We all like to believe our group is better than their group, and atheists and skeptics are not immune, so this article, which claims that religious people are less compassionate than the non-religious, didn’t surprise me. Read it and see how many times your Bullshit Meter goes off.
Done? If you’d like to continue testing your meter here’s a more thorough and slightly less loaded report on the same study.
Your BSM should have gone off several times. Here are the points that set off mine. (If I missed any please smartnize me in the comments.)
First off, we can’t look at the actual study, because it hasn’t been published yet. “Science by press release” always pins my BSM needle.
The first experiment is based on a survey of people reporting on themselves. This is one of the least accurate ways to collect data, so it also pins the needle. The study was fairly small, including only 1,300 American adults. There was no mention of the demographics of these people. Were they all Berkley students? Old people? Young people? Where they from the upper, middle or lower economic class? One-legged lesbian Morris dancers? (Probably not that.) We’re never told.
There is also no indication any confounders were considered.
So the experiment’s conclusions don’t matter, because the data is useless.
The second was a sample size of 101, very small, and again, there were no demographics or confounders mentioned. Bzzzt! (I’ve rigged my BSM with a buzzer, just in case I don’t notice the needle moving.)
In the final experiment at least they tell us that we’re dealing with college students. But a significant amount of the conclusion was based on how compassionate they felt when they started the experiment. What? How do you measure such a thing, and how valid is it when you base your conclusions on self-reported emotion?
There are a plethora of people whose profession is knocking our bullshit meters out of whack. Some of them do it by providing conclusions we’d like to believe. We need to be just as skeptical of studies with results we like as we are of studies that immediately raise our hackles. Personally, I’d like to believe we are more compassionate than our superstitious neighbors. We might be, but this study doesn’t prove that. It doesn’t prove much of anything.
Emotions are one of the best ways to bypass an otherwise well tweaked BSM. Knowing that, when a study makes us want to do a little superior dance we need that emotional response to trigger the BSM self-critical sub-circuit and apply extra stringent skepticism to it instead of just assuming it’s legitimate. If, unlike this one, it turns out to be legit, we can do a superior dance if we want to.
But we might want to do it briefly and in private, because even when sanctimony is justified it still makes us look like dicks.