Friday, May 18, 2012

Bad Science Journalism over at io9

This article on io9 basically sums up, to me, both everything that is wrong with science journalism as well as experimental psychology.  The reason?  The subject matter of the article is just . . . well, I have no idea how it could have possibly met a peer review's standards, albeit my experience with the process is both secondhand and having to do with real science.

But the thrust of the article is that religion helps self-control and virtue.  The problem comes with the specific tests they use that they believe tests self-control and virtue.

One of them is a person's ability to drink shots of orange juice and vinegar for a nickle a shot.  The second is testing their delayed gratification by giving them five dollars today but six dollars if they wait a week.  The third had to do with how long a person was willing to spend solving an insolvable puzzle.

I can't imagine how any of these have anything to do with virtue.  Virtue is a moral stance - there is no morality in any of these actions.  No one is either helped or harmed by their performance or lack of performance.

I am also having any trouble seeing how they have much to do with self-control because . . . they are all so trivial.  Is self-control the ability to down undrinkable drinks for a pittance?  Or sticking with a problem that can't be solved but also has no bearing to a person's life?  Not drinking a horrible drink, even though you might pick up as much as twenty cents, does not define self-control, but . . . intelligence.  There is no gain in drinking it and it's uncomfortable, even nauseating.  Performing a pointless task for no gain is no self-control - stopping a pointless task for no gain is, again, just the smart thing to do.

The only thing that speaks to self-control, and very weakly at that, is the delayed gratification test.  But it's hamstrung by the small rewards offered for delaying that gratification.  "Give me five bucks now or . . . I wait a week, have to schlep myself over to the psych building so I can get another buck?"  That's weak because none of the people involved need that extra dollar today (because it is such a superficial sum of money that it's possession would not particularly help even a starving person - that starving person would be better off taking the fiver and getting something to eat *now*.)  So, if there is no gratification, there can be no delayed gratification.

(The subject with this whole business is these cats are evolutionary psychology guys, which is, itself, an embarrassment to science because of how normative it is.)

That's the bad science.  Now the bad journalism.  The journalist mentions none of this, that should be obvious, I feel, to a science journalist.

Worse, neither mention some very uncomfortable facts about the correlation between godlessness and self-control that would, I think, bear discussion.  Such as the fact that atheist or agnostics tend to be richer, better educated, have fewer unwanted pregnancies, divorces and bankruptcies than religious people.  And as speaks to virtue, they are far less likely to be in prison, which suggests that they don't commit as many crimes.  This is a nonsuperficial point that is not discussed, not at all.

Like I said, the problem with both research psychology (broadly, that they continue to allow crap like evo psych to be part of their field) and science journalism (total lack of criticism).

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