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I get mail from The White House October 30, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Politics, Religion.

The Pledge of Allegiance is recited at the opening of U.S. Congressional and government meetings, and in schools across America. In 1954, the wording of the Pledge was changed: “one nation indivisible” became “one nation under God, indivisible”. As one of twenty thousand people who signed a recent petition calling on the Obama Administration to remove the phrase “under God” from the Pledge, I have received an email from Joshua DuBois, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

… Throughout our history, people of all faiths — as well as secular Americans — have played an important role in public life…

While the President strongly supports every American’s right to religious freedom and the separation of church and state, that does not mean there’s no role for religion in the public square…

… President Obama supports the use of the words “under God” in our Pledge of Allegiance and “In God we Trust” on our currency. These phrases represent the important role religion plays in American public life…

This piece of doublespeak completely fails to address the petitioners’ concerns. Of course religious people play important roles in public life, but the government isn’t supposed to officially endorse any particular religion, or religion over nonreligion. Declaring the U.S. a “nation under God” sends an exclusionary message to nontheistic citizens (and to nonmonotheistic citizens as well). How would Christians and Jews feel if the Pledge read “one nation under the gods”, or “one nation under no god”?

“Faith-Based” Partnerships, my ass.

Blind to their own blindness October 29, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Economics, Reason.
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In an excerpt from his new book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman discusses “the illusion of validity”: not only do people (even professionals) make confident predictions in situations where they really don’t have enough information to do so; they continue to feel and act as if their predictions are valid even when they have been made aware that their past predictions performed little better than random guesses.

We are prone to think that the world is more regular and predictable than it really is, because our memory automatically and continuously maintains a story about what is going on, and because the rules of memory tend to make that story as coherent as possible and to suppress alternatives. Fast thinking is not prone to doubt.

The confidence we experience as we make a judgment is not a reasoned evaluation of the probability that it is right. Confidence is a feeling, one determined mostly by the coherence of the story and by the ease with which it comes to mind, even when the evidence for the story is sparse and unreliable. The bias toward coherence favors overconfidence. An individual who expresses high confidence probably has a good story, which may or may not be true.

One area which is especially prone to unfounded confidence is the stock market. Kahneman recounts how, in preparation for an invited talk at a firm of financial advisers, he analyzed their investment outcomes over a period of eight years. The firm naturally considered its advisers to be skilled professionals, and awarded annual bonuses based on performance. But Kahneman found that the year-to-year correlation in the ranking of advisers was basically zero — the kind of results you would expect from a dice-rolling contest. There was no long term consistency that would indicate differences in ability among advisers; the firm was rewarding luck as if it were skill. And of course, they continued to do so even after Kahneman presented his findings.

This doesn’t mean we should distrust all professionals. According to Kahneman, it is possible to develop true expertise in fields that provide good feedback on mistakes in a sufficiently regular environment, like medicine. But in general, we should not take expressions of high confidence at face value:

people come up with coherent stories and confident predictions even when they know little or nothing. Overconfidence arises because people are often blind to their own blindness.

So, now that you know about the illusion of validity, will you avoid it? Probably not. Kahneman predicts:

The confidence you will experience in your future judgments will not be diminished by what you just read, even if you believe every word.

All are welcome October 25, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Religion.
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“All are welcome” at my neighborhood Christian Scientist church, and this week’s sermon should certainly be worth your time:

Don’t worry, I’m sure “Everlasting Punishment” is just a metaphor. Isn’t it?

Six degrees of Wikipedia October 23, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Humor, Language.
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Some people have too much free time on their hands.

Is it bigotry to oppose a political candidate because of his religion? October 12, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Politics, Religion.

In The Atlantic, James Fallows claims that some of the opposition to Mormon presidential candidate Mitt Romney is tainted by prejudice:

To be against Mitt Romney (or Jon Huntsman or Harry Reid or Orrin Hatch) because of his religion is just plain bigotry. Exactly as it would have been to oppose Barack Obama because of his race or Joe Lieberman because of his faith or Hillary Clinton or Michele Bachmann because of their gender or Mario Rubio or Nikki Haley because of their ethnicity.

… for people to come out and say that they won’t back a candidate because he’s Mormon and therefore a “cult” member is no better than saying “I’d never trust a Jew” or “a black could never do the job” or “women should stay in their place” or “Latinos? Let ’em go back home.”

Hardly. Fallows is missing a crucial distinction: a person’s religious beliefs, unlike his gender or ethnicity, are relevant when evaluating him for political office — because a person’s beliefs guide his actions. If you believe that a soul enters every human zygote at the moment of conception, for instance, that will affect your attitude towards abortion and stem-cell research. And if you believe the Messiah’s coming is near and will be presaged by a worldwide Armageddon, that will affect your strategic decision making.

Furthermore, the very willingness to believe in baseless dogma uncritically with no demand for evidence is (as far as I’m concerned) a serious character flaw — also relevant when evaluating a political candidate.

Religion is not in the same category as race or gender: while a person cannot change the color of his skin, he can change his mind, and should be expected to justify and defend his beliefs — religious beliefs included. (By the way, when someone says “never trust a Jew,” he’s presumably referring to ethnicity rather than theology.) Would it be bigotry to oppose a candidate for believing in astrology, or for denying the Holocaust? It’s perfectly legitimate to ask political candidates hard questions about their religious beliefs, and to judge them based on their answers, just as we judge them for their views on health and economics and education.

And naturally, the more unreasonable the beliefs a candidate is committed to, the more reasonable it is to want to keep him away from positions of power.

(via Why Evolution is True)

Some amusing (and meaningless) statistics October 8, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Computer science, Math.
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Google’s Ngram Viewer allows you to explore trends in the occurrence of chosen phrases in books over time. For instance, this graph shows the frequencies of the words “religion” (blue), “faith” (red), and “science” (green) in English books during the last two centuries:

This awesome technology can be a great research tool, of course; but allow me to amuse myself instead…

This is not a graph of the quadratic and exponential functions.

This is not a graph of the sine function.

This graph does not demonstrate Moore's Law.

We have been doing something right October 1, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Politics, Reason.
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At Edge, Steven Pinker recently spoke about his forthcoming book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. He argues that over long stretches of time, all forms of violence have been persistently decreasing, so that “we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence.” Pinker supports this claim with lots of historical data, such as homicide rates, per-capita war deaths, declining use of judicial torture, etc. Regarding the death penalty, for instance:

In 18th century England there were 222 capital offenses on the books, including poaching, counterfeiting, robbing a rabbit warren, being in the company of gypsies, and “strong evidence of malice in a child seven to 14 years of age.” By 1861 the number of capital crimes was down to four.

Similarly, in the United States in the 17th and 18th centuries, the death penalty was prescribed and used for theft, sodomy, bestiality, adultery, witchcraft, concealing birth, slave revolt, counterfeiting, and horse theft.

Many of the reforms that led to the abolishing of previously accepted forms of violence (witch hunting, dueling, religious persecution, slavery) can be traced back to the 18th century. What caused this “humanitarian revolution?” Pinker credits the spread of printing and literacy:

Why should literacy matter? A number of the causes are summed up by the term “Enlightenment.” For one thing, knowledge replaced superstition and ignorance: beliefs such as that Jews poisoned wells, heretics go to hell, witches cause crop failures, children are possessed, and Africans are brutish. As Voltaire said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

Also, literacy gives rise to cosmopolitanism. It is plausible that the reading of history, journalism, and fiction puts people into the habit of inhabiting other peoples’ minds, which could increase empathy and therefore make cruelty less appealing.

But wait a minute: weren’t the genocides of the 20th century unprecedented in human history?

Historians who have tried to track genocide over the centuries are unanimous that the notion that the 20th was “a century of genocide” is a myth. Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn, in their The History and Sociology of Genocide, write on page one, “Genocide has been practiced in all regions of the world and during all periods in history.”

What did change during the 20th century was that for the first time people started to care about genocide. It’s the century in which the word “genocide” was coined and in which, for the first time, genocide was considered a bad thing, something to be denied instead of boasted about…

To give some examples: if Old Testament history were taken literally, there were genocides on almost every page; the Amalakites, Amarites, Canaanites, Hivites, Hitites, Jevasites, Midianites, Parazites and many other. Also, genocides were committed by the Athenians in Melos; by the Romans in Carthage; and during the Mongol invasions, the Crusades, the European wars of religion, and the colonization of the Americas, Africa and Australia.

The 65 years since the end of the Second World War have been extraordinarily peaceful by historical standards: no wars between superpowers, no wars between Western European countries, no wars between developed countries at all. There has also been a continuous reduction in systemic violence against vulnerable populations such as racial minorities, women, children, homosexuals, and animals.

Has human nature changed? Probably not. Pinker suggests that while some aspects of human nature encourage violence, there are other aspects that discourage it — and historical forces have increasingly favored the latter. These historical developments include the rise of state justice systems, trade, the “expanding circle” of empathy caused by cosmopolitanism, and:

I think the final and perhaps the most profound pacifying force is an “escalator of reason.” As literacy, education, and the intensity of public discourse increase, people are encouraged to think more abstractly and more universally, and that will inevitably push in the direction of a reduction of violence. People will be tempted to rise above their parochial vantage point, making it harder to privilege their own interests over others. Reason leads to the replacement of a morality based on tribalism, authority and puritanism with a morality based on fairness and universal rules. And it encourages people to recognize the futility of cycles of violence, and to see violence as a problem to be solved rather than as a contest to be won.

Of course, there is no guarantee that historical trends will continue. But one implication of Pinker’s thesis is that, in order for us to reduce violence further, we need to understand what we have been doing right — because “we have been doing something right.” Finally,

the decline of violence has implications for our assessment of modernity: the centuries-long erosion of family, tribe, tradition and religion by the forces of individualism, cosmopolitanism, reason and science.

Now, everyone acknowledges that modernity has given us longer and healthier lives, less ignorance and superstition, and richer experiences. But there is a widespread romantic movement which questions the price. Is it really worth it to have a few years of better health if the price is muggings, terrorism, holocausts, world wars, gulags, and nuclear weapons?

I argue that despite impressions, the long-term trend, though certainly halting and incomplete, is that violence of all kinds is decreasing. This calls for a rehabilitation of a concept of modernity and progress, and for a sense of gratitude for the institutions of civilization and enlightenment that have made it possible.

(via Pharyngula)