Thursday, January 30, 2014

Tumblr is full of lies

In the past, I've been a vocal critic of Tumblr, particularly the reblogging format.  But in the past few years I've been "observing" Tumblr, much as a conservative politician might "observe" gay culture by going to gay night clubs every weekend in search of hookups.  As a result, I have a more refined critique of Tumblr.

For instance, I now see the strength of Tumblr: new blog discovery.  Finding new blogs is so easy that you'll find new blogs even if you don't want to.

On the other hand, reblog discussions are even more awful than I previously imagined.  You might as well try to argue with people over Twitter.

I also have an entirely new critique based on the content of Tumblr.  Tumblr will distort your perception of reality.

A typical discussion on Tumblr might consist of one person making a "politically incorrect" statement, and a bunch of people "calling it out" as just one more example of how messed up our societal attitudes are.  While people reject the politically incorrect statement, they simultaneously accept another hidden assumption: that the opening post represents "what people think".  Sometimes the opening post represents no such thing, but rather represents just one person.

Since the inception of the internet, people have complained that it doesn't really represent "what people think".  When there's no accountability, people become assholes.  Trolls are rampant.  The voices of extremists drown out moderates.  So on and so forth.

An excerpt from an SMBC comic

But upon further thought, doesn't the accountability of real-world conversations also distort how we think people are?  Assholes maintain a cover of politeness.  Extremists avoid confrontation.  Rarely is expressed an interest in politics or cat photos.  We are most likely to meet people of the same social class and education level as us.

So I realize that this leaves me on shaky ground.  If we have no good method of determining "what people think" (and in fact the very concept is ill-defined), how can I know that Tumblr is any worse than other parts of the internet, or any worse than offline?  Maybe Tumblr represents what people really think, and the things we hear offline are distorted.

I don't really have knowledge that Tumblr is worse than other parts of the internet, but I suspect.  More to the point, sockpuppets are rampant on Tumblr.  It comes from a combination of things:
  • Tumblr encourages and facilitates individuals to have multiple blogs.  Identities are not traceable between the blogs.
  • Because comments are replaced with reblogging, there is no moderation, and no one who can detect sockpuppets.
  • Blog discovery and viral sharing is so effective that new accounts can gain a lot of attention easily.
I don't track tags, I only read tumblrs that I specifically subscribe to, but I've still seen several obvious sockpuppets on Tumblr (usually new accounts that have one or two posts).  I can only imagine how many non-obvious sockpuppets there are that I've missed.

My contempt for sockpuppets is far greater than my contempt for trolls.  Sockpuppets know that they cannot win on arguments, and therefore intentionally resort to cognitive biases (ie we are swayed by the opinions of a crowd).  If we discover a sockpuppet, then we should take this as evidence against their position, in hopes of neutralizing the bias they have created.  Sockpuppets deserve to automatically lose, and be stricken from the record.

If I may speak more specifically about Tumblr culture, there are, for reasons unknown, a lot of people in minority groups.  And because of the aforementioned blog discovery and viral sharing, minority groups interact a lot with their majority counterparts (who may consist mostly of other minorities).  Many critics seem to think that Tumblr has a unique brand of social justice, but I think it's just that people in the majority groups were previously unaware of what people in minority groups have been talking about all along.  From the perspective of a long-time blog-reader, none of it seems genuinely new.

In any case, there is a bit of a "social justice" culture, as well as a hyper-awareness of that culture, and therefore a backlash counter-culture, and then a counter-counter-culture, ad infinitum.  This dynamic is the setting of most sockpuppeting and trolling on Tumblr.  Most typically, there are people (usually part of a minority group, but not part of the particular minority group under discussion) trying to get a rise out of those "PC nuts", and the "PC nuts" fall for it.

I have some familiarity with feminist blogging, and I know that many people would be miffed by what I'm saying.  I appear to be telling them to ignore the wrongness, as if ignoring has ever led to a change in the status quo.  (See example of someone opposing the expression "Don't feed the trolls".)  I largely agree with the points made here.  I do not necessarily advocate ignoring sockpuppets or potential sockpuppets.  I don't think that ignoring sockpuppets improves the situation, or that giving attention to sockpuppets necessarily makes the situation worse.  I do not think that just because their identities are false, that the negative feelings they create are also false.

Rather, I think we should devalue comments coming from new blogs.  And we should devalue comments whose strength comes not from substantive arguments, but from the mere fact that someone said it.  This is not just good practice against sockpuppets, but good practice in general.

(Also, we should escape from Tumblr but I'm not getting that wish any time soon.)

Monday, January 27, 2014

"Poisonous" words like "homophobe"

A few weeks ago, there was an interesting interaction on Slate Star Codex (found via Brute Reason). Apophemi complained that they felt excluded by the dispassionate discourse on triggering subjects within the Less Wrong/Rationalist community, and Scott Alexander defended the rationalist community.  I don't have anything substantive to say on that topic, since I don't regularly pay attention to Less Wrong, and also I don't experience triggers.  But many interesting points are brought up, and here I discuss one.

One of Apophemi's complaints was that people on Less Wrong would reject words like "racist", "sexist", and "ableist" out of hand.  I can believe this charge, because I've seen lots of people say things like that.  I recall one time someone declared "homophobe" to be a "poisonous" word, and then they proceeded to ignore any other words I had said.  Also on the large scale, there is a whole segment of Christians who say that they're not homophobic, they just think homosexual acts are sins under God.  (I'm focusing on "homophobia" since I have more relevant anecdotes, but my points could easily apply to the other words.)

Scott Alexander offered a general rationale for rejecting these words.  If you use a word like "racist", you are biasing the discussion with a loaded term.  It is reasonable to ask someone to taboo their words, to make sure that their argument is based on substance, rather than equivocation.

Personally, I think feminist/anti-racist/queer/disabilities activists can and should rise to the challenge, when necessary.  If someone is being homophobic, then there is a way to negatively describe their without using the particular word "homophobic".

For example, when I talked about how terrible the Catholic Church is, I did not use the word "homophobic" at any point.  I think "homophobic" is a rather squishy term, and therefore I am not committed to the claim that anything is or is not homophobic.  I am much more committed to the idea that the Catholic Church has terrible attitudes about LGB people, no matter how you describe them.  If you came up with any single word to describe the Catholic Church on that axis, I think it would become a bad word faster than you can say "euphemism treadmill".  This is basically why the phrase "hate the sin, love the sinner" has negative connotations.  Christians used that phrase to positively describe their views, but since their views are widely regarded as terrible, the description became pejorative.

I do not propose that everyone follow my example in all situations and contexts.  It's useful to have a shorthand word for "negative or harmful attitudes towards group X", and we're not going to find a non-pejorative word to do it.  The fact of the matter is that I could call the Catholic Church homophobic, and many of my readers would agree, and it would be a succinct summary of my opinion.

It's also worth noting that not every discussion is about mutual enlightenment.  It's cynical, but true that many arguments are really about power.  If I call someone homophobic, and they accuse me of shutting down the conversation with a "poisonous" word, maybe that's exactly what I'm doing.  And maybe I'm right to do it, because life's too short to argue with everyone.  I openly admit to occasionally being mean to commenters on this very blog, because some commenters are just more valuable as comic relief than as sources of ideas (present readers excepted).

But there are a few contexts where "homophobic" is not a useful term.  If someone says, "I'm not homophobic, because of [definition hair-splitting]. I just believe [terrible thing]," joining in the hair-splitting argument may not be the best strategy.  They admit to believing [terrible thing], so what do the technicalities of squishy words matter?

An example of application: A few months ago, Conan' O Brien made a joke about a Muslim superhero character being one of many wives, and people on Friendly Atheist argued over whether it was racist.  The joke was all about applying a negative stereotype to a character expressly created to counter such stereotypes (by an author who personally experienced the stereotypes).  This is not defensible regardless of what you call it.

Finally, I suggest that a similar approach should be taken towards other feminist terminology as well.  "Privilege", "Patriarchy", and "social construct" have underlying meaning (or they don't, if used improperly).  If people split hairs over the definitions of those words, the underlying thing being described remains the same.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Infinite utility

Following my discussion of Pascal's Wager and the St. Petersburg paradox, my boyfriend and I had a geeky conversation about infinite utility.  It turns out there are a lot of technical problems with it!

Infinity vs decision theory

The first question is, how do we know that utility is a useful way to describe our preferences?  The main reason is because of the Von-Neumann Morgenstern (VNM) theorem.  The VNM theorem says that as long as our preferences follow a few basic axioms, then it is possible to describe our preferences as maximizing our expected utility according to a particular utility function.  These are the four basic axioms:1
1. Completeness.  For any two lotteries,2 we either prefer one over the other, or we prefer them equally.

2. Transitivity. If we prefer lottery A to lottery B, and lottery B to lottery C, then we prefer lottery A to lottery C.  If A and B are equally preferable, and B and C are equally preferable, then so are A and C.

3. Continuity.  If lottery A is preferred to B is preferred to C, then it is possible to combine lotteries A and C to make something that is equal to B.  The constructed lottery will have a certain probability of producing A, and otherwise produces C.

4. Independence of alternatives.  Given lottery A, we can construct lottery A' by attaching a certain probability to produce an alternative outcome.  This axiom states that if A is preferred to B, then A' is preferred to B'.
These axioms seem fairly basic, but some experts question their validity.  It is possible to construct choices and give them to test subjects, showing that real people's preferences do not strictly obey the axioms.  But does this mean that the VNM theorem is unsound, or does it mean that people miscalculate their own preferences?  The answer lies outside the scope of this post.

The St. Petersburg paradox and Pascal's Wager present the possibility of a lottery with infinite utility.  Unfortunately, this lottery does not obey the VNM axioms:
Completeness: It's not clear if two lotteries of infinite value are comparable to each other.  The best we can do is define ∞ = ∞.
Continuity: ∞ is preferred to 1 is preferred to 0.  However, there is no way to combine ∞ and 0 to get a lottery with value 1.  As long as there is a nonzero probability of generating ∞, the lottery is still preferable to the value 1.
Independence of alternatives: Given lottery A, we can construct lottery A' by attaching a small probability of producing infinite value.  But then, regardless of the preference between A and B, A' = B' = ∞.
A new number system
Could we perhaps construct a new version of the VNM theorem which uses a different system of numbers, or a different set of axioms?  Perhaps... I'm not ruling it out.

For example, we could allow infinitesimal probabilities "ϵ", such that ϵ*∞ = 1.  But then you'd need ϵ to be distinct from 2*ϵ and 3*ϵ, and ∞ would be distinct from 2*∞ and 3*∞.  To resolve problems with the independence of alternatives, we could define ∞ to be distinct from ∞+1 and ∞+2, etc.

Basically, I'm proposing a number system where the utility is in the form of a*∞+b, and probabilities are in the form of c*ϵ+d.  But now we have to define division (what is 1/(∞+1)?).  Another problem: if we construct a St. Petersburg lottery,3 all we know is that its utility is infinite.  But in my number system, there are many different infinite numbers, so the value of the St. Petersburg lottery is poorly defined.

There's a reason math teachers tell you that infinity is not a number!  If you try to build a number system around it, you run into all sorts of problems.4

Skipping the VNM theorem

There's another way to deal with infinite utility, and that is to forget about the VNM theorem entirely.  Let's just assume that people's preferences are based on maximizing expected utility, and that one possible value of utility is infinity.  This is a valid route to take.  Sure, it may not describe real people's preferences, but maybe real people are just wrong!  Maybe it describes how real people should act, even if they don't act that way.

If that's the route you take, then consider the following lottery: I choose not to believe in God, but when I turn 100, I will roll a dice and if I get a 6, I will choose to believe in God.  There is a small probability that I will live to 100, and small probability that I will get a 6, and a small probability that I will successfully believe in God, and a small probability that God exists and will give me an infinite reward for believing.  Therefore, this lottery has infinite value, and is equally preferable to the lottery where I simply believe in God.5
Yes, this is logically consistent.  But would you bite the bullet?

Utility is bounded

The St. Petersburg lottery is constructed as follows: For every positive integer N, you have a probability 2^-N of getting an outcome with utility 2^N.  This lottery has an expected utility that is greater than any finite value.6  For all practical purposes, the lottery behaves like it has infinite utility, leading to all the problems discussed previously.

Allow me to boil the St. Petersburg lottery down to its essence.  If, for any value M, there exists a lottery whose value is greater than M, then it is possible to construct a lottery with infinite value.  If utility is unbounded above, then infinite utility is possible.

Alternatively, if utility is unbounded below, then negatively infinite utility is possible.  If utility is unbounded both above and below, then it is possible to construct a lottery whose value does not converge, not even on infinity.

This leaves us with several options:
(a) We need stricter construction rules forbidding the construction of St. Petersburg-like lotteries.7

(b) Utility is unbounded above and unbounded below.  Some lotteries do not have defined utility.  The completeness axiom of the VNM theorem fails.

(c) Utility is either bounded above or bounded below, but not both.  Infinite utility exists.  The VNM theorem fails, as discussed previously.

(d) Utility is bounded above and bounded below.
I advocate option (d).  The other options are not impossible, but simply undesirable.  Option (a) amounts to reconstructing probability theory.  Option (d) is the only other option where the VNM axioms could be true.  This is why, in my discussion of Pascal's Wager, I claimed that the probability of infinite utility is precisely zero.  The VNM axioms require that utility is bounded.

How can a maximum utility exist?  Couldn't we pick a lottery that returns the maximum utility, and then repeat, doubling the maximum?  The answer is that having two experiences in succession does not result in the sum of the utilities of those two experiences.  And that's that.

In conclusion, Pascal's Wager doesn't just have philosophical problems, it also has mathematical problems.


1. For more technical descriptions of the VNM axioms, refer to Wikipedia.

2. A Lottery is a set of outcomes, each with their own probability.  In decision theory, we talk about choosing between different lotteries, rather than between different outcomes, because the outcomes aren't completely determined by our choices.

3. See section "Utility is bounded" for a description of the St. Petersburg lottery.

4. I found an article about non-standard number systems that include infinitesimals.  The number system I describe is most similar to Tall's superreals, but I think it still doesn't have the properties we need to reconcile the St. Petersburg paradox with the VNM theorem.  But I can't rule out that some other number system might work.

5. This argument is described in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, credited to Duff 1986 and Hájek 2003.

6. After the time of writing, I learned that it is not necessarily true that the St. Petersburg construction leads to an infinite utility.  Due to some technicalities, when the VNM theorem is applied to lotteries with infinite outcomes, it is allowed that the utility of the lottery is not the expected utility calculated from its component outcomes.  This may offer a way out of the paradox, but in my opinion it actually worsens the situation.  It means that we need an "extended" VNM theorem with even stronger axioms.

7. This is similar to the resolution of Russell's paradox.  Russell's paradox is about the construction of an impossible set.  The resolution to the paradox was a whole new set theory, with rules forbidding the construction of such a set.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Origami tessellation: Star Puff

Star Puff, by Ralf Konrad.  Sourced from Origami Tessellations: Awe-Inspiring Geometric Designs, by Eric Gjerde

This month I present something a little different.  Rather than modular origami, I show an example from an entirely different branch of origami: origami tessellations.  It's sort of a hot new topic in origami.  To create an origami tessellation, you need a "molecule"* of folds that can be repeated indefinitely, tiling the plane.

Coming from modular origami, tessellations seem a little crazy to me.  Instead of folding thirty pieces of paper ten times each, I fold a single piece of paper a hundred times!  Typically, you first make a dense grid of creases, and then you "collapse" the model into its final form.  None of this "step by step folding" nonsense.  It's quite difficult, and I think I might have the wrong kind of paper for it.

Also I think it's harder to take good photos of the finished product.  Or maybe I'm just terrible at photography.

So.  Origami tessellations.  Many (but not all) origami tessellations are based on pleats.  A pleat is two parallel folds--you can see many pleats radiating outwards from the Star Puff design.  When two pleats intersect with each other, you can make pretty designs.

The Star Puff is based on a hexagonal grid of pleats.  You can see this from the back side.

 Star Puff, back side

Each hexagon in that grid is outlined by pleats.  At the corners of the hexagons, we have intersections between different pleats.  Additionally, I've puffed up a few of the hexagons creating the titular star puffs.

*OrigamiUSA called it a "molecule", but if it were up to me it would be called a "unit cell", like in condensed matter physics.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Disqus transition successful

I had to fiddle with it a bit, but Disqus works fine.  I've switched my name to trivialknot.  I prefer that commenters refer to me by that name, just for consistency's sake.

There's no particular rationale behind the name "trivialknot".  I just tend to think of mathematical concepts when I'm searching for names.  A trivial knot is a loop that can be smoothly transformed into a circle without ever crossing itself.  In other words, it is a loop without a knot.  This name has been kicking around for a few years.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Disqus installed

My boyfriend, who is actually a robot, complained that he was unable to get past the Captcha codes used in Blogger's comment system.  If it were anyone else I would have blown him off, but this is my boyfriend who is also a robot.

I tried turning off the Captcha codes, but this appears to increase the volume of spam I get.  So I'm trying something else: a Disqus comment system.  I chose Disqus because I already have an account and it's easy to implement.  There won't be threaded comments.  Old comments will be imported over soon enough. (Edit: Disqus appears to require threaded comments.  Old comments already imported.  Yes, you can still leave comments without an account.)

Please let me know if there are any problems.  If you can't comment, let me know by e-mail: skepticsplay at gmail dot com.  

If there are no significant problems, then I will stick with Disqus.  And to reduce confusion, I'll likely switch my name to "trivialknot", to match my Disqus handle.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Stereotype threat vs self-fulfilling prophecy

Here's an experimental idea: How does stereotype threat affect people's behavior in the ultimatum game?  If you tell a group of people that the purpose of your study is to measure gender differences in cooperation, will this cause women to behave more cooperatively in a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Let me step back a bit and define our terms.  Stereotype threat is when you remind people that they're part of a negatively stereotyped group, and this reminder causes them to perform more poorly on a performance test, confirming the negative stereotype.  In the classic experiment, subjects are given an academic test.  When told that the test was diagnostic of intellectual ability, this negatively impacted the scores of African American subjects compared to other subjects, because they were reminded of negative stereotypes of their group.  (There is also an opposite effect, called stereotype lift, where people who are not part of the stereotyped group perform better when primed with the stereotype.)

The ultimatum game is a game often used in studies of social behavior.  Two players are offered a chance to split $100.  The first player decides how to divide the money.  The second player considers the first player's offer, and either accepts it or rejects it.  If the offer is rejected, then no one gets any money.  A more cooperative player offers more money to the other player.

The stereotype threat is often explained as a "self-fulfilling prophecy".  Mention a stereotype, and it causes the stereotype to become true!

However, every study on the stereotype threat seems to only look at performance tests.  The proposed mechanism for stereotype threat is that reminding people about their membership of a stereotyped group causes anxiety and taxes cognitive resources.  (Stereotype lift, on the other hand, reduces anxiety.)  This may cause people to confirm stereotypes when the stereotype is that they'll perform more poorly on a test.  But what happens when you study a stereotype that does not have to do with test performance?  For instance, could stereotype threat also "confirm" stereotypes about being more or less cooperative?  If so, could it also "confirm" other stereotypes, like gay men being effeminate or black people being religious?

That's why I think it would be interesting to see if stereotype threat affects how people behave in the ultimatum game.

Unfortunately, I don't have the resources to perform this experiment, but we can find answers in existing literature.  A brief literature search found the following paper: Social Identity and Preferences by Benjamin et al.

The paper finds that when Asian-Americans and (non-immigrant) black Americans are made to think about their own ethnicity, this affects their patience (with respect to receiving money rewards), and their risk aversion.  The authors infer that there are ethnic norms about patience and risk-aversion which are enhanced by priming.  The specific results of the paper aren't relevant here, but what's interesting is that it appears to be a self-fulfilling stereotype which is not about a performance test.

What's more, the authors do not use stereotype threat as an explanation.  Rather, they consider stereotype threat as one possible explanation, and reject it.  It cannot be stereotype threat, because they find that their method of priming people does not increase their anxiety.  Instead, the authors understand their results within self-categorization theory.  Priming people causes them to see themselves as more part of a group, and modify their behavior according to what is expected within that group.

This clarifies something I may have misunderstood about stereotype threat.  Stereotype threat is not just any mechanism by which stereotypes become self-fulfilling prophecies, it's just one particular mechanism.  Stereotype threat operates by causing anxiety and taxing cognitive resources, incidentally creating self-fulfilling prophecies when stereotypes are related to performance on certain tests.

The important thing about stereotype threat is not that it causes people to confirm stereotypes, the important thing is that negative stereotypes cause people anxiety, and this anxiety has measurable impact on their performance of real world tasks.

As for my experimental proposal, I predict that priming people with gender may in fact cause women to behave more cooperatively, but not by the mechanism of stereotype threat.  Rather, by self-categorization theory, men and women may see themselves as more part of their gender, and modify their behavior to better accord with gender norms.   But that's just my prediction, who knows whether it would carry out.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Pascal's wager

On this blog I enjoy criticizing many of the philosophical arguments for God, but it occurs to me that I've never covered Pascal's Wager, despite it being one of the most common arguments out there.  True to my style, I will cover Pascal's Wager with a mathematical bent.

Pascal's Wager is basically a decision theory argument.  You have two choices: believe in God (specifically, the Christian God), or don't.  The world has two possible states, there is a god or there isn't.  Depending on your choice and the state of the world, there are different outcomes.  According to the usual argument, these are the outcomes:

God exists God does not exist
Wager for God Gain all Status quo
Wager against God Misery Status quo
(copied from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

A lot of people say that you can't really choose to believe in God or not, but it's possible to influence one's own beliefs.  I'm sure if you made a point to listen to apologetics all the time and avoid discussions of religion on the internet, then you could increase your chances of believing in God.  I think some people have this conclusion in the back of their minds, and use it as a reason to avoid questioning their own religion.

With this outcome matrix, it seems that believing in God is a "dominant" strategy.  That is, the outcome is always better than or equal to not believing in God.  In each column, the outcome in the first row is at least as good as the outcome in the second row.  Dominant strategies are better strategies, therefore we should make an effort to believe in God.

But it isn't really a dominant strategy for several reasons.  Worshipping God costs time and effort (and if any religious practices were genuinely beneficial, you could do them without believing in God).  It would also cost extra if, like I suggested earlier, believing in god means listening to lots of apologetics and avoiding discussions of religion on the internet.

But suppose, for the sake of argument, that believing in God actually costs nothing.  Imagine that no worship is called for, and that choosing to believe is as easy as choosing to speak.  Believing in God is still not a dominant strategy, because the world has more than two possible states.  If you can think of some pathological scenario where people who believe in God are rewarded, then you can also think of a pathological scenario where people who don't believe in God are rewarded.  For example, there's the scenario where a different but equally whimsical God exists, and this god rewards people who don't believe in gods.

Whimsical God #1 existsWhimsical God #2 existsGod does not exist
Believe in GodGain allMiseryStatus quo
Don't believe in GodMiseryGain allStatus quo

It's not really necessary to come up with a realistic scenario where people who don't believe in God benefit.  As long as there is any such scenario, believing in God is no longer a dominant strategy.  That is to say, it is no longer true that in each column, the first row has at least as good an outcome as the second column.

But strategic dominance isn't the only kind of argument you can make with Pascal's wager.  You can also argue based on what you think are the probabilities of the different states of the world, and how much value you place on the different outcomes.  Many people see salvation as an infinite reward.  If you multiply an infinite reward by a nonzero probability, then it's still infinitely more preferable to any finite outcome.  Therefore, as long as there is a nonzero probability that God exists, one should make every effort to believe in God.

There's already a problem with this argument: if it's at all effective, then it's too effective.  If it's truly the case that a nonzero probability of an infinite reward is infinitely preferable to any other outcome, then all of us should ignore all finite rewards in favor of slightly increasing the probability of satisfying this whimsical god.  More than just spending some time listening to apologetics, you should dedicate your life to brainwashing yourself to maximize the probability that you will believe in God.  And if there's a nonzero probability that God infinitely punishes people who eat shellfish or who mix wool and linen, then one should make every effort to appease this unlikely God.

Given that this is not how Christians behave, and very few Christians believe we should behave that way, we should consider if there's something wrong with the argument.

Pascal's Wager is comparable to the St. Petersburg paradox.  In this paradox, you play a game where you flip a coin repeatedly until you get tails.  If it took N coin flips, then you win 2N dollars.*  The expected reward for playing this game is infinite, and therefore it is worthwhile to pay any large, finite amount of money to play the game.  And yet, intuitively, it does not seem like a worthwhile investment.

*Dollars have the property that the more you have, the less valuable they are to you.  In a more sophisticated version of the paradox, the reward is in "utils" rather than dollars.

Experts have many different opinions on the resolution to the St. Petersburg paradox.  But very few experts bite the bullet, arguing that it is in fact worth it to invest any finite amount of money to play the game.

Pascal's Wager captures some of the essence of the St. Petersburg paradox, because it also offers a very small chance of a very large reward.  It's a neat trick, harnessing a controversial mathematical paradox to make an argument for God.  This way, even though experts agree that the argument is wrong, nobody agrees on exactly why.  It allows apologists to look at the disagreement among their opponents and believe that they've won.

Myself, I believe that the probability of an outcome with infinite value is precisely zero.  This doesn't necessarily make me a "strong" atheist, it just means that I think it's impossible for any outcome to be infinitely valuable, as impossible as it would be for God to make a square circle.

This makes philosophical sense, because "value" is just what we use to describe what our preferences are.  There is no reward whatsoever that I prefer so strongly that I would risk everything else just to have an infinitesimal chance of winning it.  Therefore there is no infinite value.

My discipline is physics, so I have to say that it makes physics sense too.  Suppose we have someone who claims that they'll give you some payoff, if only you provide the initial investment for them to fly over from Nigeria.  If you think there's a million to one chance of getting the payoff, does that mean that they can just offer a million times as much money in order to overcome your doubt?  No, because then you would doubt the story even more!  As they increase the magnitude of their claims, the magnitude of our doubt increases even faster.  Salvation is just the limit of this process of runaway humbug.

There's also the same problem I brought up earlier, that we can also think of whimsical gods which punish rather than reward believers.  For instance, if conservative Christians of a different denomination are right, then your denomination of Christianity may go to hell for heresy.  Is whimsical god #1 really any more likely than whimsical god #2?  I think they are about equally likely, although it's understandable that people are more likely to believe in #1.

I will concede one thing about Pascal's Wager: it may in fact present a problem to a certain set of agnostics.  That is, if you think there's a 25% chance that God exists and 75% chance that God doesn't, then Pascal's Wager applies to you.  However, my understanding, speaking with agnostics, is that this is not what most self-identified agnostics believe.  Most agnostics are not on the fence, probabilistically speaking.  Rather, they think gods are unknowable, or that it is inappropriate to assign probabilities at all.  Further, while many agnostics may be uncertain about gods, they may feel more certain of the nonexistence of salvation.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Bothersome character developments

Speaking of things in fiction that bother me, here's another: characters who are not adventurous enough, but through the story learn to be more adventurous.  A classic example is The Hobbit.  But other examples that come to mind are Anansi Boys, which put me off from Neil Gaiman entirely, and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which I know I wouldn't like based on the previews.

Like my previous complaint, it comes down to the limitations of fiction as a medium.  We like stories about the interesting or unusual.  So in a story, adventurous often means going on this dangerous adventure to kill the dragon.  We also like stories where the hero wins.  So of course they defeat the dragon every time despite the one in a million odds.  Doesn't that just show the virtue of being a risk-taker?

Even in a more realistic story where there are no dragons, it's all about living life to the fullest, according to whatever writers think that means.  Inevitably it's something that's fun to read about but doesn't sound like fun to actually experience.  More exploiting the limitations of fiction as a medium.

Maybe it just annoys me on a personal level, as I've met innumerable people who discover that I'm not into one thing or another, and think it's such a travesty that I should try it over and over until I like it.  Geeks are especially bad about this, with all their shows and movies that they think I should watch.  I like to enthuse about webcomics and blogs, but I don't operate under the illusion that everyone else would like them too if only they'd try.

In discussion with my boyfriend, he said this didn't really bother him.  Instead, he's bothered by a different kind of character development, wherein a member of the upper middle class discovers that money can't give their life meaning.  Specific examples include The Great Gatsby and American Beauty.  I think he has trouble sympathizing for those poor poor wealthy people.  I think that doesn't bother me as much though.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Stories where skeptics are wrong

Lately I've been thinking a lot about queer representation in fiction, but what about skeptical representation?

Representation of skepticism is quite a bit different to me, because I don't particularly care about character representation, more about thematic representation.  There are certainly stereotypes of skeptics reinforced by fictional media (think Vulcans and House, MD), but I'm not as bothered by these stereotypes as I am about queer stereotypes, because skepticism isn't an entirely coherent or recognizable identity.

For an example of good thematic representation, see Harry Potter. It's wonderful to read that even in a world full of magic, there are wacky conspiracy theories flying around, and skepticism is still important.

On the other hand, in most fiction, when a wacky conspiracy theory or paranormal hypothesis shows up, there's a good chance that it's true within that story.  And it makes sense too, from a storytelling perspective.  We like stories about the unusual or fantastic, and we like stories that connect to our real life.  So why not depict an ordinary world, only in this world the supernatural is real!  But given that this is like the real world, most people don't believe in the fantastical.  But in the fictional universe, all those people are wrong.

It's okay that stories depict the fantastical.  But it annoys me when a story dwells too much on people's disbelief in the fantastical.  It feels like the story is trying to say something negative about disbelief.  But it's not criticizing disbelief in a very fair way, it's just using the limitations of fiction as a medium.  Fiction is limited to describing what is interesting and unusual, stories worth hearing.  There aren't a lot of stories about people brushing their teeth.  Imagine if someone somehow twisted this around to show that brushing your teeth is unnecessary.

I'm sure this isn't the intention of most people writing such stories, but the meanings of stories aren't bound by the authors' intentions.

There are several solutions that I find satisfactory.  One is to just not talk about people's disbelief that much.  Then I don't have to think about it too much.  Another solution is to describe further paranormal or conspiracy beliefs that are false within the fictional universe.

Dear readers, are you also bothered by stories where all the skeptics are wrong?

Thursday, January 2, 2014

How terrible is Pope Francis?

In atheist news, the new Pope Francis has been a hot topic over the past year.  Pope Francis has gotten much praise from mainstream sources, earning Time's Person of the Year as well as Person of the Year of LGBT news outlet The Advocate.  Specific actions include his comment "Who am I to judge?" said of gay priests, and his suspension of the "Bishop of Bling".

The predominant atheist reaction has been, "You're praising the Pope?  Of the Catholic Church, that obscenely wealthy instution which protects child-abusers while blaming them on homosexuals?"  I for one think it's a particular travesty that Pope Francis was praised by The Advocate; it seems emblematic of the way that mainstream LGBT activism is unjustifiably friendly towards religion.

However, my negative view of Pope Francis is somewhat moderated, because I think there's some real good in incremental change.  Like the father in the prodigal son I see it in terms of the harm reduction now rather than the harm caused by the long arc of Catholic history.  While it would be preferable for people to just leave Catholicism, there is also something to be said for reducing the amount of harm caused per Catholic.

Specifically on the "Who am I to judge?" comment, one can imagine this causing real change in Catholic barring of priests with "deep-rooted homosexual tendencies".  Though I've heard of no official change in policy, people may enforce it less strictly in response to the Pope's comments, or it could indicate an impending change to official policy.  While I don't have much sympathy for people trying to become Catholic priests, I will grant them the minimal human decency of opposing discrimination within their ranks. This may seem like a fairly weak positive, but take it for what it is.

Similarly, one can imagine the Pope's comments inspiring other actions lower down in the hierarchy, similar to the way that SCOTUS's opinions influence lower courts even when they're not binding.

But let's be clear, the Pope is an improvement, but is far from being a net positive.  A recent illustrative story is his opposition to adoption by same-sex couples in a proposed Maltese law. If you think you're okay with same-sex couples, but are not okay with adoption by said couples, then you are not actually okay with same-sex couples (nor they with you).  It doesn't matter if studies find children of same-sex couples do worse (and this I do not grant)--would it matter if studies found that children of different religions did better or worse?

This is all part of what makes Catholic attitudes towards LGB people horrible.  Catholics think that they're compassionate towards homosexuals--it's in the Catechism!  But their compassion is as it would be towards someone with alcoholic tendencies--they accept it, but don't approve of their drinking.  While there is some internal consistency to this narrative, internal consistency is not a sufficient to make a decent human being.  Catholics seem not to realize that this makes the Catholic Church one of the most anti-LGB organizations on the planet.  Given their position it's no surprise that Catholics are one of the biggest funding sources of anti-LGB activism.

In Catholic doctrine, it seems compassion just means being nice to your face.  It means recognizing that you are a human being like any other, and then not really thinking about the implications of that, certainly not extending it to one's political actions. It means valuing your life, but not valuing it nearly as much as an unjustified moral belief.  If this is what compassion is, then compassion doesn't count for much.  Catholics should be ashamed.

I started this by saying I had a more moderate view of the Pope, but I ended with a scathing critique of Catholic doctrine.  I honestly think there is widespread delusion among lay Catholics that their religion is more LGB-friendly than it is, not because they misunderstand official doctrine, but because Catholicism has so lowered their standards that they don't even know what it means to be LGB-positive.  I include my Catholic relatives in this, and my former Catholic self.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Obama and religious diversity

Oh, happy New Years.  (And that concludes this blog's coverage of the holidays.)

A few days ago on Friendly Atheist, there was an article discussing the religious beliefs, or lack thereof, of President Obama.

Let me say this of speculation that Obama is an atheist: besides likely being false, it also says something unflattering about atheists.  Atheists are often accused of thinking that all religious people are fundamentalists, and ignoring everyone else.  When an atheist speculates that Obama is an atheist, this tells me that the stereotype is true of that individual.  They are so unfamiliar with how a liberal Christianity looks, and so unable to imagine it, that they would prefer to adopt a conspiracy theory of sorts.

I take solace in the fact that speculation about Obama's atheism appears to be an entirely fringe activity, that most atheists reject it as both unlikely and irrelevant.  The above-linked article on Friendly Atheist takes this view, and so do most of the commenters (and think about how bad random commenters on the internet usually are).  A noted exception is Bill Maher who speculates that Obama and the Pope are both atheists, but we already knew Maher was terrible.

I grew up in a not-so-religious Catholic household, and had some degree of Jesuit education.  Liberal Christianity is easy for me to imagine.  In fact, I have the converse problem that conservative Christianity is hard for me to imagine.  It just seems so far away, and removed from my social circles.

However, with the rational part of my brain, I recognize that conservative Christianity is a real thing, and in fact constitutes a very large percentage of the US population. About half of the population believes in some sort of anti-evolution Creationism, and about 20% believe that the second coming of Jesus will occur in their lifetime. That's not something to ignore just because I don't have personal experience with it. It's worth it for the atheist movement to pay attention to these beliefs--but not while denying the existence of more liberal forms of Christianity and other religions.