7 Quick Takes (8/5/10)


This week, I’ve been doing a special series of posts on math and morality.  A large number of my disagreements with my Catholic boyfriend can be boiled down to the fact that he thinks absolute morality is untenable without God.  I’ve been posting about my epistemology and experiential claims in an attempt to explain why he’s wrong.  You can check out an index of the series here.


I wish there’d been a little more attention to math at First Things this week.  Although I normally enjoy many of their posts, I was really disappointed to find web editor Joe Carter touting a scientifically bankrupt study on  prayer.  I’ve been arguing back and forth with him in the comments thread, and, at this point, I feel like a lot of the problem is general ignorance of proper study design (the study in question had no control group for a treatment that was likely to have a strong placebo effect, among other problems).

I maintain that statistics and study design should be part of civics education.  It’s very difficult to make choices about what policies you support if you can’t distinguish between opposing studies.


Over at Skepticblog, Daniel Loxton has a great essay up about being an honest skeptic.

Sometimes this feeling is uncomfortable, sometimes it is thrilling — but always it comes to me as something of a relief. Here’s why:

  1. If it doesn’t even occur to us that the claim we’re examining could just possibly be true, we’re not honest investigators;
  2. If we can’t feel the persuasiveness of a claim, we don’t really understand it.

Here’s a delightfully absurd story, courtesy of Wikipedia: Gregory Packer, 46, of Huntington, NY may be the most quoted man in news.  He’s been quoted in over 100 articles and tv news programs as a typical man on the street.  Apparently, he loves to show up to premiers and seek out reporters to share his opinions.



I did do some non-religion blogging this week.  I’ve got an essay at The Huffington Post titled “All the News that’s Fit to Leak” on how the WikiLeaks story revealed as much about our media as about Afghanistan.

In our data-glutted media, news has become eclipsed by the story behind the story. For cable news, the WikiLeaks story wasn’t just another dog-bites-man snorefest about the unending and unchanging slog through Afghanistan; it was a heist story. The promise of smuggled documents and clandestine meetings gets our adrenaline up but is no promise of quality journalism. In fact, our hunger for an inside view can lead us to privilege the viewpoints of anonymous sources rather than focus on the facts, as Clark Hoyt, the former public editor at the NYT pointed out in several columns.



My favorite singularitarian/stat geek/harry potter fanfiction author Eliezer Yudkowsky has a wonderful socratic dialogue on fairness up at Less Wrong.  Enjoy.



It’s been an exciting week on mathematical exploits here at Unequally Yoked (perhaps I should change the subtitle to “A really, really geeky atheist picks fights with her Catholic boyfriend”) and I’d like to close out the week with two cartoons that are delightful riffs on some of the topics I’ve been referencing.  When you check out this comic by Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, make sure to hover your mouse over the big red dot at the bottom for a bonus panel.  Finally, how could I hope to do better than ending on an xkcd cartoon.  (The cartoon is riffing on the flawed explanation of Nash Equilibria that was given in A Beautiful Mind).

[Seven Quick Things is a blog carnival run by Jen of Conversion Diary]

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  • Re: is absolute morality untenable without God, here are some options. 1. You have to believe in God to believe in absolute morality. 2. Absolute morality can be defended without God. 3. You can't establish absolute morality with God or without him. It's a lost cause. I tend to believe #1 (even though I don't believe in God), but I think the more interesting issue is this. Even if there is some egg-headed way to prove the existence of absolute morality, that clearly has nothing to do with the moral formation of the vast majority of the population, who have never heard the argument and wouldn't understand it if you explained it to them. Which leaves us with the practical fact that most people's moral sentiments exist and function completely independent of any defensible justification. Which leads to the practical conclusion that we might be better off not worrying about iron-clad philosophical justifications for morality and rather spend time figuring out how moral sentiments develop in the first place. Which leads to the governance problem, and justifies a Bene Gesserit approach to humanity — i.e., manipulate morality and religion to create the kind of society you want.

  • Rea

    OK, most of your post is over my head, I am apparently not as geeky as I thought. But I will whole-heartedly agree with your idea that statistics and study design should be a part of civics education. How many times have I sat here and yelled at a news article, or a blogger, or a message poster "Correlation is not causation!" or the like. I am forever grateful that although I hated every minute of it, statistics was a required course for my accounting degree.