Monthly Archives: January 2012

The Thief And The Wizard

I don’t know how many of the people who read my modest blog have played RPGs, but I’ve played a fair bit of console RPGs my entire life (I just bought Skyrim today and have been playing through Disgaea 4 for the past month lol). In most of these games, there are different classes that you can pick for characters, or your main character, that each have distinctive strengths and weaknesses. For the purpose of this post, I’m going to stick to the archetypes of the thief and wizard.

The thief is fast, has low HP, high dexterity, comes with a myriad of skills that get better as speed and dexterity increase, and all that jazz. The wizard usually is one of the slowest characters, but usually deals the greatest amount of damage among your party. The thief is usually young and energetic, while the wizard is usually old and miserly (i.e. likes to conserve energy).

Many of us like to think that we are the wizard in real life, cognitively. But in reality we are all the thief.

I’ve touched a bit on System 1 and System 2 thinking. Of course, that is only a short article, Daniel Kahneman has a much longer book devoted to it, which I’ve also linked to previously.

Like I’ve pontificated about pretty recently, in order to be a good thinker, one must know how brains think. I don’t think I can stress that enough.

In order to be a good guitarist, I had to know how guitars (and the physics of music) worked as well. Without knowing those things, I would only be able to be as good a guitarist as raw ability would have let me. Knowing how the guitar and music in general work increased my aptitude for playing guitar and listening/composing music.

Not saying I’m an awesome guitarist or songwriter or anything, but I’m a lot better than I would have been had I not studied the underlying reasons for what creates good music and how to better manipulate the guitar; how to manipulate the guitar can only be fully realized by knowing how guitars work. There’s a significantly high probability that the world’s most technical guitar gods all have a deep reservoir of how the guitar physically works.

The same thing applies to thinking, reasoning, and learning. The rough analogy that Kanheman posits is that there are two systems in the brain that we use to reason throughout life. System 1 and System 2. In reality, the two systems are not cleanly delineated into individual systems but for pedagogical reasons that analogy is used. And that’s the point; we learn things better by anthropomorphication because anthropomorphication, or having personalities, is like catnip to System 1. And System 1 will readily hand over a thing with agency and personality to System 2, even if that agency or personality is a complete misunderstanding of System 1.

When I would study music theory, I would read things like “The G7 chord wants to resolve to a C chord in a ii-V-I progression”. Thinking that a combination of frequencies that are represented by the three letters G B F have a literal personality, want things, and move with intention is nonsensical. But it helps one to remember and learn. There is no Platonic G7 chord “out there” that taps into your auditory neurology and forces this on you. Again this is obviously nonsensical if taken literally, but people seem to apply the figurative personifying language used in other contexts (like love) and think that it is literal. There is no Platonic “love-stuff” out there in space that we tap into when we have feelings for someone anymore than there is “music-stuff” when describing music theory.

Anyway, when reading through the book, I imagine that System 1 is the thief, and System 2 is the wizard. Imagining it like this helps you retain the knowledge faster, and to run with this analogy I’ll describe a typical battle encounter when the thief and wizard are roaming the countryside on their mission.

Like I wrote above, we are all the thief. The thief leads the party. When you encounter an enemy, it’s the thief who first engages. Either the thief dispatches the enemy herself, or she delegates it to the wizard to take care of it if it is an enemy that the thief can’t handle. Of course, it takes a while for the wizard to cast a spell. If another enemy enters the battle while the wizard has already targeted the first enemy, the second (third, fourth, etc.) enemy has to be tackled by the thief… even if she is ill-equipped to kill the enemy.

It’s not like the thief sucks, by the way. There are certain things that only the thief can take care of that the wizard would be unable to do. The thief can pick the lock of voice tone over a phone, or steal the secret maps of facial recognition from an enemy. If the wizard tried those things, it would fail spectacularly. The wizard is too slow to pick locks on treasure chests or steal maps from enemies. On the other hand the thief, when she acts, she’s preternaturally fast. And the vast majority of the items in your inventory were obtained by the thief, including the wizard’s robes and staffs that increase the wizard’s spellcasting abilities and damage.

But the thief herself is brash and impulsive; she attempts to pick locks on doors that are really just paintings of a door on a wall. And if the wizard is busy casting a spell, then the thief has no one to reign her in to tell her to stop attempting to steal maps from armor racks that look like stoic guards.

The analogy goes further. Because the wizard is old, he likes to conserve energy and even has mild sleep apnea. Or maybe he just likes to nap a lot. Either way, the wizard is not always awake. And when he is, he likes to do as little spellcasting as possible. The thief, however, because she’s so young and full of vitality, is up and awake as long as you are playing the game. Choking in the clutch? Brain farts? Your wizard is either asleep and being a bit unresponsive or is being called into action when the thief had been trained by the wizard to handle the threat, and the thief had been casting that spell for the majority of the game.

Oh yeah, that’s right. The wizard can teach the thief a couple of quick spells. But the thief doesn’t have the large reserves of MP that the wizard has, so the thief can’t cast huge spells. And if the thief does cast spell, it is a fraction of the strength that the wizard casts because of the thief’s low INT.

Of course, your own personal thief has been active the entire time you’ve been reading this post. Your own thief already conjured up a narrative, a cast, costumes, and a setting for the symbolic thief and wizard in this post. That’s what the thief — System 1 — does. Every day. With very little information it creates elaborate stories. What does your thief look like? Probably based on your standards of youth and beauty, with a little dash of mystery and guile. Maybe a dark-haired (elven) thief girl? That would be my guess anyway, but I’m not putting a lot of weight on it since I’m not a psychologist, I just play one on a blog. Your wizard was probably old and had a long white beard and a robe. Someone like Gandalf? Probably!

By the way, the thief? She isn’t very good at differentiating between familiarity and veracity, yet she completely reigns over the unreliable feeling of certainty (so, for example, the thief would say that Christianity is familiar and confuse this feeling of familiarity with truth, especially without the wizard’s input, and even more especially when the wizard is busy with another task or is out of MP). But that’s why your wizard trust her; she’s young and attractive.

Unfortunately, the wizard does everything that the thief asks him to do, especially attack positions that she doesn’t like and defend positions that she does like. This applies to everyone. The wizard would not know who to cast a spell on without the thief’s instruction or deference. When you read this sentence, it’s the thief’s responsibility to read the words. When you read 24 * 17 = ???, the thief reads that math problem and hands it over to the wizard.

Because of this, there’s no such thing as a wholly rational human being with no emotion. Being emotionless would paralyze someone and they wouldn’t be able to assign value to any task. I’ve read and listened to many conversion to Christianity (born again) stories. In these cases, the thief encounters and decides on the truth of Christianity before the wizard is even engaged. Or the wizard has been systematically drained of MP by the stresses of life and the thief is left to fend for herself. In either case, the wizard is only called into action to defend a position that the thief already decided on. I don’t know anyone who became a Christian based on their thief’s deference to the wizard before a conclusion was made about Christianity (or any religion, really).

Christianity is large and complicated; it is a final boss at the end of a dungeon. It would be unwise to use only the thief on a final boss, or only use the wizard after attempting to drain the majority of the final boss’ HP with only the thief (here I would introduce a barbarian character as a compliment of the wizard: Intellect and reason. Also slow and subject to the same pluses and negatives as the wizard). That would be a horrible strategy in any RPG. The final boss would soundly pummel the thief and she would run out of HP and the game would be over very quickly.


Posted by on January 28, 2012 in cognitive science


The Many Faces Of Jesus

A while ago I made a post called Will The Real Jesus Please Stand Up?. That post was meant to illustrate that the name Jesus was common in antiquity, and a lot of those people named Jesus share eerie similarities with the Jesus of Christianity.

Here is a post over at Vridar that is itself a repost of David Fitzgerald’s own blog post about the myriad Jesuses created by scholars of the historical Jesus.

The entire post is worth reading, but I just want to call attention to one fact: There isn’t just “one” historical Jesus (that is, the Jesus recreated by historians). There are a multitude of historical Jesuses.

Albert Schweitzer in his From Reimarus to Wrede: A History of Research on the Life of Jesus (1906), was already discovering that every scholar claiming to have uncovered the “real” Jesus seemed to have found a mirror instead; each investigator found Jesus was a placeholder for whatever values they held dear. Over a century later, the situation has not improved – quite the contrary.  To say there is still no consensus on who Jesus was is an understatement. A quick survey (Price presents excellent examples in his Deconstructing Jesus, Prometheus, 2000, pp. 12-17) shows we have quite an embarrassment of Jesi:

Cynic philosopher – The many borrowings from Greek philosophy in Jesus’ teachings would make sense if Jesus had actually been a wandering Cynic or a Stoic philosopher, or the Galilean equivalent. Burton L. Mack, John Dominic Crossan, Gerald Downing and others have strongly defended this view, citing plenty of Cynic statements with their equivalents in the Gospels.

Liberal Pharisee – Something like his predecessor, the famous Rabbi Hillel.  In Jesus the Pharisee: A New Look at the Jewishness of Jesus, historian Harvey Falk argues that virtually all of Jesus’ judgments on the Halakha, the Jewish law, are paralleled in the Pharisaic thought of that time, as well as later rabbinic thought.

Charismatic Hasid – Similarly, Dead Sea Scroll authority Geza Vermes, an expert on New Testament-era Judaism and author of Jesus the Jew: a Historian’s View of the Gospels, sees Jesus as one of the popular freewheeling Galilean holy men, unorthodox figures like Hanina Ben-Dosa or Honi the Circle-Drawer. Just like Jesus, they had little respect for the niceties of Jewish law, which of course ticked off the religious establishment.

Conservative Rabbi – On the other hand, Jesus upholds the Torah, insisting “not one jot or stroke of the Law will pass away” (Matthew 5:17–19).  He wears a prayer shawl tasseled with tzitzit (Matt. 9:20-22), observes the Sabbath, and worships in synagogues as well as the Temple.

Antinomian Iconoclast – But on the other other hand, Jesus then turns around and point by point dismantles the Torah (Mark 7:18-20, Matt. 5:21-22, 27-28, 31-32, 33-37, 38-42, 43-44, etc.) and dismisses the Temple (Matt. 12:6, 23:16, 13:1-2, Luke 21:5-6).   

Magician/Exorcist/Faith Healer – Morton Smith, discoverer (or more likely, its forger – but that’s another story) of the Secret Gospel of Mark made the argument that Jesus the Christ was actually Jesus the Magician in the book of the same name.  Like the pagan miracle workers, Jesus cast out demons and healed the blind, deaf, and mute with mud and spit, using the same spells, incantations and techniques as taught in the many popular Greek magic handbooks of the time (Mark 5:41; 7:33–34).

Violent Zealot Revolutionary – But maybe Jesus was really a political messiah, inciting a revolt against the Romans; like Theudas or “the Egyptian,” the unnamed Messianic figure Josephus describes, or the two “robbers” crucified with him (since rebel bandits were commonly referred to as “robbers”). Why else would it be the Romans crucifying him, rather than the Jewish Sanhedrin just stoning him to death for blasphemy?  There is evidence one can point to: Luke’s Gospel lists a disciple called Simon “the Zealot,” and seems to hint that Jesus had other Zealots in his entourage: at the Last Supper, Jesus tells his followers to grab their bags and buy a sword (22:36); they tell him they already have two swords on hand (22:38); when Jesus is about to be arrested they ask if they should attack (22:49).  In Mark 14:47, one of the disciples does just that and cuts off the ear of one of the High priest’s men (the story grows more details in the other Gospels: Matt. 26:51-52, Luke 22:50-51, John 18:10). Many capable scholars including Robert Eisler, S. G. F. Brandon, Hugh J. Schonfield, Hyam Maccoby, and Robert Eisenman have thought this is where the real Jesus is to be found, and there are many scholarly variations arguing for the Jesus as Che theory.

Nonviolent Pacificist Resister – but then again, Jesus isn’t called the Prince of Peace for nothing; there’s no trace of such political agitation when he instructs his followers “if someone strike you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Matthew 5:39), or when conscripted by Roman soldier to lug their gear for a mile, to “go with him two” (Matt. 5:41).

Apocalyptic Prophet – This is the Jesus that Albert Schweitzer and many subsequent historians have thought was the real thing: A fearless, fiery Judgment Day preacher announcing that the end was nigh and the Kingdom of God was coming fast.  Like Paul (and many other first century Jewish apocalyptists) this Jesus did not expect the world to survive his own lifetime.   Bart Ehrman makes a well-reasoned case for such a figure in Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.

First-Century Proto-Communist – Was Jesus the first Marxist?  Milan Machoveč and other leftists have thought so. You have to admit Jesus has nothing good to say about the capitalist pigs of his day (Luke 6:24, 12:15), repeatedly preaching that they cannot serve both god and money (Matt. 6:24, Luke 16:13), that they should sell all they own and distribute the money to the poor (Matt. 19:21, Mark 10:21, Luke 18:22) and most famously, that it is easier to get a camel through the eye of a needle than for the rich to get into heaven (Matt.19:24, Mark 10:25, Luke 18:25) – and don’t forget his casting the Moneychangers out of the Temple with a scourge. Acts not only depicts the early Christians as sharing everything in common, it even the states the Marxist credo: “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need” (Acts 4: 34-35).

Early Feminist – Or was he the first male Feminist?  Some scholars like Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Kathleen Corley point to his unusual attitudes towards women, some of which seem remarkably progressive for the first century.  They say not only were some of his closest followers women, but he forgave the woman caught in adultery, and challenged social customs concerning women’s role in society (John 4:27, Luke 7:37, Matt. 21:31-32).

Earthy Hedonist – Or was he a male chauvinist pig?  Onlookers criticize him for being “a glutton and a drunk” who consorts with riffraff like tax collectors and whores (Luke 5:30; 5:33-34; 7:34, 37-39,44-46).

Family Man – but then again, Jesus is a champion of good old family values when he gets even tougher than Moses, ratcheting Old Testament law up a notch and declaring “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mark 10:11–12). He also reminds his followers to honor their father and mother, then sternly warns “whoever speaks evil of father and mother must surely die” (Matthew 15:4).

Home Wrecker – Though when Jesus speaks evil of the family, apparently it’s okay: “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). When Jesus is told his mother and brothers have come to see him, Jesus ignores them and asks, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” (Matt. 12:47-48) “Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law” (Matthew 10:34–35).

Savior of the World – But despite all that, Jesus loves everyone; he even preached to Samaritans (John 4:39-41; Luke 17:11-18) and Gentiles (Matt. 4:13-17, 24-25).

Savior of Israel (only) – Well, he loves everyone except Samaritans or Gentiles.

When a Canaanite woman begs him to heal her daughter he ignores her; after the disciples ask him to make her go away, he first refuses, saying “I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 15:24). When Jesus sends out his disciples, he commands them not to preach the good news to Gentile regions or Samaritan cities (Matthew 10:5-6).

Radical Social Reformer – Still others like John Dominic Crossan and Richard Horsley see Jesus as a champion for the Jewish peasants suffering under the yoke of the Roman Empire and its rapacious tax collectors; a Jesus somewhat along the lines of Gandhi and his struggle against the British Empire.

The problem with the vast majority of these reconstructions is that they don’t have the necessary logical connection to a death by crucifixion. Bart Ehrman points out:

The link between Jesus’ message and his death is crucial, and historical studies of Jesus’ life can be evaluated to how well they establish that link.  This in fact is a common weakness in many portrayals of the historical Jesus: they often sound completely plausible in their reconstruction of what Jesus said and did, but they can’t make sense of his death. If, for example, Jesus is to be understood as a Jewish rabbi who simply taught that everyone should love God and be good to one another, why did the Romans crucify him?

Of course, the Apocalyptic Prophet model also doesn’t necessitate Jesus’ death by crucifixion. As I pointed out in my post “Will The Real Jesus Please Stand Up?”, there was another apocalyptic prophet named Jesus who was simply roughed up by the Jews, given a trial by a procurator — not saying a word in his defense — and simply let go. He was left free to preach his apocalyptic warnings for six years straight until he was killed by a random weapon during the first Jewish-Roman war.

None of the wandering, preaching Jesus models (including a straighforward reading of Mark) make sense of his execution by crucifixion.

The model that I’m partial to is the violent revolutionary, which to me makes sense of Jesus’ association with Simon the Zealot. As I wrote in that post, Simon the Zealot possibly makes an appearance in Mark, but Mark might have Hellenized the original Hebrew/Aramaic name for “zealot” and ended up with something phonetically close to “Canaanite”.

Simon himself was executed around 46 AD.

As I’ve written before, I think that Jesus was cruficied along with Simon and Simon’s brother James. Which itself gives us the familiar Gospel image of Jesus crucified among two “robbers”. The only problem is that this places Jesus’ cruficixion 10 years later than what is given in the Gospels. But why trust the Gospels’ dating anyway? 40 years prior to the destruction of the Jewish Temple is symbolism enough to make it suspect. And there’s no reason to think that any of the teachings of Jesus go back to an original Jesus, other than a straightforward reading of the Gospels and using fallacious criteriology. The fact that Pharisees in Galilee during the time period of Jesus and disciples calling Jesus “rabbi” are anachronistic** also makes the Gospel teachings of Jesus suspect. There are other anachronisms which place the composition of the Gospels after 70 AD, which would mean that post-70 Christians were retrojecting their gripes with Pharisees into the time period of Jesus using Jesus as a mouthpiece for their own struggles.

** “Sage” or “elder” (elder in Greek: πρεσβύτερος::presbyteros) were terms of respect in the time period of Jesus; Second Temple (pre-Rabbinic) Judaism. It’s almost tautological that “rabbi” (Hebrew for my teacher) would be a term of respect in Rabbinic Judaism, which itself only started to form after Judaism was decentralized due to the destruction of Jerusalem. Decentralization forced Pharisees to start setting up shop in other areas besides Jerusalem. Hence Pharisees only started having a presence in rural areas like Galilee as a necessity of Rabbinic Judaism. Here are other anachronisms

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Posted by on January 27, 2012 in early Christianity, historical jesus, jesus myth


Removing The Unclean Spirit of Religion

Matthew 12.43-45

43 Ὅταν δὲ τὸ ἀκάθαρτον πνεῦμα ἐξέλθῃ ἀπὸ τοῦ ἀνθρώπου, διέρχεται δι᾽ ἀνύδρων τόπων ζητοῦν ἀνάπαυσιν, καὶ οὐχ εὑρίσκει.

44 τότε λέγει Εἰς τὸν οἶκόν μου ἐπιστρέψω ὅθεν ἐξῆλθον: καὶ ἐλθὸν εὑρίσκει σχολάζοντα [καὶ] σεσαρωμένον καὶ κεκοσμημένον.

45 τότε πορεύεται καὶ παραλαμβάνει μεθ᾽ ἑαυτοῦ ἑπτὰ ἕτερα πνεύματα πονηρότερα ἑαυτοῦ, καὶ εἰσελθόντα κατοικεῖ ἐκεῖ: καὶ γίνεται τὰ ἔσχατα τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐκείνου χείρονα τῶν πρώτων. Οὕτως ἔσται καὶ τῇ γενεᾷ ταύτῃ τῇ πονηρᾷ.

43 When an unclean spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it.

44 Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order.

45 Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first.

So what happens if, or when, the unclean spirit of religion is exorcised from humanity? Will everything just work out in the end? I don’t think so; we live in a world beyond the reach of god. This means that the right, just, or correct happy ending is not guaranteed. What if religion dies yet something even worse comes back to occupy humanity? Something that brings with it seven more spirits that are more wicked than religion itself?

Why, if science will supposedly save us, do I think that something else altogether will happen? Read this quote:

Our world is shrinking. Science is becoming inaccessible to us. Who can understand the latest innovations in genetics, astrophysics and biology? Who can explain them to the profane? Knowledge no longer communicates; writers and philosophers in our day are incapable of enabling us to understand science. At the same time, the scope of imagination in science is dazzling. How can we claim to speak of human consciousness if we overlook what is most daring and imaginative? I am concerned by what it means to be literate today. Is it possible to be literate if you do not understand non-linear equations?

The world is increasingly being divided between the laymen and the scientific. In essence, the scientific enterprise (not the scientific method) is becoming more and more like a priestly caste. Much like the Catholic priests of old yet now are the bearers and bringers of “salvation” in the form of knowledge. Esoteric knowledge that only they “really” know how to interpret, just like pre-Protestant Catholics.

People will rightfully be wary of this sort of dichotomy in society. And they should be. If it continues, we will see “protestant revolutions” in the forms of more and more pseudoscience and other forms of quackery gaining more and more mainstream appeal, latching on to the respect and authority of science but not actually following the scientific method; the thing that gave science its continued wins against religion in the first place. And these pseudosciences will become “alternatives” to the priestly caste of science, and a new form of religion — pseudoscience — will start to propagate among the masses.

That’s my prediction anyway, if things continue the way they are going… the general distrust (at least here in the good ol’ USA) of scientists and intellectuals. What can be done to stop it? Better science education, as Neil deGrasse Tyson says. Of course, I would make classes like introduction to critical thinking or introduction to cognitive science mandatory as part of this better science education. Learning how to think instead of what to think, and learning how the brain works so that you can get better at how to think, are in my opinion essential immunizations for both religion and pseudoscience.

But really, having the entire world become atheistic will not get rid of the problems that created religion in the first place. It will just make those problems less obvious and harder to root out. Atheism is just the beginning.

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Posted by on January 22, 2012 in economics/sociology


The Benefit Of Thinking Like A Bayesian

So this following quote is from an article I posted in the last paragraph of my “Why Are Smart People Ugly” post called The Marvels And The Flaws Of Intuitive Thinking:

Now, what can’t [System 1; “Intuitive Thinking”] do? It cannot deal with multiple possibilities at once. Dealing with multiple possibilities at once is something we do consciously and deliberately. System 1 is bound to the suppression of ambiguity, which means one interpretation. It cannot do sum-like variables. Sum-like variables demand another kind of thinking. It is not going to do probability properly, it is not going to do economic value properly, and there are other things that it will not do.

Here an important point is how you combine information about individual cases with information with statistical information. I’m going to argue that System 1 has a lot of trouble with statistics. System 1, and here I believe the analogy from perception is very direct, it’s intended, or designed, to deal with individual particular cases, not with ensembles, and it does beautifully when it deals with an individual case. For example, it can accumulate an enormous amount of information about that case. This is what I’m trying to exploit in calling it System 1. It’s coming alive as I’m describing it. You’re accumulating information about it. But combining information of various kinds, information about the case, and information about the statistics, seems to be a lot harder.

Here is an old example.

There are two cab companies in the city. In one, 85 percent of the cabs are blue, and 15 percent of the cabs are green. There was a hit-and-run accident at night, which involved a cab. There was a witness, and the witness says the cab was green, which was the minority. The court tested the witness -we can embellish that a little bit – the court tested the witness and the finding is the witness is 80 percent reliable when the witness says “blue”, and when the witness says “green”, it’s 80 percent reliable. You can make it more precise, there are complexities, but you get the idea. You ask people, what’s your judgment? you’ve had both of these items of information, and people say 80 percent, by and large. That is, they ignore the base rate, and they use the causal information about the case. And it’s causal because there is a causal link between the accident and the witness.

As soon as I started reading that final paragraph, the word problem, I immediately started thinking of it in terms of Bayes’ Theorem. I almost instantly placed the sentence The court tested the witness…and the finding is the witness is 80 percent reliable when the witness says “blue”, and when the witness says “green”, it’s 80 percent reliable as the Likelihood Ratio and determined that it was exactly 1. Which meant that the prior probability (the base rate, as he describes it) does not change due to the witness’ testimony. It was 15% before being introduced to the witness’ testimony, and it’s 15% after.

As he explains, most people say that the probability that the cab that crashed was green is 80 percent, which is false. The witness has a certain reliability, meaning there’s a relationship between the witness’ testimony and whether what he says is actually true. And the witness’ testimony can be determined by the Likelihood Ratio, which isn’t just how many times he’s right but has to be compared to how many times he’s wrong.

The Likelihood Ratio is really just “correct guess divided by incorrect guess”.

Even though it might take significantly more work to get the actual probabilities if he hadn’t used equal numbers in the Likelihood Ratio, dividing one number by another number can be “calculated” by System 1 thinking quickly to determine if the number is bigger than 1 or less than 1. And how much bigger than 1 the Likelihood Ratio is can give you a feel for how much bigger the prior probability (base rate) increases, decreases, or remains the same; scale is something that System 1 does really well (explained in the article’s previous paragraphs).

Just to be thorough, here is the word problem fully computed:

H: Car accident was green cab
E: Witness testimony
P(H): .15
P(E | H): .8
P(E | ~H): .8

P(H | E) = P(E | H) * P(H) / [P(E | H) * P(H)] + [P(E | ~H) * P(~H)]
= .8 * .15 / [.8 * .15] + [.8 * .85]
= .12 / [.12] + [.68]
= .12 / .8
= .15

So all is not lost! Intuitive thinking can be trained to think like System 2 (“rational”) thinking; this is even explained in the concluding paragraphs. But in order to do that, one has to know what “System 1” thinking encapsulates. So, in order to be a good thinker, one must first know how the brain thinks.

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Posted by on January 18, 2012 in Bayes


The Red Flags Of Quackery

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Posted by on January 14, 2012 in Funny, psi


Critiques of Criteriology in Historical Jesus Research

It seems as though a lot of the observations that myself and others outside of NT scholarship about the invalidity of criteriology is being addressed by the scholarly community. Here is a blog dedicated to exploring the scholarship behind the gospel of Mark (my personal favorite gospel) writing comments about Mark Goodacre’s own blog post about the upcoming book.

One of the things I’ve tried to express a few times on my own blog is that there’s a difference between the “Historical Jesus” and the “actual” Jesus. From the Euangelion Kata Markon blog:

Finally, to help students from different faith backgrounds come to terms with the study of the HJ, I like to distinguish between Jesus and the HJ. We do not have access to the former, unless we invent a time machine, apart from the memories of his followers. The HJ is a scholarly reconstruction built on arguments about probability and evidence

Here are some of my own observations about the various criteriology that could lead to false positives (not all have been on this blog).

The mistaken assumption behind the criterion of embarrassment:

It seems pretty obvious that any sort of “criterion of embarrassment” is an anachronism. What might have been embarrassing to a Catholic or proto-orthodox late 2nd century Christian – the tradition that seeds all modern Christianity – would not necessarily be embarrassing to whoever wrote the gospel of Mark, whenever he wrote it. It’s anachronistic because it is looking through all of Christian history through the lens of orthodoxy:

“Mark was an orthodox Christian because he is held as canonical by the orthodoxy. Therefore, since orthodoxy was embarrassed by Jesus’ baptism it must follow that Mark was embarrassed by it as well. Since he didn’t remove this embarrassing detail from his gospel, it must have been too well known to take out.”

When looked at like this, the fallacy becomes pretty self-evident.

Thinking that Aramaic sayings must go back to Jesus and critiquing independence:

The token Aramaic words in the NT seem to have been placed for literary purposes. At Mark 10.46, the writer redundantly writes “the son of Timaeus Bartimaeus”. Someone who’s paying attention would note that “bar” would mean “son of”. Later in the narrative at 14.36, Jesus has a redundant prayer where he says “Abba, father, everything is possible for you,….”. Again, someone paying attention and not reading it devotionally would note that “abba” might mean “father” (in both cases, later gospel writers who copied from Mark leave out the redundancies). In the very next chapter, we are introduced to a character called “bar abba” who is about to be crucified. This isn’t a historical narrative that someone is writing down, but more like something that was intended for literature or theology. A false son of the father is about to be crucified when the real son of the father shows up and the Jews have the real son of the father executed while releasing the fake one.

The fact that all gospels we have include this invented character “Barabba” means that none of them were fact-checking or anything and using Mark as their source.

The same thing happens with town names, like Bethphage. [E]arly Christians attempted to find where this town was, but since they didn’t know that it literally means “house of unripe figs”, they didn’t make the connection that this is the town that Jesus is close to when he curses an unripe fig tree. The fig tree being a cipher for the Jewish temple which he clears out the money changers immediately after cursing the fig tree, since it is withered after he does the cleansing. Jesus later “predicts” that the Jewish temple will be “withered” like the fig tree, which actually happens in history in 70 CE during the war between the Jews and Romans. Which probably means that this narrative was crafted sometime during or immediately after the war between the Jews and Romans.

Again, here is the Kata Markon’s apt observation about the criterion of double-dissimilarity:

Double Dissimilarity: this one tries to reach an assured minimum (if it can’t be attributed to other Jews or Christians it must have be the HJ), but I agree it is a bad criterion. The HJ appears in a vacuum neither influencd by his Jewish context or influencing his followers. It assumes we know enough about Second Temple Judaism(s) or Christianities to ever declare something unparalleled and the criterion was born in a German liberal Protestant context which wanted to claim Jesus as unique and superior visa-vie Judaism. Instead, it might be useful looking for something relatively distinctive (e.g., son of man is characteristically on Jesus lips but is rare outside the gospels or for others to refer to Jesus as son of man), but also understandable in both a Jewish context and explains the rise of early Christian views.

This seems to link back to Hector Avalos’ observation that a lot of NT scholars want Jesus to be a unique larger-than-life being with no faults, which if Jesus existed and was a regular human being, he must have had some faults. Avalos writes:

So how is it that most Christian academic biblical scholars never see anything that Jesus does as wrong or evil? The answer, of course, is that most Christian biblical scholars, whether in secular academia or in seminaries, still see Jesus as divine, and not as a human being with faults.

Such scholars are still studying Jesus through the confessional lenses of Nicea or Chalcedon rather than through a historical approach we would use with other human beings [such as Alexander the Great or Augustus Caesar, (where) they note the good and the bad aspects of their actions].

Anyway, it’s good that we are starting to see more critiques of tools that are possibly inherently faulty. Now, if only there were some method of placing all explanations on the table and seeing which one has the highest probability of being correct once we do away with faulty tools…

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Posted by on January 13, 2012 in Uncategorized


Why Are Smart People Ugly?

(Socrates, not the prettiest crayon in the box)

Are smart people usually ugly? It turns out that it might be the opposite: Smart people are usually attractive.

Early in the 20th century, a couple of psychological studies were done that showed that people usually associated intelligence with beauty. One apt psychologist, however, coined the phrase “the halo effect” to explain this correlation. People will usually improve their assessment of someone’s secondary qualities after describing an initial positive quality.

So when people look at a mug-shot of an attractive person, they will also assume that the person is tall and intelligent, and a host of other good qualities. This, of course, possibly disproves the association with looks and smarts. But why would an assumption like that come about in the first place? Could it be an evolutionary adaptation?

It turns out that there seems to be a slight correlation between looks and intellect. From the link above:

Now there were two findings: First, scientists knew that it was possible to gauge someone’s intelligence just by sizing him up; second, they knew that people tend to assume that beauty and brains go together. So they asked the next question: Could it be that good-looking people really are more intelligent?

Here the data were less clear, but several reviews of the literature have concluded that there is indeed a small, positive relationship between beauty and brains. Most recently, the evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa pulled huge datasets from two sources—the National Child Development Study in the United Kingdom (including 17,000 people born in 1958), and the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health in the United States (including 21,000 people born around 1980)—both of which included ratings of physical attractiveness and scores on standard intelligence tests. When Kanazawa analyzed the numbers, he found the two were related: In the U.K., for example, attractive children have an additional 12.4 points of IQ, on average. The relationship held even when he controlled for family background, race, and body size.

From this, Kanazawa concluded that the famous halo effect is not a cognitive illusion, as so many academics had assumed, but rather an accurate reading of the world: We assume that beautiful people are smart, he argues, because they are.

Of course, when I first read that paragraph, I implicitly thought about how differently men and women place value on physical attractiveness. For men, more “attraction points” are placed on physical attractiveness, because men, from an evolutionary perspective, value fertility. And the fertility of a woman is highly correlated with how attractive she is (think waist-hip ratio, breast size, size of hands/feet, health of skin, etc. They are all indicators of youth, thus of fertility). For women, on the other hand, they place less value on a man’s physical attractiveness and care more about the overall package. A less physically attractive man could still be attractive to a vast majority of women if he’s awesome in every other area.

As a side note, a lot of confusion about the sexes seems to come from simple projection: Men value physical attractiveness, so they assume that women do too. Women value the total package (confidence, accomplishments, personality, etc.) and then assume that men do as well. Projection might be explaining this.

Anyway, the beginning of the very next paragraph in this article sort of confirmed what I was thinking:

The story does have some caveats and complications. First, a few other studies have come up with different results. A recent look at yearbook photos from a Wisconsin high school in 1957 found no link between IQ and attractiveness among the boys, but a positive correlation for the girls.

So there we have it. If attractive people are usually correlated with smart people, then this might explain why we even have a halo effect bias in the first place. Remember, evolution and fitness only cares about what’s good enough (“good enough for government work”), not a perfect correlation.

Jumping a bit ahead:

Kanazawa thinks it’s [that some common genetic factor produces both smarts and beauty], arguing that intelligent men have tended to rise to the top of the social hierarchy and select beautiful women as their mates. Their offspring, contra George Bernard Shaw’s supposed quip, would have had both traits together.

Other possible explanations:

Another theory holds that certain environmental factors in the womb or just after birth can produce both facial disfigurements and cognitive impairments on one side, or facial symmetry and high intelligence on the other. A third suggests that attractive children are treated better, and receive more attention from their caretakers and teachers, which helps to nurture a sharper mind. It’s also possible that smart people are better able to take care of themselves and their looks.

These also seems to be possible. Especially the third suggestion, since women who are told to think more like a man during tests that men are stereotypically better at get higher test scores. And on the flip side of that, it could also explain the dumb jock/blond stereotype, since those people are sociallized into not utilizing their full intellectual potential.

The thing is, these explanations aren’t exclusive. They could be working in parallel, compounding (or having compounded) each other.

More good stuff:

In addition, Kanazawa points out that a closer look at the data reveals an interesting fact: The very ugliest people in his dataset are dumber on average, but they also tend to be the most diverse when it comes to intelligence. That means that if you’re at the low end of the spectrum for looks, you’re more likely than anyone else to be at one extreme end for IQ (either very dumb or very smart). If that’s the case, then it might provide another reason why Sartre and Socrates types stick out in our minds. We know (consciously or not) that ugly people tend to be a little dim; but at the same time, there are more brilliant brutes running around than we might expect.

For his part, Kanazawa rejects the notion of the horns effect—he doesn’t believe the smart-and-ugly stereotype exists at all. (Indeed, it has never been shown in the lab.) Instead, he says, we may be assuming that smart people are nerdy, and that nerdy people tend to lack social skills. Since people with social skills are attractive, there could be an indirect link between at least one kind of “attractiveness” and intelligence. But if you’re looking at pure “beauty,” as measured by rating photographs or measured facial features, then intelligence and looks go hand-in-hand.

So it turns out that smart people aren’t ugly and that it might be the opposite. We only have the ugly and smart stereotype due to social factors and not due to biological ones.

Of course, I have to close this with a note on religion. It’s one of the great ironies of life that women are more religious than men (and more into other Type 1 [i.e. “intuitive”] thinking like astrology, tarot cards, psychics [cold readings], etc.) yet it is the men, specifically the intellectual elites, who have created all of the world’s major religions (no, it wasn’t illiterate desert goat herders who created the Jewish Tanakh or Christian NT since only about 1 – 10% of the populations that those works were created in were literate). This makes me think that religions are created soley for the purpose of getting chicks and getting them to bear your children, since anti-abortion ideology is fundamnetally pro-male. And on a smaller scale, if one wants to be successful with women, this suggests that one should learn some cold reading tricks. Cold readings tap into the same kinda-nonsense-but-not-complete-nonsense that religion does.

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Posted by on January 12, 2012 in cognitive science, economics/sociology

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