Monthly Archives: December 2013

Intuition/Morality Changes By Gender


Luke writes in Intuitions Aren’t Shared That Way:

Stranger: A train, its brakes failed, is rushing toward five people. The only way to save the five people is to throw the switch sitting next to you, which will turn the train onto a side track, thereby preventing it from killing the five people. However, there is a stranger standing on the side track with his back turned, and if you proceed to thrown the switch, the five people will be saved, but the person on the side track will be killed.

Child: A train, its brakes failed, is rushing toward five people. The only way to save the five people is to throw the switch sitting next to you, which will turn the train onto a side track, thereby preventing it from killing the five people. However, there is a 12-year-old boy standing on the side track with his back turned, and if you proceed to throw the switch, the five people will be saved, but the boy on the side track will be killed.


For one thing, philosophical intuitions show gender diversity. Consider again the Stranger and Child versions of the Trolley problem. It turns out that men are less likely than women to think it is morally acceptable to throw the switch in the Stranger case, while women are less likely than men to think it is morally acceptable to throw the switch in the Child case (Zamzow & Nichols 2009).

Or, consider a thought experiment meant to illuminate the much-discussed concept of knowledge:

Peter is in his locked apartment and is reading. He decides to have a shower. He puts his book down on the coffee table. Then he takes off his watch, and also puts it on the coffee table. Then he goes into the bathroom. As Peter’s shower begins, a burglar silently breaks into Peter’s apartment. The burglar takes Peter’s watch, puts a cheap plastic watch in its place, and then leaves. Peter has only been in the shower for two minutes, and he did not hear anything.

When presented with this vignette, only 41% of men say that Peter “knows” there is a watch on the table, while 71% of women say that Peter “knows” there is a watch on the table (Starman & Friedman 2012). According to Buckwalter & Stich (2010), Starmans & Friedman ran another study using a slightly different vignette with a female protagonist, and that time only 36% of men said the protagonist “knows,” while 75% of women said she “knows.”

The story remains the same for intuitions about free will. In another study reported in Buckwalter & Stich (2010), Geoffrey Holtman presented subjects with this vignette:

Suppose scientists figure out the exact state of the universe during the Big Bang, and figure out all the laws of physics as well. They put this information into a computer, and the computer perfectly predicts everything that has ever happened. In other words, they prove that everything that happens has to happen exactly that way because of the laws of physics and everything that’s come before. In this case, is a person free to choose whether or not to murder someone?

In this study, only 35% of men, but 63% of women, said a person in this world could be free to choose whether or not to murder someone

Because most moral judgements are intuitive judgements, and people who defer to intuitive judgements more frequently are more likely to be religious, this might be another reason why women are more religious than men.

Now that I think about it, at lot of the reasons why people are religious seem to affect women more than men. The general tendency for groupthink seems to affect women more than men. Empathetic reasoning is correlated with religious belief, and it seems to be higher among women than men; professions that are stereotypically “male” are also professions where one needs less empathy (thus a higher number of psychopaths; testosterone also seems to have a link with psychopathy). Women see themselves as under more existential threat than men, including being paid less. Existential threat and income inequality are also leading indicators of religious belief. And as I linked above, feeling lonely is also correlated with increased religious belief, and women report feeling lonely more than men (even though men have less friends than women).

Since people aren’t naturally religious, and it’s overwhelmingly sociological factors that make people religious, it probably stands to reason that women are more religious than men for sociological reasons and not biological ones. Though I’m not entirely sure that someone can learn empathy, so it’s probably 90-10 sociological-biological influences; I can’t comment on the causes of gender differences in moral intuitions, though biases (and thus moral condemnation) like the fundamental attribution error seem to be less common in more collectivist societies. So it might follow that the FAE would be more common among the more individualistic gender; I sometimes jokingly call the FAE the “cat call bias” for this reason since men seem to take a woman’s negative reaction to their cat calls as reflection of some fundamental personality trait of the woman.

Gender differences in moral reasoning also have some other implications. Since these moral judgements differ by gender, it probably means there needs to be more equal representation of both genders’ views when designing moral systems to arrive at a true compromise. That is, until we iron out some system of objective morality.

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Posted by on December 26, 2013 in cognitive science, morality


Flintstones Christmas


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Posted by on December 25, 2013 in Funny


Hypothesis: More Guns, More Religion


So as regular reader(s?) of this blog should know, religiosity is tightly coupled with existential insecurity: things like income inequality, natural disasters, feeling lonely, worrying about healthcare, etc. increase religiosity. It’s really anything that short circuits your ability to think clearly that is closely knit with heightened religious belief. As I quoted in my blog post over why atheists should listen to Pope Francis:

Every single 1st world nation that is irreligious shares a set of distinctive attributes. These include handgun control, anti-corporal punishment and anti-bullying policies, rehabilitative rather than punitive incarceration, intensive sex education that emphasizes condom use, reduced socio-economic disparity via tax and welfare systems combined with comprehensive health care, increased leisure time that can be dedicated to family needs and stress reduction, and so forth.

Look at that: handgun control is one of the indicators of a less religious society, and the USA has a pretty huge hardon for guns. Is this another reason why the USA is so religious? An article over at Salon gave some further evidence for this idea. It seems as though even seeing a gun will make you more aggressive:

Even when you’re not holding a gun, you can be psychologically affected by seeing one. Since 1967, researchers have been observing the “weapons effect,” a phenomenon in which the mere presence of a weapon can stimulate aggressive behavior. Of course, a person doesn’t respond to a gun the way a cartoon bull reacts to the matador’s cape; we aren’t spontaneously enraged every time we notice a firearm. But empirical research has repeatedly shown that when people are already aggravated, seeing a gun will motivate them to behave more aggressively.


A later study at the University of Utah refined our understanding of the weapons effect. Psychologists watched the behavior of drivers stuck at an intersection behind a truck that wouldn’t budge when the light turned green. Sometimes there was a gun displayed in the truck’s rear window and sometimes there wasn’t. The researchers observed that people honked more often when they saw the gun.

Recent experiments have shown that even when nobody has been tormenting you with electric shocks or inciting your road rage, you’ll react to a gun differently than you’d react to other objects in your environment. You’ll automatically see the gun as a threat, without even realizing it.

“The ‘threat superiority effect’ is the tendency for people to be able to pick out very quickly in their environment things that might pose a threat to their security — anything that might be dangerous,” explains Isabelle Blanchette, a professor of psychology at the University of Quebec. “People have a tendency to be able to see these things before they see other things.”

Psychologists have theorized that the threat superiority effect is a product of evolution — we have adapted the ability to immediately identify threats like snakes and spiders so we can avoid them. Blanchette’s research shows that people have a similarly quick reaction to seeing a weapon: We’ll immediately spot a gun among several other distracting objects.

When you see the threat, your body will respond before you even think about it. “The most instantaneous thing that happens is that your pupils will dilate,” Blanchette says. “You can have other physiological reactions that are associated with fear. There are changes in your body, such as in your heart rate and respiration rate.”

There we have it. More guns = more aggressive behavior. As I wrote above, however, feeling safe — existential security — is negatively correlated with religion. So if guns actually do make people safer, then the presence of guns should also be correlated with a decline in religiosity. Since most other civilized countries that are also non-religious have little to no guns, I can only go by what I know about religious places in the USA.

Does what I know about religion, safety, and guns play out in the USA?

Just looking at these image maps and how they overlap, it seems as though there’s a very, very weak correlation between gun control laws and religiosity. The more religious states have the weaker gun control laws but not the weakest.

For example, in the last image both the most religious and the least religious states have the weakest gun control laws, with a small correlation with the moderately religious states and better gun control laws. This would paradoxically support both the hypothesis that more guns make people feel more safe (thus less religion) and the alternative that more guns makes people feel less safe (thus more religion)!

Of course, another problem is that I’m not sure how reliable these data are.

One obvious factor that joins these data is that income inequality not only is tightly coupled with religiosity, but is also tightly coupled with crime. And with crime comes more possibility for death due to gun violence as is evidenced by the map the the purple shades; the states with both the most guns per person and fall within the top 10 states regarding firearm death are also among the most religious states/states with higher levels of income inequality.

Still, it remains to be seen just how strong or weak the correlation is using some actual objective data and legitimate statistics.

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Posted by on December 23, 2013 in cognitive science, economics/sociology


Authorship of the Gospels

This is a great post by Matthew Ferguson, the author of the blog Κέλσος and PhD student in Classics. One part I really liked:

First, even if the body of a text does not name its author, there is often still a name and title affixed to a text in our surviving manuscript traditions. These titles normally identify the traditional author. The standard naming convention for ancient works was to place the author’s name in the genitive case (indicating personal possession), followed by the title of the work. Mendell in Tacitus: The Man And His Work notes (pg. 345) that, while not all of our surviving manuscripts are complete with titles, the titles that we do have on some of the best manuscripts traditions have Cor. Taciti Libri (“The Books of Cornelius Tacitus”). This naming convention is important, since it specifically identifies Tacitus as the author of the work. An attribution may still be doubted for any number of reasons, but it is important that there at least be a clear attribution.

Here we already have a problem with the authors of the Gospels. The titles that come down in our manuscript traditions for the Gospels do not even explicitly claim Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John as their authors. Instead, the Gospels have an abnormal title convention, where they instead use the Greek preposition κατά, meaning “according to” or “handed down from,” followed by the traditional names. For example, the Gospel of Matthew is titled εὐαγγέλιον κατὰ Μαθθαίον (“The Gospel according to Matthew”). This is problematic, from the beginning, in that the earliest title traditions already use a grammatical construction to distance themselves from an explicit claim to authorship. Instead, the titles operate more as traditions, where the Gospels have been “handed down” by church traditions affixed to names of figures in the early church, rather than the author being clearly identified. In the case of Tacitus, none of our surviving titles says that the Histories or Annals were written “according to Tacitus” or “handed down from Tacitus.” Instead, we have clear attribution to Tacitus in one case, while only vague and ambivalent attributions in the titles of the Gospels.

I can’t remember where (probably on FRDB), but someone was asking about the weird headings of the Gospels (Κατά Μάρκον::kata Markon, etc.) and asking if this was normal practice in the ancient world. Nope! The titles of the Gospels are in accusative case, not genitive, which he probably meant to say but might have forgotten. Though I did read one argument (again, forgot where) that the first line of Mark’s gospel was probably the title: Ἀρχὴ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, υἱοῦ θεοῦ. Which is indeed in genitive case, but doesn’t actually say that Jesus is the author.

Ferguson has a lot more awesome information about how we know the Gospels were not authored by their traditional namesakes; go read the whole thing! It really expands on one of the sections in my post Why I’m not a Christian.

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Posted by on December 17, 2013 in early Christianity, historiography


Why Atheists Should Listen to Pope Francis


Atheists really should listen to Pope Francis:

Francis wrote in a papal statement, “Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system…. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.”

The author of this article is slamming atheists for “not picking the correct battles”. I think I actually agree. Pope Francis’ quote above, if followed through, would be one of the biggest deathblows to religion. There are a multitude of studies I’ve read that show that income inequality is tightly linked with religiosity.

Every single 1st world nation that is irreligious shares a set of distinctive attributes. These include handgun control, anti-corporal punishment and anti-bullying policies, rehabilitative rather than punitive incarceration, intensive sex education that emphasizes condom use, reduced socio-economic disparity via tax and welfare systems combined with comprehensive health care, increased leisure time that can be dedicated to family needs and stress reduction, and so forth.


Long-time readers of this blog will know that the link between inequality and religion has a particular fascination for me. In fact, the blog started while I was doing background research into a paper I wrote in 2009, on the link between income inequality and religion in countries around the world.

The idea was first put forward in rough form in an earlier book by Pippa Norris and Ronald Ingelhart. My paper took that a modest step further, by showing that income inequality really did seem to be an independent factor helping to explain why people in some countries pray more often than in others.

But you should always treat any particular piece of research with a healthy pinch of salt. All too often, promising findings tend to evaporate on closer examination. You can only be confident that the effect is real if it holds up when you kick the tyres a bit and test out the hypothesis in different ways.

Which is why it was good to see another paper, later in 2009, which used different (more sophisticated) statistical tools to showed a link between inequality and Church attendance. That was good corroboration, because it used a different set of data and compared it with a different aspect of religion.


Barber found that countries with more Muslims, a larger agricultural workforce, and more infectious diseases had fewer atheists. And countries that were once communist, had more education, and had higher taxation had more atheists.

But even after taking all this into account, those countries with higher income inequality still had fewer atheists.

That’s a remarkable result, especially when you consider that one of the main ways to reduce income inequality and its bad effects is to increase taxes. So those countries that raise taxes without fixing income inequality are still going to be more religious.

And rich people use religion to keep the poor in their place:

…many wealthy individuals, rather than simply allowing redistribution to be decided through the democratic process as such median-voter models assume, respond to higher levels of inequality by adopting religious beliefs and spreading them among their poorer fellow citizens. Religion then works to discourage interest in mere material well-being in favor of eternal spiritual rewards, preserving the privileges of the rich and allowing unequal conditions to continue.


As we estimate here, 68% of human beings-4.6 billion people-would say that religion is important in their daily lives. Past studies have found that the religious, on average, have higher subjective well-being (SWB). Yet, people are rapidly leaving organized religion in economically developed nations where religious freedom is high. Why would people leave religion if it enhances their happiness? After controlling for circumstances in both the United States and world samples, we found that religiosity is associated with slightly higher SWB, and similarly so across four major world religions. The associations of religiosity and SWB were mediated by social support, feeling respected, and purpose or meaning in life. However, there was an interaction underlying the general trend such that the association of religion and well-being is conditional on societal circumstances. Nations and states with more difficult life conditions (e.g., widespread hunger and low life expectancy) were much more likely to be highly religious. In these nations, religiosity was associated with greater social support, respect, purpose or meaning, and all three types of SWB. In societies with more favorable circumstances, religiosity is less prevalent and religious and nonreligious individuals experience similar levels of SWB. There was also a person-culture fit effect such that religious people had higher SWB in religious nations but not in nonreligious nations. Thus, it appears that the benefits of religion for social relationships and SWB depend on the characteristics of the society.

Jerry Coyne:

As we know, the south is really religious (just go there if you doubt that!), and the northeast and west coast states much less so.

And below is a national map of the Human Development Index (HDI) from Wikipedia. This index is a measure of societal well being that differs from the “Successful Societies Scale” (SSS) that I used in my talk at Harvard. The HDI uses a set of traits that differ from those used in the SSS: the former amalgamates three traits (life expectancy, education, and income), while the latter combines 25 traits, including corruption, income disparity, child mortality, access to medical care, suicide rates, and so on. Unlike the SSS, under which the U.S. ranks very low among first-world nations, the HDI places the U.S. at the top when the index is not adjusted for inequality among residents, but falls much lower when adjusted for inequality (see the Wikipedia article on the HDI at link above). The disparity may be due to the inclusion of income inequality in the adjusted HDI; income inequality is highly positively correlated with religiosity across 71 nations.

The south is not so great here, the northeast (and two states on the west coast) are better. That suggests a relationship between religiosity and well being as measured by the HDI.

After crunching the data, Dr. Roy produced this correlation between the religiosity of the 50 states and their ranking on the HDI:


As you see, we have the same negative relationship between well-being and religiosity that we saw for different countries of the West. The correlation here is r= – 0.66897, and the probability (“p”) that this correlation would arise by chance is p = 0.00000012. (A value of p less than 0.05 is conventionally used to show a significant relationship.) This relationship, then, is not only striking but very highly significant in a statistical sense. Harry put a least-squares regression line through the data; its slope is also highly significant.

24/7 Wall St.

4. United States
> Gini coefficient: 0.378
> Change in income inequality: +12.1%
> Employment rate: 66.7% (13th highest)
> Change in income of the rich: +1.9% per year
> Change in income of the poor: +0.5% per year

Inequality in the United States increased significantly from 1985 to 2008, putting it in the fourth-worst spot in the study. As with many other countries in which income inequality has increased, average income has gone up across all income groups since the mid-1980s, but not equally. The income of the wealthiest 10% has greatly outpaced the poorest 10%. The share enjoyed by the top 0.1% in total pretax income quadrupled in the 30 years to 2008.

The USA is the most religious 1st world democracy.

And of course, one of my earlier posts, What’s Wrong With Believing In God?:

The most religious places to live are also the worst places to live.

Teen pregnancies are highest in the most religious parts of the US. Porn is bought more in the more religious parts of the US. Out of first world democracies, the most religious ones are positively correlated with rates of homocides, STDs, teen pregnancies, and other societal ills.

fMRI scans show that people simply assign their own beliefs to god in order to validate them.

Belief in god doesn’t reduce substance abuse, and makes people more intolerant.

Religious attendance, but not beliefs, were linked to improved health, a reduction in suicides, and increased marital fidelity. Which suggests that it’s having social support networks, and not god belief, that makes people happier and society better.

I’m quoting myself a lot, but this is what I wrote about liberalizing religions before, and it bears repeating.

Liberal religionists are really in a bind. If they continue to liberalize — meaning increasing the well-being of people in “material” ways such as welfare states, social justice, etc. — then they will lead to their own undoing. Welfare states and social justice are the main sociological factors that lead to nations becoming non-religious. I don’t have any problem with that, but if they want to see their traditions continue beyond just textbooks, then they might have an issue with it.

If one wants to win the fight against religion, one has to start looking at the causes of belief formation, not the conclusions. Income inequality is one of those causes.

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Posted by on December 12, 2013 in economics/sociology


Identity And Evaluating Issues Rationally

groupthink level: 9999. Chance for rationality: 0.001%

(These people are probably not here for rational dialog)

Some things I’ve read over the past few days and my little thoughts about them.

First, I want to reiterate what I wrote about the qualities of good explanations. In my posts What Makes A Good Explanation (and the appendix-ish post to that one, Guessing The Pattern) and Science Doesn’t Trust You To Be A Bayesian, I listed five criteria that good explanations have. I’ll repost them here.

1) Mechanism. A good explanation explains more of the underlying mechanisms than bad explanations. If your faucet is leaking and you call a plumber over to fix it, the plumber will be able to explain the underlying mechanism behind what causes the faucet to leak. There’s no mechanism for positing god, other than “goddidit” or “sin”.

2) Testability. A good explanation lends itself to being testable. Your plumber will be able to reproduce the leak at command if he actually understands the underlying mechanism. And if the leak happens again and your plumber told you the underlying mechanism, you should be able to test his explanation and fix the leak yourself. God-belief is entirely untestable (well, it is, but it fails every single test).

3) Simplicity. Good explanations use fewer ad hoc claims — i.e. claims that are not testable and have no mechanism — to support itself. A plumber that does all of the above but then posits that the reason behind the leak is that you haven’t arranged the furniture in your house in a manner that resonates with the frequencies of the Crystals of Andraste is a worse explanation than one that leaves that out.

4) Precision. Good explanations exclude more possible evidence than bad explanations. Let’s say that you have two friends who collect marbles. One friend collects only black marbles while the other collects every single color marble he can get his hands on. If your plumbing problems started after both friends were over for a few hours, and a black marble was found in your pipes, it’s much more likely that your friend who only collects black marbles caused it than your friend who collects all marble colors; even though it’s known that both friends own black marbles. God-belief does not restrict the type of evidence would be seen as opposed to naturalism so god-belief would be analogous to the friend who collects every marble color imaginable. The more evidence god-belief allows, the less likely it is that it explains this one particular piece of evidence.

5) Background Knowledge. Good explanations make use of our background knowledge, or said another way, good explanations make valid analogies. So I wrote in my Why I’m not a Christian post:

Why are there four gospels instead of one? What was the historical situation that produced a fourfold gospel canon? Instead of using traffic accidents to describe religious history, we should use religion to explain religious history. Why is there, for example, one book of Joshua? Trick question; there isn’t just one book of Joshua, there are two. One, the Jewish version which is in the Christian Bible, and another one, the Samaritan version. So using religion as our explanatory example, we see why there are two books of Joshua: Religious sectarianism. Jews don’t consider Samaritans to be the true version of their religion and Samaritans don’t consider Jews to be the true version of their religion. If this explains why there is more than one book of Joshua, this probably also explains why there is more than one gospel. Religious sectarianism; Matthew wasn’t written to corroborate Mark, as the traffic accident explanation assumes, but was written to replace Mark. The same with every other gospel.

Here I used the analogy of Jewish/Samaritan sectarianism to explain why there are four gospels instead of one.

Now that we know the qualities that good explanations have, we have to point out the ways in which people handicap themselves from using these good explanations.

Sam Harris posted an interview he did with Peter Boghossian, the author of a book called A Manual for Creating Atheists. One of the points that Boghossian makes is that debates between believers and non-believers is usually pointless, because:

For too long we’ve misidentified the problem. We’ve conceptualized it in terms of conclusions people hold, not mechanisms of belief formation they use. I’m advocating that we reconceptualize the problem of faith, God, and religion (and virtually every other instance of insufficiently evidenced belief) in terms of epistemology—that is, in terms of how people come to know what they think they know. [my emphasis]

Next little ping for the influence behind this post is a piece by Jeff Schweitzer over at Huffington Post (h/t Jason Rosenhouse):

Oddly, many accept the link between autism and vaccinations with no proof, but when it comes to climate change, the demand for proof is never satisfied no matter how convincing such proof may be. Many accept the existence of ghosts with no evidence, but deny the reality of a changing climate with proof before their eyes. This differential deference to evidence is clear indicator that much of the American public lacks the tools to evaluate issues rationally. Without science, reality becomes just an option to be rejected whenever the real world gives us inconvenient truths. In this frightening environment in which fiction becomes fact, the conclusions from years of careful research, scrutinized by competing scientists and published in peer reviewed journals now carry no more weight with the public than the random thoughts of a bloated pundit. Talking heads with no training now have the same authority as highly qualified experts. So global warming is dismissed as a liberal hoax in spite of a preponderance of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary. Climate and weather are mistakenly thought to be the same. So with every cold snap in winter we hear, “See, it snowed – I told you climate change was a joke.”

This leads me to a sort of meta good explanation criterion. To even begin using the tools of rationality correctly, or to even think to apply them, you should do your best to keep your identity as small as possible. At that link, Paul Graham argues against associating yourself with labels (e.g. “libertarian,” “feminist,” “gamer,” “American”) because labels constrain what you’ll let yourself believe, and this constraint usually happens subconsciously. This is why people can accept the link between vaccinations and autism on very flimsy evidence, or accept the very poor evidence for Creationism, or any other myriad contentious “teach the controversy” issues where one side has overwhelming support and the other has very little. It’s the identity that these people hold that is a stumbling block to overcome.

Worse yet, if some dark arts practitioner knows you have a strong identity with some cause, they can more easily manipulate you because of our hard-wiring for groupthink and using information we don’t even know we’re using to make decisions.

So the first step towards debiasing yourself is to keep your identity small. This would be a tough sell if you’re trying to convert a Christian though, since being a Christian is a large part of their identity. However, you could possibly get them to identify with some other identity that would lend itself more towards rationality. And, of course, like Boghossian said, you can also try examining epistemology itself, steering them towards the laws of thought.

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Posted by on December 9, 2013 in rationality

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