One more on religion-and-politics for the day

When the Portuguese persuaded the Vatican to give them the right to appoint bishops to Kongo’s church, the bishops, always Portuguese, refused to ordain enough Kongolese priests to run the church. The kings of Kongo appealed to Rome and, in a compromise, agreed to allow the functions usually performed by parish priests to be done by Capuchin missionaries, mostly from Italy, a country considered neutral in Europe. These priests were militant followers of the Counter-Reformation, a movement within the Catholic Church dedicated to wiping out, among other things, the folk Christianity that did not fit into their revised vision of the Christian religion.

“The Forgotten African Catholic Kingdom of Kongo”

Problems with Science Aren’t New

Just to reiterate, the problems I discussed in my last post are not meant to cause despair. Science has had these problems since at least 1830, when Charles Babbage wrote his Reflections on the Decline of Science in England. Here are a few quotes, in the first few of which he is addressing the problems of forging, cooking, or trimming one’s statistical data.

Forging differs from hoaxing, inasmuch as in the later the deceit is intended to last for a time, and then be discovered, to the ridicule of those who have credited it; whereas the forger is one who, wishing to acquire a reputation for science, records observations which he has never made.

Of Cooking. This is an art of various forms, the object of which is to give ordinary observations the appearance and character of those of the highest degree of accuracy. One of its numerous processes is to make multitudes of observations, and out of these to select only those which agree, or very nearly agree. If a hundred observations are made, the cook must be very unhappy if he cannot pick out fifteen or twenty which will do for serving up.

Trimming consists of clipping off little bits here and there from those observations which differ most in excess from the mean, and in sticking them onto those which are too small; a species of ‘equitable adjustment,’ as a radical would term it, which cannot be admitted in science.

A young man passes from our public schools to the universities, ignorant almost of the elements of every branch of useful knowledge.

Thanks, Charles, for restating that old scientific truism about newness under the sun.

People Have Never Liked Religious Leaders, etc.

Yet another example of an overblown headline based on a relatively anodyne academic study:

Americans have significantly less confidence in their religious leaders than they did a generation ago and more than two-thirds would prefer they not dabble in politics, according to a new book by a Duke University professor.

Chaves’ research found that between 1973 and 2008, the percentage of people with great confidence in religious leaders declined from 35 percent to less than 25 percent….

There is a declining, though still very high, belief in God. In the 1950s, 99 percent of Americans said they believed in God; in 2008, about 92 percent did.

First, this drop isn’t that large, and could be as little as half the size reported given the confidence intervals. Second, it really isn’t surprising. What if they had phrased it this way: “After thirty-five years of constant reports about clerical child abuse, mega-church pastors with mistresses, and reverends with gambling addictions, slightly fewer Americans have high confidence in men that they half-listen to for a few hours a month.” Essentially what the article says is, “Americans have never had a particularly lofty view of religious leaders, but lo and behold, there are some fluctuations in that level over time.” 

I’m not trying to be too hard on Chaves here–Lord knows academics have heavy incentives to make their findings seem more shocking than they really are. Rather, it is the media’s insistence that research must be presented in this way in order to garner attention from the public. This leads to a couple of things that I view as negative. First, the public over time begins to have unrealistic expectations of science, that it should always be novel or exciting and clearly tied to a “useful purpose.” Great discoveries have often been so only in retrospect, whereas most day-to-day science is more like puzzle solving.

The second reason that media portrayals like this hurt science is that researchers are tempted to pursue projects that will lead to such supposedly shocking headlines, rather than work out important puzzles that remain in influential theories. This in turn can lead to temptations to falsify or “adjust data” to make sure that the surprising claim is supported, which are then discovered, which then lowers the publics view of science, which makes us want to surprise them with interesting findings, and so on…

Not to despair too much, though. Chaves actually does have a couple of interesting findings:

— Fewer Americans today approve of their religious leaders getting involved in politics. In 1991, about 30 percent of Americans strongly agreed that religious leaders should avoid political involvement; by 2008, 44 percent felt that way.

— Religion and politics are more closely intertwined than a generation ago.

“Several decades ago there was not a strong correlation between how religiously active you were and whether you voted Republican or Democrat,” Chaves says. “Now, there is. If you’re religiously active, you’re now more likely to vote Republican. That’s a very important development and is part of what leads people to talk about increasing polarization in American society.”

See? Not overblown, just simple statements that correspond to facts. I’d be interested in seeing more details on the second point, but not if it’s couched in language that’s meant to get my blood pressure up.

Persecution and Demographic Size

More from Pew:

Adherents of the world’s two largest religious groups, Christians and Muslims, who together comprise more than half of the global population, were harassed in the largest number of countries. Over the three-year period studied, incidents of either government or social harassment were reported against Christians in 130 countries (66%) and against Muslims in 117 countries (59%). Buddhists and Hindus – who together account for roughly one-fifth of the world’s population and who are more geographically concentrated than Christians or Muslims – faced harassment in fewer places; harassment was reported against Buddhists in 16 countries (8%) and against Hindus in 27 countries (14%).

In proportion to their numbers, some smaller religious groups faced especially widespread harassment. Although Jews comprise less than 1% of the world’s population, government or social harassment of Jews was reported in 75 countries (38%). Incidents of harassment involving members of other world religions – including Sikhs, ancient faiths such as Zoroastrianism, newer faith groups such as Baha’is and Rastafarians, and localized groups that practice tribal or folk religions – were reported in 84 countries (42%).

In addition, the study finds that restrictions on religion are particularly common in countries that prohibit blasphemy, apostasy or defamation of religion. While such laws are sometimes promoted as a way to protect religion, in practice they often serve to punish religious minorities whose beliefs are deemed unorthodox or heretical.

Again, this is surprising–why are the largest religious groups most often the victims of persecution? “Because there is more of them” is not a satisfying answer, since perspectives on harassment and prejudice often suggest that it it works only from the majority toward the minority. I suppose that since Christians comprise about a third of the world’s population it is possible that they are a minority in all 130 of the countries where they faced persecution. But if simple minority status makes one subject to persecution, we would expect to observe this with much greater frequency for groups like Jews, Buddhists, or Sikhs.

This deserves further exploration but I’m not sure exactly what direction to go with it at the moment, so please leave comments with your thoughts. One possibility is that tricky little caveat in the fine print that these counts don’t address how severe the persecution was. Other suggestions or observation are welcome.

What are they afraid of?

From the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life

Conflict between religious groups, by contrast, does not loom as a particularly large concern for most of the evangelical leaders surveyed. A majority says that conflict between religious groups is either a small problem (41%) or not a problem at all (14%) in their countries – though a sizeable minority considers it either a moderately big problem (27%) or a very big problem (17%). Those who live in the Middle East and North Africa are especially inclined to see inter-religious conflict as a moderately big (37%) or very big problem (35%). Nine-in-ten evangelical leaders (90%) who live in Muslim-majority countries say the influence of Islam is a major threat, compared with 41% of leaders who live elsewhere.

On the whole, the evangelical Protestant leaders express favorable opinions of adherents of other faiths in the Judeo-Christian tradition, including Judaism, Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity. But of those who express an opinion, solid majorities express unfavorable views of Buddhists (65%), Hindus (65%), Muslims (67%) and atheists (70%). Interestingly, the leaders who live in Muslim-majority countries generally are more positive in their assessments of Muslims than are the evangelical leaders overall. 

Step back and think about what’s going on here for a second. How can 90% of respondents in Muslim-majority countries view Islam as a major threat, yet less than two-thirds of them have unfavorable views of Muslims? (So much less than two-thirds, in fact, that it brings down the average. I’ll get more details on this eventually.)

A couple of possible explanations come to mind. The first is simply that people are inconsistent, which is not unusual with polling data. Another possibility is what we might think of as a corollary to the old “my best friend is black” trope. In that expression–which I think was made popular by Chris Rock, but can’t find video confirmation at the moment–white people excuse themselves from charges of racism by claiming a close relationship with a black person. What the Pew data shows is the opposite of this: evangelical leaders are claiming that Islam is a threat, despite the fact that they have favorable views of Muslims, which I take to include at least a few friendships.

This may be because, when asked if they view Islam as a threat, their first thought was of organizations like al-Qaeda or the authoritarian governments they live under, rather than the Muslims they see at the marketplace or across the dinner table. I’m not here to point fingers and say that they should be above this kind of issue salience. Rather, it shows just how difficult it will be to get most Americans who don’t have friendly everyday encounters with Muslims to change their minds about the threat they present. Which means that we have a long and difficult road ahead, simply because we are leaving blinders on.

More on Addiction

Apropos of this, here’s this from Paul Graham:

As far as I know there’s no word for something we like too much. The closest is the colloquial sense of “addictive.” That usage has become increasingly common during my lifetime. And it’s clear why: there are an increasing number of things we need it for. At the extreme end of the spectrum are crack and meth. Food has been transformed by a combination of factory farming and innovations in food processing into something with way more immediate bang for the buck, and you can see the results in any town in America. Checkers and solitaire have been replaced by World of Warcraft and FarmVille. TV has become much more engaging, and even so it can’t compete with Facebook.

The world is more addictive than it was 40 years ago. And unless the forms of technological progress that produced these things are subject to different laws than technological progress in general, the world will get more addictive in the next 40 years than it did in the last 40.

FYI, Paul doesn’t watch TV or have a Facebook. Read the whole thing to figure out what he is addicted to. 

Public Opinion is Often Wrong

… and so are experts.

The early 21st century seems awash in wars: the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, street battles in Somalia, Islamist insurgencies in Pakistan, massacres in the Congo, genocidal campaigns in Sudan. All in all, regular fighting is taking place in 18 wars around the globe today. Public opinion reflects this sense of an ever more dangerous world: One survey a few years ago found that 60 percent of Americans considered a third world war likely. Expectations for the new century were bleak even before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and their bloody aftermath: Political scientist James G. Blight and former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara suggested earlier that year that we could look forward to an average of 3 million war deaths per year worldwide in the 21st century.

So far they haven’t even been close. In fact, the last decade has seen fewer war deaths than any decade in the past 100 years, based on data compiled by researchers Bethany Lacina and Nils Petter Gleditsch of the Peace Research Institute Oslo. Worldwide, deaths caused directly by war-related violence in the new century have averaged about 55,000 per year, just over half of what they were in the 1990s (100,000 a year), a third of what they were during the Cold War (180,000 a year from 1950 to 1989), and a hundredth of what they were in World War II. If you factor in the growing global population, which has nearly quadrupled in the last century, the decrease is even sharper. Far from being an age of killer anarchy, the 20 years since the Cold War ended have been an era of rapid progress toward peace.


One reason that I suggest this might be the case is that officials have a tendency to call lots of things wars that aren’t (and I don’t mean lack of congressional authorization for military efforts).

More on Movie Scripts

The post about movie scripts got a little long (sorry), but I wanted to share an anecdote that is hopefully more illustrative than boastful.

Several years ago on my first trip to DC, I had the opportunity to visit the Pentagon and meet a colonel with one of the coolest jobs in the world. His job was to coordinate Department of Defense assistance to movie and television productions. If the movie/show presented the military in a favorable light, it could receive greater access to (if memory serves) DoD installations, training procedures*, personnel, and equipment. This is why the producers of Black Hawk Down were allowed to use actual Black Hawk helicopters rather than having to paint older Vietnam-era Hueys black like some film crews have done.

Part of his job involved reading the scripts to determine whether the production would lend itself to a positive/accurate/patriotic/whatever view of the US armed forces. (Or intelligence agencies: he also showed us a script from the fifth season of the series 24 which was then in production.) While the colonel and his office exercise no direct editorial control over the final product, receiving this type of assistance is a huge incentive for the producers to cooperate with his criteria.

That is not to say that the quality of the final product is compromised–indeed the result is often exactly the opposite. But it does illustrate one point of the previous post: that there are mechanisms that influence the creative/scientific process that are often hidden from consumers of the final product. Again, I am not saying that this is an unmitigated evil, that people are bad, or that you cannot find this information if you look. I am suggesting that many readers have an interest in becoming informed members of one or more creative communities, and that they will be well served by digging a little bit deeper and finding the information that is available.** Gaining a clearer perspective on the iterative nature of the creative/scientific process will change the way you think.


*See the special features on the Black Hawk Down DVD if you don’t believe this one.

** As a counter-example, we also at MRE’s in the colonel’s office for lunch. I have significantly less interest in seeing how those are made….

Reading in Graduate School

Caveat: this is a skill that I am working to develop over the next few years, not one that I have mastered.

Reading in graduate school is different from that required for undergraduate coursework. This is true not only of the sheer quantity (it has been likened to drinking from a firehose) but also the types of readings assigned. As Thomas Kuhn has noted, most of the readings assigned to undergraduates are in textbook form. The advantage to this approach is that the reading is comprehensive, or at least provides most of the requisite information for the course.

But there is also a key disadvantage: the textbook is given as ‘received wisdom’ from sages of ages past without any indication that those findings were not uncontroversial at the time, or indeed even presently. This is like a movie: we see the final product, but we don’t know which scenes ended up on the cutting room floor (or at least are being saved for the DVD), which changes were made to the script, and so on.* These differences are apparent sometimes in movies that are adapted from books, but often they are invisible to the major audience. (Have you heard many favorable comparisons between movie adaptations and the original book? I haven’t.)  The movie analogy shows that while the final product is often perfectly fine in its own right, it is usually lacking the substance or nuance of the original.

This difference between watching the movie and reading the script is similar to the change from undergrad to graduate course readings.** Rather than having a nice, clean package of information in the form of a textbook, you spend much more time reading journal articles and short papers. Often you will read opposing viewpoints on the same issue/question, either in the same week or over the course of this semester. This type of reading has the impact, on me at least, of showing that science*** is a fluid process. It is not a collection of right answers, it is a resource of ideas that seem to fit with certain facts when they are viewed in a certain way.

Jeff Ely put it very well recently:

My tests don’t contain any information in them that isn’t in the raw data.  My tests are just a super sophisticated way to summarize the data.  If I just showed you the tables it would be too much information.  So really, my tests do nothing more than save you the work of doing the tests yourself.

But I pick the tests.  You might have picked different tests.  And even if you like my tests you might disagree with the conclusion I draw from them.  I say “because of these tests you should conclude that H is very likely false.”  But that’s a conclusion that follows not just from the data, but also from my prior which you may not share.

What if instead of giving you the raw data and instead of giving you my test results I did something like the following.  I give you a piece of software which allows you to enter your prior and then it tells you what, based on the data and your prior, your posterior should be?  Note that such a function completely summarizes what is in the data.  And it avoids the most common knee-jerk criticism of Bayesian statistics, namely that it depends on an arbitrary choice of prior.  You tell me what your prior is, I will tell you (what the data says is) your posterior.

Pause and notice that this function is exactly what applied statistics aims to be, and think about why, in practice, it doesn’t seem to be moving in this direction.

First of all, as simple as it sounds, it would be impossible to compute this function in all practical situations.  But still, an approach to statistics based on such an objective, and subject to the technical constraints would look very different than what is done in practice.

A big part of the explanation is that statistics is a rhetorical practice.  The goal is not just to convey information but rather to change minds.  In an imaginary perfect world there is no distinction between these goals.   If I have data that proves H is false I can just distribute that data, everyone will analyze it in their own favorite way, everyone will come to the same conclusion, and that will be enough.

Like reading the script of a movie and seeing how ideas change, graduate school offers the chance to peek behind the curtain of the scientific process. We can discover many things, some of them profound and some of them fundamental. But hopefully through it all we can remember something that we should not have forgotten in the first place: we are only human.


*Another way that this is sometimes apparent is in closed captioning. When a movie’s subtitles don’t match up precisely with what’s being said on screen it is often because the CC is based on a version of the script rather than someone actual viewing the movie and captioning it.

** If you have some interest in reading movie scripts, see here here and here.

*** By “science” here I mean simply the organized, falsifiable pursuit of human knowledge.