Scientific People Understand Reality Less, New Research Didn’t Study


Headline: Religious people understand the world less, study suggests, which derives from the peer-reviewed paper “Does Poor Understanding of Physical World Predict Religious and Paranormal Beliefs?” in Applied Cognitive Psychology by Marjaana Lindeman and Annika Svedholm-Häkkinen.

This study, as we’ll see, proves that scientists are the dumbest smart people around. Scientists are intelligent, the best folks to find evidence for a theory, but they’re just as dumb, or dumber, than untrained citizens at seeking evidence against a theory.

Now scientists know the physical world well, in the sense that they understand secondary efficient causes better than, say, grocers. But because of the Cult of Measurement, scientists do not know the supernatural world well, or at all. There is a correlation: the more science (in the customary sense) a man knows, the less he knows of the spiritual.

As a correlation, it is imperfect; it does apply to all. The notion is familiar enough, though, that everybody knows the truth of it. We don’t therefore need to “research” it, unless we’re interested in hyperspecific, and largely useless, percentages among certain populations (say, Minnesotan chemistry professors).

The correlation works both ways, in a sense: the less science a man knows, the more he believes of the supernatural. The word is “knows” and not “believes” because the supernatural is immeasurably larger than the material, and since there is more to it, knowledge comes at a stiffer price and is generally of a different nature. The qualifications are again necessary because of the Cult of Measurement. Proof in the supernatural world is metaphysical, where in the physical world it is measurable.

Everybody in the Western world knows this correlation, too. It is your non-PhD grandmother who is more likely to light a candle and pray for you than your PhD biologist colleague in the next office. We don’t therefore need to “research” this correlation, either. Unless maybe we’re interested in the nature of supernatural beliefs people hold; and much of these natures won’t be measurable, either.

Lastly, no theory about the non-measurable can be proven or disproved using measurement. Or, to put it another, science has nothing to say about the supernatural. Thinking that it does, again, can be laid at the feet of the Cult of Measurement.

Finally to the paper! It was a “study” of the following sort:

Two hundred fifty eight Finnish participants (63.6% women) took part in the online study. Their mean age was 31.81 years (SD = 9.89, range 18–65). Of the participants, 38.1% were working, 44.4% were students, and 17.5% were employed in activities other than those mentioned earlier; 1.2% had grammar school education, 44.2% had vocational or upper secondary school education, and 54.5% had polytechnic or university education. Religious affiliations were none (61%), Christian (37%), or other (2%).

All Finnish mostly female non-Christian students. All were self-selected on-line volunteers. The 258 were those left of 1,537 after initial questions were given 1.5 years earlier. “In addition, 111 participants were excluded because of missing data. The data contained much missing information because both surveys were long…”

A sample not representative of all mankind in all times and places, no?

The handful that remained were given “instruments”; id est, sets of questions given arbitrary quantification (the Cult again) and which purport to plumb the depths of human emotion. For example: “Eight items from the Supernatural Belief Scale…were used to assess religious beliefs” as if a person’s religious beliefs can be summarized by putting ad hoc numbers to eight questions.

Yes, everybody does this. But everybody is nuts.

Systemizing was assessed with [questions like] ‘If there is a problem with the electrical wiring in my home I would be able to fix it myself'”, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. As the authors admitted, too many questions for most.

Then came the wee p-values, mostly “correlating” this artificially numerical question with that artificially numerical question. Which might have been okay—who is surprised, as we agreed at the beginning, that “paranormal beliefs” and “religious beliefs” in these mostly young self-selected persistent Finnish women are positively correlated?

But they didn’t stop there. They had to do “factor analysis” and “sequential multiple regression” using “factor scores”, which they self-labeled “physical capability and school grades”. Wee-ish p-values were discovered (some did not make the magic cutoff but were still called interesting).

(I don’t have space here to tell you how much I dislike factor analysis: but take it from me, it’s silly.)


The more the participants believed in religious or other paranormal phenomena, the lower their intuitive physics skills, mechanical and mental rotation abilities, school grades in mathematics and physics, and knowledge about physical and biological phenomena were; the less they reported interests and skills in systemizing; and the more they regarded inanimate targets as mental phenomena.

All of which could have been guessed from hearing the composition of the sample (mostly non-religious student women, etc.) and using our common knowledge as described above. In short: nothing to see here.

Yet newspaper could take this study and write headlines like “Religious people understand the world less, study suggests“. Which could just as easily be turned around into “Scientific People Understand Reality Less”, where Reality includes the supernatural.


  1. Rich

    “As a correlation, it is imperfect; it does apply to all” – ?

    Paper: Number of typographical errors predicts emotional arousal at deficient statistical analysis

  2. Trigger Warnings

    In fact, the word “supernatural” didn’t exist until the 15th Century, when it was created to accommodate the philosophical maunderings of materialist philosophers.

    That was never, and there is not now, a hard division between the reality detectable by our limited senses and their technical extensions, and reality as a whole.

  3. “(I don’t have space here to tell you how much I dislike factor analysis: but take it from me, it’s silly.)”

    I often opine to my statistics students that factor analysis is a sort of legerdemain, only slightly removed from voodoo. Clearly, the CoM prefers their voodoo to that of other folks.

  4. Gary

    Factor analysis silly? Occasionally it can be useful, provided the data are abundant and actual measurements of physical properties. Reducing species assemblage distributions to factors enabled the first global reconstruction of ice age sea-surface temperature estimates, for example.
    Not perfect (what, you expect Paradise?), but useful.

  5. DAV

    factor analysis: but take it from me, it’s silly.

    There are times when it is appropriate.

    Using PCA to realign data to orthogonal axes;
    using Kohonen networks to map to lower dimensionality
    are two examples.

  6. DAV

    I have a feeling that “Factor Analysis” has been morphed into “factor analysis”.
    Not much different than morphing “Hypothesis Testing” into “hypothesis testing” then saying “hypothesis testing is silly”. Really? No hypotheses should be tested because doing so is silly?

    “factor analysis” can be a worthwhile endeavor. “Factor Analysis” maybe not.
    You can’t really know until you test your hypothesis.

  7. Sheri

    Of course I believe in the supernatural. This morning when I got up my internet connection was not working properly. With no intervention on my part, 3 hours later, it’s just fine. Magic.

  8. Ken

    RE: “Proof in the supernatural world is metaphysical…no theory about the non-measurable can be proven or disproved using measurement…”

    How does one distinguish between valid methaphysical proofs vs those that are flawed, or outright wrong?

    For established/referenced sources regarding things metaphysical–such as the Bible–what criteria are used to retain vs disregard divine mandates (e.g. eating shellfish is no longer an abomination, garments of different material are now ok, etc.)?

    Any credible scientist will certainly agree the scientific method does not have much of anything to say about the metaphysical — though various findings have incrementally nibbled away at various metaphysical beliefs — how much anyone’s particular metaphysical belief system is threatened depends on which theological doctrine(s) one holds (e.g. evangelicals are threatened by the theory of evolution and a billion years old Earth while Catholic doctrine accepts this).

    Such wildly divergent metaphysical belief systems, manifested by irreconcilable doctrines, are significant — all assert a lock on the actual truth, but most MUST be fundamentally wrong. One would think this is significant to both believers in general, and, society at large for the resulting policy implications (e.g. is an old-Earth & plate tectonics taught in the classroom an infringement on someone’s Constitutionally protected religious faith?).

    Seeing is tangible … and seeing is believing. A “cult of measurement” that provides tangible results is easily believed. Purveyors of metaphysical faith who all insist they’ve got the “truth” while at the same time disagree on fundamental doctrinal points [centered on the very same guy] all appear dubious. The differences undermine credibility more than the similarities reinforce generalizations.

    What is the impact? PEW & others report ongoing declines in those holding a particular faith (Catholics are declining faster than converts and indoctrinated immigrants can offset by a large margin).

    Briggs says, correctly, “Proof in the supernatural world is metaphysical…” Given that a fair number of metaphysical truths are in hot dispute among seemingly like-minded believers in such metaphysics-based religious doctrines, the priority for those holding such beliefs would seem to be one of sorting out which metaphysical truths & proofs are correct and which are not — and proving that. Not blathering on about science being limited to only things measurable as if “scientism” is a problem for those of faith.

    Science works its way to narrow conclusions–and adjusts those conclusions when confronted with new evidence.

    Believers in religious metaphysics/supernatural started with A SINGLE theological doctrine from ONE guy… and over time that doctrine led to disputes, and changes, and breakaway factions, and new doctrines so different they constitute new religions under the same banner headline…and so on and so on until, now, it looks like nobody’s sure what’s right — on any given theological/metaphysical/supernatural topic there’s a “proof” available [from a “Christian”] to suit anyone’s particular desires. Right now, even the Catholic Pope has been cornered by a few lesser officials desperately seeking clarification about pontifical guidance that seems to be fundamentally amending certain Catholic doctrines — is the Pope changing Catholicism and will he get away with it? Such a plethora of irreconcilable metaphysical doctrines on top of malleable doctrines that change to suit circumstances is itself a pretty good measure that the ‘metaphysical proofs regarding the supernatural world’ really aren’t proven after all — just so much conjecture and wishful thinking masquerading as something profound.

    That, not science/scientism, is the real problem.
    It’s time to quit scapegoating science
    (believers are not going to change science, to blathering on is pointless)
    But believers can fix their doctrines
    Get the logs out of your own eyes!

  9. Jerry

    “Lastly, no theory about the non-measurable can be proven or disproved using measurement. Or, to put it another, science has nothing to say about the supernatural. Thinking that it does, again, can be laid at the feet of the Cult of Measurement.”

    Let’s get something straight, Briggs. You cannot ever, under any circumstances, PROVE a theory. You can only disprove a theory.

  10. Joy

    “How long is a piece of string?” (BBC2 Horizon programme) takes a long time but makes the point relevant here to what is evidence. The sort that real scientists don’t need to be told but many people either forget or don’t know.

    If exact is only ever really just good enough for the task there is always some degree of error.

    If God exists, he gave us science.
    People don’t need religious reasons to argue about science. These arguments are worldly concerns.
    They are important to us all but this isn’t to be confused with the bigger questions.

    Some faiths have tried to court favour with the scientific community in order to counter the false notion that science and God were or are in fact in conflict. This does no good if and when science goes astray because the religious authorities then find themselves on the wrong side of a truth. So people then question the bigger truth.

    (Global warming theory is not in the same league as evolution theory.) Evolution theory is an observation. None of these questions are in conflict with God or the word of God.

    The age of the earth is referred to as ‘days’ in the bible. The word in hebrew that was originally translated has, according to John Lennox and who referred to Hebrew scholars has fourteen possible meanings. As I see it, words and meanings grow over time with human discovery and mixing of language so finding the first meaning is not an easy task. Evidence from the bible is a matter of historical evidence. Being non laboratory standard measurement does not make a thing untrue simply because it can’t be considered in that way.

    In the beginning was the word makes more sense than the alternative.

    Without him nothing came to be that came to be.
    Is a perfectly rational idea even if some don’t hold it as true.
    To say otherwise is to be grudging of a self evident fact.
    Science comes later. First comes something to study scientifically.

    So the fact that the above is true should cause non believers to refrain from the non scientific, dirty, emotional arguments about superstition!
    Unless they want to sound like Scrooge.

    Was Scrooge mad? Was he Happier to be proved wrong? Once the truth was shown to him?
    I expect there’s humbugs everywhere who deep down would love a “visitation.” even without “beating wings”.

  11. Ken

    The Catholic Church, with its relics & miracles, has set itself up; once upon a time any number of tricks may have convinced the illiterate, ignorant, masses…but those days, and the tricks used, are coming to an end.

    St. Januarius miraculously liquefying blood (a few times a year) is explained as inexplicable … though science has made a number of independent copies that are not blood. The Church refuses to allow the sample to be tested (so we really don’t know what is in there). Historical records searches show a gap of hundreds of years between the appearance of the miraculous blood and the existence of the saint.
    REF: (see also thixotropic gels, etc)

    Lourdes, etc. — the number of Church-accepted miracles of inexplicable spontaneous remission of diseases like cancer is actually less than that observed elsewhere. “…if you bathe in the Lourdes waters, you apparently have a smaller likelihood of being spontaneously cured than others who have not. However, if you are one of the faithful and go to Lourdes, and later your disease goes into remission, there is no way I, or anyone else, will be likely to convince you it was just a coincidence.”

    Fatima — the available facts don’t support the miracle, neither do the predictions offered by the one girl said to have been received by otherworldly source associated with the divine.

    Disprove a Miracle–get taken to court: Sanal Edamaruku, India, showed how a ‘weeping statue’ was due to a clogged drain & capillary action. Prompting Catholic Church supporters to sue him under an arcane Indian law.
    REF: “The Indian miracle-buster stuck in Finland” by BBC.

    Is it really science, or “scientism,” that’s the problem,
    It’s what science proves ain’t so is the problem?

  12. Ye Olde Statistician

    Believers in religious metaphysics/supernatural started with A SINGLE theological doctrine from ONE guy

    Was that Plato or Aristotle?

  13. Red Forman

    Don’t mind the naysayers, Briggs. You keep on punching!

  14. Hoyso


    All three of your articles don’t actually have science in them. It’s basically “what if it was something else” written over and over. No one is proving anything.

    If your scepticism about religion rests on San Gennaro maybe being a bit dodgy, it doesn’t seem very strong either. If you’re going to attack you’ve got to hit the Bible and the Apostles. It might also help if you tackled the mystic experiences of unquestionable intellectual heavyweights like Aquinas. Or the public standards of miracle investigation by the Catholic Church.

    It’s not really critical thinking to have an alternate explanation that assumes supernatural phenomena don’t exist and looks for a way to get there from here without any evidence or testing. It’s not really enough to say if it doesn’t happen in a lab it’s not real (the Amazing Randi was great at fooling lab scientists even then).

  15. “It’s not really critical thinking to have an alternate explanation that assumes supernatural phenomena don’t exist and looks for a way to get there from here without any evidence or testing.”

    Supernatural, by definition, means ‘beyond reality,’ in a fundamental sense. It is absurd on the face of it. People will sometimes point out, as an argument against religion, that miracles or mystic experiences no longer happen as shown by our modern documentation techniques, so therefore they were never true to start with. That’s a bad argument. The better argument would be that miracles or mystic experiences do happen all the time still, it’s just that we are simply ascribing fortuitous luck or mental illness to them. As our understanding of reality improves, religion will disappear. It will be replaced with less magical, but just as silly, philosophies.


  16. Fr. John Rickert, FSSP


    Dare I suggest that Ken is being quick and credulous in believing websites that claim to refute the claims of the “credulous”?

    I knew an atheist once who said, “I don’t -want- there to be a God. If there is a God, I’d have to live a lot differently, and I don’t want to.” I have to acknowledge his honesty, at least.

    Nay say all you want; I’ve seen the tilma of Our Lady of Guadalupe myself, along with the altar cross nearly demolished by a bomb placed at the feet of tilma, which remained unharmed.

    Finally, I would say the problem is not precisely scientism, but instead reductionism.

  17. Well, Fr. Rickert, whether it is scientism or reductionism or materialism or whatever else you’d see to call it, it seems to have infected the religious mind as well as the irreligious. Rationalizing the irrational, the supernatural, in no way should save a person who questions or lacks faith. It is devious, in my opinion, but more to the point, it does not in any way instill faith but rather to explain it away! You can have Faith and be relatively Rational, a logical, critical thinker. But you have then to face that your Faith is something psychological, cultural, personal, familial. It’s not science.


  18. Fr. John Rickert, FSSP


    Jersey — If I understand you correctly, as I hope I do, I agree. Even St. Thomas Aquinas is very clear that what we truly know, we do not believe. Knowledge excludes belief. That is why there is no faith in Heaven, for example. (And there is no hope, either, because there is nothing left to hope for.)

    What I do mean by my reference to the tilma is, I will go with the very concrete evidence which, in this particular case, I have seen with my own eyes over the attempts by total strangers to me who may or may not have any direct contact with the evidence. Not quite as strong, I realize, as saying “I was an eyewitness to a fact” but much more compelling to me than a nameless, faceless web in which it seems any falsehood can be posted without trouble.

    Just wondering, have you ever read “The Unity of the Philosophical Experience” by Etienne Gilson? He deals with the same things as your post very considerably.

  19. I’d like to know how they measure religious belief. According to a similar study, people who had just viewed Rodin’s sculpture “The Thinker” became less religious. Any test of religion that can be shifted by something so trivial is not a test of religious faith; it might be a test of religious non-faith.

  20. Friar, I did read God and Philosophy. I was interested in the way Gilson deals with the intersections of reality and philosophy and religion.


  21. Ye Olde Statistician

    Supernatural, by definition, means ‘beyond reality,’

    Actually, it means “above nature” and “nature,” per its roots in “natus,” means what one is “born with.” Hence, one man may be naturally strong ,while another must build up his strength artificially through exercise. An effect is unnatural if it is something which is not in the common course of nature. Since a calf by nature has a single head, a two-headed calf is “unnatural.” It is not the nature of iron to float on water; yet battleships and cruise liners are made of it and for the most part they do float. The supernatural is an effect that exceeds the powers of anything natural. From the natural numbers we can obtain the rational numbers, but not the irrational numbers. Asking whether a supernatural entity exists is much more like asking whether complex numbers exist than it is like asking whether superstrings exist.

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