Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

Religious upbringing study uses odd definition of altruism

Jerry Stratton, November 11, 2015

Greedy planet

The more I have time to reflect on the University of Chicago’s religious upbringing altruism study, the more I think this study epitomizes the poor state of social science research today. When I majored in Psychology at Cornell thirty years ago, there was a fight in progress between people who wanted to find a way to turn psychology and sociology into hard sciences, using the scientific method, and those who wanted to keep it soft, barely even defining their terms let alone treating it as a real science.

From most of what I’ve been reading over the last year, it looks like the hard science faction lost, and badly. It’s not just that science reporting has gotten worse or even that the studies themselves are often impossible to replicate. It’s that the researchers don’t even understand what they are looking for, so that even if the study can be replicated, it still has no meaning.

That’s the religious upbringing study’s biggest problem. It doesn’t define what it’s studying. It purports to study altruism and judgmentalism, but it never describes what it means by those terms. These researchers seem to have wanted to study morality without caring what morality means. The result is that they don’t understand what they’re studying enough to make judgments on it, certainly not the sweeping judgment that religion is bad for the world.

In order to understand how they think of altruism and judgmentalism, we’re forced to backport a definition from their conclusions and from how they designed the study. Reading the study, it appears that what they mean by altruism is a willingness to be free with other people’s resources, a willingness to give to anonymous others without ever finding out who those others are or what they really need.

In other words, their definition of altruism sounds a lot like paying taxes and being a government bureaucrat. Altruism, according to the way they performed the study, means government bureaucrats giving taxes to the University of Chicago to perform social science research into the immorality of religion.

It calls to mind Thomas Sowell’s observation that it is always greed to choose where your money goes, but never greed to take other people’s money to hand out.

Among the many other questions raised by the nebulous concept of “greed” is why it is a term applied almost exclusively to those who want to earn more money or to keep what they have already earned—never to those wanting to take other people’s money in taxes or to those wishing to live on the largesse dispensed from such taxation. No amount of taxation is ever described as “greed” on the part of government or the clientele of government. — Thomas Sowell (The Vision of the Anointed)

And their definition of judgmentalism is even stranger. Children are exposed to what sounds a whole lot like bullying behavior, and are asked whether the bully should face consequences; if they say yes, the study says they are judgmental, and the conclusion by the researchers is that they are overly judgmental. But this judgmentalism appears to be discernment. Trying to discern who is the victim and who is the victimizer, so that the consequences fall on the right person, that’s immoral judgmentalism in the eyes of the study. We know it is immoral because their conclusion speaks of what is good for mankind.

This lack of discernment is considered the right thing to do in some parts of our society; school administrators in zero-tolerance schools, for example, will punish the bully and the victim alike. If you’re in a fight, it doesn’t matter who started it and who defended against it. That would be overly judgmental.

Their conclusion ends up being, once we understand their definitions, that religion is bad because it means less funding for the University of Chicago social sciences, and it means discerning right from wrong which might damage the self-esteem of bullies. Their morality turns out to be the standard old moral relativism of the political class.

It’s possible that they still would have designed the study the way they did if they’d clarified their definitions first. Certainly, their view of altruism and judgmentalism is shared by bureaucrats across the United States. But it would certainly not have justified their conclusion, nor the widespread dissemination that the study received on political blogs and social media.

In response to Left believes atheists are wasteful bullies?: The left is touting a new study that claims to show that those without religious upbringing are more likely to sympathize with victimizers than with victims, and are more wasteful with other people’s resources.