You would think that with carnage in Syria and Egypt, a flurry of news on the economy (most good but some bad), arguments over fracking and the banks in trouble yet again, that the press would have plenty of serious news to write about without the need for "silly season" stories.
And you'd think wrong.
It's all over the media this week that the soldier who gave lots of information to Wikileaks, Bradley Manning, has now decided that he's a woman and wants to be known as Chelsea Manning. It's probably moot since he'll be banged up in prison in the states for the next 35 years and meanwhile Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London for goodness knows how long.
Last week Jeremy Paxman's beard was getting all the attention, and Yougove did a poll, of which you can read the results on "Political Betting" here, showing the relationship between voting intention and propensity to grow a beard (for men.) Apparently Lib/Dem supporting men are most likely to grow beards (so what else is new) closely followed by Labour supporters, with tories much less likely and UKIP least likely of all
But the daftest story of the silly season concerns a scientific report published by scientists at the University of Rochester, who I suspect of having very high IQs and no common sense whatsoever, which purports to prove that atheists have higher IQs than religious believers. An example of a press report about it is given here.
Let me be clear, I am not suggesting this is daft because I think religious believers are cleverer than atheists, I am suggesting it is daft because the idea of trying to establish a correlation in either direction between belief in something and intelligence is a mugs' game which is most unlikely to tell you anything useful.
I have met some atheists and some religious believers who were extremely intelligent, and others in both categories who were lamentably stupid.
There are some statistical statements which, when the wise person hears them, you ignore because whether true or not the information will be so meaningless as to be useless. This is an example.
Even if the Rochester University statement is statistically correct, and there are all sorts of reasons to be wary of it, the difference which the scientists purport to have found - 1.95 IQ points - between the average IQ of believers and non-believers is so small compared to the range within both those groups that knowing someone's religious affiliation would be barely more useful than eye colour in telling you how clever they are likely to be.
I was going to write hair colour in the previous paragraph until I remembered that a large number of people make jokes about blondes being stupid.
Which only goes to show how bizarre some of our preconceptions about intelligence can be.
And now we get to my reason for picking today's quote of the day, Francis Bacon's comment that
"A little philosophy inclineth man's mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men's minds about to religion."
To put Bacon's comment in modern scientific terms it is entirely possible that if there were a relationship between IQ and religious belief, it could be non-linear - for example as you go up the IQ scale the proportion of believers might go down at first but then up again. The statistical tools used by the University of Rochester scientists might have serious problems with this and it would make the average all the more meaningless.
The most effective dismissal of the study came in a scathing piece in the Independent by Frank Furedi, himself an atheist, which you can read here.
He writes that
"Intelligence itself is a contested concept and it is far from evident what is
measured in these studies. Attitudes towards cultural values are mediated
through a variety of influences that are relational, context specific and whose
meaning becomes lost if it becomes quantified and reduced to numbers. Any
attempt to establish a causal relationship between personal belief and raw
intelligence is likely to be an exercise in forced abstraction."
"As an atheist I take an exception to the claim that my views are the product of
my intelligence. Like many others I exercised my capacity for moral autonomy and
made an existential choice. I believe that I made an intelligent choice not to
believe. But I don’t think that atheism can be equated with intelligence any
more than religion with stupidity. Why? Because the experience of life shows
that the ranks of atheists have their fair share of idiots. If you doubt my words –
launch a research study that does a content analysis of their tweets."