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I create my own religion January 25, 2016

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Reason, Religion, Science.
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As part of their upcoming “7 Days of Genius” festival, the 92nd Street Y is sponsoring a “Challenge for a New Religion”:

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Here’s my entry:

The greatest force for good in this world, which cuts across boundaries and is at the core of what it means to be human, is REASON. It is through the rigorous application of reason, using the tools of the scientific method, that we have been able to make continuous material, intellectual, and ethical progress: advancing our understanding of the universe and how we came to be in it, breaking down the divisive dogmas bequeathed to us from the infancy of our species, and gradually widening the scope of our moral concern to encompass all human beings (and nonhuman life as well). I therefore propose the following:

A new tradition: To mark the birth of a child, the parents will choose an existing tradition in our culture to challenge. They will pledge to fight for the elimination of that bad tradition, in order to make the world a better place for all our children to grow up in.

A new rite of passage: On their thirteenth birthday, children will attempt to replicate a famous scientific experiment, and determine whether they accept its conclusions. This will demonstrate the understanding that our beliefs about the world must always be open to reevaluation, and should be based on objective evidence and independent thought, not reverence for authority.

New holidays will commemorate various bad ideas from human history, that were at one time universally accepted. This will serve as a reminder that we must all do our part to correct past mistakes and move humanity forward, and that it’s possible for everyone you know to be certain of something and still be wrong.

You can vote for me here!

(via Why Evolution is True)

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“Statistically significant” (probably) doesn’t mean what you think it means January 18, 2016

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Science.
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Statistical significance is a very important concept to understand when reading about scientific studies — and it’s also very likely to be defined incorrectly in news reports about scientific studies. For example, here is a Cancer Research UK “science blog” writing about a trial that investigated whether taking aspirin can lower the risk of cancer:

The researchers found that [those participants who were overweight and obese] had an even greater increase in bowel cancer risk, compared to those in the trial who were a healthy weight.

But among different sub-groups of people, some of these results weren’t ‘statistically significant’ (meaning there’s uncertainty over how valid they are)…

And here’s The News & Observer writing about the failed test of a new antiviral drug:

Shares of Chimerix dropped 81 percent and hit an all-time low Monday after the Durham drug developer announced that patients who took the company’s antiviral drug in a clinical trial died at higher rates than those who took a placebo…

Chimerix said the increased mortality rate among patients who took brincidofovir was not statistically significant, meaning that the deaths were not caused by the medication.

And here’s The Philadelphia Inquirer writing about the effect of delays in breast cancer treatment:

The risk of death increased by 9 percent or 10 percent … for patients with stage I and stage II breast cancers for each added 30-day interval, the Fox Chase researchers found.  In practice, the increased risk is small, because the chance of death at stage I or II is relatively low. But the difference is statistically significant, meaning it did not occur by chance, researchers found.

All those definitions of statistical significance (or insignificance) are significantly wrong. A result is considered statistically significant if the probability of it being “due to chance” is below some predetermined level, usually 5%. (Wikipedia has a more formal definition.) So even if a result is considered statistically significant, there’s still a probability of up to 5% that the effect measured was actually due to chance and we can’t learn anything from it. (Conversely, even if a result is deemed “insignificant”, there’s still a probability of up to 95% that it was not due to chance — those patients might have been killed by that antiviral drug after all.)

This means we should not put too much confidence in any single scientific result. In fact, out of the thousands of hypotheses published each year supported by “significant” results, we should expect that some will turn out to be wrong — science is hard. That’s why it’s so important to replicate scientific experiments multiple times, and to perform meta-analyses combining the results of many individual studies. Science is hard, and reporters who mislead their readers in the name of simplicity — or a catchy headline — can cause real damage.

Keep that in mind next time you read that green jelly beans cause acne.

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Don’t let Scalia tell you there’s nothing wrong January 5, 2016

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Democracy, Politics, Religion.
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3 comments

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia recently graced some students in Louisiana with his learned opinions.

He told the audience at Archbishop Rummel High School that there is “no place” in the country’s constitutional traditions for the idea that the state must be neutral between religion and its absence.

“To tell you the truth there is no place for that in our constitutional tradition. Where did that come from?” he said. “To be sure, you can’t favor one denomination over another but can’t favor religion over non-religion?”

I wonder, what are Scalia’s criteria for a religion to be eligible for favored status? Would he include Scientologists? Satanists? Followers of Zeus and Ra? Is any belief too crazy, or is it sufficient to believe in something for which there is no evidence?

He also said there is “nothing wrong” with the idea of presidents and others invoking God in speeches. He said God has been good to America because Americans have honored him…

“God has been very good to us. That we won the revolution was extraordinary. The Battle of Midway was extraordinary. I think one of the reasons God has been good to us is that we have done him honor. Unlike the other countries of the world that do not even invoke his name we do him honor. In presidential addresses, in Thanksgiving proclamations and in many other ways,” Scalia said.

“There is nothing wrong with that and do not let anybody tell you that there is anything wrong with that,” he added.

I’m afraid there are several things wrong with that. If we actually look at the other countries of the world, we find that highly nonreligious societies like Norway, Australia, and the Netherlands rank higher than the U.S. on indexes like life expectancy and education; while the poorest countries tend to be the most religious. And you know who else believed they had God on their side? The Romans. And the Mayans. And the Egyptians. For a while, anyway.

It turns out that societies do better when they base their policies on reason and evidence rather than magical thinking and dogmatic adherence to tradition. After all, one person’s religion is just another’s superstition. Do we really want our leaders invoking the magical, and our laws favoring the superstitious? Even Scalia ought to be able to see what’s wrong with that.

(via Why Evolution is True)

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