Monday, October 22, 2012

An Interview with Epiphenom

The following is an interview with Tom Rees of Epiphenom.

For the uninitiated, can you tell us a little about your blog and the larger “Field of Science” website?

Epiphenom is a blog I've been running for the last 5 years. The basic idea is that I read new scientific papers on research into the psychology and sociology of religion, belief and non-belief, and I post up summaries of the more interesting ones. It's pitched at folks who are comfortable reading about science, but who may not know a whole lot about these topics - typical science journalism. When I started, I just ran my blog as a stand-alone site. But a few years ago I got an offer to move it onto Field of Science, which is a small community of science bloggers.

What first got you interested in the science of religion and non-belief? Were you ever a believer?

I was born into a family of non-believers, and religion has never held much appeal for me. But atheism was never much of an issue for me either - mainly because religion was irrelevant to most of the people I knew, too. Back in the early days of the internet - the mid 1990s - I found myself on usenet, being amazed that there were so many people (mostly Americans) in denial about evolution, and generally being fervently religious. It made me wonder why America has so many more religious people than other wealthy nations. I thought it might be something to do with the lack of a welfare state, and higher inequality. Well, that fermented away in the back of my mind for a while, until in 2007 I decided to do some quantitative research to test the theory. That was published in 2009, and the blog basically arose out of the background reading I did.

Your posts are often your interpretation of research. While this gives you a better foundation to form an opinion, do you worry that the insights you gleam from the research are ever wrong? How do you balance science with journalism?

I worry that they are often wrong! Many of the studies are quite small, and they are rarely repeated. That in itself would be a cause for concern. But worse, the field of psychology has a major problem right now, in that there seems to be an epidemic of outright fraud and also of more small scale fudging of results. In other words, in many cases people haven't been following a rigourous process of developing a hypothesis, designing a study and then seeing if the data confirm their hypothesis. Rather, they often have invented explanation after doing the study. On top of that, there's a lot of publication bias. Studies that don't show the desired result don't get published.

That would explain why so many studies seem to show such clear and unambiguous proof of exactly what the authors were expecting. The only way to get to the bottom of this is for other researchers to repeat the study. On my blog, I try to reference back to other studies on the same topic whereever possible, to see if they really are going in the same direction.

As to the broader question, of whether my own conclusions are wrong, or perhaps overstated to support my own opinions - well I would have to admit that this does happen with me, just as with everyone else. But one of the good things about a blog is that the commenters will often pull you up on claims that you make that are not really supported, or provide alternative explanations of the same results. It keeps you on your toes!

What do you think was the primary reason for the creation of religion?

We have mental biases that make us see intelligent actions in the play of random chance, and to want to join together in groups, and to take actions to try to influene our environment, no matter how implausible they might appear. So we invent imaginary beings that meet these needs. They help us to feel more secure, because it feels like we have more power over our fate than we actually do. Perhaps they actually do increase real security, by encouraging honesty and self sacrifice for the group. I'm less certain of that idea, however. There is some evidence to support it, but also some good theoretical reasons, as well as observations, that undermine it.

If that reason is less valid today, why do you suppose religion has continued to stay relevant today?

Many parts of the world are less religious than they used to be. In part, that's because many of the claims that religions have made about the world have turned out to be wrong, and because there seems less need for a religion to provide 'answers' to existential questions. But it's also because we now live in societies where questioning widely-held beliefs is not only acceptable, but actively encouraged. As importantly, we lead lives that are much more secure that formerly. As a result, many people pay lip service to religion, but it really is not important to them. It's not so much that they don't believe, it's more that they don't care.

Have you found that the stereotypes of the believers and nonbelievers hold up to the statistics? What would surprise us most?

Almost always not. The first thing to remember is that, even within a single religion like Christianity, there are a wide variety of different approaches to religion. There really is no "one-size-fits-all" description of a religious person. But it's true that religious people are more traditional, have larger families, and score slightly less well on IQ tests. I think what would surprise most people is the difference between "believing" and "belonging". By that I mean the difference between have strong, fervent beliefs in the existance of god, and the participation in religious activities. Although both are used to mark out "religious" people, in fact the psychology behind the two is quite different.

The other thing that would surprise many people, at least in the west, is how many of their assumptions about religion don't really apply in regions outside of the judaeo-christian tradition. Most research into religion is done with Christian university graduates, usually in the USA. There's a whole world of surprises out there, yet to be uncovered.

Is there anything that would convince you that there is a god? If so, provide an example. 

Which god? Modern gods have been transformed as a result of pressure from the sciences. As a result, they are defined in a way that's carefully formulated to be immune to any kind of rationale investigation. It's important to note that wasn't always the case - in the past people believed that you could pray to your god and get some kind of concrete result.

So to answer your question, I'd first have to ask you to define your god. And then ask you if there is anything that you could observe that you would take as evidence for your god. Usually, when you do that, you get quite non-specific things (the existance of love, for example), which are actually just reformulations of the "god of the gaps" - i.e. here is something unexplained, therefore magic exists. God can be used to explain anything mysterious, but we know from experience that such explanations are weak and prone to be overturned as knowledge develops.

So, the short answer is no. I don't don't think I will ever see evidence for a god, because nobody who believes in a god can tell me what that evidence would be.


  1. Dammit Grundy, I really don't have the time to read all of these great blogs you are pointing me toward.

  2. I follow Epiphenom. Heck, I even won a copy of the book Jesus Potter, Harry Christ.

    OK, OK, I really only got an honorable mention, but as luck would have it, one of the winners never responded and I happily volunteered to take his place and receive the book.