good science meets terrible journalism
A few days ago that paragon of breaking science news (not really), the Daily Mail, reported that psychologist Bruce Hood’s research found that humans are wired to believe in deities and hold religious beliefs. And not only that, but that his studies counter Richard Dawkins’ conclusions that religion is a cultural phenomena that relies heavily on indoctrination from childhood and biases in our education. But after the article started going around the web, lost in the noise of religious pundits patting themselves and each other on the back for their wise beliefs beating scientists to the punch by centuries, was the voice of Dr. Hood himself. It seems that the articles in the Mail, The Sunday Times and The Daily Telegraph about his research were, well… wrong.
On his blog, Hood very clearly shows that the reporters who talked to him were interested in pushing a certain kind of story and technical details like the actual findings, what they meant and how they could be applied just got in the way. The journalists and editors wanted a line about definitive proof that humans are wired to have a religion to stir up controversy and so they cherry-picked scientific work about our predispositions to believe religious doctrines and how they might have evolved to come up with a fluff piece espousing the same “but it’s natural to believe in God” defense priests have been using for decades. In reality, humans are predisposed to accept the ideas of supernatural entities as causal agents of the universe but their actual beliefs depend on a particular indoctrination. According to Hood, religion as we know it today is indeed a cultural phenomena.
I talked about the early emergence of mind body dualism and how it relates to the notion of an after-life and my particular research interest, psychological essentialism. I said that I thought many supernatural beliefs had a natural origin in the way children reason about the world and that while story-telling was one way of transmitting beliefs, in many instances [the] cultural stories reflected notions that were intuitively plausible to children. In fact, I categorically said that religions were cultural constructs as Richard Dawkins had proposed. Where I differ from Dawkins (and again this is very clear in the book) is the likelihood of removing supernatural beliefs through education but this is an empirical question that is not yet resolved.
So if the reporters were actually responsible science writers, what they would’ve said is that we’re suggestible to religious indoctrination as part of our evolutionary lineage. As social animals, we need order and structure in society and organized religions can provide it, which is why one of the reasons religions stayed around as human civilization built from villages into city states and eventually nations and empires. If you want to claim that a belief in your religion is somehow natural, there’s not a shred of scientific evidence for your assertions because being a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew or a Wiccan is a matter of choice or indoctrination, not something with which humans are innately born, just something they could be taught to believe. Hood’s research simply tries to shed light on the psychological dynamics of how faith in the supernatural propagates.
This case is a clear illustration of why we need competent science writers reporting on science, not just hacks after a false controversy and with absolutely no regard for the facts involved. If anything, their coverage was a gross misrepresentation of scientific work for the sake of selling copies and generating page views. We keep wondering why people seem to be in the dark about so many scientific developments and this focus of using an edgy research topic as mangled fodder for culture war debates is one of the reasons. If you think anybody will put a stop to this, you’re sadly mistaken because for many media outlets today, accuracy and legitimacy of their reporting comes as a distant third to popularity and ad sales.