A few years ago, Jean Decety, a professor at the University of Chicago, published a study claiming that children from religious backgrounds were actually less altruistic than their non-believing peers. The postmodern nihilists that make up the mainstream media in the United States and UK naturally had a field day with the study and endlessly promoted it. This includes outlets like The Economist, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, and Scientific American.
There’s only one problem. The study contained egregious errors in methodology, which other researchers quickly picked up on. They published papers outlining the errors and rebuking its findings, but – surprise, surprise – no one in the media called attention to the study not standing up to the scrutiny of peer review. The study has now been formally retracted by the journal it was published in:
To Decety’s credit, he released the data. And upon re-analysis, Shariff discovered that the results were due to a coding error. The data had been collected across numerous countries, e.g. United States, Canada, Turkey, etc. and the country information had been coded as “1, 2, 3…” Although Decety’s paper had reported that they had controlled for country, they had accidentally not controlled for each country, but just treated it as a single continuous variable so that, for example “Canada” (coded as 2) was twice the “United States” (coded as 1). Regardless of what one might think about the relative merits and rankings of countries, this is obviously not the right way to analyze data. When it was correctly analyzed, using separate indicators for each country, Decety’s “findings” disappeared. Shariff’s re-analysis and correction was published in the same journal, Current Biology, in 2016. The media, however, did not follow along. While it covered extensively the initial incorrect results, only four media outlets picked up the correction.
This sort of thing is why the media and social media have both become awful sources of information.
I have written before about the problem of algorithms creating intellectual bubbles – the economic incentive of both Big Tech and traditional media companies is to keep people online, and that means supplying them with mountains of stuff they want to believe instead of educating them. They rarely ever go back to correct information they have shared that has turned out to be objectively false.
This means that their readership continues to believe things that are objectively false, and they magnify objectively false claims as people doing Google searches on a topic, etc. continue to refer back to objectively false information.
This retracted study was just used as the basis for this article on how terrible religious children are. That was only last month. There is so much garbage content on the web now that is making people believe downright stupid things, like believing in God makes a person more selfish. There are several billion people of faith in the world, robber barons all.
The author of that article obviously did not take a moment to read the actual study that they made central to their arguments and even opened with… A 30-second Google search for the study itself and they would have known that it had been retracted because none of the study’s SEVEN academic co-authors bothered to double-check their math.
It’s terrible standards and confirmation bias all the way down in the epic landfill of content that is the Internet now.