Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Bogus atheist distrust study

A study on distrust of atheists was widely reported in many newspapers, including USA Today:
Psychologists at the University of British Columbia and the University of Oregon say that their study demonstrates that anti-atheist prejudice stems from moral distrust, not dislike, of nonbelievers.

"It's pretty remarkable," said Azim Shariff, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and a co-author of the study, which appears in the current issue of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The study, conducted among 350 Americans adults and 420 Canadian college students, asked participants to decide if a fictional driver damaged a parked car and left the scene, then found a wallet and took the money, was the driver more likely to be a teacher, an atheist teacher, or a rapist teacher?

The participants, who were from religious and nonreligious backgrounds, most often chose the atheist teacher.
Andrew Gelman points out that the researchers were fooled by the base rate fallacy. The study does not imply that atheists are distrusted at all, and only shows the low standards of one of the leading social science journals, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The current Amazon no. 11 top seller is currently Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. I just mentioned that Pinker's book is selling well, but Kahneman's book is selling much better, and tops all the science-related books.

Kahneman is known for prospect theory, which is about the psychology of how people understand risk. If you read his book, you would probably understand what is wrong with the above atheist study. According to an Amazon review:
Here is one final example from Kahneman's work of some of the concepts the reader will encounter in this book. Suppose that Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. In college, she majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with the issues of discrimination and social justice, and she also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations. Which is more probable?

1. Linda is a bank teller.
2. Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

According to Kahneman, about 85% - 90% of undergraduates at several major universities chose the second option, that Linda was a bank teller and active in the feminist movement. However, this is an example of the "conjunction fallacy," since the probability of two events occurring together (in conjunction) must necessarily be less than the probability of either event occurring alone. Put simpler, the probability that Linda is a bank teller must be greater than the probability that she is a bank teller and active in feminist causes.
So the fictional driver is more likely to be a teacher than an atheist teacher, and more likely to be an atheist teacher than a rapist teacher.

These are really just trick questions that are especially contrived to trip people up. I only mention them because some major social science conclusions are manipulated from the ambiguity of the questions.

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