We argue that because of a long history of intergroup conflict and competition, humans evolved to be tribal creatures. Tribalism is not inherently bad, but it can lead to ideological thinking and sacred values that distort cognitive processing of putatively objective information in ways that affirm and strengthen the views and well-being of one’s ingroup (and that increase one’s own standing within one’s ingroup). Because of this shared evolutionary history of intergroup conflict, liberals and conservatives likely share the same underlying tribal psychology, which creates the potential for ideologically distorted information processing. Over the past several decades, social scientists have sedulously documented various tribal and ideological psychological tendencies on the political right, and more recent work has documented similar tendencies on the political left. We contend that these tribal tendencies and propensities can lead to ideologically distorted information processing in any group. And this ideological epistemology can become especially problematic for the pursuit of the truth when groups are ideologically homogenous and hold sacred values that might be contradicted by empirical inquiry. Evidence suggests that these conditions might hold for modern social science; therefore, we conclude by exploring potential ideologically driven distortions in the social sciences.
Category Archives: economics/sociology
A few years ago I made a post titled “Truth vs. Morality; Rationality vs Intuition“. In that post I put forward the idea that there are certain things — empirical claims — that people dismiss because of the unfavorable moral implications.
I encountered this so many times in debates with religious people that I assumed that it was a particular failing of the religious. All of us former religious people have encountered the following logic:
If god doesn’t exist, what’s stopping an atheist from murdering bystanders and raping children?
Religious people don’t realize that this is quite the self-own: They are so depraved and morally bankrupt that the only thing that’s stopping them from raping children is belief in god. Eliezer Yudkowsky refutes this pretty soundly in my opinion by substituting “murder” with something more mundane like “going to the bathroom after midnight”: If god doesn’t exist, what’s stopping atheist from going to the bathroom after midnight? Checkmate, atheists!
The substitution demonstrates that an extra, hidden premise is smuggled in to give the original formulation its weight.
Unfortunately, religion isn’t some aberration of human behavior. The physical-to-moral sleights of hand that religious people perform aren’t limited to them, many other non-religious people do them as well. Religion is just a subset of moral intuitions. As such, there are many other empirical claims that are dismissed on secular morality grounds, and lead to the same sorts of self-owns.
Can you think of any? I brought some up in that previous post.
The larger point in both this post and the previous, is that human worth should be orthogonal to most — if not all — empirical claims. If god doesn’t exist this should have no bearing on the value of human life. But to even get to this step, people have to understand that the existence of god is an empirical claim and not a moral one. That is a hard ask.
And to my non-religious readers, you don’t get away either! You suffer from the same inability to divorce the physical from the moral that the religious do. And as such, you will inadvertently self-own in the same way religious people do. How depraved and morally destitute are you by your own admission?
Or to put it in a phrasing you might be familiar with (and leads to the moral self-own), does not believing in [XYZ] empirical or physical claim make you racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic? Are you saying that the only thing that holds you back from being a putrid mire of racism/sexism/homophobia/transphobia is believing in [XYZ] claim?
Now, I actually don’t think religious people suffer from an abject poverty of moral purchase due to the implications of this particular anti-atheist argument. When a religious person hears “I don’t believe in god” it gets translated by their subconscious as “I don’t think morality exists”. The primacy of social or moral rules over the physical is a bias we all have. Meaning that the same translation happens for other physical claims besides the existence of god in non-religious domains: When presented with a question/claim that can have a moral/social answer/interpretation XOR a physical answer/interpretation, we tend to answer with the moral/social answer/interpretation.
But when you interpret a physical claim as a moral/social claim, you logically paint yourself into a moral corner. You imply that you would kill innocent people/rape children/be racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic, and the only thing holding you back is the existence of god/[XYZ] claim.
To drive this point home, I’ll end this post with the most egregious example of the human tendency to supplant the social/moral over the physical — besides the existence of god — in the current zeitgeist:
Complex biological systems, by definition, are composed of multiple components that interact non-linearly. The human brain constitutes, arguably, the most complex biological system known. Yet most investigation of the brain and its function is carried out using assumptions appropriate for simple systems—univariate design and linear statistical approaches. This heuristic must change before we can hope to discover and test interventions to improve the lives of individuals with complex disorders of brain development and function. Indeed, a movement away from simplistic models of biological systems will benefit essentially all domains of biology and medicine. The present brief essay lays the foundation for this argument.
The Univariate Fallacy is when someone argues that, because there is no single quality that separates two categories, the two categories do not exist and are actually just one category.
So for example, there’s no one single quality that separates Windows from Mac iOS, therefore Windows and iOS are the same.
There are multiple differences between Windows and iOS. There are also many commonalities. Yet there’s no one indicator that all Macs have that Windows OSs do not, though. Or vice versa. Because there isn’t one, concluding that Windows and iOS are the same would be the Univariate Fallacy.
Another example: There’s no single brain structure that separates left-handedness from right-handedness, therefore left or right handedness does not exist.
Here’s an example from Tw****r:
Another example I like is accent recognition: it’s a lot easier to say “She has a British accent” rather than individually describing all the phoneme-level features that your brain is using to make that judgement
The Univariate Fallacy can probably be thought of as a type of statistical fallacy, since this sort of thing seems to always happen in discussions with laypeople about differing statistical populations.
While I’m on the subject of statistics, there’s another statistics fail I see happen pretty regularly. Someone has named it the “Everest Regression”.
The Everest Regression is what happens when you “control” for a fundamental variable when comparing two populations. You might even think of it as the opposite side of, or similar lane to, the Univariate Fallacy. Maybe a sort of multivariate fallacy? I defer to the creator of the Everest Regression.
Basically, “controlling for height, Mount Everest is room temperature”.
Another: Controlling for number of electrons, helium and carbon have the same freezing point.
Controlling for distance from the equator, Alaska and Italy are the same climate.
Controlling for AU, Mars and Earth can support complex life.
You get the point. It’s assuming multivariate differences between univariate phenomena. This is understandable if you’re dealing with new phenomena, but is pointless and frankly sophistry to apply to concepts and categories that we already know are different along one or few axes in order to prove an ideological point.
Prior research showed that women are generally more supportive than men of censoring hate speech and this sex difference remained significant after such variables as authoritarianism and political conservatism were controlled for. However, an explanation of that sex difference is lacking. A recent theory distinguishes between pathogen-, sexual, and moral disgust, and we hypothesize that pathogen- and sexual disgust sensitivity will mediate the sex difference in support of censoring hate speech. This is because 1) women typically show stronger pathogen- and sexual disgust sensitivity and 2) people higher in pathogen- and sexual disgust sensitivity are more repulsed by stimuli related to infection (e.g., blood) and sexual assaults. Hate speech can produce both types of stimuli by instigating violence. Indeed, two studies (N=250 and 289) show a robust indirect effect through sexual disgust sensitivity that explains over 50% of the total effect of sex on censorship support and renders the direct effect of sex non-significant. The indirect effect through pathogen disgust sensitivity is also significant but the direct effect of sex remains significant. These findings extend censorship-attitude research, inform the explanation of a similar sex difference in political intolerance, and further suggest that sexual disgust sensitivity shapes political psychology. (my emphasis)
I’ve posted about the bolded part before:
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.
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 —
That is not identity politics. That is my experience as a public intellectual trying to talk about ideas.
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:
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 survey of more than 600 scholars from 22 disciplines, ranging from psychology and economics through to gender studies, sociology and the humanities, finds that there remain two distinct cultures in the academe, at least regarding views on the principal causes of human behaviour and human culture.
One group, made up of psychologists, economists, philosophers and political scientists believes more strongly in the genetic influences on behaviour, beliefs and culture. The other group, consisting sociologists, non-evolutionary anthropologists, women’s and gender studies scholars and all humanities scholars (except philosophy), believes in the primacy of environmental influences. What’s more, those scholars favouring environmental accounts also tend to be sceptical of the scientific method.
“Human behaviour is not subject to immutable laws, and, therefore, can’t be studied scientifically,” said a religious studies scholar. “Scientific knowledge has something to tell us about material artefacts and their production, but ‘human nature’, ‘human experience’ and ‘human behaviour’ are not empirically stable,” said a literary studies scholar.
In contrast, scholars favouring genetic and evolutionary accounts of behaviour expressed faith in science.
Carroll and his colleagues said “Most researchers who regard human behaviour as beyond the reach of science, or who deny that science has any special claims on the production of knowledge, have more academic respectability that creationists, but they are similar to creationists in that they step willingly outside the circle of knowledge susceptible to empirical falsification.”
Read more at PsyPost
While not necessarily related to Bayes Theorem, something like this has been popping up in my mind whenever I read news stories dealing with statistics so I thought I would make a post about it.
In simplest terms, aggregate data might have different statistical properties than subsets of the aggregate data. As a matter of fact, the aggregate data might show the completely opposite effect when looked at in subsets.
An intuitive example of this is weather. You can average the temperature over the course of the year, or you could find the average of temperature over the course of six months. It might be that temperature over the course of the year has a slightly positive upward slope, yet temperature from June to December has a negative slope.
This seems obvious. But what if you’re dealing with something that’s not so obvious?
The example Wikipedia gives that I think is a non-controversial example is kidney stone treatment. Say you have Treatment A for either large or small kidney stones and Treatment B for large or small kidney stones.
Treatment A is effective on 81 out of 87 (93%) small kidney stones while Treatment B is effective on 87% (234/270) small kidney stones. For large kidney stones, Treatment A is effective 73% (192/263) of the time and Treatment B is effective 69% (55/80) of the time.
Clearly, Treatment A is what you should use for both small and large kidney stones. But what happens when we aggregate over both small and large kidney stones? Treatment A is 81/87 + 192/263 = 273/350 (78%) while Treatment B is 234/270 + 55/80 = 289/350 (83%). Now it turns out that Treatment B is better than Treatment A!
Therein lies Simpson’s Paradox. What happens when we have something controversial? Wikipedia also has the example of apparent sexism in graduate school admissions (which it still seems like no one has tried to account for this paradox when talking about modern controversies like the gender wage gap). But this is mainly a religion blog: So what about whether religion is good or bad for people or society?
Very religious Americans […] have high overall wellbeing, leading healthier lives, and are less likely to have ever been diagnosed with depression… These positive associations between religious engagement and the good life are reverse when comparing more versus less religious places rather than individuals…
Gallup World Poll data from 152 countries [show] a striking negative correlation between these countries’ population percentages declaring that religion is “important in your daily life” and their average life satisfaction score…
Across US states, religious attendance rates predict modestly lower emotional well-being…
Epidemiological studies reveal that religious engagement predicted longer life expectancy…
Across states, religious engagement predicts shorter life expectancy…
Across states religious engagement predicts higher crime rates. But across individuals, it predicts lower crime rates…
If you want to make religion look good, cite individual data. If you want to make it look bad, cite aggregate data…
Stunning individual versus aggregate paradoxes appear in other realms as well. Low-income states and high-income individuals have [recently] voted Republican…
Liberal countries and conservative individuals express greater well-being…
Highly religious states, and less religious individuals, do more Google “sex” searching…
One might wonder if the religiosity-happiness association is mediated by income — which has some association with happiness. But though richer people are happier than poor people, religiously engaged individuals tend to have lower incomes — despite which, they express greater happiness.
This is from a conference paper. I’m not actually sure if this is an example of Simpson’s Paradox, but the larger point remains. Breaking up data along different axes might yield paradoxical results. As the author says, if you want to make religion look bad, cite aggregate data. If you want to make religion look good, cite individual data.
But which statistic should one use? The aggregate data or the individual data? They’re both true, for lack of a better word, so it’s not like one is “lying”. I would tend to lean towards using the aggregate data if forced to choose. But there’s no harm in looking at both. And if both paint the same picture that just means that you have a more complete view of the phenomenon at hand.