January 2017 – In 2015, Current Biology magazine reported on a sociological study implying that religious kids are less generous than non-religious kids. Why that conclusion? Non-religious children in the U.S., Canada, Turkey, Jordan, South Africa, and China gave away more stickers to their friends than did their religious peers.
The study spawned a slew of predictably skewed headlines such as “Religious children are meaner” and “Children of atheist parents kinder and more tolerant than Christians or Muslims…” despite the fact that the study addressed neither atheism nor tolerance.
To its credit, Current Biology ran a 2016 story refuting the original study. Author Melinda Lundquist Denton, an associate professor at University of Texas-San Antonio, cited a study in which researchers from University of California pointed out how the initial study failed to follow standard research criteria.
Denton suggests guidelines to use when studies purport to “prove” something:
1) Read studies in context. Social sciences “never get to definitively ‘prove’ anything,” Denton said.
2) If a report claims new “proof,” be very cautious.
3) Beware of personal biases. Don’t see only things that affirm your own beliefs.
4) Consider the source, i.e. the journalist’s or the media outlet’s bias.
5) Take the long view. If the story questions your beliefs, consider any validity in the story’s claims.