Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Friday, June 24, 2011

Marcia Angell on psychiatry

Marcia Angell has a good two-part article at the New York Review of Books that, usefully enough, covers the books by Whitaker and Kirsch discussed here (and a third which I haven't read):

Part 1: "The Epidemic of Mental Illness: Why?"

Part 2: "The Illusions of Psychiatry"

RIP, Peter Falk

I was just complaining a few days ago that I never see old Columbo episodes on television anymore.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Monckton hangs with creationists, calls climate advisor Nazi

Could he sink any lower?

Graham Readfearn:
The conference was organised by the American Freedom Alliance, a think-tank which is currently involved in a long-running legal battle with a California science education centre. The AFA wanted to screen a documentary which featured scientists attacking Darwin's theory of evolution in favour of intelligent design, but the education centre cancelled the screening.

One of Lord Monckton's fellow speakers at the Los Angeles conference was Wesley J. Smith, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute – a think-tank and major promoter of the theory of intelligent design. One of the Discovery Institute's projects aims to support research "developing the scientific theory known as intelligent design" (Lord Monckton even shared transport with Mr Smith during the conference).

As Guardian journalist Leo Hickman pointed out, it appears that Lord Monckton and other climate change "sceptics" at the conference were happy to rub shoulders with proponents of intelligent design and Islamophobia.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Marcha de las Putas (Slut Walk) in Tegucigalpa!

This is awesome. From Real News Network:

Please watch the whole thing. Two aspects are especially important to note: First is that, while it may appear that people are protesting a perennial problem, which of course they are in large part, the situation, as previous posts here have discussed, has of course drastically worsened since the coup. Politics is about these issues, and those active in fighting for women's, reproductive, and LGBT rights have been among the most active in the resistance and persecuted by the oligarchs. These rights are inseparable from others. Second, the march ended with people writing messages on the side of the main cathedral. In the words of one of the organizers:
The Church is one of the institutions that has repressed women's rights the most, especially in a Catholic country like ours. Abortion is illegal in Honduras, not only for the women 'cause it's criminalized, it's from 3 to 6 years in jail, and the doctor is also penalized and its license is restricted.

...We should have the right to decide how we want to plan our life. Without that, we have no reproductive health and rights, which are human rights.
The Catholic Church continues to be an opponent of basic human rights around the world, and the hierarchy in Honduras (though not all of the priests on the ground) have been coup enthusiasts.

Physicians: "a priceless audience at a price you can afford"

Harriet Washington's* new piece in The American Scholar - "Flacking for Big Pharma."

My last post mentioned that Rushkoff's remarks related to this, my next post. Just as we're the thing that's being sold on Facebook, doctors are to an extent the thing that's being sold in medical journals.
The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) bills itself in advertising as “a priceless audience at a price you can afford,” while the Annals boasts: “With an audience of more than 90,000 internists (93 percent of whom are actively practicing physicians), Annals has always been a smart buy.”
Washington goes beyond discussing (extensive) advertising influence to talk about editorial content and the manipulation of research itself, overlapping to some extent with Ben Goldacre and others I've discussed here.

Coincidentally, I came across her piece at the same time I was reading reports from Europe about drug companies pulling out of psychopharmaceutical research. The framing of the articles, including the titles ("Psychopharmacology in crisis," "GSK, Others Pull EU Brain Research Funds; Leaves Science Black Hole,", "'Funding crisis' in brain research," "Research into brain disorders under threat as drug firms pull out"), reflects the extent to which the drug companies' have succeeded in establishing their narrative of effective and necessary drugs similar to those for AIDS in the public consciousness. (Even Rebelión seems to take this line!) The crisis, if the report is correct, is that public funding for basic neuroscience has been sorely lacking in Europe, and this is not developing but ongoing. Virtually every article I've read quotes David Nutt's pro-pharma line (extended patents to make drug development more profitable - of course), with little acknowledgement of his close ties to these companies.**

Sadly but expectedly, out of the woodwork in the comments on the Washington piece have come the opportunists claiming it as antiscience, both those suggesting corporations do pure science and so in criticizing their influence she's attacking science itself and the antivaccine kooks from AoA claiming her article supports their nonsense. Alas, this is the reality into which critical writing about medicine in a vastly unequal and corporate-driven world enters.

*Her Medical Apartheid was excellent:

**This site describes Nutt's industry relations:
Consultancies - Pfizer (W-L), GSK (SKB), MSD, Esteve, Novartis, Asahi, Organon, Cypress, Lilly, Janssen, Takeda, Phamacia, Therasci, Passion for Life, Hythiam, Servier, Roche, Sanofi Aventis, Actelion, Lundbeck, Wyeth.

Speaking honoraria (in addition to above) Reckitt-Benkiser, Cephalon.

Grants or clinical trial payments: MSD, GSK, Novartis, Servier, Janssen, Yamanouchi, Lundbeck, Pfizer, Wyeth, Organon, AZ, Cephalon, P1vital, MoDefence, NHS - Dr Nutt holds shares in GSK (ex-Wellcome)
It looks like information originally gleaned from Nutt's or his center's page that's since been removed, but I don't have confirmation of anything other than the GSK relationship and don't know enough about the site to accept it fully.

Quote of the weekend: We're the thing that's being sold

I doubt this is shocking to anyone reading this blog, but we're not always as aware of it as maybe we should be. I'm watching Douglas Rushkoff and Micah Sifry on BookTV* (haven't finished, but it's not bad so far), and some remarks from Rushkoff stood out in light of my last post and my next one. He's talking about developing and using communications technologies for democracy and social change...:
That’s where I get excited is people understanding the value they’re creating through these technologies, rather than just surrendering all the value they create to YouTube to get some hits or to Facebook so they can get more friends and be part of that very internal economy where, really, the people, the users, are the product. Alright, there are so many environments in which we think we’re the users, but when someone else is paying, usually they’re the customer, not you, right? We’re not the customers of Facebook. We're the thing that’s being sold on Facebook. And a lot of these environments that seem so free, are free ‘cause we’re not paying with our money, but someone else is paying for us, right?
*It actually says "Program not Embeddable." I like "embeddable," and hope to find new uses for it in the future.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Industry spin: salt edition

A friend showed me an article the other day from the health section of a local paper, "Iodized salt has health benefits, but studies suggest looming crisis." She was understandably concerned:
[A]n alarming new medical study shows 70 percent of teenage girls in Great Britain are iodine deficient, and as many as 100,000 British babies are born every year with brain damage that could have been prevented if their mothers used iodized salt.

In light of this and other studies, the Salt Institute has expressed concern that sodium-restricted diets may reduce consumption of iodized table salt, increasing the risk of an entirely preventable major health problem -- iodine deficiency. The benefits of iodized salt are sometimes missed because it is one of the most overlooked brain foods ever developed.

"It may be a stretch to say iodized table salt put man on the moon, but it has helped provide the intellectual development needed for so many of our technological breakthroughs," says Mort Satin, vice president of science and research at the Salt Institute, an authoritative source on salt. "Fortifying table salt with iodine was one of the greatest public health triumphs of the 20th century."

The British study, published June 2 in the journal Lancet, has prompted some health experts to call for mandatory iodization of salt in Great Britain. At the same time, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and other federal agencies continue to push for dramatic reductions of salt consumption.

..."Thousands of babies are born with brain damage that could have been avoided with just a few pinches of iodized salt," said Satin. "In light of this tragedy, it's nothing short of reckless for governments to be removing salt shakers from school lunchrooms. But that's exactly what we're seeing."

...Health experts estimate that even a moderate deficiency of iodine can lower intelligence by 10 to 15 IQ points. Fortunately, a powerful protector of brainpower is within easy reach.

That's why Martin tells her friends: "Make sure your children use iodized salt. It doesn't take a lot to help their brains."
I plugged a sentence from the article into the googlematic and turned up pages and pages of local papers across the country. I thought I remembered the Salt Institute from this debate on Colbert

and my recollection didn't fail me: the "authoritative source on salt" cited in the article is the salt industry trade association, active in promoting salt use and discouraging efforts to reduce consumption.

I looked to see who the author of the article was and found "(ARA)." What is ARA?
ARAcontent provides free, high-quality feature or special section content to editors, ad directors and publishers (print and online). All articles are copyright free and in a variety of categories coordinated to fit the editorial calendar of a typical newspaper.

Whether you are creating a special section or have a regular space to fill, our content is available online and is updated daily. All articles are written or edited by professional journalists and include high-resolution photos.
Free, high-quality content? That's so nice of them! However do they stay in business providing their services so selflessly? Their real clients, of course:
Since 1996, ARAnet has embraced changing technologies to provide our clients with industry-leading distribution to print and online markets. ARAnet partners with publishers in both markets to build relationships that deliver results.

These relationships form the backbone of our print distribution to daily and weekly newspapers in markets large and small throughout the United States. ARAnet’s branded articles educate consumers on a growing range of topics, while subtly incorporating information about our clients’ products and services.
ARA - "Building Brands - Educating Consumers - Driving Sales" by placing industry spin in your local paper. To be taken with a grain of...or in this case maybe not.

UN Human Rights Council passes resolution on sexual orientation...and gender identity!

HRW reports:
Affirming the fundamental principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the council passed a resolution expressing "grave concern" at the discrimination and violence experienced by people all over the world because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

"The Human Rights Council has taken a first bold step into territory previously considered off-limits," said Graeme Reid, LGBT rights director at Human Rights Watch. "We hope this groundbreaking step will spur greater efforts to address the horrible abuses and discrimination against people on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity."

The resolution also calls for the UN high commissioner for human rights to commission a global study on human rights violations on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation. When completed at the end of 2011, this report should provide important guidance on how existing human rights law can be used to end violations on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, Human Rights Watch said. The council will discuss the report at its session in March 2012.

The resolution was introduced by South Africa and co-sponsored by 42 countries from all regions of the world. It was passed 23 to 19, with 3 abstentions.
This report lists the votes and abstentions by country. It quotes Kim Vance of ARC International as saying "Now, our work is just beginning," the truth of which hits home when you consider the state of affairs in some of the countries that supported the resolution.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Not a map but a list: Greta Christina on the 10 scariest states to be an atheist

For shame, Rhode Island.
So the point here isn't to show that some states suck for atheists worse than others. The point is to show that anti-atheist bigotry is real. The point is to show that it has real-world consequences. And the point is to let you know what some of those consequences are.
My "favorite":
In Arkansas, the Central Arkansas Transit Authority (CATA) has flatly rejected an atheist ad that the Central Arkansas Coalition of Reason wanted to put up on 18 buses... solely and entirely because the content of the ads -- "Are you good without God? Millions are" -- is atheist.

I am not kidding. Even the public excuses being given for rejecting the ads -- possible vandalism and even "terrorism" due to the "controversial" nature of the ad -- are based on the fact that these ads have atheist content, expressing the "controversial" view that atheists, you know, exist, and are good people.
Remember: Never give in to imaginary terrorists...unless they're probably Christian.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Four maps: disturbing, useful, political, and stupid

I’ve happened upon a number of interesting maps recently.

First is the CDC’s US measles map for the first half of this year, from an informative post at the History of Vaccines Blog:

Next is the megacities map created by the IGU’s Megacity Task Force:

If you go to the page and click on the cities, you find information about the history and present of urbanization there.

Third is a Cold War era East German Berlin rail map from Strange Maps:

Finally, also political, and stupid, is “Exit Plan: Where do exiled leaders flee?” (a map of “where former exiled leaders slip away to after being exiled”):

It includes Manuel Zelaya (who, incidentally, has been back in Honduras since a couple of weeks after the map was posted) among brutal dictators. As the first comment there points out, Zelaya was completing his term as the democratically elected president of Honduras, and he didn’t flee or slip away. He was kidnapped and taken from the country as part of a military-oligarchic coup in 2009. He doesn’t belong in this map, and his inclusion sends a political message, intentionally or not. (It’s possible that it was unintentional, given that Lenin is included despite the fact that his periods of exile were when he was a revolutionary and not an “ousted leader.”) Bah.

Monday, June 13, 2011

More Templetonian spin: Scheitle

Over the past few years, I’ve learned to read Templeton-funded sociology articles very closely. This has come in handy in several recent cases, including a new paper by Christopher Scheitle, “U.S. College Students’ Perception of Religion and Science: Conflict, Collaboration, or Independence? A Research Note.”* The paper suffers from an incorrect framing of the question, a misleading presentation of the data, and – not surprising given the first two – unsupported and incorrect conclusions.**

I’m going to quote the full introduction as it illustrates so many of the problems with the current foundation-flush sociology of religion:
The public and scholars alike have long been interested in the relationship between religion and science. The primary question has centered on whether these two institutions are waged in a conflict over their respective claims to truth and sociopolitical authority, or are they independent from or even in collaboration with each other (Evans and Evans 2008)? A popular strategy among social scientists to evaluate this question has been to assess whether scientists are less religious than nonscientists (Ecklund 2008, 2010; Ecklund and Scheitle 2007; Gross and Simmons 2009; Larson and Whitman 1999; Leuba 1916, 1934; Stark 1963). The assumption is that, because they are the most knowledgeable about scientific matters, scientists will be most likely to demonstrate some conflict with religion if such a conflict exists (Wuthnow 1989:143). If scientists are less religious that nonscientists, then the inference has been that there is an inherent conflict between scientific knowledge and religious belief.

As Ecklund and Park (2009:280) point out, such inferences do not tell us much about whether individuals actually view the relationship between religion and science as one of conflict. Such perceptions may be more important than any association between scientific knowledge and religious belief, as it is individuals’ opinions about the relationship that will play a significant role in public debates. Regardless of individuals’ personal religiosity or scientific knowledge, how they approach the relationship between religion and science could have important consequences in schoolrooms, courthouses, and legislatures. Presented here is research on how undergraduates, some of whom will serve as leaders within those forums, perceive the relationship between religion and science. Utilizing longitudinal data from the Spirituality in Higher Education Project (SHEP), a nationally representative survey of undergraduates, I examine the association between students’ religiosity and field of study and their view of the religion and science relationship.

The conflict narrative of understanding religion and science has often been the driving force in scholarly and popular discussions (Evans and Evans 2008; Russell 1997:7–18). The assumption is that religion and science each make claims about reality or truth and, because their respective claims often differ, they must be in conflict with each other. This conflict has both personal consequences as individuals are forced to choose one version of the truth (Russell 1997:7–18), as well as social and political consequences, of which the trial of Galileo, the Scopes Monkey Trial, or the more recent Dover School Board Intelligent Design Trial (Slack 2008) are often offered as examples.

While the conflict framework often receives the most attention, others have claimed that religion and science are not in conflict because they address fundamentally different types of truth. Quoting Cardinal Baronius, Galileo argued for this independence perspective when he said that “the intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes” (Barbour 1997:14).1 One of the most famous and eloquent explanations of this independence position was provided by Stephen Jay Gould in his writing on “nonoverlapping magisteria” (Gould 1998). Gould argues that the lack of conflict between science and religion arises from a lack of overlap between their respective domains of professional expertise—science in the empirical constitution of the universe, and religion in the search for proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives (1998:271).
This introduction is a giant, hulking strawman that confuses several distinct questions - epistemic, institutional, and individual.

First, there is the question of an epistemic conflict. Accommodationists use a variety of means to evade this fundamental issue, and one is to attempt to reframe the question in psychological or sociological terms: if people can be good scientists and religious, if they don’t recognize a conflict, or if religious people or organizations can coexist with science, then the epistemic conflict doesn’t exist. Another twist comes when they then claim, as here, that the noncompatibilist argument the reverse of this: if it can be shown that scientists at some place or time are more likely to be irreligious (or that the majority are), that people recognize this conflict, or that it plays out in the form of religious people or organizations interfering with science, this is evidence of the epistemic conflict. (Scheitle here uses “assumption” and “inference” liberally to imply that this is the gist of the incompatibilist case.)

But this is a misrepresentation. The epistemic conflict exists. That’s what we’re saying, and there’s no question about it. We’ve spelled out the nature of this epistemic incompatibility many times, and its substance continues to be ignored or evaded by accommodationists at every turn. The evidence for the conflict is the nature of science and faith themselves; its existence is entirely independent of the level of its recognition, including among scientists. It wouldn’t make sense to argue that scientific acceptance of the conflict is the evidence for it, as this varies in line with a number of social factors.

Sociology and psychology can never answer the question of whether an epistemic incompatibility exists. This would be fundamentally fallacious: an argument from popularity or authority. However, based on what science and religion are and the existence of this fundamental incompatibility, we would expect there to be observable effects at the individual and institutional levels. Because this epistemic conflict exists in reality, the prediction is that greater scientific understanding and knowledge will result in decreased religiosity and a greater likelihood of recognizing the conflict (of course falling on the side of science). This is similar to the acceptance of anything in science with the weight of the evidence behind it: heliocentrism, the germ theory of disease, AGW,…

Of course, there are differences across social contexts in terms of contravening social factors and opposing campaigns, levels of ignorance, and so on that will affect levels of recognition amongst the general population and scientists. But in general, because the epistemic conflict is real, those with more scientific knowledge and understanding would be expected to be more likely to recognize the incompatibility, reflected in both reduced religious belief and explicit recognition, and the level of increase should advance along with the advance of knowledge (at both the individual and the social level). As far as I know, this is supported by research about scientists, including that which Scheitle cites in his paper.

In terms of institutional conflict in the US, some conflict is obviously in evidence, both historically and in the contemporary era, as Scheitle recognizes. Its causes and variation over time and space can be investigated, but the fact is that there is conflict between religion and science (and science education) in the US. You don’t need a survey of college students’ perceptions to see this.

So, contrary to his framing in the introduction (which, oddly enough for a sociology paper, does not present the research as responding to a sociological question or sociological literature), the research reported in the article says essentially nothing about the existence of the epistemic (or institutional) conflict between science and religion. The only “conflict narrative” or “conflict framework” relevant to a survey-based sociology article concerns people’s perceptions of a conflict: a claim or findings from previous research showing that people in the sciences are more likely to recognize the incompatibility of science and religion, or research on these perceptions in general.

So the questions Scheitle’s article does respond to that are at all relevant are: Are freshman science students in the US more likely to be more secular in general and to hold a conflict-science perspective? By their junior year, are they more or less likely to do so? Do college students in STEM or other politically relevant fields tend to move in a more secular direction, and particularly does the percentage of those with more religious-dominating views threatening to secular governance or education decrease?

I’ll leave aside the less relevant aspects of the research (including criticisms about the combining of the two “nonconflict” views and the ignoring of the apparent significant correlation with SAT scores) and discuss the data Scheitle presents concerning these questions. As he doesn’t present it in a form that allows us to see the important patterns, I’ve had to work with it a bit. [I have the tables, but don’t know how to reproduce them here. :/]

The data show, unsurprisingly, that students – including STEM students - holding the conflict-science view in the US are not a majority. Also clear is that, as predicted from the fact of epistemic incompatibility (again, the evidence of conflict is not sociological, but, duh, epistemic), STEM students, even at this early stage, are the most likely to hold a conflict-science perspective, and the least likely to hold conflict-religion views. As Scheitle acknowledges:
Overall, natural science students are relatively low in holding a conflict perspective, but they are among the highest in holding a pro-science conflict perspective. A little over 20 percent of natural science students “side” with science. Only engineering and mathematics students report a higher allegiance to science in a perceived conflict with religion. (179-80)
So what changes between freshman and junior years? Scheitle:
…27.4 percent of students who held a pro-religion conflict perspective in their freshman year still held this perspective in their junior year. A little over 70 percent of these students now said that they view the religion and science relationship as one of independence or collaboration. Looking at the pro-science conflict column, we see that students holding this stance in their freshman year are more stable in their view than the pro-religion students, as 53.2 percent did not change their opinion between the two surveys. However, of the 46.8 percent that did have a change of opinion, 45.9 percent moved to the independence or collaboration perspective and only 0.9 percent moved to the pro-religion side. Students with the most stable opinion are those who held an independence or collaboration perspective in their freshman year, as 87.0 percent of these students held the same opinion in their junior year. Those who moved away from this opinion were fairly evenly split between the pro-religion and pro-science groups, with 5.2 percent and 7.8 percent moving to these groups, respectively.

To summarize these changes, we can say that few students move from viewing the relationship between religion and science as one of independence or collaboration to viewing it as one of conflict. The more common change is from a conflict perspective to an independence or collaboration one. College and/or aging seems to temper the views of those who held a conflict perspective. It is also worth noting that pro-science conflict views tend to be more entrenched than pro-religion conflict views. (182)
STATISTICS ABUSE! The discussion has now collapsed the conflict-science and conflict-religion perspectives, which is telling and confounding. But this business of talking about the percentages of the percentages that changed is extremely obfuscating.*** What we want to see is the net change overall across groups and across disciplines. Scheitle does not provide this, but it can be constructed from the data presented in Tables 2 and 6.

If we ignore the trivial percentages switching from conflict-science to conflict-religion and vice versa, we see conflict-science and I/C percentages remaining quite stable in STEM fields. Overall, we’re looking at a net loss from conflict-science of a handful of percentage points (4.9%) in the natural sciences and a mere 1.3% in M&E. In the social sciences, we see a tiny increase (1.5%) in the conflict-science view. (A similar increase, of 2.5%, can be observed in the Arts & Humanities.) Now, I doubt these small net changes have any real significance in one direction or another. If a series of surveys showed such small percentages of decline over an extended period, it would be different, but what this suggests is stability over time.

The key lines to look at in Table 6 in evaluating Scheitle’s claim that “few students move from viewing the relationship between religion and science as one of independence or collaboration to viewing it as one of conflict. The more common change is from a conflict perspective to an independence or collaboration one. College and/or aging seems to temper the views of those who held a conflict perspective” are: “started pro-science and switched to I/C” and “started I/C and switched to pro-science.” Again, the picture is one of stability, with small net losses of conflict-science to I/C in STEM fields (-4.6% in the natural sciences, -1.2% in M&E). (There are gains of 1.8% from I/C in the social sciences and 2.5% in Arts & Humanities.) Thus, this “tempering” notion is incorrect with regard to conflict-science views, at least among students in sociologically relevant fields. (I haven’t the time or energy to look at every field, but you can simply compare these “switched to” lines to get a sense of the broader patterns and variation.)

Things are slightly different when we look at movement between conflict-religion and I/C perceptions. In the natural sciences (again ignoring the tiny percentage that switched from conflict-science), the percentage that begins conflict-religion is 9.5%, but by junior year is down to a miniscule 1.7%. The conflict-religion view loses a net 6.4% to I/C in the natural sciences and 3% to I/C in M&E (of course, it was only 7.5% in M&E to begin with), and 8.4% to I/C in the social sciences and 12.1% to I/C in the Arts & Humanities. In education, conflict-religion loses a whopping 22% to I/C (compared to a 1.8% net loss for conflict-science). The drops in STEM and even the social sciences could be simple variation, but the double-digit losses in A&H and education are substantial.

In his conclusion, Scheitle argues:
The predominant narrative surrounding the religion and science relationship has been driven by the assumption that these institutions are engaged in an unavoidable conflict resulting from their contradictory claims to truth (Evans and Evans 2008). However, the analysis conducted above found that most undergraduates, regardless of their area of study or even their religiosity, do not hold a conflict perspective. Furthermore, many more students move away from a conflict perspective to an independence/collaboration perspective than vice versa. This finding might be especially surprising since many people, especially religious families, assume that higher education has a secularizing influence on students (Smith and Snell 2009:248), which might be expected to increase perceptions of a conflict. Despite its seeming predominance, the conflict model of understanding religion and science issues does not seem to have much support within the undergraduate population. Ecklund and Park (2009) made a similar conclusion in their analysis of the views of academic scientists.

Still, some of the patterns seen in the analysis above might be disconcerting for those looking to move beyond the public battles for power between religion and science. The finding that scientists and engineers are among the most likely to have a pro-science conflict perspective could mean that some of the most influential voices in these public debates might be more likely to fuel the debates than attenuate them. Similarly, future educators are among the most likely to hold a pro-religion conflict perspective. Given that classrooms and school boards have been one of the central forums for the struggle over religion and science, this does not bode well for a reduction of those struggles. (185)
But this is ridiculous. First, a survey of college students can tell us essentially nothing about epistemic or current institutional conflicts. The first isn’t a sociological question, and the second involves a completely different sort of analysis. The idea of a “predominant conflict narrative” that comprises all of these and can be investigated via surveys is silly. Second, who is arguing that the majority of US college students in any field currently recognize the incompatibility of religion and science? This is what he appears to be arguing against, but I don’t know that anyone has made this claim or suggested that it would be evidence of anything.

The claim that follows “Furthermore,…” is misleading and basically wrong. As we’ve seen, when the two conflict views are separated, Scheitle’s own evidence supports a general view of secularization. While conflict-science views hold steady, conflict-religion views – in the most relevant fields – decline. This broadly supports the secularization argument, as secularization is consistent with any movement away from the conflict-religion view (including, probably, that from collaboration to independence, though since Scheitle collapses these we don’t have that data).

As should be clear from what I’ve argued above, “Despite its seeming predominance, the conflict model of understanding religion and science issues does not seem to have much support within the undergraduate population” is silly and wrong. If “the conflict model” means epistemic conflict, a study of college students’ views has no bearing on its truth (though their views and changes therein generally conform to incompatibilist expectations). If it means institutional conflict, this study doesn’t speak to it. If it means individual perceptions of conflict, it depends on what you mean by “support.” More STEM students perceive a conflict, and this percentage holds pretty steady from freshman to junior years. At the other end, it looks like some larger percentages of people with conflict-religion views have moved in recent years in a secular direction. The percentages going directly from the conflict-religion to conflict-science are (as expected) miniscule, but the percentages moving in a secular direction are rather larger, and in some cases (e.g., education) substantial. It’s a direction. Will percentages keep shifting in the conflict-science direction or will they be “stuck” in independence or collaboration? I think the former is more likely, but depends on a number of sociological factors. Again, this is sociological data. The fact of an epistemic conflict is independent of it.

With regard to “public battles,” how I loathe this insinuation that pro-science incompatibilist views are damaging. There is a real worry in the US about secular education and politics and the practice of science, and this concerns religious interference in these institutions. The views compatible with secular politics and education are science-conflict and independence. Collaboration is a bit iffy, depending on how it plays out in action. The view that’s obviously the clear threat to education, politics, and science free of religious interference is conflict-religion. It’s quite strange that Scheitle points to the higher percentage of STEM students with conflict-science views as being in any way unfortunate in that they “might be more likely to fuel the debates than attenuate them.” Tough darts, Scheitle. The conflict-science perspective is not only correct but no threat to the constitutionally-mandated separation of church and state or to secularism in general. (To the extent that those promoting it reduce the level of religious belief, it is a great boon to this cause.) If you want to argue against secularism in the sense of no religious interference in these spheres, be my guest.

Scheitle’s conclusions about education students are even more bizarre. Again, the threat to secular education in general and good science education in particular is people, especially teachers and educational administrators, acting in accordance with the conflict-religion view. He suggests that “future educators are among the most likely to hold a pro-religion conflict perspective. Given that classrooms and school boards have been one of the central forums for the struggle over religion and science, this does not bode well for a reduction of those struggles.” But as his research demonstrates, between freshman and junior years, education students show a 22% drop in the percentage of people holding religion-conflict views, reducing the percentage who hold this view to single digits. This is very strong evidence of secularization, and bodes quite well, in fact.

*Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (2011) 50(1):175–186.

**It’s interesting that this is a bit of research in the sociology of religion that might not appear as “pro-religion” to anyone unfamiliar with the debates in which it intervenes.

*** To offer an extreme example, let’s say they surveyed 100 people, and two had science-conflict views while 98 had no-conflict views. Then they surveyed them a second time a few years later and one from each group had changed her mind. They could say that 50% of the first group and less than 1% of the second had changed their minds. Would this support Scheitle’s interpretation? Sigh.

Vaccines bad, diseases good: Anti-vaccine activists in all their Orwellian glory

Via Orac. Should come with a blood pressure warning.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

You know who else liked animals?


I've been reading and posting a bit lately about our relationships with other animals, but I've come across few arguments as powerful as this one, from the ironically surnamed Daniel Lapin:
Look, it’s not an accident that some of the most brutal and cruel, demonic tyrants of history loved animals. It’s not an accident. It’s not an accident that Adolf Hitler was almost never seen without his dog, who he was petting constantly. Loved his dog! Well, what we understand is that there is a potential, it’s not going to happen to everybody, but there is a potential within a large society that if we obliterate the distinction between people and animals it’s not that people will start treating animals better, they’ll start treating people worse…
(an interesting essay on the Bible and the treatment of animals)

Uh, OK, but you might wish to inform the rest of the planet...

Dr. Abraham Nussbaum, in a critical review of Anatomy of an Epidemic, responds to Robert Whitaker's "demand"
that psychiatry "admit that the drugs, rather than fix chemical imbalances in the brain, perturb the normal functioning of neurotransmitter pathways" (p. 333). In this statement, the expansive sweep of Whitaker’s interpretation becomes clear: I know of no serious psychiatrist who believes that psychotropic drugs "fix chemical imbalances in the brains" of their patients.
(via Critical Psychiatry)

Saturday, June 11, 2011

A Film Unfinished

From the description:
The Holocaust confronted humanity not only with inconceivable horrors, but also for the first time, with their systematic documentation. More than anything else, it is the photographic documentation of these horrors that has changed forever the way in which the past is archived. Atrocities committed by the Nazis were photographed more extensively than any evils, before or after. Yet since the war, these images, created by the perpetrators have been subjected to mistreatments: in the best of cases they were crudely used as illustrations of the many stories; in the worst, they were presented as straightforward historical truth.
At one point in the documentary, a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto watches a staged scene from the propaganda film in which a woman in an elegant apartment moves a vase of flowers from a table to a sideboard. "What on earth?" she asks. "Where did one ever see a flower? We would have eaten the flower."

Interlude - You Gotta Move

The Animal Part: Human and Other Animals in the Poetic Imagination, Mark Payne

One interesting and disturbing aspect of Holly Tucker’s Blood Work was the 17th-century research that used animals extensively, often in experiments that caused them great suffering and led to their agonizing deaths.

[Source: from Elsholtz, Clysmatica nova (1667), Wikimedia Commons]

Tucker notes the distress of some of the men who carried out or observed these experiments, and some of the arguments they used to justify them. I don’t know if there’s a history of scientists’ personal responses to the cruelty involved and how they experienced this in light of their philosophical and religious ideas, but I would love to read it….

I had the subject in mind lately as I was thinking about Agamben’s The Open: Man and Animal, and had just read Mark Payne’s The Animal Part: Human and Other Animals in the Poetic Imagination:

I would recommend The Animal Part to those with a serious interest in the topic and a high tolerance for academese (a characteristic phrase: “abandoned the early modernist fetishization of the inorganic for a Hipponactean biopoetics of abjection,” KL 583-4) and Derrida references. I’m at something of a disadvantage in critically reading his arguments about poetry as I’m little familiar with several of the specific works he analyzes,* but I found the general discussion of poetic human/animal encounters very interesting. I especially liked the discussion of Melville, and the book was my introduction to David Foster Wallace’s 2004 essay “Consider the Lobster.”

Much of the work seems to deal with the sympathetic imagination of and identification with other living things – its opposition to an “inorganicist” and destructive vision, the ways in which it’s accomplished, and the role poetry has played in its development. At one moment he expresses his wish to move beyond the superficial crisis-driven “appreciation” of endangered species, “to consider instances of such perceptual change that are not provoked by the prospect of total annihilation of the objects of perception in order to consider how everyday appreciation of the lives of other animals might reduce the need for such emergency thinking” (KL 789-790). “Under what circumstances,” he asks at another, “does interrupted identification with self-image produce sympathetic attentiveness to what interrupts it instead of narcissistic destructivism?” (KL 781-782).

These are important questions, but it seems to me that in answering them Payne makes unfounded implicit comparisons between the capacities of science and poetry in the achievement of the sympathetic imagination. I realize the subject is the poetic imagination,* and can hardly fault an author for not writing the book I personally would prefer. At the same time, I was intrigued by the brief mentions of science, and disappointed when they weren’t carried through or science seemed to be misrepresented.

At moments, as when Payne recognizes Rachel Carson as “one writer who has given careful thought to the special difficulties involved in imagining nonmammalian marine animals" (KL 235), he appears to acknowledge science and scientific writing as potentially contributing or overlapping with poetic literature (it’s also possible that he simply categorizes Carson as the latter rather than the former). Elsewhere he suggests that destructivism “would seem to be a good counter-term to what E. O. Wilson has called biophilia” (KL 757-8), thus drawing a connection between Wilson’s concept and the sympathetic imagination.

Many of the conditions and actions he talks about as conducive to sympathetic imagination formation - solitude, observation, interaction, understanding nonhuman histories and forms of communication and sociality - are characteristically scientific, and he refers several times to Aristotle’s History of Animals. But Aristotle’s is left as the sole ‘scientific’ voice – on animal communication, for example [!] – and science generally appears to be linked in his view not to the sympathetic imagination the references to Carson and Wilson would seem to suggest but to “existential homelessness, biocidal destructiveness” (KL 703-4), and the construction of an ultimately inhumane - because based on ignorance of other organisms - world through the ruin of other life.**

In presenting poetry’s virtues in this context, Payne turns to Heidegger:
In "What Are Poets For?" Heidegger glosses this movement from first person observation to poetic reflection as a progress from "the work of the eyes" to "the work of the heart.” Because poetry eschews the "covetous vision of things" that is present in technological understanding, and "does not solicit anything to be produced" in its encounters with other living things, it enables humankind to apprehend itself as one kind of being among others, and so offers it an adumbration of Being that philosophy labors in its own way to articulate. (KL 907-910)
Payne’s reference to Heidegger here appears as a defense of poetry that identifies science with narcissistic and destructive “technological civilization” and imputes to it the limitations of philosophy. What about scientific reflection?

This sense of science’s limitations and unfavorable contrast with poetry is even stronger when he brings up Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish,
"a journey into the 3.5-billion year history of the human body," that promises to teach its readers how "our hands actually resemble fish fins, and major parts of our genome look, and function, like those of worms and bacteria." On the cover, Oliver Sacks explains that the book "will change forever how you understand what it means to be human," and a full-color flap entitled "Your Body as You've Never Seen It Before" that appears between the cover and first page proclaims the joys of evolutionary knowledge: "learn to LOVE your body for what it really is: a jury-rigged fish," says Discover magazine…

Can one experience one's body in a way that is cognizant of its deep historical continuity with the physiology of fish, and, if so, would such knowledge take the form of love? (KL 1639-44)
I don’t know, but I certainly think it's possible (whatever "love" might mean here). An understanding of our evolutionary kinship with all other living things, gaining scientific knowledge of nonhuman histories, relationships, and communication, can lead to profound perceptual changes characteristic of the sympathetic imagination he seems to have in mind and very much in contrast to “biocidal destructiveness.” And poetic writing can only do this to the extent that it’s grounded in real knowledge and not pure imagination or projection.

I just don’t understand what appears to me to be a false opposition between science and the poetic imagination or the notion that science is incapable of bringing about deep change in our emotions and consciousness. It’s a difficult read and, as I said, I lack some knowledge which may be crucial for evaluating his arguments, but this is my preliminary reading. I’d appreciate any insights.

*(some of the work, like “The Sparrow,” quite beautiful)

**The insinuation is also present in the implicit contrast with Gerard Manley Hopkins’ explicitly religious ecological vision: “Humanity finds itself in a vicious circle: the more of the earth it ruins, the less understanding it has of the heartfelt care it ought to show for Creation, and the less understanding it has of this care, the more of the earth it ruins.” (KL 830-832)

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution, Holly Tucker

Blood Work

is the tale of the abortive history of animal-to-human transfusions, viewed as “a case study for larger political struggles, religious controversies, and cutthroat ambitions during the late seventeenth century” (KL 3414-3415).

Happily recommended. I mean, how many medical-scientific histories are murder mysteries involving postal spies, aristocratic poison scandals, urban planning, plague, pirates, prisons, monsters, and mummies? It’s an easy and enjoyable read that never loses sympathy with its subjects or sight of the important questions the story raises:
issues of species integrity, moral taboo, human and animal dignity, and what is “natural.” But most of all we are asked to come up with an answer for the thorniest question of all: What does it mean to be “human”? (KL 3452-3455)
(Yes, I was frequently reminded of this.)

An open letter to Spanish-language morning television

Dear ¡Levántate! and ¡Despierta América!:

You’re very bossy.



Wednesday, June 8, 2011

More on Templeton and sociology

My previous post was a discussion of a 2010 working paper about, in part, the effects of religious funding on sociological work on religion.* I specifically questioned the authors’ conclusion that private funding, and particularly that from religious foundations, has no statistically significant relationship with the nature of “socio-evaluative findings” about religion. Responding to a post about yet another Templeton-funded study with predictable results – it’s to the point that I can generally read a title or abstract and guess reliably whether I’ll find the name Templeton in the acknowledgements - someone speculated that Templeton might now be making a push into the social sciences. As I noted at the time, and a heap of evidence confirms, Templeton’s already deep in social scientific waters.

A proper study of their role in impelling the growth of religious studies (broadly understood), and pushing it quite possibly in a direction that suits their priorities, remains to be done, but I thought I’d offer a small sample of their academic projects involving sociologists. Unlike my previous posts on Templeton, this is not meant as an exposé of any sort, but merely a preliminary look at the Foundation’s involvement in the social sciences. It was with these projects in mind that I read the working paper and wrote that “I would bet a significant sum that research funded by Templeton is highly likely to produce positive findings, and that the number of articles based on Templeton-funded research that put forth genuinely negative socio-evaluative results about religion is darn near close to zero.” [It’s worthy of noting that Templeton seems to have removed some pages on its funding from its site.]
  • "The Empirical Study of Values in China" (ESVIC), Institute for Studies of Religion, Baylor University, 2006-2009; $3 million.

  • Chinese Spirituality and Society Program, Center on Religion and Chinese Society, Purdue University; $1,998,426. From a description of a lecture at Georgetown University by project leader Fenggang Yang a few months ago, entitled “Why Christianity is Thriving in China Today”:
    A leading expert on Christianity in China based at Purdue University, Fenggang Yang argued that the fundamental reason for Christianity’s growth in China is its perceived compatibility with modernity. During the rapid modernization process, Christian beliefs, rituals, and organizations appear to meet the economic, political, social, and cultural needs of the people. Unless China abandons her endeavor of modernization, he argued, Christianity will continue to thrive in the foreseeable future.
  • “Stimulating Innovative Global Research in the Science of Generosity,” Center for the Study of Religion and Society, University of Notre Dame, 2009-2013; $4,999,360.

  • Science and Religion Course Program, Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (see here for syllabi), including the CTNS research fellowships:
    The CTNS Fellowship Program, part of the now concluded Science and Religion Course Program, was designed to encourage the cultivation of science-religion dialogue within curricula at select U.S. research institutions. The funding was intended to offset some of the costs associated with the development of new curricula, namely philosophical and pedagogical challenges presented by science and religion, and the already stretched schedules and scholarly resources of teaching professors who engage in the development of new research.
  • Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health, Duke University. Associate Director Linda K. George “was a member of the Board of Advisors (North America) for the John Templeton Foundation.” Director Harold Koenig
    has given testimony before the U.S. Senate (September 1998) and the U.S. House of Representatives (September 2008) concerning the effects of religious involvement on public health, and has been interviewed by James Dobson on Focus on the Family and by Robert Schuller in the Crystal Cathedral on the Hour of Power. Dr. Koenig has been nominated twice for the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.
  • Pentecostal and Charismatic Research Initiative, University of Southern California; $6.9 million.

  • Flame of Love Project: Scientific Research on the Experience and Expression of Godly Love in the Pentecostal Tradition, University of Akron:
    The Flame of Love Project is a four-year collaborative effort by researchers at the University of Akron and The Institute for Research on Unlimited Love, funded by the John F. Templeton Foundation, that will provide the scientific and theological foundation for a new interdisciplinary field of study: the science of Godly Love.
  • “The Pursuit of Happiness: Scientific, Theological and Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Love of God, Neighbor, and Self,” Emory University, $1.5 million:
    The John Templeton Foundation has awarded a grant of $750,000 to the CSLR at Emory University for research on the ancient ideal of “the pursuit of happiness.” The Institute for Research on Unlimited Love (IRUL) at Case Western Reserve University collaborated with the CSLR to make the project possible.
  • “Spirituality in Higher Education: Students’ Search for Meaning and Purpose,” UCLA:
    In 2003, we began a seven-year study examining how students change during the college years and the role that college plays in facilitating the development of their spiritual and religious qualities. Funded by the John Templeton Foundation, “Spirituality in Higher Education: Students’ Search for Meaning and Purpose,” is the first national longitudinal study of students’ spiritual growth.
    It is our shared belief that the findings provide a powerful argument for the proposition that higher education should attend more to students’ spiritual development, because spirituality is essential to students’ lives.

    Assisting students’ spiritual growth will help create a new generation who are more caring, more globally aware, and more committed to social justice than previous generations, while also enabling students to respond to the many stresses and tensions of our rapidly changing technological society with a greater sense of equanimity.
  • Templeton Research Lectures on the Constructive Engagement of Science and Religion:
    The primary aim of the Templeton Research Lectures is to promote the constructive engagement and original research between the physical, biological, and human sciences and those modes of inquiry and understanding generally found within the domains of theology, religious studies, and philosophy.
    Here’s an example by sociologist Rodney Stark.**

  • Religion and Social Capital, Harvard University, 2005-2008, $1,179,846. From Templeton:
    This project examined the connections between religion and social capital so as to understand better the place of religion in the civic infrastructure of the United States. These grants supported the survey Faith Matters 2006 (FM 2006) and a subsequent panel study FM 2007, which examined the impact of religious belonging, behaving, and believing on levels of social capital. The data provided precise measurements of religious belief and behavior to help scholars determine their relative stability among different sub-populations and as compared to non-religious beliefs and behaviors.
    A 2010 USA Today article by fundees Campbell and Putnam (their blog), “Religious people are ‘better neighbors’.”***
  • But a small sample. The list of generously funded projects goes on and on, and illustrates that Templeton’s influence on sociology extends beyond peer-reviewed journals and into lectures, curricula, and institutions (including public institutions).

    This is not to argue, of course, that none of the research connected to these projects is solid or worthwhile. Nor is noting this involvement intended as a criticism of the sociologists involved, or a suggestion that they’ve been “bought off” by Templeton to distort research in the field. It’s likely that most of the people involved are already sympathetic to Templeton’s message – or what they understand its message to be. (Though knowledge of Templeton’s climate denial activities might give some pause.) However, given the nature of Templeton’s agenda, it’s important to ask in what way the foundation’s extensive involvement in social scientific research is shaping the questions asked (and not asked) and the interpretation of data, and what this means for the subfields involved and the future of “inconvenient” research on religion or secularism.

    *One issue I neglected to raise in that post was the fact that the research only looked at peer-reviewed articles (in three leading general sociology journals and two expressly sociology of religion journals). Of course, much privately-funded sociological work on religion appears in books, and the results might be different if those are included. I should note, though, that academic books have a different status with regard to journal articles in the social than in the natural sciences.

    **Some wisdom from Stark on evolution. I won’t link to any of the sites where the full piece is available, but you can google “Fact, Fable, and Darwin” for the creationist cornucopia.

    ***Incidentally, it was a recent article by Putnam and Chaeyoon Lim that I mentioned in the comment I talked about above. Here’s a critical response. (The claim that “The business of sociology depends almost exclusively on surveys” is not at all correct, but the Campbell and Putnam book does.)

    Tuesday, June 7, 2011

    Effects of religious funding on sociological research - a critique

    When looking into Templeton funding for sociology recently, I came across an article in Inside Higher Ed from last year, “Sociologists Get Religion,” which responded to a Social Science Research Council working paper – “The Emerging Strong Program in the Sociology of Religion” - offering the results of a study describing the increase in sociological articles on religion in recent years and analyzing their content. As some of those interviewed for the article point out, the increase is in significant part driven by the increased availability of funding:
    David Yamane, a sociologist at Wake Forest University who is editor of the journal Sociology of Religion, questions the idea that more sociologists are studying religion. He said that he receives very few submissions from sociologists who don't specialize in religion, which suggests to him that the new findings don't reflect more sociologists doing religion, but that those who do study religion "have gotten better and have more resources at their disposal to get their work out into the marketplace of ideas."

    He noted a "huge influx of money" -- from groups like the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Lilly Endowment and the John Templeton Foundation -- that have led these sociologists to "have greater resources to pursue their studies than in the past." He also said that data sets created in part with support from such sources have yielded much high-impact research that sociologists could publish in top journals. Yamane views these trends positively.

    [Darren] Sherkat, of Southern Illinois, views this funding with much more concern. He said that one reason sociology as a field long dismissed religion was because of an assumption that it was studied by those who wanted to advance a faith, not scholarship. "When the motivation for study is no longer what religion does or how religion works, but a view of religion being normatively appropriate or superior, then secular sociological interest will decline," he said.
    The working paper by Smilde and May, worth a read, finds not only an increase in the number of articles on religion and an increase in funded research on the subject, but a rise in “pro-religious” articles, which they view as a potential cause for concern:
    [T]he issue of pro-religiousness also needs to be examined. In our view, the idea that religion, in any given instance, contributes to human well-being is an entirely plausible, unobjectionable, and frequently replicated scientific finding. What is more, in some discursive contexts, it provides a vital contribution. While arguing that religion contributes to human well being arguably reinforces common wisdom in societies like the United States, within the academy it frequently amounts to a surprising and courageous position.1 We also think that having religious motivations in sociological research is epistemologically and scientifically unobjectionable. In the classic Weberian formulation, social scientists inevitably research intellectual problems generated by specific value commitments. And value commitments entail a certain image of the way the world works, which social scientific research can corroborate (without being able to prove the ultimate validity of the values).

    However, we are concerned that an increasing tendency towards pro-religiousness in the sub-discipline could saturate it with research that fits this project, setting aside research questions that do not. Research that would seek to show, for example, how religious participation might facilitate racism, insensitivity to inequality, militarism, patriarchy, civil privatism, political polarization, or other social ills could be left undone because of a scarcity of funding; or pushed aside if it doesn’t fit with the interests of scholarly gatekeepers. Likewise, studies of religion that simply see it as a sociologically important phenomena [sic] that is neither universally good nor universally bad, similar to phenomena such as the “state”, “gender,” or “class,” could also have a reduced set of opportunities. Such an imbalance could, in turn, distance the sub-discipline from the concerns and debates of the larger discipline precisely at the time that religion come to the fore in public consciousness as a central social and political issue. (9-10)
    This issue is of greatest concern to me, and it’s here that I have the most problems with the working paper. The authors examined all issues of three major sociological journals and one issue per year of two major sociology of religion journals over a thirty-year period (1978-2007), for a sample of 587 articles. They found a rise over that time in the percentage of positive socio-evaluative findings about religion. During the same time, there was a dramatic decline in the percentage of articles with negative socio-evaluative findings (to under 5% in 1998-2002!), with a steep rise in the past several years (there was really nowhere to go but up), although this was matched by a steep rise in the number of positive articles and so remains well below that figure. (This is all shown in Figure 3 on page 13.)

    The authors investigate possible relationships between research funding and positive findings about religion. They find a statistically significant relationship between the two, with an unexpected twist: while funding in general is significantly related to positive findings, by far the strongest relationship was with public funding, and the relationship between funding by religious foundations and positive findings was not statistically significant.
    Only further research will help us understand the nature of this relationship; but, at minimum, the highly significant relationship between public funding and positive socio-evaluative findings regarding religion complicates common wisdom regarding a presumed antipathy of government bureaucracies and officials to the role of religion in society. (25-6)
    This is surprising, but there are some issues to keep in mind. First, while I don’t doubt the sincerity of the authors in developing measures of positivity and negativity or evaluating the articles,2 this can be fraught. Cases like the recent article by Ecklund and Long, which I’ll be talking about in an upcoming post, suggest that substantial context beyond the article itself might be needed to evaluate the views being expressed with regard to religion. Moreover, as “religion” isn’t a single, unified entity, it could be the case that articles are implicitly promoting a positive view of some religious forms by looking at negative aspects of others (e.g., pointing to negative aspects of fundamentalist religion with an implicit comparison to more liberal forms, the possibility and some examples of which the authors note themselves).3

    Related to this, while it could be argued that the sociology of religion should focus on, well, religion, the dearth of attention to atheism (not to mention more explicitly negative presentations of irreligion or secularism) is itself a form of pro-religious bias worth appreciating; it serves to keep atheism invisible and to divert attention from essential questions of fact and epistemology regarding religious belief, which are relevant to sociology and shouldn’t – in an era in which evidence is of such vital importance – be marginalized.

    Second, I’m not sure there is any such common wisdom, including among sociologists, that assumes an “antipathy of government bureaucracies and officials to the role of religion in society.” (Since they include funding not just from government agencies, which is generally awarded on the basis of evaluations not by “bureaucrats” but by others in the applicant’s field anyway, and public universities, this image of “government” funding is a bit odd in any event.) The authors note:
    This relationship probably has to do with the support coming from federal institutes specializing in health issues—such as the National Institute for Health, the National Institute for Mental Health, and the National Institution for Child Health and Development—funding research on health that includes religion; however, it cannot be reduced to that. Twenty-six of the fifty-one articles mention financial support from public state universities. In either case, this clear and robust finding complicates frequent suggestions that government institutions and bureaucrats are the main motors of secularization (for a sociological version of this argument see Hechter 2004). Here it would seem that public sector institutions and administrators are quite receptive to scientific research showing a positive role for religion in society. As Winnifred Fallers Sullivan (2007) has argued in her research, it is increasingly the case that “we are all religious” in the eyes of the US Federal Government. (21)
    Again, I don’t think that those who view governments as agents of secularization in this context are for the most part arguing that they harbor antipathy toward religion, though I do suspect people generally expect public funding to be more “neutral,” in the sense of not having a strong pro-religious agenda and thus being more open to potentially negative research. In light of this – and more generally in terms of public science funding - I regard this finding and the last sentence of the quoted passage as extremely disturbing, though the authors don’t appear to at all. The notion that “research on health that includes religion,” publicly funded or otherwise, would naturally focus on positive effects of religion is not an explanation but an assumption that should itself be interrogated. (As health is an area where religion comes into direct contact with science, an uncritical privileging here is quite troubling.)

    Third, and most important for my purposes here, there are problems with the authors’ proposed explanation for the absence of a statistically significant relationship between positive findings and religious funding:
    It suggests that rather than supporting pro-religiousness, it seems to focus its support on classic “religious sociology,” in which religious scholars use sociology to engage religion, warts and all, in order to improve religious institutions and practices. (26)
    In addition to what I mentioned above about more subtle and contextualized readings being necessary here,4 there are other, serious problems. In terms of the public-private distinction, the researchers don’t appear to distinguish research produced in privately-funded centers at public universities, which, as I’ll discuss in my next post, seem quite common. Therefore, what might appear to be solely publicly funded could have religious money behind it (this mixing itself is a problem). More important, what the authors don’t provide, but would be easy enough to, I assume, is a breakdown by specific foundation.5 (Despite the interesting speculation about health-oriented research, they don’t do this for public funding agencies, either.) It could be that substantial differences among foundations in this regard exist, and this would be useful information.

    It’s a bit disappointing that the authors don’t present the data broken down in this way, as they recognize Templeton’s strong agenda (18), contrasting it explicitly with that of the Lilly Foundation. This would seem to suggest that their generalizations about foundation funding could well rest on an improper combining of data in which, say, Lilly’s greater let’s-call-it-equanimity hides a more clear pattern with Templeton’s funding. I would bet a significant sum that research funded by Templeton is highly likely to produce positive findings, and that the number of articles based on Templeton-funded research that put forth genuinely negative socio-evaluative results about religion is darn near close to zero.

    Which brings me to another key issue. Although the authors state that the findings represented in Table 9 “suggest that there is no perceptible association between funding from religious sources and socio-evaluative findings” generally (21), this table in fact shows only the relationship between different funding sources and positive findings. Unless I missed it, they don’t present any data on the relationship between funding sources and negative findings. This is surprising given that the authors themselves note the possibility for the marginalization or exclusion of critical research in these conditions as a major concern.

    In sum, then, my problems with this portion of the research revolve around complexities of evaluating “positive” and “negative” findings concerning religion that are only very partially noted or addressed, the combining of data that may hide significant effects from particular funding sources, and the lack of data on the relationship between funding sources and negative socio-evaluative findings. As I said, the paper is worth a read; it presents interesting data and the relationship the authors find between public funding and pro-religious findings is startling. But with regard to the effects of religious funding in general and that of Templeton in particular I don’t think their conclusions (admittedly preliminary) are supported. In my next post, I’ll present some examples of Templeton-funded projects involving sociologists to provide a better feel for the sort of work they fund.

    1Here the authors insert a bizarre and troubling footnote:
    6The first author of this article once received an invitation with four other faculty members to a university symposium on evolution with the charge “to show that intelligent design is irrational.” While the two natural scientists fulfilled the request, the two social scientists spoiled the show by arguing that there was nothing inherently irrational about it.
    It’s strange to quote directly from a personal communication in this context without citing the source or providing the context of the alleged quotation, and the footnote provides no support whatsoever for the claim that “within the academy [arguing that religion contributes to human well being] frequently amounts to a surprising and courageous position.” Arguments concerning the irrationality of creationism are not about whether religion contributes to human well-being. In any event, the claim is challenged by their own data, which shows a large and steadily increasing number of articles characterized by “positive socio-evaluative findings” about religion, well higher than the number showing negative socio-evaluative findings. But it’s distressing to read sociologists writing so cavalierly about evolution. Understanding what the symposium organizer meant by “irrational” would require context the authors don’t supply, but belief in ID with the knowledge of the strength of the ToE in the contemporary era is in fact profoundly irrational.

    2 They describe their coding somewhat vaguely in the methodological appendix:
    Socio-evaluative Conclusions: We coded an article as having a positive socio-evaluation if its findings clearly showed religion to contribute to human agency or autonomy in general or to concrete outcomes generally considered positive a[t] the micro level (such as physical or mental health, life satisfaction, educational attainment, low deviance rates, participation in civil society, low divorce rates) and at the macro level (such as economic growth or democratic consolidation). We had a separate code for analyses that “debunked the negative” by contradicting a negative stereotype of religious practice. So, for example, an article might show that members of Baptist churches are no less likely to value science than the larger population. For the analysis we grouped these together with positive socio-evaluative findings. We coded an article as having a negative socio-evaluation if its findings clearly showed religious practice to diminish human agency or autonomy in general, or to have concrete outcomes generally considered negative at the micro-level (such as stress, hysteria, maladjustment, passivity, volatility, low educational or career attainment) or at a relatively more macro level (racism, tolerance and bigotry, gender inequality, poverty and authoritarianism). We had a separate code called “debunking the positive” for articles that contradicted widely held positive socio-evaluative findings. So, for example, an article might show that, despite common sociological wisdom, Catholic practice does not reduce levels of suicide. We combined this with negative findings for some of our analysis. Articles that provided both positive and negative socio-evaluative findings were coded as such. In other words, articles could have more than one value of this variable. (27-8)
    3 “Furthermore some religious researchers funded by religious organizations often focus on the negative consequences of the practice of specific types of religion—perhaps as part of a confessional search for proper religious practices. These types of findings are not hard to understand given the Lilly Foundation’s interest in the overall health of churches. To such a perspective negative findings are as important as positive findings.14”

    4And really, it has to be noted that the idea that “religious sociology,” “in which religious scholars use sociology to engage religion…in order to improve religious institutions and practices” is anything other than pro-religious is not at all tenable. This isn't to say that it means the findings are positively skewed, but it certainly contributes to conditions in which sociology is plainly serving a religious agenda.

    5It appears Templeton and Lilly are the two major private religious funders of interest:
    We decided on how to code foundations by consulting their web pages to see whether or not they described their purpose in religious terms. This led us, for example, to code the Pew Foundation as simply a private foundation, while the Lilly Foundation we coded as religious. A different methodology—such as looking at different foundations’ charters—could well have led to a different result. (28)

    Friday, June 3, 2011

    Please help Cuttlefish; poetic anthropology

    The wonder that is the Digital Cuttlefish has put out a request:
    In that context--an atheist, invited to address a group of believers--what would you propose should be read? I would like to develop a database of relatively short pieces (there are some wonderful books out there, but they are clearly too long a form for the current situation) that anyone could have access to, to augment their own experience in representing atheists while addressing religious groups.

    So I ask--what essays have moved you? What stories would you want to share? Don't limit this to well-known writers (but don't neglect them!); don't limit this to positive stories (or to negative!); don't limit this to whitewashed or bowdlerized stories, if the unvarnished truth is what moved you; the whole point is to have a collection of real atheist voices, that anyone could draw upon to demonstrate "what atheists believe" or "who atheists are". Be specific--not just "X is always worth reading", but rather "this particular essay by X is perfect."
    I'm of course partial to the anarchists, but I'll have to think about which specific pieces would be suitable for believers.... The talk by Alan Sokal I posted about here might be worthy.

    Speaking of poets, Adrienne Pine of Quotha is writing Field Notes Poetry. Here's an example:
    A young man from a bad neighborhood
    a friend of C's
    didn't have the money to remove his tattoos
    so he found a cheap plastic surgeon
    had his skin cut off last week
    wrists, belly, neck
    so he could apply for a job at a supermarket
    he didn't get the job
    but he says it's healing alright.
    I love the idea and the poems.

    Thursday, June 2, 2011

    HONDURAS: return, readmission, repression, and resistance

    So...Zelaya has returned to Honduras, the country has been readmitted to the OAS, and the state violence and struggle for justice and democracy continue.

    Here's Adrienne Pine yesterday on Democracy Now!*:

    As she says in her recent article, "Zelaya's Return: Neither Reconciliation nor Democracy in Honduras" (which I recommend, including for the perspectives of local organizations):
    Today, the same businessmen, politicians, and military officials who funded, engineered, and carried out the coup are in power, having been guaranteed impunity for their crimes by a coup-supporting president who came to power through an illegal, fraudulent election that was legitimated by the U.S. government. Human rights abuses committed by police and military forces, rather than decreasing with the Lobo presidency, have surged in recent months to levels at or above those just after the coup.

    The current Honduran government, which markets itself as one of "reconciliation"—a concept that historically means bringing those responsible for crimes against humanity to justice—has shown no interest in reconciling with anyone who disagrees with its policies of displacement, privatization of public services, and the auctioning of the country to the highest bidder.
    *One of several pieces the past couple of days surrounding the return of Zelaya and the OAS vote.

    A question of interest

    From Cord Jefferson:
    After watching this happen again and again, something occurred to me: Why don’t the white men who are asked to engage in this nonsense simply stop doing it? The boycott is a protest with a long history of success. If white, male elites started saying, “I will not participate in your panel, event, or article if it is all about white men,” chances are these panels and articles would quickly dry up—or become more diverse.