Tag Archives: Science

Don’t Believe your Eyes

eyesToday I wanted to talk about perceptions. Not our feelings, but what we actually see, feel, smell, hear, and taste. That is, the “objective” inputs that drive our feelings. Should we really “only believe our eyes?

I think not.

In my book (see here) I talk about how we should be skeptical of our own memories and perceptions. Our memories are not recordings. They are docudrama recreations drawing upon various stock footage to put together a satisfying re-imagining. We remember going to the beach as a child. But in “recalling” details of that experience, we draw upon fragments from various sources to fill it in. The “slant” of that recreation is strongly dependent upon our current attitudes and biases. Our re-imagined, and often very distorted memory then reinforces what we believe to be a “vivid” recollection next time we recall it. Over time our “clear” memory can drift farther and farther from reality like a memory version of the “phone game.”

I contend that our brains work similarly with regard to our senses. We don’t see what we think we see. Our perceptions are filtered through our complex neural networks. It is a matched, filtered, processed, censored, and often highly biased version that we actually see, hear, or feel.

We know that our subconscious both filters out much of the information it receives, and adds in additional information as needed to create a sensible perception. I always favor a neural network model of brain function. As it relates to perception, our neural network receives a set of sensory data. It matches that data against known patterns and picks the closest match. It then presents our consciousness with a picture – not of the original data – but of that best-fit match. It leaves out “extraneous” information and may add in missing information to complete that expected picture. That is, we do not actually see, hear, smell, or taste a thing directly. We see, hear, smell, or taste a satisfying recreation that our network presents to us.

This should not be controversial, because we experience it all the time. Based on sparse information, we “see” fine detail in a low resolution computer icon that objectively is not there. We fail to see the gorilla inserted into the background because it is out of place. We are certain we see a witch or a vase in a silhouette, depending on our bias or our expectations at that moment.

But though this should be evident, we still do not take this imprecision seriously enough in evaluating the objectivity of our own memories or perceptions. We still mostly put near-absolute faith in our memories, and are generally even more certain of our perceptions. We believe that what we perceive is absolutely objective. Clearly, it is not.

In essence, what we believe we objectively recall, see, hear, or touch is not the thing itself, but a massaged recreation of our neural network match. The version we perceive can often be wrong in very important ways. Our perceptions are only as reliable as our neural networks. And some neural networks can be more compromised than others. We can recall or even perceive radically crazy things if our neural network has been trained to do so. I campaign against belief-based thinking of all sort because it seriously compromises these critical neural networks in crazy ways.

Even more unrecognized are the ways that this phenomenon is largely ignored as it impacts scientific research. Scientists often give far too much credence to reports of perceptions, often in extremely subtle ways.

As a simple illustration, consider how we often mock wine connoisseurs who claim to taste differences in wines but cannot pick these out in blinded studies. However, consider the confounding impact of their (and our) neural networks in even this simple case. When experiencing a wine, all the associated data is fed into the drinker’s neural network. It makes a match and then presents that match to the consciousness. Therefore, if the network does not “see” one critical factor, say color, it matches to white, not red, and presents and entirely different taste pattern the the drinker, ignoring some “extraneous” flavors and adding some other “missing” ones.

These same kinds of neural network matching errors can, and I have to assume often do, confound even more rigorous scientific studies. And they are further confounded by the fact that these mismatches are typically temporary. With every new set of data, our neural networks adjust themselves, the weightings change, to yield different results. The effect of a drug or placebo, for example, may change over time. If scientists see this, they typically look exclusively for other physiological causes. But it may be a neural network correction.

That is why I always admonish my readers to stick with inputs that will strengthen your neural networks toward sound objectivity rather than allow them to be weighted toward the rationalization of, and perception of, beliefs and nonsense. But since none of us can ever have perfect networks, or even know how accurate ours performs in any given match, we all need a healthy amount of skepticism, even with regard to our own memories and perceptions.

I further urge scientists to at least consider the impact of neural network pre-processing on your studies, and to develop methodologies to explicitly detect and correct for such biases.

 

Atheism Still Matters

SaveThePlanetWe live in a period of grave social challenges. A woman’s right to choose is under serious assault. No haven seems safe from deadly outbreaks of gun violence. Our core institutions of democracy and social justice are being misused or methodically dismantled by self-serving leaders. And while there is so much demanding our immediate attention, looming above it all is our inexorable march toward catastrophic upheaval brought on by global climate change.

In the face of all that, it seems kind of silly to fuss about whether someone believes in god or not. Individually and collectively, don’t we have far more important things to worry about than some philosophical argument over purely personal beliefs?

Besides, the atheist movement has achieved their goals, right? Atheists are out of the closet. They can host talk shows on HBO after all. Religion is on the decline. So let’s move on already! Maybe the atheist movement should just wind down gracefully instead of clinging to their increasingly obsolete and unnecessary cause. Declining numbers of attendees at atheist events suggests that even among hardcore atheists, other priorities are taking precedence and passion is waning.

It’s unfortunate that energy for atheism as a cause is being diverted,  because here’s the thing. Religion is not actually in any danger of disappearing. Organized religion may also be in decline, at least for now, but “disorganized” belief-based thinking in the form of New Age and more recently Post Fact worldviews are very much on the rise. And despite their declining numbers, the influence of organized religion is nevertheless still growing. Our separation of church and state is as besieged as ever and atheists are still reviled and grossly underrepresented at all levels of leadership.

So the atheist movement is definitely not obsolete. On the contrary, it is needed more desperately today than ever. It is needed because at their core atheists are simply people with a deep respect for facts and reason and humanist ethics. Make no mistake, we atheists are not activists just because we want others to acknowledge that god is merely a silly fantasy. We atheists are activists because we care deeply about truth and facts and reality. We are atheist activists because we care deeply about bronze-age myths driving our public policies and infiltrating our educational systems.

And we are atheists because we understand that belief-based thinking can only compromise and harm the critical rational faculties that we desperately need to solve the urgent problems confronting us in our modern world. We atheists understand that “harmless” beliefs prepare people to be receptive and vulnerable to post-truth, post-factual, and even post-reality arguments. We know that belief-based arguments and false claims of factual equivalence generally serve only to manipulate people to act and to vote contrary to facts and reason and therefore against their own self-interest.

We atheists understand that you can chop at weeds as much as you like and they will just keep popping up. To eradicate harmful belief-based rationalizations, you have to pluck out the roots. It is those deep, insidious, roots of belief that atheism fights against. Religious conditioning to accommodate irrational belief prepares people to rationalize inaction on climate change, for example, or to accept fallacious logic and fantastical authority in supporting guns or racism or the restriction women’s rights. And that is why belief in god or the denial of evolution are legitimate litmus tests of our capacity for sound thinking, both individually and as a society.

Therefore, if you care about making making sane, fact-based, ethical decisions regarding women’s rights, or gun violence, or climate change, or anything else – you should care about atheism as well.  Pick another cause and champion it. But also support atheism because it strives to erode the foundation of belief-based, irrational, and dogmatic thinking that probably supports and enables whatever injustice you are fighting against.

Whether you are fully atheist or not, whether you are agnostic, or have no opinion, or are a None, even if you are an Evangelical or a Muslim, you don’t have to fully deny the existence of god to join us in solidarity for facts, for reason, and in promoting ethical and socially conscious humanist values. Whatever your cause, if you are battling against belief and manipulation, atheists are probably your allies. And regardless of whether you believe the universe was created in seven days, you can still join us in wonder and appreciation of our natural universe as revealed by science.

So even as you fight your day-to-day battles, join with us atheists and support us in our still essential movement to combat the belief-based thinking that probably underpins the social wars you are waging. Join us to support and encourage the humanist, fact-based solutions that will move us forward with reason and compassion and sanity.

 

You can read my other blog articles on atheism by clicking on the “Atheism” category on the right side of this screen and scrolling down through them. Or you can type in a keyword and search, try “Ken Ham” for example.

I have also written about these topics and much more in my book, Belief in Science and the Science of Belief. If you’d like a little more meat but aren’t big on reading, check out my short video called Factuality for the Cliff Notes version.

 

The Multiverse is Bigger than God

MultiverseOur gods used to be gods of specific things; the sky, the sea, war, love. Then God took over and became the god of everything. But our understanding of “everything” keeps expanding, and as it does, our fanciful notion of God has to expand along with it to remain ever beyond the limits of mere science.

The visible horizon of our observable universe is 46.5 billion light years away in any direction. That is an immense distance, and this visible sphere around us contains about 100 billion galaxies, each with perhaps 100 billion stars. Our God of everything created all that too, presumably just for us to look at.

But wait, there’s more, much more. Today we understand that our universe is almost certainly unimaginably larger than that which we can observe. It is perhaps 100 billion trillion times larger than our observable universe. That makes what we can see just the tiniest mote of dust in our greater universe. In our observable universe we can look into the sky and at least see what happened in the distant past. We can not even see out into the darkness beyond that. But since it apparently exists, believers have no choice except to inflate God once more. God presumably created all that inaccessible space beyond the horizon as well, and just for us.

It gets better. Now we are beginning to understand that God apparently created an infinite multiverse just for us as well. I first recall being fascinated by the idea of multiple universes in 1966 when Mr. Spock met Captain Kirk’s evil counterpart from an alternate universe (see here). But just as Star Trek communicators became everyday reality, the science fiction of multiple universes has become legitimate science.

There are many forms that the multiverse may take, but for now let it suffice to think of an infinite number of universes just like ours, maybe isolated in pockets of space, maybe superimposed upon each other, maybe both. Their infinity extends through both time and space. This infinite multiverse is not static. In it (if the word “in” even applies to an infinite space) universes appear, grow old, and die. Each is born with a particular set of fundamental parameters. Only a relatively tiny (but still infinite) fraction have parameters in the “Goldilocks” range that allow organized structures. In a tiny fraction of those, life is possible. The rest are stillborn or survive for a short while as unsustainable regions of chaos.

How can it get more mind-blowing? Well it is an inescapable logical conclusion is that in an infinite multiverse everything that could possibly happen must happen. For example, there must be a universe in which every possible variation of our own exists, in fact there must be an infinite number of each possible variation – infinite numbers of each of us.

Whatever form it takes, we become even more insignificant within the time-space grandeur of the multiverse. So our notion of God must once again expand dramatically to exceed even the non-existent bounds of an already infinite multiverse in order to remain the unbounded God of all things. And of course God created that infinite multiverse, so far beyond our ability to grasp let alone interact with, just for we infinitesimal humans.

I talk about god here knowing full well that it is of course completely silly to do so. I might as well talk about the how our notion of Santa Claus must expand to encompass the belief that he has to deliver Christmas presents to all children in the multiverse on one night. Yet, unfortunately we do focus our attention on our fantasy of god whenever these cosmological discussions take place.

Some “religious scholars” try desperately to keep god relevant in the face of our growing awareness by arguing that in a multiverse in which all things are possible, god must exist somewhere. In an otherwise decent article author Mark Vernon (see here), perpetuates this fallacy by repeating that since “everything is possible somewhere … it would have to conclude that God exists in some universes.

This will certainly keep getting repeated but it is simply not a correct interpretation of the science to say that in a multiverse “everything is possible.” This is a perversion of the correct formulation which is “everything possible must happen.” These are completely different ideas. Any particular universe is still governed by its own physics and there is a limit to the possible physics of any given universe. Impossible things, like gods and ghosts, can not happen in any universe.

And even if some universe had some being approaching a god, it would still not be an omnipotent god of everything and it would certainly not be our god. Therefore I am not sure how claiming that a God exists in some other universe does anything but admit that one does not exist in our own.

So what is the most rational of the possible irrational responses for someone clinging to their belief in god in the face of a multiverse? The best would be simply to claim that god created the multiverse and not even try to invoke any pseudo-scientific arguments. As you always have, just keep expanding your definition of god to supersede whatever new boundaries science reveals.

But really, adding God to the multiverse is simply adding fake infinity on top of real infinity. Like infinity plus infinity, the extra infinity is entirely superfluous and unnecessary. And what does it add to place God beyond infinity? It only replaces the insistence that something had to create the multiverse with an acceptance that nothing had to create God. It’s silly, especially given the fact that our limited concept of “before” has little relevance in an infinite multiverse.

Better yet would be to finally give in and acknowledge that the multiverse has rendered your god small and insignificant and kind of pathetic. God is like a quaint old Vaudeville act that can no longer compete with huge 3-D superhero blockbusters, and looks silly trying. Back in the day, it might have been an understandable conceit to believe that God created the Earth just for us… or even maybe the solar system. But the level of conceit required to believe that some God created the entire multiverse just for us is wildly absurd. The idea that such a God would be focused on us is insanely narcissistic.

The multiverse forces God to grow SO large, that it swells him far beyond any relevance to us or us to him.

So abandon your increasingly simplistic idea of god and find comfort, wonder, and inspiration in our incredible multiverse. You do not need to feel increasingly insignificant and worthless in this expanding multiverse. You don’t need God to give you a phony feeling of significance and meaning within it. All it takes is the flip of a mental soft-switch and you can find comfort and wonder and meaning in our amazing multiverse. It’s all just in your head after all.

I do not share the pessimism of some that we can never “see” or understand the multiverse. My working assumption is that even the greater multiverse is our cosmos, that it is knowable. If we survive Climate Change, we may eventually understand it more fully through indirect observations or through the magical lens of mathematics. Until then, if you are intrigued and stimulated by these real possibilities, I highly recommend that you read the excellent overview article by Robert Lawrence Kuhn (see here).

Atheists Can Be Deluded Too

rollAs webmaster for New York City Atheists (see here), I recently found myself on a mailing list for a man named Michael Roll, pictured right. While he considers himself an atheist, Mr. Roll is also a self-professed spiritualist who has undertaken a personal mission to sell his particular fantasy as a non-religious, science-based idea. Since the 1960’s his “campaign for philosophical freedom” (see here) has tried to promote his spiritualist delusions.

Following are just a few of the ideas that he puts forth with great intellectual soberness and gravitas:

  • There is no god, but there is an afterlife that is part of the natural world. This spirit world exists on a “different frequency” and accounts for the unaccounted 95% of the energy in our universe.
  • While the religious beliefs of others are nonsense, his essentially identical beliefs are based on “experiments and mathematical models.”
  • His evidence is largely based on the “research” conducted by Sir William Crooks between 1871 and 1874. Crooks observed the manifestations produced by several “materialism mediums” which he claimed proved the existence of a vast afterlife (see here).
  • The media is in cahoots with the Vatican in a conspiracy to discredit legitimate science on the paranormal including work linking subatomic physics with the afterlife (see here).
  • According to Roll “famous television scientist Professor Brian Cox […] is let loose on the public because his false model of the universe is no danger to the Vatican and their powerful materialistic agents.
  • Roll also states “2018 could just be the year that a few billion people will find out that the great philosopher Jesus started from the correct scientific base that we all have a soul that separates from the dead physical body. But most important of all, that Einstein started from the incorrect scientific base that the mind dies with the brain.

I am not going to waste any of your time refuting all of Roll’s clearly delusional fantasies, any more than I would waste your time refuting the Narnia-really-exists theory. Here is a video in which you can hear his “logic” directly from him (video here). It particularly saddens me that Roll appears to be a student of Carl Sagan and quotes him extensively, yet manages to do so in a way that is a blasphemy to everything Dr. Sagan stood for (see here).

What interests me more than debunking this one clearly delusional individual is the more general observation that atheists are not immune to magical thinking. While atheists may not believe in god, they may certainly believe in lots of other equally nonsensical ideas. Just calling oneself an atheist does not immunize one from delusions. Michael Roll’s secular form of rationalizing his magical thinking with “logic” is no different than the “logic” put forth by Ken Ham to rationalize his biblical fantasy (see here).

Atheist delusions can be unique to an individual, but are more often propagated by non-religious movements and fads. Spiritualism and New Age thinking are examples of non-religious structures of fantastical delusions about the world.

Even smart, logical, sophisticated thinkers are not insulated from spiritual delusion. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the brilliant creator of the paragon of rational thought, Sherlock Holmes, was another passionate proponent of spiritualism. He clung to his belief, even after Houdini proved to him that his magic tricks were merely tricks. Even after that irrefutable evidence, Doyle refused to be swayed from his insistence that they proved spiritualism was real (see here).

That these kind of spiritual belief systems can so compromise the thinking of one such as Conan Doyle demonstrates that they are both highly seductive and tenacious. Many of my atheist friends do not share my concern about these non-religious movements because they do not have the institutional power of an organized church behind them. Fair enough. However, they still contribute significantly to a culture in which magical thinking is encouraged and rational thought diminished. They legitimize and normalize public debate on important matters in which “alternative facts” are even entertained.

I argue that while misguided atheists like Michael Roll claim not to believe in god, their belief in essentially the same kind of pseudoscientific thinking supports faith-based thinking in all its forms. To attempt to use phony science fiction to rationalize a delusion does not make it less harmful than a purely religious belief. Indeed, the false invocation of the facade of science may in fact make the delusion far more harmful and damaging.

In my book “The Science of Belief,” (see here), I tried hard to not focus too much on religious thinking specifically, but on all non-fact based thinking in general. My thesis was that we cannot successfully attack religion or other secular forms of magical thinking directly. Rather we must teach real, authentic scientific ways of thinking and approaching the unknown. If we succeed at that, religion and spiritualism will crumble away to dust on their own.

Swarm Stupidity in Humans

swarmI am eternally fascinated by swarm intelligence and emergent behaviors. These terms describe the phenomenon by which individual organisms, following only simple local logic without any wider intent or awareness, contribute to highly complex and far-reaching behaviors that “emerge” or arise out of their collective activity.

The most observable examples include bird flocking, animal herding, fish schooling, bacterial growth, and ant colonies. Ants, as the most dramatic example, collectively create extremely complex bridges and nests, even though no particular individual organizes that activity or is even aware of it.

The amazingly complex creations of ants emerge from very simple individual logic such as “if another ant is on top of me, stop moving.” From this kind of deceptively simple behavior, ants collectively exhibit astounding feats of mass migration, swarming, tactical warfare, nest construction, and engineering. If however, a significant number of ants were to abandon their “belief” that it is their responsibility to hold still while another ant is felt upon their back, then their ability to create bridges and nests could collapse, and perhaps their species would as well.

What intrigues me most about this sort of swarm intelligence is the intriguing certainty that we humans collectively exhibit our own highly complex emergent behaviors. Even though none of us intend it, each of us nevertheless contributes to the emergent behaviors of our collective population, just as if we were merely cells in some greater human super-organism.

Therefore, the basic rules of logic that we live by as individuals likely do contribute rather more directly than we imagine to the large scale behavior of our species. For example, if we base our everyday logic on the assumption that god does or does not exist, we profoundly alter our collective behavior accordingly. Belief is not then merely some personal thing. It has profound consequence. Religious believers intrinsically know this to be true, that their belief fundamentally shapes the world we live in, and that is why it is so important to them to internalize, express, and evangelize it.

While Christians inherently believe that their religion produces what they feel are desirable emergent behaviors, many atheists conclude that they are wrong. We conclude rather that a personal religious worldview results in highly damaging emergent behaviors like bigotry and intolerance, gullibility, susceptibility to manipulation, disregard for the planet, and even warfare. We conclude that a personal belief in god is, in significant part at least, responsible for swarm behaviors like gun violence, terrorism, torture (see here), and jihad.

Therefore, we atheists should trust that there are no “benign” religious beliefs. We should never doubt that our simple rule of logic, that we believe in facts and reason not in gods, serves our species far better moving forward. We must trust that our personal atheist thinking, when expressed through a sufficiently large number of individuals, will indeed result in emergent behaviors that are more ethical than dogmatic, more fact than fantasy based, and more focused on our lives and our planet right now rather than life ever after. We must trust that atheism will better give rise to the more enlightened swarm intelligence that we so desperately need if we are to survive as a species.

Religion is a prime example of “swarm stupidity” in humans.

 

 

 

 

 

Data, Data Everywhere…

In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge lamented “Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” There seems to be no better way to describe our situation today with regard to information. We sail upon a vast ocean of data and yet we die of thirst. Indeed, we are too often deluged by great waves of facts that batter us relentlessly to and fro upon treacherous seas of data.

It feels particularly disconcerting for me to write this article. In my book, Belief in Science and the Science of Belief (see here), I promote the importance of elevating facts above beliefs. After all, facts should reflect reality. They should be the basis upon which truth is known. Today however, data seems to be used far more effectively to support beliefs, fantasies, and lies than it is used to reveal truths. Indeed, those who wish to sell us nonsense don’t often bother to invoke the bible or faith anymore – they invoke their own “facts” instead.

One reason that facts have become the new champions of beliefs and cons is the sheer amount of it. We now have so much data that one can mine anything they want from the endless mountains of the stuff that we have produced. Misrepresented facts can now be dredged up to fabricate lies far easier than spinning magical stories of gods and devils.

Nowhere is this new perversion of facts more true than in politics. Today politicians like Donald Trump incessantly cite completely misleading facts to support their beliefs and positions and to outright lie. Even if the majority of people do not believe their “trumped up” facts, they nevertheless conclude that all facts are suspect and that no facts can be trusted. This tangibly undermines the level of rational thinking of our entire culture and leaves us without any sound basis for making good decisions as a society.

In his excellent Op-Ed (see here), William Davies points out that “they [facts] seem to be losing their ability to support consensus.” According to Davies, there is clear agreement that “We have entered an age of post-truth politics.” This new age of bullshit is fueled not by assertions of faith, but by assertions of facts. As Davies further points out, “Rather than sit coolly outside the fray of political argument, facts are now one of the main rhetorical weapons within it.

So facts have become the new bullshit. We claim to care about facts, but only because, as with the bible, we can always find something in them to support our beliefs and prejudices and self-interest. Our abundance of data seems to be only serving to diminish and undervalue it; to make it increasingly vulnerable to manipulation, misrepresentation, and lies by half-truth. The sheer volume of it makes it far more difficult to say anything with certainty without some other bit of data seeming to contradict it.

And this perversion and misuse of facts is not just true in politics but has become the new normal in all walks of life. All too often journalists and pundits do not pursue facts to reveal truth, but rather invoke them to advocate for opposing sides of an issue. This makes great theatre, but does little to advance the important questions that we face. It instigates and perpetuates conflict rather than help reach a sound fact-based consensus.

Even scientists, our gatekeepers and guardians of fact, all too often emphasize only those facts that advocate for their positions rather than serving the far greater goal of advancing science as a quest for truth.

Abandoning facts is simply not an option. Allowing the manipulators to turn all fact-based thinking into rationalization games and data manipulation exercises is not an option because without sound facts good decisions simply cannot be made. If we allow facts to be coopted by magical thinkers, by self-serving politicians, or even by well-meaning advocates, we might as well put the psychic hotline staff in charge of our fates.

What is the answer? We must reclaim facts. We must become smarter consumers of facts who are no more likely to be fooled by the bogus facts cited by manipulative politicians or corporations any more than we are by laughably ambiguous bible citations and interpretations. We must learn to recognize valid data and sound conclusions amidst all the cherry-picking and false claims. We must learn to treasure and respect fairly presented facts as diamonds amongst all the heaps of rubble and fool’s gold that we have to sift through every day.

Our overabundance of data should make us value – and demand – sound analysis and conclusions based on that data all that much more.

 

Studies Show That…

One of the most compelling arguments in support of religion is the totally pragmatic one. What does it matter if religion is false, if god is totally made up, if faith is only a placebo effect, or even if it’s all ultimately just a scam to separate you from your hard-earned money? In the end isn’t all that matters that it makes you happier and more successful?

Reporters and opinion writers propagate this pragmatic justification of religion every day. It is actually difficult to get through any newspaper issue without encountering yet another article or op-ed touting the benefits of religion and faith. Here is an example of the typical kind of happiness claims put out there most every day in popular media:

Research suggests that children who attend church perform better in school, divorce less as adults and commit fewer crimes. Regular church attendees even exhibit less racial prejudice than their nonreligious peers. (see here).

happinessThese articles invariably cite scientific studies and statistics to support their claims. But those claims frequently go far beyond study design or the conclusions made by the scientists involved.

There are many ways that studies are misused by advocates to advance their causes or market their products. So we must all be very savvy when we see broad, sweeping conclusions being supported by narrow scientific studies, particularly by social science studies.

To help you to recognize these manipulations, following are some of the typical falsehoods and distortions used by advocates to misrepresent science or to promote bad science.

Failing to Mention the Negatives
Studies show that chocolate supplies 11 grams of fiber! Wow, maybe we should all eat chocolate to get our fiber! But to get that 11 grams of fiber from chocolate you have to consume a whopping 600 calories. Likewise, studies tout selected admirable ethical qualities of religious people, but fail to mention other studies that show, for example, that religious people are far more likely to support torture, guns, violence, and drone attacks.

Failing to Mention Better Alternatives
Another way advocates misuse studies is by failing to mention far better alternatives. For example, the chocolate industry fails to mention that practically any fruit, vegetable, or grain is a far healthier source of fiber. That may not be their responsibility, but if they are implying that you should eat chocolate in order to get your fiber, they are lying. Likewise, advocates often tout the morality of religious people, implying that religion is the only way to achieve these values. But you don’t need to consume 600 calories to get your fiber and you do not need religion along with all its negative characteristics to be a good person.

Failing to Quantify the Benefits
Advocates will often claim a benefit without quantifying it, thereby giving a false impression of how important it is. For example, religion advocates may cite studies showing that fewer religious people go to prison, without mentioning that this difference is inconsequentially tiny.

Misrepresenting Statistics
Advocates often misrepresent statistics. If they are trying to magnify a small difference they report it as a percentage or ratio. If they are trying to exaggerate a tiny difference in a huge population, they cite the numerical difference.  For example, religion advocates might claim that “secular people are twice as likely to commit suicide as religious ones.” Sounds fantastic right? But this could very well mean that out of a population of 10,000 people, 1 religious person committed suicide and 2 non-religious people committed suicide. Not quite as alarmingly persuasive when presented that way.

Using Bad Indicators
In epidemiology, an indicator is a specific test that can be used to measure a more general condition. But a bad indicator tells one little or nothing about the general trait being evaluated. For example, religious advocates typically conclude that believers are “happier” based upon highly questionable measurements such as divorce rate which have little to do with happiness. As we all know, married people can be far more miserable than divorced ones.

Failing to Prove Causation
Most clinical studies are observational, or association studies. That is, they simply show that two variables are both observed in or associated with a given population. This is valuable information. But proving that those two variables are directly related to each other is quite difficult. Proving causality between one and the other is even more difficult. Even if two things seem to be related, they may be indirectly associated through some third thing called a confounding factor. For example, a study may show that church-goers cheat less on their spouses. That is merely an association. But advocates use that observed association to claim that church attendance promotes ethical behavior even though the researchers themselves never made that claim. However, it may well be that church attendance and marital fidelity are not directly related at all, let alone that church attendance causes fidelity as advocates claim. The most we could say based on the research is that, for whatever reason, people who go to church are also more likely to be people who have fewer affairs. Maybe the reality is that unattractive people tend to go to church in a desperate and futile attempt to start an affair. Attractiveness may the just one confounding factor here. That we cannot determine or even imagine what the confounding factors may be is not proof of causality.

Failing to Consider Reporting Bias
Many of the narrow social studies used to make sweeping claims rely upon self-reporting. However, self-reporting is incredibly unreliable. People intentionally or unintentionally report all kinds of things in all kinds of ways for all kinds of reasons. For example, men are likely to brag about their infidelity while women are likely to conceal it. Self-reports are poor measures of the relative level of infidelity between the sexes. Likewise, religious people are deeply invested in the fiction that religion makes them happier and are very likely to report that they are even if they are totally miserable.

Failure to Mention Study Limitations
Years ago, upon reading commonly cited statistics that “98% of women report incidents of sexual abuse,” radio host Dr. Laura Schlessigner did what a good consumer of information should do. On-air, she called the scientist who conducted the study being referenced to support this claim. The researcher was eager to express her frustration with all of the advocacy groups citing her research without mentioning that her study narrowly targeted an extremely at-risk population. Dr. Laura then called the head of one of those women’s advocacy groups employing this scare-tactic and asked her why she knowingly misrepresented this research. When confronted, the head of the organization stood firm, saying that anything is justified if it raises awareness of real issues faced by women.

Choosing the Wrong Measurement
Even if we could measure happiness, it should not be assumed that happiness is the best or only goal. Believing that  global warming is a hoax probably does make one sleep sounder. Allowing your kids to eat pizza at every meal will probably result in fewer observed food-related tantrums. But clearly these measures of happiness do not justify accepting those positions. Likewise with religion.

Selective Skepticism
We tend to do pretty good at being skeptical about things we disagree with. But when it’s something we’re predispositioned to like and want, like chocolate or religion, we tend to set all skepticism aside and whole-heartedly embrace any arguments in favor, no matter how much of a stretch they may be. The happiness-arguments supporting religion are definitely one area in which our society demonstrates far too little critical scrutiny, as evidenced by the huge number of happiness claims repeated in major publications with virtually no skeptical analysis.

Baby With the Bath Water
Please, please, please don’t conclude from this that you can never trust social studies and that these studies never have any value at all. Association studies are very valuable. We need to know when things are observed together in a given population. However, you should be a smart consumer of these studies and understand the ways that advocates misuse study results to contrive claims that advance their cause. This is particularly important when we are predisposed to believe those claims. When in doubt, look past the claims made by advocates or even by seemingly objective “science reporters” and read the typically more careful and restrained conclusions reported by the scientists who conducted the studies. With the Internet at our fingertips today that is not usually very difficult to do.