Junk study: religiosity linked to poor performance in science class

March 27, 2017

Lately we've been discussing the public's growing distrust of science and expertise. Much of this skepticism is unjustified, an unfortunate side effect of our rapidly changing cultural landscape. But there are instances in which science is damaging its credibility by unnecessarily attacking people's cherished beliefs.


Case in point: a recent study published in the journal Intelligence found that countries with more religious populations tend to perform worse in math and science. The link between high levels of religiosity and poor performance in math and science is thought to support the "displacement hypothesis," the idea that spending more time on religious education eliminates opportunities to study other topics--specifically science and math in this case.


This is all a nice story; it's comports well with the current progressive cultural narrative which seeks to usher in a secular utopia where people exchange their religion for a cool, rational worldview. The problem, unfortunately, is that discouraging religiosity does not make us more science literate--and it probably decreases our interest in science in the process. 


 Let's take a look at the study's methodology before offering any criticisms of the author's conclusion. Psychologists at Leeds Beckett and the University of Missouri gathered international data on student performance in math and science and compared these numbers to levels of religiosity, as determined by the World Values Survey and the European Social Survey. When compared, the statistics indicate that religious societies produce students who perform worse in math and science. So where does this study go wrong?


That old correlation-causation problem


First, finding associations between two phenomena tells you nothing about which one caused the other, or indeed if the two are causally related in any sense. Yes, this point has been made ad-nauseum, and pointing out how many times this point has been made is getting old, too. Nonetheless, it's still very valid, especially since we're talking about psychology--a field in which fewer than 40% of studies can be replicated. The authors of this study failed to "show your work" as our math teachers used to tell us to do, and until they do, we ought to remain skeptical of their statistics. 


Declining U.S. Education Standards, Declining religiosity  


Speaking of statistics, In 2015 Education Week reported that American 12th graders are now performing at the level of 7th graders from several decades ago. Educational standards are declining to match the capabilities of our relatively unintelligent population. Other studies indicate that universities and community colleges are inflating their students' grades as a means to crank out more graduates, which means college students aren't performing up to the standards they used to.


Interestingly, secularism is also exploding in the western world. "Nones," a group defined by their refusal to claim any religious affiliation, now constitute 25% of the population in the United States, and they're the second largest religious group in North America. Most commentators attribute this demographic shift to our modernizing, progressive society. However, they don't mention our shoddy academic performance in the same context. 


What we see, then, is a trend running in the opposite direction of this study's conclusion. Westerners are getting dumber and less religious simultaneously. This can't be the case if religious practice displaces science education. But if your hypothesis doesn't explain all the available data, you need to throw out your hypothesis and start over.




Surely this doesn't mean that rejecting religion makes us stupid, but it does suggest that we need to dig a little deeper to determine why our educational performance is slumping. There are many possible causes. IQ, for example, tends to predict educational performance, and the most religious nations in the study--Jordan, Yemen, Egypt, Indonesia and Qatar--all sport average IQs that hover around 85. Very likely, then, unintelligent populations simply don't do well in science and math, whatever their religious beliefs happen to be. If this is true, pushing religion out of public life is not the answer. 


The Dawkins-asshole effect harms science education 


Ironically, it may be studies like this one, as a part of academia's increasing hostility towards religion that is partially responsible for dumbing society down. The researchers' predictable and unoriginal conclusion that we should "... raise educational standards ... by keeping religion out of schools and out of educational policy making” may be one of the causes of the problem we're trying to solve.


This is admittedly speculative and I wouldn't die defending the possibility, but the more critical academia becomes of religious belief, the more disinterested the public becomes in academics, perhaps. There is some research to support this possibility, so it's worth exploring. To plagiarize myself from Richard Dawkins is an asshole, harms science education:


The takeaway here, and it's really just sales 101, is that your audience needs to like you before they'll believe you. Would you buy a car from a salesman who was a complete jerk? Probably not. Now imagine that same jerk changing your mind about a concept as important as God. Never going to happen. By the way, this is why televangelists are equally ineffective at converting atheists to Christianity. Like Dawkins, televangelists are judgy bitches; they don't know how to communicate with the faithless, nor do they care to learn.



This hypothesis carries some weight, I think, because we see it at work in other aspects of life. Abusive parents tend to raise maladjusted children with all sorts of behavioral issues, most prominently among them problems with authority. Likewise, bad bosses tend to irritate their employees into being less productive by lowering their morale. Now, humans are rather predictable in many ways. If we respond poorly to badgering and belittlement at home and work, why would we respond any differently in school if educators are going to attack our religious beliefs? 




Instead of trying to displace religious belief, we need to focus on teaching people science. Most scientists agree with this strategy, and most religious people have no problem embracing what science says about most topics. Turning society towards secularism is a wholly separate political project (one with a depressing track record, I might add) pushed by a handful of polarizing figures. And If we need to keep anything out of educational policy, it's politics. 













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