Why are some people religious? Putting aside arguments over whether the claims of particular religions have factual validity or not (up-front declaration: I’m an atheist), the existence of wildly varying degrees of religious sensibility in every society studied is quite perplexing for psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists. Some colleagues and I have just had a paper published (PDF here) which attempts to provide a piece of this puzzle, focusing on the relationship between religious beliefs and general intelligence, or IQ.
This is the blog version of a talk I gave on August 13, 2011, at Skeptics on the Fringe at the Edinburgh Festival.
‘Porn’, to quote journalism professor and anti-pornography activist Robert Jensen, ‘is what the end of the world looks like’. I must admit that, until I read this statement (from this book), I rather thought that the apocalypse would be more of the meteor-striking, sun-exploding, fiery-death kind. Instead, Jensen seems to think armageddon will come in an avalanche of breast enhancements, fake grunting, and peroxide.
This was posted ages ago at The 21st Floor, but for completeness I’m going to put it here too.
Don’t get your flagellum in a knot, but here’s another post about creationism. As promised in a previous post, some friends and I visited Glasgow Caledonian University to see Michael Behe’s talk, ‘Darwin or Design?’, hosted by our dear friends at the Centre for Intelligent Design. It was, in a word, appalling. Here’s why.
The Behe-ast awakens. A Behe-moth of the Intelligent Design movement. Beep Behe-ep – move over, Darwin! You’re nothing more than an old has-Behe-en. And so on.
As you no doubt already know, Glasgow has recently become the victim of a new and particularly unpleasant infestation – creationism. I say ‘new’, but the positions of the group in question, the ‘Centre for Intelligent Design’, appear to be almost entirely based on worn-out arguments dragged from the dog-eared pages of Intelligent Design books of yore, like William Dembski’s ‘No Free Lunch’ and Michael Behe’s ‘Darwin’s Black Box’.
Which brings me back to that delightfully punnably-named Intelligent Design celeb, Prof. Michael Behe. He’s coming to Glasgow! And he’s giving a talk on ‘what the science really says’ about evolution. So he must be going to say ‘evolution is a scientific fact, the basic mechanisms of which are not doubted by any non-perverse human being’, right? Right? Oh.
Let’s not get off on the wrong foot, here: technology is great. I for one simply love flushing toilets, 24-hour rolling news, and spray-on condoms. But despite the near-unimaginable number of problems solved by stellar inventions like these, technology isn’t always the answer. Bear that in mind as we investigate the shiny, sparkly world of ‘brain training’ computer games.
The, er, dramatic conclusion to my DSM5 series for The 21st Floor.
Part 3: The medicalisation of rape? (with apologies)
The DSM-IV makes an interesting definitional decision which may seem a bit peculiar at first. A mental condition is normally only defined as a ‘disorder’ if it causes the sufferer ‘clinically significant distress’. Normally at the end of each list of symptoms, this proviso is mentioned – if it doesn’t cause distress, it’s not a disorder. There’s an interesting philosophical argument to be had on this issue – what exactly IS a disorder? – but for now we’ll look at one specific example.
The second part of my DSM5 article for The 21st Floor.
Part 2: Post-Traumatic Stress… Disorder?
Everyone knows about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Surprisingly for something so widely-known, it’s only been around in the psychiatric manuals since 1980. In a major difference from many other psychiatric disorders, we know precisely its cause – ‘an event or events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others’ (as the DSM-IV states). The symptoms include recurrent memories or dreams of the event, the feeling that the event is happening again and again, and ‘intense psychological distress’. The question, however, is this: how valid is PTSD as a distinct disorder, aside from anxiety, depression, phobias, and other problems we already know about?
This article was written for the superb new skeptic’s magazine site The 21st Floor, where a wealth of fascinating and humorous information can be found. Go there!
It’s nice to be able to speak in the same language. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, currently in its 4th Edition (DSM-IV), gives psychiatrists and clinical psychologists the chance to do just that, being as it is a list of every psychiatric disorder currently known, categorised into useful diagnostic criteria. Well, I say ‘useful’.
Each time a new version of the DSM is in production, a tsunami of controversy rolls across the brain sciences, as researchers into particular mental disorders battle to have their particular interpretations included in the ‘official’ text, which clinicians will then use to diagnose their patients. Now is one of those times – the 5th Edition (DSM5) is on its way, drafted here, and a movement to fill it with rigorous, evidence-based disorders which are more than merely psychiatrist’s figments. Past embarrassments, such as the inclusion in previous editions of homosexuality as a disorder (now thankfully expunged from the manual), constantly come back to haunt the DSM’s writers, and as you can see from articles such as this one decrying the new draft, you can’t please all of the psychologists, all of the time.
There is legitimate criticism of some of the DSM criteria, and there is nonsense. In this 3-part post I’ll first sort the scientific wheat from the desperate, bizarre, anti-psychiatrist chaff. In parts 2 and 3, I’ll discuss a couple of pertinent issues for the DSM5 writers – the validity of a syndrome everyone knows about (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), and the validity of an entirely new creation (Coercive Paraphilic Disorder).
Allow me to be deeply geeky for a moment here: it seems Dungeons & Dragons was only half right.
Those slavering, lonely sad sacks among you who are familiar with creating characters in this role-playing, roll-dicing game will know that, when you generate your in-game avatar, you are confronted with a list of attributes (such as Strength, Wisdom, and Charisma) from which you choose if you’d like to be a charmingly pathetic weakling, a musclebound oaf, or anywhere in between. You then pick a class (such as Fighter, Wizard, or Thief), which describes how you’ll deal with your exciting adventures – hack ‘n’ slash with a big axe, or cower at the back with Magic Missile.
So the overall message is this: people vary a lot, but you can still put them into a taxonomy of ‘classes’, ways in which they’re comfortable with dealing with the world. And now, as I hit rock bottom in the ‘tortured metaphor to open a blog post’ stakes, I will assess how close a fit the D&D system is to real human psychology.
I’m surprised the incidence of claustrophobia isn’t higher amongst scientists. Whether it’s know-it-all alternative medicine advocates, religious fanatics, or militant anti-environmentalists, science really is beset on all sides by a rogues’ gallery of knuckle-dragging bullshitters.
It’s a strange fact, however, that sometimes the knuckles of these bullshitters appear entirely unscuffed – that is, even the cleverest of writers can occasionally throw out an opinion of such shocking absurdity that one must step back in disbelief. This has, I am sad to say, recently been the case with critic and essayist Clive James, who has converted to the church of climate change denialism. Here, I’ll attempt to chop down the gnarled and pathetic-looking tree which James is barking up.
But that’s not all. Last Saturday I encountered a species of anti-sciencer rather more, shall we say, gauche and unlettered than Clive James. A mighty twenty-five of Edinburgh’s most indefatigable anti-vaxxers converged on the Scottish Parliament to express their opinion that ‘SWINE FLU IS A HOAX!’.
So which is the biggest hoax – climate change or swine flu? There’s only one way to find out – FIGHT!!!