Atheist Round Winners [Turing 2013]

You may want to keep this year’s answer key and list of entries in the atheist round handy while you read the results.

Atheists earned their reputations as skeptics in this round, as their scores were much lower than the Christians gave in their round.  By the crudest metric — percent of entries with more than a 50% pass (Very Likely Atheist + Likely Atheist) — only six entries out of eleven hit the mark among the atheists.  For the Christians, only three entries didn’t hit this benchmark.  And, after all, you’d expect a good number of entries to read as what they’re written as.

So the atheists were more choosy, but whom did they choose?

The entrant with the highest percentage of atheists rating him ‘Very Likely Atheist’ was the very Catholic Gilbert of The Last Conformer (entry 10, who netted 42% of atheist readers, and 74% rating him as more likely atheist than Christian.  Personally, I’m wondering how many votes his ‘System 1/System 2‘ reference netted him.  Brendan Hodge of DarwinCatholic (entry 1) was the next runner up, with 36% of atheists judging him as very likely atheist and 70% rating him likely or very likely atheist.

And then the real atheists all appeared in a block.  The next five placements went to all five atheists, with Chana Messinger (The Merely Real) taking the lead as the real atheist most likely to be recognized as such (entry 5, 28% very likely atheist).  Right behind her was Chris Hallquist of The Uncredible Hallq (entry 2) with 27% of atheists giving him the most plausible rating.

After these two, very likely atheist ratings slipped below 25% (i.e. lower than if people were voting at random).  But all the rest of the Christian entries were trapped at the bottom, as you can see below.

And the Miss Intellectual Congeniality Award goes to Chana Messinger, who was far and away the contestant whom non-atheist voters most wanted to have a chatty coffee with.

In fact, she scored a hat trick: Most Atheist Atheist, Miss Intellectual Congeniality (among non-atheists) and Miss Intellectual Congeniality (among atheists).  Fifty percent of atheists judges wanted to sit down and chat with her, and, if she wasn’t available, their alternate partners were Gilbert (47%) and Brendan (44%).

An Improbable Definition of Faith

Remember you can vote once per day for the About.com Atheism Awards.  I’m one of five nominees for Best Atheist Blog.  More details here.

Today’s problematic definition of ‘faith’ comes from Loftus, himself, as he expands his description of faith as “an irrational leap over the probabilities.”  While emailing a Christian friend, he offered the following definition:

In my opinion faith is what fills in the gaps of the probabilities. If, say there is a 70 % probability something is the case then to conclude more than that 70% probability is faith, and I reject faith based reasoning like that. To reject that kind of faith is to live and operate based on the probabilities. If there is a 70 % chance of something then that’s all I can conclude and that’s all I can use to base my decisions on. And so I could never give my whole life over to a 70% probability. I could only give 70% of my life over to a 70% probability. This is Lessing’s ditch when applied to the past, as you know. Kierkegaard responded by acknowledging Lessing’s point and therefore decided faith must go beyond what the evidence calls for. And that’s what I must reject.

Loftus’s Christian interlocutor replied that he thought the phrase “faith is what fills in the gaps of the probabilities” was spot-on and a great way to encapsulate Hebrews 11:1.  I can’t speak to the exegesis, but I sure as heck have an issue with this treatment of probability.

Loftus is essentially saying that, when we aren’t certain, we have to hedge our bets, but that can be the wrong way to reason.  Let me give an example.  I tell you that I have a weighted coin — it is 60% likely to come down heads and 40% likely to come down tails.  Plenty of people, given this data, will conclude that they should call out ‘heads!’ 60% of the time and ‘tails!’ 40% of the time.  They’ll lose out to the people who call ‘heads!’ every single time you play with enough iterations.

If you’re doing a math test, you’re going to mark down a lot of probabilities that aren’t zero or one, but, when you’re taking action, you pick the best option you know of and commit to it.  It doesn’t matter that you think there’s a only a 70% chance that you’re right, instead of a 99%.  If you think it’s the best choice, you’re only self-sabotaging by hedging.

What that 70% means is that you need less new evidence to change your mind about this action than you would if you were truly 99% confident.  But, absent that new evidence, there’s no reason you shouldn’t stay the course.  Instead of half-heartedly committing to the choice you’ve made, you should just stay vigilant that you don’t discount new evidence in either direction, because you’ve started thinking of your current confidence level as an important part of your identity, one that it would hurt you to lose.

I’ve been framing this in terms of choosing actions, but it goes for beliefs also.  The main difference here is that there’s less obviously a moment of ‘choosing.’  When your estimate hits some critical level, you believe.  You can’t change your belief by an act of will, or a “jump over the probabilities.”  You can only change what you profess to believe, so that you don’t feel like you’re betraying the side.  But check out the link in the previous sentence to see how different belief looks from belief-in-belief.

 

*I’d like to preempt one objection I think may come up in the comments.  People are going to ask some variant on the Abraham question: “What if I’m very confident that the right thing to do is the wrong thing?”  I think you’re describing your reasoning incorrectly.  The choice that’s before you isn’t sundered from all the other data/priors you have; a good Bayesian is factoring them in.  Those qualms (or, more precisely, the evidence that causes your qualms to trigger) count as evidence against the choice that scares you.

7 Quick Takes (11/17/11)

— 1 —

If you’re only going to read one link I put in the Quick Takes, make it this one on the way an over-reliance on mice may be screwing up our understanding of human disease.

Mark Mattson knows a lot about mice and rats. He’s fed them; he’s bred them; he’s cut their heads open with a scalpel… Still, he never quite noticed how fat they were—how bloated and sedentary and sickly—until a Tuesday afternoon in February 2007. That’s the day it occurred to him, while giving a lecture at Emory University in Atlanta, that his animals were nothing less (and nothing more) than lazy little butterballs. His animals and everyone else’s, too.

Mattson was lecturing on a research program that he’d been conducting since 1995, on whether a strict diet can help ward off brain damage and disease… How would these findings apply to humans, asked someone in the audience. Should people skip meals, too?

But Mattson wasn’t so quick to prescribe his stern feeding schedule to the crowd in Atlanta. He had faith in his research on diet and the brain but was beginning to realize that it suffered from a major complication. It might well be the case that a mouse can be starved into good health—that a deprived and skinny brain is more robust than one that’s well-fed. But there was another way to look at the data. Maybe it’s not that limiting a mouse’s food intake makes it healthy, he thought; it could be that not limiting a mouse’s food makes it sick. Mattson’s control animals—the rodents that were supposed to yield a normal response to stroke and Parkinson’s—might have been overweight, and that would mean his baseline data were skewed.

— 2 —

And if you’re only going to read one caveat to a Quick Take I post, make it this one: the over-reliance on mice is a serious problem that may have tainted a lot of research, but it’s not a reason to throw over science.  It’s the scientific method and the rationalist approach that lets us spot these errors in the first place.  So unless you can articulate your methodological objection and explain how to test it, you’re probably best off operating according to the current scientific consensus.

— 3 —

And, now, if I can possibly prevail on you to read another long feature article, you should really check out this piece from the Awl on Sherlock Holmes fanatics.  There are too many awesome quotes to spotlight, but I’ll limit myself to one:

In 1943, Edgar Smith, then head of BSI, mandated that the annual dinner’s first “Conanical” toast be dedicated to “the woman,” and a living exemplar of Irene Adler honored. The first recipient of the “the woman” toast was Gypsy Rose Lee. Even as the guest of honor, Lee was only allowed to attend the pre-dinner cocktail party at which the toast was administered, before being retired for the evening.

— 4 —

Oh, and if you’re already obsessed with the BBC’s new modern-day Sherlock series, you’ll be as thrilled as I am to know that season 2 debuts on PBS on May 6th.  If you haven’t been watching, the entire first season is available on Netflix instant streaming and is fantastic.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m4foH4HCzKA

The second season was delayed for what feels like forever because of the new Hobbit movie.  Dr. Watson is playing Bilbo and Sherlock is the voice of Smaug, and, as bad as I feel as a Tolkein fan, I was totally begrudging Middle Earth their use.  But now that the date of their return is set, I plan to welcome the characters back with an all-tweed party.

— 5 —

io9 came up with a list of new scifi plot devices they’d like to see deployed, and my favorite was number 9:

Ghosts don’t always haunt places. Sometimes they haunt ideas. That’s why there are spirits flickering to (un)life among the protesters at Occupy Wall Street encampments.

Except I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it used before, but now I can’t think where.

— 6 —

National Novel Writing Month is in full swing, and, though I flaked out on my plans, I’ve been following the @FakeNNWMTips twitter page with great amusement.  The most germane:

The bible is in the public domain. Simply do a search and replace for “Hittites” with “Zombies” and you are 70% done. #nanowrimo

— 7 —

Finally, if you liked yesterday’s post about Sweeney Todd and morality (and the accompanying paper), enjoy this clip of “A Little Priest” from the Broadway production:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J7LhNCK2axY

For more Quick Takes, visit Conversion Diary!

Bisexuality Q&A

I’d still like more responses to the questions I posed to opponents of gay marriage yesterday, but, since turnabout is fair play, I’ll take a crack at some of the questions you guys asked about bisexuality in the thread.  I’ll answer any others on this topic in the comments.

UPDATE: there’s still confusion in the comments so here’s the tl;dr takeaway: Bisexuality is totally unrelated to polyamory.  Bisexuality describes the set of people who might attract you.  Polyamory specifies what kind of relationship you want to have with people in that set.

Joe asked:

As a bisexual is it easier for you to see that sexual orientation is changeable? I would imagine that a bisexual could become more attracted to one gender while they are dating that gender but then become more attracted to the opposite gender when they are in a different relationship. Maybe thats not how it works? But it seems that the existence of Bisexual people could be proof that sexual orientation could change.

Yeah, I’d say that’s not how it works.  When I’m dating someone, I’m not more attracted to their gender generically, in the same way that someone dating a cellist doesn’t find that, in the abstract, they are now much more attracted to cellists than violinists.  Some bi people like to quantify their relative attraction to each gender, but I’ve not found that particularly personally enlightening (see statistical note at the end of the post).  Just as most readers probably don’t think of themselves as 70% brunettes, 20% redheads, 10% blondes; I don’t estimate or update my numbers on gender.  When I say I’m bi, I mean that gender isn’t a disqualifier, and I tend to leave it at that.

FCCG asked:

Many arguments for gay marriage suggest that you should be able to marry whoever will satisfy your inborn sexuality. If that is true, the bisexual should be allowed to marry at least one man and one woman. And if we allow this, how do we not allow traditional heterosexual modes of polygamy; what do we say to my friend who is convinced that polyamory is an orientation unto itself?

I’m really glad FCCG asked this, because it gives me an opportunity to address a common misconception.  Bisexuality is not the same thing as polyamory.  Let me return to the hair color parallel.  Plenty of straight men are attracted to both blondes and brunettes, but very few feel deprived or suppressed when they are dating only one girl with one hair color.  I don’t have any more of a yen to date a boy and a girl at the same time than I need to be going steady with both an American and a Frenchwoman.

I don’t have a strong objection to polyamory, but my position on that has much more to do with the dynamics of heavy obligation to more than one person than it does with diversifying genitalia.  Insofar as polyamorous marriage fits my conception of marriage — a life-long, difficult-to-exit commitment that is more focused on serving the other than securing physical pleasures for the self — I have no problem with it.  Like covenant marriage, polyamory is ok by me in theory, but they get a bad rap because it is most visibly practiced by the people we suspect are taking the principle to excess.

Finally, a statistical note on why I find the numberic labeling of bisexuals to be weird.  Let’s assume there exists a bisexual girl (Jane) who is equally attracted to men and women, so we thing of her as having a 50-50 split.  Will we see her dating men as often as she does women?  Definitely not.  About 90% of men are attracted to women while only ~5% of women are [estimates are not precise].  So every time Jane makes a pass at someone, all else being equal, a guy is 18x as likely to be receptive as a girl.  Unless she makes a special effort, someone would observe Jane dating guys 95% of the time and girls 5%.  So what number should she use to label herself?

When people are trying to set you up on blind dates (or in most other contexts this comes up), it’s a lot easier to talk about genres of people you’re attracted to than it is to come up with numbers.  And, after all, bi people are no more likely to be attracted to all men and women than a straight girl is to be attracted to all men.  You might know your bi friend tends to prefer women to men, but, if that’s all you know, she’s liable to be disappointed when you introduce her to a cute butch girl when she’s actually more into femmes.

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