Monday, April 30, 2012

Come, Let Us Reason

A facebook friend recently alerted me to a recent article in the Los Angeles Times reporting a scientific study showing that analytical thinking tends to undermine faith. I’m glad that I read about half of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink a few months ago; his account of recent studies of intuitive thinking and snap judgments helped me think analytically about the Times article.

The article (search “los angeles times analytical thinking faith”) tells about several experiments. In the first one, subjects were given three tricky questions for which the first, gut-instinct answer is usually wrong, questions that usually demand a little careful thinking to answer correctly. A boy buys a bat and a ball for a total cost of $1.10. (What store is this boy shopping at?) The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? Depending on the answers to questions such as this one, subjects were labeled as either analytical or intuitive thinkers. They then answered questions about faith, and the analytical group tended “to score lower on the belief scales.”

In another experiment, subjects were given words to rearrange into a sentence. One group dealt with trigger words such as “think,” “reason,” and “analyze.” Others were given “neutral” words. The group dealing with the “analytical” words described themselves on average as less religious.

In a third experiment, a control group read a passage in a clear font, while the test group read the same passage in a format that made them squint, an action that supposedly brings out analytical thinking. The test group then rated lower than the control group in their belief in “supernatural agents.”

Before I critique the article, let me say that I haven’t read the actual study, so I don’t know if the Times reported its methods and findings faithfully. But I’m all for research, and applaud these researchers for their contribution to an important and neglected problem. And I readily concede several of the study's findings. I admit that in many believers the strength of faith fluctuates. I admit that most Christians I have known don’t think very analytically about their faith and that some believe that thinking hurts faith. I admit that some evidence for religious beliefs is intangible and that some people believe in a given religion for emotional reasons or from peer pressure. Finally, I admit that analytical thinking can diminish faith; since faith is belief in an intellectual proposition, analytical thinking can either begin, increase, decrease, or demolish that belief, depending on what one thinks about. But I still have some concerns with the study:

• The first experiment included only tasks in which first-instinct answers were wrong. Gladwell’s Blink discusses several studies showing the accuracy of intuitive snap judgments in some contexts.

• Gladwell also discusses experiments showing the power of priming human subjects with trigger words, a process that works through subliminal, intuitive thought processes. So the second experiment, designed to bring out analytical thinking, did so by calling on intuitive thinking.

• Gladwell makes the case that we base even “intuitive” thinking on experience and reason but relegate the process to automated, subconscious levels of our system.

• The first experiment may well show that analytical thinkers in contemporary America tend to have less faith, but to claim that analytical thinking causes the lower level of faith is to commit the primary fallacy of statistics: assuming that correlation implies causation. And the study (probably) says nothing about people in India, Korea, or a New York Torah school. It certainly doesn’t say anything about seventeenth-century Americans.

• If the survey statements dealing with faith were all as vague as the samples provided in the article (“I feel the presence of the Divine,” “I just don’t understand religion”), then the study may not have shown anything about faith at all, since faith is a belief in a specific proposition. Perhaps analytical thinking prompted some subjects to realize more clearly that they don’t understand “religion” as a whole. I know I don’t understand Shinto. Maybe getting a subject into a pattern of analytical thinking causes him to analyze broad statements like “I believe in supernatural agents”; a devout Jew, for instance, thinking in an intuitive mode might answer “yes” to indicate her belief in God, where an analytical mental streak in the same person might cause her to answer “no,” reasoning that a positive answer would technically commit her to a belief in vampires and leprechauns.

• Aristotle, Augustine, al-Khwarizmi, Avicenna, Maimonides, Aquinas, Descartes, Newton, and Einstein form a tiny sample of famously analytical thinkers who believed in a God.

By the way, the ball costs 5 cents.

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