Understanding Sarah Palin: Or, God Is In The Wattles

Here’s a question for you. Why hasn’t natural selection driven the religious right to extinction?

You should forgive me for asking. After all, here is a group of people who base their lives on patently absurd superstitions that fly in the face of empirical evidence. It’s as if I suddenly chose to believe that I could walk off the edges of cliffs with impunity; you would not expect me to live very long. You would expect me to leave few if any offspring. You would expect me to get weeded out.

And yet, this obnoxious coterie of retards — people openly and explicitly contemptuous of “intellectuals” and “evilutionists” and, you know, anyone who actually spends their time learning stuff — they not only refuse to die, they appear to rule the world. Some Alaskan airhead who can’t even fake the name of a newspaper, who can’t seem to say anything without getting it wrong, who bald-facedly states in a formal debate setting that she’s not even going to try to answer questions she finds unpalatable (or she would state as much, if she could say “unpalatable” without tripping over her own tongue) — this person, this behavior, is regarded as successful even by her detractors. The primary reason for her popularity amongst the all-powerful “low-information voters”1? In-your-face religious fundamentalism and an eye tic that would make a Tourette’s victim blush.

You might suggest that my analogy is a bit loopy: young-earth creationism may fly in the face of reason, but it hardly has as much immediate survival relevance as my own delusory immunity to gravity. I would disagree. The Christian Church has been an anvil around the neck of scientific progress for centuries. It took the Catholics four hundred years to apologize to Galileo; a hundred fifty for an Anglican middle-management type to admit that they might owe one to Darwin too (although his betters immediately slapped him down for it). Even today, we fight an endless series of skirmishes with fundamentalists who keep trying to sneak creationism in through the back door of science classes across the continent. (I’m given to understand that Islamic fundies are doing pretty much the same thing in Europe.) More people in the US believe in angels than in natural selection. And has anyone not noticed that religious fundamentalists also tend to be climate-change deniers?

Surely, any cancer that attacks the very intellect of a society would put the society itself at a competitive disadvantage. Surely, tribes founded on secular empiricism would develop better technology, better medicines, better hands-on understanding of The Way Things Work, than tribes gripped by primeval cloud-worshipping superstition2. Why, then, are there so few social systems based on empiricism, and why are god-grovellers so powerful across the globe? Why do the Olympians keep getting their asses handed to them by a bunch of intellectual paraplegics?

The great thing about science is, it can even answer ugly questions like this. And a lot of pieces have been falling into place lately. Many of them have to do with the brain’s fundamental role as a pattern-matcher.

Let’s start with this study here, in the latest issue of Science. It turns out that the less control people feel they have over their lives, the more likely they are to perceive images in random visual static; the more likely they are to see connections and conspiracies in unrelated events. The more powerless you feel, the more likely you’ll see faces in the clouds. (Belief in astrology also goes up during times of social stress.)

Some of you may remember that I speculated along such lines back during my rant against that evangelical abortion that Francis Collins wrote while pretending to be a scientist; but thanks to Jennifer Whitson and her buddies, speculation resolves into fact. Obama was dead on the mark when he said that people cling to religion and guns during hard times. The one arises from loss of control, and the other from an attempt to get some back.

Leaving Lepidoptera (please don’t touch the displays, little boy, heh heh heh— Oh, cute…) — moving to the next aisle, we have Arachnida, the spiders. And according to findings reported by Douglas Oxley and his colleagues (supplemental material here), right-wingers are significantly more scared of these furry little arthropods than left-wingers tend to be: at least, conservatives show stronger stress responses than liberals to “threatening” pictures of large spiders perched on human faces.

It’s not a one-off effect, either. Measured in terms of blink amplitude and skin conductance, the strongest stress responses to a variety of threat stimuli occurred among folks who “favor defense spending, capital punishment, patriotism, and the Iraq War”. In contrast, those who “support foreign aid, liberal immigration policies, pacifism, and gun control” tended to be pretty laid-back when confronted with the same stimuli. Oxley et al close off the piece by speculating that differences in political leanings may result from differences in the way the amygdala is wired— and that said wiring, in turn, has a genetic component. The implication is that right-wing/left-wing beliefs may to some extent be hardwired, making them relatively immune to the rules of evidence and reasoned debate. (Again, this is pure speculation. The experiments didn’t extend into genetics. But it would explain a lot.)

One cool thing about the aforementioned studies is that they have relatively low sample sizes, both in two-digit range. Any pattern that shows statistical significance in a small sample has got to be pretty damn strong; both of these are.

Now let’s go back a ways, to a Cornell Study from 1999 called “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments“. It’s a depressing study, with depressing findings:

  • People tend to overestimate their own smarts.
  • Stupid people tend to overestimate their smarts more than the truly smart do.
  • Smart people tend to assume that everyone else is as smart as they are; they honestly can’t understand why dumber people just don’t “get it”, because it doesn’t occur to them that those people actually are dumb.
  • Stupid people, in contrast, tend to not only regard themselves as smarter than everyone else, they tend to regard truly smart people as especially stupid. This holds true even when these people are shown empirical proof that they are less competent than those they deride.

So. The story so far:

  1. People perceive nonexistent patterns, meanings, and connections in random data when they are stressed, scared, and generally feel a loss of control in their own lives.
  2. Right-wing people are more easily scared/stressed than left-wing people. They are also more likely to cleave to authority figures and protectionist policies. There may be a genetic component to this.
  3. The dumber you are, the less likely you’ll be able to recognize your own stupidity, and the lower will be your opinion of people who are smarter than you (even while those people keep treating you as though you are just as smart as they are)

Therefore (I would argue) the so-called “right wing” is especially predisposed to believe in moralizing, authoritarian Invisible Friends. And the dumber individuals (of any stripe) are, the more immune they are to reason. Note that, to paraphrase John Stuart Mill, I am not saying that conservatives are stupid (I myself know some very smart conservatives), but that stupid people tend to be conservative. Whole other thing.

So what we have, so far, is a biological mechanism for the prevalence of religious superstition in right-wing populations. What we need now is a reason why such populations tend to be so damn successful, given the obvious shortcomings of superstition as opposed to empiricism.

Which brings us to Norenzayan and Shariff’s review paper in last week’s Science on “The Origin and Evolution of Religious Prosociality“. To get us in the mood they remind us of several previous studies, a couple of which I may have mentioned here before (at least, I mentioned them somewhere — if they’re on the ‘crawl, I evidently failed to attach the appropriate “ass-hamsters” tag). For example, it turns out that people are less likely to cheat on an assigned task if the lab tech lets slip that the ghost of a girl who was murdered in this very building was sighted down the hall the other day.

That’s right. Plant the thought that some ghost might be watching you, and you become more trustworthy. Even sticking a picture of a pair of eyes on the wall reduces the incidence of cheating, even though no one would consciously mistake a drawing of eyes for the real thing. Merely planting the idea of surveillance seems to be enough to improve one’s behavior. (I would also remind you of an earlier crawl entry reporting that so-called “altruistic” acts in our society tend to occur mainly when someone else is watching, although N&S don’t cite that study in their review.)

There’s also the recent nugget from which this figure was cadged:

This study found not only that religious communes last longer than secular ones, but that even among religious communes the ones that last longest are those with the most onerous, repressive, authoritarian rules.

And so on. Norenzayan and Shariff trot out study after study, addressing a variety of questions that may seem unrelated at first. If, as theorists suggest, human social groupings can only reach 150 members or so before they collapse or fragment from internal stress, why does the real world serve up so many groupings of greater size? (Turns out that the larger the size of a group, the more likely that its members believe in a moralizing, peeping-tom god.) Are religious people more likely than nonreligious ones to help out someone in distress? (Not so much.) What’s the most common denominator tying together acts of charity by the religious? (Social optics. “Self-reported belief in God or self-reported religious devotion,” the paper remarks wryly, “was not a reliable indicator of generous behavior in anonymous settings.”) And why is it that religion seems especially prevalent in areas with chronic water and resource shortages?

It seems to come down to two things: surveillance and freeloading. The surveillance element is pretty self-evident. People engage in goodly behavior primarily to increase their own social status, to make themselves appear more valuable to observers. But by that same token, there’s no point in being an upstanding citizen if there are no observers. In anonymous settings, you can cheat.

You can also cheat in nonanonymous settings, if your social group is large enough to get lost in. In small groups, everybody knows your name; if you put out your hand at dinner but couldn’t be bothered hunting and gathering, if you sleep soundly at night and never stand guard at the perimeter, it soon becomes clear to everyone that you’re a parasite. You’ll get the shit kicked out of you, and be banished from the tribe. But as social groupings become larger you lose that everyone-knows-everyone safeguard. You can move from burb to burb, sponging and moving on before anyone gets wise—

unless the costs of joining that community in the first place are so bloody high that it just isn’t worth the effort. This is where the onerous, old-testament social rituals come into play.

Norenzayan and Shariff propose that

“the cultural spread of religious prosociality may have promoted stable levels of cooperation in large groups, where reputational and reciprocity incentives are insufficient. If so, then reminders of God may not only reduce cheating, but may also increase generosity toward strangers as much as reminders of secular institutions promoting prosocial behavior.”

And they cite their own data to support it. But they also admit that “professions of religious belief can be easily faked”, so that

“evolutionary pressures must have favored costly religious commitment, such as ritual participation and various restrictions on behavior, diet, and life-style, that validates the sincerity of otherwise unobservable religious belief.”

In other word, anyone can talk the talk. But if you’re willing to give all your money to the church and your twelve-year-old daughter to the patriarch, dude, you’re obviously one of us.

Truth in Advertising is actually a pretty common phenomenon in nature. Chicken wattles are a case in point; what the hell good are those things, anyway? What do they do? Turns out that they display information about a bird’s health, in a relatively unfakeable way. The world is full of creatures who lie about their attributes. Bluegills spread their gill covers when facing off against a competitor; cats go all puffy and arch-backed when getting ready to tussle. Both behaviors serve to make the performer seem larger than he really is— they lie, in other words. Chicken wattles aren’t like that; they more honestly reflect the internal state of the animal. It takes metabolic energy to keep them plump and colorful. A rooster loaded down with parasites is a sad thing to see, his wattles all pale and dilapidated; a female can see instantly what kind of shape he’s in by looking at those telltales. You might look to the peacock’s tail for another example3, or the red ass of a healthy baboon. (We humans have our own telltales— lips, breasts, ripped pecs and triceps— but you haven’t been able to count on those ever since implants, steroids, and Revlon came down the pike.) “Religious signaling” appears to be another case in point. As Norenzayan and Shariff point out, “religious groups imposing more costly requirements have members who are more committed.” Hence,

“Religious communes were found to outlast those motivated by secular ideologies, such as socialism. … religious communes imposed more than twice as many costly requirements (including food taboos and fasts, constraints on material possessions, marriage, sex, and communication with the outside world) than secular ones… Importantly for costly religious signaling, the number of costly requirements predicted religious commune longevity after the study controlled for population size and income and the year the commune was founded… Finally, religious ideology was no longer a predictor of commune longevity, once the number of costly requirements was statistically controlled, which suggests that the survival advantage of religious communes was due to the greater costly commitment of their members, rather than other aspects of religious ideology.”

Reread that last line. It’s not the ideology per sé that confers the advantage; it’s the cost of the signal that matters. Once again, we strip away the curtain and God stands revealed as ecological energetics, writ in a fancy font.

These findings aren’t carved in stone. A lot of the studies are correlational, the models are in their infancy, yadda yadda yadda. But the data are coming in thick and fast, and they point to a pretty plausible model:

  • Fear and stress result in loss of perceived control;
  • Loss of perceived control results in increased perception of nonexistent patterns (N&S again: “The tendency to detect agency in nature likely supplied the cognitive template that supports the pervasive belief in supernatural agents”);
  • Those with right-wing political beliefs tend to scare more easily;
  • Authoritarian religious systems based on a snooping, surveillant God, with high membership costs and antipathy towards outsiders, are more cohesive, less invasible by cheaters, and longer-lived. They also tend to flourish in high-stress environments.

And there you have it. The Popular Power of Palin, explained. So the next question is

Now that we can explain the insanity, what are we going to do about it?

Coda 10/10/08: And as the tide turns, and the newsfeeds and Youtube videos pile up on my screen, the feature that distinguishes right from left seems ever-clearer: fear. See the angry mobs at Republican rallies. Listen to the shouts of terrorist and socialist and kill him! whenever Obama’s name is mentioned. And just tonight, when even John McCain seemed to realise that things had gone too far, and tried to describe the hated enemy as “a decent man”— he was roundly booed by his own supporters.

How many times have the Dems had their asses handed to them by well-oiled Republican machinery? How many times have the Dems been shot down by the victorious forces of Nixons and Bushes? Were the Democrats ever this bloodthirsty in the face of defeat?

Oxley et al are really on to something. These people are fucking terrified.

Photo credit for Zombie Jesus: no clue. Someone just sent it to me.

1And isn’t that a nice CNNism for “moron”? It might seem like a pretty thing veil to you lot, but then again, CNN isn’t worried about alienating viewers with higher-than-room-temperature IQs.
2And to all you selfish-gene types out there, where you been? Group-selection is back in vogue this decade. Believe me, I was as surprised as you…
3Although we might be getting into “Handicap Principle” territory here, which is a related but different wattle of fish. I confess I’m not up on the latest trends in this area…

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Wednesday October 08 2008at 08:10 am , filed under ass-hamsters, evolution, just putting it out there..., sociobiology . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

63 Responses to “Understanding Sarah Palin: Or, God Is In The Wattles”

  1. Then the most effective way to reduce religion’s grip on society is to work for social balance and justice; to be compassionate to the poor and the unlucky; and to work for the prosperity of all.

  2. fraxas said:

    work for social balance and justice; to be compassionate to the poor and the unlucky

    I like it! Now that I think about it, that has a familiar ring.. oh, I got it! Micah 6:8:

    “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

    Your excellent prescription also sounds like Zombie Jesus’ exhortation in Matthew 25 that to be righteous one should feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit the prisoner, and welcome the stranger.

    I like your idea; compassion rocks.

  3. Does. A shame the religious right is so much fonder of Leviticus than the gospels.

  4. “Leaving Lepidoptera (please don’t touch the displays, little boy…heh heh heh. Oh, cute.) — moving to the next aisle, we have Arachnida, the spiders.”

    I was shocked by this line for two reasons,

    1) As a writer, I was shocked that you failed to cite the original source of these words, or, at the bare minimum, place them in quotations.

    2) I never thought that I would see the day when Peter Watts, a self declared musical snob, would be quoting lyrics from an Alice Cooper song.

  5. anonymous said:
    …a self declared musical snob, would be quoting lyrics from an Alice Cooper song.

    Mr. Furnier gets no respect.

    Since we are talking religion and Palin …

    I was a shepard for the Pentacost.
    I got my scriptures and my wires crossed,
    and since I’m here for a little stay,
    I see Rozetta now every day.

    Mr. Watts said:
    A shame the religious right is so much fonder of Leviticus than the gospels.

    Agree. Brutality is reflexive; smiting is exciting. Compassion and gentleness, otoh, require focus and relentless dogged practice. How dull. Maybe if Jesus had done some smiting, he would sell better.

  6. Right, like “Welcome To My Nightmare” isn’t one of the best albums ever. What the hell, Anonymous.

    Besides, everyone knows that if you don’t believe in natural selection, it won’t happen to you.

  7. Huh. Scientific evidence that William James was right.

  8. My phobias being what they are, this is Really Bad News.

  9. This is the best post on the crawl I have ever seen. I already gave it the thumbs up on stumbleupon, dugg it and tattooed the link on my daughter’s tiny young forehead.

    I have been thinking about it and situation’s definitely not going away with an afternoon-in-the-garage type solution.

    I first thought about deprogramming the leaders and letting them diffuse their new enlightened ways into the masses but this would probably just have them supplanted by more zealous types.

    The “Clockwork Orange” approach might work but implementation and the vengeful aspect of it make this unpalatable.

    So I got around to redirection instead of confrontation. Maybe the nicer aspects of the faith, properly channeled, don’t need to be eradicated at all. The link between cheating and surveillance is good but religious priming also kicks people’s nice-module up as well.

    If all the christ-punchers of the world carried around little doodads that sporadically reminded them of their ‘moral obligations’ then they would be primed much more often and therefore likelier to help until they built up a tolerance to it.

    Hmmm, maybe this wasn’t such a great idea after all.

  10. You have got to talk to Bruce Altemeyer http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/

    That was a hellacious read and thought proviking and ties up some loose ends from Altemeyer’s The Authoritarians and other works.

  11. strannik says:

    That was a hellacious read and thought proviking

    Hagar the Horrible is thought pro-viking.

  12. Maybe it’s all much simpler. The Bible says “Be Fruitful and Multiply” and Sarah Palin did (and so did her daughter). I, on the other hand, a rational atheist didn’t. Thats evolution for ya…

  13. One question here snagged me: “Why weren’t/aren’t more societies based on empiricism?”

    That led me to wonder what such a society would look like, and I immediately realized that it would move very, very slowly — at least if evidence were considered thoughtfully by all parties. Prioritization streamlines decision-making, so that people don’t have to worry about the “how” or “why,” of a problem, but rather “what’s next?”

    The alternative to this is wiki-ocracy, I suppose, with collective decision-making and crowdsourcing, but it’s only possible with fast communication networks that protect anonymity. You can’t do it on the scale of a commune, despite the relative similarities, because everyone knows everyone else and we’re back at the surveillance issue. Then again, bots are crawling wikis everywhere…

  14. But what was the flip between Max Weber’s Protestant ethic – which nicely wraps much of this, especially the internal-surveillance stuff, and which built our scientific-technical civilisation – and this neo-witchfinder bollocks?

  15. De lurking here. As always a thought provoking piece, thank you for another salt water enema delivered to my grey matter. I haven’t had time to read the studies in depth and digest everything. I did want to let you know the link to the Whitson and Galinsky article is broken; it pulls up the Oxley one instead.

  16. Alex said…
    But what was the flip between Max Weber’s Protestant ethic – which nicely wraps much of this, especially the internal-surveillance stuff, and which built our scientific-technical civilisation – and this neo-witchfinder bollocks?

    YES. That’s what I wanna know.

    There’s a romance to science, to discovery of how the world works. A sense of science as The Mystery Revealed is somehow getting pulled away from Protestantism, which used to be about self-restraint, careful internal inventory, about being humbled before the grandeur of the universe.

    Kepler is a great example of this, although I can’t claim him as a Protestant, not being sure where he fell in the Reformation mess. He approached Brahe’s data, tried to fit it to the five perfect solids, and when it wouldn’t work, he was humble enough to stand back and go with a model that better fitted the data. The point is that he had no trouble using rational methods, and didn’t cling to an abstraction when physical reality was clearly different from that abstraction.

    So now, after hundreds of scientists working in good faith have surmised the world is billions of years old, why are Protestants standing there with a straight face telling me it’s 6,000 years old, and it must be so because their Sunday school teachers said so? What is this, a madrasa?

    It’s as if monkeys have grabbed the reins of Protestantism, and jerked the whole cart off to the right and onto a goat track. It’s as if Protestantism is calcifying back into Catholicism. Maybe that’s the nature of reformations? Thesis, antithesis, synthesis, mindlessness?

    Aw, whatever. I have real work to do. If you all figure this one out, lemme know.

  17. Anonymous said…

    As a writer, I was shocked that you failed to cite the original source of these words, or, at the bare minimum, place them in quotations.

    But that would’ve given away that it was a quotation; I wanted to see how may people out there caught the reference without being prompted.

    I never thought that I would see the day when Peter Watts, a self declared musical snob, would be quoting lyrics from an Alice Cooper song.

    A) When did I ever declare myself a musical snob?, and B) if I were one I might point out that no less a songwriter than Bob Dylan has described ol’ Alice as one of the most consistently underrated lyricists in rock.

    bec-87rb said…

    Maybe if Jesus had done some smiting, he would sell better.

    Hey, I'd smite in a trice to get even a fraction of Jesus's sales hits. And there might have been a few temple money-changers who thought that ol' Jesu did quite enough smiting in his own right, thank you very much. Not to mention the notable lack of pacifism in lines like "I come not bringing peace, but a sword", and "not one stone shall be left standing on another". Assuming you buy that all that stuff actually happened in the first place, of course.

    Not that it matters in the long run. Far as I can tell, modern Christianity is based not so much on Christ's teachings as on Paul's "reimagining" of them — and Paul was one nasty misogynist motherfucker indeed. Gave epileptics everywhere a bad name (or masturbators — it really comes down to why he went blind on the road to Damascus, I guess…)

    Strannik said…

    You have got to talk to Bruce Altemeyer http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/

    I’ve been referred to that site before. This time I downloaded the book. Of course, when I get around to reading it is another issue entirely…

    kaslkaos said…

    Maybe it’s all much simpler. The Bible says “Be Fruitful and Multiply” and Sarah Palin did (and so did her daughter). I, on the other hand, a rational atheist didn’t. Thats evolution for ya…

    I’m sure that’s part of it; but it doesn’t explain how when Democrats get pitted against an equal number of Republicans, the latter buckle down in lockstep while the former whiffle around like dandelion seeds. A disparity in the fear response might go some way to explaining that.

    Madeline Ashby said…

    One question here snagged me: "Why weren't/aren't more societies based on empiricism?"

    That led me to wonder what such a society would look like, and I immediately realized that it would move very, very slowly — at least if evidence were considered thoughtfully by all parties. Prioritization streamlines decision-making, so that people don't have to worry about the "how" or "why," of a problem, but rather "what's next?"

    I do not know if I agree with this. But since we will be having beers next week anyway, we can hash it out then.

    Alex said…

    But what was the flip between Max Weber’s Protestant ethic – which nicely wraps much of this, especially the internal-surveillance stuff, and which built our scientific-technical civilisation – and this neo-witchfinder bollocks?

    And then, bec-87rb said…

    …So now, after hundreds of scientists working in good faith have surmised the world is billions of years old, why are Protestants standing there with a straight face telling me it’s 6,000 years old, and it must be so because their Sunday school teachers said so? What is this, a madrasa?

    I’ve been told that in the decades after Origin of Species came out, there was a kind of civil war in the ranks of American fundamentalists, and that a good half of them were completely copacetic with the idea of evolution; they didn’t find it antithetical to their beliefs at all. Unfortunately, that side lost. But I don’t know any of the details.

    hundmathr said…

    I did want to let you know the link to the Whitson and Galinsky article is broken; it pulls up the Oxley one instead.

    Thanks. I’ll fix that forthwith.

  18. Peter Watts said:

    …there might have been a few temple money-changers who thought that ol’ Jesu did quite enough smiting in his own right

    I was thinking supernatural smiting, but if he cuffed a few on the head, I guess that counts.

    Now I saw what you did there, when you used rhetorical technique #PW364J7, Throw It All To The Wall & See What Sticks:

    notable lack of pacifism in lines like “I come not bringing peace, but a sword”, and “not one stone shall be left standing on another”.

    You know darn well that the “I come not to bring peace” speech was Zombie Jesus giving the 12 some last instructions, and only a metaphor leading into his quote from Micah 7 about Isreal being laid low now to rise later. I.e., a pep talk, not literal instructions that ladies should stab their mothers-in-law for Jesus.

    Is there agreement that Jesus was personally *threatening* the Temple? I took it as he was contemplating the future destruction. And He didn’t do any direct thunderbolt stone-moving, that was earthly agents, right?

    …modern Christianity is based not so much on Christ’s teachings as on Paul’s “reimagining” of them — and Paul was one nasty misogynist…

    Well, he didn’t have the gentle egalitarianism of Jesus, did he? But he was a man, not an avatar of a God. Harder to get the big picture, probably.

  19. Please, pretty please, change your template to a style that we can read? White text on black background is simply too hard. Please, please, please, please, please?

  20. This leaves aside the semi-useful societal function of instilling basic morality into naive little sociopathic monsters such as “children”. I suggest godless infidels should find a better way to do this before going on the offensive. While a more subtle and nuanced approach is more likely to be effective at that point, the notion of a straightforwardly amoral approach might be amusing.

    Fear and stress result in loss of perceived control;

    Find ways to present science so that the choice over religion will subjectively increase perception of control. Perhaps increase the number of Mad Scientists doing Mad Science research focused on terrorizing the religious?

    Or perhaps just emphasize the idea of how science maximizes the ability to shape and handle the future.

    Loss of perceived control results in increased perception of nonexistent patterns

    Increase emphasis on rigorous pattern recognition in education to try and overcome the natural tendency. I’d suggest more emphasis on “pure” mathematics such as formal languages; it’s good CS education, and also (potentially) allows for a way science may be shown provably the best way to describe reality.

    Induce environmental conditions where false positives on pattern recognition are more adversely selective than false negatives.

    Those with right-wing political beliefs tend to scare more easily;

    Induce environmental conditions that cause easy fear to greatly reduce survival rates.

    Authoritarian religious systems based on a snooping, surveillant God, with high membership costs and antipathy towards outsiders, are more cohesive, less invasible by cheaters, and longer-lived. They also tend to flourish in high-stress environments.

    Find expensive ways by which membership in the community of science-supporters can be prominently and visibly displayed. (Fund research by selling overpriced T-shirts and other kitch?)

    Use science to increase surveillance to be maximally universal and universally accessible. Advocate a legal exception and protection for surveillance methods anywhere where all results are publicly accessible.

    Increase surveillance of the religious and anyone who tries passing off pseudo-science.

    Start increasing the antipathy expressed to the willfully ignorant. (TV show with willfully ignorant character(s) portrayed as villian/antagonist/incompetent, compared to highly informed science hero(s), perhaps? Beats what’s on TV now.)

    Favor community members with access to benefits of science over non-members.

    Research mechanisms by which “cheaters” can be identified quickly and easily by group members.

  21. Let me just say that I was honored to actually attend classes under the honorable Professor Amotz Zehavi, the Israeli professor who first delineated the handicap principle.

    I also want to point out that what you presented here is a classic example of a handicap principle, and since I still have my notes written down, I can give you all sorts of other examples in the wild for it, if you want!

  22. > Find expensive ways by which
    > membership in the community of
    > science-supporters can be
    > prominently and visibly
    > displayed. (Fund research by
    > selling overpriced T-shirts and
    > other kitch?)

    "Support your local science chapter".

    Patches and stickers would be great too.

    😉

  23. Very interesting.

    Measured in terms of blink amplitude and skin conductance, the strongest stress responses to a variety of threat stimuli occurred among folks who “favor defense spending, capital punishment, patriotism, and the Iraq War”. In contrast, those who “support foreign aid, liberal immigration policies, pacifism, and gun control” tended to be pretty laid-back when confronted with the same stimuli.

    This research on threat response tends to confirm a model of human personality first put forward by Prof. Timothy Leary and developed by the late American writer Robert Anton Wilson, most fully in his book Prometheus Rising. Leary and Wilson organized the human being into a structure comprised of 8 different levels or circuits. The first they named the Bio-survival circuit and it concerned itself with basic issues of physical-mental well-being such as hunger, warmth and physical safety.

    Wilson believed that early life experiences during infancy (with a possible genetic influence) split people into two groups: those who felt high levels of bio-survival anxiety and perceived the world as a threatening, hostile place; alongside a second group (a minority given general world conditions) who did not suffer from high levels of fear about their physical safety and wellbeing and who saw the world as a nourishing place.

    The first group became neophobes (conservatives) and avoided new experiences, situations and persons because of the high level of risk they attached to them. The second group became neophiles and experimenters, eager to try new foods, experiences, visit new locations and explore new concepts and ideas.

    Wilson’s solution to problem of the neophobic conservatives involved reducing the amount of anxiety they felt. If you can get them to relax they may become slightly more receptive. Increasing their fear by behaving in a threatening manner will only confirm their basic perception of the universe.

    Altemeyer – the Canadian psychologist whose work on authoritarian submissive personality structure got mentioned – arrived at a similar conclusion to Wilson. Neophiles (progressives) need to befriend neophobes and assure them that they aren’t the danger the conservatives think they are.

  24. edit: i realize that rayp’s comment has covered a lot of the questions I asked. Very interesting… especially reference to Altmeyer at the end. I’m inclined to agree with this approach of idea of helping/teaching conservatives to relax, and befriending and not scaring… because once attacked, whether real or perceived, the natural, sometimes uncontrollable reaction is to swipe back with the claws out.

  25. Ooops: apparently my original questions, most of which rayp answered, weren’t published:

    Okay, I’m still digesting this article,which is great by the way, but I want to throw some questions out there: With the study of liberals versus conservatives reaction to the spider on the face, how much of the reaction is hereditary, and how much is learned?

    So… to what degree is someone hereditarilly predisposed to religion, and all its trappings versus nutured? The same with liberalism: can one be predisposed, by way of dna, to “liberalism”?

    And then, are some people predisposed to have “born-again” experiences? To what extent can we focus on a certain group’s tendency to turn to god versus the intellect, in this case conservative fundies? To what extent is an attraction to spirituality beyond an individual’s control?

    But then, I can’t help but ask, is it in the favor of the human race for liberals to not entirely understand, or respect, the path of the conservatives… in that once one dismisses a group as lacking in intellect, “clinging to guns and god”, i wonder if this is perhaps counterproductive.

    Once again… superdooper post, and hope all are aware I’m not looking for cut and dry answers on these questions… unless there are studies out there that track the nature versus nurture, dna aspect of being liberal vs conservative.

  26. “Why hasn’t natural selection driven the religious right to extinction?”

    One could also ask why hasn’t it driven the secular left to extinction, with their support for unlimited abortion, non pro-creative sex, and more?

    Oh, wait- you mean not all secular leftists support all of these things? Of course they don’t. And neither do all religious traditionalists support all of the the items you suggest.

    I could say “judge not, lest ye be judged” but then, that might be construed as an endorsement of a traditoonal expression of religion, which some folks seem to object to.

    Go in peace.

  27. Glad to have helped resolve a few questions for you.

    As for the issue of hereditary influence on relgious belief I’d just say that if genes could do the job alone, religions and other human institutions wouldn’t need explicit sanctions against defectors – individuals who find it to their advantage to enjoy the benefits of group membership and who fail to honour their obligations. If we marched in lock step to our genes and the genes favouring obedience to religion predominated in the gene pool, one could dispense with the punishment of heretics, the policing of believers ideas and feelings etc. It looks however as if its alway potentially advantageous for a believer to pay lip service to his religion while acting contrary to its teachings in private (for a direct genetic benefit one could look at the frequency of adultery in monotheistic religions such as Christianity who advocate monogamy).

    As Professor Richard Dawkins pointed out in his book The Extended Phenotype, genetic factors get oversold as constituting strong determinism – people have the (conservative) notion that one can’t escape them – if you’ve got a gene for religion, don’t bother struggling – you’ll be in church every Sunday regardless. In fact, genetics represents only one influence and other factors can negate its effect.

    A change in the environment can result in the change in the expression of a gene in the organism’s phenotype. Potentially, even if a ‘God gene’ existed, it could be directed into a quite different activity than traditional religion.

  28. A further point: this discussion seems framed in the specific context of the USA – a modern nation with a high degree of religious practice. In my own country, the United Kingdom, the majority of the population has become irreligious – they don’t attend any Church, worship, pray, read any sacred texts or engage in any kind of religious practice.

    This change in British society has taken place within only two or possibly three generations (since the 1940s) – far too short a length of time for it to have resulted from any change in the frequency of genes.

    If people in the modern British population possess a ‘God gene’ it doesn’t express itself anymore in traditional religious practices.

  29. ** national socialism american style, “wrapped in a flag, carrying the cross” **

    Palin is panto Peter Pan, a never-grow-up tomboy. How else to characterize a mental and behavioral juvenile who opines that human beings and dinosaurs walked together in a world at most 6,000 years old. Abandon rationality and honesty if you would be one with her in holy-fundie-land.

    Zealots like Sister Sarah want a theocratic America — an Ameristan, complete with puritanism and fanaticism — they will forgive Palin’s handlers for not allowing her to talk about religion. After all, she’s a lying shill for dominionism.

    We know exactly what Palin reads — dominionist screeds filled with (Pat) Robertson’s, Dobson’s and Hagee’s style of vile biblical interpretation and fundamentalist lies. They’re her source for law and morals, domestic and foreign policy, war strategy and negotiating tactics.

    Fundies hate what the US is becoming. They will not tolerate an open society, a pluralist culture, or a secular state. Christian fideists, just like Islamic fideists, demand racial “purity,” male dominated social control, subjugation of women, unquestioned acceptance of religious tyranny. Not by those labels of course.

    Palin has tried to conceal her own warped desire for bringing to fruition Margaret Atwood’s wretched dystopia stripped bare in her novel, The Handmaid’s Tale.

    Millions far saner than Palin still do not know what’s in her mind . . . unenlightened beliefs caused by thoughtless consumption of junk-food faith. Super-size me Sarah!

    bipolar2 ©2008

  30. ** broaden interpretative schema

    1. the philosopher is J. S. Mill, not Mills

    2. Female sexual selection favors development of supernormal stimuli (superstimuli) — so, you could add research from Tinbergen onward.

    3. Take some advice from business theory: Michael Porter. Competitive Advantage. For example, a religious group will have a high entry cost, but also a high exit cost. (Conversion to a belief structure will have a high psychological “cost.” So also de-conversion.) Fierce anti-competitive practices: apologetics, law suits, intimidation (e.g. in Scientology), attacks on public education, putting supporters in elective office (school boards –> Palin).

    4.It will have strict internal "quality" control mechanisms such as, purging, excommunicating. Extreme need to communicate the “good news” as part of adult recruitment. Right-wing religious groups have pioneered in use of electronic media ever since the 1920s. See. Albert O. Hirschman. Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States.

    5. Although religious groups to thrive in the beginning must recruit vigorously, bringing in completely naive subjects (infants) lowers entry costs, retention costs (quality control). Pro-natalism, which masquerades as pro-life, obviously follows as a growth strategy — so also home schooling.

    bipolar2

  31. ** Hark, hark! Lamarck. When darwinian evo fails as metaphor **

    Variation as species forming, Darwin called “descent with modification” It is achieved via “natural selection.” This is so-called darwinian evolution. Nature’s been busy with it for millions of years without our being around to watch or to imitate.

    Language formation makes a better case study for cultural change than, say, the evolution of horses. Human language capability derives from inherent brain capabilities. But, language development is another matter.

    Variation as language “species” formation could also be deemed “descent with modification.” However it is achieved via cultural selection, lamarckian evolution.

    Persons have been busy creating new languages, quite unintentionally, for thousands of years. Not by encoding genetic information, but by teaching and learning — imitating quite literally by word of mouth. This is a lamarckian (cultural) process, not a darwinian (naturally occurring genetic) process.

    Lamarckian evolution is many times faster than darwinian evolution, so much so that using “evolution” for both is highly misleading. The mechanism of change is totally different in each. “Natural selection” for species and “cultural selection” for new languages may or may not show analogous patterns for “descent” But any relationship is metaphorical.

    Attempts to extend the concept of natural selection into culture as explanatory of cultural change fail. They end up postulating unreal entities like ‘memes’ and ‘god genes’ and other chimera appearing as determinants of irreducibly cultural creations.

    Science itself is an irreducible cultural artifact. There is no concept of truth in nature. (Indeed, there are no concepts in nature whatsoever.) But, smuggling in scientific prestige by illicit analogical argument is obviously a move only a scientistic apologist would countenance.

    Religions belong to cultures embedded in nature. And *cultures* are our distinctive human-all-too-human handiwork. Religions are obsolete, unnecessary cultural artifacts. Any specific religion reenacts and institutionalizes a cultic myth. It gets spread through custom and imitation, financially supported by mores and law, and enforced by intimidation and violence.

    Xian mythology which (like the other big-4 monotheisms zoroastrianism, post-exilic judaism, and islam) posits a moralized universal order which never did exist. All the *meaning* to be found was put there by our ancestors. (Our entire western culture still needs to be de-converted. See Michel Onfray. Atheist Manifesto. 2006.)

    Nature is neither meaningful nor meaningless. Neither a source of comfort (natural theology) nor a source of despair (existentialism). Heirs of a dead god still believe in ‘his’ moralized universe, one gone empty.

    bipolar2 ©2008

  32. abb3w says:

    Increase emphasis on rigorous pattern recognition in education to try and overcome the natural tendency. I’d suggest more emphasis on “pure” mathematics such as formal languages; it’s good CS education, and also (potentially) allows for a way science may be shown provably the best way to describe reality.

    Induce environmental conditions where false positives on pattern recognition are more adversely selective than false negatives

    May I say something here? I see what you’re saying, but there is another factor we might wanna consider.

    Seeing more patterns where there are none is not a problem, per se, the problem is in the next step of the process where the individual filters and sorts the ideas generated by the pattern-matching and decides which are likely, actionable, or meaningful.

    I agree that teaching more math is good, but I think we want to be really careful about paring away the ability to generate new patterns overall, even ludicrous ones. That sounds like it would make for too much uniformity in thinking (and if you have ever been on a committee to solve a complex problem, and not had a variety of thinking styles, you know what I mean here) and not enough creative solution generation.

    We could stymie technology and innovation, forget what it would do to the arts and literature. The blogger here, for instance, makes a living generating new patterns from stuff he’s read and then writing books about them.

    My personal opinion on this is that if we encourage kids to think widely, to make as many patterns as they can, and then train them to evaluate what they imagined, not to reject nonsensical patterns, but to hold them as fun thoughts, we can keep the creativity that is at the heart of science, and also deflate the scariness of the Imagined Bad Thing for them.

    Or did I miss the gist of what you said?

  33. Ignoring for a moment your comment that statistical significance in a smaller sample is of more import than statistical significance in a larger one (if you’re doing your job right, it shouldn’t be; if you’re doing your job wrong, it REALLY shouldn’t be), I find an interesting aside in the responses of Your Average Leftist and Your Average Rightist to the ascendancy of the other side.

    Rightists get scared and maybe angry. Leftists get depressed and maybe angry.

    Hmm. As an American, perhaps I should modify that to “Centrists get depressed and maybe angry”. Any people from Real Countries here that could offer a sweeping generalization about the extreme left?

  34. “I might point out that no less a songwriter than Bob Dylan has described ol’ Alice as one of the most consistently underrated lyricists in rock.”

    Don’t get me wrong. I am a big fan of Alice, but I don’t see how you can compare “…she’s cool in bed, cause Ethel’s dead” to “snot is running down his nose”.

  35. vtgreyjoybastard says:

    Ignoring for a moment your comment that statistical significance in a smaller sample is of more import than statistical significance in a larger one

    Hee – well, if you mentioned it *while also* ignoring it, that would be delightfully in line with the idea batted around here on “action sans conscious thought” vampires. I like it.

    I am going to go ahead and disagree, I think, with the idea that significance in small samples is more impressive. A larger sample is preferable because the idea behind stats is to numerically guess at the relationships in the entire population. The more of the entire population you can get in the sample, the closer you are to answering questions about that actual parent. Feel free to correct me, of course.

    I’m more impressed with studies that have a larger more longitudinal base, and I feel more comfortable with believing results from individual studies when I see them in the footnotes at the end of a review in a science journal, after several years have passed. Unless the reviewer has an axe to grind.

    Even in physics, where you’re not mired in the confounds inherent in psychology or the biology of thought, you may still get a study published and not get replication, which means your study, no matter how elegantly or carefully executed, was a fluke. That’s the danger of samples and only doing one study and then announcing: I have proven some larger abstract construct with my one clever experiment.

    I would draw our attention to Pons and Fleischman and TABLETOP FUSION? What a media buzz that caused! Oh, and that guy announcing spontaneous fusion reactions in acoustical cavitation of deuterated acetone? Hahaha. Pons and Fleischman was like 20 years ago, I think. People are still working on that one, and I still don’t have a fusion-powered computer or refrigerator, I note with disappointment. God, and that’s physics. Psychology is way more complicated, numbers of variables wise.

    Flukes happen with samples, in fact, stats says they are going to happen in biological populations, hence the confidence level idea, and for speculative fiction, you have to go with the cutting edge ideas or your book is out of date before it hits the stores, I assume, but I am way more comfortable with review articles years ex post facto when accepting something as physical reality. I am so dull!

    Rightists get scared and maybe angry. Leftists get depressed and maybe angry

    hahahahha – I think you are totally onto something there! That’s why leftists don’t own as many guns; they might shoot themselves?

    Any people from Real Countries here

    Hey, buddy. My country’s real – big as life and twice as ugly.

  36. That’s why leftists don’t own as many guns

    Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov used to go hunting with rifles almost as much as Sarah Palin, in a similar climate to boot!

    Perhaps it has something to do with all the ice, snow and the prevalence of bears…

  37. …which would explain why Canadians seem suspended between the far left and right.

    BTW, does Canada have any territorial ambitions concerning Alaska? Obviously, the Great White North faces a shortage of the aforementioned items.

  38. I find it lovely that all the articles you’ve sited are also on my website that I created in a war against ignorance.

    I do love your article.

  39. bec-87rb said…

    I was thinking supernatural smiting,

    I was actually thinking superstitious smiting, insofar as there isn’t much in the way of real evidence that Christ even existed as a historical figure (I’m given to understand that even the theological community regards that passage in Josephus as a hoax).

    You know darn well that the “I come not to bring peace” speech was Zombie Jesus giving the 12 some last instructions, and only a metaphor leading into his quote from Micah 7 about Isreal being laid low now to rise later. I.e., a pep talk, not literal instructions that ladies should stab their mothers-in-law for Jesus.

    Doesn't matter. The martial attitude is undeniable whether metaphorically intended or not. It's a little like those old chestnuts "Onward Christian Soldiers" and "A Flying Fortress is Our God" — they may say it’s merely a symbol for wrestling with sin, but a few centuries of bloody history isn’t so easily swept under the rug. Easy enough to look back now and say they misunderstood His words, and we’re the ones who know what he really meant. Yeah? Says who?

    Anonymous said…

    Please, pretty please, change your template to a style that we can read? White text on black background is simply too hard. Please, please, please, please, please?

    I ran a poll on this a while back; over 80% of respondents said they liked white-on-black just fine, and vetoed various other combinations I tried pretty firmly. But if you can get two others to complain, I’ll open the subject for negotiations again.

    Freidenker85 said…

    Let me just say that I was honored to actually attend classes under the honorable Professor Amotz Zehavi, the Israeli professor who first delineated the handicap principle.
    I also want to point out that what you presented here is a classic example of a handicap principle, and since I still have my notes written down, I can give you all sorts of other examples in the wild for it, if you want!

    That is very cool! Welcome to the crawl! Yeah, send me more examples. In particular, back in the day when I was up on such things the dawn chorus of songbirds was being batted around as an example of the handicap principle, but the evidence seemed both tenuous and controversial. How did that one sort out?

    rayp said…

    …The first group became neophobes (conservatives) and avoided new experiences, situations and persons because of the high level of risk they attached to them. The second group became neophiles and experimenters, eager to try new foods, experiences, visit new locations and explore new concepts and ideas…

    That is fascinating. And I’m guessing, on a game-theory level a mixed-strategy would work best; you want both the risk-averse and the explorers in any given scenario, and the optimum ratio would depend on the stability and the riskiness of the operational environment.

    I wonder if anyone’s done any work on the volatility of an environment and the ratio of risk-takers to risk-aversives. I wonder if Toxoplasma infections play a role here…

    Christine Vyrnon said…

    With the study of liberals versus conservatives reaction to the spider on the face, how much of the reaction is hereditary, and how much is learned?

    The authors didn’t pin it down. They cited third-party studies establishing the amygdala’s role in fright responses (which is hardly news to anyone), and another suggesting that said wiring might have a genetic component (which is; because while gross brain structures are genetically encoded, my understanding was that most of the fine-scale wiring was developmental).

    And then, are some people predisposed to have “born-again” experiences?

    Interesting you should ask — the novel I'm working on now plays around with that question.

    But then, I can’t help but ask, is it in the favor of the human race for liberals to not entirely understand, or respect, the path of the conservatives… in that once one dismisses a group as lacking in intellect, “clinging to guns and god”, i wonder if this is perhaps counterproductive.

    I take your point, and it’s a good one, but the difference here is that “clinging to guns and god” isn’t necessarily dismissive; it could be a legitimate research finding. The problem then becomes what do you do when said findings, empirically-supported, offend certain groups? Do you opt for toning down your findings (and therefore corrupting the scientific process), or do you invite offense, outrage, and death threats? I don’t know how many people here remember Rushton’s research into race and mental development a couple decades back; I remember seeing him on Oprah back then (perhaps the only time I ever watched that show), sitting calmly while the audience hurled insults and invective at him. He pointed out that he had found certain differences between the races and the role of science after all was to explore these things. Apparently his actual research sucked; the findings he spoke of were purely artefactual. But the audience didn’t know that, and didn’t care. They were simply outraged that this guy had dared to ask the question. They didn’t attack his science, they attacked him, and they did that because they didn’t like what he had to say. I watched David Suzuki do exactly the same thing: play to the pit, deliver slurs and insults from his pulpit instead of calmly pointing out the fundamental flaws in Rushton’s research. I lost all respect for that man then.

    Again, Rushton’s findings weren’t valid. But the question is, what if they had been?

    RJ said…

    One could also ask why hasn’t it driven the secular left to extinction, with their support for unlimited abortion, non pro-creative sex, and more?

    Dude, read the posting. More people. Believe in angels. Than Natural selection. And if you trawl back through the crawl a ways, you’ll discover links to polls showing that atheists are reviled in America even more than Muslims, which is a tough bar to clear these days. That half of the US population can’t answer the question “How long does it take the earth to complete a circuit of the sun?”, even when the question is framed as multiple choice. And speaking of Muslims, what’s the fastest growing religion on the planet?

    The secular left is being driven to extinction. This was one of my points.

    Try to keep up.

    rayp said…

    In fact, genetics represents only one influence …

    Yes. I guess this bears repeating, because there seems to be a reflex in a lot of people to see “genetic element” and internalize “it’s all genetically predetermined”. There are interactions. Pinker wrote a whole book making that essential point, because so many people just don’t seem to see beyond either/or.

    A change in the environment can result in the change in the expression of a gene in the organism’s phenotype. Potentially, even if a ‘God gene’ existed, it could be directed into a quite different activity than traditional religion.

    Again, true. But the more liberal and understated variants of that gene are getting the shit kicked out of them as much as the hardcore secularists are. The virulent extreme seems to be most successful.

    A further point: this discussion seems framed in the specific context of the USA – a modern nation with a high degree of religious practice. In my own country, the United Kingdom, the majority of the population has become irreligious – they don’t attend any Church, worship, pray, read any sacred texts or engage in any kind of religious practice.

    This change in British society has taken place within only two or possibly three generations (since the 1940s) – far too short a length of time for it to have resulted from any change in the frequency of genes.

    Don't count your chickens — just today I heard a news report that around 30% of British schoolchildren now believe in special creation rather than evolution. And apparently that increase has happened in less than ten years.

    Bipolar2 said…

    the philosopher is J. S. Mill, not Mills

    Right you are. Thanks.

    Attempts to extend the concept of natural selection into culture as explanatory of cultural change fail. They end up postulating unreal entities like ‘memes’ and ‘god genes’ and other chimera appearing as determinants of irreducibly cultural creations.

    I agree the parallels are not exact and the mechanisms are different, but there are points of comparison (hugely maladaptive traits come to bad ends in both cases, for example. Or at least, we can hope as much.). But all Lamarckian entities are not phantoms: changing an opinion, having a thought, these are nongenetic processes, and yet they literally rewire the brain.

    greyjoybastard said…

    Ignoring for a moment your comment that statistical significance in a smaller sample is of more import than statistical significance in a larger one (if you’re doing your job right, it shouldn’t be; if you’re doing your job wrong, it REALLY shouldn’t be)…

    To which bec-87rb rejoinded…

    Hee – well, if you mentioned it *while also* ignoring it, that would be delightfully in line with the idea batted around here on “action sans conscious thought” vampires. I like it.

    I am going to go ahead and disagree, I think, with the idea that significance in small samples is more impressive. A larger sample is preferable because the idea behind stats is to numerically guess at the relationships in the entire population. The more of the entire population you can get in the sample, the closer you are to answering questions about that actual parent. Feel free to correct me, of course.

    OK. I don’t think we disagree here (well, except that greyjoybastard’s parenthetical may have gone a bit off the rails). I never said that small samples are preferable to large ones, or that significance in the former was of “more import” (that would depend of the specific P value, not just whether you’ve beaten your alpha). But because studies with small N have lower statistical power, real patterns that might emerge from a larger sample might not emerge from the smaller one. Ergo, a strongly significant finding with a small sample implies a pretty strong signal, the same way picking up a distant radio transmission with a cheap-ass crystal radio set implies a stronger transmission than one that could only be picked up with state-of-the-art military surveillance equipment.

    Finally, Cat said…

    I find it lovely that all the articles you’ve sited are also on my website that I created in a war against ignorance.

    I do love your article.

    Thank you! Where is this website of yours? You’ve locked outsiders out of your blogger profile.

  40. I can see from the brevity of this post that you’re hard at work on your new book!

    Luv u,
    Jessie

    P.S. Call, email, or send smoke signals.

  41. Mr Watts said:

    OK. I don’t think we disagree here [snip] I never said that small samples are preferable to large ones

    Oh yes! We probably do agree, and you didn’t claim they were preferable, but I wasn’t sure if all your audience has a science background, and I kinda got that implication from the comment. I’m sure you didn’t intend to imply that. So, I was nit-picking. I apologize.

    Ergo, a strongly significant finding with a small sample implies a pretty strong signal

    Respectfully, sir, respectfully, I’d consider several scenarios when I got a really significant result from a small sample. I probably picked the biggest sample that I could handle, either by money or time constraints, and hoped that I got a result I could write a paper about and that someone would publish? The biggest sample might not be as big as I would like, were I the experimentalist.

    In the paper, I would claim that we assumed the null proposition, but that my results indicated there is an effect on the order of the one seen in my sample. I kinda have to do that? You did The Science; you know how that goes.

    In my head, however, I would be considering the other possibilities, given the small sample size – that I caught an anomalous area of the population and there actually is no effect, or that there is an effect, but my small sample size completely distorted the magnitude of the effect. Were I the experimenter.

    From the “HEY!! WAIT A DOGGONE MINUTE” Department, your comment:

    “clinging to guns and god” isn’t necessarily dismissive

    Whether it was meant as a simple dispassionate observation that scared people feel better if they have a shotgun and bible, the wording is insulting and that was the spirit in which it was delivered by Mr. Obama. I’m not a McCain supporter, btw, but even I could smell the derision coming off that one. Smoooth, Mr. Obama. Smooth.

  42. This ties in well to Bob Altemeyer’s – The Authoritarians.

    http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/

    It distills his decades of research into an easy to read synopsis — A definite must-read!!

    From the intro page:

    The studies explain so much about these people. Yes, the research shows they are very aggressive, but why are they so hostile? Yes, experiments show they are almost totally uninfluenced by reasoning and evidence, but why are they so dogmatic? Yes, studies show the Religious Right has more than its fair share of hypocrites, from top to bottom; but why are they two-faced, and how come one face never notices the other? Yes, their leaders can give the flimsiest of excuses and even outright lies about things they’ve done wrong, but why do the rank-and-file believe them? What happens when authoritarian followers find the authoritarian leaders they crave and start marching together?

    I think you’ll find this book “explains a lot.” Many scattered impressions about the enemies of freedom and equality become solidified by science and coherently connected here.

  43. Mr Watts,

    About the part that being conservative may be genetical: I just finished “Cavalli-Sforza, L.L. (1991) Genes, Peoples, and Languages”, where the author cites studies, that political leanings are more a result of societical indoctrinations (family and environment).

    Any thoughts on that?

    Regards, Christian

  44. I haven’t read that paper, but its conclusions seem plausible. Keep in mind that Oxley et al never said that political leanings “were genetical”; they said that the fear response (more pronounced in right-wingers) involved the amygdala, and that genetics had previously been implicated in the hardwiring of the amygdala. They were suggesting a genetic component to behavior. They weren’t on any kind of genes-is-destiny trip.

    Even so (as I mentioned in my original post) I was kind of surprised even by the implication of a genetic component; I’d always assumed that when it came to things like political attitudes, the tweaks to the relevant neural wiring would be too subtle for much genetic control. I don’t write the suggestion off by any means, but it did surprise me a bit.

    That said, judging by what you said about Cavalli-Sforza, I’d probably find that paper’s findings deeper in the green zone of my “conventional-wisdom meter”.

  45. There is something else afoot here, and its related to the studies, but with a slant. I don’t perceive the “fear” that drives people to right-wing religions or political groups as being a fear that stems from some massive, external enemy, or even the dangers that nature can, on rare occasions, pose to humans. Rather, I think it has to do with pack behavior.

    You watch children play, very young children, and they usually get along fairly well, and no child cares what color, shape, gender, or family religion (or lack thereof) another child has. It’s a pretty egalitarian world for quite a long time.

    But as children age, something happens. Real friendships begin to gel, alliances are formed, and jealousy rears its head as certain children are included more often than others, and some children are, outright, rejected.

    Ouch! We all saw it in elementary school, and it was painful to see, even more painful to remember at those high school reunions when the “unpopular” kids, now adults, arrived… and many watched and whispered, waiting to see how the “loser” would react.

    But the odd thing I noticed, over and over again, was that, most often, it was NOT the “unpopular” kid (now adult) who was fearful or ashamed at those high school reunions. Rather, it was the really popular crowd, and mostly only those popular people who saw themselves as almost totally defined by their top dog status as it existed in high school, and it was those people who twitched with discomfort as the loser entered the room.

    My guess is that real fear comes from once having had a very high pack position that is no longer solid, in fact, it evaporates from year to year, and everyone can see it. But more importantly, if that status was the main value that a top dog person saw in him/herself, then that’s the person who stands to lose the most because they have nothing else, no internal value of themselves, no personal foundation.

    It is this type of person who seems to be the most prone to gravitating toward authoritarian religions and/or authoritarian political groups, primarily as a way to recapture a top dog position amongst a relatively small group of people who will constantly reinforce their status in predictable, repeated rituals.
    (Notice the emphasis of rituals in the Republican party, very church-like)

    And it is this sort of person who will likely be quite vocal, extroverted, and eager to seek a position in the group that puts them front and center in the eyes of the its members.

    So why does it seem that so many of the unpopular children, those who actually did feel the fear of rejection, why is it that they do NOT seem to be drawn irresistibly into far-right religions or political groups as adults?

    I think is has to do with the fact that many of the unpopular children had “to find themselves” at a very young age, as a means of survival. These “less favored”, even rejected children, had to learn a very valuable life skill, something that is not well taught in most societies. These children had to learn to become their own best friend, to like themselves regardless of whether or not “the popular” kids liked them, and this self value was hard-wired in at a young age and became permanent, nearly unshakeable.

    In other words, they became independent, self confident people, and, more likely than not, probably gravitated towards progressive, inclusive, compassionate political views as adults, and if they joined a church at all, it was probably a “God-Lite” flavor of religion…less filling, fewer calories expended in ritual requirements.

    So, while the studies cite fear as a driving force in authoritarian societies; I think, more precisely, it has more to do with fear of a changed hierarchy, coupled with a lack of internal self worth, that drives people to these authoritarian organizations.

    And those who actually were rejected…well, they felt that pain so early in their lives that they never expected to be “top dog”, not as a child, and not as an adult, and they likely saw no benefit in hierarchic societies, so they developed their own, internal, foundations to support their sense of self-worth.

    But this, alone, could not explain the vast numbers of people who join authoritarian organizations. Not everyone in those groups is a previous high school top dog seeking re-validation of their previous standing.

    But, if you look closely at these right-wing organizations, what I think you’ll find is that the members are all people who LACK a strong sense of self worth. They could not stand alone and feel good about themselves; they need external validation on a regular basis.

    Many right-wing members are also likely composed of those unpopular kids who did NOT manage to become their own best friend. So, they joined an authoritarian group because the rules of those groups say, if you are a member, then the other members are obligated to like you; you can’t be rejected. Whew! Good news to those starved of inclusion for so long!

    The real icing on the cake is that, for those people who lack internal self worth, it’s vitally important to tear down others who DO have a strong sense of self worth, and you attack as a group because you must… since none of you, individually, has the cajones to go it alone!

    And so, these authoritarian groups spend most of their time insulting and accusing people who are independent thinkers.

    Self confident people, who do not require outside approval, scare the hell out of authoritarian personalities. Their very existence points out the sad weakness in the authoritarian person. They can’t stand to have anyone set an example of what a strong person can be… because they don’t want that power of self confidence to infect their herd! If it did, members would leave, and who would remain to validate those who need lots of people to tell them how great and special they are?

  46. I can’t really recall where my train of thought was going wrt the sample-size comment that I (rather rightly) got utterly flayed over – it’s been a while since I delved into the darkened depths of statistical details.

    This clearly means I need to have a good solid swipe at the actual research before I mouth off again. 😉

  47. greyjoybastard says:

    I can’t really recall where my train of thought was going wrt the sample-size comment that I got utterly flayed over

    Oh no! If you felt flayed by me, ten thousand pardons! I am never sure how circumspect and polite to be in this bunch, where there is much blunt statement of personal opinion. Cannot speak for brother Watts, of course, but if I flayed, I unflay right now, and pat the flesh back into shape. (Okay, ew? You get the idea, though?)

  48. I don’t really have an intelectual or pithy comment about this blurb, but I just found it amusing that I was sitting here in a bar in Stockholm and asked them for a local beer. They provided me with “GOD LAGER”. If I liked it does it make me a mindless religeous person or just someone who likes good beer? Your ideas would be appreciated. OK, actually, your dollars (Canadian though they be)would be more appreciated because the cost of everything in Sweden is high.

  49. A few points:

    First, nearly 90% of Americans consider themselves Christian. Therefore, you’re also talking about a lot of “religious left” who believe absurd things.

    You’re flat wrong to think that a small, double digit sample is a good thing….especially when you’re talking about 300,000,000 people in a place where local culture means more than a generic ideology. Simply idiotic. I can guarantee that I could find the exact opposite findings if I conducted small sample tests in various regions of the country.

    The study conclusions are ambiguous. So, what does the “spider test” mean? Left wingers are too stupid to know when they’re in danger? Every one knows that spiders bite and that many are poisonous…you can’t say a reaction to that would be consistent with someone who is “immune to the rules of evidence and reasonable debate”. Shouldn’t people who don’t know when they’re in danger be the first to lose the natural selection game?

    The science here is garbage and the summary is even worse.
    If you’d like to find some truth, try proving that your preconceptions are wrong. You close with a mention of Republican bad behavior…any thought to mentioning the left’s bad behavior at the GOP convention? There were plots to kidnap delegates! Give me a break.

    There are good and bad, week and strong in both left and right. If you honestly can’t see that, then you are as bigoted as you would claim the right wingers are.

  50. mckayvo said…

    First, nearly 90% of Americans consider themselves Christian. Therefore, you’re also talking about a lot of “religious left” who believe absurd things.

    Yes, they do. They just aren’t as scared as the right-wingers.

    You’re flat wrong to think that a small, double digit sample is a good thing….

    I never said any such thing. I said that any pattern manifesting statistical significance at such a small sample size had to be pretty damn strong. The pattern emerged despite the drawback of a small sample size. What part of that do you read as “a small sample is a good thing”?

    Simply idiotic. I can guarantee that I could find the exact opposite findings if I conducted small sample tests in various regions of the country.

    Guarantee, huh? Well, you have the reference and the supplemental materials. You can replicate the study to your heart’s content. Go wild; I look forward to reading about your results.

    The study conclusions are ambiguous. So, what does the “spider test” mean? Left wingers are too stupid to know when they’re in danger? Every one knows that spiders bite and that many are poisonous…you can’t say a reaction to that would be consistent with someone who is “immune to the rules of evidence and reasonable debate”. Shouldn’t people who don’t know when they’re in danger be the first to lose the natural selection game?

    You don’t read much, do you? Or at least, you don’t read carefully. The adaptiveness of arachnophobia (or lack thereof) is irrelevant. The authors didn’t make any conclusions as to whether a given fear response is good, bad, or indifferent; only that it correlates with certain political leanings.

    The science here is garbage…

    That’s always a possibility. I suppose it comes down to which source has more credibility; some overexcitable dude who goes by the online handle of mckayvo, or the academic peer-review process of one of the most prestigious science journals on the planet. Tough call, I’ll admit.

    If you’d like to find some truth, try proving that your preconceptions are wrong. You close with a mention of Republican bad behavior…any thought to mentioning the left’s bad behavior at the GOP convention? There were plots to kidnap delegates!

    I hadn't heard that. I'll have to check out the— oh, I see you didn't provide a citation for that claim. Care to? Or should I just file it with other empirical facts like "Barack Obama is a secret Muslim"?

    There are good and bad, week and strong in both left and right. If you honestly can’t see that, then you are as bigoted as you would claim the right wingers are.

    Perhaps. But at least I seem to be a bit less high-strung.

  51. Jessie said

    Call, email, or send smoke signals.

    Smoke signals are doable, especially given the current state of the bottom of my oven. They might not be visible over the equator, however. E-mail would require, you know, an e-mail address. Something a bit more explicit than “anonymous”.

  52. Sorry, Peter. My bad. I just assumed that someone who read so much (and so carefully) would have seen this story. How many sources would you like? Here’s the first three that popped up:
    http://www.scrippsnews.com/node/36024
    http://www.twincities.com/ci_10365754?nclick_check=1
    http://www.nysun.com/blogs/latest-politics/2008/09/fbi-police-molotovs-kidnap-talk-part-of.html

    As far as you saying a small sample is good…
    I guess I misunderstood your meaning of “cool”.
    “One cool thing about the aforementioned studies is that they have relatively low sample sizes, both in two-digit range.”
    Financially, I live and die by the result of different weekly studies and I have never found a smaller sample to be helpful in any way.
    In fact, quite the opposite. I’ve often seen studies of 100 turn completely upside-down from participant 60 to 100.
    Perhaps real life has no place is the prestigious science journals.

    Weird. You’re automatic assumptions about me (that I am high-strung and overly-excited), combined with your reluctance to consider any contrary information, reminds me of ultra-religious people that I know.

  53. Anonymous said

    They provided me with “GOD LAGER”. If I liked it does it make me a mindless religious person or just someone who likes good beer?

    That second thing. Assuming, of course, that it was good beer.

  54. Stumbling back into the arena, mckayvo said…

    Sorry, Peter. My bad. … How many sources would you like? Here’s the first three that popped up:

    Ah. “Self-styled anarchists”, according to these reports. The coda you were taking exception to compared Republicans and Democrats: the legitimate, mainstream right and centrist parties. (There’s that whole “careful reading” thing again.) If you’d rather compare the Anarchist movement to the corresponding right-hand extreme, Aryan Nation might be a more appropriate comparator. (And who knows, maybe those were the guys yelling kill him! at Palin’s rally. My understanding is that those folks aren’t too partial to to the caramel-colored…)

    As far as you saying a small sample is good… I guess I misunderstood your meaning of “cool”.

    Evidently. But the first step to fixing a problem is admitting you have one.

    … I have never found a smaller sample to be helpful in any way.

    Neither have I, nor (for perhaps the third time now) have I ever claimed to. Just out of curiosity, is English your first language?

    Weird. You’re (sic) automatic assumptions about me (that I am high-strung and overly-excited),

    Actually, that was neither an assumption nor automatic. It was based entirely on the foamy tone of your first comment. It’s still there; go back, check it out. Reading it, you can almost see the spittle flying from your lower lip.

    … combined with your reluctance to consider any contrary information…

    Dude, any regular visitor to this crawl should be able to tell you that I consider evidence from all sides, and sometimes — when said evidence and/or argument calls for it — I even change my opinion. (Check out the entry headed "I am Fundamentalist and So Can You" for an example). What I'm reluctant to take seriously is unsupported outraged splutterings based on complete misreading of relevant texts.

    …reminds me of ultra-religious people that I know.

    And I’m guessing you may know a few. But I guess it’s only fair. Your inability to mount a cogent argument, together with your apparent belief that simply repeating the same misstatements comprises an effective counter, reminds me of a few illiterate doofii that I know.

    Good thing appearances can be so deceiving, eh?

  55. It’s a Fight!!! YAAY!

    Gentlemen, nice bout so far!

    Okay, here’s what Mr. Watts led off with,

    “One cool thing about the aforementioned studies is that they have relatively low sample sizes, both in two-digit range. Any pattern that shows statistical significance in a small sample has got to be pretty damn strong; both of these are.”

    Mr. mckayvo came back with,

    “Financially, I live and die by the result of different weekly studies and I have never found a smaller sample to be helpful in any way. In fact, quite the opposite. I’ve often seen studies of 100 turn completely upside-down from participant 60 to 100”

    Gentlemen – can we agree that we have two concordant ideas associated with statistical significance?

    One is what I think Mr. Watts was talking about, which is that *if the sample is representative*, since we have a higher bar for smaller samples, if we get significance, that may indicate a greater effect, because the bar is lower for larger samples.

    The other is that *if the sample is not representative*, then significance in a small sample does not indicate any real effect all. And if we drew all possible samples of that size we are required to get some unrepresentative samples.

    The key is, you assume/hope that you took a representative sample, but you can’t be sure. So Mr. Watts is correct, if the sample is representative, and Mr. mckayvo is correct if we got a bad sample.

    Okay! Gentlemen, have at it! I love seeing two muscular brain pans crashing together. *girlie squeal*

  56. Oh, look! An angry, scared little man telling himself that the Other is evil, stupid, and inferior. And trying to convince himself his fears are “scientific”.

    Well, ain’t that a new thing in the world.

  57. No, no no. I’m one of the smug, condescending elitists who look down on the real ‘murrica. You’re one of the scared, gun-toting rednecks who eat their young. Really, you should learn the talking points; they’ve been written out in small, simple words, and things are so much easier when everyone sticks to their assigned part.

    I see you remembered the part about slagging your opponents without ever addressing any of their specific arguments, though. That’s a start.

  58. The judges hold up their cards:

    4 points to snore.
    10 points to Mr. Watts.

  59. I take you’re not too bright (there was a previous post, where you lamented your lack of ability to develop muscles, and prattled on about a pill to convert fat into muscle, apparently unaware that there are different types of muscle cells.) and seemingly not too good with ‘the real world’ as it were. First, there are far more liberal christians than just fundies. secondly, they who bellow loudest, tend to get more. Muscle they’re way in. wrong or right-and usually wrong.

    Plus, they really take that whole be fruitful and multiply thing seriously-especially in third world countries where religion has it’s grip. They’re busy gettin’ it on, pounding out the kiddies, and breeding little religious types, while you guys are, rather stupidly, tackling the powers that be in the religious arena-and the obvious targets, at that.

    You’re only real hope? Start breeding, raise little brats as athiests, and you might stand a chance. considering that the Catholic church has a stranglehold on around one sixth of the world population, and the stats on athiests aren’t looking too good, you gotta lot of work ahead of you. Funny, looks the christians and Islamics, Hidnus, etc., are taking darwin seriously, by establishing a breeding population far outnumbering yours, while you twits sit around on your reproductive systems arguing the finer points of evolution.

    Poolhall logic says “They fuck more, dumbass.”

  60. Brave, Brave Sir Anonymous said…

    I take (sic) you’re not too bright

    I’m not surprised. Anyone who can make so many dumbass statements in such a short space is bound to be misinformed on a whole range of issues.

    (there was a previous post, where you lamented your lack of ability to develop muscles,

    Actually, based on my own exercise regimen and your own obvious attempts to compensate for something, I’m guessing my muscle mass probably compares pretty favorably to yours. Below the neck, at least.

    and prattled on about a pill to convert fat into muscle, apparently unaware that there are different types of muscle cells.) and seemingly not too good with ‘the real world’ as it were.

    I’m also guessing you didn’t read the source article. It would be difficult for anyone with even a passing familiarity with ‘the real world’ (as it were), to conclude that it was talking about anything but striated (including cardiac) muscle.

    First, there are far more liberal christians (sic) than just fundies. secondly, they who bellow loudest, tend to get more. Muscle they’re (sic) way in. wrong or right-and usually wrong.

    I’ll grant that you’re probably on pretty familiar terms with that latter option.

    Plus, they really take that whole be fruitful and multiply thing seriously-especially in third world countries where religion has it’s (sic) grip. They’re busy gettin’ it on, pounding out the kiddies, and breeding little religious types, while you guys are, rather stupidly, tackling the powers that be in the religious arena-and the obvious targets, at that.

    Well, that’ll teach us to discuss things that interest us online. Now if only you could figure out that we do things offline as well, things that might not get spelled out here for others to read to you. You could even try doing that yourself, if you wanted; it’s called “life”.

    You’re (sic) only real hope? Start breeding, raise little brats as athiests,(sic) and you might stand a chance. considering that the Catholic church has a stranglehold on around one sixth of the world population, and the stats on athiests (sic) aren’t looking too good, you gotta lot of work ahead of you. Funny, looks the christians (sic) and Islamics, Hidnus,(sic) etc., are taking darwin (sic) seriously, by establishing a breeding population far outnumbering yours, while you twits sit around on your reproductive systems arguing the finer points of evolution.

    You don’t beat the enemy by becoming the enemy. The problem with breeding like Catholics (beyond the whole hoovering-up-the-world’s-resources thing, which I’m guessing might be a bit beyond anyone still wrestling with the difference between “their” and “they’re”) is that it not only reduces parents’ happiness, it also reduces their intelligence. Seriously, dude, you should know this better than anyone; judging by the quality of your post you’ve had more sprogs than Matt Trewhella.

    Poolhall logic says “They fuck more, dumbass.”

    Then you should probably head on back to that bastion of logic. You might even be welcome there. Also they have balls in abundance, so you could pick up a pair real cheap.

    ****

    And now, for the benefit of anyone else who’s still following this thread, a public service announcement. Brave Sir Anonymous here has inspired me to revisit the crawl’s no-nukes policy.

    I guess it’s some kind of measure of success when a blog’s profile gets sufficiently high for even the brain-dead to stumble across. And while snark is hardly unwelcome here, it’s generally served best when making some kind of valid point. I've noticed lately, though, a subspecies of asshole that tends to weigh in primarily on ass-hamster themes: a subspecies both confrontational (which I approve of) and stupid (which I don't). It's easy enough to dismember such rants, but it takes time and it's not much fun— I'd much rather fight with people whose IQs range above room temperature.

    Henceforth, therefore, I'll be scooping the blobs of shit from the pool before they have a chance to kick the E. coli count up too much. The rest of you are welcome to swim in peace.

  61. I, er, think Brave Sir Anonymous was drunk, now that I read his comments. I’m pretty sure there was some stupifiying substance intake occurring, given the missing words.

    Well, that’ll teach us to discuss things that interest us online.

    Nooooo! My job sux at present, and I need you guys @ the blog to keep the internet hopping. Don’t worry about the angry drunk guy, Peter, nor should the rest of this pirate ship, because we can take ’em! YAR!!

    There’s enough ticked off brain power around here to argue the ugly off a walrus. A stumble bum yelling by the port bow be no threat! *waves cutlass menacingly*

    ~bec “black spot” 87rb

  62. more:

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/faith/article6823229.ece

    From The Sunday Times, September 6, 2009
    We are born to believe in God
    Jonathan Leake and Andrew Sniderman

    ATHEISM really may be fighting against nature: humans have been hardwired by evolution to believe in God, scientists have suggested. …

    Bruce Hood, professor of developmental psychology at Bristol University …. will present his findings at the British Science Association’s annual meeting …

    Andrew Newberg, professor of radiology at the University of Pennsylvania, has used brain-imaging …

    Michael Persinger of Laurentian University, Ontario, … has used powerful magnetic fields to induce visions and spiritual experiences …

    Pascal Boyer, an anthropologist at Washington University … In a recent article in Nature … said: “From childhood, humans form enduring and important social relationships with fictional characters, imaginary friends, deceased relatives, unseen heroes and fantasised mates.
    “It is a small step from this to conceptualising spirits, dead ancestors and gods …”

  63. I pray that the Lord will give you peace.