Friday, 21 December 2007

A truly bizarre article in Tuesday's Guardian. Apparently the fact that homeopathy doesn't work isn't evidence enough that homeopathy doesn't work. Perhaps Rustum Roy should look up the definition of non-sequitur:

As it happens, there is agreement among all those who have studied liquid water
that it is, in fact, the critics, who are totally wrong. Proof? Diamond is the
planet's hardest material; graphite one of the softest. They are absolutely
identical in composition, and they can be interconverted in a millisecond with
zero change of composition.

Monday, 17 December 2007

Do we want to win?

I mentioned the Four Horsemen video in my last post. Well, now I've had a chance to actually watch it and think about what the people have to say. One of the most extraordinary parts is the bit where Hitchens claims that he doesn't want to win the argument with religious types because then there'd be no-one left to argue with. As they were all generally trying to be nice to each other, the others didn't really call him on this as much as I would have liked.

Now I can see why Hitchens doesn't want religion to die out - if it did, he'd quite literally have to find another job, as he seems to spend most of his time nowadays debating various religious types or condemning them in print. But apart from purely selfish reasons, surely he realises that what he's saying is, in essence, that he wants there to be other people out there who don't know the truth about the universe, because this makes for an interesting conversation. I imagine Ben Goldacre must feel approximately the same about quack scientists, if he ever actually won the debate, he'd be out of a job (at least with the paper), but this doesn't mean he wants the quackery to continue. I'm willing to live with the proposition that it's an intellectual battle that isn't going to be won (at least, isn't going to be won any time soon), but surely the idea that it's an intellectual battle that we don't want to win *because we enjoy the fight* is just plain wrong.

Taken as given that religious people are fundamentally wrong about the world we live in, surely it's morally reprehensible to ask that they continue to labour under their delusions purely so that you have someone to beat up on in a debate. In some ways, I sympathise with him. We all know that taking the p*ss out of people who believe really silly things is fun, and I can understand why Hitchens likes the idea that there are people out there who believe really silly things, but surely he realises that the world would be a better place if there weren't. Surely those people deserve to know the truth, even if it does make Hitchens intellectualy life a little less interesting.

As Dawkins said (approximately) there's enough debate to be had in the real world, without spending time arguing people out of their delusions.

Sunday, 16 December 2007

The Four Horsemen

How cool is this? Dawkins, Dennet, Harris and Hitchens all together in a room, having a conversation about religion. Hitchens is almost as arrogant as I would be if I was as clever as him and had read as much as he has. Dawkins appears to be terribly shy, but always have something to say. Dennet clearly knows he knows what he's talking about and he's comfortable just saying it, while Harris is probably just glad to be in the same room as the others (although everything he says is definitely worth listening to).

Saturday, 15 December 2007

Does anyone believe in miracles?

So, a few years ago, the people at the Gilbert Deya Ministry were all over the news, because they'd been stealing babies from poor couples in Africa and giving them to rich Westerners. There's an interesting debate to be had about whether or not their should be a legitimate market in babies (I tend towards yes, but it's tricky), but that's not what I want to go into here. The interesting thing about the Gilbert Deya Ministries story is that they claimed their babies were "miracle babies" - that they had been sent by God, and hence there could be no abduction charges and no crime. Of course, the court thought this was very silly, as does everyone else I've ever talked to about it, but I suppose the real question is, why is it any sillier than any other miracle story?

People are willing to believe that some bloke 2000 years ago died and then came back to life a few days later - just for a week or so. They're willing to believe that the bread and wine they eat in Church somehow turns itself into his body and blood. They're willing to believe that for some utterly obscure reason God chooses to send his most important prophecies via some peasant children in the middle of Portugal. They're willing to believe that the Sun danced in the sky, or that statues actually cry milk. So why aren't they willing to believe that God really does create babies and give them to the childless couples who go to the Gilbert Deya Ministry looking for help.

One obvious reason is that there is a perfectly valid rational explanation for where the children came from, so invoking a miracle is not necessary. Apart from the fact that this isn't all that convincing - there are usually some pretty valid rational explanations for anything that gets classified as a "miracle" - I think the best response is - so what? If God really does perform miracles, why should he restrict himself to only doing things that are outside rational explanation? Why shouldn't he just create babies out of thin air in Kenya, which bear no resemblance to the parents they were created for, and rather a strong resemblance to people who've recently had their children kidnapped? After all, he works in mysterious ways.

More importantly, if you *do* believe in miracles, at all, in any way, how do you start
to argue with people like the Gilbert Deya Ministry? They say "it's a miracle". You say "No it's not". They say "Prove it", and I have no idea how you can ever repond. If some things *are* miracles, how is it ever possible to prove that anything isn't?

The Ultimatum Game

Anyone with even a passing interest in popular economics has heard of the Ultimatum Game. Basically, the set-up is this: two people are picked to play the game, it is a one off, and they are assigned, at random to one of two different roles - the proposer and the responder. The proposer is given some amount of money, and told to split it however he likes. The responder is then given the choice to either accept or decline whatever they are offered. If they decline, neither player gets anything, if they accept, they both get to keep their offered amount.

Without too much analysis, it's easy to see that the only sub-game perfect Nash Equilibrium (which is a posh way of saying, the only strategy that both players can stick to if they're fully rational) is for the proposer to offer the responder 1p and the responder to accept. If you reject a "lowball offer", you lose out. But, as you might expect, people *do* reject lowball offers (I'm fairly sure I wouldn't, but I suppose it depends on just how low it was). There are several explanations for this in the literature, and I'm not about to go into any of them now, but there is one point that I came across in an article by Steven Landsburg from Reason magazine a few months ago which I want to consider.

Landsburg's article is actually in the context of the even simpler Dictator Game. This is the same set-up as above, but the responder doesn't get their turn. In other words, you're given an envelope full of money and asked how much of it you want to give to the complete stranger in the next room. There are also variations of this game in which you are told that however much you choose to give to the complete stranger in the next room, the experimenters will double/treble this - so you can give up £1 to give the stranger in the next room £3.

Landsburg makes the very valid point that the money you give to the complete stranger *has to come from somewhere*. In other words, if you do choose to give the complete stranger some of your money, this is no different to simply telling the experimenter they can keep it - no wealth is created or destroyed by playing these games, so you're just passing money between strangers either way. (Either the experimenter keeps the money, or the next person to play the game gets it, or they use it for their next experiment - whatever the scenario, the total amount of wealth in the world is the same, and anything you don't have belongs to a complete stranger).

So what about the variation of the Ultimatum Game in which wealth *is* destroyed. People are willing to pay a small fee so that a complete stranger who they feel has treated them unfairly doesn't get any money, but if they think like Steven Landsburg, they know that this money is going to some other (presumably more deserving) complete stranger. What if this wasn't the case? Was if the alternative to you getting your share and the proposer getting theirs was not that the money went back to the experimenter, but that it was actually destroyed? Would anyone turn down a lowball offer in that game? Does that game actually have any more meaning than the original ultimatum game?

Unfortunately, it's hard to construct a variation of the Dictator Game which works in the same way - perhaps there is one. If there was, if it were somehow possible to create wealth from nowhere in order to play this sort of game, do I think people would behave any differently? No, I don't. I think people in these games actually do behave as though the money they're being given is created out of thin air. As Landsburg notes, this is pretty scary - surely no educated person can believe that money does appear out of thin air - but I think it's probably true. We'll have to wait until someone cleverer than me comes up with a new experiment to test this theory. I hope someone cleverer than me is trying.

My First Post

So, now that the golden age of the internet message board is officially over, I guess if I ever want anyone to read any of my ramblings about the various things I like to ramble about I'm going to have to start writing a blog. I was wondering what I was going to do for the subject of my first post. A few things occurred to me. The most obvious was to write something about the contents of Ben Goldacre's new Bad Science column, (I'm willing to bet the Guardian didn't run with that headline) - it contains the interesting phrase : "you care what the pope thinks about global warming, and about the prophets of doom: because hundreds of millions of other people do." He's got a point, and it's a point I've never really thought through enough - but if I'm ever going to post my random musings on that, it'll be some time in the future.

Second, I considered posting something in detail about what I'm considering phrasing "the problem of miracles" - how do religious people ever believe anything about anything if they believe in a God that's willing to step in and bend the rules every now and then (and, perhaps just as importantly, what sort of evidence do you need to *disbelieve* a miracle story?). I'm sure I'll get to that eventually, but I'll probably wait until the few thoughts I've had about it are a bit more fully -formed (and it's not quite so late at night).

So, anyway, what I have decided to actually post about is something that occurred to me a long time ago when I was reading one of Steven Landsburg's slate columns... how to make the Ultimatum Game more realistic, and why I think it really would change the rules. So anyway, this was my first post. My second post will be about the Ultimatum Game.