Two more thoughts on ‘Miracles’

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A couple more stray thoughts in response to reading Tim Stafford’s Miracles for the Patheos Book Club.

1. The miraculous selection of Matthias

Since interest in the miraculous seems bound up with concern for evidence of direct divine intervention, I wonder why Acts 1:12-26 is usually not included as part of the discussion of biblical miracles. This is the story of Matthias’ selection as a disciple following the unpleasant departure of Judas.

Here’s the key part:

So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.

Casting lots basically amounts to flipping a coin. Heads it’s Matthias. Tails it’s Justus. Heads it is and Matthias becomes one of “the twelve.”

On the one hand, this hardly seems “miraculous” at all. Flip a coin and it’ll either come up heads or tails and either way it doesn’t seem extraordinary or awe-inspiring. “The lot fell on Matthias” isn’t a wonder, but the disciples clearly believed it was a sign. They believed the lot falling to Matthias was an act of divine intervention.

So should we include this in our lists of biblical “miracles”? Or should we have a separate category for this kind of non-wondrous sign?

I think the author of Acts would answer those questions by saying something like what Samuel L. Jackson said in Pulp Fiction: “Whether or not what we experienced was an According to Hoyle miracle is insignificant. What is significant is that I felt the touch of God. God got involved.”

2. Scientists love a good mystery.

In much Christian writing about miracles, there’s a presumption that scientists are reflexively hostile to the extraordinary and the unexplained. In general, scientists will view extraordinary claims with extreme suspicion unless those claims are supported by extraordinary evidence. But confronted with extraordinary evidence, scientists generally don’t respond with hostility — they get excited.

That excitement expresses itself as a vigorous skepticism as the new evidence is put to the test. Such skepticism isn’t due to hostility, it’s just how science works.

Ethan Siegel provides a real-world example — a personal testimony — of what it means for a scientist to encounter startling, extraordinary new evidence. Such an encounter, he says, is like walking outside one morning to discover fresh dinosaur tracks:

How do you make sense of this? I mean, it seems that there are two major possibilities. Either these footprints were left by a creature that is going to cause you to drastically change your worldview, or something — perhaps a roguish person, a coincidence of unlikely natural events, or a poorly understood phenomenon — is conspiring to make the land appear like it’s inhabited by a creature that, according to your present understanding, doesn’t and shouldn’t exist.

But which one is it? Has your conception of nature just been turned on its head, and are you going to have your foundations rattled, or is something deceiving you? In other words, you might find yourself asking the following question: Is what you’re seeing indicative of a fantastic, paradigm-shifting theory, or is there another, more mundane cause for the effect you observe?

… If you’re anything like me, your intuition in this situation will tell you that you need lots of hard, convincing evidence before you’re ready to change your worldview so drastically.

Coming into that situation, it’s probably fair to say that you didn’t expect you’d be believing in the highly improbable, but now you’ve got a mystery to solve.

The game is afoot! The mystery Siegel is discussing in that post involves dark energy — something that Siegel himself once rejected as “highly improbable.”

But it took three to four years of studying it intensely, becoming some type of expert in it (as much as one can be), and writing papers right on the cutting edge of the science to convince me. It’s the only scientific conclusion I’ve had in my life where I’ve had to reject it and take up the antithesis of my original position, based on new observations.

And now, today, I defend dark energy, because I understand why we need it. So don’t believe that dinosaurs exist just because you’ve found footprints. But when you’ve exhausted all other alternatives, and you’ve found lots more evidence for them, don’t cling too dearly to your old beliefs in spite of the new evidence.

Ethan Siegel was far more rigorously skeptical of the existence of dark energy than Tim Stafford is of the existence of miracles. That’s why Siegel’s case for dark energy is powerfully persuasive and it’s why Stafford’s case for miracles isn’t.

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  • fraser

    Scientists get excited about some unexplained and baffling things. Others they’re more likely to class as unscientific.
    Consider the argument that if a psi-phenomenon/miracle can be faked, then the experiment doesn’t count. Perfectly reasonable, but just by starting from that standard it implies that psi (or miracles, or whatever) isn’t to be treated as equal to other scientific studies. Whereas the fact that many experiments in many other fields have been turned out to be faked or fudged in some fashion doesn’t trigger the same “well, you could have made this shit up so it doesn’t pass the smell test” response. String theorists still doesn’t have a conclusive way to prove their theory works (the book Trouble With Physics by a “recovering” string theorist goes into this) but it’s taken as plausible science. Evo-psych speculations about what prehistoric man did on the savannah of Africa is given a level of scientific seriousness that (IMHO) it doesn’t warrant.

  • Tonio

    I’ve never heard of mainstream science regarding evo-psych with any seriousness. From my limited reading, most scientists describe the speculations as baseless because of assumptions about what is “natural,” and many also point out the patriarchal agenda behind those speculations. In my case, I’ve never encountered an evo-psych argument that didn’t amount to “barefoot and pregnant.”

  • AnonymousSam

    I have! I’ve encountered a few that were “and that’s why you can’t blame me for sowing wild oats.”

  • Tonio

     But that’s merely the flip side of “barefoot and pregnant.” These guys are more or less arguing that the sexes evolved for certain roles. Of course, it couldn’t be more than a coincidence that the definitions they use for the roles result in men having all the power and privilege and none of the accountability, no siree.

  • AnonymousSam

    Evolutionary psych does have a few non-sexist applications, though they still tend toward promoting gender standards. Stuff like how people interact in groups of the same sex. But yeah, it’s not my favorite branch of psychology by a long shot. :p

  • Isabel C.

    That’s the thing, and that’s where I end up arguing with a lot of people: I think there *are* many people who are wired toward nonmonogamy in some form*, and that society should be more understanding of that, but the standard evopsych model where men sleep around and women don’t, men fuck and women “make love”**, men pursue and women wait, etc, is total bullshit.

    There’s a lot of “get off ‘my side’, dammit” there. *Whether that’s serial monogamy, polyamory, “while not looking outside my relationship, I spend way more time watching men’s water polo than the sport would justify,” or whatever.**Ew.

  • Invisible Neutrino

    Yeah. I think the cultural ideal of monogamy only ignores that some people just don’t find they handle single-person exclusivity well, and prefer more polyamorous type relationships. The only open question is how soon society comes to grips with the concepts and tries to accommodate them rather than simply trying to ignore the issue.

  • Tonio

     The thing is that they’re not on your side. The evo-psych/gender-essentialist crowd aren’t arguing for nonmongamy as an individual option for everyone.

    We don’t have any way of knowing which gender-specific behaviors (assuming there are such behaviors)  are innate from genetics or hormones and which are socialized. We would need a control group of people who grew up without any societal influences. 

  • JonathanPelikan

    So basically we need fish without water.

  • Tonio

     Valid point. The real issue is that societies shouldn’t impose gender-specific norms for their own sake, as in “You must do X because you’re a man/woman.” In principle this type of role policing does not serve any individual or common good.

  • Isabel C.

    Right, or even “men are X, women are Y”.  A lot of gender-role-prescriptivism tries to get in under the wire by passing itself off as simple description, when, as the song says, it ain’t necessarily so.  And it’s fairly hurtful to anyone who doesn’t fit that “description”. *

    I also agree that they’re not on my side. But they like to claim otherwise.  I’ve found, as I’ve gotten older, that sides are actually a lot smaller than one might think.  *I’m not big on physical harm in retaliation for speech, but if I ever meet John Gray (the Men Are From Mars author) I’m going to be hard pressed not to pour an icy beverage into his lap.  

  • Parhelion

     To be fair, I’ve never heard or read a scientist claim “if a psi-phenomenon/miracle can be faked, then the experiment doesn’t count.”  I have read about quite a few cases of “this particular psi-phenomenon/miracle was faked and the experiment didn’t count.”

    Probably more to the point, I’ve also run across lots of examples of “if the experiment is not properly designed and conducted,  this examination of a supposed psi-phenomenon/miracle can’t be counted as good science,” but that’s a standard applied to more than psi-phenomena and miracles.  Just for starters, I draw your attention to the current arguments about the field test results for the DMV-5 in psychology or the kerfuffle over at CERN about the neutrino which could supposedly go faster than light but was actually a hardware error.

  • Parhelion

     DSM-V, dang it.  Talk about lacking proper design…*g*

  • Invisible Neutrino

    I’ve read Lee Smolin’s book as well; it’s fair to say he’s more of the loop quantum gravity camp in the first place :P

    But in all seriousness, things like dark matter and dark energy may invite skepticism at first (as they deservedly did) but as it became clearer and clearer that something is supplying the “missing mass” in galactic mass profiles, as well as an an “acceleration” in the Universe’s expansion, well, you have to accept the data.

    Can’t ignore the data.

  • Jim Roberts

    That’s the big thing, too.  Any well-designed study that’s revolved around psychic phenomena has found nothing or next to nothing. There is no data to ignore.

  • fraser

    Wow, first!

  • Tonio

    “What is significant is that I felt the touch of God.” That wouldn’t be significant to an observer or investigator seeking to verify the incident, since no one can see into another person’s head. This principle would be irrelevant if we’re talking about what the event means to a Jules or to an Apostle. But very relevant if we’re talking about a Stafford who is making an argument for why everyone should accept the event as the work of a god.

  • Erp

    I should point out that many experiments (with or without weaknesses that allow faking) on psi phenomenon come up blank.  However the ones that don’t come up blank have the weaknesses.   

    Both evo-psych and string theory are still not fully accepted science.

  • Ross Thompson

     String theory is, strictly speaking, a model of the universe, not a scientific theory. The maths comes out right, and you can explain things that happen, but it doesn’t make any novel predictions that other models don’t. Or at least, not that we’ll be able to test any time soon.

    As a model, it’s useful, but it needs to explain new stuff before we can really call it “science”.

  • cjmr

    I think I got into more arguments with my theoretical particle physicist ex- about “Is theoretical particle physics a ‘faith-based’ science?” than anything else.   That was 25 years ago, when it still mostly WAS. (IMO)

  • Invisible Neutrino

    Evo psych is all too often used by scientists and non-scientists to support some absolutely absurd gender essentialist ideas about male and female behavior, as well as supporting some ridiculously transparently sexist and male gazey behavior around women. (like “we can’t help but stare at boobs! They provided a survival advantage because blah blah blah blah.” – as opposed to just admitting that sexual dimorphism and cultural factors intersect to sexualize the female breast in Western societies.)

  • Becka Sutton

    You don’t want to get me started on Parapsychology – it’s one thing where both the skeptics and the believers aggravate the hell out of me. If you have an assumption as the basis of your hypothesis (or null hypothesis if you’re a skeptic) and don’t even realise you’re assuming something then you’re going to end up with problems and I think they share several.

  • Ross Thompson

    The core concept of evo psych is a good one; our brains did evolve in a specific environment, and haven’t hanged much since then. The problem is, that we really have very little idea what big chunks of that environment were like; the landscape and food animals we’ve gotten pretty well nailed down, but the social landscape is unknown, and the Ko! tribesmen are definitionally as far removed from it as Manhattan urbanites are, so we don’t have any good models.

    Once we can get some good data, there’s some real science to be done there. But in the absence of that data, it’s as much science as saying “Well, I think 50 angels could dance on the head of a pin!”

  • connorboone

    Evo psych isn’t science.

    Seriously, it fails the basic concepts of science.

    In science, you don’t come up with a conclusion first and then look for supporting evidence.    In evo-psych, that is explicitly what they do.

  • Ross Thompson


    In science, you don’t come up with a conclusion first and then look for
    supporting evidence.    In evo-psych, that is explicitly what they do.

    Agreed. It sounds like you’re disagreeing with me though, so I can only assume I  didn’t make my point sufficiently understandable. Let me try again:

    Evo Psych is not currently science, because there’s no data to work from; at the most charitable, it’s philosophy. Having said that, the basic conceit is correct: our psychology is shaped by evolutionary pressures; and when we figure out what those pressures are, we’ll be able to apply that data to do real science, rather than making up just-so stories.

  • AnonymousSam

    The concept has merit, but the typical methods of examining it tend to revolve around “Animals do X–” (conveniently, only certain animals do X and X is something which benefits males) “–and men do X, so clearly men are ‘supposed’ to do X, evolutionarily speaking.”

    Ignoring the misuse of this logic to promote patriarchal privilege and the logical gaps wherein not all animals (even within the same species) behave the same way, it really has no purpose outside of historical context. As intelligent beings capable of consciously altering our behavioral patterns, what our ancestors did in no way reflects on what we should or should not do. It’s the price of tea in Qin Dynasty China.

    Applying the exact same logic to contexts which are less obscured by sexist dominion, since we can see that animals frequently have territorial disputes which result in each others’ deaths, and we know that our ancestors frequently had territorial disputes which result in each others’ deaths, does that mean humankind is hard-wired to kill each other and steal their possessions? Um. That would be the id speaking in some cases, yes, but it has exactly zero bearing on what we should be doing if anyone actually cares about it.

  • Jessica_R

    And that second example is why I don’t truck with the notion that atheism or skepticism or even realism makes the world a smaller cramped place. And that “having a sense of wonder” means buying any gullible claim that comes down the pike. Reading that testimony a sense of wonder drips off every word. He came across something inexplicable, he didn’t reject it out of hand, he didn’t swallow it wholesale, he chased after it on a grand adventure. Asking questions is never the wrong path to take, it can only make the universe get bigger. 

  • MaryKaye

    I’m currently re-reading Feynmann’s _QED:  the strange theory of light and matter_ (one day I may understand it past chapter 1).  One thing I love about this book is that you have a sense of the Universe itself as having a personality–rather a mocking one, as it turns out.  “Okay, you’re going to put a detector on the slit so that you know which way the photon went?  You think you’re so smart, don’t you?  Well, it doesn’t work–the phenomenon you’re watching *goes away* when you add the detector.  Unless the detector’s imperfect–then it only partly goes away.”

    This experiment gives me very much the same feeling I have had in my one excursion into Kabbalistic ritual.  I am a total amateur at both physics and Kabbalah, but I persist because of glimpses into the intrinsic coolness of the Universe.  As Jessica_R said, it makes the universe get bigger.

  • Invisible Neutrino

    Quantum mechanics is maddeningly bizarre like that.

    But it’s also pretty dang cool.

    The very same issues of quantum mechanics that have bedevilled trying to box it into a classical-thinking* paradigm have, when viewed another way, led to the very intriguing notion that there may be ways to test for the existence of universes not our own, as well as resolving the unsettling question of “Why was there nothing before there was something?” (referring to the Big Bang)


    * “Classical” physics, that is – i.e. pre-1920s physics that assumed that energy was not discrete and that matter did not have energy-like properties.

  • Worthless Beast

    I seem to remember reading somewhere, some claim from people trying to prove psychic powers that “they don’t work unless everyone in the room is a believer.” – My immediate thought was “How, then, do you expect people to take them as science?!!”  Psi powers my very well be totally real, but if the rules of your magic state that they cannot be investigated by skeptics because their very skepticism hinders the magic, then it’s never going to be accepted as science, nor particularly respected here in our science-world.
    It may be sort of the same thing with miracles.  On the last topic, I vaguely recall seeing some responses along the lines of “why isn’t everyone everywhere healed instantly of everything if miracles are real?” – or I’ve seen them *somewhere* if not on that thread/this board.  I seem to recall some parts of the Bible where Jesus (and other figures?) could not heal people because of their “unbelief.”  I might be misremembering, but I seem to recall something in the Bible along those lines.  If miracles are a matter of belief, then, no they cannot be taken as science, and in a science-based social world, people who believe in them just have to accept that they will not be accepted with the same widespread validity and surety as skeptically-investigated, peer-reviewed science.
    It seems to me that everyone I’ve met who believes they’ve received a miracle has been met with “sciencey” or skeptical language from others to explain it away, so miracles might be a very subjective thing by nature, like Art and the reason why I’m more inclined to paint roadkill than landscapes.  Someone’s “healing” is another’s “spontaneous remission.”  The set of suspiciously convenient coincidences that kept me only suffering minor injuries when I fell down a flight of stairs into a concrete floor instead of cracking my head open and dying like I “should” have – maybe miracle, maybe mundane – a set of odd coincidences.  (Of course, in my household, we consider my having the accident in the first place a part of a curse our cat gave me, but that’s just a joke).   I once had a dream involving my finding “proof of God” that no one believed because they were unable to experience the thing that I had (in the dream).  Of course, I woke up lacking the supernatural ability I had in the dream, so go fig, but I learned something applicable both to life and my writing (since I like writing magic worlds or combination magic/science worlds) – “proof for one is not proof for another. Evidence for one is not sufficient evidence for another.”  And if having a subjective experience makes one “wholly stupid” in another’s eyes and you know you’re smart, well, that’s their problem and their prejudice but don’t try to prove your “miracle” to them. You’ll just get laughed at more.    

  • Dave


    If miracles are a matter of belief, then, no they cannot be taken as science

    So, what do you want to say about the placebo effect?

    I mean, that’s a case of something which (it is claimed) only affects people who believe it will affect them, and where the lack of belief eliminates the effect. But it’s not especially difficult to study. It just means we have to design our studies with an appreciation for the fact that the psychological state of the person taking the placebo is a relevant variable that must be controlled, just like we would control room temperature if we thought that was relevant.

    If I want to explore the hypothesis that George is a faith healer, and that his faith healing powers only work if nobody in the room is a skeptic, there are dozens of ways I can explore that such that the results of my study could be considered valid by the “science-based social world.”

    Which is not to say that I’m obligated to do such a study.  I believe my husband loves me, but I haven’t done any double-blind tests to confirm this, and I’m unlikely to. But, as you say, I’m not doing science in that case. And, sure, if a skeptic wants to doubt that proposition, that’s their right. (Though it’s impolite of them to say so.)

  • AnonymousSam

    Problem with this logic — you’re collating internal and external consequences. Placebo effects are when medical science and psychology cross paths (essentially functioning in the exact opposite manner as psychosomaticism). Miracles are the explicit defiance of physics. If placebos and miracles had anything in common with each other, I should be able to bake up a sugar pill which grants believers the power to walk on water. :p

  • Dave

    My point is that the techniques of science work perfectly well to study phenomena that depend on people not being skeptical.

    If psychic phenomena can’t be replicated by experiment, the reason is not because they depend on no skeptics being present.

  • Ross Thompson


    My point is that the techniques of science work perfectly well to study phenomena that depend on people not being skeptical.

    In the case of placebos, it allows for the patients being unskeptical (though this really doesn’t affect the results very much), but it demands a high degree of skepticism from the experimenters. And, of course, neither group should know if they’re getting the placebo or not.

  • Dave

    In the case of placebos, it allows for the patients being unskeptical
    (though this really doesn’t affect the results very much), but it
    demands a high degree of skepticism from the experimenters.

    Can you clarify how much skepticism it demands from the experimenters?  Off-hand, I would not discard the results of an experiment just because the experimenter really expected to find a placebo effect that they in fact found.

  • Ross Thompson

    Can you clarify how much skepticism it demands from the experimenters?  Off-hand, I would not discard the results of an experiment just because the experimenter really expected to find a placebo effect that they in
    fact found.

    “Finding a placebo effect” basically means “not finding an effect”. The placebo is used as a baseline to measure the effect of a real treatment, and the researchers need to be skeptical of the of any difference between the groups.

    Example: There is a passel of acupuncture studies that use three groups: (A) actual acupuncture, performed by an actual acupuncturist (treatment group); (B) Being randomly poked with toothpicks (placebo group); and (C) sitting in an empty room (placebo group). The patient obviously knows whether or not he’s in group C, and unless it’s exceptionally well designed, they’ll know exactly which group they’re in – it’s really difficult to blind sham acupuncture. The acupuncturist obviously knows which group the patient is in, and (in most cases) the statistician assembling the data has a reasonable idea too (and may even be the same person).

    The outcome of such experiments is normally that groups A and B report an improvement of +25 arbitrary units, which group C reports an improvement of +5 arbitrary units. The study’s headline will be “Acupuncture works, and sham acupuncture also works”, because both outperformed “the” placebo. The skeptical interpretation is that nothing that makes acupuncture acupuncture (piercing the skin, specific positions) matters at all, but that the improvement people report comes from having someone take an interest in them, getting them to relax and giving them something resembling a massage, plus their expectation that treatment leads to improvement (possibly mixed with wanting to be helpful and report more improvement than they actually feel).

    Sekpticism is required to identify the placebo effect, rather than attribute it to an active treatment.

  • Dave

     Ah, I understand what you meant now. Thanks for the clarification.

  • AnonymousSam

    Jesus also preached that even people with the smallest, most miniscule amount of faith could work miracles, so yeah… skepticism shouldn’t be hindering faith healers from working their mojo on demand.

    I once made an XKCD-style graph as a joke to demonstrate that the most conclusive evidence would be generated by a miracle, the less likely it is to happen. Cancer goes into remission all the time, but amputees never spontaneously regenerate whole limbs.

    Usually the argument I get in response to this is “God doesn’t want to prove his existence, or else faith would be worthless!”, to which I say, “Explain the Bible’s hundreds of instances when God appears directly to people or works powers upon them (often to their destruction). Explain Jesus working miracles in front of hundreds of skeptics. These weren’t conclusive proof designed to sway people’s belief in him?”

  • Anon Collie

    Getting a Bachelor of Arts in Theology from a Jesuit university left me both “feeling the touch of God” and getting excited, scientifically when a professor or classmate would propose a previously unrevealed to me point of view on scripture, ethics, etc. and it would blow my mind.

    I’d get excited because the theological world just got that much more deep. My classmates and I would often talk long hours in the coffee shops about what that really meant, both it’s implications in the ancient world and the modern and we would have spirited but respectful debates.

    And then I got to the real world.

    I started teaching theology in a Catholic High School in Milwaukee, and despite my Jesuit High School upbringing, the whole idea of that deeper theology wasn’t welcome. Spirited but respectful debates went to the sidelines in favor of strict orthodoxy, and students asking honest questions about the very core of theological discourse were to be placated or ignored. Challenging students to live the dictates of Christian moral teaching wasn’t allowed; merely teaching Church position was to be sufficient. Theology was a throwaway subject; to be treated as only half as difficult as other classes, if that.

    These students were hungry for a better experience than I was told to offer, I could see that. They wanted real reasoning for faith, not “just shut up and believe” as it was being presented with sappy songs in the Life Teen vien of ‘yay god yay” on retreats. They wanted to be excited; to feel the touch of God from an adult faith – an intellectual assent to belief, instead of a blind child-like one.

    In short, my boss wanted them to touch God and get excited about it when my 9th graders were doing coloring book pages. (And I’m not making that up).

    Suffice to say, after being at odds with my ego-infused department chair, who according to his Fransiscan-style college education thought nothing of Jesuit-style in me, for a mere semester, I was dismissed two days before Xmas break with a cold, “You’re not working out. Pack up and go home to St. Louis.”

    I’ve lost faith in a lot of Catholic Church since then.

  • Joshua

    My classmates and I would often talk long hours in the coffee shops about what that really meant, both it’s implications in the ancient world and the modern and we would have spirited but respectful debates.
    And then I got to the real world.

    I’ve said this before, but I think there is a personality trait that doesn’t correlate with intelligence or with faith or lack of it. The ability to do theology. “Theology” meaning critically self-examining your own belief system, whatever that is. OK that’s not the normal meaning of the word, but it’s in the study of Christian theology that I encountered it.

    Some people like figuring out their faith, and working out underlying assumptions, looking for conflicts or incoherency and thinking about what to do. Many people really, really don’t. It seems to be deeply painful. Any talk about beliefs is primarily about bolstering their own opinions.

    Unfortunately, both types can be motivated to teach their religion, for very different reasons.

  • MaryKaye

    Two huge things go wrong with a lot of research on gender.  They are flaws of interpretation more than of experiment, but they’re *huge*.

    One is that it’s well-nigh impossible to separate nature and nurture, but results tend to be described in terms that suggest nature:  men are like this, women are like that.  Often it would be much more honest (and the original researchers do it) to say “American male college students in 2012 are like this, and American female college students in 2012 are like that.”  Or even more narrow–I was a lab rat as an undergrad, and a lot of those studies were “University of Washington male and female freshmen who are taking Psych 101 are like that….”  That is a wildly over-specific sample there.  Does it predict what male and female !Kung are like?  Who knows, but that’s not the way I would bet.

    But the much bigger and less well publicized problem is that people tend to say “Men have trait M” when all we have is “M is statistically more frequent among men.”  And then a significant fraction of listeners go further into “Men *ought to* have trait M.”

    We have a lot of situations where men are a bell curve, and women are a bell curve, and the mean of the two curves is slightly displaced.  Height is a clear-cut example.  On average men are taller than women.  But I am taller than my husband, and that’s quite common, because the spread of the curve is a whole lot bigger than the difference in means.  I am not an abnormal female; he is not an abnormal male; it’s just statistical variance, probably mostly genetic in our particular cases, but also environmental (he is Japanese-American and *much* taller than his forebears, who ate a different diet).

    I think that by and large actual researchers know this, though not always (I recall one public talk at Berkeley where the speaker clearly did not).  But the people who transmit their findings to the public at large generally don’t, and the public generally doesn’t, and that is a huge problem.

    (I also wish statisticians had not picked “significant” as the jargon word for “not likely to be due to chance.”  Because in a big sample an effect can be wildly significant (statistical sense) and totally insignificant (standard sense).  Say a drug has a totally trivial effect, but the study is *really big* and the result is significant:  that means we know almost for sure that it has that effect, but the effect is still totally trivial and patients should not get excited.)

  • Ross

    I read a fun article about evolutionary psych a few mnths back. It was written in the style of an advice column. The questions were things like “I recently married a woman who had children from a previous marriage. I feel a strong urge to kill and eat them. Is this normal?” or “I don’t get out much, so to find mates, I’ve takento kidnapping women and holding them against their will in my basement. Is that okay?” followed wit han evolutionary psych explanation for his behavior explaining that, yes, it’s totally normal.

    The punch-line was that the last question was “I am attracted to older women. Is that normal?”, to which the response was that there is no possible reason someone would be sexually attracted to a mate who could not bear children, therefore he was obviously a sick pervert.

  • Trixie_Belden

    That article sounds like a hoot –  do you happen to know if it is available online?

  • Ross

    Aha. Googling a phrase I recalled from it gave me a link: Dear Jesse, I want to eat my stepchildren. Is this normal?

  • Trixie_Belden

    Thanks so much!  It is a hoot!

  • Wednesday

    I took a class on Ev Psych in college, and I was rather horrified to discover that a lot of people publishing ev psych papers did not understand evolution. There were several papers we read that argued “X trait cannot be an adaptation because right now in modern society it is not helpful” or “(thing that cell biologists do that is pretty reliable and rigorous) is totally unreliable and unrigorous so I can ignore any refutation of my claims by biologists”.

    At the time of the course, my understanding was that the field did did have some good-faith (ie, not sexist and gender-essentialist bullshit) questions and hypotheses and people trying to find ways to test them — eg, why do we like fatty foods and refined sugar even though it’s bad for us? Why do we like alcohol? Was language the result of natural selection (survival benefit), sexual selection (reproductive benefit), or a side-effect of another adaptation? To what extent are we a naturally (vs culturally) monogamous species? To what extent were males involved in childrearing among our ancestors</em? There were of course a lot of Just-so stories that didn't hold up under casual scrutiny or were stated as fact without any verification, but they weren't the only things that people publishing in the field were saying.

    Sadly, it seems like the good-faith beginnings have been drowned out by people who either assert verifiable falsehoods (eg, "Ripe edible berries are pink"), don't bother to do a basic check on whether there's existing cultural variation (eg, "pink is for girls"), or deliberately manipulate other people's data (that one awful "study" that claimed black women were objectively less attractive than white women.)

  • Wednesday

    Argh, the end of my comment got lost somehow (probably a bad HTML tag),

    Sadly, it seems to me that ev psych has been completely taken over by Just-So Stories that conveniently justify misogynistic bullshit, most of which rely on blatantly false assertions (ripe berries are pink), failure to do even the most basic cross-cultural investigation to see if something is truly universal (pink is for girls), or blatant manipulation of someone else’s data (a study that “proved” black women were less attractive than white women.)

  • Tired Philanthropist

    “Scientists love a good mystery.”
    I think that that’s understating it—something that I thought about reading yesterday’s post.

    Really, if done well, science is _all about_ mysteries/miracles. At least in the more social-like sciences.

    Here is how a publishable experimental paper works (ideally): You try, as hard as you can, to stack your cards against your hypothesis (or, as the lingo goes, in favor of your null-hypothesis). You try, as hard as you can, to show that what your hypothesis predicts (=what your intuition and theoretical background make you believe) is just a result of chance. And if you fail, that is taken as evidence, the best, the only evidence that matters, that your hypothesis is actually right.

    Scientists don’t just love `miracles’. They are looking for them every waking minute.

    And they better be. Despite what sometimes is believed about science, an experiment that just confirms what everyone believed anyways is generally believed as quite worthless.