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When Science And Politics Disagree, People View Scientists Unfavorably

Abstract

Messages emphasizing scientific agreement are increasingly used to communicate politically polarizing issues. Proponents argue that these messages neutralize the effect of people’s political worldviews due to the neutral scientific character of the message. Yet this argument has not undergone extensive testing. Addressing this, we measured participants’ thoughts on scientists featured in messages emphasizing scientific agreement on politically dissonant issues. Our results show that readers often produce less favorable thoughts and moral judgments when scientists agree on a politically dissonant issue. As a result, messages emphasizing scientific agreement on politicized issues might not always neutralize the effect of people’s political worldviews.

Neutralizing the Effect of Political Worldviews by Communicating Scientific Agreement: A Thought-Listing Study

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Posted by on May 21, 2018 in cognitive science

 

How do you explain the mysterious beauty of this planet without referring to a supreme being?

I’m from NYC. This question would be the equivalent of me saying “how do you explain that I was born in the most awesome city on the planet without a supreme being?”

Of course, almost everyone says their home town is the best ever. Why do you think that is? I think the answer to that is the same as the answer to your question.

But let’s get a bit deeper into the assumptions behind your question. What’s your logical link from “Earth is beautiful” to “therefore a supreme being”? In other words, what makes something a good explanation?

If I were to say that something is a chair, there are qualities that chairs have in common that define them as chairs instead of beanbags: Chairs have four legs, a back support part, a part to sit on, etc. There should be some similar consistent criteria for what constitutes a good explanation, and why you think this creates the necessary link between “Beautiful Earth” and “Supreme Creator”.

If you get home late and your boyfriend/girlfriend asks why you’re late, what would be a good explanation? Why is “I got stuck in traffic” better than “I was kidnapped by aliens”? We know the former is more believable, but why?

Well, you might say something like “traffic causes people to be late more than getting kidnapped by aliens does”. And that would be correct. But I argue that this isn’t enough to separate good explanations from bad explanations, and it isn’t enough to explain why your link from “Beautiful Earth” to “Supreme Being” is a strong or weak link.

Since this isn’t a dialog, I’ll have to just explain another quality of a good explanation: Good explanations are specialized. Meaning, they explain what they intend to explain and that’s it. An explanation that can be used to explain some situation, but then can also be used to explain its polar opposite, isn’t a good explanation.

So, if instead of getting home late, you got home early, and your boyfriend/girlfriend asks why you’re early, then saying “because I got stuck in traffic” doesn’t make sense. The stuck-in-traffic explanation is specialized for only making people late. But “I got kidnapped by aliens” works just as well for making someone late as it does for making someone early. Once you invoke aliens, then anything is possible.

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Let me repeat that last sentence more generally: Once you invoke [bad explanation], anything is possible.

This is a real important concept to grasp. Bad explanations, because they’re not specialized, allow for any possible outcome. And the more possibilities your explanation allows, the less likely it is that your explanation is responsible for a specific problem. There’s only one explanation that can allow for any possible outcome: Pure randomness.

Both qualities of good explanations I’ve enumerated here — a good explanation is more commonplace (e.g., “traffic causes people to be late more than getting kidnapped by aliens does”) and more specialized — follow directly from probability theory. So they’re not things I’ve just made up.

So back to the question at hand: How do you explain the mysterious beauty of this planet without referring to a supreme being? Why do you think a supreme being is a good explanation? Are supreme beings commonplace? Are supreme beings only responsible for beauty, or is anything possible for a supreme being?

I think we know the answers to those questions.

 
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Posted by on May 14, 2018 in Bayes, Quora answers, religion

 

Is Everyone Arguing From Identity Politics?

Recently, Sam Harris and Ezra Klein had a debate about the ethics and pitfalls behind identity politics. From their transcript, there are two points that I wanted to put a spotlight on.

Ezra Klein
We all have a lot of different identities we’re part of all times. I do, too. I have all kinds of identities that you can call forward… I think that your core identity in this is as someone who feels you get treated unfairly by politically correct mobs and —

Sam Harris
That is not identity politics. That is my experience as a public intellectual trying to talk about ideas.

Ezra Klein
That is what folks from the dominant group get to do. They get to say, my thing isn’t identity politics, only yours is.

Klein, whether he realizes it or not, is engaging in a Motte and Bailey sort of dialectic. Recall that Motte and Bailey is when you define some concept as a fully general one that no one can reasonably disagree with when on the defensive, but when you’re on the offensive you define it in a very specific way. And if you find yourself on the defensive again, you back into the very general and saccharine version of the concept. From that post:

It goes a bit like this: When theists use the argument “God is just another word for the Ground of All Being” or “God is love”, I mean, that’s a pretty inoffensive premise. Of course, things like love exist and, well, existence exists. But then in another breath they’re praying to god to find their keys, or get them a new job, or, more in a more sinister context, send hurricanes because he’s angry at homosexuals; this more interactive god is not just “love” or the ground of all being. It’s, quite obviously, a personal god. A god with agency. You point this out, but then the theist retreats; he rejoins “But no, God is just another word for love/Ground of Being, surely you can’t object to that?”

Klein is defining “identity politics” as just two separate words — “identity” and then “politics” — both in their extremely generic versions that happen to be placed next to each other. Obviously, everyone has an identity and everyone has some sort of politics that would afford that identity added rights or power. So, in this bland sense, everyone is arguing from “identity” “politics”: Harris’ main identity that he argues from is that of an atheist.

However, what’s being debated between the two, which was the impetus for their chat in the first place, is the more specific identity politics, which is not the generic “identity” plus generic “politics”. It is very much politics linked only to race/gender/sexual orientation. Sam Harris rightly points out that generic “identity” plus generic “politics” is not identity politics. Atheism is not included in this definition of identity politics. But Klein, having deployed this rhetorical sleight of hand, claims that politics related to atheism (or being a public intellectual, per Harris’ previous comment) is “identity politics”.

So to be clear: “Identity” and “politics”, their generic versions, is the Motte. No one would disagree that we care about our identities. But identity politics, that is, politics tied to one’s race/gender/sexual orientation, is the bailey. Where all of the actual debate is at. Klein retreated to the Motte when Harris’ claimed that he’s not interested in the Bailey. Klein is behaving no differently than a Christian trying to convince a non-believer that they actually believe in god by claiming “god is just love”.

If Harris new about the post-modernist tactic of Motte-and-Bailey-ing, he might have been able to spot Klein’s behavior and corrected it. Alas, people listening to the podcast or reading the transcript will come away with the impression that Klein made a valid point. He did not.

Another thing I noticed that stuck out to me was this exchange between the two:

Sam Harris
I’m in the, once again, having the bewildering experience of agreeing with virtually everything you said there, and yet it has basically no relevance to what I view as our underlying disagreement.

Ezra Klein You have that bewildering experience because you don’t realize when you keep saying that everybody else is thinking tribally, but you’re not, that that is our disagreement.

Sam Harris Well, no, because I know I’m not thinking tribally —

Ezra Klein Well, that is our disagreement.

Ugh. Literally everyone thinks tribally. Tribalism is built into our brains. To say that you’re not thinking tribally is trying to claim that you have no biases. And as we all know, saying or thinking that you have no biases is evidence that you have many. So I happen to agree with Klein in this little exchange.

However, in the larger debate, Harris probably just means that he doesn’t think or argue primarily from identifying with the “tribes” of straight, white, or cisgender. I actually think his main “tribes” are atheist and liberal.

So on the weight of things, I lean heavily in support of Sam Harris in this exchange. And no, not everyone is arguing from Identity Politics.

 
 

A Life of Pretending: Being Egyptian and Atheist

At the age of 10, ‘Amr’s failure to memorize the Qur’an brought him beatings, the force of which he resented even then. Voiced skepticism throughout his youth earned him further harsh treatment from family members, whose religious discipline he recalled growing progressively more strict along with gradually closer subscription to the channels of Gulf-based imams. Upon coming to terms with his own atheism, ‘Amr – like the vast majority of nonbelivers in Egypt – took pains to keep it to himself.

His girlfriend barely spoke a word, but ‘Amr wasn’t nearly finished. With much more to say than the time in which to say it, he suggested we carry on talking in a downtown café. Here, he said, he’d recently spent a good amount of time with a growing group of Egyptian atheists, all of whom he’d met online, sharing similar experiences and venting frustrations with life as a nonbeliever in one of the world’s most religiously restrictive countries. These gatherings were like manna for ’Amr. He heard dozens of accounts comparable to his own – stories of being evicted, forcibly medicated, losing jobs, being blacklisted from entire industries, losing friends, families – wives, husbands, children – and, for an unlucky few, jail.

Read more at Quillette

 
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Posted by on April 17, 2018 in religion

 

Ambidextrous people tend to be less religious, study suggests

Research published in 2004 found that strongly handed individuals were more likely to believe in biblical creationism rather than biological evolution. The original study proposed that strongly handed individuals were less likely to update their beliefs in light of evidence. But Chan wondered if other factors could explain the association.

The new study of 743 U.S. adults confirmed that handedness was correlated to religiosity. The strongly handed participants were more likely to agree with statement such as “There is a personal God” while disagreeing with statement such as “Religion makes people do stupid things.”

Chan also found evidence that authoritarianism mediated the relationship between handedness and religiosity. In other words, strongly handed individuals tended to score higher on a measure of right-wing authoritarianism, which in turn was associated with stronger religious belief.

Read more at PsyPost

 
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Posted by on March 20, 2018 in religion

 

The Monty Hall Problem Refutes Your Religion

Well the title of this post is a bit inflammatory. So I won’t be arguing that it “refutes” your religion, but will be arguing more that it’s weak Bayesian evidence against your religion.

So. The Monty Hall problem is an illustration of how our intuitions of probability don’t always match up with reality. In its original formulation, you’re given a choice between three doors. One door has a prize, the other two do not. If you choose one of the doors, then another door that doesn’t have a prize is shown to you. You then have the option of staying with the door you chose or switching doors.

Most people think that it either doesn’t matter whether you switch or that switching lowers your probability of winning. Neither of those is true!

Your initial probability of winning the prize is 1 out of 3. Once one of the doors is opened, the probability that you had picked the correct door stays at 1 out of 3 whereas the other non-picked door now contains the remaining probability of 2 out of 3. Because you have to do a Bayesian update once new information — in this case, the one door revealed to not have the prize — is introduced.

I’ve gone over this before. Yet, I want to add an additional wrinkle to the problem to make intuition fall more in line with Bayesian reasoning.

If, instead of picking one door out of three to win the prize, what if it were one door out of 100? And once you’ve made your selection, 98 other doors are opened up to show that they have no prize, leaving only your choice and one other unknown door? In this case it seems more obvious that something is suspicious about the only other door that wasn’t opened up. And this intuition lines up with a Bayesian update using the same scenario:

P(H): 1 out of 100 or .01

P(~H): 99 out of 100, or .99

P(E | H): Probability of all other doors besides yours and one other being opened to reveal no prize given that you’ve picked the correct door: 100%.

P(E | ~H): Probability of all other doors besides yours and one other being opened to reveal no prize given that you’ve picked the incorrect door is 100%.

This is an easy Bayesian update to do. Both conditional probabilities, P(E | H) and P(E | ~H) are both 100%. Meaning the likelihood ratio is 1, and your posterior probability is the same as your prior probability. But now your selection is still 1 out of 100 and the only other remaining door has a probability of 99 out of 100 of having a prize! So in this case, both Bayesian reasoning and intuition line up: There is something suspicious about the only other door that wasn’t opened.

How does this relate to religion? Specifically, the religion that you grew up with?

Using Willy Wonka’s logic in the meme above, the chance that you just happened to grow up with the correct religion is pretty low. Instead of the chance of picking the correct door out of 3, or out of 100, you’ve picked a door out of thousands of religions; many of which no longer exist. They are “opened doors” revealing no prize in the analogy.

So a Bayesian update will work the same way as it did with picking one door out of 100. Meaning, your religion is probably wrong. And you should probably switch religions. The only reason I say this is weak Bayesian evidence is because there are still a few religions to choose from. But their joint probability of being correct is yet higher than the single chance that your family religion is the correct one.

Analogously, it would be like if, say, you had a choice between choosing one door out of 10,000, and after your choice all but 10 of the doors are closed. Your initial chance of having chosen the correct door is still 1 out of 10,000, but the 10 doors that remained open after closing the rest have a joint probability of 9,999 out of 10,000 of being the correct door: Those 10 other doors individually have (approximately) 10% chance of being the correct door. As opposed to your original selection’s probability of 1 out of 10,000.

So the Monty Hall problem is weak Bayesian evidence against your religion.

 
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Posted by on March 5, 2018 in Bayes, religion

 

Study suggests collectivism is associated with particular pattern of brain connectivity

“Cultural attitudes are mostly acquired during childhood and adolescence in family and school environments and we may not realize how these attitudes ‘dictate’ the mode of our thoughts and the pattern of our brain’s activity even in a state of rest,” explained study author Gennady G. Knyazev of the Institute of Physiology and Basic Medicine in Novosibirsk.

“Our data show that collectivist attitude prompts the engagement of brain regions involved in semantic processes and reasoning on moral issues, which, in its turn, prompt the appearance of others-related thoughts.”

“Collectivism-individualism is one of the major dimensions of culture and each culture has its position on this dimension,” Knyazev told PsyPost. “For instance, the United States is considered the most individualistic culture, whereas China and other East-Asian cultures are mostly collectivists.

“A typical individualist sees him/herself as fundamentally separate from others, whereas a typical collectivist considers him/herself as a representative of a group (e.g., family, social class, ethnic group and so on).”

[…]

“It could be expected that in a quiet resting condition, a collectivist would spontaneously think more about his/her close friends or relatives, whereas an individualist would think more about him/herself.”

“This association between cultural attitude and the content of thoughts has to have some reflection in the activity of the brain and we were interested to find out how brain’s activity mediates this association. The default mode network (DMN) is the brain functional network that is most active in the resting condition and is involved in self-referential and social cognition.”

Read more at PsyPost

 
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Posted by on January 19, 2018 in religion

 
 
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