Check Out What Really Happened

Here’s the breathless headline: “Scientists claim they can change your belief on immigrants and God ...

Wait. Attitudes toward God and immigrants? Are these a natural pair? The newspaper thought so. They tell of an experiment which “claims to be able to make Christians no longer believe in God and make Britons open their arms to migrants.” How’s it done? “Using a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation” researchers can “safely shut down certain groups of neurones” in the brain.

It seems to have worked. Volunteers were coaxed into having their brains zapped by giant magnets. And, lo! “Belief in God was reduced almost by a third, while participants became 28.5 per cent less bothered by immigration numbers.”

The news report was based on the paper “Neuromodulation of group prejudice and religious belief” by Colin Holbrook and four others in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. This paper is one in a long line of studies that purport to explain the workings of the human mind based on responses to simple questionnaires.

It’s true. Scientists in some fields have convinced themselves they can quantify the unquantifiable. They believe hideously complex human emotions can be adequately represented on scales of 1 to 5 (or some other bounds). For instance, on a scale of -4 to 4, how much do you agree with the statement, “There exists an all-powerful, all-knowing, loving God”?

Before you answer, consider. Is the distance in belief from 3 to 4 the same as it is from 2 to 3, and from 1 to 2, and so on? Are these distances exactly the same in all people? What happens if the scale were to be changed from -4 to 4 to one from 1 to 9, which is the same length? Would the results be the same? Does everybody agree on the precise definitions of “all-powerful,” “all-knowing” and so on?

The answer is obviously no to all these questions, but Holbrook’s results, and the results from thousands of such investigations, assume the answer is yes. It’s worse than this. Consider the same question about God but after you answer these two questions: “Please briefly describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you” and “Please jot down, as specifically as you can, what you think will happen to your body as you physically die and once you are physically dead.”

Why? Because, the authors say (in the supplementary material to the main article), these “threat-inductions” have an “evident link between the prospect of death and palliative thoughts of God and the afterlife, and also because” thinking about your own death “has been shown to reliably heighten both intergroup prejudice and religiosity in prior studies.” Thinking about life after death increases intergroup prejudices? That must explain the riot in the pews each Sunday after the Nicene creed is read (“I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come”). And are palliative thoughts about death the only reason people believe in God? Of course not. This prejudicial prompting is of dubious value.

In the study, questions about belief in God, the niceness of immigrants, and several other subjects were asked of volunteers, half of whom were zapped with magnets. These magnets were aimed at a region in the brain the researchers thought was related to emotions about God and immigrants. Yet brain “regions” of complex emotions are far from well understood. In Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience Sally Satel (psychiatrist) and Scott Lilienfeld (psychologist) say “the half-life of facts can be especially brief” in this field. New results disprove older ones continuously.

After the zapping, all participants were re-asked the same questions. Turns out participants “reported an average of 32.8% less conviction in positive religious beliefs” than those who weren’t zapped. That’s 32.8% and not 32.7%, mind you. In science we demand precision! A wee p-value confirmed that this change was “statistically significant.” There isn’t space here to explain the horror of this statistical approach, but interested readers can learn more here.

This is where it gets interesting. There was, as we have just seen, a small change in the answers to pseudo-quantified questions about positive religious beliefs, but there weren’t any “significant” changes in the answers to pseudo-quantified questions about negative religious beliefs. The same sort of thing happened in the questions about immigrants: Some had wee p-values and some did not. And there were no changes in any of the other questions asked. Yet which “findings” got the headlines?

We still haven’t answered the big question: why. Why did the authors design a study about belief in God and attitudes about immigrants? From their conclusion, written in the impenetrable prose typical of such “studies”:

History teaches that investment in cherished group and religious values can bring forth acts of both heroic valor and horrific injustice. Understanding the psychological and biological determinants of increases in ideological commitment may ultimately help us to identify the situational triggers of, and individuals most susceptible to, this phenomenon, and thereby gain some leverage over the zealous acts that follow. …The results provide evidence that relatively abstract personal and social attitudes are susceptible to targeted neuromodulation, opening the way for researchers to not only describe the biological mechanisms undergirding high-level attitudes and beliefs, but also to establish causality via experimental intervention.

Did you catch that? These scientists hope that in the future belief in God, or in some other politically incorrect question that might — only might — lead to “zealous acts,” can be treated, maybe even cured, by magnet zappings. And there you have the real danger that follows from believing you can quantify the unquantifiable.

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