Sunday, April 22, 2007

Fooled By Randomness and the Black Swan

There is a very interesting series of books by Nassim Taleb, more information is available at his site. Nassim works on Wall Street, and many of the examples are taken from that space, but his ideas have much wider application to the way we live our lives and see the world.

The Fooled By Randomness concept is really about the self-selection bias in statistics. If we are successful in business, we tend to believe that it is because we are doing something well, while in many cases the success is within the bounds of normal random variation. The example Nassim gives is stock market traders who get a run of successful trades, then crash spectacularly. It isn't that they were clever for a while and then did something stupid, they were just riding a series of random events. There are many examples in politics and religion that follow the same pattern.

"Pride comes before a fall" is another example, and the entire concept of becoming "over-confident" in ourselves and the outcomes of our actions is a foundation of religious belief.

Nassim's most recent book is called "The Black Swan - The Impact of the Highly Improbable". For hundreds of years the only breen of swan known in the western world was the white swan. If you asserted that black swans might exist you would be met with derision and incomprehension by all the experts in this subject, since there was no evidence, it was highly improbable. However there is nothing preventing black swans from existing, and when Australia was explored an entire breed of black swans was discovered, and all the experts were found to be wrong. Nassim says "The world is too ambiguous --the Black Swan comes from believing in crisp and neat texture of reality, and from the overestimation of our skills in mapping the world."

Many "believers" are uncomfortable with ambiguity, and base their beliefs on claims that things could not have happened by accident or randomness. They invoke paranormal or religious explanations for events that were certain to happen, but which are infrequent enough to be surprising. There are always going to be trees and cheese sandwiches etc. that randomly take on shapes that look something like a religious figure, so when one occurs it should not be regarded as surprising or miraculous.

People also find it hard to understand relative probabilities. For example, the probability that you will be killed in a car crash is relatively high, government figures show that in both 2003 and 2004 about 42,000 people per year died in the USA from this cause. However, these deaths occur a few at a time, spread over a large area, and are treated as background noise. There is very little media coverage of these deaths compared to gun massacres and terrorist attacks that are perhaps a thousand times less deadly when averaged over the years. The media attention and the effect on people's ability to feel safe is out of proportion to the actual risk of death.

On a more positive note, life on earth is not an accident. Its not unlikely, it was certain to occur given the initial conditions of a planet containing a mixture of elements that was about the right distance from the Sun to have liquid water on its surface. It took a long time, but any individual probability multiplied by a long enough time becomes a certainty.

The DNA of Religious Faith

I just read a very interesting long and detailed article in the Cronicle of Higher Education, titled The DNA of Religious Faith By DAVID P. BARASH. It opens with this:

In his 2004 book, The End of Faith, Sam Harris pointed out that alone of all human assertions, those qualifying as "religious," almost by definition, automatically demand and typically receive immense respect, even veneration. Claim that the earth is flat, or that the tooth fairy exists, and you will be deservedly laughed at. But maintain that according to your religion, a seventh-century desert tribal leader ascended to heaven on a winged horse, or that a predecessor had done so, without such a conveyance, roughly 600 years earlier, and you are immediately entitled to deference. It has long been, let us say, an article of faith that at least in polite company, religious faith — belief without evidence — should go unchallenged.

No longer. If recent books — many of them by prominent biologists — are any indication, the era of deference to religious belief is ending as faith is subjected to gimlet-eyed scrutiny.
Well worth reading, and it has a comprehensive reference reading list at the end.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

The adolescent alien atheists are coming!

Some very interesting demographic research sheds light on the relative levels of religious belief by age and country. I'm referring to this article:

Religious Decline in U.S. Follows Europe By MATT CHERRY from Jan. 24, 2007

It reports that the USA is one of the most religious countries, with a majority of believers, and the UK is one of the least, with a minority. Each generation locks in the prevailing level of belief, younger generations believe less, so that there is a strong age related correlation, but there are relatively few individual conversions.

This is a welcome trend, it will take a long time for the believers to collectively discover that there is no "afterlife", but the voting population is swinging towards atheism and there will come a time when strong religious beliefs are an electoral liability in the USA, as I think they have already become in the UK.

People form the beliefs they will hold for their lifetime while they are young, I suspect the early teenage years are the most formative ones, where received wisdom is questioned. With the strong rise of Internet culture in this age group, I'm hopeful that the sheer breadth of opinion and information available will force the formation of less dogmatic, more flexible and more rational belief systems in the coming generations.

Thanks to the Atheist Blogroll...

This is a great resource, and I'm proud to have joined the roll call. Its also nice to see some welcoming comments, many thanks! Now I just have to find time to read all the other blogs...

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Politicians Should be Atheists

One of the most dangerous things in the world is a politician with strong beliefs. They believe they know best, ignore evidence to the contrary, and ignore the opinions of others. Then they do stupid things that affect all of us.

Religion is based on beliefs, and strongly religious politicians tend also to have strong belief in their own right to impose their beliefs on other people.

In many ways Tony Blair has one of the best records of a prime minister in recent British history. He has done a lot of good for the country, however he is now very unpopular because he let his beliefs guide him when he should have been listening and using his intelligence. He is an overtly religious man, more so than most recent British politicians, and he also stubbornly sticks to unpopular policies that he believes are right. While it did make sense to be politically close to the USA, he took it too far for too long, and took Britain to war on false pretences, because he believed too strongly in the fake evidence of WMDs.

The US administration, especially Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice are so fixated on their beliefs, that they will do anything to deny and supress evidence that doesn't agree with them. They even deny that they said things that were clearly said on the record, as The Daily Show gleefully points out with back to back video clips. There is a complete inability to admit that they could ever be wrong on anything.

I want all politicians to be atheists, with weak belief systems, and an ability to solve problems, analyze evidence, change their minds if necessary, admit their mistakes quickly and make policy with an open mind and an inclusionary and pluralist attitude. Then the people of America and the world will be truly free.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

An Activist Alien Atheist

Living in the USA I became aware that religion was being used for political ends. It was being wielded as a way to control the agenda of what people were allowed to say, think, teach or do, as defined by a fairly narrow group of right wing evangelical christian organizations.

America was setup as a place to be free, and it contains a huge number of cultures and religions, especially in the Bay Area. Taking away those freedoms in the name of one religion is more than objectionable, it directly affects my life and the lives of people around me. I have close friends and co-workers of just about every possible combination of ethnicity, origin, culture, religion, and sexual orientation.

There is a growing backlash from scientists, atheists and the more tolerant religions against the evangelical right. I began to see more people state openly that they are atheist, and start to mock the agenda of the evangelical right. In particular, creationism and intelligent design was singled out very effectively and lampooned by the Flying Spaghetti Monster religion. My first open act of atheism was to put an FSM logo on the back of my car.

Then Dawkins stirred things up with his book, "The God Delusion" and his public appearances in the US media. He distilled atheism down to a few powerful concepts, such as - The worlds religions describe thousands of gods. Most people believe in one, and don't believe in the rest. So it should be pretty easy to take the gods you don't believe in and add just one more to the list, leaving none.

Dawkins' example, as an outspoken and unapologetic atheist inspired me. I have become an activist atheist. I want to add one more atheist voice to say that I don't want religion in my life and I don't want other peoples religion to control the way I live my life. America should be free and open to a broad range of cultures and beliefs, including those of us who don't have an "imaginary friend". That's why I started writing this blog.

Monday, February 19, 2007

An Atheist

I have a degree in Physics, but I'm not a practicing Scientist. However, I specialise in figuring out how very complicated things work, making sense of them and explaining it to other people who are confused. Seriously, that's what I do in my day job. I've always been able to do this, it seems easy to me, and it pays well....

So when I was in high school, and I had to write an essay for a Religious Education lesson, I explored the idea that the source of religious belief was the result of encounters with extra-terrestrial aliens. I wrote a serious (if naive) essay. It seemed like a very reasonable and sensible explanation for the religion that I saw around me. In particular, lets suppose that a real alien did spend some time visiting a primitive culture, what long term effect would you predict? I thought it would look a lot like the religion we see in the world today. My RE teacher was not particularly happy with my essay, but he didn't seem to have any counter arguments, other than to imply that I was making a joke, which I wasn't.

I'm older and wiser now, and I don't see the need for alien visitation. I think the human mind is perfectly capable of creating all the trappings of religion on its own, without aliens or any kind of supernatural assistance.

For many years I was happy to live a life that had a profound absence of any need for religion whatsoever, but I kept my beliefs to myself. I disapproved of religions that had a missionary component and tried to recruit others, but I just kept quiet in case I upset someone. In the UK this is easy. Religion is in the background, easy to ignore and avoid, of historical interest, but just not very important in most peoples lives. The overtly religious are a harmless minority.