In 2015, a study was published claiming children raised in religious households were less generous. Less than one year later, the findings were proven wrong, but the damage had already been done.
More than 80 media outlets — including the Los Angeles Times, The Economist, the Boston Globe, and Scientific American — ran stories about the faulty analysis, “The Negative Association between Religiousness and Children’s Altruism across the World.”
Unconvinced of the study’s findings, religion researcher Azim Shariff asked to review the detailed contents of the study, according to Psychology Today. And when he pored over the data, he reached the exact opposite conclusion: those who are raised religious are, in fact, more generous than those who are not raised in homes where faith places a central role.
There was an error in the way the initial researcher, Jean Decety, analyzed the collected data. The study was not officially retracted until August:
When we reanalyzed these data to correct this error, we found that country of origin, rather than religious affiliation, is the primary predictor of several of the outcomes. While our title finding that increased household religiousness predicts less sharing in children remains significant, we feel it necessary to explicitly correct the scientific record, and we are therefore retracting the article. We apologize to the scientific community for any inconvenience caused.
Interestingly, Shariff’s study, which re-analyzed Decety’s findings and corrected the previous study, was published in 2016 in the same journal, Current Biology. Despite widespread coverage of the initial research, only a scant four media outlets picked up on the reworked data, though, which proved the initial findings wrong.
As a result of the mainstream media’s failure to cover the retraction, Decety’s erroneous findings about religious people have continued to receive coverage, despite being disproven shortly after the study was published.
“Correction mechanisms in science can sometimes work slowly, but they did, in the end, seem to be effective here,” wrote Tyler VanderWeele, Ph.D., in Psychology Today. “More work still needs to be done as to how this might translate into corrections in media reporting as well: The two articles above were both published after the formal retraction of the paper.”