13 October 2005

ANOTHER AXIOM BITES THE DUST

Establishing the existence of god(s) is beyond the scope of science. No debate there. But science should be able to weigh in on whether faith has any merit, at least so far as making the world a decent place to live goes.

Curiously, and despite centuries of claims that we all need religion to make society work, no one has ever tried to answer what should be a relatively simple question. Until now.

Gregory Paul, an independent paleontologist, illustrator of dinosaur books and ardent rationalist, had long tired of hearing about how valuable faith was. He decided to look into the issue, only to discover there was no peer-reviewed study of the relationship between how religious a society was and how well it was faring, socially.

So, drawing on social data from the UN and other reliable sources on 17 developed nations, plus Portugal, he performed his own analysis, subjected it to a peer-review by sociologists, and had it published last month in the Journal of Religion and Society. Then all hell broke loose. So to speak.

Despite the title, "Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies" makes for compelling reading. If Paul is right,

higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion....
Or, as Paul told me in a telephone interview the other day, "I've established that you can run society without religion."

To say that this sort of thing doesn't go down well with the faithful would be a grand understatement. Although the study has received some positive (even over-credulous) media attention in England and Australia, coverage in the U.S and Canada has been spotty at best. The blogosphere is where you find the most interesting reactions. Atheists are pleased as punch. Christians not so much. But almost all commentators have one thing in common: a failure to understand what they're reading.

The Times of London, for example, completely misses the point, leading off with "Religious belief can cause damage to a society."

And then there's this introduction to an interview with Paul by the host of ABC Radio's Late Night Live, Phillip Adams:

It proves beyond reasonable doubt that religion is about the worst thing that can happen to a society ... and it's peer-reviewed.
To the contrary, all Paul's study does is show that the premise that societies are better off with religion is not supported by the evidence. The more religious countries do not have lower rates of things like teen pregnancy, juvenile mortality, STD rates and so on. In fact, they seem to have higher rates than the more secular nations.

Nowhere in the article does Paul say that religion makes life miserable. He's just saying that he's found evidence that the opposite is not true. It's a crucial distinction, but one that seems to have been lost on most amateur, and some professional, readers.

In fact, Paul's paper makes no reference to causation at all. He even points out that he didn't use a common technique called "regression analysis," which is typically employed to determine if one factor is caused by another, to avoid stepping into that minefield.

But that didn't stop academics who should know better from criticizing him for not using regression. Scott Gilbreath, who describes himself as a "perpetually perplexed 55-year-old Christian statistician," goes ballistic on his blog:

This is simply inexcusable in a research project involving statistical analysis. I have never seen anything like this -- either in my professional career or in my university studies of statistics and econometrics.
Gilbreath goes on to explain why he thinks regression should be used. I'm not an expert on statistical analysis, but my cursory understanding suggests regression would accomplish little, if anything, and because of the nature of statistics Paul is drawing on, may actually cloud the issue. (It has to do with errors in independent variables. If you care about this sort of thing, an excellent summary of when to use regression is on the Johnson Space Center website.)

A respectable attempt at finding flaws in Paul's statistical analysis can be found at Hypotheses Non Fingo. The blogger asks, couldn't it be possible that dysfunctional society leads to high levels of religious belief rather than the other way around?

Well, yes, it could. But again, that's not what Paul's study is concerned with. Remember, he's simply testing the idea that religion is required for communities to function properly. And even if religiosity is a result of social decay, that would only undermine the proposition that piety leads to happiness.

Some sociologists, as you might expect, aren't happy either. Serving as the requisite critic in an ABC (Australian Radio) item on Paul's paper, sociologist Gary Bouma says: "He hasn't provided the argument about how it is that religion might explain this kind of association." Which again fails to recognize that Paul is simply trying to test the notion that religion makes the world better, not explain mechanisms.

The non-scientific critique generally falls into the ad hominem argument -- because Paul is not an academic formally trained in sociology, we should ignore him. Some bloggers have pointed out that Paul is co-author, with one Earl D. Cox, of Beyond Humanity: CyberEvolution and Future Minds, a book that champions some radical visions of the future involving merging mind and machine. To which I say, "So what?"

Others claim to be puzzled by Paul's failure to come clean on the fact that he is a self-educated dinosaur illustrator and not an expert on the matter at hand. More nonsense. Some even question his true identity, which only undermines their own credibility. I was able to find a valid email address and phone number for Paul within seconds, and can find no evidence he was trying to hide anything.

No, he didn't remind me that he's made his mark as an illustrator. But neither did he interrupt our interview to note that Scientific American has drawn on his paleontological expertise as author of Scientific American Book of Dinosaurs. See here.

Honest criticism of the paper would address the fact that sociologists have failed to conduct the necessary studies themselves, compelling Paul to give it a shot. And good on him.

I don't think his case is as airtight as he claims. It's good, just not that good. The paper also suffers from some unnecessary rhetorical flourishes, such as "The widely held fear that a Godless citizenry must experience societal disaster is therefore refuted."
But it certainly is solid enough to warrant further investigation. And that just happens to be his primary motive in writing the paper-- to encourage more comprehensive analysis by those who are better equipped to tackle it.

In Paul's words, from his paper:

This is not an attempt to present a definitive study that establishes cause versus effect between religiosity, secularism and societal health. It is hoped that these original correlations and results will spark future research and debate on the issue.
So come on, sociologists. How about it?

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