Sunday, January 22, 2012

Are religious people better adjusted psychologically?

The academic article below offers some interesting facts but the perspective appears to be a Leftist one so I thought I might offer a different perspective. I add some comments at the foot of the article
Psychological research has found that religious people feel great about themselves, with a tendency toward higher social self-esteem and better psychological adjustment than non-believers. But a new study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, finds that this is only true in countries that put a high value on religion.

The researchers got their data from eDarling, a European dating site that is affiliated with eHarmony. Like eHarmony, eDarling uses a long questionnaire to match clients with potential dates. It includes a question about how important your personal religious beliefs are and questions that get at social self-esteem and how psychologically well-adjusted people are. Jochen Gebauer of the Humboldt-Universit├Ąt zu Berlin, Constantine Sedikides of the University of Southampton, and Wiebke Neberich of Affinitas GmbH in Berlin, the company behind eDarling, used 187,957 people's answers to do their analyses.

As in other studies, the researchers found that more religious people had higher social self-esteem and where psychologically better adjusted. But they suspected that the reason for this was that religious people are better in living up to their societal values in religious societies, which in turn should lead to higher social self-esteem and better psychological adjustment. The people in the study lived in 11 different European countries, ranging from Sweden, the least religious country on the planet, to devoutly Catholic Poland. They used people's answers to figure out how religious the different countries were and then compared the countries.

On average, believers only got the psychological benefits of being religious if they lived in a country that values religiosity. In countries where most people aren't religious, religious people didn't have higher self-esteem. "We think you only pat yourself on the back for being religious if you live in a social system that values religiosity," Gebauer says. So a very religious person might have high social self esteem in religious Poland, but not in non-religious Sweden.

In this study, the researchers made comparisons between different countries, but another study found a similar effect within one country, between students at religious and non-religious universities. "The same might be true when you compare different states in the U.S. or different cities," Gebauer says. "Probably you could mimic the same result in Germany, if you compare Bavaria where many people are religious and Berlin where very few people are religious."


The original journal article is "Religiosity, Social Self-Esteem, and Psychological Adjustment: On the Cross- Cultural Specificity of the Psychological Benefits of Religiosity" by Jochen Gebauer et al.

Two things to note: 1). As is so common in psychological research, the "sample" is in fact no sample at all. We have no idea how representative of the community at large are "Lonely Hearts"; 2). The assessment of mental health appears to have been rudimentary. A few queries about self-esteem and depression are a poor substitute for a proper mental health survey such as the MMPI. So again, the results must be taken with rock-salt.

Setting aside those reservations however, the interpretation also seems to make an assumption that may not be correct. The assumption is that only positive rewards are at work. It may be the other way around. The difference in interpretation is not large but it may be important.

I live in Australia, which, like Norway, is a very irreligious place, where regular churchgoers are something of a rarity. So I may have some insight into the results from Norway above

So I would summarize the research findings above as showing that religion does normally make you happier but that only shows up in places where it is accepted. Where religion has little acceptance and may be mocked (as it not uncommonly is in Australia) the social "punishment" for religious belief may cancel out that happiness. It may be bias against religious people that was the key driver of the national differences observed above.

An uninsightful look at racist attitudes

Below is an academic journal article which claims that "racists" have low IQs. I append some comments at the foot of it
Bright Minds and Dark Attitudes

Lower Cognitive Ability Predicts Greater Prejudice Through Right-Wing Ideology and Low Intergroup Contact

Gordon Hodson et al.


Despite their important implications for interpersonal behaviors and relations, cognitive abilities have been largely ignored as explanations of prejudice. We proposed and tested mediation models in which lower cognitive ability predicts greater prejudice, an effect mediated through the endorsement of right-wing ideologies (social conservatism, right-wing authoritarianism) and low levels of contact with out-groups. In an analysis of two large-scale, nationally representative United Kingdom data sets (N = 15,874), we found that lower general intelligence (g) in childhood predicts greater racism in adulthood, and this effect was largely mediated via conservative ideology. A secondary analysis of a U.S. data set confirmed a predictive effect of poor abstract-reasoning skills on antihomosexual prejudice, a relation partially mediated by both authoritarianism and low levels of intergroup contact. All analyses controlled for education and socioeconomic status. Our results suggest that cognitive abilities play a critical, albeit underappreciated, role in prejudice. Consequently, we recommend a heightened focus on cognitive ability in research on prejudice and a better integration of cognitive ability into prejudice models.


What the article ignores is that the mental gymnastics required by political correctness are considerable. A simple soul who sees a lot of black crime is likely to have a low opinion of blacks and say so. But, as is often said, some ideas are so stupid that only an intellectual would believe them. And concluding that chronic black criminality is all Whitey's fault is one such idea. So all the study really shows is that brighter people are more able to absorb the counterintuitive but politically correct cult that the elite have made normative in society. Only simpler people take their views from observable reality.

And we must also note that we are talking here about ADMITTED attitudes. And where some attitudes are much decried -- as are racially-denominated attitudes -- the truth of any admissions can only be speculated on. It could well be that attitude to blacks (say) is the same at all levels of IQ but only the simpler members of society are foolish enough to admit what they really think.

I could go on but I think it is already clear that this study proves nothing.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

My take on an ancient controversy

The Roman Catholic church claims special authority for itself on account of the alleged fact that the disciple Peter was the first Bishop of Rome and that Christ had given Peter special powers that Peter passed on to later bishops of Rome. The Bishop of Rome is these days referred to as the Pope, which simply means "father". So there are 3 claims there in need of validation.

1). There is no mention in the NT that Peter was ever in Rome. It was Paul who went to Rome according to the NT. But could Peter have followed on later? If so, such an important event would surely have been noted somewhere at the time in the 1st century. The Catholic Encyclopedia can rustle up just 3 alleged 1st century references:
"Earlier still is Clement of Rome writing to the Corinthians, probably in 96, certainly before the end of the first century. He cites Peter's and Paul's martyrdom as an example of the sad fruits of fanaticism and envy. They have suffered "amongst us" he says, and Weizsaecker rightly sees here another proof for our thesis.

The Gospel of St. John, written about the same time as the letter Clement to the Corinthians, also contains a clear allusion to the martyrdom by crucifixion of St. Peter, without, however, locating it (John 21:18, 19).

The very oldest evidence comes from St. Peter himself, if he be the author of the First Epistle of Peter, of if not, from a writer nearly of his own time: "The Church that is in Babylon saluteth you, and so doth my son Mark" (1 Peter 5:13). That Babylon stands for Rome, as usual amongst pious Jews, and not for the real Babylon, then without Christians, is admitted by common consent (cf. F.J.A. Hort, "Judaistic Christianity", London, 1895, 155).

It should be obvious that these are all weak reeds to lean upon.

What did Clement mean by "amongst". That it meant "in Rome" is just one interpretation. Since Clement was bishop of Rome, however, it may be this selfsame sly allusion that gave rise to the later belief that Peter reached Rome. As Bishop of Rome, Clement would have an obvious interest in fostering such a myth.

I pass over the second "reference" in polite silence.

The third reference asserts that there were no Christians in Babylon at the time. But there certainly were Jews and the famous Babylonian Talmud eventually emerged as the product of their deliberations. So it is entirely plausible that Peter did go there in an attempt to make converts and had some success. So this passage too is no proof of anything.

I would have entertained the idea that "Babylon" was symbolic if the reference had come from a sometimes gnostic writer like St. John but Peter writes a perfectly straightforward book of instructions. I think we must take him at his word. He went to Babylon, not Rome.

2). Special powers conferred? The basis for this claim is the passage in Matthew 16:18. "And Jesus answering said to him: Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona: because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in heaven. And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven."

Transliterating the relevant Greek of the original we get: "ou ei petros kai epi tautee tee petra oikodomeeso mou teen ekkleesian". That shows that Christ was using two different words for Peter and the rock upon which he was to build his "church'. He was making a distinction, not an equation. I go into more detail about the Greek passage here

An issue seldom addressed, however, is that Christ spoke Aramaic, not Greek. So what we read in Matthew is itself a translation. So what was Christ most likely to have been saying in Aramaic?

Alfred Persson has done the most extensive exploration of the Aramaic background to the text but he really rambles on so I will try to summarize: He points out that "petros" is the Aramaic word for "firstborn" but that it was also known at the time (educated Israelites at the time spoke Greek, as indeed did educated Romans) that the same word in Greek meant "rock". So Jesus was using that known double meaning to make a point vivid.

What point? What was the rock upon which he would build his group of followers? That is no mystery at all. There are numerous references in the NT which equate Jesus's TEACHINGS with a rock -- e.g. Matthew 7:24; 1 Corinthians 10:4. So Jesus expected his teachings to form the foundation of a new group. He was certainly right about that! To encourage his followers, Jesus then goes on to say that the wisdom he imparts is very special indeed. It will give his followers entry into the kingdom of heaven. So the new group will be a privileged one indeed. Orthodox teachings among the Israelites at the time foresaw a resurrection to life on earth, not a transformation into spirit beings.

But what about: "And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven."? Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Catholics claim that the passage gives Christians on earth the power to control events in Heaven. But that is surely absurd. Christ was surely saying that his teachings are an accurate guide to what has already been bound or loosed in Heaven.

3). But say we ignore all of the above and concede that Peter was given some special power. Where is there any statement or evidence in Christ's words that this power could be passed on? There is none. So all three of the Roman claims are mere assertions with no obvious truth value.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

More doubts about the Mediterranean diet

I recently criticized a Swedish study of the Mediterranean diet in which the lead author was Gianluca Tognon. Yes. An Italian really did study the Mediterranean diet in Sweden! The paper was titled: "Does the Mediterranean diet predict longevity in the elderly? A Swedish perspective".

He has replied to my comments as follows:
Hi, I’m Gianluca Tognon the first author of this article. On behalf of all the authors of this research, I would like to reply to some issues you mentioned in your article.

First of all thanks for having read it with criticism instead of just reporting the results, science is not based on absolute truths but it can just give the best estimation of the truth after a lot of discussions like this one.

You criticized the fact that we used a refined version of the Mediterranean diet score in order to get an association. The other “unrefined” score did not show an opposite association compared to this one. It was inversely associated with mortality but not statistically significant. This means that what it was measuring was not the whole story. [Why?]

What we did during refinement was to replace total cereals with unrefined cereals based on the fact that low glycaemic index food items are considered healthier than refined one. Then we included eggs, as a possible marker of a “western” diet (together with meat products) and polyunsaturated fats likely to be the kind of unsaturated fats in the healthy Nordic diet. Finally, we included alcohol intake because it’s a hallmark of the Mediterranean diet.

So, since we did not produce several random scores and then report the one that was associated, but based the refinement on previous knowledge, we do not consider this cheating. It is not the first time that this score is modified or adapted to different contexts: development and regional adaptation is a constant and evidence-based process.

Anyway, in the article we reported a sensitivity analysis which showed that none of the factors included in the score we used was able alone to explain our result. This is reported in the article we published.

What is important to say, is that our research was based on food groups (vegetables, cereals, fish products, etc.). Which food items are included in a specific food group can vary from country to country. The important thing is that the dietary pattern inspired by the traditional Mediterranean diet can be exported in other contexts without losing its healthy properties.

We think that explaining this result by just social class would be too simple. Our statistical model was adjusted for smoking, marital status, education and weight status, all possible mediators of the influence of social class on health.

So the association we obtained was independent of potential confounding factors (which, by the way, could also explain the differences in survival between Australian and Greeks since diet is not the only factor affecting survival).

We excluded “implausible” diet reporters by excluding subjects with extreme ratios between the energy calculated from their reported diet and their calculated basal metabolic rate. This did not modify the association making it positive instead of negative, but allowed us to get a better estimation of how much the effect was in terms of longevity increase.

The questionnaire was validated, and I have to tell you that validation of an instrument (like diet history here) with another one is absolutely the rule in epidemiology and not just in psychology as you reported. Diet assessment is subject to errors, validation allows you to reduce them as much as possible.

Finally, regarding antioxidants as a possible explanation, you’re correct that the discussion on this issue is still open. This is an observational study, so we cannot provide a biological explanation of what we observed. But we can speculate what the mechanisms could be. Antioxidants might or might not be part of the story, other researchers will then try to demonstrate if this is the truth or not.

Scientific evidence is not based on a single study, but it’s based on several results, obtained in different contexts by different independent researchers.

I am aware that this will not reply to all possible criticisms about this research, but again thanks for giving us the opportunity to clarify some important issues.

Prof. Tognon is a very civil and polite man so I am reluctant to be too hard on him but his reply really only amplifies my original criticisms. He used an existing index of the Mediterranean diet and found that it predicted nothing. He then dreamt up his own version of the Mediterranean diet and that predicted something. So which is the true measure of a Mediterranean diet? Surely the first one. The second one could more accurately be called the Tognon diet!

The only real social class marker he used was education but education is only a start. Many highly educated people are poor and many rich people are not well educated. Bill Gates never got a degree. A proper study of social class would also require inclusion of income, occupational status, self-perceived class and IQ. So his findings are very much open to explanation in terms of a class effect.

Finally, Prof. Tognon in his bracketed comment above does something I have been waiting for advocates of the Mediterranean diet to do. He admits that national diets tell us nothing certain about lifespans because other factors could explain long life. I have made that point myself in the past but I have mainly gone along with the joke and pretended that the longer lifespan of Australians (when contrasted with Mediterranean lifespans) tells us something. It does not, of course.

But the same applies to the claim of benefits from the Mediterranean diet. Mediterranean people get fewer heart attacks. So what? How do we know that that is due to their diet? We don't. It could be some genetic factor at work, for instance.

Prof. Tognon's admission has thrown the whole body of epidemiological assertions about the benefits of the Mediterranean diet out the window -- including his own assertions. Correlation is not causation.