More Randomness

I’ll be back to normal posts soon, but just wanted to clear a slight backlog:

– Can someone please explain why contestants on “Deal or No Deal” actually think that case #[whatever] is the lucky one? Because they know it’s right? Because a voice is telling them to do it? Because they feel that it’s the lucky case? Someone tell me there’s not a connection to religion there. And does anyone else also feel *really* good when the contestant picks that case and ends up losing the big money?

– A new article on the “Battle of the New Atheism” appeared on It’s a decent article– anything to get the ideas out there, right? Pharyngula has an interesting take on it.

This American Life is now podcasting! Best. Radio. Show. Ever. And as I mentioned before, Julia Sweeney’s Letting Go of God was excerpted on the show before (their most requested episode ever).

– What do non-religious people have to celebrate this holiday season? What do we hope for in the future? is hosting a card and ornament design contest for secularists of all ages as a way to “positively answer these questions and more with artistic expression.” There are different age categories (11 and under, 12-17, 18 and older) and all media (painting, printmaking, collage, digital art, photography, etc.) is accepted. Each prize winner will receive an ornament and set of cards with their image, as well as some HumanLight candy! Entries should be sent as a high resolution (at least 300 dpi) JPEG to In the body of the email, include your name, age, what country and state (if it applies) you are from, and what method you used to create the image.

[tags]Deal or No Deal, Wired, Battle of the New Atheism, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Pharyngula, This American Life, Letting Go of God, Julia Sweeney, HumanLight, contest[/tags]

  • Karen

    I really enjoyed the Wired article, thanks for pointing it out. Lots and lots of sophisticated thinking there, and striking pictures too. It touched on some of the same issues I’ve been thinking about lately, including what “kind” of atheist I want to be.

    Not surprising that Pharyngula would have a very negative take on it, though I see there’s a good bit of debate in his comments section. I’m interested in what your reaction to the article is, Hemant. How does a “friendly” atheist fit (or not fit) into the Dawkins-Harris-Dennett trifecta?

  • Roy Gathercoal

    I will take a shot about answering your question re: the Deal thing.

    First, I have to admit some ignorance: I gave up on television quite some time ago. I just couldn’t point to any way in which I was a better man for having spent so much time in front of it. I have never regretted that move.

    Not that I don’t waste time, but the ways in which I waste time now doesn’t leave me nearly so cynical about the intelligence, morality and general worthiness of “most people.” I now believe that most people are not that crazy, but that the media creators have found that people love to watch people dumber than they are. I think of this in terms of the scene from the Rodney Dangerfield back to school movie where he is riding in his limo and watching new ads for his men’s clothing store. He asks his driver/confidante “do I look fat in these ads?” then announces “fire the actors, hire fatter men.”

    So directly in answer to your question, there is almost nothing about that sort of situation that relates to God, at least to the relationship of which I am familiar. (I can only speak from my own experience, sorry. . .)

    The psychological trait probably closest related to this on-air delusion is the placebo effect. Why is it that the placebo effect is sometimes even larger than the control group effect? This is a question that we (humanity) fear the answer to. . . much easier to flirt with it via television-proxy.

    The filming of those shows is carefully staged, sometimes with difficult scenes re-shot. They are almost always “tightened up” by taking out much of the temperature-raising hype that infects the audience. (and let me assure you that a somewhat introverted and quiet thinking person will *never* be a contestant!)

    The lighting, equipment, use of professional actors in key roles, and even the room temperature is regulated to achieve the desired effect.

    But think about the decision this person is being asked to make! There, on-the-spot, with a big old camera lens in front of them, and sound booms hanging down just off-camera, and with masses of people (literally) running around to make the scene work, these contestants are being asked to make life-changing decisions purposively with inadequate information, and with the clock ticking down.

    In that situation, most everyone is going to grasp for some account that will allow themselves to say “I’m not really just rolling the dice and leaving it up to chance. . .”

    You could also see a similar situation among professional baseball players. These (often) mature, intelligent adults will wear dirty underwear, chew a particular brand of tobacco, go through a specific ritual or adopt some other seemingly random behavior explicitly so that they can feel a sense of empowerment.

    Baseball (and golf) most often bring out this reaction precisely because of the pressure of being there, waiting for the critical moment, and not at all understanding why your technique “works” one time and not the next.

    (by the way, you’ll seldom if ever see a manager or coach step on the baseline to or from the dugout–it’s considered very bad luck. If for no other reason, they don’t want to get blamed by the players for a lost game)

    This isn’t limited to humans. Pigeons can be “taught” to do all sorts of goofy things by simply giving them random rewards. Some will twirl around, bob their head, lift one foot or the other. . .anything they can think of (do pigeons really “think”?) to make that food show up in the dish.

    The training methods used to get them to engage in certain behaviors (critical to the study of learning and memory) work whether there is an intended pattern or not. That is, they will tend to repeat behaviors that get them rewards (or avoid punishments) in a trial-and-error process. If there *is no* pattern, they will still “find one” and make it as elaborate as necessary in order to “make” the food appear.

    I would agree that some “salvation” services utilize similar techniques to manipulate the audience. The whole “tent meeting” experience owes much of its “power” to a careful manipulation of the audience–just as a modern professional basketball game does today. (and I always thought the cheerleaders were secretly sending messages to the players. . .)

    Yet to say that the orchestrated “make a deal” set-up in the game show is “religion” is a categorization error. It would be no more (or less) accurate than saying “pigeons are a higher life form” because they “pray” by invoking ritualistic “dances.”

    The two (game shows and church services) are no doubt related, but not in any sort of manner that would have any sort of explanatory force. It would also not be accurate to say that the behavior of game show contestants is like that of atheists, in that they do not attribute what ultimately happens to anything but the actions of entirely mortal humans (they typically believe that people put the things in the box, run the cameras, pay for the prizes, etc.)