Good news first. The peer-reviewed “Judgments About Fact and Fiction by Children From Religious and Nonreligious Backgrounds” by Kathleen Corriveau, Eva Chen, and Paul Harris in Cognitive Science is so awful that it automatically enters the short list for the First Annual WMBriggs.com Bad Science Award (to be announced each October). Congratulations!
The article opens, “Children often learn about people such as Cinderella, Tom Sawyer, George Washington, and Rosa Parks in the context of a narrative. However, these protagonists vary in their status.”
Bad Science of the First Kind re-packages commonsense as if were new and certifies it by official card-carrying researchers. Pace: “Five- and 6-year olds are able to use one important heuristic in assessing the status of story protagonists (Corriveau, Kim, Schwalen, & Harris, 2009). When hearing a story about an unfamiliar protagonist, they use the nature of the events in the narrative as a clue to the protagonist’s status.”
See what I mean?
Yet Bad Science of the First Kind is not harmless. It foster scientism and leads, all too often, to Bad Science of the Second Kind. This is malignancy, where what is not so, or is unknown, is said to be certain. Corriveau has done us a service by showing us the progression. Let’s watch.
“Woolley and Cox (2007) found that pre-schoolers increasingly claim that the miracles in religious (i.e., biblically based) story-books could have really occurred. Moreover, as compared to children from nonreligious families, children from Christian families were especially likely to regard such events as plausible” (p. 3).
Don’t see the problem because, obviously, miracles in religious “story-books” really for real could have happened, and that religiously educated children would more likely know this? Hint: She meant it negatively.
“The analysis offered by Corriveau et al. (2009) implies that, in the absence of a religious education, children will regard miracles as implausible because they involve ordinarily impossible outcomes. Accordingly, they should conclude that the protagonist in a story that includes a miracle is a fictional character rather than a real person” (p. 4).
The lack of philosophical training tells. Miracles are not “ordinarily impossible outcomes.” They are not impossible at all. If they were impossible, they could never happen, n’est ce pas? Anyway, here come the “experiments” on “religious”, by which she meant Christian (Jews were excluded), and non-Christian kids.
Kids were read stories like the following, and then shown a picture of the person and asked to put that picture into a “real [person]” or “pretend [person] box.”
This is Peter. One night he and the disciples were sailing a boat and got caught in a bad storm. Jesus walked on water to save them and Peter jumped out to walk toward him. Peter started to sink but Jesus caught him and they both jumped into the boat. The storm passed and everyone was safe.
This is Peter. One night he and his friends were sailing a boat and got caught in a bad storm. Peter fell into the water and started to sink. A fairy flew toward the boat to save them and used her powers to get him back onto the boat. The storm passed and everyone was safe.
This is Peter. One night he and his friends were sailing a boat and got caught in a bad storm. Lightning flashed and Peter fell out of the boat. Peter started to sink, but his friends threw him a rope and pulled him back into the boat. The storm passed and everyone was safe.
Lo. “Religious children…were more likely than secular children…to categorize these characters as ‘real.'” The scare quotes are hers. By “Religious”, I must emphasize, she meant Christian—and not Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Shintoist, Zoroastrian, Jew, etc.
What elevates this beyond Bad Science of the First Kind is not just that was accompanied by an unjustifiable and unverified quantification of the results, topped by an overly complex statistical model with wee p-values. No, sir. It was the extrapolations which followed.
“It is possible that religious teaching, especially exposure to miracle stories, leads children to a more generic receptivity toward the impossible, that is, a more wide-ranging acceptance that the impossible can happen in defiance of ordinary causal regularities” (p. 13).
Miracles, when they occur, are always caused. How could they not be? Which strongly suggests the question: Shouldn’t a person experimenting on children to plumb their understanding of causality understand causality herself? Or do Corriveau et alia take the dogmatic, against-all-evidence position that miracles are everywhere impossible?
Or was her purpose to make Christianity into a pathology? I’ll let Corriveau have the last word (from the conclusion).
“By contrast, secular children displayed little recognition of God’s special powers. When presented with religious stories that included ordinarily impossible events, they categorized the protagonists as pretend” (p. 21).
“[E]ven if children have no natural inclination to believe in divine or superhuman agency, religious instruction can readily lead them to do so”. And, “An alternative possibility is that children are disposed to credulity unless they are taught otherwise by their families” (p. 23).
Thanks to Nicholas Senz at Catholic Stand where we first learned of this, uh, study.