“Atheists Are Mutants,” says paper based on Yelp, Yahoo Answers, and the Bible

A surprising new paper in the journal Evolutionary Psychological Science claims that atheism1 is underpinned by “high mutational load” as indicated by (1) poor general health, (2) autism, (3) fluctuating asymmetry (attractiveness), and (4) left-handedness (Dutton et al., 2017). This is silly for a number of reasons. Let’s start with the preposterous rationale for the study, which is actually based on Christian blogs, Yelp, Yahoo Answers, and the Bible:

There seems to be a stereotype that religious people, and especially religious women, are particularly attractive and healthy. A number of popular articles and social media pages discussing this observation can be found online (Malloy, 2017; Hewitt, 2010, p. 99) including threads beginning with questions such as “Why are Mormon girls so hot?” (Yahoo Answers, 2008) and “OMG … why are Christian woman so extremely (physically) attractive?” (Yelp, 2010).2 Several passages in the Bible seem to suggest that those who intensely fear Yahweh are more disease-resistant (Deut. 7:15) and are more physically attractive (e.g. I Samuel 16:18). Those inspired by other gods or by Satan are, in contrast, autistic (Mark 9:25) and even left-handed (Matt 25: 41). Why should the authors of these books believe this to be the case? It could, of course, be a way of idealising the virtuous, but it is not clear that all of these features were the most pertinent for that purpose.

Really??? Has anyone heard about the stereotype that “religious women are particularly attractive and healthy”? And that the New Testament says autistic individuals3 and left-handers are “Satanic”??  This is so ridiculous that I thought the paper must be a spoof, similar to the articles that appear in the The BMJ Christmas issue.4

Oh, and then there’s the title of the article:

The Mutant Says in His Heart, “There Is No God”: the Rejection of Collective Religiosity Centred Around the Worship of Moral Gods Is Associated with High Mutational Load.

It’s really hard to go any further. Professor Shane O’Mara named it a contender for the worst scientific paper of 2017.



1 …and paranormal belief…

2 The first answer on Yelp is quite amusing:

I think you lucked out….go to a heavily Christian city in middle America and the church populace will look more like peopleofwalmart.com (is that the right site?). I don’t think their looks is attributed to religion, you just happened onto a group of good-looking women. It can happen anywhere.

3 The author of the gospel of Mark must have discovered autism, then.

4 I asked the journal about this, but didn’t hear back.



Dutton E, Madison G, Dunkel C. (2017). The Mutant Says in His Heart,“There Is No God”: the Rejection of Collective Religiosity Centred Around the Worship of Moral Gods Is Associated with High Mutational Load. Evolutionary Psychological Science. pp. 1-12. First Online:


america first budget.png

This thin 62 page PDF (which includes 8 blank pages) is a poorly documented and fanciful précis of the Bannon/Trump blueprint for “deconstruction of the administrative state.

Trump with Bannon as Grim Reaper

The proposed budget would eliminate the following federal agencies:

For biomedical scientists, the most distressing section was this:

  • Reduces the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) spending relative to the 2017 annualized CR level by $5.8 billion to $25.9 billion. [NOTE: this is a 19% cut from current budget of $30.3 billion.] The Budget includes a major reorganization of NIH’s Institutes and Centers to help focus resources on the highest priority research and training activities, including: eliminating the Fogarty International Center; consolidating the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality within NIH; and other consolidations and structural changes across NIH organizations and activities. The Budget also reduces administrative costs and rebalance Federal contributions to research funding.

This is extremely alarming (but so vague and poorly written that it’s hard to infer the exact intent here). The NIH has broad bipartisan support, so such a massive gutting is unlikely. On the other hand, Trump has said, “I hear so much about the NIH, and it’s terrible.”

The document is filled with unsupported claims:

  • Eliminates $403 million in health professions and nursing training programs, which lack evidence that they significantly improve the Nation’s health workforce. [NOTE: Where is this evidence?] The Budget continues to fund health workforce activities that provide scholarships and loan repayments in exchange for service in areas of the United States where there is a shortage of health professionals.

…and meaningless hand-waving:

  • Invests in mental health activities that are awarded to high-performing entities and focus on high priority areas, such as suicide prevention, serious mental illness, and children’s mental health.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would be among the hardest hit, with 3,200 fewer positions and a 31% cut in funding. This is no surprise, since deregulation is more important than clean air and drinkable water.

Those of us with a conscience don’t have to accept this sadistic budget by Bannon and co., which is designed to outrage and infuriate. Write or call your representatives NOW.

I’m a Lumberjack


The eighth and final season of the hit series Dexter took a scientific look at serial killers. Dr. Evelyn Vogel, a neuropsychiatrist who wrote the definitive book on the brains of psychopaths, consulted with Miami Metro Homicide on a series of unusual cases. The killer would saw open the skull and scoop out the “empathetic” part of the brain (the anterior insula) with a melon baller. The most brutal of these murders occurred while the victim was alive and awake.

Dr. Vogel was ultimately killed by the “Brain Surgeon” who turned out to be her own psychopathic son (presumed dead for over 25 years; he faked his death by starting a fire in the asylum where he was housed).

But now the show has ended in a most unsatisfying way. The reasons for this are succinctly captured in the tweet below. Our favorite serial killer lives on, but in an unexpectedly isolated and self-punishing way after (you guessed it) faking his own death and moving far away from his son and girlfriend.

In an interview, Jennifer Carpenter, the actress who played Dexter’s sister Deb, had this to say about the end of the series (where her character dies due to a horrible mistake in her brother’s judgment):

“I’m picturing an older model television where you have to get up to turn the TV off and then it slips into that tiny little dot until it’s all gone — that’s what I feel like is happening to me.”

It’s a great interview from an actress who got better and better as the series progressed. I always thought of Deb as the most traumatized woman on television.

Finally, here’s an alternate ending from an executive producer who left the show after four seasons:

“In the very last scene of the series,” Philips explained, “Dexter wakes up. And everybody is going to think, ‘Oh, it was a dream.’ And then the camera pulls back and back and back and then we realize, ‘No, it’s not a dream.’ Dexter’s opening his eyes and he’s on the execution table at the Florida Penitentiary. They’re just starting to administer the drugs and he looks out through the window to the observation gallery.

“And in the gallery are all the people that Dexter killed—including the Trinity Killer and the Ice Truck Killer (his brother Rudy), LaGuerta who he was responsible killing, Doakes who he’s arguably responsible for, Rita, who he’s arguably responsible for, Lila. All the big deaths, and also whoever the weekly episodic kills were. They are all there.

“That’s what I envisioned for the ending of Dexter. That everything we’ve seen over the past eight seasons has happened in the several seconds from the time they start Dexter’s execution to the time they finish the execution and he dies.  Literally, his life flashed before his eyes as he was about to die. I think it would have been a great, epic, very satisfying conclusion.”

All Apologies

What else should I be
All apologies
What else could I say
Everyone is gay
What else could I write
I don’t have the right
What else should I be
All apologies


The text of Jonah Lehrer’s speech is available on his website. The Knight Foundation has also issued an apology for the $20,000 payment to Lehrer.

My Apology, by Jonah Lehrer

Knight Foundation regrets paying Lehrer speaking fee

But will either apology result in a $20,000 donation to the ScienceOnline Scholarship fund? This was the challenge issued by Taylor Dobbs

Jonah Lehrer on Jonah Lehrer

Feb 12 2013

Knight Foundation: Informed & Engaged Communities

Media Learning Seminar 2013

Read: “In first public comments since plagiarism scandal, Jonah Lehrer blames ‘arrogance, need for attention’ for lies” on Knight Blog by Elise Hu

Jonah Lehrer speaks

Advance to 60 min and wait for buffering. Lehrer takes podium at 1:02.

“I’ve been asked to give a talk about decision-making. I’m going to focus today on bad decisions. On the causes and repercussions of failure. The failure I’ll be talking about is my own.”


ADDENDUM (Feb 13 2013):

Just when you think he’s expressing sincere remorse and apologizing for specific transgressions (including plagiarizing Christian Jarrett), he digresses into an irrelevant ramble about unconscious bias in forensic science. By comparing his deliberate journalistic transgressions to FBI fingerprint errors that resulted in wrongful arrest, he diminishes personal responsibility for his own errors and negates his prior confession and apology. Sad indeed.

He supposedly longs to use what we know about the psychology of deceit and the neuroscience of broken trust to “fix” himself.  He also applies Dan Ariely’s work on the ubiquity of cheating (in small ways) to justify his own actions. “The human mind is a confabulation machine.” Then why don’t we see similar scandals every day of the week?

Lehrer reveals “a consistent asymmetry in the ways in which I noticed error” to claim that he was blind to his own failings, but never to the mistakes of others.

“If I’m going to regain some semblance of self-respect, then I need the help of others. I need my critics to tell me what I’ve gotten wrong if only so they can show myself I’m able to listen.”

Um, Spindle Neurons and Science Writing in 2007, Depression’s Cognitive Downside in 2010, and Revisiting Depression’s Cognitive Downside in 2011.1 Not to mention the many many book reviews and blog posts of others. See, for example, this recap by Christopher Chabris.

Self-Sabotage vs. Hubris and Narcissism

I’m reminded of my recent post on The Neuroanatomical Correlates of Self-Sabotage. It described the unconscious strategy of self-handicapping, or slacking off and then compiling a list of reasons for why you didn’t succeed, as a way to preserve self-esteem. Lehrer is indeed trying to preserve his ego and self-dignity, but the external blaming routine seems motivated by narcissism instead of being a shame-avoidance mechanism. In order to regain his writing career, he admits that he must join the rest of us, the unwashed masses of fact-checkers and footnoters.

However, I have no real insight into what his motivations might be. Cynics point to the $20,000 speaking fee he received from the Knight Foundation. But given the uproar and the outrage and the tweet wall of shame, was it really worth it?


1  Despite being THE Neurocritic, I was never comfortable piling on during the original Jonah-bashing, because I thought it was mean. Back in the ScienceBlogs days, I occasionally commented on Jonah’s Frontal Cortex blog.  He’d reply back sometimes and other times linked to my blog. I don’t actually condone personal attacks, and perhaps this low level of personal interaction made me even more loath to do so.

Functional MRI: The Fast Track to Fame and Fortune


The seductive allure of fMRI was initially revealed by the New York Times in 2000. According to Dr. Christopher Moore, the method is easier than 1, 2, 3! And your papers will write themselves:

The technology is seductively easy to use, said Dr. Christopher Moore, a postdoctoral fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston who is carrying out a number of imaging studies. ”You can think of an idea, throw five friends into the scanner overnight and write up your results the next day. People don’t have to think very hard about what they’re doing.”

-from Just What’s Going On Inside That Head of Yours?
 Published: March 14, 2000

-image from DLPFC Rap


The Stanford Prison Experiment Was Based on a Pilot Study With Similar Results


Do many people know that the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment was based on a preliminary study that was terminated prematurely? And yet the main experiment was conducted anyway? This would certainly exacerbate the ethical breach of subjecting unwitting participants to such brutal conditions.

A friend gave me a tip on this Letter to the Editor in the Stanford Alumni Magazine:

‘Prison’ Perspectives

“It began with an ad in the classifieds.” With all due respect to Professor Zimbardo, it actually began several months earlier when David Jaffe, ’72, an undergraduate research associate of his, recruited a number of students for a pilot “prison program” conducted in the basement of Toyon Hall. As one of the guards, I can attest to the same feelings of desensitization and turmoil experienced by participants in the subsequent larger study. I remember well denying medication to a student who had forgotten to list it on her medical requirements form. I remember, too, that Jaffe’s experiment was called off well before the target date, as prisoners and guards alike began to fray at the edges. It was the startling results of this pilot project of David’s that I believe provided the impetus for the larger Stanford Prison Experiment.

Tom Jordan, ’71
Eugene, Oregon

Here’s how Professor Philip Zimbardo explains it in the Acknowledgments to his book, The Lucifer Effect:

It all began with the planning, execution, and analysis of the experiment we did at Stanford University back in August 1971. The immediate impetus for this research came out of an undergraduate class project on the psychology of imprisonment, headed by David Jaffe, who later became the warden in our Stanford Prison Experiment.

Mr. Jordan’s account suggests the results were not exactly a surprise, which undermines the claim that “no one knew what, exactly, they were getting into.”

There are other major discrepancies in the storyline. In addition to thanking his massage therapist, Zimbardo acknowledges the assistance of a former prison inmate:

In preparation for conducting this experiment, and to better understand the mentality of prisoners and correctional staff, as well as to explore what were the critical features in the psychological nature of any prison experience, I taught a summer school course at Stanford University covering these topics. My co-instructor was Andrew Carlo Prescott, who had recently been paroled from a series of long confinements in California prisons. Carlo came to serve as an invaluable consultant and dynamic head of our “Adult Authority Parole Board.”

Mr. Prescott has a grimmer recollection of this collaboration, and a much different view on the ultimate outcome of the experiment:

The lie of the Stanford Prison Experiment

. . .

Regrettably, the gulf between verisimilitude and real prison life is a huge leap of faith that still raises serious issues of validity from the get-go. Nevertheless,ideas such as bags being placed over the heads of prisoners, inmates being bound together with chains and buckets being used in place of toilets in their cells were all experiences of mine at the old “Spanish Jail” section of San Quentin and which I dutifully shared with the Stanford Prison Experiment braintrust months before the experiment started. To allege that all these carefully tested, psychologically solid, upper-middle-class Caucasian “guards” dreamed this up on their own is absurd.

Hmm. Here’s a 2003 interview with Zimbardo:

HS: Did you encounter any opposition from the administration at Stanford University when you proposed the idea of conducting the SPE? 

PZ: None. The study was  readily approved by the Human Subjects Research committee because it seemed like college kids playing cops and robbers, it was an experiment that anyone could quit at any time and minimal safeguards were in place. You must distinguish hind sight from fore sight, knowing what you know now after the study is quite different from what most people imagined might happen before the study began.

In the same interview, Zimbardo acknowledges the pilot project but doesn’t discuss the disastrous outcome:

HS: When did you first conceive the idea of observing the behavior of mock prisoners and guards in a simulated prison?

PZ: During a class the previous spring when I got students interested in the intersection of psychology of individuals and the sociology of institutions, and doing a mock prison for a weekend was part of the class exercise for one group of social psychology students.

The mere existence of a pilot project for the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment was news to me. I also found it interesting that the Stanford Alumni Magazine initially refused to publish Mr. Jordan’s letter. Has anyone else heard about Jaffe’s pilot study?

Determinism and Moral Responsibility


Emotional responses to a scenario will override the rational belief that complete determinism negates moral responsibility, according to expermental philosopher Joshua Knobe:

3:AM: So can you say a little about the kind of experiments you’ve been doing. For instance, there’s the experiments investigating intuitions about freewill that you’ve written about which might strike readers as being a strange thing to try and run experiments about.

JK: Yes, well, since the very beginning of philosophy and the Ancient Greek period philosophers have been debating about whether freewill is compatible with determinism. So the question is, if everything we do is completely determined, if each thing we do is completely determined by what happened beforehand, then can we still be morally responsible for the things we are doing? And some people say, ‘Obviously not! If everything is determined then we couldn’t be morally responsible for them.’ But some people say, ‘No, that’s no problem at all. Whether you are morally responsible has got nothing to do with whether you are determined. These are just two completely separate issues.’ So what we were interested in was what were the psychological roots of this conflict.

So we were interested in finding out what it is within people that is drawing them to the one side or to the other side of the issue. So we thought; maybe it’s people’s abstract theory that is drawing them to the idea that someone who is determined cannot be morally responsible. And that it’s people’s more immediate emotional responses that are drawing them to the view that people who are totally determined can be morally responsible. So we tried to devise these questions that would make people think about the issue either from a more abstract, theoretical perspective or from a more concrete, emotional, immediate perspective. So I guess the study you already know is the one where everyone was told about this universe, Universe A, where everything was determined. And then some people were just asked in the abstract, in Universe A, could anyone be held to be morally responsible for anything they do? And people said overwhelmingly no, absolutely not. We got the same response in America, in Japan, in India, in Columbia. Everyone was saying the same thing, giving the same answer: definitely not! You cannot hold anyone morally responsible. No one can be morally responsible in this universe. But then in the other condition, we asked a more concrete question. So we said, ‘Consider this one guy, his name is Bill, and he lives in this determinist Universe A. So this guy, Bill, he falls in love with his secretary. So he decides to leave his wife and family. Then he sets up an incendiary device to burn them all to death.’ And then we asked whether they thought this one guy, Bill, was morally responsible for what he did. And in this case people say ‘Totally!’ That guy Bill is morally responsible even though he lives in Universe A. Everyone said this. But in the other condition everyone said that no one in Universe A could be morally responsible. So it seems as if people who have been made to think about it in this more emotional way are giving one answer and people being asked to think about it in a more rational, more abstract way, are giving the exact opposite answer. And so this is a significant difference and helps us to think about why we believe what we believe.

-from Indie Rock Virtues – Josh Knobe interviewed by Richard Marshall

via @anibalmastobiza


JFK Conspiracy Theories and Breaches of Medical Ethics

A narcissistic psychiatrist googles himself (salerian) and discovers that someone doesn’t find his JFK neurotoxin conspiracy theory to be very convincing. The offensive post is the second hit, above the link to his own blog.

So Dr. Alen J. Salerian [or perhaps one of his devout fans] submits an indignant comment and doesn’t expect it to be published. WRONG!

The Neurocritic took this as an opportunity to do a quick Google search, and discovered a link to an official court document (on the first page of results). Dr. Salerian was placed on probation for two years in the state of Maryland because of a sensational and self-serving breach of confidentiality, as outlined in detail below.

Action Taken:

The Board has issued the Physician a Reprimand, a Fine of $3500.00 and placed his license on Probation for two years to include completion of an Ethics course.


The court opinion finding Dr. Alen J. Salerian guilty of a professional ethics violation is informative:


To spare you the 35 page legal document, here’s a news article:

Md. Court of Special Appeals upholds spy consultant setback

The Maryland State Board of Physicians rightly disciplined a psychiatrist who evaluated accused spy Robert P. Hanssen, then revealed Hanssen’s disclosures to the media and Hanssen’s wife, the Court of Special Appeals held.

The board found Alen J. Salerian guilty of “immoral or unprofessional conduct in the practice of medicine” and punished him with probation and a $5,000 fine. Salerian challenged the decision on multiple grounds, all of which the appellate court rejected on Wednesday.

In 2001, Salerian contacted Hanssen’s attorney, Plato Cacheris, with an offer to perform a psychiatric evaluation of his client. Salerian was eventually hired on a limited basis, with the obvious stipulation that he should not approach the media or otherwise disclose confidential information.

During the interviews, Hanssen disclosed personal information about his unsavory sexual activities (including secret videotaping and other gross stuff) kept hidden from his wife:

On May 11, 2001, appellant disclosed to Cacheris what Evaluee had told him about his “sexual exploitation” of his wife. Cacheris instructed appellant not to reveal this information to anyone, including Evaluee’s wife. Yet, one day later, appellant disclosed Evaluee’s sexual activities to Evaluee’s wife. He did so, appellant explained in a letter to Cacheris, to “engender enhanced understanding and reconcilment [sic] between [Evaluee] and his wife . . . .”

But the prohibited disclosure went beyond the perhaps understandable desire to inform the wife of grave offenses committed against her. Salerian then contacted the media, thereby invalidating any noble intentions one might have attributed to him:

On June 12, 2001, Cacheris wrote to appellant, informing him that a producer for “Sixty Minutes” told Cacheris that appellant “had discussions with him concerning confidential matters involving [Evaluee].” Cacheris again warned appellant that appellant was “not permitted to disclose to anybody communications [he] may have had with [Evaluee] and members of his family” and that “any such disclosures will be violative of the attorney/client privilege and [appellant’s] own canons of medical ethics prohibiting disclosures,” and, furthermore, he reminded appellant that appellant signed the United States government’s “Special Administrative Measures,” which “prohibit public disclosures.”

[Two quotations above taken from the court document. Here’s the transcript from a CBS interview: Reveals Impressions Of Accused Spy Hanssen]

Let’s conclude with a link to a Dr. Drew-like ethical violation: offering vacuous “expert” psychiatric opinion on a celebrity:

‘Is Kobe Bryant Guilty?’ — Commentary by Psychiatrist Alen J. Salerian

The comments are quite amusing…