In this episode, Kurt Jaros discusses which group is more thoughtful, atheists or theists with guest, Nick Byrd.
Book: Thinking Fast & Slow by Daniel Kahneman: amzn.to/2t7xtPz
Paper (free to download): “Atheists and Agnostics Are More Reflective than Religious Believers: Four Empirical Studies and a Meta-Analysis”: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0153039
Gordon Pennycook: scholar.google.com/citations..
Will Gervais: scholar.google.com/citations..
Ara Norenzayan: scholar.google.com/citations..
Kurt: Good day to you and thanks for joining us here on another episode of Veracity Hill, where we are striving for truth on faith, politics, and society. It’s a pleasure to be with you here on a nice sunny Saturday afternoon here in the Western suburbs of Chicagoland where we are bringing you, Chris what do you say? Something like the best international apologetics program out of West Chicago. If you haven’t had the opportunity yet, I want to invite you to listen to last week’s episode on the Dictionary of Christianity and Science. It’s a great interview between two of the general editors of that volume. It’s really a great book I think you should check out and everyone should have it on their shelf, sort of the go to, especially if you’re not a science person. It’s actually very helpful. Science isn’t my forte, but I found a number of the entries there very excellent and informative and so I want to encourage all of you to do that. On today’s episode we’re going to be talking about thoughtfulness and who’s more thoughtful, atheists and Christians, or rather theists more broadly speaking, but before we get into that, I’ve just got a couple announcements here. If you haven’t yet heard, Defenders Media is partnering with the Library of Historical Apologetics to bring the Deeper Roots conference in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Sept. 8-9. That’s going to be featuring J. Warner Wallace and Tim McGrew and a number of other speakers there and I’m really excited about that opportunity and so if you can make it I’d love to see you there, and hopefully I think we might be doing a little bit of livestreaming while we’re there so if you can’t make it over to Kalamazoo, hopefully we’ll be able to bring a couple of those talks to you.
What was next? We’ve got a lot of drama in the news it seems over the Republican healthcare bill and some other matters. If you want to talk about those, you’re welcome to give us a call and we’ll talk about those at the end of the show today. The number is 505-2STRIVE. That’s 505-278-7483. Perhaps most disconcerning to me happens to be the Chicago Bulls and their recent trade of Jimmy Butler for some prospects, I guess if you could call them that. One of the fellows had his ACL blown out last year and another guy, point-guard Dunn[NP1] , he hasn’t lived up to expectations, and so, not too excited, so I am finally fed up with the Chicago Bulls after many years and I am looking for a new basketball team, so if you have any team that you want me to support, I’d love to get your thoughts. In fact, I might even do some sort of livestream on which team I will pick, maybe some sort of process of elimination. Of course, there are a few teams right off the bat that I won’t be supporting, so I just need some help picking a new one.
I think that does it for introductory things. Now I want to segue over into today’s show and basically this is a topic that is something that a lot of people debate. They think, well who’s smarter? Christians or atheists? Really, this is something that it seems that scientific inquiry might be able to help us in exploring these matters and so joining me now here on the show is Nick Byrd who is not a first time guest, but a second time guest on our program. Nick’s a PHD candidate at Florida State University. He works in the social and moral reasoning lab and in the philosophy department. Nick. Thanks for joining us on the show.
Nick: Thanks Kurt. Good to be here.
Kurt: Yeah. And let me say too it’s good to have you back and again I appreciate someone like yourself where you sort of have these crossed disciplines where you’re looking at different fields of study and incorporating what you know and have learned from both of them, to seek out the truth. That’s some good stuff that you’re doing.
Kurt: Yeah. Thanks. Thanks. Tell us a little bit about, we’re getting into your research on this and there has been some work done, some studies on the, I guess correlation, I guess maybe even causation, perhaps between peoples’ thoughtfulness and their religious or disreligious dispositions. Am I saying that correctly?
Nick: Yeah. That might be a fair way to put it. It’s probably best to start with just the correlational stuff since that’s the…
Kurt: That’s easier to illustrate that.
Nick: Yeah. Definitely easier. Yeah. So there’s this question of whether there’s differences in the way people reason and there’s this other question of whether there’s differences in the way theists reason as compared to atheists and/or agnostics. That’s kind of what this research is about. There’s various ways to measure how people reason and just to give you an example, I’ll ask you a question. Here’s a question for you.
Nick: A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball.
Kurt: I need pen and paper here. A bat and a ball cost how much?
Nick: A bat and a ball, you probably won’t need a piece of paper, but I’ll give you the rest of it. A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?
Kurt: 5 cents.
Nick: Good. That is the correct answer. The vast majority of people will say 10 cents.
Kurt: I see.
Nick: To this question.
Kurt: They think the bat’s a dollar therefore you’ve got 10 cents left over, but that wasn’t your question. Your question was if the bat costs a dollar more than the ball, how much is the ball worth. Right?
Nick: Good. Good. Yeah. Like I said, the vast majority of people, atheists or not, the vast majority of people answer that question as ten cents, even thought that is demonstrably incorrect, but people report this with some confidence and then there are some people who report the correct answer like you did which is five cents and there’s a whole bunch of these types of questions. There is what some people call the intuitive answer that is demonstrably false. Based on how people respond to this question we can kind of get some idea about how people reason and maybe how people reason differently. It turns out that when you give these types of questions to people, theists tend to answer ten cents, that is the intuitive incorrect answer, theists tend to give that answer more often than atheists and atheists tend to give the five cents answer which is the correct answer more often than theists. The question is what conclusions should we draw from this kind of finding?
Kurt: I don’t know if you’ve got the study or there are multiple studies that I’m sure that illustrate this phenomena. Part of my curiosity just gets interested how far more frequently do theists answer it incorrectly vs. theists[NP3] . You said it happens more frequently. I mean how much of a rate are we talking here?
Nick: Good. The effect size is somewhere between .18 and .25 or something like that. That would be[NP4] , but that’s a technical term so one way to put it is it’s roughly 18% more frequently. It’s not like theists get all of these questions wrong and atheists get all of these questions right. It’s a probability difference and it’s not even that big, but it is statistically significant. It’s not entirely negligible, but that’s good that you’re asking that question to try and quantify the difference.
Kurt: So we’ve got this study here. You and we in preparation for the show have used the term theism or a theist specifically. These are people of all sorts of religious backgrounds. Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Christians, or is it just Christians?
Nick: That’s a really good question. There are a few different scales people to use to figure out what type of religion some people associate with. In the studies, the most common scale is kind of a general belief in God and then maybe some questions about how confident you are. There are people who call themselves agnostic, but not atheist, and things like that. In general it’s just theism. It’s not necessarily Christianity, as opposed to Buddhism, as opposed to maybe like Judaism or anything like that. It’s just a general theism.
Kurt: Sure. And maybe where these studies happen and how they might happen might determine if a majority of them are Christians, if the study is done say in the American South vs. if the study’s done in India, that’s going to give you a different sort of religious background for the theists that are taking these surveys if you will.
Nick: Yeah. That’s a really good point. There’s a few different places that the research tends to happen. Gordon Pennycook is a name that’s often heard in this research and Gordon does research both with college students and as well with people online and people online can be from anywhere depending on how you collect your sample and Will Gervais is another person who does these studies and he does these studies in Kentucky so that is the American South as you mentioned and that actually, his samples of participants, the responses on these questions that I told you about, they are markedly different than other samples of questions and so in the Kentucky samples, people tend to answer with the ten cents or the intuitively but incorrect answer more often than these other samples. That’s actually a fair point with some empirical support.
Kurt: Yeah. That would also be just another interesting thing to study the theist variety of answers. Say Christians maybe answered it more intuitively, or maybe just Christians in a certain region as well. That could also be other things, but I don’t want to get too far down the rabbit trail. When we talk about thoughtfulness or being reflective, how is it something that we can measure when someone is reflective?
Nick: Good. I’ll just give you the simplest way. I gave you that question and there was an intuitive answer or what you might call an unreflective answer and then there was this reflective answer and so you can basically give people a serious question and then count up how many times they answer irreflective response vs. how many times they answer the unreflective response and you can give them a score, so if they get 2 out of 3 reflective responses then that becomes a number that you can plug into your statistical analysis to compare with other participants. That’s kind of one way of measuring. But three questions isn’t a very powerful measure, so there have been further ways to measure this which involve six or twelve or eighteen or even more questions of this variety to get a more robust measurement of the differences in reasoning and so you’ll sometimes hear the phrase, “analytical reasoning style” or “analytical reasoning questions” and these are the types of questions that people refer to and there’s a large quantity of them. It basically is you give people a bunch of questions and you figure out how many of their answers are reflective vs. intuitive and that number helps inform your statistical analysis.
Kurt: And are participants timed based on how long it takes them to answer a question? Part of the reason why I’m asking this is because I could imagine taking a test and you sort of second guess yourself. Maybe you still after being reflective, you still put the so-called intuitive answer down.
Nick: Yeah. I would imagine some people probably do measure reaction time or answer time. There’s some controversy in the field about how meaningful that stuff is because some people seem to be able to to[NP5] the correct answer rather quickly and so it doesn’t seem like there’s kind of a one-to-one correlation between the amount of time it takes you to answer and how reflective you answered because some people can answer very reflectively very quickly, but other people can’t. It might depend on how comfortable you are with math for instance, but that’s a good question.
Kurt: Okay. Let’s discuss the details of the findings. How many, for instance, how many atheists typically take the test? What are the sample sizes here of these studies and maybe I don’t know, can you, are there many of these studies or are there just a few, what sort of efforts been put out there?
Nick: Good. There’s this paper by Pennycook and colleagues. It’s called atheists and agnostics are more reflective than religious believers and this paper has four studies of its own and then it analyzes another thirty or so studies, that’s at least 35 right there, and it’s a total when you add up all the participants, it’s a total of over 15,000 participants. It’s a pretty big sample size and on average these studies are a few hundred people or something like that and so even those individual studies are pretty large so the sample sizes are pretty good at the individual level and they’re very good at the meta-analysis level. This paper I mentioned.
Kurt: Help us out. What is a meta-analysis?
Nick: Good question. In psychology, there’s what’s called a study and that’s where you take 200 people and then you ask them some questions and you collect some other data about them. That’s a study. When you have a bunch of studies, say like ten, you can take all the data from all of the studies and then run analysis on all ten of them at the same time to see if there’s any differences in the patterns over multiple studies. That’s a meta-analysis.
Nick: So a meta-analysis is basically analyzing multiple studies.
Kurt: Right. Okay. That’s really neat that they can look at basically all of the studies on record or that have been published and then to provide an analysis of the findings there. So we see then this general trend, I’m sure in some studies, the studies vary from the findings, but the general trend is that atheists have what you’ve said here is 18 to 25% more probability of being reflective or thoughtful to these questions than theists. Is that right?
Nick: Yeah. That’s the general finding.
Kurt: Gotcha. Before we continue, that’s not to say that there aren’t smart theists, right? This is just a general trend.
Nick: Of course not. Right?
Kurt: I just want to make sure that’s clear.
Nick: Yeah. That would actually be something you do not want to take away from these findings. Right? Because they’re obviously the Alvin Plantingas and the Richard Swinburnes and Paul Copans and many many other scholars even in history like Elizabeth Anscombe and stuff so there have been very many smart theists.
Kurt: And we could also, just to look at the other side of the coin, we also might perhaps know atheists that aren’t very reflective. You can sort of get both sides of the spectrum there.
Nick: Totally. I don’t want to name names, but yeah, definitely.
Kurt: Sometimes even the popular atheists like Richard Dawkins, and again I don’t know where you stand personally on this, sometimes Richard Dawkins, he’s a brilliant scientist. Don’t get me wrong, but I find some of his philosophical statements might be subpar and of course Lawrence Krausse.
Nick: I know many philosophers who agree.
Kurt: And Lawrence Krausse’s use of the word nothing is often a miscommunication with philosophers when philosophers use the word nothing when Kruasse talks about a universe from nothing. There are, maybe we could call them outliers, or is it more common than merely outliers? Let’s say, our smart theists outliers from the trend. Is that accurate or not quite?
Nick: Smart theists. That’s a good question. I think this might depend on the culture of society you’re asking this to, so in the U.S. where most of this research is done, Christianity is kind of maybe the mainstream religion of the religious options. One way to say it is Christianity is the most common version of theism in the U.S.. If that’s kind of like the background or traditional assumption then you might just think like it is the less reflective response in a sense, and all I mean by that is it’s people’s defaults, and you might wonder if you went to a different place where atheism more prominent and therefore more like the default assumption, if somehow the findings switch. Maybe a county where atheism is more prominent, atheism would turn out to be associated with less reasoning somehow. This is all speculative, but there’s a thought there that’s worth testing.
Kurt: Yeah. Right. So basically what you’re saying is in a scenario like that where the society is 80-90% atheist, that the findings might be switched where the theists happen to be the more reflective type, but that would be interesting because then it’s not necessarily something about theism or atheism, the worldviews themselves, which would have people be more reflective. Is that right?
Nick: Yeah. That’s a good way to think of it. We just kind of created a hypothesis about how it’s nothing about the views themselves that has to do with being reflective or unreflective. Some background feature in the society, so that’s one hypothesis about what’s going on in here. You might think there’s a different hypothesis there. There are a few hypotheses we could explore. I don’t know if those are interesting.
Kurt: Yeah. Well it seems like there are a lot of related ideas to these findings and we certainly do want to be careful about the conclusions we might draw like how we’ve talked about there can be smart theists. There can be reflective theists and intuitive atheists or non-reflective, not as thoughtful atheists. That’s certainly something to continue the research upon. Getting back to the study or studies here, what does this tell us about theists or atheists? Is it able to tell us much of anything?
Nick: This is where I think it’s maybe worth considering some other hypotheses. We consider the hypothesis where there’s nothing about theism or atheism intrinsically that makes it more reflective or less reflective so another hypothesis is this. The hypothesis would be that there is something about theism that maybe’s less reflective or the way other way to put it is there is something about atheism that’s more reflective and that’s where we might go something like this. Atheists and agnostics are just more skeptical, and then they’re even more skeptical about their own judgments and so when they’re answering these questions about bats and balls, they’re a little bit less confident in their own response so they’re more likely to doublecheck their work and then realize they made an error and then therefore answer correctly. You might think there’s something like that going on. Again, that’s a testable hypothesis, but it’s speculative with not a ton of evidence that answers the question of whether that’s what’s really going on, but the idea’s maybe there’s just a difference in skepticism here and that sounds totally plausible. That could be something worth exploring in the research.
Kurt: Yeah, and I would think even if it were illustrated that atheists are in general more skeptical or even more thoughtful, that of course doesn’t lead anything about necessity, that atheists are always necessarily more thoughtful because there are of course more thoughtful and even skeptical theists, but we just so happen to, if there was a study that showed more of the particular here, it just so happened that atheists as a group were more reflective. I don’t even think I would have so much beef with that, because it doesn’t say much of anything to the worldviews themselves, but I think more just about the people. Is that a fair statement?
Nick: Yeah. That’s a good distinction. You want to distinguish between the view and the people who hold the view. It’s not clear that if the finding tells us something about group one, like the view, it doesn’t necessarily tell us something about the other. Or vice-versa. If it tells us something about the person, it might not necessarily tell us anything about the view that the person holds.
Kurt: Whether we are in the current scenario where most of the studies are done in the States or if these studies are done in our hypothetical society, the level of skepticism from the people group, whether the people group that’s more thoughtful are atheists are if they are theists, it doesn’t say much or anything as to whether atheism or theism is true, and that’s something that we just have to continue to investigate ourselves.
Nick: Right. It’s not clear to me, at least it’s not obvious to me, how one would go about testing empirically whether theism is true or false. It’d be important to say this doesn’t fare on that question probably.
Kurt: Right. That is interesting though that we might find more skeptical people that are atheists, at least in America based on these studies.
Kurt: Because at least as far as I know, I deal with a lot of thoughtful theists just in my field of work.
Kurt: But it’s true in terms of trends and just basically anybody, so that’s a question. Basically, is this all on self-identification? Just anybody that considers themselves a theist, they qualify as being a theist?
Nick: Good question. In a sense yes. There are some studies that employ very simple questions like this. Do you believe in God? Yes or no? But most of the studies, like the vast majority, are using multi-question surveys about religion to determine one’s quote unquote religiosity and the degree to which they are confident about the existence of God or something like that and that’s how we can distinguish between agnosticism vs theists.
Kurt: Right. Because you might have sort of doubtful theists. Those might be people that you want to weed out, just people that they think there’s a God, but they’re maybe not really sure, those sorts of things. In these studies then, do they sort of push to the opposite sides of the spectrum? Do we get the confident atheists and the confident theists or are we really kind of looking at everyone here?
Nick: That’s a good question. In the paper that I mentioned, it includes four studies plus a meta-analysis, that paper actually has a graph in it that I think might be answering the question you’re answering and the graph basically shows a pretty clear trend line from confident theism to less confident theism or like less religiously affiliated form of theism, like say you believe in something but you don’t really participate in church at all, so you consider yourself religiously unaffiliated even though you might believe in God, so there’s strong theism and then there’s this less confident version and then there’s agnosticism and then obviously there’s atheism and there seems to be a trend from less reflective to more reflective and it’s kind of a pretty clean trend on this graph on that paper, and this paper’s freely available to anyone so if listeners are interested. So yeah, I think there might be a pretty clear trend from one to the other on confidence in God’s existence from very confident to confident against God’s existence.
Kurt: Right. But now, even still, I might think that confidence isn’t necessarily an indicator of reflectfulness either. Right?
Nick: Right. That’s why we would measure reflectiveness independently with these measures like the questions I’ve been asking. It’s just that confidence correlates with the measures of reflection so yeah.
Kurt: I know plenty of people that are confident about things but they can be wrong, totally wrong.
Nick: Oh yeah. Confidence is not a normative property necessarily. It might just be, we’re just describing someone’s confidence. We’re not saying whether or not they should be confident.
Kurt: Right. So we might have a scenario here where there might be not-so confident atheists and even not-so confident theists who happen to be very reflective.
Nick: That’s true. So there’s definitely going to be class of people that are that way. The data suggests though that those wouldn’t be the most reflective people on average.
Kurt: On average. Okay. Because I know even some theists that are very reflectful, but their confidence level might not be through the roof. How do we judge confidence? 100% confidence? Sort of tautological or say 80% confidence? I’d have to look into the studies to see what level of confidence would qualify people to fit with those camps. Does that make sense?
Nick: Yeah. I think what you’re saying makes sense. I think if you were to imagine drawing a trend line from less reflective to more reflective, there’s just going to be tons of people very close to that trend line and that represents so to speak the average, but like you mentioned there’s going to be these outliers. There’s going to be dots that represent people that are way more reflective than average and maybe there’s going to be dots that are way less than average, way less reflective than average, and so at every stage whether it’s theism or agnosticism or atheism, there’s going to be people that are very far from this average line, but most of the people would be close to this average trend line, that’s kind of the picture.
Kurt: Gotcha. Well Nick, we’ve got to take a break here, but when we come back from the break we’ve got some other things to talk to you about. I’ve got more questions for you regarding the studies here so stick with us through this short break from our sponsors.
Kurt: Thanks for sticking with us through that short break from our sponsors. I’m here with Nick Byrd and today we’re discussing thoughtfulness. Who’s more thoughtful, atheists or theists? Before we get into that, I do have a giveaway here and for those especially following on Livestream you can see here this book. It is Good Faith: Being a Christian When Society Thinks You’re Irrelevant and Extreme by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons and it’s even signed by the authors, compliments here of Baker Books, so if you want to win this book, all you have to do is this. Get ready. Here it is. Just share the livestream video. All you got to do is click share, share it with your friend, and you’ll be entered here to win this book here. I’d love for you to participate with that. If you don’t have Facebook then, what do we do for people like that Chris? How about join the texting list?
Kurt: So if you want to join the texting plan totally free, and I don’t bombard people at all. In fact, I don’t think I’ve used it in a couple of weeks in terms of sending out one. Every now and then I’ll shoot you a text. Just text the word VERACITY to the number 555-888. If you don’t want to share the livestream here, you can do that and you’ll be entered. Any people that do that have a chance to win that book.
Chris: Maybe they could also text to the word BOOK or something.
Kurt: Text the word BOOK.
Chris: Yeah. Text the word BOOK.
Kurt: Well that would only work if they’re already subscribed to the…
Kurt: To the list.
Chris: So they should get subscribed to the list.
Kurt: And then text the word BOOK.
Chris: Then text the word BOOK.
Kurt: That would work as well. I’ll keep my eye out for that. We’ll talking about thoughtfulness here. There have been a number of studies, just about 35 studies here with roughly about 15,000 participants and the trend has discovered that atheists in general tend to be more reflective and thoughful toward answering a number of questions, maybe even some mathematical, but Nick you said maybe there were some other types of questions that weren’t necessarily mathematical. Is that right?
Nick: Yes. There’s some logic questions as well. It gives you a few premises and asks if the conclusion is true and you have to say whether it is or not.
Kurt: I love this stuff! Give me the test!
Nick: You might. I’ll send you what I’ve got.
Kurt: That’d be great. That’d be really funny. Maybe I’ll post my results up on the website. And I know Nick you mentioned…
Nick: You’re one for one right now so you’re doing really well.
Kurt: Nick. You mentioned that article by Pennycook and others I guess. We’re going to get that up on the website as well so for a listener, if you are interested in that, just go to veracityhill.com and click on the episode for this week and we’ll have that posted so thanks for sharing that with us Nick.
Kurt: Let’s see. Where were we? What doesn’t the study or what don’t the surveys tell us about the participants?
Nick: Yeah. Good. I think you did really well to point this out early on. There’s a few things that clearly do not follow from this. One of them is this idea that theists are stupid or less smart than atheists. That’s clearly just not true. Like you mentioned, there’s plenty of examples of very smart theists and perhaps less reflective atheists or something like this. This is not a knockdown argument against theism or in favor of atheism. It’s just an interesting difference in the way people reason when you compare two different groups in a particular way. That’s maybe the most you would want to draw from this. One comparison I do make to kind of spell this out a bit more is that some people find that there are gender differences in performance on this test.
Nick: Yeah. In some of these studies, men to answer more reflectively than women, but we don’t necessarily think that men are intrinsically or essentially more reflective. It might be some other type of thing going on, but it’s just a difference in reasoning between two different groups that we don’t need to take too much stock into in terms of the beliefs or features or these people.
Kurt: Do some of the preliminary questions to help sort of weed out persons, do they consider educational background? Whether people have a high school diploma, college experience, college degree, graduate level?
Nick: That’s a really good question and you’d be a good experimentalist. When people run these studies they’re also measuring things like how good are you at Math? How comfortable are you with Math? What level of education do you have? Things like this. It turns out that being more or less reflective, it doesn’t just reduce to how good you are at math or what your level of education is. It’s independent of these things to some extent and even the way in way which reflectiveness reflects to theism and atheism, even that is independent from education and one’s mathematical competence or what people call Numerocity.
Kurt: Interesting. It seems like there’s really just a lot of further research that needs to be done. How could further studies help to answer some of these yet unanswered questions?
Nick: Good. I think there’s some studies that are already being done and then maybe I could toss out a couple ideas for things that could be done if they haven’t already been done. You guys were quick to pick up on some questions about the cognitive reflection questions themselves. I think in general we should study what’s going on when people answer these questions. You might think that what’s going on when I ask you the question about the bat and the ball is some people first think the incorrect answer and then some other people after thinking that incorrect answer realize their error and then correct their error, but there’s people like Kurt Jaros who just get the answer right off the bat, and that’s an interesting difference that we should want to study and try to figure out what’s going on there and if that’s meaningful.
Kurt: That would be interesting, or as I previously mentioned, the second guessers, so maybe they’ve got the so-called intuitive response and then they think about it, they think maybe they’re wrong, and then they think they’re going to go with the intuitive one. The second or third guessers. That would be interesting.
Nick: We could call them the double downers or something like that.
Kurt: Nice. I like it! A gambling reference. Right? Isn’t that a gambling reference? Doubling down?
Nick: I think it is.
Kurt: Blackjack maybe? I think Blackjack. Nice.
Kurt: That’s great. Use that in your research when you publish more on this. Talk about the Double Downers.
Nick: Yeah. I’ll cite you.
Kurt: Even though I’m a PhD student myself studying theology, maybe you’ll beat me and the first time I’ll be referenced in a published journal is for that. Hilarious.
Nick: You never know.
Kurt: That’s right. Nice. So what other sorts of things can we try to explore for this area?
Nick: Yeah. Here’s a really important one that I think could be overlooked, especially if you’re an atheist and you look at studies like this and you kind of walk away from this study kind of self-congratulating in a self-congratulatory way, saying “Look. I’m so much smarter than these theists.” Well here’s one worry about these studies and this is based on evidence that we already have from Dan Kahan and the worry is this. There’s evidence that suggests the better you are at Math and the better you are at some types of reasoning, the more polarized you are in certain beliefs. It seems like there’s a degree to which people who are better at reasoning don’t necessarily use their better reasoning for good. They might use it to come to more extreme views or they might use it to try to argue their way out of counterevidence or something like this, and so we might think being reflective might be good, but it’s not necessarily good. Right? You can use your reflective capacities to argue for conclusions that maybe aren’t good conclusions.
Kurt: That is interesting. Another thing I was thinking about there while we were talking about sort of the smarter that people are, the more polarizing they become, I’ve seen a various number of articles shared online sort of about the smartest scientists. A majority of them happen to be Christians or maybe theists in general. I think that’s an interesting thing that some people might think about here as they might tend to think, especially in our society where sort of scientism, this idea that science is the only way to truth, they might tend to think that scientists are the smartest people, but as you’ve mentioned, there are other ways people can be smart as well and even if they are smart, that doesn’t necessarily lead to one’s position on the isms, if you will.
Nick: That’s a good point. This is certainly something that would be relevant to science.
Kurt: Okay. Tell me, I want to get a bit more personal here regarding your research. So what are the sort of things you’re doing, if I can ask you, in this area? What sort of questions are you trying to answer from studying this?
Nick: I’m interested in how people reason, which should be obvious by now. I’m also interested in the differences between the way people reason, probably also obvious, but I’m interested in particular about say the way philosophers and scientists reason, sort of going back to what you just said. In my past research, I found that some of the differences that we find among the general public, like the stuff we’ve been talking about here, differences in reflection, correlated to differences in views about God, we also find this among people in academia, so even among people who have PhDs in philosophy, there seems to be this same difference. So people who have PhDs in philosophy, the ones who are theists tend to answer more unreflectively on these types of questions than the PhDs in philosophy who are atheists so that could be another sign that there really is something going on here.
Kurt: If I may interrupt, sorry. When you do a study like that, you’re dealing with some smart people, people that have PhDs and in philosophy. These aren’t just your uneducated person, your blue class worker, that is interesting, that the results would be similar. I’d be interested to know what sort of probability. Maybe the probability lowers though?
Nick: It is slightly smaller, so I think the effect size, I think the last time I mentioned the effect size it was from 18 to 25%. I think the effect size we’re looking at is smaller than that among the PhDs in philosophy. It’s still statistically significant, but I think like you’re pointing out, it is smaller.
Kurt: That’s surprising to me.
Nick: It was surprising to me as well to be honest. I think it was surprising to my supervisors. They had this general thought. Look, of course you can find that undergraduates answer questions strangely and have strange views, but you’re not going to find that among people who have been studying philosophy for X amount of years, and then it turns out maybe you actually do find some of the same differences among philosophers.
Kurt: Continue on. What other sorts of questions are you seeking to answer?
Nick: Related to these questions is just the idea of “If there’s differences in reflection based on what your views about God are, are there differences in reflection on your other views? Maybe things that don’t even have to do with religion? And it turns out there are so there’s a lot of studies showing that differences in reflection are related to how you think about moral problems or moral dilemmas.
Kurt: Like whether the Chicago Bulls are a team people should support because Gar Forman and John Paxson have no idea what they’re doing.
Nick: Yeah. This is really important moral stuff so we definitely need to get to the bottom of where do the reflective people lie on this Chicago Bulls issue? We don’t know. Seriously, take a moral dilemma. Some people might be familiar with what’s called the Trolley Problem….
Kurt: Ah Yes. I remember those trolley problems.
Nick: Yeah. The idea is there’s a trolley going down the track….
Kurt: Someone’s laying down. You can flip the switch.
Nick: And if you flip the switch it will instead of killing five people on the track it will kill just one person so the question is, “Do you pull the switch to save the five people and then kill the one person?” And it turns out how you reflective you are correlates with how you answer this question and so the general finding of that, the more reflective you are, the more likely you are to answer utilitarily, which is to pull the switch to save five and kill one.
Kurt: We don’t have to get into the trolley. I would want to say why are the five people there in the first place? Did someone tie them down and all that? I know that the trolley problems have a history of debate and even if people are on social media and if you’re a Facebook friend with someone who studied philosophy, these things get shared. I’ve seen so many different things and people then put contemporary issues. I saw one recently, Nick, a trolley problem where the trolley problem went down to Friday and then it went off into Saturday and if you flip the switch, Rebecca Black would start singing or something like that, “It’s Friday. Friday.”
Nick: Oh no. Anything but that.
Kurt: So obviously people have taken the trolley problems and run with them.
Nick: It’s kind of cool to know that philosophy has a meme. It’s gone viral. That’s neat.
Kurt: Yeah. I’ll have to maybe share some offline, I’ll find them. Definitely. I especially have one buddy who shares a lot of them so I see them, I see the trolley problems. Trolley problem memes pop off every once in awhile. That is funny. Getting back to the serious stuff though. You find here that with moral reasoning that people tend to answer Utilitarian you said. Now while I’m familiar with that term tell me what is utilitarianism. What does it mean to answer the question in a utilitarian way? Is that just where you save more people than the one in the trolley problem? And what makes that utilitarian?
Nick: Good. These are really good questions. In general, you might say that utilitarians believe that something like the consequences are what justify an action. That is, the consequences are what we should consider when we should consider if something is right or wrong. You’re faced with a trolley problem and you want to ask about the consequences, and the consequences in the trolley problem are one person dies or five people die and so on this analysis, it might seem obvious that killing only one is better than killing five so I should do whatever I need to do to kill only one instead of killing five. That’s kind of what makes that response utilitarian.
Kurt: But even still for the utilitarian response, it seems like there are still intuitive ideas so for instance, utilitarians might ask or seek to do sort of the greatest thing for the most amount of people, but there’s still an intuitive question. What is good? What is a good thing? What is responsibility? If the five people are tied to the track and you didn’t tie them down, are you responsible and to what degree? If you then allow them to die, versus cognitively choosing to kill an innocent person. It seems like there are still intuitive questions relevant to these moral reasoning problems.
Nick: Yeah. This is really good, and I think what you’re saying reveals a way in which the word intuition is being used in two different senses. Some people have talked about the word intuitive as opposed to reflective. It’s supposed to be a contrast between reflective and intuitive, but then there’s this other sense of intuition and the idea is just that we have strong salient judgments about certain cases like moral cases, like for instance we have the intuition that it’s wrong to torture babies, and there’s nothing that necessarily reflective or unreflecitve about that. The idea is we have a strong feeling that something is either right or wrong, even though we don’t have an argument that that’s the case. We just feel rather strongly about it. That’s one type of intuition, but the other type of intuition that we’ve been talking about here is a lack of attention to your own reasoning. It’s not necessarily that you have a strong feeling and you don’t have an argument for your strong feeling. It’s that you’ve haven’t thought explicitly through every step in your reasoning process. That’s all that’s meant by intuitive in this other sense. When we pull those two apart, I think that we can kind of draw the principal differences between the way intuitives being used and the trolley problem so we had this intuition about certain ethical things on the one hand, and then we have this unreflective thought perhaps about the trolley problem and this unreflective thought is not the same thing as our intuitions.
Kurt: Right. So forgive me for miscommunicating. I think….
Nick: No. You’re using the word many people in the literature do use the word. I’m making a criticism of the way it’s used in literature, so you’re fine.
Kurt: Okay. Good. It seems that, like I said, maybe there are still issues to explore on this and to say one side is utilitarian. I just have questions more about what all of that entails so that’s all very interesting. Are[NP7] there any other sort of final unanswered questions that you’re seeking to explore?
Nick: Good. There is this one finding that I selfishly want to mention and the finding is the following. In multiple papers, it’s been shown, and these are very large sample sizes. The one sample size was about 500 and the other sample size was 4,000 I think, 4,000 people. It’s been shown that the more training you have in philosophy, the more reflective you are, and so this is a correlation so we don’t necessarily want to draw causal conclusion, like philosophy causes me to be more reflective or anything like that. It’s just the correlations, but it’s an interesting correlation. Right? And it sounds maybe surprising, but the idea is that maybe there’s something about philosophy that either draws reflective people or maybe there is a…[NP8] make people more reflective. We’d want to test that, but there’s at least a correlation there.
Kurt: Right. You know of course when you survey the PhDs in philosophy though, at least from what you previously mentioned, you still see sort of those traditional results albeit to a smaller degree, so that’s something to consider too, but yeah, someone like yourself and myself, we both studied philosophy, so we are interested to explore these sorts of questions, and it’s something not a lot of people do and that’s part of the goal of our show here is to get people thinking about things in a meaningful way and even to learn how to think well about things. Nick. You and I have pointed out here the difference between correlation and causation. That’s something especially for someone like yourself, that seems to be one of the criticisms a lot in psychological studies, the correlation/causation distinction. Am I right?
Nick: Indeed, and to be honest I find myself falling for it sometimes. I tend to assume a causal interpretation of correlations and I have to check myself, but it’s a very common intuition to have.
Kurt: Yeah. I was just going to say. It’s an intuition that we often have, and maybe that’s because we’re looking to quickly confirm our own beliefs. We think well, of course, that’s the case. Of course, there’s a causal relationship.
Kurt: It can be, but it is as we talked about, it’s a lot harder. It’s easier to prove a correlation, but it’s harder to prove that there is a causal relationship between two things.
Kurt: Well, Nick. What are some of the ways that people can find out about this research? And I can post stuff on Veracity Hill inasmuch as you’ll tell me what to post, so tell me.
Nick: Good. I’ve got a short list for you. If people really like books, especially books for the general public there’s this really great book called Thinking Fast and Slow and that’s by Daniel Kahneman and that’s just like one of the best and most famous books on these questions. Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, great place to start. There’s also a couple researchers that I mentioned. Gordon Pennycook. So Gordon Pennycook’s a name to look up. Gordon Pennycook’s supervisor by the way was Valerie Thompson. Valerie Thompson’s a very good researcher in this area, and then there’s some other names that I mentioned. One of them is Will Gervais. and I think he’s in Kentucky. He does research on this stuff. One more name is Ara Norenzayan, she does lots of interesting research on this stuff, and I guess maybe selfishly I’ll say I have a blog and I talk about my research and so if you want to go to my website you can check that out. I’m on Facebook and Twitter and you can, I post about this stuff all the time on there, and I’m willing to chat and engage with this stuff on social media as well.
Kurt: Now when are you looking to finish your PhD?
Nick: I’ve got two years of funding left and I better be done by then.
Kurt: I hear you. I’ve got about a year and a half left myself. It’s the better be done.
Nick: Indeed. We’re starting to feel the pressure.
Kurt: Yes. I just commented to a buddy that I sort of felt like a cloud over my head. Before I let you go here, we’ve got a commenter online here. His name’s Jonathan. He writes, “Interesting about the effect size decreasing for philosophers”, and he writes, “Justin and I”, maybe this is someone you know, “Justin and I looked at some of our backlog data and found that the effect size actually went up for philosophers.” He writes, “Our estimate for the Spearman Correlation between CRT”, this is certainly someone that’s in your field, “Correlation between CRT3 and religiosity was around -.37”, so 37% of…[NP9] restricted attention to people in philosophy.
Nick: Wow. You said the name was Jonathan?
Kurt: Yeah. Jonathan, I typically don’t say last names.
Kurt: Yeah. That’s him.
Nick: Sorry, if I just revealed him. He does great work on this so I’ll plug his name in a positive way.
Kurt: He commented here on our feed so, thanks for your comment there Jonathan. We appreciate it. That is interesting here that maybe it’s gone up so this is all to say it seems like there’s further work needing to be done so I want to encourage you guys to continue doing that and to parse out these fine distinctions that need to be parsed out. Nick. Thank you so much for coming on the show, and you know, it’s always a pleasure chatting with you and we’ll have to bring you on again sometime soon.
Nick: Likewise. Maybe we can talk about your dissertation. I’d love to hear about it.
Kurt: Sure. I’d be happy to do that.
Nick: Thanks Kurt.
Kurt: You got it. We’ll be in touch. Bye-bye.
Nick: Alright. Bye.
Kurt: So I hope that this has been a topic that’s been interesting to you and if you’ve got any questions, there are a number of ways you can get in touch with me or with Nick as well. Just go to his website at byrdnick.com. One last thing, let me say this. In two weeks time, it is our one year anniversary. It will be episode 52. We’ve been coming to you week after week. For that show I’m going to do an ask me anything, I guess those often happen. You can ask me anything. I’m now a couple weeks ahead of time soliciting your questions. I would love to have anything that you are curious about, I’d be happy to talk about. Go ahead and submit those my way. You can email me, Kurt@veracityhill.com, or you can leave us a message. The number is 505-2STRIVE. That’s 505-278-7483.
That does it for the show today. I’m grateful for the continued support of our patrons. Our patrons are people that just chip in a couple bucks a month to help the program run. I’d love for you to give us your support, $5, $10 a month, you can do that. Just go to veracityhill.com/patron. If at this present time, however, you’re not able to help us out, let me ask you this. Maybe you can go write us a review on iTunes or the Google Play store for the podcast. Just tell people what you think and share about it on social media. You can also follow us there. Veracity Hill on Twitter and on Facebook as well, and share about what we’re doing here, just a good opportunity to spread the word about how we’re thinking on various topics and issues pertaining to one’s worldview.
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[NP1]3:00. Check spelling
[NP2]At 5:00, Nick breaks out.
[NP3]This is what Kurt said around 8:35. Edit as you see fit.)
[NP4]Unsure what the technical term is at 8:50
[NP5]Unclear at 14:20
[NP6]Hard to hear at 34:05
[NP7]53:50 some back and forth where Kurt and Nick decide who to speak has been omitted and edited accordingly
[NP8]Nick goes staticky around 54:50
[NP9]Unclear at 59:15