Wednesday, September 12, 2012

What's a reliable principle by which to award supernatural claims belief?

I ask this question a fair bit these days, but sometimes it confuses people. Let me explain the question.

Here, god-claims, and claims-of-miracles both fall under what I am talking about when I say 'supernatural claims' (though it's a much broader question).

1: The world is full of supernatural claims (ghosts exist, fairies exist and are tiny and have wings, fairies exist but are human sized and don't have wings, Thor exists, Zeus exists, Ahura-Mazda exists, the Rainbow Serpent exists, Yahweh exists and is a trinity, Yahweh exists and is not a trinity, Ganesh exists, Jesus is divine, Jesus is a prophet and not divine, Jesus is neither a prophet nor divine, ...)

2: most such claims contradict other claims. Where multiple mutually contradictory claims exist, most of them must be wrong (since at most one of a set of mutually contradictory claims can be true at once). If we aren't especially lucky or careful - unless we're 'special' or taking particular precautions, we have no basis to assert our beliefs are more likely to be right than any others.

Without good reasons that establish otherwise, claiming we're special is special pleading; having suitable precautions requires some way to tell claims apart that reliably distinguishes true claims from false ones.

3: If most supernatural claims of a particular type are necessarily wrong (because of 2:), then without some reliable(1) principle(2) by which to evaluate them, we are left to use unreliable means.

4: if we use unreliable means to evaluate them, then unless we're somehow astoundingly lucky (again, see special pleading), we will end up believing almost entirely false things, on average.

(1) reliable, in this context would include that different people applying the same principles to all available information will either come to consistent conclusions, or will have a clear means by which to reconcile any differences in conclusion - differences will be resolvable by means provided within the principles themselves.

(2) principle, in this context, means a mechanism by which information and ideas and claims can be compared and selected between - such as a general rule by which we can identify either true or false claims. It doesn't include evidence or logical arguments, but could include mechanisms by which to evaluate such things (evidence and logic aren't principles as such, but if we had a principle like 'vaid logical arguments based on true premises will be true' that says that we can rely on logical arguments that fulfill those conditions). We need principles to evaluate reasons rather than just having 'reasons' in the absence of principles by which to judge them, or we again end with with special pleading. That is, our own reasons are held to lead to a valid conclusion but someone else with the same kind of reason but a different conclusion to our preferred one is not. Either all such reasons are valid, or they are not.

A collection of principles should be applicable to all similar claims.

So to get back to the question:

What's a reliable principle by which to award supernatural claims belief?

This raises some interesting aspects to consider as part of the main question, relating to consistency between how people think about religious beliefs held by others:

"What is a reliable principle by which we may judge to be true the supernatural claims of religions other than one you hold?"

"Do you apply the same principles to the supernatural claims of your own religion?"

And finally ... the big consequence of the usual answer (that there aren't actually reliable principles, and hence no actually reliable reasons):

If your reasons are unreliable, why on earth would you rely on them?

Saturday, July 28, 2012

"What if God is puppies? You believe in puppies, don't you?"

I often see questions like this:

"what if god is time?"

"what if god is science?"

"what if god is simply the order in the universe?"

"what if god is love?"

"... how can you say you don't believe in god?"

Usually accompanied by some kind of assertion that an atheist is assuming a particular god in order to lack belief in gods.

I call this the 'god-is-puppies' argument.

The word 'god', like the word 'toaster', carries meaning. I can claim "When I say toaster I mean a can of minestrone soup" all I like, but if I say "thereby, your claim you don't own a toaster is false - there's a can of minestrone right here in the pantry", you'll get short shrift.

The purpose of words is communication, isn't it?

When you use a word, people tend to understand particular things. If you deliberately choose it to mean something else, and leave them to misunderstand, you're choosing to mislead them. And are thereby a cad and a bounder.

I can call my rat "A Thousand Bucks", but if I offer you a thousand bucks for your car and when you give me the keys, I hand you a rat, you'd rightly be miffed. You'd likely punch me in the nose and take back your keys. If I was lucky.

Where does the responsibility for the miscommunication lie?

It would lie with me, for knowingly using a term people use for one thing to refer to an unrelated thing, in order to convey a different meaning to the one I would claim to use.

Even if you tell them your bizarre definition, so that the deception is lost, the patience for the mental gymnastics required to keep replacing the ordinary word with your odd meaning is likely to be very limited.

So, to "what if god is time?" I say - we have a name for that concept already; it's called time.

If you care to communicate with people, you'll call it that.

When I say I lack belief in gods, I mean the ordinary understanding of the word 'god', like you might find in a dictionary. I'm prepared to adopt a fairly broad interpretation of it, but its basically something along the lines of a powerful supernatural being. Something with intent. Concepts of 'time' or 'science' or 'order' or 'puppies' simply don't have the intended attributes people generally mean when they say 'god'. I can encompass the vaguest of deistic creator-entity hand-waves, but a deity's a deity, not a can of soup.

I don't carry belief in any powerful supernatural beings with intent.

If you want to propose some variation on that ordinary meaning, then ask about that variation and I'll let you know if I carry belief in it, but if you pull the 'god is puppies' type of word-game, I may well be moved to reward your deceptive shenannigans with "You I love with all my heart, and by love I mean, lovingly punch in the snout."

If you're lucky.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Australian Census Religion Results - an infographic

Well, they're not all that great as statistical graphics, but I always wanted to try making one of these guys. So I did.

With apologies to Tufte.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Why 'You don't know enough to reject my religion' is merely special pleading

An oft-made claim is that atheists are ignorant of this or that special reasoning about some religion and are therefore not in a position to lack belief in it.

Before even considering such special arguments that we're supposedly ignorant of, we must then ask 'What principle is being applied?' - for in the absence of some general principle, this is special pleading for ones own belief.

So is the principle something like all belief and disbelief must be fully informed, and without it, we must all suspend both out believing and disbelieving faculties? Surely not, for then no child could ever be indoctrinated with the religion of its parents, uninformed as it is. Advocates of such a principle must fight childhood indoctrination.

It's even worse - how many believers, even as adults - are even slightly informed about the arguments against the ordinary weak version of arguments that so many hold to? They are uninformed of those, just as they are uninformed of the 'sophisticated' arguments for belief that the apologists insist we must have, and the arguments in turn against those.

Is there are double standard, then, toward disbelief even though it is the the default position toward propositions until evidence or compelling argument is forthcoming? Such a double standard is of course, another form of special pleading, but let's see what happens if we for a moment allow it. Let's try to arrive at some principle and apply it only to disbelief in religious claims (allowing a first layer of special pleading for belief).

Then we have a principle something like 'you must know everything about any religious claim in order to lack belief in it', ignoring all arguments from the against side of the ledger.

But here of course, we run into the second problem - do believers apply that principle to beliefs other than their own? Do they know enough about other religions to reject them?

Overwhelmingly, and quite plainly not. Believers are almost entirely ignorant of even the basic beliefs of major religions, let alone the sophisticated arguments for other religions. Many don't do so well even on the doctrines of their own sects. Indeed, it's the atheists who tend to know about religious beliefs.

So a principle of even that kind isn't being applied to believers. We see a second double standard - a second form of special pleading.

This same idea pretty much applies to any argument that is made about needing sophisticated knowledge with respect to religion; they all come down to a form of special pleading.

When a theist calls for deep knowledge of their religion, they're merely making an argument from special pleading. Either the call is special pleading on its face, or it is based on a principle - but such principles end up at a double standard, for such principles are not applied to believers (and the people making the original argument assuredly don't want them to be), and so is special pleading at that point. It's special pleading, any which way you try to look at it.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

I only just learned yesterday that Paul Meier died.

If you don't know who that is (and if you're not a statistician or involved with clinical trials, you probably don't), take a read of the link.

Friday, December 9, 2011

You remember the old "anti-gay pastor/politician turns out to be gay" thing? It seems it's a real thing

You know the way it goes, some pastor or "christian" politician goes on a big anti-gay thing - and then turns out to be gay.

We've seen seen so many it's not even funny.

Well, it looks like it's not just irony coming along a little too often. It seems it's a real thing. See this paper ("Is homophobia associated with homosexual arousal?"). The abstract says:
The authors investigated the role of homosexual arousal in exclusively heterosexual men who admitted negative affect toward homosexual individuals. Participants consisted of a group of homophobic men (n = 35) and a group of nonhomophobic men (n = 29); they were assigned to groups on the basis of their scores on the Index of Homophobia (W. W. Hudson & W. A. Ricketts, 1980). The men were exposed to sexually explicit erotic stimuli consisting of heterosexual, male homosexual, and lesbian videotapes, and changes in penile circumference were monitored. They also completed an Aggression Questionnaire (A. H. Buss & M. Perry, 1992). Both groups exhibited increases in penile circumference to the heterosexual and female homosexual videos. Only the homophobic men showed an increase in penile erection to male homosexual stimuli. The groups did not differ in aggression. Homophobia is apparently associated with homosexual arousal that the homophobic individual is either unaware of or denies.
(Short answer: Yes. The guys that aren't turned on by gay porn aren't homophobes. Actual straight guys don't seem to be the biggest problem. It's the guys that secretly think you're hot in those cut-off shorts that you have to really watch out for.)

So the next time you see that pastor or right wing christian politician screaming about the gays ... and you're thinking "oh, I bet he's secretly gay", well, maybe that's not such a silly bet.

Edit: Yeah, it's an old paper - but I've never seen it before, nor even seen any academic support for the effect. One wonders why this doesn't give them pause before launching the polemics.

h/t Furious Purpose

Monday, December 5, 2011

reddit's /r/atheism Doctors without Borders (MSF) donation drive goes crazy

Compare the donations from redditors donating to Doctors without Borders (MSF) in the last two days to all donations to MSF on in the last eight years

That's about $75,000 in maybe two days. $150,000 all up.

Doctors without Borders firstgiving donations

The whole circle represents (roughly) a million dollars.

Oh, and those r/atheism donations since last year? Nearly half of those were in the three days or so before the frenzy really started.

At least, that's roughly the picture as at right now - but this figure is changing rapidly.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Are atheists "kids"?

One accusation I see against atheists come up a fair bit on reddit's r/atheism is that we're 'angry 13 year olds', that we're 'in a rebellious phase', that 'atheism is a passing fad'.

To this 48 year old homeowner with a family and a steady job, the 'rebellious' bit seems hilarious.

So let's compare the age distributions, shall we?

In 2010, Reddit did a survey.

Some months later, redditor NukeThePope did a survey of r/atheism.

Both surveys asked about age and categorized it into broad age groups. Now these samples are self-selected, with the usual biases that implies - but both sets of biases would presumably be of similar size and direction on age, so they might still be reasonably comparable.

However, because the age groups don't correspond, I'm going to smooth both distributions - doing kernel density estimates of log(age) with the bandwidth set just above where binning artifacts start to appear - which is slightly different for the two, because they have different sets of binwidths - and then transforming back to the original scale (and don't forget the Jacobian, he whispers to himself!).

Here's how that comes out:

Now, on the left half of the distributions, they're almost coincident. In the mid-to-late 20's there are relatively very slightly more in r/atheism, and in the mid-30's, very slightly fewer. Then the distributions are almost coincident again.

That is, around the upper quartile - well into adulthood - the atheists look to be perhaps a couple of years younger (I did some additional analysis to estimate the difference in that area) on average. Otherwise, there's really no clear difference.

So atheists - at least the denizens of r/atheism - aren't particularly different from everyone else; they seem to pretty much just reflect the demographics of reddit.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

r/atheism passes 200,000 subscribers

It's gone absolutely nuts lately, adding about 25000 new subscribers in just over a week. It was averaging 390 new subscribers a day, and then it got made one of the groups on the new default reddit front page on the 18th. It's been averaging about 3500 new subscribers a day since.

Oh, and I passed 4 years of blogging this month, though at about a post a month this year, you can't really call that blogging.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Lower rates of religiosity associated with more trust of others

I tried posting about this ages ago, but Blogger clagged when I hit publish and everything I tried didn't fix the problem. Then I had some computer issues; eventually leading to a new machine. Finally Blogger seemed to wake up, so I decided I better try to reconstruct the post. So anyway, in honour of my third reddit birthday:

I saw some OECD figures on trust ("Percentage of people expressing a high level of trust in others") at the national level for 32 countries, and tracked them down to this page.
(The data come from two sources - the European Social Survey and the International Social Survey Programme.)

Specifically, at the bottom is a spreadsheet (CO1.XLS) that has some displays of the data, including plots looking at the relationship between Trust and two economic factors (median income, and income inequality). These are 2008 figures. I decided to throw Irreligion (specifically, the 2007-2008 Gallup figures there, which relate to the question "Is religion important in your daily life", and the Irreligion figures are the percentage responding negatively) into the mix and see how that related.

As it turns out, quite strongly:

(Click for larger)

But of course, maybe that relationship is actually explained by those other variables the OECD identified, income and income inequality. Income is median household income (US$PPP). Income inequality is measured by Gini coefficient (low is more equal, high is more unequal). Let's look at those as well (Ignore the plot at the bottom right for now). The black numbers are linear correlation coefficients.

(Click for larger)

All three veriables are strongly related to Trust. The plot against Gini Coefficient has a down slope (negative correlation) indicating trust goes down when incomes are less equal - not surprising.

So I decided to fit a model to see what the important drivers were. Are any of the variables still relevant after the other two have been included?

Though I would normally not assume a straight line, here the relationships are all so near to straight it's not worth trying to do something fancy, so I just fit a linear regression of Trust on the other three variables.

lm(Trust ~ Income + GiniCoeff + Irreligion, data = oecdtr)

             Estimate Std. Error t value Pr(>|t|)
(Intercept)  3.704e+01  2.107e+01  1.758   0.09270
Income       1.034e-03  2.854e-04  3.625   0.00150
GiniCoeff   -6.232e+01  4.535e+01 -1.374   0.18320
Irreligion   4.065e-01  1.330e-01  3.056   0.00579

Residual standard error: 8.221 on 22 degrees of freedom
(8 observations deleted due to missingness)
Multiple R-squared: 0.8119, Adjusted R-squared: 0.7862
F-statistic: 31.65 on 3 and 22 DF, p-value: 3.671e-08

(Analysis, including plots performed in R.)

The main things to note is that all of the variables maintain the same sign of relationship when the other variables are included compared to looking at the relationship alone (this is not always the case - adjusting for other important variables can sometimes flip things around). After including the other variables, Trust still increases with Income and Irreligion, and still decreases with increasing Income Inequality.

The fourth plot above is of Trust against the fit from this model - it accounts for a lot of the variation in trust in other people across the countries involved.

However, as we see from the regression output, the Income Inequality (Gini Coeff) variable is no longer statistically significant - most of its relationship to Trust can be accounted for by the other variables. But Income and Irreligion are both still highly significant predictors of Trust.

That doesn't mean that having low levels of religious belief necessarily causes to more trust (it's probably that they both relate to other social factors, like social services, public health, support for the unemployed, crime rates and so on).

I nevertheless found the relationship much stronger than I would have anticipated.
I think that's very interesting.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Science Readiness and Religion

Susan White (Statistical Research Center at the American Institute of Physics) and Paul Cottle (Florida State University) produced an index of Science and Engineering Readiness (SERI) for US states, based on a variety of information including Advanced Placement scores, National Assessment of Educational Progress reports, teacher certification requirements by state and physics class enrollment data.

I decided to compare those figures with the percentage of people who said yes to the question "Is religion important in your daily life?" (a measure of religiosity) in each US state.

(Click for larger image)

There's a surprisingly clear negative correlation.

Science and Engineering Readiness Index figures come from here, and religious importance figures from here.

(The importance of religion figures can be copypasta'd here)

That's one very scary potential explanation of why the US is falling behind in science. People watching the Texas SBOE (and on it!) may do well to take note.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Rapture bingo card, post-rapture

A few days ago, before the May 21 'Rapture', a Rapture excuse bingo card was posted to reddit.
Since the rapture, how has it gone? As tomcool notes, not bad:

h/t tomthecool, erekose and STUN_Runner

Sunday, April 3, 2011

How NOT to regress murder rates on religious belief

This post on reddit's r/atheism did a linear regression of murder rates on "importance of religion" figures (both sets of data from wikipedia).

The poster there also looked at IHDI (inequality-adjusted human development index) and its effect on the relationship.

The poster found a weak (and statistically insignificant) relationship between importance of religion and murder, but after adjusting for IHDI the sign changed (though the relationship remained weak).

But much about the analysis - and hence the conclusions is wrong or suspect.

(I'd normally have replied on reddit, but since this discussion is relatively long for a comment and involves figures, it's better written up elsewhere. Further, since this sort of analysis is the very raison d'ĂȘtre of my benighted blog, it goes here.)

While I usually work in R these days, I'm going to do the calculations for this in a spreadsheet, like the original - so that those looking at the original poster's spreadsheet can follow along.

First, I noticed that the murder rates are highly skew. Since the relationships are fairly weak, this skewness applies to both the conditional and unconditional distribution of murder-rate. This instantly invalidates all the significance-testing, so any conclusions about the significance or otherwise of the relationships goes out the window.

Second, the relationship with importance of religious belief is not monontonic, let alone linear. Any conclusions about the direction of the relationship is meaningless without taking this into account. (In what follows I am going to look at "religion is unimportant" percentages rather than "religion is important" - they mostly add to 100%, or nearly so. I do this for a particular reason, though the other figures should give similar conclusions.)

Third, some of the "religion is unimportant" figures are for countries where religious belief is compulsory or effectively so. Let's take Indonesia as an example. In Indonesia, you must choose one of a small number of religions. Lack of religious belief is not allowed. So some countries are "jammed up" against the origin, and the extremely high religious belief figures are highly suspect. Seriously, everyone in some countries thinks religion is important? Absolutely everyone? (This is one reason why for most of my analyses these days I use Wikipedia's "irreligion" figures instead, as in my previous post.)

The "jamming up against zero" issue tends to make relationships curve there, so I transformed that variable too. The usual transform with percentages is the logit transform but those few suspect "0%" figures make that impossible. I could regularize the logit transform, which usually works quite well, but in this case I just took square roots (in a previous analysis with this type of irreligion figures used here I tried a cube-root transformation, since for low percentages it spreads the figures better (it's more like a logit). With this analysis, either succeeds fairly well, but I figured the square root would be better understood.

Since pictures speak much more clearly, let's look at a picture.
I have split the unimportance of religion data into four ranges - first, high figures (in blue - there's a large gap that makes a convenient breakpoint), then medium (teal) and low (green) figues, and finally the 0% figures (red-brown) which I regard as suspect:

Click for larger image.

(I got the data from Wikipedia again myself and cleaned it a little, as there were some errors in the data that had to be fixed but which shouldn't have affected the original poster's figures.)

We see that the 0% figures are inconsistent with the trend in the low figures, and the low figures show a distinctly different pattern to the higher two groups. The upper two groups are reasonably consistent, however - we could probably use a single straight line to describe both. But on the untransformed scale for religious unimportance, there is s stronger suggestion of changing slope)

The log of murder rate is also not monotonic in IHDI though the change is less spectacular (the relationship between IHDI and "religion is unimportant" percentage is strong and close to linear over a fair portion of the range - but again, not clearly monotonic over the whole range).

All of these issues make the conclusions of the original analysis nonsense.

What can we see? the least religious countries do indeed have a lower murder rate. The question remains as to whether this effect remains after considering IHDI - but here's the final concern, though it's not a statistical issue:

Since IHDI is strongly associated with religious belief, if IHDI is substantively caused by religious belief, IHDI could be mediating the relationship between the other two variables. If religion is causative, it might be "acting through" IHDI to reduce murder rates. So we have to be cautious about concluding it isn't causative if it beccomes insignificant after adjusting for IHDI without some rather in depth analysis (and even then with heavy caveats).

I plan to do a more in depth analysis of these figures in R at some point, which will take account of the nonlinearity properly, via additive models.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Are the religious more generous?

It is common to see figures or claims that suggest that religious believers are more generous in terms of donations to charity than the non-religious. (One thing that often concerned me about such figures is that they generally include donations made to their church, which even when limited to money used for actually charitable purposes often have an ulterior motive - proselytization.)

Today I saw a post in reddit's r/atheism that pointed to this information on Red Cross donations by country:

Curious about potential drivers of the figures, I decided to try to adjust for GDP, so I got the GDP (PPP) figures from here:

So I then divided the Red Cross donations by millions of dollars of GDP to give dollars donated per million dollars GDP, a kind of "generosity" measure in a rough sense (a better measure would reflect donations per "spare" dollar after basic needs). I discovered a down-trend of log-generosity against log-GDP (richer countries donate a somewhat smaller proportion on average). Wondering about other drivers, I then took the irreligion figures from here:

(specifically, the 2007-8 Gallup figures, which uses the very broad definition implied by the question "Is religion important?" - and I used those figures because they covered the most countries) and plotted log-generosity against the irreligion percentage figures, which give this plot:

[The blue curve is a lowess smooth of the relationship, with f = 0.9]

And what do we find? In spite of the fact that this measure of generosity decreases with GDP, this measure of generosity increases with the percentage of people who see religion is unimportant. Is this the whole story? No - there's all sorts of other things that could be adjusted for.

But it certainly doesn't support the usual story - and if anything, suggests the opposite. There's at least some suggestion here that maybe it goes the other way.

Daylight observations of Venus with the naked eye

Near the end of January, I happened to be up just a while before dawn and saw Venus in a clear eastern sky, a little below a crescent moon.

I had read that it was possible to see Venus in daylight, and a friend had photographed it in the western sky near sunset, so I figured that with the moon as a guide I should be able to work out where to look for it.

I went back to bed and then tried again around 9 am (AEST), at which time it was close to directly overhead, and with the aid of binoculars and the moon as a cue I located Venus with a few minutes looking. Given the location, I could make it out very easily with the naked eye. I checked again every hour and found it almost immediately. It was still perfectly visible at 1pm, with the sun blazing overhead and Venus well into the western sky.

Myth confirmed!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

I think Rule 34 may be wrong

I couldn't find any porn on the subject of Rule 34.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

reddit's r/atheism passes 100,000 subscribers

[Clocked over at around 8:20 am (GMT)]

100,000 atheists (well, mostly atheists) in one forum makes for quite a lot of links, posting and discussion

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Human Development Index ... and unbelief

Taking the newly released UN Human Development Index (HDI) figures from here, and percentage of unbelief figures from here (specifically, the Gallup figures), I decided to take a look at how they were related:

The green curve is a loess curve, which simply smooths the relationship to indicate the basic trend.

The fact that HDI increases with Unbelief percentage does not mean that greater unbelief necessarily causes greater HDI; the causality may run the other way, or both variables may be caused by some other variable, or there may be complicated feedback between the two variables, and probably several other causal factors (which is what I would imagine is the truth).

The identified countries, clockwise from top left, are United Arab Emirates, USA, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, Norway, Sweden, Estonia, Azerbaijan, Mongolia, Vietnam, Zimbabwe, Dem.Rep.Congo.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

We have a budding mathematician

(budding ... becaue that's how mathematicians reproduce, of course.)

My daughter, who is in year three, was given the opportunity to enter the Australian Mathematics Competition (which presently has kids from over 40 countries competing in it).

Not everyone gets to enter; at her school it was only offered to the kids in the extension class.

She got a distinction, which places her in the top 15% of her division (the year 3 and 4 students that entered). Pretty good going, I thought.

Edit: Turns out she was in the top 6% among the entrants in the competition, for her year and the year above.


I believe I actually competed in an early incarnation of the same competition way back when I was a school kid, in around year 10 - probably the first year it was offered in NSW, when it was called the Wales awards. (Assuming it's the same competition; in any case I got $40 in an account from the Wales bank, now Westpac. For me at the time that was a lot of money and I used it carefully - I didn't actually finish spending it until I went to university, nearly two and a half years later. I don't know if they still offer any cash.)

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Atheist blogroll widget

I only just saw that is shutting down and that Mojoey's atheist blogroll has been affected; he has some new (temporary) code up that will link to the list of blogs while he gets something new up.

If I get time today I'd put his new code in, but in any case I am putting this here to remind me that I need to do something about it, and to help promulgate the issue (if I didn't know, presumably some other people don't either).