I don’t want to bore us, but it is crucial to read the team’s explanation of their extraordinary behavior when culling people:
While gradations of belief are certainly worth investigating, our experiment sought to characterize belief and disbelief in their purest form. It was, therefore, essential that we exclude subjects who could not consistently respond “true” or “false” with conviction. Our decision to exclude data from subjects whose answers were not consistent with our pre-screening criteria was part of our original design and was not made based on any evaluation of the scanning data (the fMRI data from these subjects were never analyzed). While we adopted the criteria of excluding anyone who responded to one category of statements with less than 90% predictability, the 7 subjects who were excluded on this basis had responses that ranged from 22% to 43% discord with the expected responses. (For instance, one subject who passed our initial screening as a nonbeliever actually agreed with 43% of the religious Christian statements once inside the scanner.)
This provides a legitimate and entirely justifiable excuse for a spit-take. They did what? They excluded data that was not “consistent”? What’s “consistent” mean? Just what does “90% predictability” imply? How exactly do we quantify answering “with conviction”? And didn’t they just say that some people were excluded because of “technical difficulties with their scans”, yet they now say that “the fMRI data from these subjects were never analyzed”?
Scientific papers are meant to be recipe-like, so that others might reproduce the results. Reproduction is impossible here since we have no clear idea exactly how this experiment progressed. Nevertheless, we push on.
They knew their experimental behavior was unusual, for they immediately sought to allay the readers’ fear:
Thus, the high exclusion rate at this later stage of the experiment represents the failure of our brief screening procedure to accurately assess a person’s religious beliefs, rather than a bias in our approach to data analysis.
Oh, well, if they say so, it really can’t be bias, can it?
Anyway, they ended with “fifteen committed Christians and fifteen nonbelievers”. Harris did not say whether the nonbelievers were committed. He did not say whether any, regardless of group, were lying. Most unbelievably, Harris did not say whether the non-Christians were non-believers in any other deity or practiced any other religion. Were there any Buddhists in the second group? Jews? Scientologists? Unitarians, even?
They were all college students, though, which almost goes without saying these days. No word on what reward, if any, these young adults were given for participation.
One might suspect that this study has nothing to do with what areas of the brain “light up” when somebody thinks about Christ, and more to do with Harris’s bafflement that any person would think about Christ at all. My evidence for this is that the very first words of his paper’s Introduction have nothing to do with biology, chemistry, neurology, or statistics. They are instead about a busted prediction from folks of the far-left end of the political spectrum:
Since the 19th century, it has been widely assumed that the spread of industrialized society would spell the end of religion. Marx , Freud , , and Weber —along with innumerable anthropologists, sociologists, historians, and psychologists influenced by their work—expected religious belief to wither in the light of modernity. It has not come to pass. Religion remains one of the most prominent features of human life in the 21st century. While most developed societies have grown predominantly secular , with the curious exception of the United States, orthodox religion is in full bloom throughout the developing world.
Harris then leaps from from the theoretical hole in which has dug himself and states, “Given the importance of religion in human life, surprisingly little is known about its basis in the brain.” He then mentions “the fact that a variety of clinical conditions related to dopaminergic dysfunction-mania, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), schizophrenia, and temporal-lobe epilepsy–are regularly associated with hyperreligiosity”? But then so are placidness, charitableness, friendliness, wholesomeness, etc. “associated” with religiosity. Yet, somehow, Harrris forgot to mention these. We can only wonder why.
I must stop here, since it is no longer obvious, and remind us that Harris and his co-authors purport to be scientists interested in scientific, i.e. dispassionate, disinterested, discoverable questions.
We needed that admonition lest we read the following (also in the paper’s Introduction) and get the wrong idea:
While there may be many Catholics, for instance, who value the ritual of the Mass without actually believing the doctrine of Transubstantiation, the primacy of the Mass within the Church still hinges on the fact that many Catholics do accept it as a metaphysical truth—a fact that can be directly attributed to specific, doctrinal claims that are still put forward by the Church. There is, of course, a distinction to be made between mere profession of such beliefs and actual belief —a distinction that, while important, only makes sense in a world in which some people actually believe what they say they believe.
A distinction that, while important, Harris and his team were sloppy in keeping, as noted above, and as will again be noted in their experimental protocol. This is the first and also the last we heard of Catholics, the Mass, and transubstantiation, incidentally, so there appears to be no reason to bring them up, especially since Harris did not distinguish between kinds of Christians in his sample, a most important point.