Blogging-Related, and Other Things

I’ll be upping my posting frequency from once per week to twice per week. This is because I have a lot of topics on my to-write list and they’re not being written quickly enough. The posting days will probably be Sunday+Thursday.

In addition, I’ve edited the Movies section and the Reading List section to be up to date. Enjoy!

Posted in Blogging, Books, Movies, Writing | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Explained: 11 Ways Christians Are Like Atheists

Last time, I wrote a post called “11 Ways Christians Are Like Atheists,” which got quite a few more views than normal. It was a satirical piece, and from the reactions on some sites, it was clear that some people did not grasp the sarcasm, instead thinking it to be a serious post. I think it is worth spending some time explaining the references behind it and to explain why I wrote it the way I did.

The primary motive was to expose the framing bias in the question, “How are atheists like Christians?” by demonstrating it in the flipped question, “How are Christians like atheists?” When you ask, for instance, “How can an atheist be as moral as a Christian?,” the question presupposes that atheists are less moral than Christians and even by answering the question at all, you are conceding that presupposition, no matter how well you answer it. This is because the answer will boil down to trying to explain a secular moral framework, but will hardly convince a Christian who already believes that a theist framework is the best possible approach.

Hence, my method of getting Christians to see this is to flip the question around. When you ask, “How can a Christian be as moral as an atheist?,” now we are presupposing that atheists have the moral high ground and it is up to Christians to prove that they can be as moral.

But there was a secondary motive as well. To further the comparison, I not only flipped around not only the questions, but also the answers, to match the abysmal quality of argument and patronizing tone common to theist arguments. Theists make plenty of terrible arguments that even the worst atheist arguments don’t compare to. There are plenty of Christians, for example, who are seriously making the argument that atheists secretly worship the devil, yet no atheist seriously accuses Christians of secretly worshiping Hades, Greek god and ruler of the underworld.

Obviously, point #4 (Christians must secretly worship the devil) is not a serious claim that Christians secretly worship Satan, but to draw an analogy to the claim that atheists secretly worship Satan. In fact, I think my argument is quite flawless:

Atheists don’t even believe the devil exists, so how could we worship it? Christians, on the other hand…

I’m going to revisit each point and explain some of the story and satire behind them.

1. Christians also defer to science for *almost* everything (“Atheists also have faith”)

Here I argued that Christians primarily use products (computers, phones, tablets, vaccines, cars) or actions/thoughts (washing hands, going to a real doctor, gravity) that come directly from the result of science and reason. They rarely, if ever, go against scientific reasoning (outside of thinking about God). It is a response to Christians arguing that atheists also use faith.

Some Christians have such a messed up understanding of atheists (not necessarily their fault; indoctrination is very strong) that they cannot fathom someone just not believing in something. It’s the “You always have to believe in something” sentiment that is poisonous to understanding. However, rather than getting into the faith argument, my tactic was to turn it around and claim how Christians use science for almost everything.

2. Christians secretly doubt the existence of God (“Atheists secretly believe in God”)

This is one I’ve heard only a few times but it is really funny every time.

And yet…

Again, the point of my article was to flip this around on Christians, thus claiming that Christians secretly doubt the existence of God. I could have gone further, to outright claim that Christians secretly deny this existence of God, but it had to be somewhat believable, at first. Note that points 1-3 are semi-reasonable, to set up a surprise for the rest of the article.

3. Christians don’t believe in Zeus, Thor, or Vishnu either (“Atheists must believe in something“)

Like in #1, it is commonly claimed that atheists must believe in something. Again, rather than directly addressing this point, I gave the argument that Christians don’t believe in any of the other myths, so if they didn’t believe the Christian God, they wouldn’t necessarily believe in something else. In addition, the framing was a reversal of a famous quote:

Instead I framed it as “Christians just stop one god short,” to fit the theme of making atheism the norm and trying to fit Christians into the norm.

4. Christians must secretly worship the devil (“Atheists must secretly worship the devil”)

The screenshots from the intro should suffice.

5. Christians can also be intelligent (“The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.” Psalm 14:1)

Starting at this point, the article starts taking a patronizing attitude towards theists as theists normally do to atheists. Obviously, the claim that “Christians can also be intelligent” presupposes that there is some reason to believe that Christians are less intelligent. This, of course, is a mirror of the standard claim that atheists are fools for not believing in God. The Psalm verse is plain evidence of that.

In addition, in the writing itself, I threw in some typical theist debate fallacies such as:

• pointing to certain statistics as if they were the most relevant (the National Academy of Science statistics for general intelligence),
• linking to claims made by a media site that in turn talks about (and may have motive in exaggerating) the results of a research study (the atheists have higher IQs study),
• attempting to be “fair” but actually being very demeaning (“But this does not mean all religious people are unintelligent”), and
• downright patronizing (“Some are indeed very intelligent, and indeed, even they can contribute positively to human knowledge”).

A few more sentences in there and it would have been a genuine gish gallop.

6. Christians can have morals too (“Atheists can have morals too”)

This is one of the biggest points to address. It’s somehow assumed that Christians are moral and atheists have to somehow justify themselves.

Everyone asks, “Can atheists be moral?” But very few people turn it around and ask, “Can Christians be moral?”

The point of bringing up homosexuality was that atheists generally have no problem with other people being homosexual, whereas Christians are either (1) fond of being intolerant of homosexuality and denying rights to homosexuals, or (2) accepting of homosexuality and therefore ignoring parts of the Bible. So while the Christians in (1) are simply immoral, the Christians in (2) have based their morality on something higher than an ancient text (yet still revere it to some degree). In the case of homosexuality, it is apparent that the more moral the Christian, the less one follows the Bible. This raises the question, to what degree can a Christian be moral? And if someone is not following the Bible, how is that person a Christian?

The second example was the prison demographics. While a small portion of the population to begin with, atheists represent an even smaller portion of the population in prison, by a factor of 34. Of course, there are other factors involved; e.g. atheists tend to be better educated than average, and better education is negatively correlated with prison. However, it’s doubtful that adjusting for education/other parameters could explain the factor of 34. With these two examples alone, one would think that atheists are generally more moral than Christians, and it would be up to Christians to demonstrate that they can be as moral as atheists.

7. Christians can also have humility (“Why are atheists so arrogant?”)

Again, instead of explaining that atheists are not arrogant, the point was to show that Christians are only more arrogant.

“Atheism is the arrogant belief that the entire universe was not created for our benefit.

…and that contrasts with the humble religious belief that the most power creature ever created the entire universe of over one hundred billion galaxies, each of which contains over a hundred billion stars like our sun, and then waited for about fourteen billion years, and then picked one of the one hundred billion galaxies, and then picked one of the hundred billion stars within that galaxy, and then picked one of the planets circling that star, and then picked one of the millions of species that existed on that planet, and then picked one individual of that species and said ‘I really think I’ve got to tell that guy to stop gathering sticks on the sabbath.’”

The prayer point is another interesting point I’ve heard, that praying for something should never happen since that inherently shows questioning of God’s plan, that you know better than the creator of the universe.

8. Christians can also experience awe and wonder (“Atheists can also experience awe and wonder”)

To flip this around, how can a Christian possibly feel awe? If you believe in a God that is truly omnipotent and infinite, then creating and managing the entire Earth is a trivial task; entire universes can be created on a whim. Then how could one tiny thing in a miniscule corner of a planet among billions of them in a galaxy among billions in one universe among infinitely possible universes, be inspiring of awe?

The second part is a direct reference to an Oprah Winfrey interview with swimmer Diana Nyad. Nyad is an atheist, and when she talked about this on Oprah’s show, a hilarious exchange occurred, in which Oprah stated Nyad could not be an atheist, to her face.

“After all, if a Christian proclaims to be in awe, isn’t this Christian really an atheist, since only an atheist can truly be in awe?”

9. Christians can also be happy (“Can atheists be happy?”)

Of course, the argument that Christians cannot be happy because they are in perpetual fear of hell is a satirical argument, but it’s actually quite hard to argue against. On the other hand, happiness is something everyone can have, even religious people.

10. Christians can also love (“Atheists are incapable of love”)

There’s plenty of great answers to this around the web. However, if you flip the question, how can Christians love? If they’re merely commanded to love by the Bible, to try to maximize their chances of getting into heaven, how is it actually legitimate? “It’s hard to call this fake display of affection ‘love,’ but I guess we’ll let it slide.”

11. Christians can be good people too (“Atheists can be good people too”)

Even more, there’s somehow this notion that if you’re good, you must secretly not be an atheist.

This is indeed one of the most flawed assumptions of American society. Christianity is automatically associated with good, despite the terrible things that have been done, and are being done, in the name of God. Conversely, anything other than Christianity is associated with evil. This is really one of the paradigms that must shift for society to progress.

Conclusion

The last paragraph drew some attention because of the blatantly patronizing language, but that was the point (“Given time, they will see the error of their ways…”). It was, in fact, largely a paraphrase of this quote towards the end:

“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! “Father, the atheists?” Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. “But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!” But do good: we will meet one another there.”

Yes, “even” the atheists. How modest.

The speaker of that quote was Pope Francis.

Posted in Atheism, Religion | Tagged , | 1 Comment

11 Ways Christians Are Like Atheists

This question is usually posed the other way around, where someone expresses how atheists are like religious people. However, the framing of the question itself creates a bias, namely by insinuating that atheists are inferior and have the burden of proof to show that they are as worthy as Christians.

Just consider any time that someone from either camp has argued how atheists have morals too, or how atheists also have faith on some things, or how atheists also experience awe and wonder at the universe. The points are valid, but we shouldn’t have to argue them in the first place. So, this post will run the questions and arguments flipped. Why are Christians as worthy as atheists? Let’s sprinkle some religious arguments in here just for fun.

1. Christians also defer to science for *almost* everything (“Atheists also have faith”)

Given that Christians are reading this right now, they are using some electronic device. Perhaps it is the fringe case where they are somehow reading a hard copy of this, which in turn came from an electronic device. Nonetheless, I’m happy to congratulate them. Though they may not know the inner workings of electromagnetism or quantum mechanics—or even believe in them at all—they have managed to willingly use a computer, smartphone, or tablet, which all sprang from human reason.

In addition, most Christians wash their hands, are vaccinated, take their doctor’s suggestions seriously, and basically trust science more than anything else in dealing with their health. They probably move around using a car or motorized transport system, also created by science. When on the edge of a tall building, they don’t jump off, because they believe in gravity just like we do. For almost every aspect of their lives, they use science as the primary tool.

2. Christians secretly doubt the existence of God (“Atheists secretly believe in God”)

As shown above, despite their nominal objections to science, Christians obviously still believe in it. Skepticism is a tenet of science, and Christians who embrace science—specifically, all of them—show that they don’t really with absolutely certainty believe in God. They secretly doubt the existence of God, even though they are too afraid to say it, because they are afraid of being socially ostracized.

After all, isn’t even an evolution-doubter still using doubt?

3. Christians don’t believe in Zeus, Thor, or Vishnu either (“Atheists must believe in something“)

We all treat mythology as what it is—mythology. If asked to write a list of gods we don’t believe, we would both have lists that would span thousands of names. Christians just stop one god short. Here is an extremely abridged list of gods throughout human history (source):

4. Christians must secretly worship the devil (“Atheists must secretly worship the devil”)

Atheists don’t even believe the devil exists, so how could we worship it? Christians, on the other hand…

5. Christians can also be intelligent (“The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.” Psalm 14:1)

While Christians comprise 73% of the total US population, only 7% of the elite National Academy of Sciences believes in a god. On the other hand, atheists/agnostics, at 5.7% of the total US population, comprise the other 93%. This means that, picked randomly from the population of the United States, an atheist/agnostic is 170 times more likely to be in the National Academy of Sciences than a Christian. And this is assuming the 7% is all Christian; adding Jews and/or Hindus into the mix causes the disparity to rise even higher.

Of course, atheists on average have higher IQs than religious people. Even regarding religious knowledge, atheists score highest, quite ironically (or quite expectedly, depending on how you look at it). But this does not mean all religious people are unintelligent. Some are indeed very intelligent, and indeed, even they can contribute positively to human knowledge.

6. Christians can have morals too (“Atheists can have morals too”)

While it’s easy for atheists to think in a situation and decide what is right or wrong, it’s much more difficult for Christians who have been trained to defer to a two-thousand year old book to decide what to do and are not allowed to think for themselves, though usually they do. For instance, an atheist might see a gay couple and say, “They are not interfering with my life, so I’ll let them be.” However, a Christian has to weigh the prescribed death sentence on one hand and secular thinking on the other. “Am I obligated to follow up Leviticus 20:13 with my own hands, or does it suffice to contact the authorities? Or, is Leviticus complete rubbish, despite Jesus’ saying that the Old Testament still applies?”

Since I have rarely observed a Christian actually calling for the death of a gay person, despite their divine imperative to do so, I can reasonably conclude that most Christians use reason, not faith, in making moral decisions, and thus have morals too.

Of course, this does not mean that Christians are automatically equally as moral as atheists. At 2.4% of the total US population (excluding self-described agnostics this time), atheists make up 0.07% of the US prison population. An atheist is thus 34 times less likely to be in prison than the average American.

7. Christians can also have humility (“Why are atheists so arrogant?”)

While atheists understand the relative significance of their roles in this enormous cosmos consisting of billions of galaxies, each with billions of stars, each with chances for planets that contain billions of individuals, Christians find humility much more difficult. They believe that out of all the billions of billions of possible worlds to choose from, an omnipotent, omniscient God chose them to share His love with, that the entire universe was designed for their temporary experience, that out of the stupefying vastness of the universe, they are special.

(Source: imgur)

In addition, any Christian who has prayed to God for intervention must think that they know better than God in that instance regarding what to do. “I know you’re kinda the creator of the universe and are infallible and such, but I think you messed up by afflicting my mother with cancer. If you would kindly remove the cancer, that would be great.” Such arrogance to question God like that.

But anyways, some Christians, namely the ones who are least Christian and believe the least of all the nonsense, still do have humility.

8. Christians can also experience awe and wonder (“Atheists can also experience awe and wonder”)

Atheists look at nature and see wonder everywhere and experience awe in the fact that a set of rules with no inherent design could lead to such an amazing world. On the other hand, Christians believe there is a God that is omnipotent, capable of anything, thus everything they see is merely the result of an all-powerful being, so everything is supremely unimpressive. They wouldn’t experience much awe in watching a champion Olympic weightlifter lift a 1-pound weight.

Of course, this brings us to the issue of whether a Christian who claims to experience awe is a Christian in the first place. After all, if a Christian proclaims to be in awe, isn’t this Christian really an atheist, since only an atheist can truly be in awe? Of course, if one twists the definitions of awe and wonder, it might be possible that Christians can experience them too, only to a lesser degree.

9. Christians can also be happy (“Can atheists be happy?”)

Even though Christians have to always worry about burning in eternal fire, it’s entirely possible for them so believe so strongly that they will be saved that the thought will not trouble them for most of their conscious life. Hence, even Christians can also be happy, even if paralyzing fear is always in the back of their minds.

10. Christians can also love (“Atheists are incapable of love”)

Atheists get to experience genuine love without having to be told. Christians, on the other hand, love because they are commanded to by Jesus, and they desperately want to be on Jesus’ good side when judgment rolls around. It’s hard to call this fake display of affection “love,” but I guess we’ll let it slide.

11. Christians can be good people too (“Atheists can be good people too”)

Is it possible to be good with God? I think the answer is yes. Every year, dozens of Christians manage to survive without being racist, misogynistic, homophobic, judgmental, hypocritical, intolerant, superficial, proselytizing, antisemitic, islamophobic, anti-other-faiths, anti-atheist, closed minded, arrogant, or willfully ignorant. So yes, it’s certainly possible.

On the whole, Christians aren’t all that different from atheists, and as we can see from above, they’re not that inferior. Given time, they will see the error of their ways, and when they do, we should gladly welcome them into the ranks of the godless. We are all children of evolution, and we all walk the path we are given, and let those who are given more windy paths go on until they again reach the main path towards a better human society. We must meet one another doing good. “But I believe, I’m a Christian!” But do good: we will meet one another there.

Posted in Atheism, Religion | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

The Mathematician’s Answer is a meta-joke about how mathematicians usually behave in jokes. From tvtropes:

If you ask someone a question, and he gives you an entirely accurate answer that is of no practical use whatsoever, he has just given you a Mathematician’s Answer.

It goes further on to say: “A common form of giving a Mathematician’s Answer is to fully evaluate the logic of the question and give a logically correct answer. Such a response may prove confusing for someone who interpreted what they said colloquially.”

Perhaps the most famous example is the hot-air balloon joke, where a man in a hot-air balloon asks someone where he is, to which the response is, “You’re in a hot-air balloon!” The rider concludes that the responder must be a mathematician, because the answer given was absolutely correct but utterly useless.

The tvtropes site contains a bunch of examples of Mathematician’s Answer in dialog. But this kind of joke also sometimes pokes fun at actions as well as words. My favorite is the hotel joke (this version from the Cherkaev “Math Jokes” collection):

An engineer, a physicist and a mathematician are staying in a hotel.

The engineer wakes up and smells smoke. He goes out into the hallway and sees a fire, so he fills a trash can from his room with water and douses the fire. He goes back to bed.

Later, the physicist wakes up and smells smoke. He opens his door and sees a fire in the hallway. He walks down the hall to a fire hose and after calculating the flame velocity, distance, water pressure, trajectory, etc. extinguishes the fire with the minimum amount of water and energy needed.

Later, the mathematician wakes up and smells smoke. He goes to the hall, sees the fire and then the fire hose. He thinks for a moment and then exclaims, “Ah, a solution exists!” and then goes back to bed.

In line with the engineer/physicist/mathematician trio, another great one is the Scottish sheep joke:

A mathematician, a physicist, and an engineer were traveling through Scotland when they saw a black sheep through the window of the train.

“Aha,” says the engineer, “I see that Scottish sheep are black.”

“Hmm,” says the physicist, “You mean that some Scottish sheep are black.”

“No,” says the mathematician, “All we know is that there is at least one sheep in Scotland, and that at least one side of that one sheep is black!”

And then, we have the infamous examples where it was the students ironically who used the Mathematician’s Answer on their math teachers:

Now, aside from the meta-joke status of the Mathematician’s Answer, is there any truth to it? Do math-minded people really say, “You’re in a hot air balloon,” in real life?

From all the math classes I’ve taken at college, I have never witnessed a professor respond unwittingly with a Mathematician’s Answer. Every time it was used, it was clear that it was meant as a joke. Sure, some live up to mathematician archetype, but they’re all normal people, not John Nashes.

In high school, my favorite form of humor was the pun. Starting junior or senior year of college, however, I had somehow transitioned to the Mathematician’s Answer as my go-to response when I can’t think of anything to say. It is extremely easy to use, as almost every situation can lead to this kind of joke. It’s really fun to use and really versatile.

It doesn’t even need to be used in response to a question. Just yesterday, someone remarked that it was March 1st already. Immediately, I added, “Oh yeah, that’s exactly one month away from April 1st.” The same person later asked how far 10 yards was, and, like a true mathematician, I answered by saying it was like 5 yards but double that.

Our campus Internet has one network called “RedRover” and another called “RedRover-Secure.” Someone asked what the difference between these was, and I quickly responded, “Well, they’re the same, except one of them is secure.”

I think it interests me because I’m generally fond of logical and tautological humor. The only downside of the Mathematician’s Answer is that it doesn’t really work in anything that is related to mathematics. The language of math is designed to minimize ambiguity, and even when situations do arise where there are two interpretations, it’s much harder to distinguish between a literal and a figurative meaning. One of the few mathematical ambiguities I know if is if someone writes

$1 \leq x, y \leq 10$,

do we choose x and y such that x is at least 1 and y is at most 10, or is it that both x and y are between 1 and 10? On the other hand, Mathematician’s Answer works really well in areas as far removed from mathematics as possible. Anyway, here is one last example:

An engineer, a physicist and a mathematician find themselves in an anecdote, indeed an anecdote quite similar to many that you have no doubt already heard. After some observations and rough calculations the engineer realizes the situation and starts laughing. A few minutes later the physicist understands too and chuckles to himself happily as he now has enough experimental evidence to publish a paper.

This leaves the mathematician somewhat perplexed, as he had observed right away that he was the subject of an anecdote, and deduced quite rapidly the presence of humor from similar anecdotes, but considers this anecdote to be too trivial a corollary to be significant, let alone funny.

Posted in Humor, Math | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Making Use of the Armchair: The Rise of the Non-Expert

As with all news, when I heard about the Sochi skating controversy last week, I read multiple sources on it and let it simmer. From the comments, however, that I saw on Facebook, Reddit, and on the news websites themselves, one thing struck me—nearly everyone seemed to be have extensive knowledge of Olympic figure skating, from the names of the spins to the exact scoring rubric.

How could this be? Was I the only person who had no idea who Yuna Kim was, or that Russia had not won in the category before?

Much of this “everyone is an expert” phenomenon is explained by selection bias, in that those with more knowledge of skating were more likely to comment in the first place; therefore, most of the comments that we see are from those who are the most knowledgeable.

But it’s unlikely that there would be hundreds of figure skating experts all commenting on at once. Moreover, when you look at the commenting history of the people in the discussion, they seem to also be experts on every other subject, not just in figure skating. So another effect is in play.

Namely, the Wikipedia effect (courtesy of xkcd):

Of course, this effect is not limited to skating in the Olympics. When Newtown occurred, masses of people were able to rattle off stats on gun deaths and recount the global history of gun violence in late 20th- and early 21st-century.

Even so, not everyone does their research. There are still the “where iz ukrane????” comments, but undoubtedly the average knowledge of Ukrainian politics in the United States has increased drastically in the past few days. If you polled Americans on the capital of Ukraine, many more would be able to answer “Kiev” today than one week prior. For every conceivable subject, the Internet has allowed us all to become non-expert experts.

Non-Expert Knowledge

The consequences of non-expert knowledge range from subject to subject. The main issue is that we all start with an intuition about something, but with experience or training comes a better intuition that can correct naive errors and uncover counterintuitive truths.

• An armchair doctor might know a few bits of genuine medical practice, but might also throw in superstitious remedies into the mix and possibly harm the patient more than helping. Or they might google the symptoms but come up with the wrong diagnosis and a useless or damaging prescription.
• Armchair psychologists are more common, and it is easier to make up things that sound legitimate in this field. It is possible that an armchair psychiatrist will help a patient, even if due to empathy and not from psychiatric training.
• Armchair economist. Might say some insightful things about one trend that they read about in the economy, but could completely miss other trends that any grad student would see.
• Armchair physicist. Might profess to have discovered a perpetual motion machine, to be dismissed by a real physicist because the machine actually has positive energy input and is hence not perpetual. Or, might read about the latest invisibility cloak and be able to impress friends by talking about the bending of electromagnetic waves around an object by using materials with negative refractive index, but has no idea that it only works for a particular wavelength, thus making it practically useless (for now).
• Armchair philosopher. Perhaps the most common, the armchair philosopher notices the things that happen in life and takes note of them. The article that you are currently reading is armchair philosophy, as I basically talk about abstract stuff using almost zero cited sources, occasionally referencing real-world events but only to further an abstract discussion.

Going back to the physics example, we normal people might observe the drinking bird working continuously for hours and conclude that it is a perpetual motion machine. An armchair physicist might go further to claim that that if we attach a motor to it, we could generate free energy.

A real physicist, however, would eventually figure out the evaporation and temperature differential, and then conclude that it is not a perpetual motion machine.

Five minutes of reading Wikipedia will not allow you to match an expert’s knowledge. But having non-expert knowledge sometimes does help. It opens up the door to new information and ideas. If everyone spoke only about what they were experts in, the world would become boring very quickly.

In everyday speech, any topic is fair game except for, ironically, the one topic that everyone is deemed to be an expert in even without Wikipedia—(their) religion. But I digress. The point is, the way we talk about things on a day-to-day basis is very different from the way experts talk about them in a serious setting.

Some differences are very minor and just a matter of terminology. For instance, I was discussing the statistics of voter turnout in the 2012 election one time, and I had phrased it as “percentage of eligible people who voted.” At the time, I did not know that “turnout” was a technical term that meant precisely what I had just said; I thought it was just a loose term in that didn’t necessarily consider the difference between the electorate and the total population, hence why I phrased it so specifically. In this example, the statistics I presented were correct, and thus the conclusion was valid, but the terminology was off.

Other differences are more significant. In the case of medical practice, a lack of formal understanding could seriously affect someone’s health. Using Wikipedia knowledge from your smartphone to treat an unexpected snake bite in real time is probably better than letting it fester before help arrives. But it’s probably safest to see a doctor afterwards.

A non-expert discussion in a casual setting is fine, as is an expert discussion in a serious setting. But what about a non-expert discussion in a serious setting? Is there anything to be gained? If two non-physicists talk about physics, can any meaning be found?

My answer is yes, but you need to discuss the right things. For example, my training is in math, so it would be pretty futile for me to discuss chemical reactions that occur from the injection of snake venom into the human body. However, given that I had done my research properly, I might be able to talk about the statistics of snake bites with as much authority as a snake expert. Of course, it would depend on the context of my bringing up the statistics. If we were comparing the rise in snake deaths to the rise in automobile deaths, I might be on equal footing. But if we were comparing snake bite deaths between difference species of snakes, a snake expert probably has the intellectual high ground.

But even this example still requires you to use some area of expertise to relate it to the one in question. To the contrary, you can still have a legitimate discussion of something outside your area of expertise even without relating to an area of expertise that you already have. You only need to make a claim broad enough, abstract enough, or convincingly enough to have an effect.

Among all groups of people, writers (and artists in general) have a unique position in being able to say things with intellectual authority as non-experts. Politicians are next, being able to say anything with political power as non-experts. However, I’m interested in the truth and not what politicians say, so let’s get back to writers. F. Scott Fitzgerald was not a formal historian of the 1920s, but The Great Gatsby really captures the decade in a way no history textbook could. George Orwell was not a political scientist, but Nineteen Eighty-Four was very effective at convincing people that totalitarian control is something to protect against.

The Internet and the Non-Expert

On the other hand, Nineteen Eighty-Four was not crafted in a medium limited by 140 characters or by one-paragraph expectancy. If George Orwell were alive today and, instead of writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, wrote a two-sentence anti-totalitarian comment on a news story on North Korea, I doubt he would have the same effect.

In fact, it is usually hard to distinguish an expert from a non-expert online. Often, an expert prefaces oneself by explicitly saying, “I am an expert on [this topic],” but even this is to be taken skeptically. I could give a rant on the times people claiming to have a Ph.D in economics have no grasp on even the most basic concepts.

In addition to allowing us the sum total of human knowledge just a click away (well, maybe not all knowledge), the Internet allows us to post knowledge instantaneously and share it with millions of other users. We have not only the public appearance of non-expert knowledge, but also the virus-like proliferation of it. Since the dawn of the Internet, people have been able to acquire knowledge about anything, but there was a great divide between the few content providers and the many consumers. Only recently have we become the content makers ourselves. What is the role of armchair philosophy in the age of information?

Conclusion

Now is a more important time than ever to be an armchair philosopher, or an armchair thinker, precisely because of the overwhelming amount of information available to us. To deal with the data overload requires an abstract way to categorize information, to filter out the useless from the useful, the wrong from the less wrong, the less true from the true.

We are expected to deal with areas outside of our expertise, and as our knowledge of these areas grows from the age of mass information, our responsibility to use it correctly becomes greater. Forming opinions even on issues that you have no authority to form opinions on is now an imperative. We learned the capital of Ukraine in one week, and our googling of Kiev might prove useful in the future. To deal with a quickly changing world, we need to deal with all information, not just data that we are comfortable with, as effectively as possible.

Slavery, Sochi, and Steroids: When Does Competition Go Too Far?

In the Olympics (and sporting in general), it is generally considered wrong for an athlete to take performance-enhancing drugs.

Let us take one step back and ask, Why?

Is there any a priori reason that substances like steroids should be banned? Is eating an athletic diet also “cheating”? What about genetic mutations—wouldn’t it unfair if I have a gene that, given all else equal, allows me to run 20% faster than you?

(These are the conversations I have on Friday nights.)

One main point of the Olympics is to test the limits of what humans can do. Someone ran 100 meters in 9.8 seconds? Awesome! Someone ran it in 9.6? Even better! I want to see that! But suppose someone ran 100 meters in 9.4, but was later tested positive for banned substances. Then who is the fastest person in the world at running 100 meters: athlete 9.6 or athlete 9.4?

It depends, of course, on how we frame the question. If we ask, “What is the fastest valid 100 meter dash in Olympic history?,” the answer is 9.6 seconds. But if we ask instead, “What is the fastest time ever for a 100 meter dash?,” the answer becomes 9.4. It would still be true that the fastest time in which a human ran 100 meters is 9.4 seconds.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that eating an athletic diet makes your time 0.2 seconds faster at the 100-meter dash, and taking illegal substances can also boost the time by 0.2 seconds. Then we might have the following 100-meter times:

 Normal Diet Athletic Diet No Doping 9.8 9.6 Doping 9.6 9.4

In this case, the fastest time is 9.6 because as a society, we agreed on the rules that eating a diet to enhance performance is good, but taking a drug to do so is bad. However, does this mean we are missing out on a possibly faster time, the 9.4?

It is unfair if only one athlete is allowed to use a certain tactic to enhance performance, so let us suppose that we are now looking at the top three finishers, off by 0.1 seconds each. Assume everyone is following the same rules. Here is a the same chart, now showing 1st, 2nd, and 3rd times:

 Normal Diet Athletic Diet No Doping 9.8, 9.9, 10.0 9.6, 9.7, 9.8 Doping 9.6, 9.7, 9.8 9.4, 9.5, 9.6

We can assume that the fastest person is the fastest in all four boxes, the second fastest is second, and so on. Now, we only consider doping to be cheating because it’s agreed upon that it is cheating. Eating an athletic diet, on the other hand, is not considered cheating, so we… don’t consider it to be cheating.

This raises the question, is there any point to these artificial rules? A competition is concerned with relative times and not absolute times (even then, the absolute times are only interesting because we compare them to the absolute times in years past, hence making them again relative times). Under the restrictions of diet or doping, the relative times are all the same. So are the rules simply arbitrary? Should we allow doping because it will reveal the full potential of human beings?

My intuition is no, and there are arguments for and against. One of the immediate objections is that doping is unnatural. But so is eating a diet specifically designed to optimize your athletic performance. So that argument doesn’t quite hold.

One of the more legitimate points is human health. We know that performance-enhancing drugs come with a range of side effects. Let’s say that a regular user of PED’s has their lifespan cut by 1 year. In addition, if PED’s are legalized, then everyone will start using them, because there would be no way to seriously compete without them (like it is futile to compete while on a diet of donuts and soda today). So is it worth shaving 1 year off of every athlete’s life to improve the absolute numbers, which don’t matter, by 0.2 seconds? Obviously not. (Is it obvious?)

However, what about a situation where the “absolute numbers” do matter? Let’s say that an asteroid is headed towards Earth, and all the scientists and engineers with the relevant technical skills are working on how to deflect it. However, they are still working 8 hours a day. Should we be able to force them to go to 10 hours, or 12 hours, or even 16 hours? (Of course, given the gravity of the situation, no pun intended, these people are probably voluntarily willing to work harder anyways, but suppose they are not.) In this scenario, there might be 100 teams with 100 different solutions to deflect the asteroid. The best solution has a 47% chance of success. But if everyone were instead working 16 hours a day, the best solution might have a 70% chance of success. Do we force longer hours?

What about a doctor who is trying to cure cancer? Should this doctor be allowed to use performance-enhancing drugs so that he might have a slightly better shot at the big issue?

And what about capitalism? The free market provides the ultimate competition: your 100-meter speed is now your wealth and status. How far will you go to improve it? Should the government restrict your ability to create wealth?

The title of this post starts with “Slavery,” so what has that got to do with anything? Well, under an “anything goes” structure, allowing slavery might be the only way a country can support a certain level of economic production, perhaps in order to defend itself. This does not have to be an economic slavery—it could be political slavery, or totalitarian rule. Imagine we detect an alien fleet that is just blowing up planets of the solar system and is headed to Earth. Is martial law justified?

And here’s a more realistic issue: Should a country be allowed to do whatever it wants in order to develop? In response to climate change and environmental damage, the developed countries of the world are starting to decrease their pollution levels, particularly of greenhouse gases, by using more renewable energy and being more environmentally aware. Should a developing country be exempt from the rules and be allowed to power itself solely using cheap but environmentally harmful fossil fuels, because it can’t afford renewable energy?

If everybody is sitting in a crowded theater, and you have a really lousy view, should you be allowed to stand up (and take away the view from the person seated behind you)? See this post for similar issues.

In the end, the absolute numbers don’t matter most of the time—it’s the relative that matters.

Credit to Jesse Orshan for this discussion.

Posted in Economics, Life, Society | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

My Blogging Philosophy

I sometimes get questions about the purpose of my blog, and also about the blog itself, such as why X is done instead of Y. This post is to answer these questions and to perhaps give you a better understanding of my blogging philosophy.

As with most things, the intents determine the characteristics. If I want to build a car that can go very fast, it will have to be aerodynamic. If I want to design a building to look modern, I would probably not include columns from classical Greece. Similarly, the intents of a blog will somewhat dictate its characteristics. By “characteristics,” I don’t mean the physical characteristics, like what font I use or where the widgets are placed—I’m not a graphic designer, and that is probably apparent from the elementary layout. Instead, what I mean by “characteristics” is the set of literary choices: Which topics do I write about? What tone/style/mood do I use? How much detail do I include? Should I avoid conflict or welcome it? And so on.

The purpose itself comes from my own values, experiences, and beliefs, and without going too much into detail, I’ve always been concerned with Truth. Sure, that sounds pretty cheesy, but one of the greatest lessons from history is that for vast amounts of time, whole civilizations were very confident in what they thought to be the truth, only to be proved wrong, time and time again, from factual truths like “Earth is flat” or “The world is about 6000 years old” to moral truths like “Slavery is okay” and “Women are inferior to men.” Each time, the people who first challenged these truths were brave individuals who stood up to society and were mocked and ridiculed, sometimes violently, for their beliefs. Such paradigm shifts are still happening today, within many beliefs in many countries. Hence, one of the major humanitarian imperatives of the 21st century is to be more open-minded than the past. Now, open-mindedness itself is a broad topic and has many questions (is rejecting a closed-minded worldview itself closed-minded?), but it really determines the purpose of this blog.

Primary intent: To get people to think in different ways.

With this directive in mind, it is probably much easier to see why I blog the way I blog. Here is a list of characteristics I came up with that are related to this objective:

1. (Try to) Write about interesting topics that someone would want to read. That is, if no one reads it, then it is pointless. In addition, I try to bring up unusual topics, because you probably already read about the usual topics elsewhere. Other times, I try to put an unusual twist on an otherwise normal topic. An example of this might be the previous post, which was on Internet trolling.

2. Be thought provoking. This is usually done by upfront making an unpopular or controversial claim. The religion and atheism posts are prime examples. To a lesser degree, so was the post against positive racism. These can sometimes provoke much more than just thought.

3. Use ethos and pathos, even when talking about things that fit under the realm of logos. This is especially difficult for me to do because I am a very logic-minded person to begin with, and furthermore, I generally treat arguments like mathematical proofs, which are not designed to be persuasive, but merely correct. On the other hand, I’m very aware that persuasion encompasses more than just proving you are correct, hence why I do try to include non-completely-logic-based rhetoric even in rational topics, like the rationality vs irrationality post.

4. Be very aware of cognitive biases and fallacies. As a counterpoint to #3, one benefit of being very logically minded is that it is easier to catch myself committing a logical fallacy or over/under-estimating something due to a cognitive bias. Of course, no one can be free of biases, but knowing what they are beforehand means you can work around them to some degree. Awareness and constant skepticism do help to construct a more accurate picture.

5. Avoid using mainstream arguments or sources, which are already familiar to everyone. Even though I consider my beliefs as moderately liberal, I rarely bring up many of the issues that liberals are typically concerned with. It is not because I don’t have views on those issues, but rather because I can’t contribute in those issues as much as someone else could. There is no value in my repeating what someone else said, especially if it is the consensus view. On the other hand, there is value in talking about what I am more knowledgeable in, rather than less. In addition, I have written posts that have criticized the typical liberal view on a few topics.

6. Avoid using authority. I don’t try to be an authority at X, and even when I start my job later this year, I doubt I will be writing any posts on quantitative trading. I talk about societal progress a lot, but I don’t pretend to be an expert on it. This is also part of the reason #5 exists: If I talk about a common issue that experts have exhaustively written about, you’re probably better off reading them. But on a very uncommon issue, I have more relative expertise since there is no authority.

7. Use generalist skills and areas of relative expertise. My general philosophy (no pun intended) is that I would rather know something about everything than everything about something. This is very easy to achieve today with the Internet literally at your fingertips. But using the information correctly and drawing the correct conclusions is the hard part, and it is not as easy as everyone thinks. This is where mathematical/statistical training really does help.

8. Pick topics that are not necessarily advanced, but look at them in a different way. Perhaps combine two simple or familiar topics together, like the victim blaming/religion post.

Overall, the objective of trying to get people to think in different ways is fairly successful. I post these on my Facebook wall timeline, and sometimes full-fledged arguments occur. But argument is better than no argument, and it shows that people at least have to think about and reevaluate their beliefs, leaving them in a better position than when they started, regardless of which side they were on.

Posted in Blogging, Writing | Tagged , | 2 Comments