Friday, January 30, 2009

Book: The Devil in Dover by Lauri Lebo

As education reporter for the York Daily record in 2005, Lauri Lebo reported on the Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District 'Intelligent Design' (ID) trial in Dover, PA. The Devil in Dover is her personal account of the events that unfolded in this small American town. While the story of this trial and the judge's ruling against the inclusion of ID as part of the high school science curriculum is well known, Lebo adds her unique perspective to the corpus of excellent books aobut this trial. Lebo's telling of the story is concise yet takes on the feel of a gripping courtroom drama set in rural America. As a concerned citizen, Lebo depicts her astonishment at willingness of the born-again school board members to utter falshoods while under oath in order to promote the inclusion of ID in the Dover science curriculum. As a touchpoint for the events unfolding in the court room, is her ongoing estranged relationship with her fundamentalist Christian father who insists that those promoting ID were obviously the 'good guys', despite their blatant lying. Lebo delves a little bit into the scientific arguments, but spends most of the book focused on the human side of this story, exploring how this episode affected the community, the individuals who brought the suit against the school board, and the board members themselves. It is in her exploration of the personal fallout that Lebo truly demonstrates her unique voice.

Spirituality vs. Religion

I recently encountered a (science) news story with the headline that 'Spirituality, Not Religion, Makes Kids Happy' and, needless to say, it piqued my curiousity. The news article goes on to describe research conducted at University of British Columbia by researchers Mark Holder, Ben Coleman, and Judi Wallace in which elements of the overarching concept of spirituality were related to happiness among 8 to 12 year old children. Out of the gate, the story reports:
The link between spirituality and happiness is pretty well-established for teens and adults. More spirituality brings more happiness. Now a study has reached into the younger set, finding the same link in "tweens" and in kids in middle childhood.
When I begin reading a story of this nature, my initial questions involve how imprecise terms 'spirituality' and 'religion' are operationalized. Given the title and the take home message the author seems is focusing on, one might easily draw the conclusion that this study provides evidence for a certain type of religious thinking will make people happier. In the very least, this thinking includes ideas about the existence of human souls, a god or gods with whom we can relate, or the existence some other form of benevolent ethereal entities. Presumably, this research demonstrates a causal link between 'spirituality' and happiness. However, the reporter has committed the cardinal sin of science reporting by overstating the actual findings of the research.

For me, the term 'spirituality' brings to mind the recently popular notion of being 'spiritual, but not religious' which is espoused by a reasonably large segment of North American society. This 'category' of religious thinking seems to be composed of a variety of perspectives, such as people who espouse a hodge podge of religious ideas but don't identify with any specific religion, denomination, or church. However, for me, it also brings to mind people from Evangelical Christian settings who attempt to distance themselves from a variety of dogmatic and political elements of evangelicalism, yet for the most part maintain an evangelical mindset and continue to attend evangelical churches. Given my own evangelical christian background, to me calling oneself 'spiritual' sounds very much like the line I was trained to use as a young person describing my faith as, 'A relationship with God, not religion' as if to suggest that I possessed the one true faith which involved a personal saving relationship with Jesus, and in contrast to all the other 'false' religions or versions of Christianity and their rituals.

Essentially, the author seems to be promoting the idea that this research provides evidence that legitimizes the idea that a 'spiritual' orientation leads to increased happiness. However, in another early paragraph, the author is a little more clear about the operational definitions of 'spirituality' and 'religion' that were used by the researchers:
Specifically, the study shows that children who feel that their lives have meaning and value and who develop deep, quality relationships — both measures of spirituality, the researchers claim — are happier.
It turns out the researchers used a spirituality scale that identifies four subcomponents of spirituality; Personal, Communal, Environmental, and Transcendental. Of the four subcomponents, only Transcendental seems to hint at an orientation towards some form of god(s) or other supernatural entities, and this component was not a useful or statistically relevant predictor of happiness. The components that are useful predictors of happiness include only the Personal (meaning in life) and Communal (quality of interpersonal relationships) which actually have little to do with one's orientation toward the 'spiritual' realm. Even though the elements are reported, the writer of the article has made the mistake of reporting the elements subsumed under spirituality (which wouldn't really hold as part of the colloquial concept of spiritual) as if they provide a sufficient definition for spirituality.  

Perhaps more grievous from a research perspective is that the news author equates this observed correlation with a causal relationship. But, the problem remains that there is no reason to think that perhaps being a happy person leads to a good view of self and healthy attachments to other people or that there might be some other unobserved factor causing both happiness and these subcomponents of the spirituality scale. As it turns out, in the original published study, the researchers are much more tempered in their report of the findings and do not suggest that being more 'spiritual' makes children or adults happier.

Similar to his or her neglect of the distinction between the operational definition of spirituality and actual spirituality, the reporter also expands the measurement of 'religous practice' as 'religion' overall. Which I could write a whole other post about, but for now, I don't have time or interest to do so.

So, what is my point? Am I denying that religion is a source of meaning in people's lives? Am I attacking this article as a person opposed to religion? Absolutely not! The point is that the research does not support the conclusions drawn by the author of the news article, and I presume a number of readers who aren't attending to the fine distinction between spirituality and the subcomponents of spirituality that could stand independently of any religious orientation or pronouncements about the supernatural. While religious faith does provide a source of meaning (and presumably happiness) for many people, the article misleads by suggesting it's a necessary part of a person's life in order to achieve happiness. The research actually demonstrates the importance of a personal sense of purpose and meaning (which can come from religion, but can come from elsewhere too) and the maintenance of quality interpersonal relationships.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Dan Ariely on Behavioral Economics

The traditional view of human rationality known as unbounded rationality asserts that we possess the capacity to think and behave in a manner that is, after weighing the costs and benefits associated with a decision, concordent with the lowest cost-benefit differential [1]. Thus, when faced with decisions involving our finances, choices between products or brands, and even how to comport ourselves in a variety of social settings, we should be capable of thinking through our options and deciding upon the 'optimal' outcome. It's often presumed that people who consistently make poor decisions or are incapable of orbiting this rational way of thinking are either not thinking about the choice or the problem correctly, or they are allowing unimportant information to bleed into the decision making process. This view suggests that some people are good at being rational, while others are not. However, this type of rationality is not what has been observed in the fields of Judgment and Decision Making Psychology and Behavioral Economics. What has been observed is that humans generally use a variety of short cuts and intuitive rules for making decisions [2, 3, 4, 5]. In many scenarios, especially the artificial sort used for a variety of psychological research studies, these shortcuts lead to 'sub-optimal' decision making. It's been argued that these short cuts, officially referred to as 'Heuristics and Biases', may not be rational in our modern setting, but they do match up well with the environment in which humans evolved [2, 3].

While working on my MS in Experimental Psychology, my area of research specialization was Judgment and Decision Making [JDM]. During that time, I became familiar with the research of Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at MIT who has recently authored the book Predictably Irrational. I have not yet had the opportunity to read Predictably Irrational, though I intend to do so. I came across this video (approximately 20 min.) recently of Ariely presenting some of his research findings. In the video, he demonstrates some classic examples of sub-optimal heuristic-based decision making. Implied in this discussion is that in order to improve our personal and collective decision making in an attempt to achieve more optimal results, we must engineer our environment and design policies that fit well with our heuristic based approach to decision making and cognition. Interestingly, a few high profile politicians, including incoming US president Barack Obama and the UK's conservative Tories, have recently enlisted the aid of Richard Thaler, a behavioral economist from the University of Chicago (author of Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness), as a consultant to assist them in developing and presenting policies that aspire to the goal of working within the framework of heuristic rationality. I think the video is a great introduction to the subject of behavioral economics and it's quite interesting to watch.

[1] Gigerenzer, G. & Todd, P. M (1999). Fast and Frugal Heuristics: The Adaptive Toolbox. In G. Gigerenzer, P. M. Todd & the ABC Research Group, Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart, 3-34. New York: Oxford University Press.
[2] Gigerenzer, G., P. M. Todd, & The ABC Research Group, eds. (1999). Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart. New York: Oxford University Press.
[3] Gigerenzer, G. (2007). Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious. New York: Viking.
[4] Kahneman, D., P. Slovic, & A. Tversky, eds. (1982) Judgments Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.
[5] Kahneman, D. & A. Tversky eds. (2000). Choices, Values, and Frames. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Ken Miller on Evolution (Imports)

Ken Miller is a biologist who I became interested in when, by chance, I flipped the channel to C-Span to find him in a debate about the scientific viability of Intelligent Design (ID). His opponent in that debate was Paul A. Nelson of the Discovery Institute which promotes various arguments against Darwinian evolution, the debate can be heard here.

I caught this debate right around the time of the 2005 Dover, PA trial on whether ID should be included in the public school biology curriculum, where it was ruled that ID was actually religious ideology disguised under a thin veneer of scientific language. Miller was one of the key scientific witnesses for the plaintiffs in that case, where he provided critical testimony to demonstrate the unscientific nature of ID by contrasting it with evolution.

Miller is also very open about the fact that he is a devout Catholic who not only accepts evolution as the scientific explanation for how life came to be the way it is, but also rejects the notion of ID because it not only represents bad science, but bad theology as well. One of the things I find most intriguing about Miller is the fact that he's open about his Catholic faith and he clearly asserts that a person of faith need not deny the science behind evolution.

I came to find out that Miller had a book out in which he discusses Evolution, ID, and faith called Finding Darwin's God, which preceded the Dover trial by about a year. In my estimation, this book is an essential read for anyone interested in understanding evolution and recent 'challenges' to evolution.

Last summer I organized a reading group to work our way through Finding Darwin's God and I tried to stimulate online discussion in preparation of a face-to-face discussion of the book. I'm creating this post to coordinate those online notes and discussion points in a single place. Below are links to each of the posts discussing Finding Darwin's God.

Introduction: My introduction to the book.
Part 1: covering chapters 1 and 2.
Part 2: covering chapters 3, 4 and 5.
Part 3: covering chapters 6 and 7.
Part 4: covering chapters 8 and 9.
Videos: a couple of videos of Ken Miller.
Post Discussion: listing some further resources.

[Update: January 16, 2009 - I came across this video recently of a presentation by Ken Miller from summer 2008. In the video he discusses evolution and ID, the 2005 Dover trial and other recent 'challenges' to evolution in the US, his ideas about the compatibility between theology and evolution, and his 2008 book Only a Theory. The video is about an hour long, but I think he does a great job presenting the case for evolution by discussing some of the more recent scientific findings that he doesn't discuss in Finding Darwin's God. ]