aspects of religious behavior observed in human society could be influenced by microbial host control and that the transmission of some religious rituals could be regarded as a simultaneous transmission of both ideas (memes) and organisms. We call this a “biomeme” hypothesis.

Now “memes” are one of the dumbest ideas to emerge from twentieth-century academia. So part of the current problem is that dumb ideas aren’t dying. Capital-S science is supposed to be “self correcting”, but you’d never guess it from the number of undead theories walking about.

Anyway, our intrepid authors say some mind-altering, religion-inducing microbes make their hosts (us) go to mass, or others to temple, and still more to take up posts as Chief Diversity Officers at universities just so that the hosts will be able pass on the bugs to other folks. Very clever of the microbes, no? But that’s evolution for you. You never know what it’ll do next.

Okay, so it’s far fetched. But so’s relativity—and don’t even get started on quantum mechanics. Screwiness therefore isn’t necessarily a theory killer. But lack of consonance with the real world is. So what evidence have the authors? What actual observations have they to lend even a scintilla of credence to their theory?

None.

Not one drop. The paper is pure speculation from start to finish, and in the mode of bad Star Trek fan fiction at that.

So how did this curiosity (and others like it) become part of Science? That universities are now at least as devoted to politics as they are to scholarly pursuits is so well known it needs no further comment here. But the politics of describing religion as some sort of disease or deficiency is juicy and hot, so works like this are increasingly prevalent. Call them Moonacies, a cross between lunacies and Chris Mooney, a writer who makes a living selling books to progressives who want to believe their superiority is genetic.

Factor number two, which is not independent of number one, is expansion team syndrome. The number of universities and other organizations which feed and house “researchers” continue to grow, because why? Because Science! We’re repeatedly told, and everybody believes, that if only we all knew more Science, then the ideal society will finally have been created. Funding for personnel grows. Problem is, the talent pool of the able remains fixed, so the available slots are filled with the not-as-brilliant. Besides, we’re all scientists now!

New journals are continuously created for the overflow, and they’re quickly filled with articles like this one giving the impression things of importance are happening. Not un-coincidentally, these outlets contain greater proportions of papers which excite the press (no hard burden). And so here we are.

19 Comments

  1. Actually, this is a good thing. Anyone can write and get a paper published without all that hard work and spending all those resources trying to get hard data and compiling it, etc. After all, we dissect computer simulations and call that equivalent to actual cutting up of a dead thing, we “visit” our grandchildren via Skype, we live in social media. It’s actually just the natural progression to the Matrix and no real lives at all. So get out there and start writing drivil and make a name for yourself in the almost-real world.

    (/sarc, in case anyone can’t actually tell—which is frightening in and of itself)

  2. In the second to last paragraph: “Funding for personal grows. ” Shouldn’t that be “personnel?” Briggs, why do you have so many enemies?

    And your illustration looks like fungi rather than bacteria. Which reminds me of the hypothesis that LSD-like hallucinations induced by ergot in the wheat made into bread and consumed by the witnesses in the Salem witch trials may have influenced their bizarre behavior and testimony at what was partly a religious exercise. That the ergot intended this to happen is difficult to prove. Would a community with fewer witches grow more wheat or less? Since ergot thrives more in damp weather, perhaps witches cause more storminess and eliminating them via the theologically-influenced court is counter-productive. The ergot must either have been very crafty, seeing something we don’t or merely toying with religious practice since the outcome either way had trivial effect on its success.
    /sarc (just in case it isn’t obvious)

  3. Hee hee! That’s funny right there. So perhaps we can make a sniffer machine that can sniff out the gases these microbes produce and predict a person’s religious inclination? We could call this device the Whoopee Cushion. Just sit here! We could install them in pews everywhere. (please someone, stop me, please!). Anyway, I gotta go…

  4. Is there a microbial component to peer-reviewed research?

    Just asking.

  5. Gary:
    I dunno about it being an error as ‘personal grow’ is a term for a small stand of marijuana plants not intended for major commercial resale. Brigg’s may have been implying that after the best thinkers have been scoped up then the pool of researchers becomes those who have to resort to recreational pharmacology to produce their ‘grand ideas’.

  6. Sander van der Wal

    14 August 2014 at 10:43 am

    We hypothesize that certain aspects of religious behavior observed in human society could be influenced by microbial host control

    How about hypothesizing that human society *is* influenced etc etc etc?

    and that the transmission of some religious rituals could be regarded as a simultaneous transmission of both ideas (memes) and organisms.

    That would be the cult of Ishtar in ancient Sumeria, no? They truly took their religion serious in those days.

  7. So the Catholic church follows this research and decides to install the cushions in it’s pews. One Sunday morning as the priest is just starting his service he hears, “Thhhhhhhhhhpppppppppttttt, ack, there’s a Lutheran in here.” This is quickly followed by a man in the rear suddenly jumping up and running out the back. He was heard mumbling something like, “too much beer, too much beer…”

    The next week as the service is starting the priest hears, “Thhhhhhhhhhpppppppppttttt, ack, there’s a Baptist in here.” The priest then hears “Amen brother” shouted from the pew in the back.

  8. Larry Geiger, gives additional meaning to the word “pew” doesn’t it.

  9. Spot on. I loved every word. Thank you.

  10. Ack, the Midichlorians made me do it.

    I’m sorry, I just cannot maintain Mr. Briggs calm demeanor and academic prose in the face of this nonsense. This paper sounds like something developed by Jeff Foxworthy and Ray Stevens. My mind wanders. My fertile imagination is undisciplined. To all of you I apologize. I think that I’ve finally flushed the hilarity from my system and I can get up off of the floor and attempt to return to some sense of normality. It’s tough typing from the floor anyway :-)

  11. I like the comments, and here’s a modest proposal. First, cancel all government funding to academic enterprises. The great scientific advances in the 20’s and 30’s were achieved without government funding. Second, cancel all government sponsored student loan provisions. When the sources dry up, students will choose higher education that is beneficial financially and academically; academic institutions will be forced to lower salaries and cut academic and administrative staff. Third, abolish tenure. Benefits are self evident. Fourth, institute academic savings accounts (tax-exempt). Fifth, eliminate all academic departments which have in them the name “women’s” “gender” “queer”, “ethnic”, “black”, etc…
    Or, invent a time machine and go back to 1925.

  12. Academics can put those cute strings of initials after their name. Can I please have some to denote that I haven’t been there.

  13. Did this research at least win an Ig-Nobel Prize?

  14. Sander van der Wal

    15 August 2014 at 7:43 am

    @Bob Kurland

    In Europe government was funding universities in the 1920’s. And Europe was the hotbed for both General Relativity and for Quantum Theory development.

  15. You’re right Sander, but that was funding of the institution, not individuals… The European academic institutions were like state universities–and that’s OK… Oxford and Cambridge on the other hand did not, I believe, in those days have government funding as institutions, but relied on endowments. And they were productive of new ideas also.
    I actually don’t disapprove of the idea of government funding of schools, colleges and other institutions of learning AS INSTITUTIONS (allow me a little rhetorical leeway in my earlier response). I do disapprove of government funding individual “scholars”.

  16. Do you think the fact that there are no world wars currently (though may be soon) affects the way the government funds schools and research? Right now, technology is quite advanced and the private sector has that covered. So all that’s left for the government is fluff and propaganda. No need to excel, no reason to actually succeed. Life’s just too calm and placid for that kind of nonsense. It seems to be the idea of academics that much of schooling is just a thought exercise anyway, and that only changes due to “in your face” bad stuff.

  17. Fletcher Christian

    15 August 2014 at 9:24 am

    There’s nothing particularly stupid about the proposition. After all, there is precedent in other organisms for bizarre (and in some cases distinctly contra-survival) behaviour being caused by various parasites. And the matter of ergot-induced hallucinations is well known. One of the compounds in ergot spores is very similar to LSD, after all.

  18. Nice illustration, but they are fungi, not bacteria. Perhaps Briggs is suggesting an alternative hypothesis that fungal compounds (lysergic acid, psilocybin, muscimol) are the true source of religious experiences?

  19. Fletcher Christian

    16 August 2014 at 5:23 am

    DaveW – Possibly both. Hallucinogens are so much associated with religion that some minority religions make them an integral part of their rituals. But that isn’t my main point. There are a number of parasitic organisms that alter the brain function of their hosts in ways that seem bizarre to us; often, the alteration is towards behaviour that makes the host more likely to get eaten.

    It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that parasites might induce other contra-survival behaviours in people – such as giving food (that’s difficult to get, in most pre-industrial societies) to completely non-contributing members of the community. Not being able to see the mechanism doesn’t preclude this.

    One possibility? Parasites do better in undernourished people. If the parasites induce you to essentially throw food away…

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