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Saturday, September 24, 2011


What Does Math Skill Have to Do With Faith?

"The 'effect' researchers are really talking about pertains to the old hypothesis many atheists still hold, which is that people not smart enough when it comes to logical reasoning are also the people not smart enough to reject the notion that there is a God."

*Note: The following entry is a critique of research entitled "Divine Intuition: Cognitive Style Influences Belief in God." The study does not specifically pertain to biodeterminism, but it is one in which the more general concept of scientism is evident. It appears here as an issue related to biodeterminism. Another version of the critique below can be found here:

What Does Math Skill Have to Do With Faith?
Critical Meditations on the Study, "Divine Intuition: Cognitive Style Influences Belief in God"

in ref to:
Shenhav, A., Rand, D. G., & Greene, J. D. (2011, September 19). Divine Intuition: Cognitive Style Influences Belief in God. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Available online.

Kudos, great men of the elitist halls of Harvard, on publishing yet another study that atheists probably can’t wait to get their hands on. Under the guise of an “objective” science, you have unleashed more scientism for both fellow scientists and the American public. I guess we live in an age when absolutely nothing can escape a scientific evaluation of it,  but surely you’re each Bright enough to have realized beforehand that you have a piece of literature here that holds the potential to deal believers a serious blow, yes? Ethically, if you claim to be studying the psychology of faith, I would hope you would be a bit more sensitive how you design your studies and present your “predictions” about the way people who believe in God will behave. But that is apparently too much to ask when you are so overconfident about your research you gloss right over what you don’t really know. Please, allow me just enough arrogance to critique your study, not that I expect you to care now that (after what can only be rigorous peer review) it’s been forever awarded a place in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. Heaven forbid someone might be offended by the way truth is revealed by science. Count me among the disgruntled. I’m not going to address all the problems I have with this report, but I would like to start with a careful review of Phase 3 (because even the order in which the researchers present their phases skews your perspective in favor of supporting their hypothesis).

Phase 3: The "Success" of Inducing Intuition to Cause Belief in God

Phase 3 of the report is an experiment (2 x 2 factorial design) in which participants were randomly assigned to one of four conditions. Before being asked whether they're convinced God exists, the participants are first (supposedly) "primed" by being instructed to write a paragraph about one of the following:

Group 1.  How intuition/"first instincts" in a situation led to a positive outcome.
Group 2.  How using careful reasoning in a situation led to a positive outcome.
Group 3.  How intuition/"first instincts" in a situation led to a negative outcome.
Group 4.  How using careful reasoning in a situation led to a negative outcome.

From these conditions, it was predicted that by "inducing a mindset" focused on intuitive thinking that led to a positive outcome, (group 1 above), and by doing what researchers believe is "opposite" this: inducing a mindset focused on how careful reasoning in a situation (or so-called "reflective" thinking) led to a negative outcome (group 4), there would be a higher number of people in these groups who agree they're convinced God exists compared to the other two groups. The point here is to make intuitive thinking seem favorable to half the participants. Researchers believe that intuitive cognition is somehow linked to belief in God, and here they are trying to show intuitive thinking actually causes people to agree they believe there's a God. 

The subjects of most concern are the ones asked to write a paragraph about when intuitive thinking led to a good outcome, which according to the researchers' theory on "divine intuition" should have the strongest effect. I have to stop at this point and ask: How is it that researchers are determining who believes in God? From the study's graphs, we see that participants are asked if they agree with the statement:

"I have had an experience that has convinced me that God exists."

What exactly does it mean when someone answers "yes" to this ambiguously worded question? Does it mean a) there has been at least one time in my life I've been convinced God exists but I don't anymore, b) there has been at least one time in my life I've been convinced God exists and I still believe God exists, or c) there has been at least one time in my life I've been convinced God exists but I'm not sure God exists? The "forced-choice" format of the original question demands participants to say yes or no to a question that has at least three different interpretations. However, in support of their hypothesis that intuitive thinking causes belief in God, researchers have decided that when anyone agrees with the statement it only means "b" above. Why is this a problem if all participants are asked the same question? Because we don't know exactly what researchers are measuring. On top of this, the measure of the dependent variable is not "belief in God," as written into the title of the journal article. The measure of the dependent variable is reported belief in God, and there can very well be a degree of difference between actual belief in God and reported belief in all phases of the study. To what degree? We simply don't know. However, throughout the journal article researchers use the two (reported vs. actual belief) as if they are simply interchangeable.

I also have to stop at this point to ask, What specifically is being primed when participants are asked to write a paragraph about how intuition led to a good outcome? Are they priming 1) a cognitive mode of intuitive thinking, 2) a high appraisal of intuitive thinking, or 3) given it's a task that still involves verbal intellect--are participants still using logical thinking but to write about intuition? Researchers seem to think they are only priming intuitive thinking. Are they correct? We simply don't know.

Assuming the priming was as successful as researchers see it, was there an overall (main) effect of either the one independent variable, cognitive style (intuitive or reflective), or the other independent variable, outcome of the written paragraph (positive or negative) on the dependent variable (belief in God)? The researchers make good of immediately telling you that a higher number of people agreed they believe there's a God if they wrote paragraphs that "vindicated intuition," but then they admit after they did the factorial analysis, "Neither factor exhibited a main effect." No main effects means that overall, when evaluating individually the effect each independent variable had on the dependent variable, the independent variable had no effect on the dependent variable. Hence, at this point the results indicate that it's not certain whether or not inducing a mindset that favors intuitive thinking causes a person to more likely say they believe in God (hold on and I'll tell you what they do have evidence of). The researchers still over-confidently manage to suggest in the abstract (which is what most people only read anyway), "Three studies support" that intuitive thinkers are more likely to report they believe in God, but you have to read much further than the abstract to understand exactly how did the experimental phase provide "support." As usual, the news media uncritically accepted their perspective so that when it comes to not simply reported belief in God but belief in God itself, as Yahoo News now sees it, the matter is as simple as "triggering intuitive thinking boosts belief" ( see ), which is particularly misleading based on what evidence was found in the experimental phase of this study.

What if researchers found a way to demonstrate that priming intuition can cause more people on average to report they believe in God, but only if the priming is carried out in a very precise way can you actually get an effect? Would this now be compelling evidence for the one true brain process explaining belief in God? Would it have also demonstrated why the people who say they don't believe there's a God are more likely to be correct in their use of a careful "reflective" reasoning in attempts to apply this to the existence of God? In case you can't tell from how confident researchers are in reporting their results, if I can be allowed to make a humble prediction of my own, the focus of future research will be guided by a burning desire to demonstrate that an intuitive thinking style is part of a causal chain for belief in God. (At the moment, they have some people believing it's the primary cause.) Scientists studying human behavior tend to use a cookbook recipe approach: this plus that plus a variable like "intuition" equals belief in God. What they never tell you is that they don't know if they're leaving out hidden ingredients that are vital for the cake to fully rise. While they focus on how much flour you need to bake the cake, their end product comes out of the oven flat and and already stale. Perhaps worst of all, through their overgeneralizations about how human beings think and behave (sometimes called laws of uniformity) they also leave out what spices might alter the taste of the cake for individuals. Underscoring this mess left in the kitchen are the cooks who think no phenomenon of interest concerning human behavior can escape a scientific investigation of it. Experimental analogs are devised that don't necessarily fit the real world any better than a metaphor. They turn up the heat with hopes that it will make the cake rise, and if you can't stand the heat (not to be confounded with the truth) you know what you can do (get out of the kitchen).

The other thing many scientists don't concern themselves with when they report their research results is the problem of first causes. We demonstrate that A causes B, but what if there's something important that causes A that we are completely overlooking in our understanding of covert behavior such as belief in God? (Please don't tell me about the "God gene.") As we will also see in another phase of the study at hand, researchers assume that an intuitive approach causes a person to get a math problem wrong, but this is because to solve a math problem "correctly" requires logical thinking and mathematical skills. What actually caused the people in this study to approach a math problem using intuition? It doesn't matter to researchers because they think they need not concern themselves with first causes. But they go to another level in their inferences when they find something like the people who didn't use logical reasoning to solve a math problem also just happen to be the people more likely to report believing there's a God, and this is not a simple matter of the "facts." It's a matter of inferring that if people use intuitive thinking to solve a math problem, then their approach regarding the existence of God is done in the same simple manner. Conversely, researchers suggest that if people use "reflective" logical reasoning to solve a math problem, their approach regarding the existence of God will not be done in the same simplistic (or "primitive") manner as the people who use intuition. Indirectly, this also suggests that the people using the kind of intelligence that favors logical reasoning will also get the correct answer regarding the existence of God (i.e., God doesn't exist).

The Special "Effect" of Interaction

What Phase 3 of the research at hand did find is a significant "crossover interaction" between the two thinking strategies (intuitive or reflective) and the two outcomes (positive or negative). In general, an interaction occurs when the effect one independent variable (IV 1) has on the dependent variable (DV) depends on the level of another independent variable (IV 2). Does the effect of writing a paragraph about using one of two cognitive styles to solve a problem--intuitive or reflective (inducing mindset, as researchers call it, which is IV 1), change the degree subjects report they believe in God (DV) but depends on the outcome written in the paragraph being good or bad (IV 2)? Yes, it does. In fact, in reverse fashion (hence the authors claiming there was a "crossover interaction"). Their results show that the effect of priming intuitive or reflective cognitive style depended on which outcome (positive or negative) participants had to write about , or said the other way, the effect of the outcome in the written paragraph (positive or negative) depended on whether it was for an intuitive or reflective cognitive style. All this means is that the way cognitive style made reported belief in God go up was if the intuitive-positive outcome or reflective-negative outcome was the subject of writing, and conversely, cognitive style made reported belief in God go down when the intuitive-negative outcome or reflective-positive outcome was the subject of writing. The interaction itself has more to say about how writing about intuitive vs. reflective thinking needs to be precisely engineered (perhaps in future research) if you want to use it to influence a measure such as reported belief in God.

I'll say this again another way because I'm sure someone out there wants to go so far as to hack into my computer to give me a lesson on factorial analysis. If we focus for the moment only on the two levels in the intuitive priming condition, the direction (increase or decrease) of reported belief in God depended on the outcome written into the paragraph. When in the intuitive-positive outcome condition participants were significantly more likely to report belief in God. But when in the intuitive-negative outcome condition the opposite occurred, i.e., there was less reported belief in God. This shows you that it is indeed no simple matter to induce an "intuitive mindset" that will lead to reporting belief in God. The "effect" of doing so in the present study was statistically significant (i.e., didn't occur by chance alone) but the increase in reported belief required inclusion of an additional variable so that, on average, among the intuitive cognitive style only those writing about a positive outcome had more reported belief in God. The difference between the two intuitive conditions is profound? Compelling? It's only about 13% (see the bar graph at Figure 1.) When you look at the numbers, statisticians might feel content saying the reason for no main effects is because of finding a crossover interaction (i.e., the way the numbers cancel each other out in the factorial analysis), which is true. However, had the experimental design been one that yielded a main effect (for intuitive vs reflective priming) in addition to the interaction there would be less room for doubt regarding the simple notion that intuitive thinking affects reported belief in God, and I can't stress enough that the interaction they found required the study to be designed with two possible outcomes to the written paragraph. The added variable made it more likely that they could obtain statistically significant difference of some kind between groups and use it to somehow support their causal hypothesis.

There's yet a third way to look at this in which you can see the way researchers interpret their results is just a bit deceptive, and this is in regard to something known as accepting or rejecting a null hypothesis. I know this might seem a bit confusing, but I didn't invent scientific research methods. The predicted outcome of an experiment is called the research (or alternative) hypothesis. A null hypothesis is the predicted outcome of an experiment stated in the opposite way. The wording of a null hypothesis is quite crucial. You risk a certain type of error if you reject a null hypothesis when you shouldn't (Type I Error), or if you don't reject a null hypothesis but you should have (Type II Error). The question is which null hypothesis do researchers have sufficient evidence to reject:

A. Priming intuitive thinking does not cause more (reported) belief in God.

B. Priming intutive thinking does not cause more (reported) belief in God if the outcome in the written paragraph used to prime intuition is positive.

Stated as plainly as it is, null hypothesis A says the independent variable, intuitive priming by itself, will not cause more reported belief in God. Null hypothesis B above is one that is conditional, i.e., it depends on more than just the independent variable of "intuition." Had this experiment found a statistically significant main effect for primed  intuitive cognitive style across both levels of this independent variable (positive or negative outcome), it would allow them to reject null hypothesis A. But because researchers found only a significant interaction with no main effect, this only allows for rejecting B. Because an interaction is one that relates to a conditional hypothesis that depends on the presence of more than one variable, the null needed to have been written as B above. Without having found a statistically significant main effect, rejecting null hypothesis A is an example of a Type I Error. The researchers undoubtedly think they have enough statistical power in their study to reject both A and B as null hypotheses not merely in terms of reported belief in God but in terms of belief in God itself. Much closer to the truth is that null hypothesis A is lacking in precise terminology and is far too vague to reject given the outcome of their experiment.

Remember this too: An experiment such as this is supposed to be an analog of how people think in the real world, and nobody is going about manipulating people's minds by telling them to write about the virtues of logical reasoning or intuition. The more the analog deviates from the real world the more ecological validity (how your experiment pertains to the real world) becomes a real issue. Beyond using the tool for manipulation found in the present experiment and its effect on reporting belief in God , it's still yet to be shown that when you simply "induce the mindset" of intuitive cognitive style it causes a person to believe in God.


Figure 1. The bar graph to the left is how researchers chose to depict results of Phase 3 in which there were no main effects between the two levels of independent variables (priming conditions and outcomes) on the dependent variable (reporting belief in God), but they did find an interaction between the so-called "primed" cognitive styles (intuitive or reflective) and the outcome of what participants had to write about (positive or negative). The choice of a bar graph allows researchers to emphasize what still looks like a large effect regarding how intuition apparently favors reported belief in God. A line graph (right) is what other researchers typically use to graph results when finding an interaction. Note how the line graph does not play up the differences between groups and in an unbiased manner emphasizes only what was found, which is a crossover interaction.

Looking at the chart they provide (Figure 1. left), for the dependent variable (in the form of asking participants to agree or disagree with the statement, "I have had experience that has convinced me that God exists") after priming intuition as a favorable outcome, 63% of the participants agreed, but that means 37% of these primed subjects still said they don't believe in God. There's no way of knowing if, despite randomization, this group just happened to have more individuals who believe in God, but if so the effect of priming still did not cause more than one third of the participants in this group to behave according to predictions. Do these 37% represent the exception to the rule for intuitive thinking supposedly causing belief in God? I know, the alternate interpretation is that the "mindset" of intuitive thinking wasn't reinforced enough for them, right?

In light of this hypothesis that a "divine cognition" is actually CAUSING belief in God ("...a causal relationship between cognitive style and belief in God, a relationship for which we tested experimentally in Study 3," as researchers say on p. 3), the chart indicates participants who wrote about reflective reasoning leading to a positive outcome (predicted to be turned into doubting Thomases) were not quite moved in the direction of denying belief in God by vindication of careful reflective reasoning. They didn't exactly act to "support" the research hypothesis or act in an opposite way compared to the subjects primed to favor intuitive thinking if almost 45% still agreed they're convinced God exists. Again, the alternative interpretation is that the mindset of reflective thinking just wasn't reinforced enough for them, and no doubt experimental conditions could be created (if not through priming certainly through operant conditioning) in which experimenters ram so much logical thinking into subjects brains it causes them to report God does not exist. Historically, torture has been shown to be very effective for getting individuals to recant their beliefs. 

However, it's questionable if the other group of interest--the participants who wrote about a reflective analytic type of strategy that led to a negative outcome--actually "vindicated intuition" because the process of writing about reflective reasoning is not necessarily the "opposite" of intuitive thinking (nor are the processes of intuitive thinking itself). Researchers have built this dichotomy of human cognition into all three phases of their study, but that doesn't mean subjects' cognition automatically conformed to this model in phase 3. I know it's hard to believe, but they just may have been thinking with the whole brain!

So then, how might we begin to explain why you find these results in Phase 3? Here's a quote from the instructions for participants assigned to write about an intuitive cognitive style (the so-called intuitive priming condition):

"Please write a paragraph (approximately 8–10 sentences) describing a time your intuition/first instinct led you in the right direction and resulted in a good outcome”  (p. 4).

"First instinct," which isn't quite the same to some people as "intuition," might have led some participants to write about being impulsive. To others, intuition means doing something as if natural instead of methodical. Still, others may have interpreted the instructions as pertaining to an act of morality. If the whole point was to prime subjects with a "mindset" of intuitive or reflective thinking mode, you don't quite know what exactly you primed for in the intuitive condition. More importantly, as I say above, a writing task that involves verbal skills still relies on logical reasoning and doesn't necessarily coax a person into an intuitive mode of thought. Yet, researchers uncritically assume (because of a fabricated dichotomy of cognition): If we're not priming for intuition we must be priming for analytical reasoning. If participants in the intuitive-positive outcome group were primed to be impulsive, they may have more hastily agreed they believe in God. The same is likely if the priming influenced these participants to think "right direction" and "good outcome" was associated with moral behavior. Subjects in the intuitive-negative outcome group were not instructed to focus on something "good," and this helped create the contrast you see between the two intuitive conditions that also had an impact on the final analysis of all conditions (a crossover interaction). If the other set of participants-- the primed "reflective" type-- had no such bias in play, this may explain why the reflective-negative outcome numbers didn't add up to more reported belief in God, which created a contrast with the reflective-positive outcome condition, and had an impact on the type of interaction effect as well.

Different forms of bias have been known to plague researchers in ensuring accuracy from survey results, there's something known as "response bias"  in which a person anticipates what researchers want them to say and say this instead of revealing their true beliefs. I can also tell you based on my own experiences both conducting research and from being a participant, in self reports and questionnaires people often try to think what is the "right" answer to a question. Even when there is no correct answer the answer that's "correct" is the one experimenters probably want me to provide. In Phase 3, subjects who wrote paragraphs about being a more "reflective" analytical type (with the good outcome) may have thought the "right" answer that experimenters wanted in reference to their faith was to say no to God. It's an example of response bias in the form of not wanting to admit they are believers (and it's suspect that nobody cares whether participants answered THIS question in a hasty "first instinct" manner). If subjects asked to write about intuition leading to a good outcome associated the instructions with being moral (read that quote again) their response bias may have been one in which because they were told to write a paragraph about moral behavior they thought the "correct" answer when asked about their faith was to say yes to God. You may believe I have no reason to suggest the above bias was working in favor of the hypothesis researchers were trying to support, but there's no check in place to see that the bias wasn't present, much like there's no check in place for being able to tell if what was being "primed" in this group was an intuitive cognitive style. In both cases, we simply don't know.

Before discussing the first phase of the Harvard report, I'd like to draw your attention to the first thing you see, which is the title of the study, "Divine Intuition: Cognitive Style Influences Belief in God." The authors could have created any title they wanted but instead decided to reveal a bias, which is in the form of putting under scrutiny only one side of the believer/non-believer dichotomy. Instead of calling the article something like, Atheist Reasoning: Cognitive Style Influences Disbelief in God, right in the actual title is the focus on how intuition--a notoriously faulty form of thinking to most scientists and logical thinkers--is supposedly linked specifically to believing there's a God. The strength of this claim regarding the internal validity of the study depends on how you operationalize "intuition, " and in phase one of the study what they call "intuition" is assumed to be one in the same as the thought pattern that leads to a mistake in logical reasoning.

News media and researcher distortion: Phase 1

Phase 1 of this research was a survey, not an experiment. In an online format, subjects were given a Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT) in which they were asked three questions intentionally designed to mislead people into making an error that required logical thinking to solve (math problems). Afterwards they were asked questions including if they've had an experience convincing them that God exists (as in Phase 3). Researchers then correlated the number of people who reported they believe there's a God with the number of questions they got wrong, i.e., defined as the answer that researchers assumed could only mean they answered the question in an intuitive manner. Again, the question is who is an intuitive thinker, who is a "reflective" analytical thinker, and who is more likely to say they believe in God. Questions were of this type:

Bill and Sally’s age totals 28 years. Bill is 20 years older than Sally. How old is Sally?

If you answered the question with 8, the researchers didn't just assume you made a mistake. You were placed into a category that assumes how you approach problems favors intuition over logical reasoning. To answer the question correctly required this form of logic: Sally's age is X. So,  28 = (X + 20) + X. When you solve for X you eventually get 2(X)= 8, and the answer is 4. Indeed, 24 plus 4 is 28. The researchers already knew that many people were likely to gloss over how the math problem says Bill is 20 years "older" than Sally, but what they don't say is that this ALSO leads to a form of logical thinking (20 + 8 = 28) but it gets you the wrong answer. What's questionable is that researchers insist this error in logic is the same thing as the indicator that a person has relied only on intuitive thinking.

There's something else I'd like to question:

"A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?"

In reporting this research, Yahoo News (under the outrageous title: Belief In God Boils Down To a Gut Feeling)  explains, "The intuitive answer to that question is 10 cents, since most people's first impulse is to knock $1 off the total. But people who use "reflective" reasoning to question their first impulse are more likely to get the correct answer: 5 cents."

How could anyone possibly know from the design of this study that those who got the correct answer are among those who "question their first impulse?" Researchers have created a dichotomy of cognition, and the purpose of the questions is to separate subjects into those who used one form of thinking (intuitive)or another (reflective). However, "reflective" in this case actually is the skill to use logical reasoning to solve the math problems and not necessarily dig deeper and think harder about the questions, as the chosen terminology suggests. When it comes to using logical reasoning or intuition in matters more diverse and complex than a math problem (such as belief in God) most people probably apply both. Still, the researchers claim:

"By intuitive judgments we mean judgments made with little effort based on automatic processes, and by reflective judgments we mean judgments in which the judge pauses to critically examine the dictates of her intuition(s), thus allowing for the possibility of a less-intuitive or counter-intuitive conclusion. Reflection is typically assumed to be more effortful than intuition..." (p.1)

Do you see how this explanation contains just a little hidden suggestion that people who say they believe in God will be predicted to also be people whose judgements are "made with little effort," as if sloppy thinkers in general? Gee, I guess it's not the researchers' fault. They only designed the experiment and it's "fair" use of words appraising the people predicted to be less likely to believe there's a God as making "reflective which the judge pauses to critically examine the dictates of her intuition." All this from answering a math test correctly?

The questions in the CRT were chosen because they typically mislead some people. Mathematically, in order for the bat and the ball to be $1.10 total the bat needs to be $1.05 and the ball needs to be $.05. However, the so-called "intuitive" thinkers may read the original question like this: If a bat and a ball both cost $1.10 in total, and the bat costs $1, how much did the ball cost? They are more likely to leave off the $1 "more" part of the information. But if you're the "reflective" (smarter) thinker you get the right answer because you weren't fooled by the question's misleading format. Once the data comes in, we take all the people who were fooled by the question and call them "intuitive" thinkers, call all the ones who got the correct answer "reflective" thinkers, and then when we correlate the results with reported belief in God, the people more likely to have gotten the wrong answer are the ones who agreed they believe in God. You may notice something a bit dubious here.

How do we know if any answer was the kind of quick hasty one that "intuition" apparently always manifests itself as? How come you can't say there were people who got the question wrong because they're poor readers? Why not careless? Uninterested? People who value working as quickly as possible (an important cultural value)? Why aren't they people who have trouble with math problems in general? Might they be easily intimidated? Phobic about math or statistics? No. None of these can apply because all subjects must be made to fit neatly into only one of two discrete categories: intuitive or reflective.

Why not call the "reflective" thinkers "mathematical" or "logical" or "analytical" thinkers? In contrast to "reflective," these other labels don't hint to an American audience that there might just be some advantage to being the type less likely to believe in God. These labels suggest a cold-hearted scientific type. This research is put out into the news media as supposedly results of an "objective" science but a much more objective science would be labeling the two groups Group A and Group B, which would allow the reader to decide what further labels they'd like to assign to each group given their performance on a math problem. The researchers can't go back and change those labels because they know that would weaken their (soon to become popular) underlying hypothesis, which is that the more "intuitive" your thinking style is, in contrast to a more "reflective" and logical form of reasoning, the more you will believe there's a God. The choice of labels is the confirming (more like condemning) evidence provided through the design of the research itself.

Figure 2.  Graph A (left) is the kind of Bar Graph researchers chose to depict results of Phase 1 in which a positive correlation was found between "intuitive" incorrect responses and reported belief in God, and the more intuitive incorrect answers the more reported belief in God. But notice how because the Y axis of the graph for the dependent variable begins with 30% it allows the bar for no incorrect intuitive responses to be only about a quarter as high as the bar that represents the most reported belief in God and the highest number of intuitive incorrect responses (3). This distorts the apparent difference between the groups in a deceptive way. It makes it easier to ignore that there's 30% more people than what's shown on the graph who had no intuitive type responses but still indicated they believe in God. Plus, the spacing of the percentage points on the Y axis are such that it makes only about a 20% change in reported belief in God between "reflectives" (0 intutive responses) and "intuitives" (3 intuitive responses) look like a very profound difference. The graph to the right is a more fair and objective depiction of the same results.

Let's consider the results from Phase 1. According to the chart (Figure 2.) with the focus on people who all agreed they've had an experience that's convinced them God exists, when you compare a) the number of people who had zero intuitive type answers (assumed to be the least intuitive thinkers) with b) the group in which all three questions were answered with intuitive responses (assumed to be the most intuitive thinkers), this number rises from about 38% to not higher than about 58%. That's only a 20% difference. Plus, in the group that indicated no intuitive thinking (assumed to be the most reflective thinkers), 38% still said they've had an experience that's convinced them God exists. In addition, as much as 42% of the people who said they don't believe in God still relied on intuitive thinking to answer the questions (i.e., 100% - 58% in the group with 3 intuitive responses)! So, even though the data allowed researchers to obtain statistically significant correlations between what they call intuitive cognition and belief in God, there were actually some important nonuniformities. I realize this is a moot point to both statisticians and the people who want to believe that as long as the correlation is significant there's no reason to consider inconsistencies in the results. I like to remind people it's not the data it's how you interpret it that often matters the most. You can't help but wonder why are these researchers skewing results from a correlational design in a causative direction when they say, "The effect was also robust" (p. 2) after they statistically controlled for other factors (age, income, conservatism, etc.). No matter how you fudge it, the design of Phase 1 does not allow for anyone to infer that people who use intuition to solve math problems also use intuition when it comes to belief in God and thus intuition causes belief in God.

In Summary (for those who ignore important details and cut to the chase):   

1. In general, researchers have constructed a dichotomy of cognition, intuition vs. logical reasoning, and in a biased manner suggest both levels of cognition apply equally to a) how to solve a math problem and b) how to respond to being asked whether or not God exists. They assume one or the other cognitive style is not merely linked to believing God exists but that it is the cause. However, intuition is not necessarily a "first instinct" approach when it comes to answering questions about God's existence, but it may make it more likely you incorrectly solve a math problem. Logical thinking might get you the correct answer on a math problem but have little to do with trying to understand if God exists.

2. In general, bias is present in the language and charts used throughout the research as well as in the title of the article itself to scrutinize how intuitive thinking is the cause of believing in God rather than presenting the research in terms of either how analytical thinking is the cause for a reluctance to believe God exists or in more neutral terms that don't emphasize a believer/nonbeliever dichotomy. This is employed to skew the reader's judgment in favor of the researchers' hypothesis regarding causality rather than providing a more objective presentation of the findings. 

3. In Phase 3, researchers only found statistically significant change in the dependent variable (reported belief in God) through interaction between the two independent variables (intuitive or reflective cognitive style vs. positive or negative outcomes), which was possible only because the variable of "outcome" was built into the experimental design. In support of the hypothesis that intuitive cognition causes belief in God (not merely reported belief), this type of causal evidence is less convincing than finding a significant main effect (for intuitive vs. reflective priming) in addition to an interaction. Yet, they confidently call their finding "support" of the hypothesis that intuitive thinking is not just linked in some way to reported belief in God; it actually causes more belief in God, and they say this based on one way to manipulate reported belief in an experiment that may have little to do with the real world.

4. Researchers equally reject the null hypothesis, "Priming intuitive thinking does not cause more (reported) belief in God," and the more precisely stated null hypothesis that should have pertained to the experiment in Phase 3, "Priming intutive thinking does not cause more (reported) belief in God if the outcome in the written paragraph used to prime intuition is positive." Having found a statistically significant interaction allows for rejection of the latter null but not the first. The wording of the first null hypothesis is too vague and overgeneralized to apply to this experiment. 

5. Questionable instructions. In Phase 3, there's no way to check if researchers are specifically priming intuition when participants are asked to write about a time that intuition/ first instincts led them in a "right direction" with a "good outcome."  Participants may have interpreted this in terms of morality, which may have led to response bias in the form of thinking when experimenters asked to say yes or no to the existence of God it was a matter of morality, and the "correct" answer was to say yes. Similarly, the association of the words "careful reasoning" in the reflective-positive outcome condition before being asked whether or not you believe in God may cause response bias in the form of being expected to hesitate, in which case the better answer is no. There's no way to know if the "effect" found in Phase 3 was the result of response bias.

6. In Phase 3, there's no way to know if experimenters were priming a) intuitive cognitive style, b) high appraisal of intuition, or c) neither of the two because a writing task still requires both verbal intellect and logical reasoning. They assume "a" with no check in place.

7. An ambiguous question. When someone agrees with the question, "I have had an experience that has convinced me God exists," does this indicate someone who a) has had the experience but no longer believes there's a God, b) has had the experience and still believes there's a God, or c) has had the experience but isn't quite sure whether there's a God? For the sake of gathering only the evidence that supports their hypothesis (intuition causes belief in God), researchers assume a "yes" to the question only indicates "b." Rather than use the clearly stated "I believe God exists" format, an ambiguously stated question provided them with ambiguous answers. Hence, they don't know what they are really measuring.

8. Confounding reported belief in God with actual belief in God. (It's interesting how I wasn't going to address this one because I thought it was so obvious. But then I started to read what other sources were saying about the research article and, once again, I can see it has to be made explicit). There is a world of difference between saying intuitive thinking causes reported belief in God and saying intuitive thinking causes belief in God. The dependent variable in Phase 3 (and in all phases) is a self reported belief in God. It is unknown who actually believes in God but said no, and who doesn't believe in God but said yes. Hence, we have empirical observations that pertain to a measure based on a self report at best assumed to be an accurate indicator of not only underlying belief, but enduring belief despite the possibility that priming may have only led to temporarily altering self reported belief in God. Despite this fact, what is the title of the journal article? Is it "Divine Intuition: Cognitive Style Influences Reported Belief in God" OR did researchers somehow manage to get away with the title, "Divine Intuition: Cognitive Style Influences Belief in God?"

9. Phase 1 of the study was a survey, not an experiment. Researchers found a significant correlation between getting an incorrect ("intuitive") answer on a math problem and reporting more belief in God, but there can be any number of third factors for the actual cause of this relationship. No matter how strong the correlation, the design of Phase 1 does not allow for anyone to infer that people who use intuition to solve math problems also use intuition when it comes to belief in God and thus intuition causes belief in God. Yet, the survey was used in this manner in support of the hypothesis that intuitive thinking is responsible for the belief in God (this includes in the abstract of the original report, which will be most widely read).

10. Overconfidently reporting the results of both Phase 1 and 3 of the study encouraged the news media's distortion of the actual findings. 

"Instead of calling the article something like, Atheist Reasoning: Cognitive Style Influences Disbelief in God, right in the actual title is the focus on how intuition--a notoriously faulty form of thinking to most scientists and logical thinkers--is supposedly linked specifically to believing there's a God."

The new "science" of faith?

I'm not certain about the research at hand, but I wouldn't be surprised if the field of cognitive psychology as applied to the study of faith is attracting atheists. It's already been said in different ways that science has been hijacked by an atheist's agenda. Written all over this study is the assertion that belief in God is something that is associated with a rash, illogical, and erroneous form of thinking. It reminds me of the early attempts to reify intelligence in accordance with IQ tests, which involved very questionable interpretations of research if not downright dishonesty and fabrication of "facts" (see Stephen Jay Gould's book The Mismeasure of Man).

The authors are dangerously close to compartmentalizing faith into the confines of the single cognitive process of intuitive thinking (and according to a "first instinct" definition of intuition). Given their two categorical labels, researchers are also assuming there's only two modes of thought: the quick and sloppy thinking of the intuitive type and the deeper more reflective type associated with getting the right answer to questions that involve logical reasoning. The cognitive processes associated with spirituality do not necessarily fall exclusively in either of the two (i.e., intuition or logical reasoning). Depending on the situation, an individual's conceptualization of spirituality can be a matter that is affected by accepting or rejecting cultural values because of the pressures of social integration. There are people who reject religious beliefs and confound them with belief in God. There are people who have unrealistic expectations about things like prayer. There are people who place themselves in circumstances in which logical thinking becomes paramount, and they get good at math because of what the environment demands no matter if they believe in God or not. Unlike the very determined perspective the study in question presents (i.e., intuitive thinking causes belief in God), whether or not a person leans toward relying on "intuition" or not in their belief in God is in a dynamic relationship with many other factors.

How could Phase 1 of the study have possibly been biased if they gave everyone the chance to get the "correct" answer? To get the correct answer was the basis on which groups were divided. In Yahoo News, much was made about the statistical analysis in which intuitive thinkers are 1.5 times more likely to say they believe in God compared to the "reflective" thinkers who answered the math problems correctly. The way Yahoo News sees it, if roughly 40% of the participants (actually closer to 38% as mentioned above) who got all three math problems correct ("reflectives") said they believe there's a God and this rises to roughly 60% for the participants who got no answers correct ("intuitives") it is indeed 1.5 times more. However, it's misleading in the direction that intuitive thinking is responsible for belief in God. We can also report from the same percentages by saying: Reflective thinkers were one-and-one half times more reluctant to believe in God. This does not mean all reflective thinkers said they do not believe in God. It means for every 10 people categorized as reflective thinkers who believe in God, there are 15 categorized as intuitive thinkers. Yahoo News took this article's information and proclaimed "Belief In God Boils Down To a Gut Feeling" when the results obtained from the online survey completed by 882 adults can't be generalized to the public and don't pertain to a cause and effect relationship (i.e., a "gut feeling" doesn't cause belief in God). 

It's almost hypocritical for a researcher to use the labels and the wording you find in this study and then claim (likely for the sake of public relations), " 'Intuitions are important and reflection is important, and you want some balance of the two. Where you are on that spectrum affects how you come out in terms of belief in God ' " (from the article "Try God" in the Harvard Gazette ). They do not have evidence that indicates when you are on the extreme intuitive end of their fabricated dichotomous spectrum you are likely to believe in God! Can't someone have "balance" between being intuitive and logical and still believe firmly that there's a God? Intuitions are "important" but not when it comes to solving a math problem! We don't need to do an experiment to know that logical reasoning can explain why many people deny there's a God. The "effect" researchers are really talking about pertains to the old hypothesis many atheists still hold, which is that people not smart enough when it comes to logical reasoning are also the people not smart enough to reject the notion that there is a God.

If there's one word I can't stand in American lexicon it's the use of the word "debunk." I admit I have highlighted exaggerated claims in the study above, but I am not trying to "debunk" the current research. I'm trying to set realistic limits in interpreting the research rather than run wild with overgeneralizations about a facet of human behavior. Being a critical thinker requires much more than reading and then summarizing what was written onto the page of a scientific research article like an intelligent parrot. We live at a time in which there is a general reluctance to remain aware of what limits there are to understanding ourselves through a scientific method while there's a general focus exclusively on what we believe are the benefits of this approach. It's a practice that doesn't simply use science as a tool. We construct a climate of scientism, and this leads to the abuse of scientific methods. There's more need now than ever before to be skeptical of research rather than accepting of it at the surface level, and this does not constitute the act of being close-minded.

I'm not saying faith is so mysterious that science can never understand anything about it. I'm saying science does little more for understanding faith or belief in God beyond an approach that tries to turn the world into one that is 100% logical. Scientism is the notion that all we can know about ourselves and the world must come from scientific methods and an empirical investigation, and this has become a cultural phenomenon pervasive in the USA. Whatever underlying atheistic agenda a psychology of faith may or may not have in uncovering the thinking processes of who is and who is not a true believer, you can bet as long as it's stamped with the scientific seal of approval the public is likely to be misled into believing it's God's honest truth.

© Peter Kurtiak, 2011. All rights reserved.

Monday, July 11, 2011


Defending the use of Antidepressants is More Biodeterminism

response to:
"In Defense of Antidepressants"

Of course, who else but a psychiatrist would write "in defense" of antidepressants?

First the doctor says, "Antidepressants work — ordinarily well, on a par with other medications doctors prescribe," but then he says, "BETTER-DESIGNED research may tell us whether there is a point on the continuum of mood disorder where antidepressants cease to work." Is his first claim really true? A study from January 2010 published in JAMA entitled "Antidepressant Drug Effects and Depression Severity: A Patient-Level Meta-analysis" already found, "True drug effects were nonexistent to negligible among depressed patients with mild, moderate and even severe baseline symptoms, whereas they were large for patients with very severe symptoms" (see ). My guess is the doctor's not convinced. No doubt the doctor's understanding of "BETTER DESIGNED" research on antidepressants is the type that are designed to keep underscoring only the positive attributes.

The above research suggests the largest population paying for their prescription drugs may indeed be getting no benefit from them. So why do psychiatrists like Peter Kramer keep tooting there are great benefits of antidepressants and prescibing them for just about ALL of their patients?

Apart from the sheer political powers of the pharmaceutical industry, which are shaping protocol for mental health professionals, it's because gone are the days when anyone cared about the stress diathesis model. We live at a time where biodeterminism has become the norm. Peter Kramer is a doctor of medicine who is part of a field making the half-truth basic assumption that first physiology changes and then a person gets a mood disorder. Pair this with the premise that psychiatric disorders "run in the family" because of genes and it supposedly explains depression from the only qualified perspective: a medical one.

Most people believe that in order to "cure" a person of something like depression you must alter brain physiology. Pharmacotherapy is then directly responsible for creating a chemical imbalance of its own in the brain, one that can be so severe that individuals taking antidepressants for extended periods get withdrawal upon trying to stop the drug, which can even be misunderstood as a relapse of the disorder. These drugs can induce suicidality and come with terrible side effects, perhaps most notorious is weight gain, sleep loss, even Parkinsons-like tremors. Meanwhile, there is no conclusive research indicating that when a person has a problem with depression this person has an "imbalance" of brain chemistry in the form of a neurotransmitter disease that disrupts the function of serotonin or norepinephrine or dopamine. In most cases, to suggest the cause of depression is mainly physiological is far too reductionistic.

While the "chemical imbalance" rhetoric continues to mislead the public in drug advertisements, I don't find it appropriate that doctors defend the kind of treatment that causes iatrogenic illness such as obesity or Parkinsonism. True treatments for depression are holistic approaches in which drugs do not get prescribed as the "treatment of choice" but only when absolutely no alternative is left.

Thursday, April 07, 2011


Scientists find a "link" between the alcohol consumption of a fly and a human being?

in ref to:
"Scientists find gene linked to alcohol consumption"

(Image at left taken from website of University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center Department of Psychiartry, also promoting plenty of biodeterminism, but what else would you expect?)

"The difference this particular gene makes is only small, but by finding it we've opened up a new area of research." No they haven't. Biodeterminism has been mainstreamed to the public for DECADES! Researchers have suggested for years that gene therapy of some kind will eventually stop people from drinking to the point of developing alcoholism--as if that's all it will take. This type of research has at its focus the notion that human behavior, in this case over-consumption of alcohol, can be controlled by a single gene. At the same time these researchers, along with the news media encouraging a biodeterministic understanding of human behavior, have the nerve to say, " 'Of course there are a lot of factors that affect how much alcohol a person drinks, '" they won't discuss any of them and instead shed light only in the direction of biodeterminism by adding the claim, " 'but we know...that genes play an important role.' " What "important" role exactly? Nobody really knows. Why? Because the findings are CORRELATIONAL, i.e., there's a "link" of some kind between people who drank less alcohol and this same group of people more likely having a specific gene. Was the gene only found in the group of people drinking less alcohol? No. Was the gene absent in the group of people that drank more alcohol? No. They found a statistically significant correlation between alcohol consumption and the presence of one gene, and it took tens of thousands of people to produce that correlation. Do we know that this one gene causes the regulation of alcohol consumption across species? No. Has this study really "opened up a new area of research" concerning alcoholism? Absolutely not.

But to add insult to further ignorance on the absurdity of one gene (the now so-called AUTS2 gene) playing such an "important" role when it comes to governing human behavior, they insist on generalizing not only from animal behavior to human behavior, but from the behavior of a FLY to human behavior! The news article reports:

"...researchers also looked at strains of mice that had been selectively bred according to how much alcohol they drink voluntarily, and found there were differences in the AUTS2 gene activity levels among different breeds.

In another part of the study using flies, the researchers found that blocking the effect of a fruit fly version of the same gene made the flies less sensitive to alcohol. This suggests AUTS2 seems to be involved in regulation of alcohol intake in a number of different species, they said."

In the real world, in contrast to a biodeterministic science, the research quoted in this article pertains to how a fly responds to alcohol consumption, NOT how does a fly become an alcoholic. Do I really need to go into a long convoluted scientific evaluation to show how the central nervous system (CNS) of a fly is radically different compared to a human being? It may be true that humans and flies share some of the same types of genes, as is the case with many organisms, but there are also some pretty profound differences. A fly did not have the evolution of a mammal. A fly does not have a neocortex--a unique part of the human brain responsible for complex thinking. A fly is not even a vertebrate! Just because humans and flies share some of the same genes we have no real reason to assume the nervous systems of the two organisms are structured the same, function similarly, are affected by the environment in the same way, have the same developmental stages, are capable of the same intelligence and learning, and the list goes on and on almost infinitely. A fly CAN be like a human being IF all you consider are the similarities. Biodetermists are ignoring the many differences between the two organisms because it ruins their reductionistic interpretation of behavior.

I've heard of a person being referred to as a "bar fly" before, but it is truly absurd to think that a fly and a human being share the same one lone gene that is deterministically controlling how much alcohol they routinely consume. This is a perfect example of bad science reported by the media to make it even worse. A public of uncritical thinkers will be encouraged to believe the all important element when it comes to human behavior is physiology in the form of DNA, and this does nothing more than breed biodeterminism. It's the kind of mad science that is truly destroying our understanding of human behavior.

Read more about what is biodeterminism:

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


The "Threatening Scent of Fertile Women?"

in ref to:
"The Threatening Scent of Fertile Women"

What about the threatening scent of biodeterminism? The lengths to which people unwittingly continue to keep biodeterminism alive, along with its notion that human behavior is mostly automatic and uncontrollable by the individual because of brain physiology, are truly staggering.

Here's a news article from the science section of the NY Times that tries to support the evolutionary perspective that there are BEHAVIORS hard-wired into the human DNA that are affected by factors such as: A)being in a heterosexual relationship or not, B) the fertile stage of a woman's menstrual cycle, and C) the extent to which someone views images of "attractive" members of the other sex. In each case, this article is assuming the research design effectively eliminates learning and cultural values as a variable and the only underlying mechanism to affect outcomes is physiological. This article is not simply reporting the outcome of research on human behavior; it is interpreting this research for the public in a perfect way to breed biodeterminism.

The first piece of scientific evidence mentioned is one in which there were two groups, single men and men in heterosexual relationships. They were asked to rate how attractive they found the 21-year-old female who was an accomplice in the study. Supposedly, she was "carefully trained not to flirt with anyone...and always wore jeans and a plain T-shirt." Such design elements do not necessarily make it impossible that she might have been attracted (and attractive) to certain single men--enough so that this group rated her more attractive in general. Do we really need to do a study that shows single men will find an anonymous woman to be more attractive compared to men already in relationships? Moreover, there's never a guarantee that the woman acted consistently while working on a task with certain men (in this case, Lego blocks) who were giving her subtle signs that they were single males interested in her. This study was designed to show that the woman's menstrual stage was the ONLY factor that unidirectionally caused single males to rate her higher in attractiveness compared to men already in relationships. Such evaluations ignore that human beings also mutually interact with each other on a conscious level and are not simply objects with brain chemistry.

The article continues regarding the main point, "...research had shown that a woman at the fertile stage of her menstrual cycle seems more attractive...only when this woman was rated by a man who wasn’t already involved with someone." The finding is based on an AVERAGE rating of all subjects who were single males and says nothing about males not in relationships who did NOT find the women attractive. The same is the case with men in relationships, i.e., because the rating is based on a group's average score, there may have been some males in relationships who rated the woman more attractive than men not in relationships despite her being in a specific term of her menstrual cycle. The scientific method being used here systematically eliminates individuality among subjects. Because statistically significant results are based on the average score of a group, you don't know to what extent the score of individual males may have varied. In the real world, who is this "average" male whose behavior is representative of the entire group's performance?

The science of evolutionary psychology is treating all human beings like we are each the same, mechanistic organism with little diversity among individuals who are supposedly bound by the same gene governing something like reproductive behavior. Hence, Dr. Martie Haselton, a psychologist at UCLA, might hastily conclude, "It makes it clear that we’re much more like other mammals than we thought,” but that's not really an honest scientific approach. The extent to which we focus on how much we are similar, in the absence of human individuality and diversity, the more we will all look the same. 

Another study is mentioned in which subjects who were again either single or in heterosexual relationships were shown images of attractive faces after being primed with words that would elicit sexual arousal ("The implicit cognition of relationship maintenance: Inattention to attractive alternatives," by Manner et al., 2008).  The news article suggests how striking it is that "...people who were already in relationships...looked away more quickly from the attractive faces." Why is this so surprising? Said the other way, it simply means the single individuals (perhaps being more lonely) were more interested and perhaps more sexually aroused by the priming. But in support of biodeterminism the news article claims, "The subliminal priming with words related to sex apparently activated some unconscious protective mechanism: Tempt me not! I see nothing! I see nothing!" This is wild speculation designed to get you to believe without any real evidence that something in the human brain acts like a hard-wired alarm system. The subjects of the study who were in relationships have no doubt learned about ethics and a cultural value that says when you're in a relationship it's supposed to be exclusive. There isn't necessarily any "unconscious protective mechanism" safeguarding their relationships. Isn't it plausible that maybe they were simply less interested and sexually satisfied enough given they are likely to be actively engaged in sex with a partner? There's no real reason to conclude they were suddenly thrown into some "protective mechanism" mode. The abstract of the study by Manner et al. refers to, "cognitive processes that help protect their relationship when faced with desirable relationship alternatives," but whether such processes occur automatically to some degree can be a function of learning as much as any biological hard-wired mechanism.

These are studies NOT being done to directly observe some physiological component that supposedly governs behavior. Still, researchers and news reporters claim there is some explanation for the behavior rooted in brain chemistry, and especially when reported to the public through the news, they read more like a circular argument than a science. From our understanding of biodeterminism we know that all behaviors have an associated physiological state. However, a person's brain chemistry is only a biological correlate of his or her behavior and not necessarily the cause. Human beings are complex organisms influenced by education, experiences, existential issues, ethics, spirituality, and cultural values. As reported by the NY Times, researchers of evolutionary psychology are apparently trying to say the only reason single men judge a woman to be more attractive when she is in her most fertile state is because men can apparently detect this state, as if she must give off a "scent" of some kind. Conversely, men in relationships detect this state and then don't judge the woman to be more attractive, but it's a leap of biodeterministic faith to say the reason for this is some kind of hard-wired relationship-protection mechanism. These men could simply hold their partners in high esteem, assuming good quality relationships, and if their eyes are already filled with love for a woman it does not have to be the work of some automatic bio-alarm mechanism of the brain for men who want to be exclusive to not have another woman tempting them.

How do males even know that a woman's fertility rate is at a peak? Apparently, "studies have found LARGE CHANGES [my emphasis] in cues and behavior when a woman is at this stage of peak fertility." What kind of research constitutes such "large" changes:

1. Lap dancers get much higher tips unless they’re taking birth-control pills that suppress ovulation.

2. The pitch of a woman’s voice rises.

3. Men rate a woman's body odor as more attractive and respond with higher levels of testosterone.

These might be interesting findings, but such research has serious limitations in generalizing to the whole human population. All women are not lap dancers. There is no standard pitch by which a female voice is deemed sexy (i.e., some men prefer a deep voice in a woman). If for some reason a woman's body has a more pleasurable scent to men during ovulation, it does not necessarily mean 1) this scent is a reliable indicater a woman is ovulating, 2) men are going to be more likely to want sex from the woman when this scent is detected, 3) a man will stray from one woman when this scent is detected in another woman, 4) a man will become sexually excited because of higher levels of testosterone (A high level of serum testosterone is also associated with becoming aggressive and competitive).

Research in evolutionary psychology often overlooks the LARGE CHANGE that occurs when moving from the internal validity of a study (including inferential statistics) to the external validity of a study (i.e., the science was sound when it came to what you studied but it may not have anything to do with the real world). What some researchers might want you to conclude is that nature is working in all of us through physiology to make us want sex or stay under control, as if we are just like all other mammals. In the real world, human behavior is not usually guided simply by physiology, albeit you will find plenty of people referring to the "chemistry" between lovers. This talk is partly the result of biodeterminism.  

Moreover, who is to say that something like the extent to which a man looks at an image of an attractive face presents an actual threat to a relationship? Outside the lab, where human behavior really counts (in case you've been fooled), to what extent is looking at images of the other sex really going to matter when a relationship between two human beings is affected by countless other variables? The whole evolutionary approach is trying to get people to focus only on how do human beings seem to behave in general, which amounts to a half truth because with this approach the variation of the behavior of individuals in the real world goes right out the door. The only "scent" in this article is the one that smells like biodeterminism--the one some researchers have a vested interest in without fully understanding the consequences for misleading the public that almost all human behavior is uncontrollably the result of brain physiology.

Look at the way Haselton from UCLA is quoted regarding the way women supposedly behave when they are at the peak of fertility within the menstrual cycle:

“ 'Women who are in steady relationships with men who are not very sexually attractive — those who lack the human equivalent of the peacock’s tail — suddenly start to notice other men and flirt...They are also more critical of their steady partners and feel less ‘one’ with them on those few days before ovulation. These women don’t show any shifts in feelings of commitment...They don’t want to leave their steady partners. They just want to look around at other men and consider them as alternative sex partners.' ”

Unless he's being misquoted, that's a HUGE overgeneralization regarding the behavior of all females in heterosexual relationships. Add to this the notion that it's all supposedly the result of female physiological state (i.e., hormones) during the menstrual cycle and it becomes even more questionable. I'll explain:

"Women who are in steady relationships with men who are not very sexually attractive...suddenly start to notice other men and flirt..."
--Only at THIS specific time do they notice that they have lesser attractive mates? ALL women in this group actually begin to "flirt" with other men, and "suddenly," as if the flirting automatically stops when the menstrual cycle stage changes? You mean when the women are not at the peak of fertility they are more satisfied being with their lesser attractive mates? More importantly, if human evolution is what is truly supporting the behavior of these women, then why are they even having relationships with lesser attractive males in the first place? Why aren't women typically dumping their lesser attractive male partners in favor of these attractive males when they're at the peak of fertility? Plus, what about women in heterosexual relationships who make the conscious decision to not have children? Are these women also helplessly bound to act out these same flirting behaviors all because of the menstrual cycle?

"They [women when at the peak of fertility within the menstrual cycle] are also more critical of their steady partners and feel less ‘one’ with them on those few days before ovulation."
--Even when they are already in relationships with the most attractive males out there? That would contradict the first claim. And feeling "less one" with your partner could not possibly happen on a reliable basis in all relationships only the days before the woman is ovulating, even from a perspective of human evolution. In fact, there's a classic evolutionary theory that woman want a man who can provide resources that will support having a family. When a woman finds such a man, we're now supposed to believe that she predictably wants to stray anyway during the days before ovulation? And for Haselton to claim, "These women don’t show any shifts in feelings of commitment," is a contradiction because if they are more critical and feel less at one with their partners for a few days that would qualify as a temporary shift. If only at this time of the menstrual cycle women want to supposedly "look around at other men and consider them as alternative sex partners," it says little about the women who are truly satisfied enough with their relationships that they would never do this (they do exist!). Are these women then to be considered "abnormal" when it comes to human behavior?

Yet, out of left field the news reporter concludes that what Haselton is saying "fits the 'good genes' evolutionary explanation for adultery: a quick fling with a good-looking guy can produce a child with better genes, who will therefore have a better chance of passing along the mother’s genes." If only all those good-looking guys had "better" genes simply because they are so darn good-looking! The "better" side of being good-looking, if it means more likely to reproduce, does not necessarily support human societies or evolution. Having affairs can more likely lead to just as much evil, heartache, and mental illness. And where's the data that indicates when a woman has a "quick fling" with a good-looking guy the baby automatically grows into a "good-looking" adult? Plus, the reporter's statement is yet another one explaining away the unethical behavior of adultery as one that is the result of human evolutionary theory and the notion that human beings are automatically acting in ways that only improve the gene pool, which is unfounded. We know that there are plenty of couples who are procreating way beyond what they are capable of supporting, and no matter how attractive the people within that overpopulation are, it does the exact opposite of supporting human evolution.

The article reminds us, "Natural selection favored those who stayed together long enough to raise children: the men and women who could sustain a relationship by keeping their partners happy." But then in favor of the notion that it's also because of NATURE people don't always stay monogamous the article adds, "They would have benefited from the virtue to remain faithful, or at least the wiliness to appear faithful while cheating discreetly." A benefit to cheat discreetly?--and in connection with natural selection? It's been the hallmark of evolutionary psychology to keep demonstrating that men want to procreate as far and wide as possible. There are people who keep using this kind of research to demonstrate whether it's simply the nature of human beings to be monogamous or not. But when it comes to the behavior of such a complex organism, knowing what "nature" is doesn't give a person a handy excuse for adultery. That might sound like moralizing, but it's really a perspective that's against biodeterminism. Moreover, a person's behavior is not entirely under the control of these principles considered to be connected to "natural selection." The term itself has come to suggest that we are all helpless organisms who can't do much more than succumb to impulses, drives, and automatic mechanisms that have been programmed into us for eons. Presumably, logical and moral thinking then run against the grain of our "true" nature, which is unfounded. 

It's sad to think another article depicts women as creatures helpless to the effects of their menstrual cycle. It's not simply "science" to suggest that married women and "good-looking" single men are just responding to some element of human evolution when they produce illegitimate offspring. It's biodeterminism, which is a form of scientism--a radical perspective that suggests our scientific method tells us all we need to know about human behavior. The conclusion from a biodeterministic perspective is always the same, i.e., we have no real control over what we do because our behavior is automatically being controlled by genetic programming. Some of us can smell the scent of a reductionistic explanation of human behavior.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


Newsman Mike Wallace Declares Depression is a "Medical Disease"

I saw a short infomercial on primetime CBS in which Mike Wallace tells the public depression is a "medical disease." What? Only in the rarest cases (e.g., condition of the thyroid gland in which thyroxine is deficient) has a biological etiology been established for symptoms of depression. Getting treated for clinical depression is one thing, but if depressive episodes were caused by a biological pathogen--the popular misnomer of a "chemical imbalance"-- meta-analyses done on talk therapy vs drugs (there have been several) would have shown that the effectiveness of talk therapy is zero, which is not the case. From the same studies, if depression was simply a "medical disease" then combining the two treatment modes would not be more effective than one or the other. Aside from any inherent flaws of the sacred meta-analysis itself (e.g., quality of the metadata), the DSM-IV still lists this condition as a psychological disorder--a matter of abnormal behavior and not a "medical disease." Moreover, despite FDA approval of anti-depressants for demonstrating more efficacy than placebo, there are still indicaters that anti-depressants may work with some people only because of the placebo effect (see here: ).

In truth, the real "medical disease" can be caused by the drug treatments used for depression. The "chemical imbalance" actually occurs when people take anti-depressants (e.g., serotonin remains in the synapse of neuron connections rather than re-uptaking). There is increasing evidence that upon stopping anti-depressants withdrawal symptoms are common. People who take several anti-depressants at the same time are at risk for a potentially lethal type of toxicity lightly labeled "serotonin syndrome." Drug treatments can lead to Parkinsonism, cognitive dysfunction, suicidality, weight gain, nervousness, agitation, and insomnia (all considered to be mere side effects by most professionals).

I'm always sorry to hear that anyone including Mike Wallace has suffered through clinical depression. He tells the public, "It [treatment likely in the form of an anti-depressant] worked for me," but it's particularly bad science to generalize from one case. However, It is yet another example of how biodeterminism is being spread in our culture. Do you think he's a paid spokesperson for the pharmaceutical industry?

If you want more references:

Very good article here:

Monday, September 10, 2007


Politicus Biodeterminus: The Absurdity of a "Conservative" Brain

On the eve of the sixth anniversary of 9/11 comes a new kind of political disaster--one of the most troubling examples of an already troubled nation's obsession with biodeterminism I have ever seen.

A study picked up by the American media (see below for reference) claims to have evidence that the brains of liberals and conservatives are "hardwired" differently when it comes to conflict monitoring and resolution. The news article title itself ("Homo politicus: brain function of liberal, conservatives differs") is immediately guilty of overgeneralizing because "brain function" is particularly vague and sounds all-inclusive.

What do researchers deem an adequate analog that has external validity outside the scope of the study applicable to the political issues harshly debated between liberals and conservatives?--no more than how much brain activity occurs in one small area of the brain when met with a task that challenges an established routine (in the current research, a task involved pressing a key when seeing an M appear on a computer monitor but not pressing the key if a W apppeared. There was one condition in which the M appeared 4 times more frequently than the W and in another condition the W appeared 4 times more frequently, which set up a routine and controlled for what effect the specific letters might be having on the task. As a group, the participants who identified themselves as liberals made fewer errors and had more brain activity in the region of the anterior cingulate cortex). The researchers then infer that such a circumstance in the lab has the same effect on your brain's mechanism for basic conflict resolution, such as having to change the way you would routinely drive home when you're met with road construction. In the end, the same brain mechanism is presumably so important for something like your ability to resolve the larger abstract and real world conflicts that are a part of a political orientation that it warrants media exposure of the results.

According to the results, it was "unmistakable" that the group identifying themselves as liberals showed greater neural activity according to electroencephalographs in a region of the brain thought to be associated with conflict monitoring when they had to break a routine, which can then be inferred to the whole population of liberals (bad science), and this explains why (i.e., the underlying cause) they resolve conflicts differently than conservatives?

What is much more unmistakable is that research of this type is consciously designed to try making a correlation between physiology and a characteristic such as political orientation a unidirectional cause and effect relationship. The biodeterministic chain of events goes like this: Genes cause the development of conflict monitoring mechanisms in your brain (which itself is not well established) and then this biological component is why you prefer a liberal or conservative type of conflict resolution (whatever that could possibly be in the real world). Let's not leave out the part of the causal chain in which the media gets a hold of this type of research and throws an already biased analysis so far out of whack that people begin wondering whose brain structure is "better" for conflict resolution--the stubborn and rigid conservative or the wishy-washy liberal--when brain structure is not the all important causal determinant for a person to adopt one political orientation over another. The public has already been told in so many ways it's "better" to be stubborn and rigid than wishy-washy.

Not even half of the people who went to the Internet on their Monday morning to see this article sitting there waiting to be read have the capacity to see the reductionistic interpretation of human behavior being presented. Moreover, it would never cross their minds that you can't simply seperate a political agenda from "scientific" research claiming you have "scientific" evidence that is simply the factual truth (i.e., the researchers chose to add to the body of research that keeps telling us how automatic behavior is).

If you do happen to have the capacity to understand science more than most people, keep in mind the following:

1. The study imposed order by forcing people to report their political orientation as one thing or the other- conservative or liberal. (There's no mention of moderates, independents, or any other political labels.)

2. Skeptics might also want to consider that nobody is demonstrating how first you develop a particular type of conflict resolution dependant on a brain mechanism and then you become either a liberal or a conservative, which would be crucial to actually demonstrate that physiology has the kind of power that some assume predetermines even your political orientation.

3. Unless everyone in each group performed exactly the same (highly unlikely), we have no way of knowing about any overlap in the two groups (i.e., was the brain activity of some conservatives less than what was observed with liberals and vice versa). We can only assume any overlap was not enough to prevent a statistically significant difference between the two groups.

4. To suggest that the evidence obtained by researchers in this study is relevant to "hardwiring" of the brain confounds how a person uses his or her brain with the actual physiological structure. The physiological structure of the brain is not automatically revealed by the way someone demonstrates thinking or behavior. In other words, two people can have the same basic brain physiology and still not USE their brains the same way based on many different factors. It's a trend toward biodeterminism that many scientists make this leap of faith.

I absolutely cannot believe that before the data is even gathered these researchers design studies specifically to support that activity of merely one region of the brain (in this case, the anterior cingulate cortex) is indicative of a person's conflict regulation (but may only be one small part of a complex system), that they authoritatively say "the neural mechanisms for conflict monitoring are formed early in childhood" (as if later education has no influence on decision making), that they measure the electrical activity of one small region of the brain and eventually (when they find only a correlation between whose brain showed more activity and what they indicated as political orientation) conclude that "genes provide the BLUEPRINT [my emphasis] for more liberal or conservative orientations." Then, just to be on the safe side to not make their preplanned agenda so obvious and not give away that we're heading back to the reductionistic age of the eugenics movement, they sneak in a sentence or a phrase like "but ...they [genes] are shaped substantially by one's environment over the course of development." Substantially enough to stop adding to the body of research that fosters biodeterminism?

Can't you see eugenicists of the future, armed with the data from the human genome project, trying to figure out how to breed out of the American population a "liberal" style of conflict resolution (again, whatever that could possibly be in the real world)? More people have got to see this is scientific thinking gone awry.

Your brain structure is a PHYSIOLOGICAL CORRELATE in relation to your behavior, and any state one region of your brain is in when you resolve a conflict is a PHYSIOLOGICAL CORRELATE and not necessarily the cause of how you resolve a conflict. There is a physiologically correlated state at ANY given time to your behavior. If there is anything that is rigid and stubborn in our society it is the conceptualization of human behavior as mechanistically bound to the result of research studies trying to show how physiology causes people to act a certain way. To conclude that your physiological state or genetic structure is bound by the underlying "blueprint" that has presumably predesigned (i.e., the cause of) your behavior when there are actually a multitude of factors both known and unknown that in some way influence something as complex as political orientation, your intelligence, how you resolve a conflict, and (most importantly) your development as a whole person is further evidence of the sheer biodeterminism that is ruining the field of psychology and our understanding of human behavior.

Read the article yourself by journalist, Marlowe Hood, "Homo politicus: brain function of liberals, conservatives differs" available here:

Edit: The above article was pulled from the U.S. Yahoo news (not suprisingly). You can see Google here:

also available here is another journalist's take on the research but is similarly supporting biodetermism:,0,5982337.story?coll=la-home-center

Tuesday, March 13, 2007


Of Mice and Memory But Still Biodetermism

Let's assume there is solid research that shows after mice exercise we find more blood flow to a region of their brain called the "dentate gyrus," which is also the name given to a similar region of the human brain associated with what's been called age-related memory loss that can start as early as middle age. The scientific study on mice has two groups: Group A exercises and Group B does not exercise. All other extraneous variables are kept consistent among the two groups of mice (such as food, living conditions, exposure to light and ability to sleep, etc.) so that we can confidently conclude the factors we are isolating are exercize (the independent variable) and brain cell growth (the dependant variable). Let's also assume we do a brain cell count and it turns out the group of mice that exercised had more brain cells compared to the other group. We conclude exercise must play some important role in developing "brainpower" for memory and learning.

Next, researchers move to the human cohort because they really care more about how learning and memory works with humans. They do a related study in which two groups of human subjects either exercise or don't exercise, but since we can't sample their brain tissue for a neuron count (still presently considered unethical thank God) we rely on our technology for indirect evidence of brain stimulation. Magnetic resonance imagery (MRI) reveals the part of the human brain we also call the "dentate gyrus" to be receiving more blood flow in the group that exercised compared to the group that did not, and this is right in line with our mice study. Time to hit the press and publish our study, and that's exactly what the National Academy of Sciences did. The public was informed here:
and here:

Both articles are entitled "Study Shows Why Exercise Boosts Brainpower." Curiously, no name of the journalist(s) is given.

A Case of Biodeterminism

Right from the onset of this article the journalist proclaims "Exercise boosts brainpower," which I would agree with to some degree, only HOW does this occur according to our biodeterministic writer?-- "by building new brain cells in a brain region linked with memory and memory loss." This statement assumes memory for humans is a simple matter of how many brain cells you have, which is utter nonsense. Memory is just as much a matter of how to retrieve the information as it is whether there are enough neurons in the brain to store it. Apparently, even the researchers optimistically conclude: "Our next step is to identify the exercise regimen that is most beneficial to improve cognition and reduce normal memory loss, so that physicians may be able to prescribe specific types of exercise to improve memory." Unbelievable.

Problem 1: Exercise increases blood flow to just about ALL regions of the body, not just the "dentate gyrus" in the brain. Increased blood flow to a region of the brain means this region is being used more than other regions, but the rest of the brain is still working in addition to the dentate gyrus.

Problem 2: No direct evidence of brain cell growth. Increased blood flow to any region of the brain does not necessarily mean more brain cell growth. You can't count brain cells using an MRI. However, the journalist writes, "They of course could not dissect the brains of people to see if new neurons grew, but they could use MRI to have a peek," which is pretty close to a lie misleading the public about what our magnetic imaging tests can and cannot do.

Problem 3: Although it may be tempting to do so because of the behavior of some people contributing to a "rat race" among humans, overgeneralizing from the cognition of mice to the cognition of human beings is generally very bad science.

Problem 4: The assumption that more brain cells = "smarter." You might as well assume a person who eats is smarter because you need food and the energy it provides to create new brain cells. Since when does the number of brain cells a person has indicate how well his or her memory works? There would obviously be a threshold at which not having enough brain cells impairs memory, but its not the typical case scenario as is being reported by this study and as evidenced by the participants who had no obvious brain impairment. What do the researchers actually find? According to the article, "Exercise generated blood flow to the dentate gyrus of the people, and the more fit a person got, the more blood flow the MRI detected." There's no brain cell counts and no memory or learning tests being given that shows one group outperforms the other. We are still in the region of pure biology here. As absurd as it may sound, nobody even tested the mice to see if after the exercise they became smarter in any way. Don't ask me what valid test of cognition you can give to a mouse, especially if you think it can be generalized to human cognition.

In case you can't see it, here's a hint of the underlying biodeterminism within the article typical of our culture: The assumption that the will to learn plays no role in learning for humans. Just think of the joy it would bring to Americans to be told all you need to do is exercize and you'll get "smarter." You can prevent age-related memory loss by exercising because your dentate gyrus will receive more blood flow than if you didn't exercise. Hurray.

Here's the blatant biodeterminism: What does the journalist want us to believe?--a new breakthrough in our science of cognitive psychology as it pertains to some relationship between brain cell growth, exercise, and learning. There is no real breakthrough.

Reality: What do we actually now know about human beings as it pertains to this study?--very little if anything at all, except of course a predictably growing trend toward biodetermism. Biodeterminists want learning and memory in humans to be that predictable and that automatic, and capitalists are ready to follow. I can't wait to see the TV commercials for the new drug Gyrutus that stimulates the dentate gyrus region of the brain giving you more brainpower to compete with the the other rats of the rat race. Side effects include making the pharmaceutical industry very wealthy. This is where our concept of learning is headed. Poor memory? Have you had your dentate gyrus examined?

Don't get me wrong. Exercise is important for many health-related reasons. But when it comes to the need for exercise to stimulate blood flow to the dentate gyrus? Don't get me started. It is getting increasingly more difficult in our society to understand human learning, memory, and behavior is not just a function of the brain. If this doesn't make sense to you, perhaps you need to understand how our culture of biodeterminism is reducing just about everything down to biological constituents.

Help stop biodeterminism by learning what it is! Read about it here:


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