Shoddy reporting on “god genes”

Having just read the paper referred to in my last post ) I was rudely distracted from my Sudoku puzzle during the TV news last night. A news report on this research grabbed my attention.

What a waste of time, though. Unfortunately it’s only value was as an example of the shoddy reporting which seems so frequent with science coverage these days.

What was the take home message for the ordinary viewer? – Scientists have discovered a “god gene”! A gene which makes people religious! We even got a shot of the first page of the paper to “prove” it. And other news sources have conveyed the same impressions (see for example Researcher discovers “religion gene”; Scientist: Religion gene spreads the word).

No god gene discovered!

But this is not true. The paper was written by an economist, not a molecular biologist. He developed mathematical models which  assumed a single god gene, or at least “religious predisposition (“religiosity” for short) is determined by a single gene”

It was an assumption for his model. It was not proved. No gene was discovered or identified in this work.

So the person in the street has been left with the impression that science has discovered a “god gene.” Worse, if the person in the street thinks about this and realises how silly it is she will take home the message that some scientists are really stupid.

Having conveyed a completely false message the TV report went on with fillers to rub it is. They interviewed Christians at a church who said they were happy to “believe in Jesus” and that their god created these genes anyway so they must be good. An academic got a brief sound bite – but he was an “expert on religion” not evolution or genetics and clearly didn’t understand this issue.

Ignore research results!

The news report effectively ignored the real findings of this research paper. This was that the model (which also assumed a higher fertility for members of conservative fundamentalist religions) predicted a growing influence of such religious views. Either by simple dominance via fertility or by spreading of a “god gene” via defections.

Now this is worth discussing. Irrespective of genes the higher birth rate for members of conservative fundamentalist relgions is an empirical fact.  There has been some discussion of this in other media. See God’s little rabbits: Religious people out-reproduce secular ones by a landslide in Scientific American; Atheists a dying breed as nature ‘favours faithful’ in Sunday Times; and  Why I no longer believe religion is a virus of the mind and It seems religion is not a neurotic accretion on human nature in The Guardian.

And I am sure viewers would have found such news interesting. Just imagine all the discussion it would have provoked at home around the TV set. Rational and irrational. Thoughtful and racist. But interesting. And better out than in.

Why could that have not been the central point in the TV news item? And I am sure we have capable demographers and evolutionary scientists in New Zealand who could have added to the discussion.

That would have been worth putting my Sudoku aside for.

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2 responses to “Shoddy reporting on “god genes”

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Shoddy reporting on “god genes” | Open Parachute -- Topsy.com

  2. Saw the same thread in Slashdot and was similarly dismayed by the lack of analysis. Quote from the abstract:

    Religious people nowadays have more children on average than their secular counterparts. This paper uses a simple model to explore the evolutionary implications of this difference. It assumes that fertility is determined entirely by culture, whereas subjective predisposition towards religion is influenced by genetic endowment.

    The theoretical arguments are supported by numerical simulations.

    As one commenter put it: “I am all for keeping an open mind but after reading that last sentence, I suspect the paper is quite ridiculous and may actually be a funny read.”

    IF the premises are true (but I think they are mostly crap) the theoretical simulation shows that the ‘god gene’ will eventually dominate. But the reporters fail to note it’s not a single gene it is a cluster of factors influencing religiosity of a population : social, genetic, economic (I would add spiritual, philosophical).

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