Friday, 15 May 2009

A religion of love?

Religious apologists such as Prince Charles often say that Christianity is "a religion of love". A recent survey by the Pew Research Center makes this claim look pretty sick.

A survey of 742 Americans last month found that 49% think it is 'often or sometimes justified to torture terrorist suspects to obtain important information'. In fact the situation is worse than that since only 25% think that it's never justified. (So much for 'western values'!)

Religion does make a difference but unfortunately for its apologists it's the wrong way. The proportion saying torture is often or sometimes justified are:
  • 54% of those attending services weekly
  • 51% of those attending monthly or less often
  • 42% of those attending seldom or never.
In truth, religion may not be the real issue here. The big difference is really between Republicans (64% of whom support torture) and Democrats (only 36% of whom do so). American Christianity has to be seen as a social not an intellectual phenomenon. American Republicans go to church to affirm their support for tradition and support torture because they expect to benefit from it through US political and commercial dominance.

OK, it's probably more complicated than that. Americans probably have several other reasons for supporting torture such as support for state authority which is a positive value for conservatives but not for liberals.

What it's not is evidence that religion - even a religion allegedly based on the Sermon on the Mount - makes society better. Plainly, if it has any effect it is to make it worse.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

The Biology of Belief at Sam Harris's Reason Project

In collaboration with colleagues at USC and UCLA, Sam Harris is completing a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study of religious faith, using both atheists and committed Christians as subjects to elucidate the 'Biology of Belief'.

More on this topic at Tom Rees Epiphenom.

Related Articles:

Harris, S., Sheth, S.A., Cohen, M.S. (2008). Functional neuroimaging of belief, disbelief, and uncertainty. Annals of Neurology, 63(2), 141-147.

Sacks, O. & J. Hirsch. (2008). A Neurology of Belief Annals of Neurology, 63(2), 129-130.

Van Biema, D. (2008). My Nose, My Brain, My Faith. Time. (Jan. 10).

Van Biema, D. (2007). What Your Brain Looks Like on Faith. Time. (Dec. 14).

Shermer, M. (2008). Adam's Maxim and Spinoza's Conjecture. Scientific American. (March).

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Quack remedies spread by virtue of being useless

Mark Tanaka hypothesis to explain the persistence in use of medical quackery is that people simply copy the treatments used by other sick people. Since quackery treatments will be used for a longer time than proven remedies, the quackery treatments will tend to be copied more often than the proven remedies.

However James Holland Jones says that this hypothesis may not be the whole story. People use
language to communicate to others whether a treatment is actually working so one would expect the quackery treatments not to be taken up as often as proven remedies.

Eating a vulture won't clear a bad case of syphilis nor will a drink made of rotting snakes treat leprosy, but these and other bogus medical treatments spread precisely because they don't work. That's the counterintuitive finding of a mathematical model of medical quackery.

Ineffective treatments don't cure an illness, so sufferers demonstrate them to more people than those who recovery quickly after taking real medicines.

"The assumption is that when people pick up treatments to try, they're basically observing other people," says Mark Tanaka, a mathematical biologist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, who led the study. "People don't necessarily know that what somebody is trying is going to work."

The World Health Organization is demanding better proof that folk medicines work before they can be approved. And the Malaysian government has rejected more than a third of the 25,000 applications to register traditional medicines it has received because the treatments are ineffective or dangerous.

Despite these efforts, quack medicine persists around the world. Some Nigerians treat malaria with witchcraft, a South African health minister recently claimed that garlic and beetroot treat HIV, and western health stores brim with unproven treatments for almost any disease imaginable. For instance St John's wort does nothing for attention deficit hyperactive disorder in children, a recent placebo-controlled trial concluded.

Contagious treatments

To understand why these quack medical treatments persist in the face of better proven remedies, Tanaka applied mathematical models used to measure evolutionary fitness to medical treatments.

His model accounted for factors including the rate of conversion to a treatment, the effectiveness of a treatment, the rate at which people abandon a treatment, the odds of recovering naturally, and the chances of dying. The model starts with a single person demonstrating a treatment – rubbish or not – and measures how many people are influenced to go on to give the treatment a try.

Under a wide range of conditions, quack treatments garnered more converts than proven hypothetical medicines that offer quicker recovery, Tanaka found. "The very fact that they don't work mean that people that use them stay sick longer" and demonstrate a treatment to more people, he says.

Bad treatments don't always win out. Recurring diseases are more likely to promote effective treatments than rare diseases because repeated demonstration weeds out bad treatments, Tanaka found.

'Just ask'

But is this model valid in cultures where evidence-based medicine predominates, and government groups such as the US Food and Drug Administration vet most medical treatments?

Tanaka thinks so, pointing to the popularity of alternative medicines and the debate over the effectiveness of FDA-approved drugs. "In many situations people will just observe and copy anyway, regardless what the official information is," he says.

And in some cases, one peer-reviewed study may conclude that a drug works, while another shows it doesn't. "Even where there is a bit of clinical research, we don't really know yet whether at lot of medicines are effective," he says.

"I think it's an interesting idea. It's quite clever", James Holland Jones, a biological anthropologist at Stanford University in California, says of the model. However, language allows people to vet unproven remedies without trying them, he adds – that is, you can just ask if a treatment was effective. "You don't necessarily have to copy everything."

Journal reference: PLoS-ONE (DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0005192.s001)