Monday, April 09, 2012

I knew you wanted to read this today

ESP and the significance of significance

A controversy about experiments in extra-sensory perception throws some light, and maybe some confusion, on the idea of statistical significance. This article discusses a common misinterpretation of the results of significance tests, and investigates some criticisms of significance tests in general.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

How Do You Know That? (or A Little Ambiguity on a Wednesday Afternoon)

I'm a crappy friend, and here's why.  When asked a question that a friend of mine deemed important, I turned his questions back to him in the form of additional questions.  Maybe I'm uncomfortable with familiar certitude, or else I'm just content to be a gad fly.

Maybe I'm too much of a coward to give a straight answer.  You can judge for yourself after you read the rest of this post. (You will, won't you?)

To set the context, here's the note (posted with permission).

"Hi Rob,

So, I read this [link from Wikipedia to my daughter] yesterday and asked if she believed it:

Joseph Smith Jr. said that when he was seventeen years of age an angel of God, named Moroni, appeared to him,[10] and said that a collection of ancient writings, engraved on golden plates by ancient prophets, was buried in a nearby hill in Wayne County, New York. The writings described a people whom God had led from Jerusalem to the Western Hemisphere 600 years before Jesus' birth. According to the narrative, Moroni was the last prophet among these people and had buried the record, which God had promised to bring forth in the latter days. Smith stated that he was instructed by Moroni to meet at the hill annually each September 22 to receive further instructions and that four years after the initial visit, in 1827, he was allowed to take the plates and was directed to translate them into English.

She said 'no,' so I asked her why she believed a man lived in the belly of a fish for three days and the story of an ark and a talking donkey, etc., but she didn't believe this story.  She thought for a second and said, 'because you didn't teach that to me' (which is a more honest answer than when I ask her why her room isn't clean).  So I asked her if we were sharing the story of Jesus with a non-believer or even someone in a country that was not familiar with the Bible what would make them believe one set of stories and not the other.  She didn't have an answer and I'm not sure I do either.

This has always been one of my sticking points (noted in the article):

For some followers of the Latter Day Saint movement, unresolved issues of the book's historical authenticity and the lack of conclusive archaeological evidence have led them to adopt a compromise position that the Book of Mormon may be the creation of Smith, but that it was nevertheless created through divine inspiration.[36] The position of most members of the Latter Day Saint movement and the official position of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) is that the book is an actual and accurate historical record.

Thus, I'm asking if you have any thoughts on this."

No one is really questioning the Mormon church here.  My friend's question is related to his own unresolved issues, not those of you who wear the special undergarments.

My crappy response?  Here it is...

"First of all, I think you need to realize that you’re asking your daughter to do something very dangerous.  In the end, she may not believe what you believe.  Can you handle that, knowing that you started her on that road of inquiry and questioning?

Second, what do you hope to achieve by asking your daughter to take on this line of questioning?  Do you want her to have a more secure rationale of the stories she believes in by faith in you (which she more or less admitted to, and with honesty, as you point out)?  Or do you want your daughter to learn to live life on more courageous and rational terms; i.e., not driven by others’ forcible dictates or emotional manipulations against her own interests, or not driven by her own casual acceptance of poor thinking (which, in our own way, we all suffer from)?

Finally, I’m not going to answer your question directly. I’m going to turn the questions back on you. How do you establish that any belief is worthy of protracted attention and possibly worthy of bringing others to a similar level of attention? It seems to me that before you give your daughter some guidance in this regard, you ought to have given some measure of consideration to the following.

  1. What are the criteria that you use to judge the veracity of a claim?
  2. How do you determine that a belief should be significant to you?
  3. How do you determine that a belief should be significant to others?
  4. How do you determine that you have an obligation to communicate to others about it?
  5. How do you determine that your beliefs are worthy enough to impose some obligation on others?

I hope you can live with some ambiguity on a Wednesday afternoon. :)

Best regards,

I don't think I exactly gave a straight, supportive answer.

The romantic ideal I possess of a stalwart friend is one who would give reassuring answers.  Clear answers.  None of that ambiguous, oblique stuff that makes you lie awake at night staring at the ceiling.  Like I said, I'm a crappy friend.

So while I might want to be a good friend and fall short, above all I want to be an honest friend when it matters.  (Yeah, I qualify that.  I'll leave it up to you to ponder when a little dishonesty might be helpful.)  Looking back on it, I have to say that one of the most important lessons I gained from engineering school was to realize I have the moral authority to ask: "How do you know that?"

And so I ask, dear reader, how do YOU know that?

In the context of this thread, I don't care if you believe in Joseph Smith and the story of Maroni.  For that matter, I don't care if you believe in Scientology, Buddha, Jesus, or Mohammed. Global warming or not, evolution or special creation, secret societies that malevolently run the planet or that government is just always inept. I don't care.

I don't care if you believe in a gold standard, a bimetallic standard, or a fiat currency.

I don't care if you believe that you should never get involved in a land war in Asia or that you should never go in against a Sicilian when death in on the line.

I. Don't. Care.

What I do care about is this: If we believe that our beliefs are worthy enough to affect others, I want to know - how do we know that?  Let's start right there.