I Interview a Groovy Atheist Running for Congress in Arizona

Facebook photo of Arizona congressional candidate James Woods, looking smart in short blond hair, in dark suit, white shirt, dark red tie, dark glasses and holding his mobility cane just in frame.James Woods is running for US Congress. (No, I don’t mean the actor, nor the dead guy from Virginia. I mean this guy.) What’s so special about that? He’s an atheist. An out atheist. In fact, a humanist active in the movement. Who actually asked atheists to interview him about his campaign. And blog about it. Now I feel like I’m living in the 21st century. He is not hiding from his membership in the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix, or Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. He’s making it a focal point of his campaign: it’s what makes him a better representative of the people. He is representing the people who don’t usually get represented.

Woods also happens to be blind. And part of his campaign is about representing the disabled, and minorities of all stripes, who usually don’t have a voice in Congress. If elected he would be the first blind person in Congress in nearly a hundred years. His politics are progressive. He has a good head on his shoulders. He sounds like he’d be perfect for the job. But alas, though a native Arizonan, he is running in an Arizona district that is predominately Republican. He has his work cut out for him. I’d vote for him if he were in my district. You can see what he’s all about at his Facebook page.

He’s running against a Republican incumbent (Matt Salmon, the same buy who ran for governor in Arizona a while back) whom the Secular Coalition for America gave a grade of F on his secular report card. The kind of guy who supports bills barring homosexual couples from adopting, denying equal marriage rights, stopping the government from providing information on comprehensive reproductive healthcare. Yes, he even voted against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act. The kind of guy who shouldn’t be in Congress. Because he spends his time opposing the rights of American citizens and harming our country and its people.

Woods wants to be the one to replace that guy. And his campaign asked me to interview him because Woods wants to reach out to underrepresented voting blocks, including the secular, atheist, and humanist communities. He is planning similar press days for other underrepresented groups, including the transgender community and people with disabilities. Topics we at Freethought Blogs have been trying to give some visibility to as well (see the video lineup at our last FTBConscience online conference).

I asked Woods six challenging questions to see how he thinks and where he stands on a sample of keystone issues. His answers are well worth reading. You won’t usually hear this stuff from a real Congressional candidate. It’s the kind of bold honesty we actually want from our elected leaders, but rarely get.

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Proving History Now on Kindle

My latest book Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus is now available for kindle. It should come available for nook soon (and possibly other formats, whatever past Prometheus titles have come available in: e.g. check The Christian Delusion in any format, and if it’s available there, Proving History will be, too).

A note for the visually impaired: I have noticed that some versions of text-to-speech don’t read the upright bar in mathematical statements of probability (the symbol for “given”), or even the tilde (the symbol for “not”). Also, most of the equations in Proving History are graphical inserts and thus won’t be visible to text-to-speech readers at all. These problems might be solved if I do an audio book version, but that depends on my audio book publisher being able to afford the audio license from Prometheus, and in any event an audiobook release could be as much as a year away, so even at best this is not a short-term solution.

The first in-text example of both an upright bar and tilde appears on page 66 of Proving History, where you will see the equation P(h|~h) = 0, which when read aloud by a human would sound like P, h, bar, not-h, equals, zero; or: P of h, given not-h, equals zero; or just “the probability of h, given not-h, equals zero.” There are many other instances where a tilde appears or an upright bar, and this can make the text confusing when read out by a computer, if the computer doesn’t read out those symbols. All I can say is just be aware of that as you go and I hope it can be managed.

As for the graphical equations, you will miss out on the visuals those provide, but in most cases that just means you have to trust the math came out right. Otherwise, most everything is explained in the text, and you can do all the math yourself (although that is a real challenge, I know), all you need to know are three equations, which I am here writing out for text-to-speech capture:

The first is the standard long form Bayesian equation: the probability of a hypothesis, h, given the evidence, e, and all your background knowledge, b, equals the product of the probability of h given only b and the probability of e given b and h, all divided by the sum of that same product (the product of the probability of h given only b and the probability of e given b and h) and the product of the probability of not-h given only b and the probability of e given b and not-h.

Which, as I graphically show on page 50, amounts to saying, in a more colloquial way, that the probability our explanation is true equals “how typical our explanation is” times “how expected the evidence is if our explanation is true,” all divided by that same product repeated (“how typical our explanation is” times “how expected the evidence is if our explanation is true”) plus “how atypical our explanation is” times “how expected the evidence is if our explanation isn’t true.”

The second is the extended Bayesian equation for more than two competing hypotheses: the probability of a hypothesis, h-1, given the evidence, e, and all your background knowledge, b, equals the product of the probability of h-1 given only b and the probability of e given b and h-1, all divided by the sum of that same product (the product of the probability of h-1 given only b and the probability of e given b and h-1) and the product of the probability of h-2 given only b and the probability of e given b and h-2, and the product of the probability of h-3 given only b and the probability of e given b and h-3, and so on, for as many hypotheses as you want to compare.

The prior probabilities must all sum to 1. For example, if you are dividing all possible hypotheses into three, then if the probability of h-1 given only b is 0.2, and the probability of h-2 given only b is 0.3, then the probability of h-3 given only b has to be 0.5, so that 0.2 plus 0.3 plus 0.5 will equal 1. The consequent probabilities do not, however, have to sum to anything. The probability of the evidence, e, given the hypothesis, h, and all your background knowledge, b, can be anything, without regard for what the probability of the evidence is given b and not-h.

The third equation to know is the odds form of Bayes’ Theorem: the ratio between the probability of a hypothesis, h, given the evidence, e, and all your background knowledge b, and the probability of not-h, given the evidence, e, and all your background knowledge b, equals the product of two other ratios, the ratio of the prior probabilities and the ratio of the consequent probabilities, which means: the ratio of the probability of h given only b and the probability of not-h given only b, and the ratio of the probability of e given b and h and the probability of e given b and not-h.

For example, if the ratio of priors is 2 to 1 and the ratio of consequent’s is 3 to 1, then the final ratio is 6 to 1, since 2 times 3 is 6. So in that event, the odds would be 6 to 1 in favor of the hypothesis. Note that this way, you don’t ever have to ask what any of the probabilities actually are, just what their ratios would be.

If there is anything else I can do to assist the visually impaired in understanding Proving History or Bayes’ Theorem generally, please let me know in the comments and I’ll see what I can do.