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The Magic Dogma Ball December 25, 2013

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Education, Humor, Reason.
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It is certainThis holiday season, take all the hard work out of finding the answers to life’s more perplexing questions: the Magic Dogma Ball™ has all the answers you’ll ever need! Ask any question, no matter how complex, and the Magic Dogma Ball™ will give you the definitive answer (according to your selected tradition). No thinking required!

The Magic Dogma Ball™ answers questions about ethics, politics, metaphysics, fashion, sex, and more. Possible answers include:

  • It is certain
  • Without a doubt
  • It is forbidden
  • Don’t even think about it

The Magic Dogma Ball™ is long-lasting and can remain in your family for generations — no tuning or adjustments necessary. Give your loved ones the gift of Certainty today!

Recommended for children and adults age 0 and up.

Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, Scientology, and Aztec versions available.

Caution: Do not mix different versions of the Magic Dogma Ball™ among children in the same household, neighborhood, or school. We are not responsible for the consequences of contradictory answers provided by different traditions.

Have always and will always December 1, 2013

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Law, Religion.
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It is often argued that beliefs (especially religious beliefs) are a private matter, and that it’s wrong to criticize people’s deeply-held faith. The problem with “let everyone believe whatever they want”, however, is that our beliefs inevitably influence our actions. If, for instance, you believe that doing X is extremely important, you’ll naturally try to get others to do it. In extreme cases, you might even try to force people to do X for their own good — or for the good of their children. For example, I believe that saving children from disease and death is extremely important; so if a parent were withholding lifesaving medication from their child, I would advocate using the power of the law to override that parent and medicate the child. Most people would presumably agree that such action is reasonable — but it’s only reasonable insomuch as the underlying beliefs (e.g., regarding disease, death, and medication) are themselves reasonable.

On the other hand, consider this:

The Supreme Rabbinical Court for Appeals in Jerusalem has upheld a ruling demanding that a mother pay NIS 500 [$140] every day until she agrees to have her son circumcised…

The panel of three rabbinical judges of the Supreme Rabbinical Court said in their decision on Monday that the mother was objecting to the procedure as a way of gaining better terms in the divorce settlement and dismissed her appeal…

The mother said, however, that after looking into the matter she decided she did not want the boy to be circumcised on ethical grounds.

“I don’t have the right to cut his genitals and wound him, and the rabbinical court does not have the right to force me to,” she told Channel 2 news…

“The Jewish people have always and will always see in the brit mila [circumcision] the completion of the act of creation,” [the judges] continued.

More:

“This matter lies within our purview because the minor’s educational experience will be defined by the decision on circumcision,” the rabbinical judges wrote in their ruling…

In Israel, rabbinical courts are entrusted with the marriage and divorce of Jewish couples. As such, they can rule on a wide range of issues when they hear a case.

The woman appealed to the Great Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem but the court refused to overturn the lower court’s ruling. “If the issue of circumcision is now left to every individual to decide, how will the rest of the world view this? It would be unthinkable to have authority in this matter stripped from the rabbinical sages of the people of Israel.”

Authority in this and all legal matters needs to be immediately stripped from rabbinical sages, priests, mullahs, and all others who value faith and adherence to tradition over reason and evidence; while the irrational belief systems that motivate them need to be treated with the same scorn those “judges” showed a mother and her son.

Frames vs. reality October 27, 2013

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Economics, Math, Reason.
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Suppose your household owns two cars, which are used equally: car A gets 8 miles per gallon of fuel, while car B gets 25. You have the opportunity to either trade in car A for a newer model that gets 10 miles per gallon, or you may trade in car B for a model that gets 50 miles per gallon. Which choice would save you more on fuel costs?

This seems like a no-brainer: trading in car A improves its mileage by only 2 mpg (25%), while trading in car B improves its mileage by 25 mpg (100%)! Just for fun, let’s use our brain anyway, and do the math. If each car drives 10,000 miles a year, then upgrading car A would save 250 gallons (consuming 1000 instead of 1250), while upgrading car B would save only 200 gallons (consuming 200 instead of 400) — so choosing to trade in car A would save you 25% more money!

frameHow could our intuition have been so wrong? The cause of the error (dubbed “The MPG Illusion” by psychologists Richard Larrick and Jack Soll) is in the framing of the question. We don’t really care about optimizing the distance we can drive on a fixed amount of fuel; we want to optimize the amount of fuel we consume for the distance we drive. Consider this alternative formulation of the above choice: you can either upgrade car A from .125 to .1 gallons per mile (saving .025 gpm), or upgrade car B from .04 to .02 gallons per mile (saving .02 gpm). This formulation is mathematically equivalent to the original, but they evoke opposite intuitions — which is quite disturbing, considering the widespread assumption that consumers (and policymakers) will reliably make choices that are in their own rational interests.

When comparing differences in fuel efficiency, it’s clear that one frame (gallons per mile) is superior to another (miles per gallon). This is not always the case, however, as shown by an example due to the economist Thomas Schelling. (Both the following scenario and the previous one are discussed in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.) Say we are designing a tax code, and are thinking of including a “child credit”: families with children will get a deduction on their taxes. Would it be acceptable for the deduction to be greater for rich families than for poor families? You probably answered with a resounding No.

Now, let’s think about it a different way. Giving a tax deduction to families with children arbitrarily designates a childless family as the default case, but we could just as well rewrite the tax code such that having children is the default case, and childless families would pay a tax surcharge. In that case, would it be acceptable for the surcharge paid by the childless poor to be as great as the surcharge paid by the childless rich? Again, you probably feel strongly that it would not.

The problem is that you cannot logically reject both proposals — since a surcharge that is smaller for childless poor families than for childless rich families is the same thing as a deduction that is smaller for poor families with children than for rich families with children. For instance, a surcharge of $500 for the childless poor and $1000 for the childless rich is equivalent to a deduction of $500 for poor families with children and $1000 for rich families with children.

The lesson is not that it’s impossible to design a tax code that burdens the poor less than the rich. The disturbing fact uncovered here is that our intuitions about fairness, like our intuitions about fuel efficiency, are unreliable: they can give contradictory answers to the same question depending on how that question is framed.

Kahneman’s conclusion is stark:

You have moral intuitions about differences between the rich and the poor, but these intuitions depend on an arbitrary reference point, and they are not about the real problem… Your moral feelings are attached to frames, to descriptions of reality rather than to reality itself.

Strong intuition is never a substitute for slow, careful analysis.

How do you know she is a witch? October 19, 2013

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Science, Superstition.
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“We have found a witch, may we burn her?”

“How do you know she is a witch?”

“She looks like one! Also, last week she gave me a creepy stare when she walked by my house — and the very next day my kitten died!”

“But do you have any good reasons for thinking that witches exist at all?”

“Oh, I see: You’re one of those closed-minded, reductionist, scientism fundamentalists. Let me tell you something: Thousands of people have believed in witches for thousands of years — how many more reasons do you need? Are you calling all those people stupid? How arrogant of you, to think you’re smarter than everyone else. Science doesn’t know everything, you know. And even when science claims to know something, it sometimes turns out to be wrong. Anyway, there’s more to life than what you can measure in a lab. Just because you can’t explain something scientifically doesn’t mean it isn’t true!”

“You got me all wrong: I agree with all that. I merely meant to say that based on my own hallowed tradition and sacred texts, I believe that what you call witchcraft is actually caused by demonic possession. This calls for an exorcism, not a burning.”

“Oh. All right, then, let’s give it a shot — if that doesn’t work, we can always burn her!”

Majority opinion June 30, 2013

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Equality, Freedom, Law.
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In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld (Bowers v. Hardwick) a Georgia sodomy law that criminalized private sexual acts between consenting same-sex adults. The case was decided by a margin of 5 to 4.

In his dissenting opinion, Justice Harry Blackmun wrote:

I believe we must analyze respondent Hardwick’s claim in the light of the values that underlie the constitutional right to privacy. If that right means anything, it means that, before Georgia can prosecute its citizens for making choices about the most intimate aspects of their lives, it must do more than assert that the choice they have made is an “abominable crime not fit to be named among Christians”…

I cannot agree that either the length of time a majority has held its convictions or the passions with which it defends them can withdraw legislation from this Court’s scrutiny…

That certain, but by no means all, religious groups condemn the behavior at issue gives the State no license to impose their judgments on the entire citizenry. The legitimacy of secular legislation depends, instead, on whether the State can advance some justification for its law beyond its conformity to religious doctrine… A State can no more punish private behavior because of religious intolerance than it can punish such behavior because of racial animus…

I can only hope that… the Court soon will reconsider its analysis and conclude that depriving individuals of the right to choose for themselves how to conduct their intimate relationships poses a far greater threat to the values most deeply rooted in our Nation’s history than tolerance of nonconformity could ever do. Because I think the Court today betrays those values, I dissent.

Equal justice under lawThe Court reversed its ruling in 2003 (Lawrence v. Texas), invalidating all remaining sodomy laws — making same-sex sexual activity legal in all U.S. states. The case was decided by a margin of 6 to 3.

On June 26, 2013, the Court ruled (United States v. Windsor) that Section 3 of the “Defense of Marriage Act” is unconstitutional, and that the federal government may not discriminate against same-sex married couples.

The case was decided by a margin of 5 to 4.

Letter from the high chief of Easter Island June 23, 2013

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Politics, Reason, Superstition.
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moaiTo my loyal clansmen,

It has come to my attention that some of you have expressed concern regarding our time-honored tradition of cutting down great palm trees in order to erect the sacred moai (source of our clan’s glory). I wish to assure you that there is nothing to fear! After all, we’ve been doing the same thing for hundreds of years and we’re still here.

Some have claimed that there are less birds to hunt than there used to be; but even if this is true, we don’t know for certain that it’s due to our tree cutting. There could be many reasons for such fluctuations — who can understand the mysteries of nature? We must simply have faith that the birds will return.

Others have pointed out that using all the tallest trees for moai building leaves less for making fishing boats. Such complaints are unworthy of our hard-working ancestors. There is no shortage of fish on my dinner table; I trust the ingenuity of our brave clansmen will always find a way to extract sustenance from the seas, with or without trees.

The bottom line is this: I will not be known as the ariki who brought dishonor on our clan, letting our rivals’ glory surpass our own. And just as I am responsible for sustaining our present strength, I am confident that future chiefs will have the wisdom to solve the problems of their own times.

So, do not let a few meddlesome know-it-alls scare you with their “observations” and their “experiments”. The spirits of our ancestors watch over us and protect us always. Our glorious civilization will live forever!

Editor’s note: The preceding manuscript was uncovered by Europeans who arrived at Easter Island in 1722, where they found a small, emaciated population and a deforested landscape, with no trees over 10 feet tall and no land birds. There were, however, hundreds of giant stone statues.

Reconcile ourselves with the irreconcilable May 25, 2013

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Religion.
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In the Huffington Post, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach opines that to claim the Holocaust was punishment for sin is “ignorant, repulsive, and wrong.” Also, “abhorrent” and “factually absurd.” Moreover, those who make such arguments aren’t doing God’s reputation any favors:

Let’s say for a moment that they’re right. God bears no responsibility for the gas chambers at Auschwitz because the Jews of Europe had it coming. They earned death by virtue of their iniquity. They deserved to be turned into ash because they had abrogated God’s covenant.

Now, how many of you feel like praying to a God who could do that? How many of you feel like loving a God who enacts the death penalty for eating a cheese burger? How many people would want to worship a God who cremates children when their parents drive on the Sabbath?

Good point! I wonder where anyone could possibly have gotten the “abhorrent” idea that God would do things like that… Well, I guess there is this:

But if ye will not hearken unto Me, and will not do all these commandments; and if ye shall reject My statutes, and if your soul abhor Mine ordinances, so that ye will not do all My commandments, but break My covenant; I also will do this unto you: I will appoint terror over you, even consumption and fever, that shall make the eyes to fail, and the soul to languish… And if ye walk contrary unto Me, and will not hearken unto Me; I will bring seven times more plagues upon you according to your sins. And I will send the beast of the field among you, which shall rob you of your children, and destroy your cattle, and make you few in number… And ye shall eat the flesh of your sons, and the flesh of your daughters shall ye eat…

And this:

Ye shall keep the sabbath therefore, for it is holy unto you; every one that profaneth it shall surely be put to death; for whosoever doeth any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people.

And this

for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me;

But if, like Boteach, we choose to ignore the main theme of the Bible, and maintain that God is worthy of love and worship, surely the only position left available is that God is incapable of influencing our world at all — because horrible things happen to innocent people every fucking day. I mean, it wouldn’t make any sense to give God credit for the good things that befall us, while absolving him of responsibility for the bad things! Right?

I don’t know why God allowed the holocaust. Nor do I care. Any explanation would not minimize the horror of it. Nor would it bring back my six millions murdered Jewish brothers and sisters. Indeed, asking for an answer is itself immoral insofar as it is an attempt to reconcile ourselves with the irreconcilable. What we want is for God to fulfill his promises to the Jewish people, that they might live a blessed and peaceful existence, like so many other nations that are not perennial targets for genocide.

True, God has sustained us, for the most part, and we alone have survived from antiquity. We are grateful to God for our longevity. But it should not take the deaths of innocent Israeli soldiers to guarantee our survival.

It is high time that God show Himself in history and bless a people who have been, for the past three thousand years, the most devoted and religious of nations, deeply faithful to God, practicing charity, promoting scholarship, fostering hospitality, and spreading light and blessing to all nations of the earth.

High time, indeed. In fact, if God doesn’t show himself soon, some skeptical-minded individuals might interpret the consistent lack of divine intervention in our world as evidence that he doesn’t exist at all! Like, for instance, this Oklahoma woman whose home was ravaged by a tornado: CNN’s Wolf Blitzer told her she’s “blessed,” then asked her if she “thanked the Lord.” She replied that she’s actually an atheist.

Rabbi Shmuley doesn’t know why his God allowed that tornado to kill two dozen people, including ten children; nor does he care. Indeed, he considers asking for an answer to be itself immoral. Nevertheless, he continues to pray for God’s blessings and to thank him for lovingly sustaining us. For the most part.

By way of contradiction May 5, 2013

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Logic, Math.
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contradictionAn indirect proof (or proof by contradiction) establishes the truth of a proposition by showing that the proposition’s negation implies a contradiction. For example, we can indirectly prove that the square root of 2 is irrational (i.e., it cannot be expressed as a ratio a/b where a and b are integers) by assuming the opposite — that √2 can be expressed as a ratio of integers — and showing that such an assumption leads to a contradiction (e.g., that b is both even and odd).

Some people find indirect proofs unsatisfying, or even a bit suspicious: it feels like we’ve been cheated out of understanding why the proposition is true. Direct proofs seem more intuitive and dependable. This raises the question: Does every proposition that can be proved indirectly have a direct proof as well? Or are there propositions that can be proved indirectly, for which no direct proof exists?

Before attempting to answer that question, let us first consider this humble proposition:

(p) This proposition cannot be proved directly.

We can prove proposition p is true — indirectly. Start by assuming the opposite, that is, assume there exists a direct proof of p. In particular, that means p is true. But p states that there is no direct proof of p — contradicting our assumption. So our assumption must be false; hence p is true.

Let us now attempt to prove the following proposition:

(q) Not all propositions that can be proved indirectly can also be proved directly.

We shall prove the truth of proposition q (you guessed it) indirectly. Assume the opposite: that is, assume any proposition that can be proved indirectly can also be proved directly. Then, since p can be proved indirectly (as demonstrated above), there must also exist a direct proof of p. However, the existence of such a proof contradicts (the proven) proposition p! So our assumption must be false — and q is true.

Ah, but the question remains: Can q be proved directly?

The perils of reasonablism April 27, 2013

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Reason.
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I’ll be the first to admit that reason can be a useful tool: logical thinking and honest evaluation of real-world evidence may come in handy if you want to cure disease, or build an airplane, or solve a crime. But some people just can’t stop there: they arrogantly insist that everything in life ought to be approached in a reasonable manner! As extreme and fundamentalist as it sounds, I have actually met those who will claim (with a straight face) that it’s impossible to be too reasonable.

"Open Mind" by Yoan CapoteIt saddens me to see people whose worldview is so narrow and closed-minded. What kind of world would we live in, if everyone were constantly expected to provide good reasons for their beliefs and reasonable justification for their actions? If everything were open for discussion and reevaluation based on evidence and argument? The reasonablists need to understand that some people are deeply attached to so-called “non-reasonable” beliefs, and they might become offended or angry if forced to question those beliefs. And whose fault would that be?

Anyway, how come the militant reasonablists get to define what’s reasonable? They may proclaim the value of logical consistency and intellectual honesty, but that’s just their opinion. Others are free to define “reasonable” however they want: following tradition, obeying an authority, wishful thinking — who are we to judge? The reasonablists’ insistence on being undogmatic is just another dogma; their rejection of blind faith is itself a form of blind faith.

It seems to me that the reasonablists should learn a little humility. After all, just because logical, evidence-based thinking has proved immensely successful at understanding how our world works, doesn’t mean we should rely on it when deciding how to live our lives and build our societies. And just because your conclusions are supported by “evidence” and “logic” doesn’t mean I have to accept them.

One of the highest April 8, 2013

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Law, Religion.
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Suppose that in some community of your city, a newborn baby is taken by his parents to a tattoo parlor, where they have the family emblem tattooed on his backside. The tattoo subsequently becomes infected, causing the infant to suffer brain damage and, eventually, die.

What would be the appropriate response? Should we shrug our shoulders, maintaining that parents are free to do whatever they want with their children? Or should we hold the parents (and the tattoo artist) accountable?

And what kind of parents would perform such a procedure on an infant, anyway?

Two infants in the last three months in New York City’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community have been infected with herpes following a ritual circumcision, according to the health department. The boys were not identified.

In the most controversial part of this version of the Jewish ritual, known as metzitzah b’peh, the practitioner, or mohel, places his mouth around the baby’s penis to suck the blood to “cleanse” the wound.

One of the two infected babies developed a fever and lesion on its scrotum seven days after the circumcision, and tests for HSV-1 were positive, according to the health department.

Last year, the New York City Board of Health voted to require parents to sign a written consent that warns them of the risks of this practice. None of the parents of the two boys who were recently infected signed the form, according Jay Varma, deputy commissioner for disease control at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Varma said it was “too early to tell” if the babies will suffer long-term health consequences from the infection.

Since 2000, there have been 13 cases of herpes associated with the ritual, including two deaths and two other babies with brain damage.

Neonatal herpes infections can cause death or disability among infants, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“First, these are serious infections in newborns and second, there is no safe way an individual can perform oral suction on an open wound,” said Dr. William Schaffner, chair of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University. “Third, these terrible infections are completely preventable. They should not occur in the 21st century with our scientific knowledge.”

Some rabbis told ABCNews.com last year that they opposed on religious grounds the law requiring parents to sign a waiver, insisting it has been performed “tens of thousands of times a year” worldwide. They say safeguarding the life of a child is one of the religion’s highest principles.

“This is the government forcing a rabbi practicing a religious ritual to tell his congregants it could hurt their child,” Rabbi David Niederman, executive director of the Hasidic United Jewish Organization of Williamsburg, told ABCNews.com. “If, God forbid, there was a danger, we would be the first to stop the practice.”

We must not inform parents of the demonstrable dangers posed to their child, because safeguarding the life of a child is one of the religion’s highest principles, and if, God forbid, there was a danger, we rabbis would be the first to stop the ritual, and since we haven’t stopped, there must not be any danger. So mind your own business.

Still, perhaps we should identify the infected mohel and stop him from harming more children?

The health department could take no action against the rabbi who performed the circumcision because the parents would not reveal his identity.

Safeguarding the life of a child is one of the religion’s highest principles. Not, however, the highest.

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