The National Bureau of Economic Research set out to determine whether religiosity corresponds with a lack of innovation, as measured by the issuance of patents. As the economists surely expected when they set out to publish such a paper, the answer at which they arrive is: “yes.”
Even the summary published in the Wall Street Journal gives hints of where argument with the methodology could begin, and purchasing the study itself would no doubt allow for a fleshing out of objections. But it doesn’t seem necessary to go to such lengths. Just a look at the headline chart gives reason to think the study’s conclusions aren’t worth exploring in detail.
Reporter Jeffrey Sparshott writes that the negative “relationship is apparent when plotting the percent of the population that describes itself as religious against a population-controlled measure of patent applications filed by a country’s residents.” The distribution actually shows something more like the opposite.
Sure, the most patent-heavy countries, Japan and South Korea, are not religious, but they’re also from a certain culture. Another East Asian country, the most unreligious, is China, and its innovation is in the middle of the spread. Vietnam is nearly as unreligious as South Korea, and it’s the fourth-least-innovate country on the chart. (North Korea isn’t included, by the way.)
Moving out of the orient continues the point. The chart is broken into a five-by-five grid, and of the five non-oriental countries in the top quintile for innovation, three are more than 50% religious. Expand the view to the top two quintiles for innovation, and it isn’t even close. Only seven of nearly 30 countries in this space have less than 50% religiosity. Moving the threshold to 60% of residents self-describing as “religious” only picks up two more countries.
From the chart, it’s pretty clear that the reasons there appears to be a correlation between the two variables is that (1) the great majority of countries are substantially religious, (2) Japan and South Korea are innovative outliers, and (3) a number of relatively poor countries (heavily weighted toward Islam) are very religious.
“We’re not making strong claims as to what is causing what,” says one of the study’s authors, but that’s obviously not true. Even the abstract makes much of a presumption of religious opposition to science.