A Retracted Paper About the Children of Atheist Parents Still Teaches Us a Lot October 5, 2019

A Retracted Paper About the Children of Atheist Parents Still Teaches Us a Lot

Nearly four years ago, in 2015, neuroscientist Jean Decety of the University of Chicago published an article in the journal Current Biology finding that children of non-religious parents were more generous than their religious peers.

It was a bombshell conclusion, suggesting that raising kids without religion didn’t just make them equally as ethical as their peers who went to Sunday school. It made them even better.

Decety arrived at this conclusion using a clever, if controversial, method. Children in six countries were told to play a game that required selecting 10 stickers from a large sample of them. After they made their picks, they were told they could give some of those stickers to a friend who wouldn’t be able to play the game otherwise.

How many stickers did the kids give away? The children of non-religious parents gave away 4.1 stickers. The children of religious parents gave away only 3.3.

From that, Decety concluded that “children from households identifying as either of the two major world religions (Christianity and Islam) were less altruistic than children from non-religious households.”

And from that, headline writers had a field day. The Daily Beast went with: “Study: Religious Kids Are Jerks.” (We covered it here too.) You can’t blame the writers; they were just reporting on what a peer-reviewed paper concluded.

But psychologist Azim Shariff found the results perplexing since they went against everything he had ever studied about altruism and religion. Past studies had routinely shown that kids raised with religion were more generous than those without it. There were many factors accounting for that, though. For example (and I’m just generalizing here), parents who instill religion in their kids are usually more stable and close-knit, so naturally their kids will grow up learning the value of charity and empathy. They volunteer more. They give more to charity. This is correlation, not causation. You don’t need religion to do any of this, but families that promote religion usually also promote being a good person.

The point was that Shariff couldn’t believe this new study. So he asked Decety for his original data, received it, and found a huge problem.

Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe explains:

When he re-crunched the numbers, Shariff discovered a major blunder: The six countries in the study had been coded by number — 1 for the United States, 2 for Canada, etc. — and in calculating the global results, the researchers had inadvertently treated those country codes as mathematical variables. Needless to say, that significantly skewed the study’s results. When Shariff re-analyzed the data without the coding error, the surprising findings vanished.

Current Biology published Shariff’s findings in August of 2016.

The original article now comes with a “RETRACTED” tag all over it. Decety has accepted the fact that he screwed up, writing:

… When we reanalyzed these data to correct this error, we found that country of origin, rather than religious affiliation, is the primary predictor of several of the outcomes… we feel it necessary to explicitly correct the scientific record, and we are therefore retracting the article. We apologize to the scientific community for any inconvenience caused.

Jacoby says that Decety’s apology, and Shariff’s handling of the mistake he found, is exemplary and a valuable teaching experience for everyone:

To all appearances, this happened without rancor or backbiting, without accusations of bigotry or bad faith, without demands that anyone be fired or silenced. Nobody dug in his heels and refused to budge from a previous position. There was no tribalism, no “cancel culture,” no Twitter mockery.

This is how science, and indeed all scholarship, is supposed to work.

He rightly says that Decety’s retraction “is a signal not of weakness but of intellectual integrity.”

I would argue there’s slightly more nuance at stake here. This was a technical error. A misinterpretation of the data. It was handled properly, yes, but it’s also not the sort of debate people have on Twitter (relatively to other arguments, anyway), nor is it the sort of reason people get “canceled.” It’s not like Decety’s humanity was at stake here.

But Jacoby is right that this is how science and scholarship ought to work. People make good faith arguments, and when they’re wrong, there are good faith rebuttals. If only all stories about corrections received this much attention.

(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Phil for the link)


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