Archive | November, 2013

Reflecting on religion and psychology

24 Nov


I delivered my annual lecture on Darwin and Evolution this week, and almost inevitable it led me to think again about psychology and religion. I’ve written before about the strange absence of ‘religious belief’ from most UK undergraduate psychology degrees, and delivering my lecture of evolution main me think about what a fascinating it would be for psychologists.

As part of my evolution lecture I look at why ‘anti-science’ might be so focused on a theory that is over 150 years old, and so heavily supported by the weight of evidence. As part of the lecture I played a Youtube video of Ken Ham, a young-earth creationist who advocates a literal interpretation of the book of Genesis. I also looked at Ham’s web site ‘Answers in Genesis’, which provide scholarly explanations for the content of the first book of the Bible. I was particularly drawn to a very detailed exposition of how Noah’s Ark would have worked, including an apparently serious consideration of the necessity of rounding in young dinosaurs as adults would be so difficult to accommodate. If one discounts the terrifying sight, for a rationalist, of young children being told that dinosaurs and man lived at the same time I was drawn to the question of why a literal belief in Genesis might be necessary in order to be a ‘good’ Christian.

For me, as a fully paid up atheist, I can see that much of the New Testament provides a perfectly good guide to how to lead one’s lift, and the spirit of community engendered by organised religion surely ought to be positively viewed by a psychologist of any background. Yet, the insistence on rabid opposition to ‘Science’, and the extraordinary efforts to ‘prove’ the contents of genesis would seem to have no connection to all of the positives of Christianity (or indeed any other religion). All of this led me to wonder (aloud in the middle of my lecture), what drives apparently sincere religious people to focus on what appear to be details irrelevant to their core beliefs. The best I could come up with at the time was ‘cognitive dissonance’. In the same way that some American politicians have made seemingly bizarre statements about abortion I wondered if what might be driving ‘anti-evolution’ was a need to reconcile the dissonant beliefs in the literal truth of Genesis and the weight of evidence for evolution.

One might expect such a thought to provoke concern from religious students, but in fact it produced an entirely rational and very interesting discussion with a group of students after the lecture. All of which leads further down the line that teaching ‘controversial’ topics is a really useful way to get students involved in rational debate. I wouldn’t advocate it unless you have the environment to develop students’ skills in advance, but it you have that it does really seem to work. I’m definitely going to work-up a ‘Psychology of Religion’ lecture for next year

What about herbal medicine ?

8 Nov

When I use homeopathy as an example in my rational thinking lectures I inevitably get asked ‘what about herbal medicine ?’. My reply to this is usually along the lines ‘herbal medicines are different, in that there may well be some active efficacious ingredient, but (stealing a line from Dara O’Briain) what herbal medicine has been tested and shown to work is now just called medicine ‘. I’ve always been conscious that this is a slightly flippant response, but up until now I’ve not had much more useful to add.

This week I came across an article in the New York Times suggesting that many herbal medicines don’t actually contain what they claim to (via @wildscrutineer). The New York TImes article reports a peer-reviewed study from the journal BMC Medicine that uses DNA testing to examine to contents of 44 herbal products. What is startling about this study is that many of the herbal products tested contained contaminants (i.e. ingredients not listed on the label), or in a number of cases contained ingredients entirely different from those listed on the label. In some cases the authors found contaminants that they believed to be toxic.

What I find interesting about this study is that it rather changes the ‘question’ about herbal medicine. Whatever ones views on conventional medicine one accepts that the medicine contains exactly what it says on the label. With herbal medicine it seems that we haven’t yet got as far ‘does it work ?’,  we need to establish ‘is it what it says it is ?’

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