William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

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Atheists More Motivated By Compassion Than The Faithful?

Why? (Source)
Give till it hurts

Today’s title was swiped, word-for-word, from a Live Science press release. This is important because the point I wish to make has to do with how the press and publicity treat papers; I have little to say about an actual paper.

And this is by necessity, since the paper being reported upon does not exist. Or, rather, it exists but will not be published until July, two months off, so far after the appearance of the press release that nobody in the media or public will remember to look the paper up when it finally shows. All that will be recalled were the old headlines.

Like the one appearing as our title today. Or the one, even, appearing at HotAir.com: “Confirmed: Atheists more motivated by compassion in charitable giving than believers are.”

Now pause and consider just these two headlines, the only words of a story likely to be read by most folks. What would your conclusion be? Why, that atheists are more generous, more compassionate than theists. This is striking because it goes against what many would have guessed to be true. Maybe there’s something to this atheism thing after all?

But suppose I told you I conducted an experiment with 100 atheists and 100 theists and asked them to self-report how much money they donated and the attitude they had whilst doing so. Say that 90 out of the 100 theists made charitable donations and that all claimed their activity was a duty; further say that just 10 out of 100 atheists gave but that each of these 10 reported doing so because they were moved by compassion. What would your conclusion be?

Obviously, “Atheists are more compassionate than theists.” Golly! This rendition is even true, in some political-spin kind of way. Not the way an ordinary citizen would understand it, of course, but ordinary citizens can’t be expected to comprehend difficult scientific concepts.

The paper that-is-not-yet was written by academic sociologists Robb Willer and Laura Saslow. In it, so the press release informs, they conducted three studies.

The first was to look at an old survey. Result: “compassionate attitudes were linked with how many generous behaviors a person was likely to report. But this link was strongest in people who were atheists or only slightly religious, compared with people who were more strongly religious.”

In other words “atheist” as defined by this first study meant “not-atheist” or “some atheist, some religious.” The lumping is suspicious and might—I say might—indicate their statistical correlation did not produce a publishable p-value when they compared actual atheists with actual theists. And just you examine what the study reports: the number of “generous behaviors” (whatever these are) was correlated with some definition of compassion. There is no word about the fraction of theists who engaged in “generous behaviors” versus the fraction of atheists who engaged in these.

In study number two:

101 adults were shown either a neutral video or an emotional video about children in poverty. They were then given 10 fake dollars and told they could give as much as they liked to a stranger. Those who were less religious gave more when they saw the emotional video first.

The description is not clear, but it appears that participants saw both videos but in random order. We’ll have to wait for the paper to see if just as many theists as atheists saw the “emotional video” first. Or whether they once again lumped some theists in with atheists to round out their numbers.

And did you notice that the fake dollars were given to a stranger? Why not real dollars to real children in actual poverty? Were these Monopoly money given to WEIRD college students? An odd, very unrealistic situation.

The third study:

[A] sample of more than 200 college students reported their current level of compassion and then played economic games in which they were given money to share or withhold from a stranger. Those who were the least religious but most momentarily compassionate shared the most.

Didn’t we see this or a similar game mentioned in yesterday’s post on the over-reliance of WEIRD people in academic research? Well, who knows. But how does one gauge somebody’s “momentary current level of compassion”? And what does fake money have to do with real-life giving?

The number of ways for this study to mean the opposite of the headline are many—but like I said, we’ll have to wait until we actually see the paper. There is at least good cause not to write the headline so boldly.

Live Science ends with a quote from Willer: “Overall, this research suggests that although less religious people tend to be less trusted in the U.S., when feeling compassionate, they may actually be more inclined to help their fellow citizens than more religious people.” Now why bring up that atheists are “less trusted”? What does that have to do with any of these studies? Might Willer be subject to a little confirmation bias?

Did you notice the qualifier? Atheists, when feeling compassionate, may be more inclined to “help” (with fake money, of course) their fellow citizens. What about when atheists are not feeling compassionate? Do they feel compassionate more or less often the theists? Who gives more? Who is in real-life more generous?

Aren’t these the real questions?

Academic Pscyhologists Over-Rely On WEIRD People: Overconfidence Results

It was just over a month ago that tears of joy came to my eyes while reading an academic paper. This was Simmons et alia‘s “False-Positive Psychology : Undisclosed Flexibility in Data Collection and Analysis Allows Presenting Anything as Significant.” (Thank you P-value!)

Right on the heels of that essential work we have Joseph Henrich, Steven J. Heine, and Ara Norenzayan’s lovely review, “The Weirdest People in the World” (58-page pdf) which asks two important questions: (1) “How representative are experimental findings from American university students?” and (2) “What do we really know about human psychology?”

Over-confidence and over-certainty abounds in many areas, the closer the subject is to mankind the greater the false surety. This is why this new paper is such a delight: it is a rare admission that all might not be as solid as hoped.

WEIRD = Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. That is, the kind of folks who make up 96% of the study participants “of the top journals in six sub‐disciplines of Psychology from 2003‐2007.” I.e. mostly young college students, and mostly American ones at that: about two-thirds of study participants are from the States.

“Researchers—often implicitly—assume that either there is little variation across human populations, or that these ‘standard subjects’ are as representative of the species as any other.” But it isn’t so. Our trio point out that

there is substantial variability in experimental results across populations and that standard subjects are particularly unusual compared with the rest of the species…The comparative findings suggest that members of [Weird] societies, including young children, are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans.


[W]e need to be less cavalier in addressing questions of human nature on the basis of data drawn from this particularly thin, and rather unusual, slice of humanity…

In top journals such as Nature and Science researchers frequently extend their findings from undergraduates to the species—often declaring this generalization in their titles. These contributions typically lack even a cautionary footnote about these inferential extensions.

Amen, brothers; amen.

The authors looked at several different kinds of human behavior where there existed cross-cultural studies. For example, visual perception. We have all seen the Mueller‐Lyer illusion, which shows pairs of lines with arrows pointing inwards and outwards, as in this picture:

Henrich Fig. 1

Mueller-Lyer illusion

To many people the line segment in (a) appears shorter than in (b), though both are the same length. You can ask a person to lengthen (a) until it appears to be the same as (b). Weird people—on average—lengthen (a) about 13% (see Fig. 2; here reproduced). But peoples from some other cultures only need 1%; while still more need as much as 20 to 21%. This is clear and enormous variability across peoples, variability which is not accounted for in the vast majority of psychology journal statistical analyses.

Heinrich Fig. 2.

Another area, heard about all the time in both evolutionary psychology and (so-called) experimental economics is how people think about moola. A favorite is the Ultimatum Game, in which one person of a pair is given some real money.

One of the pair—the proposer—can offer a portion of this sum to a second subject, the responder. Responders must decide whether to accept or reject the offer. If a responder accepts, she gets the amount of the offer and the proposer takes the remainder; if she rejects both players get zero. If subjects are motivated purely by self‐interest, responders should always accept any positive offer; knowing this, a self‐interested proposer should offer the smallest non‐zero amount. Among subjects from industrialized populations—mostly undergraduates from the U.S., Europe, and Asia—proposers typically offer an amount between 40% and 50% of the total, with a modal offer of usually 50% (Camerer 2003). Offers below about 30% are often rejected.

In other words, Weird people offer about 45% on average, but this hugely varies from between 25% to just over 50% across other cultures. Again, on average: the variability within a culture is also of interest and, though our trio don’t say so, must be different in different cultures too. Even worse for academics, Weird people are on the end of the distribution here (see their Fig. 3) making extrapolating from Weird results a dicey proposition.

The authors also survey folkbiological reasoning, spatial cognition, antisocial punishment and cooperation with anonymous others, independent and interdependent self-concepts, romantic love as a basis of marriage, moral reasoning, behavioral economics, several other areas, including one of especial interest to us: analytic versus non-analytic reasoning (see this post).

They find in each instance significant cross-cultural differences, with Weird people “frequently a distinct outlier vis‐à‐vis other global samples. It may represent the worst population on which to base our understanding of Homo sapiens.”

Importantly, they also recognize many cross-cultural similarities, such as perception of color, understanding of facial display of emotions, knowledge of numeracy, and theory of mind (i.e. all people recognize other human minds). Males everywhere rated female attractiveness important in mate selection. Nobody anywhere (except those at the Occupy rallies) likes free riders.

To fix the over-reliance on Weird folk, the authors list some recommendations, such as that “Journal editors and reviewers should press authors to both explicitly discuss and defend the generalizability of their findings. Claims and confidence regarding generalizability must scale with the strength of the empirical defense.” They also say to use people from more areas of the world.

Anybody care to wager on whether these recommendations will be broadly adopted?

The paper is endlessly quotable and I can do no more than summarize its main points. I urge all interested people to read the original report: there is much material to digest.


Thanks to Stephen Dawson who suggested this topic. See also Jospeph Hertzlinger’s blog on this topic.

The Times Weighs In On The Side Of Wayward Nuns

LCWRNicholas D. Kristof is a good polemicist. In his 28 April 2011 piece “We Are All Nuns” he manages to hide and eventually evade the main argument against him via distraction, a technique every op-ed writer should master.

Here’s what happened—and stick with me, it will turn out to be of interest to you even if you are not (yet) Catholic. Recently the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—which sounds better in Latin, vide: Congregatio Pro Doctrina Fidei—wrote a letter to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious saying, in essence, “Whoa. Hold up there.”

Now before we go further, let’s make one thing clear. The Catholic church is a voluntary organization which has certain well known rules by which adherents must abide. Nobody forces anybody to join. Too, as one advances in the hierarchy of this group, one must pledge not to deviate from nor to agitate publicly against these rules. You promise that if you break the rules, you must accept the actions of the leadership which itself judges what response to your rule-breaking is best. Just like in any voluntary association.

The leadership of the Church had this to say of the LCWR’s activities:

  • “Addresses given during LCWR annual Assemblies manifest problematic statements and serious theological, even doctrinal errors.” Including some that spoke of “moving beyond the Church” and even moving beyond Jesus himself.
  • Their teachings are “not in agreement with the Church’s teaching on human sexuality.” I.e. all the usual progressive suspects.
  • The “prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” I.e. questioning the divinity of Jesus (a male) and the agitation for women priests.

Of course, if you are (yet) an atheist then none of this has any meaning to you (but see below), but I believe you would agree that if the Church teaches and is founded on the idea that Jesus is divine, that if an internal group says otherwise, it is at variance with the leadership and thus subject to correction. And don’t forget the nuns are free to quit if they feel strongly on this point.

Visit the LCWR’s website and you’ll understand the controversy. For example, the nuns lecture us on “Reducing and Offsetting Our Carbon Footprint“. Their (at this writing) Leading Resolution is that you should join the Occupy movement. One reason given in support of this plea is that “Hyatt hotel workers who have been organizing since 2006 asked to choose between annual cost of living raises and health care.” Which does not sound an especially hard road to hoe.

Indeed, the nuns at LCWR appear to have adopted the progressive tactic of using a statistical instead of an absolute measure of poverty. This move guarantees that the poor will always be with us. Say that to be poor is to fall under, e.g., the 30th percentile of income makes it impossible to eradicate poverty, makes it so Omnipotence itself cannot reduce the number of the poor. The struggle will be ever endless, which at least guarantees job security for progressive agitators. (And see this.)

The New York Times and Nicholas D. Kristof would have the Church change and become, well, become like any other NGO dedicated to progressive causes, only perhaps without all that “God talk.” Kristof in support of the LCWR says that nuns have been strong, courageous, faithful, daring, selfless, heroic, pious. Not the nuns of the LCWR, mind, but some nuns at certain times and places. He also says that some priests have failed to be all these things. Not the priests of the CDR, but some priests at certain times and places. He also looked into his bible and discovered that Jesus was all about “social justice” and, apparently, the statistical definition of poverty.

His conclusion? Support the nuns in charge of the LCWR and agitate against the Church. After all, “If you look at who has more closely emulated Jesus’s life, Pope Benedict or your average nun, it’s the nun hands down.” Yet Kristof, who earlier said the “Church should be turned upside down” for its “paleolithic” rules, never once acknowledges nor answers the main argument that the Church can and must decide for itself what it best. (And see this.)

So why is this important to you as a non-Catholic? Because it is the beginning of public debate which is expanding. Enter Congressman Paul Ryan who last Thursday “said that his recently released budget proposal was developed in accord with his understanding of Catholic social doctrine.” According to First Things, Ryan’s statement caused “the liberal Catholic establishment” to react “with outrage” (progressives know no other emotion).

Ryan said his budget was “a way to help all Americans gain a better life, free of government intrusion and overreach.” Progressives would increase government to be in charge of everything. Both sides are invoking the Church. Stay tuned.

More Analytical Thinkers Are Atheists: Study

Analytical thinking in action (source)

Somebody some enterprising young academic, not realizing he should keep his mouth shut before attaining tenure, will publish a study which examines the bizarraries found in studies which begin with the words, “We recruited participants online.” (See this one, for example.)

The peer-reviewed study by Shenhav, Rand, and Greene begins with the words “We recruited participants online.” They call it “Divine Intuition: Cognitive Style Influences Belief in God”, and it is found in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (sorry, no link).

Before revealing the full purpose of our trio, let me explain their three experiments. Bear with me through these: not everything is easy.

Study 1.

Via the internet, they recruited 882 folks, two-thirds female, and asked them if they believed in God or not-God. They also asked about “belief in an immortal soul, familial religiosity during childhood, and change in belief in God since childhood,” etc. They finally asked three “math problems with intuitively attractive
but incorrect answers.” They only tell us one, which went something like this (try to answer before reading the solution):

A bat and a ball costs $137.50 in total. The bat costs $112.20 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

This is solved (this is from me, not them) by a “system of equations”, the first of which is “Bat + Ball = $137.50″, the second of which is “Bat – Ball = $112.20.” Therefore, “Bat = $137.50 – Ball” (from the first) and then (substituting into the second) “$137.50 – Ball – Ball = $112.20.” Thus, “Ball = $12.65″ which makes “Bat = $12.65 + $112.20 = $124.85.” Checking shows $124.85 + $12.65 = $137.50.

Simple, once you get the hang of it. That is, once the method is taught to you. By a teacher. Who most likely resides in a school or university. Which is the place you’d be sitting when you learned these things. And what kind of students and teachers are more likely to be better at questions like this? Well, math and science students, naturally.

What was your answer before you read the solution? Did you find an intuitively attractive answer? No? Let’s return to where I said the problem “went something like.” The problem actually went:

A bat and a ball costs $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

Our trio says, “The response $0.10 springs immediately to mind, but the correct answer is $0.05. Choosing the attractive but incorrect answer signals greater reliance on intuition and less reliance on reflection.”

We math teachers call these kind of questions “gotchas.” Some less scrupulous pedants use them to show students that the students know less than the teacher. The question is a set up, designed as our trio said, to offer an answer which does not require much thinking. Student thoughts usually run along the line, “Who wants to think about a meaningless question about absurdly priced bats and balls? The bat’s a buck more? Gotta be ten cents.”

But some folks, science and math denizens, will recognize the “gotcha”, and work through the math. And so will the other people if the question is not presented in “gotcha” form, like I displayed originally.

So what we have here in this question is a reasonable filter to separate the math and science habituées from those folks who were once humanities majors. Used in this way, as a filter, the math problem would be unproblematic, but our trio did not use it as a filter.

Before telling you how they used it, let me ask you this question. Answer honestly. Among college graduates, who are more likely to be atheists, math/science or humanities majors? The former, of course. And at least some of this difference in attitude is due to acculturation and not deep and lasting philosophical inquiry. Christians (and I don’t mean “creationists”), for example, aren’t particularly welcome in biological circles, especially on the internet. On average. Not always. I mean, there is a tendency for acculturation to explain some but not all of the difference between theism and atheism. Nothing can be plainer than this.

Our trio took, for each participant a total of the wrong answers from the three “gotcha” questions. So everybody would have a score 0, 1, 2, or 3, with higher being “worse.” They then “correlated” this score with the answer the participants gave about belief in God. These two measures were linearly correlated (the wrong measure because of the discreteness of the score) to the tune of 0.18 (a bare whistle). The use of linear correlation can exaggerate this number, but at least this wrong one was accompanied by a wee p-value, which is a measure of success in academic studies.

The interpretation is that among those participants who believed in God, slightly, fractionally more of them scored poorly on the “gotchas” than those who did not believe in God. This was strange because the correlation between “Belief in God” and the separate question, “Convinced of God’s existence” was only 0.62, where one would have guessed it would have been unity.

Could it be an internet-recruited study pool just didn’t take the subject seriously? Well, our trio said they used a series of seriousness checks and tossed data that did not conform. So we are left with a puzzle. Or bad data.

Our trio’s explanation does not include the possibility that the slightly lower scores of the theists are because more atheists are found among those with backgrounds in math and science and of those more highly educated in general. Again, acculturation does explain some (not all) of the differences in belief. The authors summarily failed to recognize this. The effect I have in mind is not large, but then again neither was the effect found by the authors.

Study 2 was so similar to the first study that I refer interested readers to the paper. Relevant correlation here was 0.14, even smaller and well within the realm of explanation I proffer.

Study 3

They had on-line volunteers write about themselves, with instructions such as:

“Please write a paragraph (approximately 8–10 sentences) describing a time your intuition/first instinct led you in the right direction and resulted in a good outcome.” Participants were excluded if they failed to write at least eight sentences.

The condition “your intuition/first instinct” (intuition) was half the time switched with “reasoning through a situation” (reflective), and the “rightgood” switched with “wrongbad” in a 2×2 design.

Sadly for the authors, a low p-value was not to be found in correlating of these four conditions (intuition/good, intuition/bad, reflective/good, reflective/bad) with belief in God. But they were able to do some data churning and find a publishable p-value in the “crossover interaction between the recollected cognitive approach and the valence of the recollected outcome.”

Still, this experiment, since it did not find the main effect, must be considered a bust.


This section of papers is where all the fun is had. It is where speculation is wild and typically free from the burdens of evidence. The same is true in press reports of papers.

Science magazine summarized the paper thusly, “People who chose more intuitive answers on these questions were more likely to report stronger religious beliefs, even when the researchers controlled for IQ, education, political leanings, and other factors.” Which sounds a lot stronger than what we have seen is true. But you can’t blame Science (this time) because our trio open the conclusion with the words, “[we] showed that intuitive thinking predicts belief in God.”

Enter the speculation (references removed):

The observed relationship between reliance on intuition and belief in God may stem from multiple sources. First, as noted earlier, belief in God may be intuitive for reasons related to more general features of human cognition that give rise to tendencies toward dualism, anthropomorphism, and promiscuous teleology.

Good grief! Promiscuous teleology? Who wants to suffer from that? The good news is that there is a cure and belief “can be overridden through the engagement of controlled or reflective processes, with reflective processes enabling or supporting judgments based on less intuitive explanations.”

Our trio then explain that people who believe in God are more likely to find evidence which supports this belief. No word on whether those who believe in not-God are more likely to find evidence which support their belief. But we are warned that “the belief in God may give rise to a feedback cycle whereby satisfying explanatory appeals to God reinforce the intuitive cognitive style that originally favored the belief in God.” No feedback cycle mentioned for atheists.

The paper ends with what you can see the authors hope is a literary zinger:

How people think—or fail to think—about the prices of bats and balls is reflected in their thinking, and ultimately their convictions, about the metaphysical order of the universe.

Now since there is not one word about the limitations inherent in recruiting people via the internet, and there is nothing but mute silence on the data discrepancies (noted above), nor is there even a hint or even the shadow of one about plausible alternate explanations (such as I gave), and since the third experiment which should have had the strongest effect if the authors’ theory was true but which was not a success, and because the authors offer a one-sided conclusion, let me end with this.

How researchers think—or fail to think—about the role of experimental design is reflected in their writing, and ultimately their convictions, about how to draw unjustified conclusions from weak data.

Update From Stephen Dawson comes pointers to the two other “gotcha” questions; and from that same blog (Jospeph Hertzlinger’s) comes more revelations (here and here) about an experiment that your adjunct did not have time to cover (yet).


See also this report.

The War On Women Rallies

War on Women


A woman does not have a right to do anything she wants with her own body. Neither does a man. Neither do you, dear reader. Nothing can be clearer than this logical and moral truth.

What’s that you say? This simple moral fixity is not clear to you? Then you must be a graduate of a Western university. And it means you’re probably off today to one of the many “War on Women” rallies sponsored by the please-give-us-donations-group Unite Women.

If a woman could do whatever she wanted with her own body, she could take her own body to a crowded shoe sale and open fire on the participants with the goal of taking out all those shoppers whose outfits she finds unattractive. Her act would be that of a woman using her own body in the way she wished.

If a woman could do whatever she wanted with her own body, she could enter a classroom of kindergarteners and berate them, shout at them, scream herself hoarse at them, heap mountains of abuse, she could shock them with tales of her lasciviousness and provide graphic detail about whatever horrors happened to come to her mind. Her act of creativity (she could call it “performance art”) would be that of a woman using her own body in the way she wished.

If a woman could do whatever she wanted with her own body, she could perform, at age thirteen or thirty and in full view of the public square, a self-Cesarean with a dull kitchen knife and punt the result down Times Square. If nobody found her attractive enough to provide the impetus to the aforementioned surgical procedure, she could use the cleaver to hack off other body parts of her choice in the same public forum. Her choice, I say.

She could do all these things and nobody could say Boo to her. For they are all acts of a woman using her own body in the way she chose.

This digression was necessary to say to show you that words NOW, Unite Women, and the once (long ago) sane Center For Inquiry have used to inspire people to attend the “War” rally are nothing but empty rhetoric. Wait. Strike that. The words are not empty, they are worse: they are maliciously false.

It is obvious that “War” in the title is a calculated devious ploy to cheat people into believing there is an active, open organization to kill women. And it must be “kill” because that is the purpose of a war. Even if you suffer from splenetic fever and believe that, say, requiring a woman pay for her own contraception will result in the deaths of some (surely not all?) women, the path from the requirement of self funding to actual death is at best circuitous and in reality probably nonexistent.

In no way, in no possible way, does not allowing a woman to walk up to a man and demand he hand over his cash so that she can run into a drug store to buy herself contraception represent a war. It is irresponsible to say that it is, a scheming and manipulative act.

(Incidentally, new readers will enjoy Sandra Fluke Mows The Lawn: A Play In One Act.)

The CFI says to frighten readers that “every day” there are new efforts to “curtail the rights of women to make their own choices about their health, their bodies, and their day-to-day lives.” Except in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, England, and suchlike places, every one of these bugaboos is false as they mean them. And they are true in the way they do not mean them.

That is, it is false that a woman has a “right” to take somebody else’s money or property for whatever purpose she desires. And we have already seen that a woman does not have a right to do whatever she likes with her body or in her day-to-day life. Neither does a man. And nobody has a “right” to health. I leave the proof of this obvious truth as a comment exercise.

But it is true that the government is increasing its reach deeper into the private lives of its citizens. We do hear “every day” of a new program or rule or “initiative” which will be imposed to make us live in a way deemed “good” by some bureaucrat. The government would even force those whose religious and moral beliefs oppose killing of fetuses pay a woman to kill her fetus because that woman is an employee. Not only is this and many other like programs moral wrongs, but they increases the servility towards government: they teaches people to look to government, and not to family and community, for the cure for all ills.


Coming tomorrow: we examine the latest in a series of fad studies which show that atheists are clearer thinkers than Christians.

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