A Candidate for the Ig Nobel Prize?

I was stuck in traffic once behind a car with a bumper sticker that read, ‘God said it, I believe it, that settles it’. That driver did not seem like someone I’d want to have a beer with, or sit down with at break time. What would you say to someone who broadcast their belligerent certainty that way?

My loved ones continue to tell me that the Rapture is imminent– look at the signs. Weather and politics, people behaving badly, new problems emerging all the time. When in human history have we seen such days? That settles it.

The problem with growing up among believers, and having to sharpen your skepticism in self-defense, is that you can’t turn it off.

So when I saw this headline on Yahoo News I did not take the bait and go off on a tirade of internet snark…

‘Being ‘Born-Again’ Linked to More Brain Atrophy: Study’

WEDNESDAY, May 25 (HealthDay News) — Older adults who say they’ve had a life-changing religious experience are more likely to have a greater decrease in size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain critical to learning and memory, new research finds.

According to the study, people who said they were a “born-again” Protestant or Catholic, or conversely, those who had no religious affiliation, had more hippocampal shrinkage (or “atrophy”) compared to people who identified themselves as Protestants, but not born-again.

Okay, so what about Jews? And did they study any coffee-drinking Unitarians? Coffee is supposed to make you smart, and Unitarians have coffee hour after service. Unitarians aren’t exactly Protestants, I’ve been told. (I’m not sure about Protestants generally. I was born Catholic. You only had to know about 2 kinds of people, Catholics and non-Catholics.) I’m a born-again Pagan now. Is this the way you write when your hippocampus shrinks?

Well, I still have enough brain cells left to skip past Yahoo and go to the original study, which they were good enough to link to.

It was published on PLoSONE, an online science journal that charges over $1,000 to peer-review and publish an article. Not to say that the content isn’t good, but it’s a little like a vanity press, not exactly the Penguin Classics Deluxe of science publishing.

The study was small, under 300 participants, and lasted an average of four years per subject. MRI’s were taken, which is really expensive. So I’m wondering if this study piggy-backed onto another study. It looks like it was done at Duke University. It would make sense for these researcher to add questionnaires to an ongoing MRI study, or else they had a rich patron. Were the study subjects random average people, or did they have something in common that would confound the interpretation of results?

Can scientists sort out subject’s religious beliefs accurately enough to correlate with MRI results? Here in America we’ve been accused of shopping around and picking and choosing our religion. A lot of people have kind of invented their own. I know enough born-again people not to lump them all together, or to underestimate them either. ‘Christian’ means very different things to different people.

I don’t want to harsh on these scientists, but I think this study might be re-published in the ‘Journal of Irreproducible Results’.

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4 responses

  1. Wikipedia (I know!) implies it’s a reasonably well peer reviewed journal ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PLoS_ONE ). I don’t know it personally, but paying publication costs for an article is pretty standard (The Astrophysical Journal, which is the main astronomy journal, charges ~$40/page, for instance http://aas.org/journals/authors/publication_charges, for a typical paper, it’s probably not any cheaper. )

  2. Brian, thank you for your comment. I don’t know what is common practice for publishing research and I appreciate your informed opinion. I didn’t want to rag too hard on some scientists when I am not a scientist myself.
    When a study is run through the popular press what comes out is not usually what the researchers really found.

  3. I’m not familiar with the journal itself, but comparing peer-review to vanity press is not really appropriate. A major problem with scientific publication is that it costs money to peer-review and to publish, so journals need to find some way to recoup those costs… but charging for access to the journals means that articles are not freely available. PLoS ONE’s solution to the problem seems to be putting the financial burden on the researcher.

    As for sorting out the subjects’ religious belief, the paper describes how they determined these — looks like Protestant, Catholic, etc were largely matters of self-identification and social group membership. There’s really no other good way to measure that. Born-again status and life-changing religious experience status were measured based on, well, self-identification. Again, I see no other way to measure that.

    If they’d totally screwed up these categorization differences, we wouldn’t expect to see statistically significant differences between the groups. I mean, okay, sure, it’s possible — those rho<0.05, etc confidence levels are giving us the chance that these differences in outcomes could have happened due to random fluxuation in the sample, rather than actual differences between the groups.

    The methodology section explains how they recruited their subjects (it also answers your question about this study piggybacking off of another). They also discuss potentially confounding characteristics.

    As for studying Jews and coffee-drinking Unitarians… well, if there weren't enough in their sample to draw statistically significant conclusions from, then it would be very bad science indeed for them to draw conclusions about them.

    1. thanks for your comment, and your informed opinion on the study.

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