P-hacking. Religion and science aren’t that different

Science and religion parted ways long ago. This is a historical struggle over power. If science claims to disprove that the earth is the center of the universe or that evolution undermines creation, it might falsify religious doctrine, said to be the word of a God or Gods and thus the ultimate Truth. Religions rely on their claims to this Truth to convert people to submit to their institutions. If science undermines this Truth, it undermines religious power. And power is something that changes human behavior; they might lie, cheat, steal and kill to get or preserve it.

Wikimedia Commons: Thinker; Passion

But science and religion followers are not that different. Actually, they are the same. They are human.

Power is another way of describing status and prestige. In science, we know all about status. Scientific status comes from recognition. From making scientific discoveries and claims that garner attention. In particular, attention in the form of citations.

The absence of market prices results in prestige becoming the main reward and high prestige becoming the measure of exceptional ability. Rent seeking in academia, therefore, produces ego-maniacs and much destructive behavior

Sørensen (1996, p. 1358)

The seeking of status, what economists and Sørensen label as a form of ‘rent-seeking’, is presumably the reason scientists p-hack, and engage in other forms of malpractice. In some cases they ‘must’ p-hack in order to meet the demands of reviewers. Mostly, statistical research requires significance stars to attain publication. This is changing with the Open Science Movement in recent times, but only in the margins. Research using qualitative methods also requires its own form of statistical significance ‘p-hacking’. To be published, a paper must extract novel ideas from observational data, whether these reflect the actual data or are even based on actual data at all seems to be irrelevant as long as the story looks good to reviewers. Just like the significance stars that look all sparkly and comforting to reviewers of quantitative research.

So humans (scientists) cheat to attain status; intentionally or even unintentionally — without malicious intent because they are conditioned to play with their data until the stars appear. Therefore it should be no surprise to humans (scientists) that other humans (religious followers) also cheat.

If p-hacking in science is playing around with models so that they represent the data in a way that matches the researcher’s desire for status, rather than portray the results of scientific tests, then p-hacking in religion must be to interpret the dictates of God (or Gods) to fit one’s, or one’s group’s own status goals.

The conflict of science and religion it like p-hacking. Its a power struggle. Who has the power to make claims about the way the world is and the way it should be? Religious followers would attribute this authority to God, and then themselves as seekers and messengers of God. Science followers attribute this to factual knowledge about the world and then themselves as the testers and reducers of uncertainty to ‘uncover’ those facts. In both cases the process is corrupted by status seeking, a fundamental fallibility of humans. When acting as scientists and spiritual seekers, we are fundamentally still primates, and as such tend toward hierarchy, with many of us human-primates willing to cause harm to others in order to attain higher and higher positions.

For religious followers to gain status through p-hacking they would have to adjust the ‘word of God’ or the ultimate Truth in a way that it (a) is no longer a religious or spiritual truth so that it (b) serves their own ends. Do we have evidence of this practice? Wars fought in the name of religion do not really fit the criteria, as wars can be justified as right, as God’s (or the Gods’) will, for example Christian New Testament Revelation 19:11 about the righteous warring against the (presumably) non-righteous (i.e., ‘evil’); Christian/Jewish Old Testament Deuteronomy 20 calls Israelites to war against cities that do not accept their terms; Islam Qur’an 22:39 advocates war in self-defense and possibly 4:74 to fight in the name of God; and Buddhism taking the stance that war might be necessary in defense but not justified as an aggressor.

The point is that it is difficult to find direct evidence of p-hacking by religious followers in order to gain status for themselves or a group. The same problem lies with detecting p-hacking in scientists. Given that all sides in all wars tend to claim righteousness under God (or Gods) it seems obvious that some (or all) are misinterpreting what should be God’s will for their own gain. Given that so many p-values lay below 0.05 in published research, we can assume that not all are derived from a clean research design, method and presentation of results.

Openness is not needed because we are untrustworthy; it is needed because we are human

(Nosek, Spies and Motyl 2012, p. 626)

It is not only religious and scientific institutions that are antagonistic given their seeking of power. Political institutions, who wield a monopoly on force in the modern world divided into sovereign nation states, also do not always get along with both religious and scientific institutions as they have their own p-values to guard.