Jun 16, 2007

A Third of Americans Disagree with Themselves

I am finally getting around to commenting on this poll, but I will not dwell on high numbers of Americans who reject evolution (alas, I already know that) or the particularly high numbers of Republicans who do so (gee, whoda thunk). What caught my eye was this table:
(Scroll down if you see a big white space, I haven't figured out how to eliminate it.)

View of Evolution and View of Creationism
Numbers Represent % of Total Sample

View of Creationism









View of Evolution

Definitely true





Probably true





Probably false





Definitely false





* Less than 0.5%

I commend Gallup for publishing this 2-dimensional table. In press releases, pollsters rarely show data along more than one dimension at a time, which makes it difficult to discern any correlations. And there are some amazing finds in this table.

If you sum up the numbers in the four cells in the top left quadrant, you find that 23% of Americans say that both evolution and creationism are definitely or probably true. (Actually, Gallup states the fraction as 24%, probably correcting for rounding errors.) It is logically possible to disbelieve both (e. g., one can believe that non-divine space aliens brought us to Earth), and 3% of respondents took that position, but how do you believe both theories? Was the question asked in a way that presented them as compatible? Let's see:

Next, we'd like to ask about your views on two different explanations for the origin and development of life on earth. Do you think -- [ITEMS ROTATED] -- is -- [ROTATED: definitely true, probably true, probably false, (or) definitely false]?
A. Evolution, that is, the idea that human beings developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life
B. Creationism, that is, the idea that God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years

While the question does leave a lot to be desired (introduction talks about the origins of life on earth, but both options mention the development of human beings), it is impossible to interpret the two options as logically compatible. You can't say both are true without violating the laws of logic. So, 24% of respondents made no sense!?

It is worse than that, actually. If you consider one of the theories to be "definitely true", you must, logically, consider the other "definitely false". So everything above and to the left of the diagonal is logically inconsistent. That is 6 cells, not just 4, and the percentages add up to 31%. Almost a third of respondents couldn't answer the two questions without contradicting themselves!

Much to my chagrin, the evolutionists, as a whole, did no better in the logic department than the creationists: in both camps, about a third of "definitely true" supporters and more than half of the "probably true" supporters violated logic. Worse yet, as there are fewer "definitely true" evolutionists, the total percentage of logic violators is actually somewhat higher among evolutionists (49% to 45%).

What could be the reasons for such massive inconsistency?

Some people may genuinely contradict themselves, but I doubt that they account for a significant part of the 31% logically challenged.

A lot more people could have misunderstood the questions. Too much information may have been packed into those two questions, and a rather narrow version of creationism is described (young-earth creationism). A lot of people actually believe in both evolution and creation to some extent, just not in the variants described. (More about those people in a bit.) If they didn't listen to the questions past the first words, they might have thought they agreed with both.

The results could be biased if people tend to give answers they think will please the investigator or sound agreeable. Since there was no neutral option (distinct from "no opinion") given, those who really think that "the jury is still out" had to choose between a weak positive and a weak negative opinion. And the actual responses break overwhelmingly in favor of weak positives: 35-16 for evolution, 27-16 for creation. As for the options available to true fence-sitters, double "probably true" beats double "probably false" 14 to 1. I think this bias accounts for something, but it is hard to believe that there could be so many people sitting on the fence without even leaning to one side.

Finally, the explanation may be in the people whose views differ from either option, but have something in common with both:

A separate Gallup Poll trend question -- also asked in May -- gave Americans three choices about human beings' origins. Responses to this question found that 43% of Americans choose the alternative closest to the creationist perspective, that "God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so." A substantial 38% say human beings evolved, but with God guiding the process. Another 14% favored an interpretation of evolution arguing that God had no part in the process, leaving a total of 52% who say humans evolved with or without God's direction.

52% is remarkably close to the 53% who, in the two-way poll, say evolution is definitely or probably true, and one would expect that theistic evolutionists would choose one of those answers. On the other hand, the two theistic views (creation and theistic evolution) account for 81% of respondents, which far exceeds the 66% that said creation was definitely or probably true. But that, too, is to be expected, because theistic evolution and young-earth creationism are mutually exclusive. The surprising result is not that the support for creationism doesn't gain 38% from the 3-way to the 2-way poll, but that it gains anything substantial, let alone 23%.

So, do the theistic evolutionists explain the supporters of both views? Not entirely - for example, fewer people are in the "definitely evolution, definitely not creation" corner than support non-theistic evolution in the 3-way poll - but a reasonable case can be made that most of the strange, illogical answers are due to theistic evolutionists. If about 60% of them didn't pay attention to the full description of creation, and heard only the part they agreed with ("God created human beings"), practically all of the double-support puzzle would be explained.

If it is implausible (and even offensive to the theistic evolutionist group) that 60% would have attention span shorter than 5 seconds, there is an almost equivalent, but more plausible and, possibly, less condescending explanation. Most people have a really hard time thinking in terms of probabilities, and a statement like "A is probably true" means to them something very different from what it means to me or to Gallup pollsters. I would automatically read it as "The probability that A is true is between 50% and 95%". (The upper limit of the range is the only unclear piece - should it be 90%? Or 99%? Maybe 99.99%?) But such numerical probabilities would mean nothing to many people; to make sense of the original statement, they may need to reinterpret it as "I somewhat agree that A is true." Of course, it means something quite different, but if your language doesn't have words for certain concepts, you make do with the best translation you can find (or make up).

If I am on the right track, there was a miscommunication between the pollsters and a substantial number of respondents. Those respondents changed the meanings of the answers: "definitely true" became "I agree strongly", "probably true" became "I agree somewhat" and so on. Such people could hold any of the substantive views probed by the poll; in most cases, there won't be any effect on the results. But take a theistic evolutionist who has to evaluate creationism. He believes that God created humans, by guiding the evolution process or intervening in it, but doesn't believe it happened as recently as literary interpretations of Genesis suggest. If he understands the options given by the poll, he will say that creation is definitely false (or probably false, if he is not so sure that Genesis is not literally true). But if he reinterprets the options as I think is likely, he can easily choose the option that, to him, sounds like "I agree somewhat", even if he is absolutely sure that the earth is billions of years old and that humans have emerged hundreds of thousands of years ago. After all, how significant are some numbers compared to God's act of creation?

To summarize, if 60% of all people can't think probabilistically, and that percentage is about the same among theistic evolutionists, the misunderstanding between pollsters and respondents can account for most of the anomalous result in the 2-way poll.

It's still depressing. A third of Americans contradict themselves, and most of those are unaware that they do.

Jun 13, 2007

Dismal (but getting used to it) Science

Most modern macroeconomic models are based on the paradigm of ultrarational and super-far-sighted economic agents (that's economese for "people") who act to maximize their expected lifetime utility (which is quantified happiness, more or less). Utility is usually modeled as an increasing function of consumption (not TB, but how many toys you get to buy) and leisure time (important if people have a choice of how much to work). For ease of computation (and, usually, for lack of strong evidence to the contrary), there is often a simplifying assumption that utility is time-separable and additive, which means that your lifetime utility is just the sum of your utilities in each year (perhaps discounted by some impatience factor). That is, your happiness this year depends only on how much you buy this year, not, for example, on how much you had last year and got accustomed to it; and it contributes to your lifetime happiness independently of what happens in any other year. Everyone knows the model is oversimplified, but at least it is as objective as can be... isn't it? Maybe not:
folks on the left get used to money, but not status and the reverse for folks on the right. (...) the fact that the happiness-effects of various things seem to be mediated by ideological leanings seems to basically ruin the prospect of using happiness research as a neutral, scientific way of assessing policy. It may just end up sort-of-usefully reminding us that one group may like a certain policy and another group may not simply because it makes one group feel better and another group feel worse.

Holy Wotan and Fricka! If this German study and Wilkinson's interpretation, above, are correct, any analysis of well-being based on the time-additive-utility-for-consumption model will measure the well-being only of politically right-leaning agents. Policies that aim to maximize social welfare (that's well-being, not dole) will, in fact, maximize the welfare of the righties and may well screw the lefties.

Well, I feel guilty: of course I use those models. But at least I always thought (and said) that welfare analysis in those models was fishy business. I think I can convince the jury that my transgressions have been mere misdemeanors.

There may be a less devastating interpretation, according to Quiggin:

Rather than duplicate all the excellent discussion, I’ll offer the possibility that those on the right may not be so different from the rest of us as they seem to be at first sight. Money is valued because it provides access to goods and services, but it can also be used to keep score in a competition.

In other words, in the long run, everybody cares only for status, but righties measure status by income, while lefties perceive status along some other dimension. (Who has higher status? An endowed full professor of philosophy making $110,000/yr or a starting assistant professor of finance making $125,000/yr?) This makes a lot of sense. If Quiggin is right, the paradigm isn't biased (it is just wrong for everyone), but the practical results would still have right-leaning bias: it is not crucial how the alignment of conservatives with the model assumptions arises.

Speculations about a Humanist Soul

In case I ever forget why I never read garbage periodicals like Newspeak, Chyme, or U.S. Booze & Whirled Distort:

OK, this guy is a nobody. Very smart young man, to be sure, but his documented accomplishments are those of a disappointed rock musician turned perennial student in a fuzzy discipline. There is nothing wrong with that and stating the fact is not disrespectful; after all, as Weird Al would say, he may be Vader someday later - now he's just a small fry. So, as a graduate student at Harvard, with a relevant previous degree, he gets to be the Humanist Chaplain of Harvard University. Wow, that H-word (and I don't mean "humanist") makes it sound so important. But, most likely, for a Harvard student, the position is not much more difficult to obtain than it is to get ordained as a minister on the Internet. And what is the use of any chaplain, anyway?

I am sure he would disagree. It would be unfair to infer that he feels important just because he studies at TETU (The Ego Trip University), but there is more evidence. In his own words, he
might have been forced into attending law school had he not discovered the movement of Humanism and the possibility of a career as a Humanist rabbi and chaplain.

Wait a minute, what did he say? "I could have been a lawyer, easily, but that's beneath me, lawyers are scum - look, I found a career that is so much more important and ethical..." Never mind that Humanism needs good lawyers, not rabbis, and those needs are unlikely to change in the next few decades... Now, if being a "Humanist rabbi or chaplain" is anything like being a leader of very liberal congregations, such as a Unitarian Universalist churches or Ethical Societies (the latter being Humanist organizations, BTW), it can't be very lucrative - people aren't going to give much money to a minister who doesn't threaten them with eternal damnation. In other words, if he wants to keep feeling important (and above lawyering), he needs to find a way to make money on the side. Using the Harvard name to lever a publicity stunt may be a good start. If he insults the right people and entertains the masses, book and speech deals may follow, good enough to pay the bills.

Sure enough, he pulls just that kind of a publicity stunt: he insults Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, calling them "atheist fundamentalists", which would be laughable nonsense if it weren't actually a smart marketing strategy. Dawkins is not only fashionable to attack, he is also just the right person to insult, as he is obviously too smart to write books (or to be allowed to say anything in public). (I haven't read Harris' books, so I can only guess that he is in the same category.) And masses are entertained whenever an atheist is burned at the stake, albeit in effigy. What you say - whether it makes any sense - is not important at all.

I was right: he is smart. And he may be Vader some day.

Of course, it takes two for a publicity stunt: the stuntman and the medium that connects him with the masses to be entertained. If he just keeps insulting Dawkins in the blogosphere, or even in op-eds in the press, he will remain one of the whole army of zombies chanting in unison. What he really needs is to be singled out and made recognizable as a face. He needs a newspaper or magazine or a TV station to do a typical "We Hate Dawkins" story, but centered on him - an individual hater critic - rather than on Dawkins, the target.

Enter Newspeak. First things first: they publish his picture. Never mind that it's a hand-waving photo with a hand-waving caption; he is now a public face. And he is against the Beast. And, lo and behold, he

isn't wrong, he's right: the name-brand atheists aren't friendly, at least not in print. But maybe being friendly isn't their job—it's his.

Being friendly to that writer - or to her magazine - is not something I can endorse. The only useful thing they do is keep garbage collectors employed. But chicken farmers do that far more effectively, while also providing some nutrition.

Assault on Reason Is a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Especially when Al Gore writes it, because those who commit atrocities against reason also love to assault Gore.
Meanwhile, The Washington Post, embracing rampant anti-intellectualism, fretted that Gore was too smart.

Really. Smart people shouldn't write books. Smart people should be excluded from all public discourse, lest they embarrass the idiots.

Jun 12, 2007

Stupider than Thou

Digby writes about two ways in which the Democrats have risen to the challenge of proving themselves more stupid than the Republicans. And it is no small challenge: Republicans are a party so stupid that more than 2/3 of them reject evolution.

First, there is Nancy Pelosi idiotically framing the case for stem cell research. I wouldn't be surprised if George Lakoff killed himself just so he could roll in his grave.

Then, there is the bill supporting abstinence-only programs. I suppose David Obey's rural NW Wisconsin 7th District may be socially conservative and forcing abstinence probably appeals to most of his voters, but the Democratic leadership should know better than to turn itself into a "free gift" courtesan for the religious right.

Normally, I think of Republicans as stupid on substance, but skilled at marketing, and Democrats as marketing idiots, capable of presenting the best idea as crap. Nancy's speech fits that view. But the abstinence-only fiasco suggests that the Democrats are catching up on substantive stupidity, too.