“Critical Thinking” and Theism, contra SA
May 3, 2012 — 11:37

Author: Trent Dougherty  Category: Religious Belief  Tags: , , ,   Comments: 16

UPDATE: I want to clarify one thing here. My principle target was not the authors of the study (which I have no intention to read, as I judge that doing so has negative expected utility). Rather, my principle target was the editors of SA. The author of the article is a minor target (its bad reporting) but she probably gave the editors what she had every right to expect they wanted. Here is what I would have said in a calmer moment:
“People have been implying that the content of this article casts aspersons on the rationality of religious belief. I assert that that is false and confused. I dare (double dog dare) anyone to construct a cogent argument from the content of this article which casts aspersions on the rationality of religious belief. I assert that it cannot be done. I also find the article greatly misleading in multiple ways and perhaps culpably so.”
I still think it is worth recording my initial reaction, though, so that friends who posted this article in ways that implied that it did cast aspersions on the rationality of religious belief–there were too many to write individually–can see the palpable frustration with which such misdirection causes people like me: Christions living in a very secularized environment where people they really like often say or do things very hurtful (though not intentionally, of course). There are many ways in which it is not easy to be a Christian in academic philosophy. Being an unprotected minority is frustrating, anxiety-inducing (I received threats as a result of this post), and sometimes deeply discouraging. [Any other Christians who feel this way should redouble their efforts to reach out to other minorities and simply set aside in good faith the fact that those minorities have advocates in a way that we do not, for we have our own Advocate.]
———————
That venerable publishing outlet of the Secular-Industrial Establishment the Scientific American at least once had decent journalism and intelligent writing. That started to slide at least a decade ago, and though there are still some occasional gems, there is also plenty of tripe. To wit: this article called–utterly misleadingly–“How Critical Thinkers Lose Their Faith in God: Religious belief drops when analytical thinking rises.
Rarely have I been so annoyed as by this piece. And it is a token of a type that is all too prevalent. I judge, and hope I do not regret it, that the removal of the snarkiness would not be worth the effort. I don’t like being drawn into such rhetoric, but it is not irrelevant that the piece made me *angry*. Anger is an emotion that can be appropriate or inappropriate and upon reflection, I think anger is an appropriate emotional response to this nonsense. #notproofread #lateforconference


I should be clear that some of the nonsense is in the article itself but not all of it. A big part of it is “around” the article: that the study would be run the way it was, that so many important questions go unasked, the propagandistic title, the responses to and uses of it etc. It is a complex sociological phenomenon, and I think it best to concentrate on specific claims. I am headed off to LOGOS and will likely not follow up on this here. If I’ve committed fallacies or material errors, so be it: let people point them out and save the rest. My principal intention is only to be a road bump to create a little discomfort and, thus, thought. I’ll go through it line-by-line to keep focus during the rage.
“Critical thinker” is normally taken to contrast with “UNcritical thinker” in equivalent sense to “gullible” or “stupid” person. But the contrast here is with people who are more intuitive and immediate thinkers in contrast to *discursive* reasoners. It would be a mistake to confuse intuitive thinkers with bad thinkers. Some of the best philosophers, mathematicians, and business geniuses are intuitive thinkers. In fact, intuitive thinking is very closely tied with genius.
“In 2011 Amitai Shenhav, David Rand and Joshua Greene of Harvard University published a paper showing that people who have a tendency to rely on their intuition are more likely to believe in God.” So we might as well conclude that atheism is counter-intuitive, right? Well, I do think that, but I think that would be bad reporting. It would be bad reporting which was symmetric about the axis which divides it from the actual reporting.
“They also showed that encouraging people to think intuitively increased people’s belief in God.” So, again, theism is an intuitive idea, right? I think so, but that would be a bad way to report this: one which would reflect a pro-religoius bias. Instead, they went with the anti-religious bias. Don’t we *want* people to think intuitively? Isn’t that better than the alternative? Then it is a good thing to think that way. So good thinking is positively correlated with belief in God. Awesome.
“Will Gervais and Ara Norenzayan of the University of British Columbia found that encouraging people to think analytically reduced their tendency to believe in God.” That is, changing the way they naturally think, which is intuitively, which is a perfectly good way to think.
“Gervais and Norenzayan’s research is based on the idea that we possess two different ways of thinking that are distinct yet related.” Note there is no prioritization implied here. There is no suggestion that one way is better than another.
“Solving logical and analytical problems may require that we override our System 1 thinking processes in order to engage System 2.” And it just as often requires the opposite. In fact, I think I could make good argument that the analytical system is just a complex of System 1 stuff, but that would take us far afield. The bottom line here is that logical problems break down into individual basic premises (not lemmas) and rules of inference, both of which rest on definition or intuition. Aristotle pointed this out a little while ago.
“Gervais and Norenzayan examined whether engaging System 2 leads people away from believing in God and religion.” And did it ever occur to them to test whether taking analytic types and teaching them to think intuitively–they could use it!–would lead them TO belief in God. In business, people pay good money for courses in how to think more intuitively.
This is a standard priming test. You prime people with one task to measure its impact on a second. But there is a more fundamental priming before they even walk in the door: culture. And thanks to the cultured despisers of religion in America–like, say, the folks at Scientific American–the narrative of “religion vs. reason” is firmly embedded in the minds of most Americans, religious or not. That it is mostly a myth is not to be expected to prevent the effect they measure. Only they never provide a defense of their interpretation of which event they’ve measured.
The Font one is interesting, and I’d like to see the numbers. However, this is hardly a lucid example. Reading an unclear font might also piss people off and evoke anger which might lower religiosity. I’ll bet we could come up with dozens of other explanations–none of them controlled for in the experiment–of the result. This result is at best suggestive enough to warrant further tests to control for the dozens of other explanatory properties. It is hardly justification for some of the smug responses to this I’ve seen.
“Why and how might analytic thinking reduce religious belief?” Oh I can’t wait to hear this! LOL First, though, note the obvious opportunity for ambiguity. This ambiguity has been seized upon with glee by the CDRA (Cultured Despisers of Religion in America (it’s practically an NGO, so they might as well have an acronym)). People have been treating the assertion that “analytic thinking reduce religious belief” as something along these lines “Good critical thinking (the term used in the title), i.e. use of logic and reasoning and facts and science and stuff, reduces religious belief.” That may well be so, and an Augustinian worldview would predict it, but nothing in this story suggests it. There is not a hint of a whiff of a suggestion that the religious attitudes measured in the second part of the experiment are one whit more well-founded on logic and argument than their more religious counterparts. This is a classic priming test, and so relies completely on the unconscious effects of the priming.
“analytic thinking may inhibit our natural intuition to believe in supernatural agents that influence the world” Wait, I thought that was the datum?!
Now look back at the title. What a joke. There is not even a suggestion in the SA article about loss of faith in God. It is not even mentioned.
The title is a thinly veiled CDRA (let’s pronounce it “ceedra”) marketing ploy. With the NAEF (New Atheist Embarrassment Front) making fools of themselves at every opportunity I can’t blame the propaganda wing of CDRA for trying for more subtle methods. It will not, however, pass without comment. The Emperor had better hope for warmer weather.

Comments:
  • jordan.nwc

    Selim Berker (Harvard), “The Normative Insignificance of Neuroscience”, Philosophy & Public Affairs 37:4, 293-329
    Berker’s arguments here apply to this issue. If Greene has yet to respond effectively to such worries (which others have expanded on), then it may start to become obvious that he is more ideologue than serious academic (not that the two are always exclusive).

    May 3, 2012 — 12:11
  • I am a little confused. It appears you are going back and forth between criticizing the article, and the study itself. Did you read the study, or are you basing your observations solely on the article? I agree that the article is biased, however, it is rare to find a good article on a scientific study that is bound to be controversial. They always play up the juicy results, and give short schrift to the methodology, error bounds, and the like. I hope I can get a copy of the study at my school today, I have tried to withhold judgment until I can actually see what they are claiming, and how they tested the claims.

    May 3, 2012 — 13:19
  • Nate C.

    I just went through a Facebook fight on this same issue with the article. Your analysis is much more clear and succinct and honestly has me slightly aroused.
    This article appears to be one of a series on the topic by SA. A few days ago they had a very similar title/topic.
    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=losing-your-religion-analytic-thinking-can-undermine-belief
    In that article the author cited a study that had a 35 point margin of error, and a 20 point variance between control and test. It takes alot of intuition (nudge, nudge, wink wink) for those results to be valid, but the author doesn’t even seem to catch that glaring problem.
    Later on in the article Joshua Greene is quoted as saying, “Any one of their experiments can be reinterpreted, but when you’ve got [multiple] different kinds of evidence pointing in the same direction, it’s very impressive.”
    According to Dr. Green, four bad experiments taken together make one good experiment. Good to know.

    May 3, 2012 — 17:45
  • Michael

    I don’t see much evidence of religion despising.
    You say that “‘Critical thinker'” is normally taken to contrast with ‘UNcritical thinker’ in equivalent sense to ‘gullible’ or ‘stupid’ person.” I have two points. The first is that “critical thinker” *does* contrast with “uncritical thinker”. The claim is that increasing critical thinking tends to decrease religious belief. That’s just the conclusion of the study.
    My second point is that the authors only use the term “critical” in relation to thinking in the title. They tend to use the term “analytic” in the actual article. Maybe this is an indication that they are trying to take advantage of the association of “uncritical thinking” with “bad thinking”. But I don’t think that this would be much evidence of religion despising. First of all, “despising” is quite a strong word. Secondly, there’s nothing wrong with the authors’ words reflecting the fact that, in general, religious belief *is* irrational. And, on the other hand, maybe the use of “critical” in the title doesn’t mean anything concerning the authors’ views of religion.
    You criticize Gervais and Norenzayan for not “taking analytic types and teaching them to think intuitively” to see whether or not that would tend to increase their theistic belief. But no religion despising is necessary to explain this. Shenhav, Rand, and Green *already* “showed that encouraging people to think intuitively increased people’s belief in God.”
    You say that the primer of culture is neglected. But it’s not just obvious that the narrative of “religion vs. reason” is so firmly embedded in the minds of most Americans as you seem to think. In fact, there seems to me to be some reason to think otherwise. For instance, I suspect that, if you ask most American theists why they believe in God, they will try to give you an actual reason. I also suspect that many American non-theists will say that believing in God is often not unreasonable.
    You suggest that reading unclear font might evoke anger which might decrease religiosity. But since when does increasing anger tend to decrease religiosity? There are some quite angry religious people. Anyway, there was apparently a previous study that showed that reading unclear font tends to increase analytic thinking; and font wasn’t the only thing they used, yet they got consistent results.
    Finally, whether or not the effects of the priming are completely “unconscious”, if the priming tended to increase the participants’ analytic thinking, then, presumably, this affected the participants’ answers. And it seems more plausible than not to me that the priming did, in fact, tend to increase the participants’ analytic thinking. Thus, there seems to be at least “a hint of a whiff of a suggestion that the religious attitudes measured in the second part of the experiment are one whit more well-founded on logic and argument than their more religious counterparts.” While this can certainly be taken too far, it is not much evidence of religion despising for anyone to conclude this.

    May 3, 2012 — 19:10
  • Scott

    I think we’d want people to think intuitively when they do a better job of thinking about something (have a better chance of getting things right) by thinking intuitively (rather than discursively), and we’d want people to think discursively when they do a better job of thinking about something by thinking discursively (rather than intuitively). This strikes me as plausible even in the absence of any careful articulation of what it is to think intuitively or discursively (if such a careful articulation is even possible).
    It also strikes me as plausible that intuitive thinking, as opposed to discursive thinking (both vaguely understood and admittedly undefined), is better suited in some areas and comparatively worse suited in others. That is, with respect to some subjects and topics, and in some areas, we do better if we think intuitively, and with respect to other subjects and topics, and in other areas, we do better (have a better chance of getting things right) if we think discursively.
    Now we might ask: Will we do better (have a better chance of getting things right) when we think about a topic such as God’s existence in an intuitive or discursive matter? I think a lot of folks who don’t have religious or philosophical commitments which motivate them to respond in a certain way will take it to be fairly plausible that, with respect to this subject matter, discursive reasoning wins. And I’m inclined to think that should be the natural position of the maximally unbiased.
    So I’m puzzled when you suggest that the study shows that good thinking (which you take to be intuitive thinking) is positively correlated with belief in good. “Awesome”, you say. But this is only awesome (according to you) if you think that when it comes to thinking about whether or not God exists, one will do better (be more likely to get things right) if one thinks intuitively rather than discursively. And I wonder what reasons you have for believing that?
    A candidate reason would be the following: Well, God does exist. And this study shows that people who think intuitively are more inclined to believe that God exists than folks who think discursively about this. And so they have a better chance of getting things right than the folks who approach this subject matter discursively. Of course, I wouldn’t take that to be an argument the maximally unbiased might offer. Quite the contrary. =)

    May 4, 2012 — 0:06
  • elguanteloko

    You don’t seem to have given some thought into what ‘intuitive thinking’ is taken to be in the paper. Take the following example of a question used to study such things:
    “Q: If a baseball and bat cost $110, and the bat costs $100 more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?”
    Supposedly, if you answer $10 to this question (and to a bunch of other similar questions) then you tend to rely more on your intuitions – and in this case you would have given a wrong answer. If you answer $5 then you tend to think analytically.
    You said: “So we might as well conclude that atheism is counter-intuitive, right?”
    — No, the point is that it takes more careful, deeper study to see whether it ads up or not instead of simply saying it’s wrong based more on your intuitions than in careful analysis.

    May 4, 2012 — 4:51
  • Dustin Crummett

    I think a lot of folks who don’t have religious or philosophical commitments which motivate them to respond in a certain way will take it to be fairly plausible that, with respect to this subject matter, discursive reasoning wins.
    What on earth would it mean to hold a position on a philosophical question but not have philosophical commitments that motivate you to respond in a certain way?

    May 4, 2012 — 11:23
  • John

    Here’s another way to interpret the data of the study that doesn’t conform to SA’s anti-theism agenda:
    If the researchers are taking intuitively-oriented laypersons–most of whom are religious–activating their analytic reasoning, and then noticing that this correlates with a loss of confidence in the intuitively held religious beliefs among those folks, why not interpret this as showing only that turning on analytic reasoning among laypersons correlates with a loss of confidence in intuitively held beliefs AS SUCH (whatever those intuitive beliefs on such matters might be)?
    In other words, we’ve been given NO reason from this study to think that a control group consisting of persons with intuitively held atheistic beliefs wouldn’t give us the same results if we turned on THEIR analytical side. So, it’s a mistake to think the study shows that there’s anything especially wrong with theistic belief. AT BEST, the study only shows that thinking critically challenges one’s confidence in his/her pre-reflective convictions, which, of course, is not news to philosophers.

    May 4, 2012 — 14:00
  • Helen De Cruz

    I did not find the time to read SA’s gloss of the Gervais & Norenzayan paper, but I did read the study itself. Interestingly, G&N strongly caution against making any normative interpretations “Finally, we caution that the present studies are silent on long-standing debates about the intrinsic value or rationality of religious beliefs or about the relative merits of analytic and intuitive thinking in promoting optimal decision making. Instead, these results illuminate, through empirical research, one cognitive stage on which such debates are played.” Nevertheless, as Elqayam & Evans point out, there is a tendency in the psychology of reasoning to equate the analytic response with the correct one, and the intuitive with the incorrect response (see here: http://www.psy.dmu.ac.uk/elqayam/Elqayam_&_Evans_2011_BBS.pdf)
    As they caution ” In a dual-process framework, normativism can lead to a fallacious “ought-is” inference, in which normative responses are taken as diagnostic of analytic reasoning. “. Further on they write “In fact, dual-process research suffers from this form of normativist reasoning. It leads researchers to think that they have an easy shortcut method to identify the type of process from the correctness of the response, when none such is in fact available.
    G&N rely on this dual-process framework, and also to some extent play into this normativism. For instance, in their first experiment consistently have the intuitive answer as incorrect and the analytic one as correct. Even though they disavow making normative conclusions, the setup of this experiment fits within Elqayam and Over’s analysis of normative reasoning studies, where participants systematically need to give the analytic answer in order to give the correct answer. This can easily lead to the study’s results being interpreted in terms of intuitiveness being less rational than analytical reasoning.

    May 4, 2012 — 15:54
  • jordan.nwc

    Scott,
    One reason to believe intuitive thinking more appropriate might be that in considering whether or not God exists one is taking all relevant considerations (arguments, half-arguments, connections between different things (beliefs, observations), experiences, etc. etc.) into account when making a serious judgement on the matter. Something along the lines of holistic deliberation (whatever it is). Whether or not this is in fact appropriate, or is the way most reflective individuals do it, is perhaps a different matter. In any case, though, it does not seem obvious that discursive thinking is the right way (or the only appropriate manner) to go about making a judgement on the issue.
    Another possible worry is that reasoning on complex issues could involve both discursive and intuitive thinking, both at different moments/stages of the same reasoning process and at the same moment/stage. Typical experiences of reasoning seem messy enough to make this type of worry plausible. Anecdotally, this maps on quite well to my own experience and those I’ve talked to about this matter.

    May 4, 2012 — 18:40
  • James Beebe

    Trent, I’m curious to know why you aren’t interested in reading the authors of the scientific study in question. It seems that Ara Norenzayan’s work raises a lot of challenging questions for religious believers to think about.

    May 5, 2012 — 18:33
  • Helen De Cruz

    I agree with James that the research itself is quite fascinating, as it indicates that lack of religious belief, like religious belief, depends on context. There is already plenty of evidence that some contexts can heighten religious belief, for instance by inducing religious experience (a church context will do this quite reliably), or a walk in nature. Similarly, some cognitive tasks may put one in a religious frame of mind. I find that playing a musical instrument, or singing, for instance, sometimes does that for me (even if it’s purely secular music). So we should not be surprised that some contexts and cognitive tasks decrease religiosity. I don’t see at all though how this would challenge religious believers. Some debunking arguments are strong, but I don’t see how “after performing some tasks that require one to reason more analytically, religiosity decreases” could challenge religious belief. Like Trent, several people sent me this study, but I fail to see the challenging questions that religious believers should think about…

    May 10, 2012 — 3:50
  • James, induction.

    May 10, 2012 — 13:20
  • More Deplorable Reporting on Religious Belief

    In a previous post I threw some primate feces into a rotating blade after reading an article which had the following properties. 1. The story was about religious belief. 2. The story was on the impact of some “scientific” study on religious belief. 3. …

    June 13, 2012 — 15:28
  • AgeOfReasonXXI

    Congrats. you just proved the article’s main point: faith-heads and analytical thinking do not go hand in hand. which is why in academia Christian beliefs are considered on par with belief in unicorns and fairies, and get proportionate level of respect. but don’t worry, it won’t be long before a Jesus fan would have as much chance of holding any positions of importance in society as an “unicornist” does today.

    June 15, 2012 — 10:18
  • I was going to consign this to the spam folder, since we have a fairly strict policy about trolls, but I thought in this particular instance the comment was quite apropos. So thanks.

    June 15, 2012 — 13:01
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