I never said…..Update

Well, what did I expect? A fair representation in the press and a balanced view from commentators? Come off it. Whenever, religion comes up, people lose all sense of reason and impartiality.  This is why I wanted to construct a theory that addresses secular supernatural beliefs to avoid the problems of focusing just on religion. However, bloggers and commentators have completely misunderstood my position and the ideas I am proposing about the origins and prevalence of supernatural beliefs because of the recent press articles.

A couple of things. First, most of the articles in the press are based on the original article in The Sunday Times by Jonathan Leake and Andrew Sniderman. Jonathan did have the courtesy to phone me on Friday afternoon to talk about the piece. He had not read the book but had a copy of SuperSense sent to him. I thought I made my position relatively clear as we discussed the evidence and studies that indicate that we are born with brains to seek out patterns and infer hidden mechanisms, forces and entities. That does not make me either religious or a religious apologist. For example, if there is a gene for psychopathic killers that does not make it morally acceptable.

I talked about the early emergence of mind body dualism and how it relates to the notion of an after-life and my particular research interest, psychological essentialism. I said that I thought many supernatural beliefs had a natural origin in the way children reason about the world and that while story-telling was one way of transmitting beliefs, in many instances cultural stories reflected notions that were intuitively plausible to children. In fact, I categorically said that religions were cultural constructs as Richard Dawkins had proposed. Where I differ from Dawkins (and again this is very clear in the book) is the likelihood of removing supernatural beliefs through education but this is an empirical question that is not yet resolved. I also think that we need to understand individuals differences. Belief formation is not simply hard-wired or indoctrination.  To use Ben Goldacre’s dictum, “I think you’ll find it more complicated than that”

Jonathan thanked me and said that he would run the piece past me on Saturday for my approval. He didn’t.

As Saturday night passed, I thought that they had probably decided to drop the piece as it did not fit with the simple “Born to Believe in God” angle that he wanted to push when we initially spoke.  So imagine my horror to read the title of the piece in the Sunday Times. In fact, when you read the actual piece it does have me saying that beliefs are much more complex than either nature of nurture (to use that completely unsatisfactory dichotomy that is the mark of naive reasoning so favoured by journalists). And there were factual errors. I have not done a study on atheism and moral contamination beliefs about hypothetical organ transplantation though I daresay that all people irrespective of their religious persuasion would show the same effects that we found in groups of students. Still it was printed as a study on atheism.

The problem was compounded the following day with pieces in “The Daily Mail” and “The Daily Telegraph” regurgitating new versions of the story with added insertions. And so on…. like Chinese whispers the story has become distorted with individuals adding their own interpretations and agendas.

So before you start putting words in my mouth, judging me or the ideas I am putting forward, then please read the book. I think that it is relatively clear what I am saying.

UPDATE: Tim Lambert just posted a criticism of Jonathan Leake but I have to say that Jonathan was very quick to respond to my initial complaint back when this was first posted and an updated article was posted online. So I have no complaint (esp as I understand that it was probably the sub-editor who came up with the headline!)


Filed under atheism, In the News

34 responses to “I never said…..Update

  1. This is precisely why I’ve said goodbye to newspapers and paid journalists (if they can be called such). Why would anyone with a brain nowadays bother to read a jobsworth’s take on an author/celebrity when they can just look at their personal blog?

    Hopefully that ridiculousness will drive the less hysterical readers over here and inspire them to use their brains. But I’m sorry to see this has happened to you, even if it might have been inevitable.

    btw – There are some journos who are actually authors, but even they don’t induce me to patronise any of the papers. I’ll make my own decisions and opinions.

  2. Hear hear! I have read the book, it’s fantastic, and I was slightly horrified to see the mangling of your position in the press. Your position in the book is clear and, in my opinion, perfectly sensible. I wonder if the difficulty is that Dawkins’ theories are so comfortable for atheists (like myself), because it shifts the onus of responsibility to society and the individual. That way, we get to feel superior that we’ve broken societal norms for a rational position, and we get to blame religious people for what we assume to be a concious decision to believe in fairy tales.

    Your position, however, is likely to be much more popular with the general public who may be more comfortable with the notion that religious or superstitious thinking is actually the default position. That way, they don’t have to feel so bad for succumbing to it.

    There are, sadly, strands of militant atheism which are unforgiving, unyielding and uncompromising. I’m uncomfortable with a lot of the almost-dogma that goes with such thinking, preferring instead to try and understand WHY religious people are that way, and taking positive action to counter fundamentalism (which is still, thankfully, the minority position for religious people). What your book does (and the articles, despite their inaccuracies), is open the dialogue. That is NEVER a bad thing. Yes, it’s frustrating to be misrepresented, but for every vocal opponent there may well be two or three silent supporters. Or one vocal one like me 😀

  3. As they say, “Any publicity is good publicity.”
    Nothing better than a controversy to sell a few books, and with a wider audience, more people might get the point.
    Stranger things have happened . . .

  4. I read this in the paper a couple of days ago, and wrote in my blog that I thought you had probably been misrepresented. I think the articles were pretty horrendous, and shows exactly what is wrong with science journalism.

  5. JefFlyingV

    Or another thought is childrens minds are hard wired for enculturation which will usually stay with the individual until death if not changed through further education or reinforcement.

    I can understand your horror and your treatment by the press. I will be browsing through your site to make sense of super sense.

  6. Thanks so much for writing this clarification. I saw the Times article via PZ Myers, and I kinda got a funny feeling your work was being distorted — even though I had never heard of you before.

    Now I have to read SuperSense 🙂

  7. I have spent the last few days at a meeting I had organised but I had heard something mentioning the article and wondered if they managed to confuse what you were saying, too. I fear that with your more public role you will have plenty of other similar things happen to you in the future. This kind of thing should be put down to cognitive dissonance on the part of the journalist – not that the analysis helps when it is you that is getting misquoted.

    So will you ask for a correction or is that not something that is likely to get done in a case like this in the UK?

  8. It’s unfortunate that we can not simply ignore all requests from journalists, but science communication is already a big enough problem. Perhaps before acquiescing to interview requests we should be vetting journalists by asking for examples of previous articles that demonstrate they can get it right?

  9. Xenophanes

    Bruce, I am so glad to see that your research and words were distorted. I, of course, didn’t think the articles were quite right, but was a little dismayed at a professor from Bristol saying things like that. I’m glad I have now found your blog and what you actually think.
    I’m sure a number of you have seen this comic floating around, but it’s quite good and hits rather close to home about science reporting.

  10. qwerty

    And there were factual errors. I have not done a study on atheism and moral contamination beliefs about hypothetical organ transplantation though I daresay that all people irrespective of their religious persuasion would show the same effects that we found in groups of students. Still it was printed as a study on atheism.

    No, Leake and Sniderman did not claim or imply that you did “a study on atheism.” They said that you “found even ardent atheists balked at the idea of accepting an organ transplant from a murderer…”

    Did you?

  11. Gus

    I think it comes down to the simple fact that ‘Born to Believe in God’ is a good headline, whilst ‘Religion is dumb but inevitable’ (I paraphrase a little), isn’t.

    As a confirmed cynic I suggest you up the ante. Get on the phone to Messers Leake and Sniderman (a Dickensian law firm, surely) and berate them for playing down your position.

    ‘Prof proves Dawkins is Satan.’ should shift some copies. ‘Human brain hardwired for Christianity, declares crazed academic’ will have you on Newsnight in seconds. (Note: You’ll need a picture of you with mad hair, thick glasses and some sort of test tube to match expectations.)

    Use them and the ludicrous Murdoch press to build publicity by whatever means and thence get the book to those who might understand it.

  12. Saw the Times article on Facebook, as posted by the Skeptical Inquirer. Someone in the Comments to the link on Fbk posted the URL to the above response on your blog. I just submitted a comment to the Times piece with a link to your blog, too. If the paper won’t print a correction, at least maybe the moderator will allow my comment to go through so that others will be able to read your response to the article.

  13. qwerty

    They never said …

    The Times has nothing they need to “correct.”

    They never said you had done a “study on atheism and moral contamination beliefs.”

    Their headline was idiotic, but the reporters probably had nothing to do with it.

    All this petulance over “factual errors” [sic] that were not made.

  14. Mark

    qwerty: Yes, they did say that. Here’s the quote: “In one study he found even ardent atheists balked at the idea of accepting an organ transplant from a murderer, because of a superstitious belief that an individual’s personality could be stored in their organs. “This shows how superstition is hardwired into our brains,” he said. ”

    Bruce: The Times article is the reason I found your blog. I like it (your blog that is, definitely not the article). And your book is now on my reading list. I felt annoyed at the simplified and no-doubt distorted message the article presented. Even though I am an atheist and do agree with some part of the highly misrepresented message. I’m glad to hear how your views are more sophisticated. But yeah, we shouldn’t have to get clarification from you. Hopefully people spot the comment, or even better, the Times posts a correction (not holding my breath).

  15. Stublore

    From the Times article:
    In one study he found even ardent atheists…”

    How is one to interpret that?
    Given that the article is about one person’s findings at this stage of the article, it is quite obvious that that they are saying or at the very least strongly implying that the findings was in a study done by Bruce Hood.
    It does not say in a study examined by , or not performed by Bruce Hood.

  16. Kagehi

    I quite agree that we are unlikely to remove superstition entirely, the mind simply doesn’t work that way. The problem is superstitions that promote the idea that the mind is flawless, its perceptions valid, even without consensus of any evidence, and that having such beliefs directly privileges someone, in a way that should a) lend them special, and better treatment for thinking that way, and b) they automatically have *better* information, advice, or ideas, than others.

    Its the whole “you are close minded, because you don’t close your mind to any and all evidence against *my* belief, but I am open minded because anything that can even be remotely attributed to my personal, pet, superstition, I will automatically accept!”, method of problem solving. And its hardly a huge surprise that this produces an endless line of not only useless solutions, but, all too often, a total inability to recognize that they have been tried hundreds of times, and never once solved a problem, since they where all, pretty much universally, based on belief in the belief, that belief will fix a problem, and rarely, or insufficiently (beyond the recognition that the idea seemed to “fit” the belief), on thinking about the likely result, or how it relates to *any* aspect of true human nature.

    Some want to treat us as wolves, others and sheep, and we are neither, yet, at best, we have seen, from the realm of most superstitions, is little more than a flip flop between, “herd them like sheep”, and, “tame their dark impulses”. The few that didn’t come up with these gems have at least as goofy things in them, which tend to derail what they get right. The only means to fight it is, learning to fight it, same way as you drown, if you don’t learn how to bloody swim properly.

  17. Notice how the newspapers you mention are the Telegraph, Times and Daily Mail. Everyone picks out the Daily Mail as trash (which it is), but the other two are conservative, religious, right-wing garbage wrapped up in respectability. (To a greater and lesser extent – you can work out which is which.)

  18. qwerty


    How is one to interpret that?

    I interpreted it this way: Bruce had a done a study of some kind with a broad sampling that included atheists. Bruce then told the reporter(s) that atheists were not immune to the same pattern-seeking predilections as the superstitious/religious.

    I could be wrong, but Bruce could clear it up by describing his study and telling us whether he mentioned atheists in his interview.

    Also, “factual errors” ? What else was an “errror”?

  19. Tessa

    Ariane Sherine (the woman behind the atheist bus campaign) is going to be on 5Live tomorrow talking about this. She asked for my take on it and I pointed her to my blog, so I’ll be listening in (if I can at work) to see how she does. http://tessera2009.blogspot.com/2009/09/religion-on-my-mind.html

  20. Bad science reporting in the press? I’m shocked, I tell you, shocked!

    Wait, what’s the word that means the opposite of “shocked”?

  21. Daisy

    You say “with Germaine Greer, who was not in the best of moods”.

    Is she ever in a good mood? She always seems to be unhappy.

  22. {Bruce Hood, professor of developmental psychology at Bristol University, believes the picture is more complex. “Our research shows children have a natural, intuitive way of reasoning that leads them to all kinds of supernatural beliefs about how the world works,” he said.
    “As they grow up they overlay these beliefs with more rational approaches but the tendency to illogical supernatural beliefs remains as religion.”}

    This is taken from the article in question and I’m assuming you are not being misquoted. If you are, then disregard/delete my comment, please.

    Clearly, I have not read your book, but if this blurb represents its premise, then I have a question? You suggest that, “children have a natural, intuitive way of reasoning that leads them to all kinds of supernatural beliefs about how the world works.” That seems fairly obvious since children have been raised immersed in superstition for thousands of years. It seems like your stance is that the inclination is inherent in children’s brains, but I ask, isn’t it more likely that the inclination has been developed from our human experience?

    I have to believe that, raised in a vacuum, a child would have no inclination for superstition or the supernatural. I also believe that the creation of both is very easy to understand based on human beings’ ignorance of health and science in the early days. Imagine the first reaction to a man dropping dead from a rage-induced heart-attack. That must have been interesting.

    To me, it seems much more likely that superstition/supernatural instincts are products of thousands of years of conditioning and not something inherent in our brains. But what do I know? I’m just a regular guy

  23. Tessa


    Why do you have to?

  24. Tessa

    Sorry about the odd markings in the previous post – I put your comment in pointy brackets but it didn’t work.

  25. Bruce,
    Wow, it seems that things have been going to hell in the proverbial handbasket.

    I completely understand your frustration at being misquoted and having things taken out of context. These things are considered errors, by the way, and any student of journalism is instructed on how to incorporate quotes in context.\

    I fear that some of the people who have commented here are misunderstanding the very basis of your work, i.e., supernatural. Anyone who has not read your work (blogs, interviews, and book) will not appreciate your very distinct definition of the term.

    Ask a random person walking down the street what he or she thinks the word supernatural means, and you would likely get a definition that somehow draws in spirits, hauntings, things that go bump in the night.

    You very clearly state early in Supersense that your book is about “supernatural thinking and behavior in everyday human activity” and that simply because something cannot be explained does not make them supernatural.

    As to “petulance”? I will freely admit to being petulant; it’s part of my mind design. You, on the other hand, are perturbed, and rightly so.

  26. Kagehi

    Well, Mitch. The problem with most of this talk is that one side says, “Ah, see.. This is because of god.”, while the other side says, “Ah, well… You have this situation, and it may be *critical* for you to figure out what caused it, therefor it helps if you can imagine a dozen different possible causes. This is how we figure out how *anything* happens.” I myself tend to argue that so called “spiritual” conclusions works like this:

    1. Come up with 5-6 possible reasons something happened.
    2. Irrationally assert that any “real” conclusion must involve a mind behind it, and *never* chance.
    3. Conclude that the least plausible of the reasons are the correct ones, since they are the only ones that include, in principle, a mind to direct the event. I.e., ghosts, fairies, god, etc., which all have two basic attributes – a) you can never find one when you need to repeat the result, b) all are supposedly smart enough to make things happen, which people can’t otherwise predict or control.

    Thus, in essence, our minds wouldn’t be able to think at all, without the capacity to reach such false conclusions. This is where the, “the mind has an innate tendency to come up with them”, part comes in. The problem, in a nut shell, is that you have to learn how to not make such mistakes, and entire cultures and social systems have been built around doing the precise opposite, telling people that reaching such flawed conclusions is a good thing, and that looking harder for the correct answer, and having to turn over a few rocks in the process, will make the elves in the woods mad at you, which is a scary, bad, and possibly even evil, thing to go doing.

    There was a recent article on PZ Myers’ site about this shift of perspective. Dawkins conclusion is, “Religion is failing because even the people trying to keep it are resorting to fake science, mangling scientific data, and getting degrees in science, to make it look like they are credible, in an attempt to legitimize something that even they know doesn’t *actually* work.” Someone else, who is on the other side, stated instead that, “Religion is failing because it is embracing the real world, and trying to conform to it, instead of embracing the spiritual world.” Or, as PZ translated that, its failing because its robbing god(s) of their magic powers, by trying to fit in a world in which you don’t need them, instead of focusing only one things that, by the same unfortunate definition, “don’t exist”.

    In any case, its not a flaw in the brain, young minds have to make such mistakes, to figure out how to extrapolate “correct” conclusions in the first place. The problem is, as a species, we have a tendency to reject the need to learn *what* is incorrect, and look harder, in favor of actually telling the kid with an imaginary friend that its not just real, but some other imaginary friend sent it to watch over them. In other words, “Don’t look too hard, don’t look for the correct results, just believe. The reality of the world will take care of itself, except when it doesn’t, and we will be happy to ask the imaginary friend to watch over you in death, when your ignorance, carelessness, or false conclusion ends up being fatal. Its all good, because admitting it isn’t would be admitting we never **reached** adulthood, but got stuck in (or where forced by social pressure to never advance past) some earlier mental state.”

  27. Pingback: Atheism is apparently not anti-evolutionary after all « Woolly Days

  28. Stonyground

    I was surprized that religious people had interpreted the paper’s “Hardwired for belief” take on all this as some kind of victory. One guy was crowing, take that Dawkins, you’re the wierd one not us and it’s science so you have to accept it. He seemed to think that us being evolved to believe actually proved the existence of God, my thought was that this explains why people still believe even though he doesn’t.

    I consider myself to be fairly rational but it is still hard to avoid the feeling that there is a malcious gremlin living inside my computer. The point being that the feeling is still there even though I am intelligent enough to know that it isn’t really true.

  29. Arno

    Blast, it even went international: Dutch newspaper article misquoting you and adding some other guy who wants to add an extra religious spin.

    They also claim that you argue that religion is evolutionary advantageous and therefore in our genes. Rather funny, as this newspaper is a rag that has spawned so much creationist bullshit that it is embarrassing.

    And no, the online article doesn’t allow comments. Which is a damned shame.

  30. Kagehi

    What do you expect. If they can quote mine a quote miner, and thus amplify the distortion, then they can “claim” that somehow repeating a lie isn’t the same things are lying themselves.

    In any case, on the 21st, one blogger posted this:


    Which imho pretty much covers my view on the subject exactly. Its a byproduct of an advantage, not an advantage itself, which is what the religious would like it to be seen as. And, they can’t even grasp how or why it would be an unfortunate byproduct of something useful.

  31. هديل

    هل الدراسة موجودة ف كتابك؟

    ان كان، ارجو ارسال الخلاصة مع التوثيق.. وشكرا

  32. واضافة اخرى
    هل هناك تقاطع بين بحثك وبحث الباحث
    ؟؟ Justin Barrett
    انتظر الرد…..

  33. Pingback: [ weird things ] | good science meets terrible journalism

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