Thoughts on the Ideological Turing Test

The ideological Turing test that was running at Unequally Yoked has concluded, and if you’re like me, you couldn’t wait to find out how we did. Well, the results are in: here’s the answer key (some real surprises there!), and here’s how the voting shook out for the atheist round and for the Christian round. Read those first, and then come back for my thoughts on the outcome.

First of all, I want to thank Leah for running this contest, and I especially want to commend her Christian participants. They did an outstanding job of posing as atheists, much better than I was expecting, and one or two of them had me completely fooled. I highly doubt that a random sample of Christians off the street would have done anywhere near as well. Not counting the one answer that I knew was mine, I got better than 50% right, but not much better – certainly not enough that I can plausibly claim my score wasn’t just due to chance. I’m working on a followup post where I’ll list how I voted on each entry and explain what my reasoning was.

But here’s what I found most astonishing: Three Christians got higher atheist scores (i.e., were judged more likely to be atheists) than any of the real atheists! Conversely, if you look at the five people with the lowest atheist scores, two of them actually were atheists.

I’ve got to conclude that there’s something else going on here, something I don’t fully understand. If the Christians did an absolutely flawless job at passing themselves off as atheists, then we should have expected equal scores between the real and the fake atheists, because they would have been indistinguishable. Instead, it seems as if some of the Christians were judged to be “even more atheist” than some of the real atheists. (I’m happy, at least, to see that out of all the real atheists, I got the second highest atheist score, behind only Leah. She’s good at this!)

The only explanation I can think of is that the Christian winners managed to distill all the diverse atheist viewpoints they’ve heard into a statistical composite – an “idealized” atheist viewpoint that would strike anyone who heard it as typical of an atheist. We real atheists, meanwhile, each have our own quirks and idiosyncrasies which make us diverge from that idealized average.

Something else I wanted to point out is that far more atheists than Christians participated in this contest. 1,133 total atheists voted, while only 123 total Christians did. I can’t help but think this is a clue to why the results came out the way they did. It’s plausible that there’s a self-selection effect at work: atheists, in general, tend to be more interested in learning about different belief systems than Christians are, but that also means that there’s more of a spread of ability among us. By contrast, fewer Christians make the effort to learn about atheism, but those who do are highly motivated, and thus likely to do better in a contest like this one. Of course, I welcome hearing alternative hypotheses.

As far as the Christian round goes, I’ve got to be just a bit smug: I got the fourth-highest Christian score, higher than 6 of the 8 real Christians. Out of all the atheists, I was the second most-convincing Christian. (Leah beat me again. Didn’t I tell you she was good at this? Now you know why she’s on my blogroll.)

Still, when all the numbers are taken into consideration, I think the Christians showed us up this time, and I give them full credit for that. Because of unusual cases like clergy who’ve lost their faith but are still in the pulpit, we know that atheists can successfully imitate believers, sometimes for months or years on end. But in this competition, we didn’t do as well. I don’t think it’s necessary to be able to convincingly imitate an alternate viewpoint to be justified in rejecting it, but even so, I expected our side to do better than it did. There are clearly some atheists out there who need to hit the books!

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