Fake Journals, Too

Myers beat me to the punch with his post on fake peer reviewers, so I’ll zag and mention the other side of the fence.

The rapid rise of predatory journals—publications taking large fees without providing robust editorial or publishing services—has created what some have called an age of academic racketeering. Predatory journals recruit articles through aggressive marketing and spam emails, promising quick review and open access publication for a price. There is little if any quality control and virtually no transparency about processes and fees. Their motive is financial gain, and they are corrupting the communication of science. Their main victims are institutions and researchers in low and middle income countries, and the time has come to act rather than simply to decry them.

Clark, Jocalyn, and Richard Smith. “Firm action needed on predatory journals.” BMJ 350.jan16 1 (2015): h210-h210.

How prevalent are these journals?

Over the studied period, predatory journals have rapidly increased their publication volumes from 53,000 in 2010 to an estimated 420,000 articles in 2014, published by around 8,000 active journals. Early on, publishers with more than 100 journals dominated the market, but since 2012 publishers in the 10–99 journal size category have captured the largest market share. The regional distribution of both the publisher’s country and authorship is highly skewed, in particular Asia and Africa contributed three quarters of authors. Authors paid an average article processing charge of 178 USD per article for articles typically published within 2 to 3 months of submission.

Shen, Cenyu, and Bo-Christer Björk. “‘Predatory’ open Access: A Longitudinal Study of Article Volumes and Market Characteristics.” BMC Medicine 13, no. 1 (2015): 230.

The rise of predatory journals is an unfortunate combination of the open-access model with the pressure to publish; young researchers desperate to get something on their CV are attracted to them or naive about their existence.

One of our findings is that authors who publish in so called “predatory” journals have little to no history of previous publications and citations. This may indicate that they are young researchers, which is indeed supported by the author information. [..]

The demands stimulate a multiplying of new OA journals, particularly in developing countries. A low submission acceptance standard provides an opportunity for non-elite members of the scholarly community to survive in the “publish or perish” culture found in both the West and many developing countries. Most of the “predatory” journals initiated and operated in the developing countries charge a fee affordable to local submissions, enabling researchers to publish quickly. Publishing in such journals is much less costly than conducting expensive studies and attempting to publish without fees in a prestigious foreign non-OA journal. This is by no means only an
open access problem, but is a prevalent dilemma in the current scholarly communication system.

Xia, Jingfeng, Jennifer L. Harmon, Kevin G. Connolly, Ryan M. Donnelly, Mary R. Anderson, and Heather A. Howard. “Who Publishes in ‘predatory’ Journals?” Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology 66, no. 7 (2015): 1406–1417.

You might think there’s an easy solution to this: do extensive research on any journal interested in your paper, and be suspicious of any journal that approaches you or isn’t up-front about costs. You’d be wrong, though.

During the last 2 years, cyber criminals have started to imitate the names of reputable journals that publish only printed versions of articles. [..]

Unfortunately, such fake websites can be created by almost anyone who has even minimal knowledge of how to design a website can do so by using open-source Content Management Systems (CMSs). However, we believe that the academic cyber criminals who are responsible for the propagation of hijacked journals are completely familiar with the academic rules of upgrading lecturers, qualifying Ph.D. candidates, and applying for admission to postgraduate programs or any professorship positions. These criminals may be ghost writers or they may be the experts who used to help scholars write and publish their research work before they decided to become full-scale “ghost publishers”. Whoever they are, it is apparent that they have the knowledge required to design a website and to hide their identities on the Internet. In addition, they definitely are familiar with authors’ behaviors, and they know that many of authors are in urgent need of publishing a couple of “ISI papers” (i.e. articles published in journals that are indexed by Thomson Reuters/Institute for Scientific Information-ISI) within a limited time. Therefore, the new version of academic cyber criminals knows what to do and how to organize a completely fake conference or hijack a printed journal.

Jalalian, Mehrdad, and Hamidreza Mahboobi. “Hijacked Journals and Predatory Publishers: Is There a Need to Re-Think How to Assess the Quality of Academic Research?” Walailak Journal of Science and Technology (WJST) 11, no. 5 (2014): 389–394.

These “hijacked” journals are good enough to fool experienced researchers.

One of our students submitted a manuscript to the International Journal of Philosophy and Theology. This is a prestigious peer-reviewed journal, founded in 1938 by Jesuit Academics at the University of Louvain in Belgium. Initially a Dutch language journal, Bijdragen, it was internationalized in 2013 and is now published by Taylor and Francis. Within a few weeks our student received a message from the journal that his contribution had been reviewed and accepted: the topic was relevant, the methodology sound, and the relevant literature engaged. His manuscript could be published rather quickly. As soon as the publication had materialized, the student received an invoice of $200 to be paid to a bank account in Bangladesh. [..]

Our first student did not know — and neither did we — that there are in fact two journals with the same name International Journal of Philosophy and Theology. The [fake] one refers to a fancy website with an impressive name: American Research Institute for Policy Development. This organization publishes 52 journals in areas such as Arts, Humanities and Social Science, as well as Science and Technology. The journals have fancy names, often identifying an international scope.

Have, Henk ten, and Bert Gordijn. “Publication Ethics: Science versus Commerce.” Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy, April 11, 2017. doi:10.1007/s11019-017-9774-1.

The fact that I’ve made this post just by quoting scientific papers should tell you there’s extensive literature on faux literature, from people much more knowledgeable than I. Unfortunately, that also means none of it offers easy solutions or quick fixes. At the root of it all is the “publish or perish” model of science, and unfortunately that’s firmly embedded in modern scientific practice.

We’re overdue for a complete overhaul of how science is done.

Proof from Design, or the Teleological Proof (2)

A Hat Tip to Mandelbrot

Grab a sheet of paper. Near the top, write a number, any one you want. In your head or with a calculator, multiply that number by itself, then add the original number you had before multiplying, and write the result below that first number. Take the number at the bottom of the column, multiply it by itself, add the number at the top of the column, and write the result at the bottom of the column. Continue that last step until you’re bored, then start a new column with a new first number and repeat it all again. If you won’t or can’t play along, I’ll share what’s on my paper: [Read more…]

Saving the World, One Silly Dance at a Time

I think I get Bill Nye’s plan.

Currently he’s caping around Netflix, promising to “save the world.” One of the two episodes I watched was on nutrition, and it was unceasingly awful. Over and over again, he hammered home the point that fad diets were useless: problem is, he didn’t explain why. He didn’t bring up the shady practices and lousy science, he didn’t give a lecture on human physiology; he did burn food with a blowtorch, interview a cave person, and host a deliberately awkward school play over nutrition. His “expert panel” consisted of a comedian, a personal trainer, and a psychologist. As someone who prefers the process and facts, I was left deeply unsatisfied. How exactly was this saving the world?

In this paper, we report the results of two rounds of experiments investigating the extent to which corrective information embedded in realistic news reports succeeds in reducing prominent misperceptions about contemporary politics. In each of the four experiments, which were conducted in fall 2005 and spring 2006, ideological subgroups failed to update their beliefs when presented with corrective information that runs counter to their predispositions. Indeed, in several cases, we find that corrections actually strengthened misperceptions among the most strongly committed subjects.[1]

Enter the Backfire Effect. I’m not yet convinced it exists, thanks to the current replication crisis, but I do know it is widely believed in the skeptic circles Nye is familiar with. Let’s say it does exist; how then do we dispel myths?

A common explanation for the Backfire Effect is competing arguments.[2] The idea is that when someone hears a refutation of a myth they hold dear, they work hard to swat it down. In doing so, they bring up their prior knowledge and remind themselves of its strength. Weighing the (supposedly) defused refutation and the (supposedly) iron-clad evidence for the myth in their minds, people chalk in more evidence in favor of the myth. In hindsight, they’ll remember the evidence in favor of the myth rather than the evidence opposed.

If true, then one approach is to avoid bringing evidence against the myth, as that will cause people to work less to refute it and thus dredge up less counter-argument. Never bring up evidence in favor of it either, as you’ll remind people it exists. In fact, why bring up evidence at all when you can use peer pressure and mockery to exploit our social tendencies? Another two approaches are repetition and entertainment; make sure people remember your talking points, instead of the evidence against them.

Bill Nye did all of that.

He’s not trying to engage people like me, who already know fad diets are bogus, he’s trying to convince the people who think fad diets are legit. By tackling the harder problem he is indeed trying to save the world, by carefully refuting the myths people hold. This is not science or the discovery of novel truths, it’s the spread of those truths to the masses and the battle against misinformation.

Alas, some people didn’t get the memo. Like Jerry Coyne.

It’s no secret that I am not a big fan of Bill Nye, regarding him as a buffoon who will engage in any shenanigans that keep him in the public eye and help him retain the fame he desires—fame accrued as “The Science Guy”.

Spoken like someone who’s never read Bill Nye’s CV. I’m sure the current CEO of The Planetary Society, who’s designed sundials for Mars landers and took Obama to the Florida Everglades to discuss climate change and education, is consumed by a need for fame.

Well, Nye has a new show humbly called “Bill Nye Saves the World“, which apparently still has the goal of promoting science. Here’s a new video from the show. Featuring comedian and actor Rachel Bloom singing “My vagina has its own voice,” it’s an arrant travesty.

Or a memorable way to drive home the point that how you have sex doesn’t matter, nor what body parts you use or how they’re shaped. One that will be shared far and wide by people who argue the contrary, who seem genuinely frightened of what Nye is saying.

Now this may be social justice stuff, but it ain’t science …

Social justice is the promotion of a fair and just society. It is universal health care, progressive taxation, international trade policy, and discounted tuition. It is eliminating discrimination based on sex or race. If you consider mass misinformation as a social injustice, then yes, educating people on the best science is a form of social justice, but that’s a more tenuous form than guaranteed minimum income programs.

And yes, studying sex is science. Coyne himself agrees on this.

I think the size dimorphism of humans is more likely a result of male “battling” for dominance and access to females than simply female preference for large males, though of course both factors can be involved. […]

I also adduced four other bits of evidence predicted by the sexual selection hypothesis, which you can see at my earlier post. Those predictions were made before the data were collected, and they were confirmed.

That’s got all the basic trappings of science: hypotheses, evidence, and a methodology for combining the two. Next, we have to establish if the scientific consensus is that sex is a spectrum instead of a binary.

The idea of two sexes is simplistic. Biologists now think there is a wider spectrum than that. […]

Since the 1990s, researchers have identified more than 25 genes involved in DSDs [differences of sex development], and next-generation DNA sequencing in the past few years has uncovered a wide range of variations in these genes that have mild effects on individuals, rather than causing DSDs. “Biologically, it’s a spectrum,” says [Eric] Vilain, [a clinician and the director of the Center for Gender-Based Biology at the University of California, Los Angeles].[3]

The influence of the XX/XY model of chromosomal sex has been profound over the last century, but it’s founded on faulty premises and responsible for encouraging reductive, essentialist thinking. While the scientific world has moved on, its popular appeal remains.[4]

Sex determination exists on a spectrum, with genitals, chromosomes, gonads, and hormones all playing a role. Most fit into the male or female category, but about one in a hundred may fall in between.[5]

Easy peasy. Even Adam Savage is aware that science promotes a sex spectrum. But Coyne offers up a weak counter-argument against the scientific consensus.

… not even if you construe it as promoting a “spectrum of sexuality,” which is misleading because most people bunch at either end of the “spectrum.”

Riiiiiiight, so we should ditch the idea of a spectrum because people don’t fall along it in a uniform fashion. Does this mean I can declare all prime numbers to be odd? Most of them are, after all. Or maybe we should dispense with the visual spectrum, since our eyes tend to lump colours into discrete categories?

As always, I wonder what Coyne thinks of people who don’t fall into the binary. Are they “defects” in need of “correction?” Should we trim the clitoris of a newborn baby if it is longer than we feel comfortable with? Should a baby with a micropenis have it lengthened? I know Coyne is vocal over the mutilation of genitals for religious reasons, so I’m curious if he’s fine with “correcting” them for social ones.

On April 18, 2006, when M was 16 months old, Dr. Ian Aaronson operated on him at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC). He reduced M’s penis to look more like a clitoris, cut up his scrotum to form labia, and removed his internal testicle tissue. Two other specialists also treated M: Dr. Yaw Appiagyei-Dankah, who worked at MUSC, and Dr. James Amrhein from Greenville Hospital.

In a letter to M’s pediatrician, Dr. Amrhein wrote that initially, M’s condition was “confusing.” He had been identified as a boy at birth because of his “rather large” penis. Routine blood tests showed his testosterone levels were extremely elevated. However, he had a small vaginal opening beneath his penis and both ovarian and testicular tissue. “Surgical correction” was necessary, the doctors noted in medical records. [6]

Let’s do the math: roughly 1 in 2,000 children are born with an ambiguous sex. Surgical “correction” has been a common response since the 1950’s. Between 1960 and 2009, about 175 million Americans were born. If all those figures are accurate, roughly 87,000 Americans had their genitals “corrected” by doctors to fit into the binary.

Now, we have no way of getting accurate numbers here. No-one tracks the number of intersex children born (how can we, when we can’t even define “intersex?”), doctors rarely if ever publicly discussed the practice (so as to preserve the social taboo), and they usually told parents to never discuss these surgeries with their kids (and sometimes never informed the parents at all). But even with the fuzzy math it’s obvious that our society’s binary view of sex carries a terrible cost.

Try telling that to Coyne, though.

I’m not sure what this is doing on a science show. It’s not even funny, […]

Defend this travesty if you want, but I’ll never admit it promotes anything but ideology.

The irony is that Coyne is fine with the science of sex within the context of Evolutionary Psychology, he’s fine with social justice when it comes to separation of church and state, and he’s fine with eliminating unnecessary surgeries prompted by religion. Shift the context slightly and suddenly these topics are “ideologies” that he can safely ignore, even if the variations are well grounded in science and of benefit to everyone.

Lighten up, Coyne, and try talking to a vagina. You might learn something from the experience.

[1] Nyhan, Brendan, and Jason Reifler. “When corrections fail: The persistence of political misperceptions.” Political Behavior 32.2 (2010): 303-330.

[2] Trevors, Gregory J., et al. “Identity and epistemic emotions during knowledge revision: A potential account for the backfire effect.” Discourse Processes 53.5-6 (2016): 339-370.
[3] Ainsworth, Claire. “Sex Redefined.” Nature 518, no. 7539 (February 18, 2015): 288–91. doi:10.1038/518288a.
[4] Ian Steadman. “Sex Isn’t Chromosomes: The Story of a Century of Misconceptions about X & Y.” New Statesman, February 23, 2015.
[5] http://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2017/01/how-science-helps-us-understand-gender-identity/

Fame and Citations

5Remember that “Rock Stars of Science” ad campaign? I thought it was dreadful. Science is supposed to be the pursuit of knowledge through experimentation and rigorous methodology. When you focus on the personalities behind the science, you push all that to the side and turn it into a purely creative task, mysterious and luck-dependent. You start to get situations like Lord Kelvin’s opinion of the age of the Earth.

The result of Kelvin’s assumptions about the deep interior of the Earth, without any sound evidence, was unfortunately quite significant. Because the timeframe he provided was far too brief to allow for known geological processes to produce the current topographical features of the Earth. Even worse, Kelvin then made significant attacks on the science of geology and it’s practitioners, but most of the geologists in that era were intimidated by Kelvin’s stature within the overall scientific community (Lewis, 2000). Kelvin was regarded as possibly the most well regarded and imposing scientific figure of the day (Lewis, 2000). […]

Physics was regarded as a more mature and noble field than geology (Hallam, 1989), which was still perceived as immature and without the (apparent) certainty provided by the more mathematically-oriented physics and chemistry. Kelvin derived his estimate from quantitative and repeatable measurements, physical principles of the known natural laws of the time, and elegant math (Dalrymple, 2004). That method, combined with his arguments about the uncertainty of geologic data analysis, provided Kelvin with a tremendous amount of swagger over his theory’s potential opponents. He was enthusiastic and persuasive, and was perhaps the leading scientific celebrity of his time, and this made him an exceptionally difficult opponent for Lyell and Darwin (Hallam, 1989); Darwin referred to Kelvin as his “sorest trouble” (Dalrymple, 2004; Lewis, 2000). The end result was that most scientists sought agreement rather than conflict with Kelvin (Lewis, 2000). Archibald Geikie (Hallam, 2009), James Croll, Lyell, and Samuel Haughton all adjusted their theories to make allowances for Kelvin. Additionally, P.G. Tait, T. Mellard Reade, Clarence King, and John Joly (Hallam, 1989) all reached conclusions concordant with Kelvin through their own methods. This is unfortunate and could be concluded as an effect of peer pressure biasing the scientific method, and perhaps a little bit of an inferiority complex on the part of the geologists in comparison with their 19th century physics peers.

“Rock Star science” harms productivity, too; one study found that when a “superstar” in a field dies, the output of their collaborators drops 5-8%. Instead, I prefer a “Wonder of Science” approach where cool facts are mixed with play and experimentation. When everyone has the tools to do science, anyone can pick up where someone else left off and we’re not stuck waiting for a “big name” to come along and save us.

When I entered the field of psychological science, what excited me was that, historically, the field was full of big thinkers—scholars like Sigmund Freud and Carl Rogers in psychotherapy, Edward Tolman and B. F. Skinner in learning, Herbert Simon and more recently Daniel Kahneman in cognition, and Abraham Maslow and David McClelland in personality. They represented psychological science in the large—a kind of “big psychology.” A concern I have developed over the years is that our field is moving toward a kind of psychological science in the small—a kind of “small psychology.” […]

For example, Sigmund Freud has an h index of 265, B. F. Skinner of 98, Herbert Simon of 163, and Daniel Kahneman of 123. Their total citations are prodigious, for example, 450,339 for Freud, 277,573 for Simon, and 254,326 for Kahneman. In today’s scientific climate, it may be challenging to be a “big psychological scientist,” but I believe big thinking pays off in the kind of impact (with accompanying citation statistics) that lasts over generations, not merely over the duration of one’s career or a part of one’s career. In the long run, the big thinkers are the ones who most create a lasting legacy.

That’s Robert J. Sternberg offering his counterpoint. Still,

in comments to us, some psychological scientists, including some from our book, challenged the criteria or the weighting of the criteria, which led us to wonder just how eminence, or performance at any level, should be judged. What is the future of such evaluations of scientific merit?

Don Foss and I then decided—regrettably, Susan Fiske was unavailable to participate at the time—to pursue this universally important issue by creating the present symposium for Perspectives on Psychological Science. We invited several distinguished psychological scientists who have worked on the problem of merit and eminence in psychological science and asked them each if they would write an essay for Perspectives.

The answer was “yes,” and so seven prominent male scientists weighed in on how we should judge the prominence of a scientist. The one woman allowed in, Alice H. Eagly, was graciously allowed to share a by-line with a male author so she could ask “where the women at?

Yeeeeaaah. I’ll let Katie Corker tell the tale of Perspectives‘ second attempt.

The new call was issued in response to a chorus of nasty women and other dissidents who insisted that their viewpoints hadn’t been represented by the scholars in the original special issue. The new call explicitly invited these “diverse perspectives” to speak up (in 1,500 words or less****).
Each of the six of us independently rose to the challenge and submitted comments. None of us were particularly surprised to receive rejections – after all, getting rejected is just about the most ordinary thing that can happen to a practicing researcher. Word started to spread among the rejected, however, and we quickly discovered that many of the themes we had written about were shared across our pieces. That judgments of eminence were biased along predictable socio-demographic lines. That overemphasis on eminence creates perverse incentives. That a focus on communal goals and working in teams was woefully absent from judgments of eminence.
And so all six posted their opinions online, free for anyone to read. Simine Vazire, for instance, argues that
The drive for eminence is inherently at odds with scientific values, and insufficient attention to this problem is partly responsible for the recent crisis of confidence in psychology and other sciences. The replicability crisis has shown that a system without transparency doesn’t work. The lack of transparency in science is a direct consequence of the corrupting influence of eminence-seeking. If journals and societies are primarily motivated by boosting their impact, their most effective strategy will be to publish the sexiest findings by the most famous authors. Humans will always care about eminence. Scientific institutions and gatekeepers should be a bulwark against the corrupting influence of the drive for eminence, and help researchers maintain integrity and uphold scientific values in the face of internal and external pressures to compromise.
Alas, Perspectives on Psychological Science‘s mulligan has yet to be published. But it should be obvious that this argument strikes right to the heart of how science is done.

Gimmie that Old-Time Breeding

Full disclosure: I think Evolutionary Psychology is a pseudo-science. This isn’t because the field endorses a flawed methodology (relative to the norm in other sciences), nor because they come to conclusions I’m uncomfortable with. No, the entire field is based on flawed or even false assumptions; it doesn’t matter how good your construction techniques are, if your foundation is a banana cream pie your building won’t be sturdy.

But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe EvoPsych researchers are correct when they say every other branch of social science is founded on falsehoods. So let’s give one of their papers a fair shake.

Ellis, Lee, et al. “The Future of Secularism: a Biologically Informed Theory Supplemented with Cross-Cultural Evidence.” Evolutionary Psychological Science: 1-19. [Read more…]

Proof from Design, or the Teleological Proof (1)

The sun that we circle outputs light at a wide range of wavelengths, but has a peak at light coloured yellow-green. Our eyes are most sensitive to light waves that are yellow-green.

Our bodies cannot create vitamin C; without it, we fall apart in about two months. Fortunately, that vitamin is in some of the food we eat, in enough quantities to save us from a slow, painful death.

We come equipped with a staggeringly complex defence system, that can detect and tag potential invaders for immediate removal. It has many layers, ranging from white blood cells that roam the body to the simple act of raising our body’s temperature, which inhibits some common attackers while boosting the effectiveness of some other immune components.

All three of these are clear evidence of design. But how can such complicated systems arise from simple molecules and proteins? Does this not point to the “guiding hand” of a higher deity?

Cranes and Skyhooks

Like so many proofs, this one dates back to the Greeks. I’m going to pin this one on Socrates; his mouthpieces Plato and Xenophon[124] claims that he claimed that the way human eyelids protected human eyes was no accident. It was very much designed by a grand designer.

Does it not strike you then that he who made man from the beginning did for some useful end furnish him with his several senses–giving him eyes to behold the visible word, and ears to catch the intonations of sound? Or again, what good would there be in odours if nostrils had not been bestowed upon us? what perception of sweet things and pungent, and of all the pleasures of the palate, had not a tongue been fashioned in us as an interpreter of the same? And besides all this, do you not think this looks like a matter of foresight, this closing of the delicate orbs of sight with eyelids as with folding doors, which, when there is need to use them for any purpose, can be thrown wide open and firmly closed again in sleep? and, that even the winds of heaven may not visit them too roughly, this planting of the eyelashes as a protecting screen? this coping of the region above the eyes with cornice-work of eyebrow so that no drop of sweat fall from the head and injure them? again this readiness of the ear to catch all sounds and yet not to be surcharged? this capacity of the front teeth of all animals to cut and of the “grinders” to receive the food and reduce it to pulp? the position of the mouth again, close to the eyes and nostrils as a portal of ingress for all the creature’s supplies? and lastly, seeing that matter passing out of the body is unpleasant, this hindward direction of the passages, and their removal to a distance from the avenues of sense? I ask you, when you see all these things constructed with such show of foresight can you doubt whether they are products of chance or intelligence?

(“The Memorabilia,” Xenophon, Book I.4, translated by H. G. Dakyns)

And that settled it for about two thousand years. There was no other way to explain biological design, so most people declared religion the winner by default. The most famous example comes to us via William Paley.[125]

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for any thing I knew to the contrary, it had lain there for ever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer which I had before given, that, for any thing I knew, the watch might have always been there. Yet why should not this answer serve for the watch as well as for the stone? why is it not as admissible in the second case, as in the first? For this reason, and for no other, viz. that, when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive (what we could not discover in the stone) that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose, e. g. that they are so formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day; […] This mechanism being observed (it requires indeed an examination of the instrument, and perhaps some previous knowledge of the subject, to perceive and understand it; but being once, as we have said, observed and understood), the inference, we think, is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker: that there must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use.

(“Natural Theology, or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity collected from the Appearances of Nature,” William Paley. 1802.)

You can probably guess the rest; Paley points to evidence of design in nature, and argues that there must have been a designer for it all, and again we wind up invoking a god.

Right off the bat, we stumble across some fishy logic. Suppose you have no idea how the planets formed around the sun. Does this mean you have to accept my theory as truth, that they were all deposited there by a giant space clam? Of course not. A theory that doesn’t explain the data or is riddled with internal inconsistences can be safely discarded, even if it’s the only game in town. It’s not enough to say “God did it,” you have to describe how God did it. How did God put most marsupial mammals in Australia, and not elsewhere? How did he keep placentals away, even though they could comfortably live there?How did the long-dead remains of marsupials get to Antarctica, given the hostile climate and huge ocean walling that continent off? If it can’t explain data like that, we’ll be forced to look for an alternative to the God theory instead of blindly accepting it.

The publication of “De Humani Corporis Fabrica,” by Andreas Vesalius, was the first of many hints that there was another challenger out there. Scientists began looking at human beings and other animals in some detail, instead of parroting the claims of long-dead Greeks, and discovered odd bits that didn’t make sense. Why, for instance, do we have a disabled third eyelid?[126] You’d think an intelligent designer would either have given us a functional one, or none at all. Why are some people unable to see colour, and why is it far more common in men then women? The “clean” design of the ancient Greeks was dissolving into a “complex” design, which seemed eager to stir in a few contradictions and poor choices too.

David Hume is the first philosopher I can find that argued against a supernatural designer. In his “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion,” published in 1779, the character Cleathes invokes the Design proof. His foil, Philo, slowly begins to dismantle it.

But can a conclusion, with any propriety, be transferred from parts to the whole? Does not the great disproportion bar all comparison and inference? From observing the growth of a hair, can we learn any thing concerning the generation of a man? Would the manner of a leaf’s blowing, even though perfectly known, afford us any instruction concerning the vegetation of a tree?
But, allowing that we were to take the operations of one part of nature upon another, for the foundation of our judgement concerning the origin of the whole, (which never can be admitted,) yet why select so minute, so weak, so bounded a principle, as the reason and design of animals is found to be upon this planet? What peculiar privilege has this little agitation of the brain which we call thought, that we must thus make it the model of the whole universe? Our partiality in our own favour does indeed present it on all occasions; but sound philosophy ought carefully to guard against so natural an illusion.

(Part II)

After pointing out this particular air gap, he invents some fanciful alternate explanations for the design of the world.

But to waive all objections drawn from this topic, I affirm, that there are other parts of the universe (besides the machines of human invention) which bear still a greater resemblance to the fabric of the world, and which, therefore, afford a better conjecture concerning the universal origin of this system. These parts are animals and vegetables. The world plainly resembles more an animal or a vegetable, than it does a watch or a knitting-loom. Its cause, therefore, it is more probable, resembles the cause of the former. The cause of the former is generation or vegetation. The cause, therefore, of the world, we may infer to be something similar or analogous to generation or vegetation. […]
The BRAHMINS assert, that the world arose from an infinite spider, who spun this whole complicated mass from his bowels, and annihilates afterwards the whole or any part of it, by absorbing it again, and resolving it into his own essence. Here is a species of cosmogony, which appears to us ridiculous; because a spider is a little contemptible animal, whose operations we are never likely to take for a model of the whole universe. But still here is a new species of analogy, even in our globe. And were there a planet wholly inhabited by spiders, (which is very possible,) this inference would there appear as natural and irrefragable as that which in our planet ascribes the origin of all things to design and intelligence, as explained by CLEANTHES. Why an orderly system may not be spun from the belly as well as from the brain, it will be difficult for him to give a satisfactory reason.

(Part VII)

But were this world ever so perfect a production, it must still remain uncertain, whether all the excellences of the work can justly be ascribed to the workman. If we survey a ship, what an exalted idea must we form of the ingenuity of the carpenter who framed so complicated, useful, and beautiful a machine? And what surprise must we feel, when we find him a stupid mechanic, who imitated others, and copied an art, which, through a long succession of ages, after multiplied trials, mistakes, corrections, deliberations, and controversies, had been gradually improving? Many worlds might have been botched and bungled, throughout an eternity, ere this system was struck out; much labour lost, many fruitless trials made; and a slow, but continued improvement carried on during infinite ages in the art of world-making. In such subjects, who can determine, where the truth; nay, who can conjecture where the probability lies, amidst a great number of hypotheses which may be proposed, and a still greater which may be imagined?

(Part V)

Alas, Hume didn’t realize he was on to something; at the end of “Dialogues,” his skeptic Philo mysteriously concedes the argument to Cleathes, despite the poor replies of the latter.

The second serious alternative arrived in 1795, thanks to Erasmus Darwin, [127] and was then fleshed out by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in 1809’s “Philosophie Zoologique.” Lamarck proposed that any changes made to an animal during its life were passed on to their offspring. The classic example is that a blacksmith’s son will also have the thick arms of his father. It’s almost entirely wrong, [128] but at least it got biologists thinking. The third edition of “On the Origin of Species,” published half a century later in 1861, lists nineteen other biologists who nearly figured out evolution for themselves, two who did come up with it (Alfred Wallace and Patrick Matthew), and one person who claimed to but probably didn’t.

Ah yes, evolution. The concept is very simple. You start with something that is capable of making copies of itself. These copies must be imperfect, at least some of the time, leading to differences from the original. [129] If those differences or even just the surrounding environment imposes limits on these things, then the version which copes best with those limits will be able to create more copies of itself than other variations. Repeat this many, many, many times, and the result is something that seems designed for its environment.

No really, that’s it. The process that spawned the vast diversity of life on this planet, that made creatures as wildly different as bacteria and human beings, can be comfortably laid out in a single paragraph.

It’s incredible, in that it strains credibility. How can a simple set of rules lead to such complicated results? I think I can answer that by using an even simpler example.

[124]  Socrates spent most of his life wandering the streets, asking people annoying questions, instead of writing things down. Incredibly, this sort of behaviour kept him fed and earned him students and admirers. It’s probably for the best that he detested writing; spreading that sort of knowledge around would crash any economy.

[125]  Paley may not have been the first to make this argument, actually. Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle may have beaten him to the punch in 1686; refer to “The Story of Civilization: The age of Louis XIV, 1648-1715” by Will and Ariel Durant for the details.

[126]  Ever wonder about that little pinkish thing in one corner of your eye? That’s the remains of it. The remains might still have a use, by helping to clear out grime from your eye, but it’s a shadow of what it once was.

[127]  Every writer who mentions Charles Darwin must point out that his grandfather Erasmus nearly scooped his discovery of evolution, or pay a fine and do 42 hours of community service.

[128]  It turns out that genes can be overridden by the environment or organism, though this doesn’t directly alter the genes themselves. These changes usually don’t pass to the next generation, but there are exceptions.

[129]  In biology, errors are very rare, only matter in the few cells that are devoted to reproduction, and have a nasty habit of killing the organism. That last part means the mutations in the surviving animals are not completely random, in practice. Sex complicates things further by merging two plans into one, which helps spread beneficial errors more rapidly.

Proof from Morality (5)

Fuzzy Logic

For the moment, let’s assume there is a deity helping us with tricky morals. All religions that I know of state that their god or gods are much smarter than us, in some cases infinitely smart and capable of seeing future events. If we are being guided, then we should easily find clear, consistent answers to these questions.

Instead, we find the contrary.

George Tarmarin conducted a fascinating study in 1966. He presented a few thousand Israeli children with the Old Testament’s telling of the battle for ancient Israeli city of Jericho:

And at the seventh time, when the priests had blown the trumpets, Joshua said to the people, “Shout, for the LORD has given you the city.

And the city and all that is within it shall be devoted to the LORD for destruction. Only Rahab the prostitute and all who are with her in her house shall live, because she hid the messengers whom we sent.

But you, keep yourselves from the things devoted to destruction, lest when you have devoted them you take any of the devoted things and make the camp of Israel a thing for destruction and bring trouble upon it.

But all silver and gold, and every vessel of bronze and iron, are holy to the LORD; they shall go into the treasury of the LORD.”

So the people shouted, and the trumpets were blown. As soon as the people heard the sound of the trumpet, the people shouted a great shout, and the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they captured the city.

Then they devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys, with the edge of the sword.

But to the two men who had spied out the land, Joshua said, “Go into the prostitute’s house and bring out from there the woman and all who belong to her, as you swore to her.”

So the young men who had been spies went in and brought out Rahab and her father and mother and brothers and all who belonged to her. And they brought all her relatives and put them outside the camp of Israel.

And they burned the city with fire, and everything in it. Only the silver and gold, and the vessels of bronze and of iron, they put into the treasury of the house of the LORD.

(Joshua 6:16-24, English Standard Translation)

Half of them were given this passage with no changes. The other half were given the same passage but with the names and locations changed to suit ancient China instead. Tarmarin then polled the students on the actions of Joshua (or “General Lin”): did they completely approve of them, partially approve, or completely disapprove?

Of those given the unaltered passage, 66% of them completely approved and 8% partially approved.

Of those given the altered passage, 7% of them completely approved and 18% partially approved.

We already consider the moral landscape involving murder, arson, and theft to be relatively easy to answer. So why would our answers depend so heavily on the name of the person committing these acts, and very little on the actions themselves? What’s worse, Israel has a high concentration of religious believers; of the total population, 88% identified themselves as Jewish as of 1972. Their closer contact to God should make them better judges of moral issues than non-believers, if we assume a god was helping us with moral questions. That clearly is not the case.

If you think this is just a sign that Jews are immoral, let me counter with a secular version. In 2000, the Republican party of the United States of America was deciding on who they’d push for the presidency. John McCain was the frontrunner, having scored an unexpected victory in New Hampshire over his main rival, George Bush Jr., and was expected to win the critical state of South Carolina.

As he started campaigning in that state, tens of thousands of voters received a call. The person on the other side of the line claimed to be conducting a poll, and asked a few questions related to their current voting preference. They then asked:

“Would you be more or less likely to vote for John McCain… if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?”

This touched off rumours that McCain had a child out of wedlock, which in turn were picked up by the press. McCain defended himself against the accusations, but the damage had been done: George Bush Jr. won South Carolina instead, and would go on to become both the Republican’s presidential candidate and eventually the president of the United States.

What happened? Cindy McCain was moved by the plight of two baby girls while helping out in a Bangladesh orphanage. After flying both children to the United States for treatment, she decided to adopt one of them, who was renamed Bridget McCain. This is clearly a moral act; indeed, John talked about his adopted daughter while on the campaign trail and brought her on-stage several times as a show of his moral strength.

This telephone “poll” was insinuating something more sinister, that Bridget was his illegitimate child from an affair, and McCain hid this by inventing the adoption story. While this too could be moral under certain conditions (say, the affair was approved and encouraged by Cindy), most people consider those as unlikely and would consider the situation immoral until proven otherwise.

Superficially, both cases have the same evidence going for them. Rationally, we should either sharpen Occam’s Razor and thus believe McCain, since the adoption story is far more likely, or dig for more evidence.

Instead, the voters went on instinct. We don’t want to be taken advantage of, so we tend to be pessimistic when we have something at stake. Voters didn’t know which situation was true, but didn’t want to assume he was clean, only to learn after he’d earned their precious vote that they’d been suckered.[123]

 South Carolina is considered a conservative state, with most residents placing an emphasis on traditional marriage and being more likely to be racist than the average person in the United States. The idea of an illegitimate black child was obscene to most of its residents, which made them even more likely to choose someone else at the polls.

While there was a rationale to the voter’s decision, it wasn’t rational.

We could shore up the god hypothesis by adding to it. Perhaps our lack of clarity is due to something else interfering with god, such as “free will” or another god. These extra assumptions only make it easier to cut down with Ockham’s Razor. So what else could explain the rest of our morality?

The Monkey Wrench

Ironically, the answer to this is also Game Theory. Not the consequences of it, however, but the fact that it exists.

Intelligence allows us to overcome problems that evolution hasn’t developed a solution to. In the chapter on the Intelligence proof, I mentioned Betty the crow, who was able to bend a metal wire to retrieve a tasty morsel of food from a tube.

Metal wires are not natural. Crows do not get their food by sticking things into tubes. Yet none of that mattered; the crow was able to understand the situation, come up with a plan that it could pull off, then put it into action. Intelligence is swifter and more flexible than raw evolution.

It can even override it. Ghandi was a strong believer in celibacy, at one point deliberately sleeping next to two nude women to prove his self control. He thought that sexual desire caused suffering, and suffering kept humans from achieving spiritual enlightenment.

I disagree. Ghandi was reasoning that because some sexual desires are harmful, all of them are. This is not true; while sex can be taken too far, it can also be a wonderful show off affection  with no consequences for those not involved. Ghandi was doing this in the name of spiritual purity, yet never gave evidence that this made him “pure”. What if his view of the supernatural was wrong, having been planted by a daemon, and the tantric pursuit of sex was the real way to purity? He would have tossed his life away blindly.

Invoking intelligence for morality makes a lot of sense. Like big claws and long legs, big brains are expensive to grow and maintain. Given enough time, the result is an animal only as smart as it needs to be to get by. This explains why we don’t see intelligence everywhere, why it’s second-fiddle to instinct, and why it’s so easily mangled. Ghandi or I could be wrong, because neither of us are good at rational thought.

Even if we were absolutely smart, we might still have different morals due to different information. John McCain’s situation seems moral, but what if we learned the adoption tale was really a cover story, and Bridget was conceived a steamy affair? The moral situation changes dramatically, yet the facts of this reality are nearly identical to the old view. Those Israeli schoolchildren have been taught by family or society, that a devout Jew with a divine mandate can do no wrong, and their morality reflects this “fact.”

These intelligence-based morals will be as universal as our commonalities. I assume you’re conscious while reading this; based on that, can we agree that forcibly ending consciousness is worth banning? Yes? Then can’t we also agree that this should be a general rule applied to all conscious beings? From that simple act, we’ve generated a rule which appears universal, without once needing to invoke anything beyond us, let alone a god.

I’ll admit I haven’t absolutely proven our morality does not come from the divine. I don’t need to; so long as that mix of evolution and intelligence was at least as plausible, we could invoke Ockham’s Razor and declare the god explanation to be unlikely. The small scraps of evidence that point to the simpler theory are just icing on the cake, and the argument that a god cannot provide an absolute morality seals the deal.

There are two big flaws that remain. I’m assuming that intelligence does not come from the divine, and that no-one has found evidence for a god. Thankfully, intelligence has already been given its own chapter, and the second is nicely handled in the last chapter.

[123]  Aaand we’re back to the Prisoner’s Dilemma. The only differences are the introduction of multiple players, and the payoffs and costs for each choice.

Proof from Morality (4)

The Golden Rule

Maat, the system of justice and morality used by the ancient Egyptians, was centred around this now-famous rule:

Do undo others as you would have them do unto you.

The Golden Rule is present in a wide variety of religions, like Daoism, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, and Jainism, and was declared a common principal by 143 spiritual leaders in the “Parliament of the World’s Religions.” And yet Game Theory suggests it’s a bad way to live. On first blush it translates to “Always Silent”, which is easily suckered by an “Always Rat.” Indeed, “Always Silent” is usually the first strategy to die off in Axelrod’s competitions. So why does it keep popping up?

I think the likeliest reason is a hidden meaning. Consider this koan:

If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.

(Linji, the founder of the Rinzaisect)

Linji isn’t really asking you to commit murder, he’s saying that you are likely starting out on your spiritual journey with a biased view of enlightenment. In order to move further down this spiritual “road,” you must “kill” this false “Buddha” or vision before you can reach true knowledge.

I might be missing some hidden content within the Golden Rule. Perhaps it would be better translated as:

Do undo others as they do unto you.

Which turns it into “Tit-For-Tat.” I think this is not so much a re-interpretation as a full-on re-write, but many philosophers agree to this change. To quote M.G. Singer (who himself is quoting Hans Reiner):

The Golden Rule implies that ‘I should order my conduct consistently with my judgements of the conducts of others.’ In doing so it ‘presupposes a moral standard’ and also ‘gives us a standard to judge our own conduct by in referring us to our judgements of similar conduct on the parts of others.’ It thus refers us ‘to a norm that it does not… explicitly contain, but that each of us takes for granted.’ […] ‘we must have long ago acknowledged some norms to be valid… What we have in consequence is a moral a priori to order our conduct by; an a priori that is admittedly neither formulated or proven in the abstract, but that we still previously acknowledged to be valid in certain applications. Our acknowledging this,’ Reiner adds, ‘is of greater importance than any philosophic proof’.

(“The ideal of a rational morality,” pages 18-19)

Ah, so the Golden Rule itself is not a moral, but a reminder to treat everyone the same according to different morals that are already agreed upon by everyone. This last bit is a big flaw; once we stop agreeing on a common set of morals, his interpretation of the Golden Rule collapses. This can be fixed by creating a deity which in turn creates universal morals. Alternatively, we can use the combination of Game Theory and evolution that I outlined above, in which case this interpretation morphs into “Tit-For-Tat” without needing a deity.

Jeffery Wattles takes another approach:

  1. Treat others as you want others to treat you.
  2. You want others to treat you with appropriate sympathy, respect, and so on.
  3. Therefore, treat others with appropriate sympathy, respect, and so on.

Notice that our sense of what is appropriate  represents an estimate of value, an estimate that is adjusted in the process of thinking over the parity of self and other that is the primal assumption of the of the rule. The golden rule cannot be the supreme principle of morality in the sense of functioning as the sole normative axiom in a deductive system of ethics, because it cannot operate in a value vacuum.
(“The Golden Rule”, page 166)

Oh boy. Now the Golden Rule depends on the definitions of “appropriate” and “value,” as well as an underlying shared moral framework. Simply by shuffling around definitions and assumptions, Wattles could easily turn it into “Tit-For-Tat,” and indeed proceeds to do so.

Personally, I think this interpretation of the Golden Rule is most accurate, even though it’s rejected by many:

Do unto your neighbour as you would have them do unto you.

Here, “neighbour” does not have its modern meaning of “the person in the house next to you” or “everyone within a certain area.” Instead I’m using its original meaning, “the people you grew up with.” We’ve been spoiled in recent centuries by cheap mass transit and ample leisure time. Hunter-gatherers could move impressive distances, but they always travelled together as a tribe. Farmers and serfs were rooted to one spot, either due to the endless toil needed to grow crops, or the need to watch over food stores, so your children were usually nearby. The merchant class and nobility were the only exceptions, but they were a small minority and never referred to each other as “neighbour.”

In short, your “neighbour” was likely related to you, and definitely shared your religion and tribe. This situation led to the Jewish Ten Commandments, as an example, which only told you how to treat your fellow Jew.[120]

This interpretation creates a hole in the Golden Rule. How should we treat non-neighbours? We’ve only got two choices: fall back on other morals, or use our instincts. As I’ve shown, the latter is probably one of the “Simple Three.”

Hmm, so we have “Always Silent” to one group, and “Generous” or “Pavlov” to everyone else. Could the Golden Rule really be one of the “Secret Handshake”s from Southampton? It’s plausible; those algorithms were the only complex ones to beat the Simple Three, so they would offer an advantage if they every spontaneously popped up.

They might use a different “everyone else” rule, though. The SU group knew their strategies would be facing a diverse ecosystem, so they chose an “everyone else” that could cope with anything. In real life, interactions with an “everyone else” would be rare, maybe even one-time events, so it makes more sense to go with “Greedy Tit-For-Tat”[121] or even the best strategy for one-time play: “Always Rat.”[122]

If the Golden Rule really is a “Secret Handshake,” then any one or thing that implements it must have a way to identify itself. On the human scale, this could mean clothing, jewellery, body modifications like tattoos or piercings, or even behaviour. To cut down on the number of wolves in sheep’s clothing, it would help to make these displays outrageous, maybe even painful, so that only a true believer would have the stomach to perform or show them.

“Secret Handshake” assumed everyone was honest about their ID. That won’t fly in real life, so we should also expect some sort of enforcement system to ensure everyone acts like they promised they would. A group judicial process or a way to anonymously report cheats could be present, with the harshest punishment in either case being exile. People can be corrupted, though; it would be great if there was a way to observe everyone 24/7, or better yet look into their thoughts, that was paired with an incorruptible system of punishment.

Are there examples of “Secret Handshake” in human society? I’ll leave that for my chapter on the Popularity proof.


Back to the last objection: isn’t this duo of Game Theory and evolution somewhat cold and indifferent? Perhaps, but I don’t consider that a bad thing. I rely on instinct to keep me breathing and help me walk. In fact, most of my behaviour is mere instinct; is it so bad that some of my morality is also on autopilot too?

“Aha!,” you say, “he just admitted that some of his morality is not instinctual!”

It’s true, some moral decisions haven’t been “solved” via evolution. Should I buy a record from my favourite band, or copy it off a friend? Should the equality of women be actively encouraged by government programs, or passively encouraged via laws? Should state-run hospitals provide care to people who haven’t paid taxes or live in this country illegally? Should I drive to work and contribute to global climate change, or bicycle to work and put myself at greater risk of injury? We’ve never had to deal with those problems before, so the evolutionary process hasn’t “considered” the options and bred a solution into us. Perhaps a god is helping us with these trickier moral questions?

[120]  Need proof? Consider Exodus 32:15-28 in the Old Testament. Moses comes down from Mount Sinai with the newly-minted Commandments, only to find most of his family and tribe worshipping a golden calf. He proceeds to slaughter all 3,000 turncoats, despite just being given the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” Under the modern definition of “neighbour,” that was madness. Those rogues had broken with tribal beliefs, however, so they were no longer neighbours in the traditional sense. The “no murder” commandment didn’t apply and thus Moses still had squeaky-clean morals when he was covered in his family’s blood.

[121]  I’m defining that as an initial Rat, followed by stock “Tit-For-Tat” with a random Rat tossed in occasionally.

[122]  With dense populations and cheap travel, these interactions become more common and so the rule for “everyone else” would be more like the Simple Three. Ever wonder why we push “tolerance for others” so much in modern times? I used to, until I wrote this chapter.

Proof from Morality (3)

Social Animals

One clue is that we see morality in other animals too.

Wild coyotes have play rules that ensure every pup is on equal footing. If one coyote can bite harder than another, it’ll hold back. If one is more dominant, it’ll send signals of submission to level or even reverse the social hierarchy. Pups that refuse to play by the rules are ostracised, to the point that they’re four times more likely to die.[115] The literature on elephants is full of heart-melting anecdotes, like the pack that deliberately slowed down to accommodate a disabled member, or the female elephant that swooped in to save another injured female from a male’s attack. Even rats can be remarkably chivalrous. A pair of them got stuck in a laboratory drain overnight. When they were found in the morning, only one was strong enough to drink or eat. This rat took a piece of food and placed it in front of the weaker one; as it nibbled on the gift, the strong one would tug it a short distance away, encouraging the weak one to crawl forward a little to resume its meal.

Can you guess where the stronger rat was tugging the food?

This does not rule out divine intervention, of course, it merely points out that any human-centred explanation of morality won’t do. Christianity, for instance, has traditionally claimed that only creatures of species Homo Sapiens Sapiens have a soul, and are thus blessed with intelligence, morality, or whatever noble trait the speaker wished. This black-and-white view fails in a world full of shades of gray.

While I can’t completely rule out the divine, I can provide a simpler explanation. In the introduction, I introduced Ockham’s Razor when deciding if oranges were gods. If I want to apply it here, I have to present a way for morality to develop that doesn’t need the help of a god. This gives us two theories for moral development and no evidence to prove either, the perfect situation to invoke Ockham and again make the god hypothesis useless.

The First Game

Let’s start with something abstract. Have you heard of the Prisoner’s Dilemma?[116]

Imagine you and a partner you’ve never worked with before team up to rob a bank. The police catch both of you, but not before you’ve stashed the loot in a safe place. They don’t have enough evidence for a conviction, so instead they split you up and press you to rat out your partner.

This puts you in a bind. Keeping quiet seems to be the smart move; so long as your partner stays quiet, both of you will be taking baths in your share of the money. But what if your partner rats you out as the ringleader? You’ll be making license plates while your partner can swim in both shares of the loot. It’d be better to rat them out instead and get your swimming trunks ready… unless they too rat you out. In that case, both of your swimming goggles will be sold at a police auction. You know your partner must be facing the same decision. What to do, what to do?

If you’re a logician, you always Rat out the other person. To understand why, I’ll summarize this game in a payoff table, with “points” instead of dollars:[117]

Your Partner’s Decision:

Stay Quiet

Rat You Out

You Earn:

They Earn:

You Earn:

They Earn:

Your Decision:

Stay Quiet

Victory Dances for All!

You’re screwed, big-time.





Rat Them Out


everybody loses





Tally up the “You Earn” portion of each column. Since the total value for “Rat Them Out” row is greater than the “Stay Quiet” row, you stand to gain the most points by Ratting. This will also protect you from the worst-case of zero points, while opening up the best-case of five. Your partner knows all this, too, and thus is likely going to Rat on you anyway. It makes perfect logical sense.

And yet when you present this scenario to non-logicians, they usually Stay Quiet. For some reason, they trusted their partner to go for the best-case scenario, even though there was no logical reason for it. Logicians were perplexed, and launched several studies trying to figure out why humans were so willing to be so forgiving.

The most infamous was started by Robert Axelrod. Instead of asking people to play this game, he created several computer program “players” and gave each a different strategy. These were treated like bacteria floating aimlessly in a dish; two programs were picked at random to compete, and the awarded points went to their type of strategy. As each strategy earned or lost points, individuals of that type were added or removed from the “dish”. This is an important change; in the scenario above, the Prisoner’s Dilemma was played for a single round, not several. In addition, individual players were also granted the ability to remember programs they interacted with before and every choice that individual picked before, but weren’t allowed to know what strategy they were interacting with.

Axelrod then did something interesting: he turned his study into a competition by asking his peers to create strategies for the digital players. There were no restrictions on program length, so long as the submissions followed the above rules. He received fourteen strategies in total, ranging from the self-explanatory “Always Rat” and “Always Stay Quiet,” to complicated versions that used advanced statistical techniques to predict the likelihood of the next outcome and act accordingly. He added a fifteenth strategy to the mix, “Pick Randomly,” and let the simulation run.

The results were a shock. The most successful strategy was the simplest non-trivial one! “Tit-For-Tat,” submitted by Anatol Rapoport, just repeated what its challenger did last round. If there was no last round, it chose to stay quiet. No other strategy, no matter how complex, could beat it.

Somewhat taken aback, Axelrod shared the results publicly and asked for more challengers. This time, he received 62 submissions. Rapoport re-submitted “Tit-For-Tat,” with no changes.

After 3 million rounds, “Tit-For-Tat” still beat all comers!

Axelrod and other researchers have re-run this simulation, with various tweaks. If a player’s choices are occasionally flipped from “Quiet” to “Rat,” or vice versa, “Tit-For-Tat” is beaten by “Generous Tit-For-Tat.” The only difference between the two is that “Generous” occasionally ignores history and plays a “Silent;” this prevents it from falling into a cycle of retribution over a flipped choice. If digital players can remember their own past choices too, an even simpler strategy called “Pavlov” can rule the roost. If the two players didn’t play the same strategy last time (say one picked “Quiet” while the other chose “Rat”), “Pavlov” plays “Rat,” and in all other cases goes with “Quiet.” The reasons why it beats “Tit-for-Tat” are complicated, but “Pavlov” seems to encourage an “ecology” of strategies that allow it to rise to the top.

It’s important to note that while these three simple strategies dominate, they rarely stand alone. The usual result of these contests is a balanced ecology, with one or two big players and a number of smaller ones surviving on the edges.

The “Tit-For-Tat” duo and “Pavlov” have only been bested once. On the 20th anniversary of his first contest, Axelrod staged another. This time the winners we some clever entries from Professor Nicholas Jennings and others at Southampton University. When these programs encountered a new opponent, they played back a pre-set series of moves. If their opponent responded with a certain pattern of choices, they began acting like “Always Rat” or “Always Silent” to them. If not, they gave that player the “Generous” or “Pavlov” treatment.

If you know what strategy your opponent will take, any game becomes trivial. If your opponent will always stay “Quiet,” the best strategy is “Always Rat,” which earns you the most points per round. If you know you’re playing against your own strategy, “Always Stay Quiet” is better since it has the highest point earnings collectively. If up against “Always Rat,” “Always Rat” will minimize the damage.

While the procedure hid the strategy of each program from all others, SU’s entries exploited a loophole. By watching the first sequence of moves, they could spot what program they were up against, as well as broadcast what strategy they were using. SU’s entries traded short-term failures for long-term gain, and this edge was enough to catapult the “Secret Handshake” strategies to the top.[118] In contrast, the “Simple Three” treat everyone equally. This is one key to their success: they make no assumptions about their opponent, and thus can’t have those assumptions turned against them. There’s a cost to be paid, however. By treating everyone equally, they cannot exploit any differences between strategies.

Had Axelrod done another round of competition, none of the “Secret Handshake”s would have cracked the top 10. Why? Their advantage was based on an assumption: every program with a fixed opening sequence is honest. Now that their initial sequence of moves is public, another competitor could write a program that impersonates these winners, only to change its behaviour after it detects one of them has taken the bait. To combat this the Handshakes would have to change between rounds, and the only legal way to pull that off in Axelrod’s contest is to resubmit new programs each time.

We’re ready to move back to the real world.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma originally featured real people. It makes a lot of sense to bring them back in and watch the results. Under the same rules and restrictions, it turns out, we imitate “Generous” and “Pavlov.” And yet few of us have heard of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, let alone studied it. This also explains why we tend to Stay Quiet during the one-round version; all three simple strategies play that on the first round.

Remember the infant experiment? The puppets were engaged in a game very similar to the Dilemma, except it was impossible for both to lose. The baby didn’t participate that time, but instead had a preview of how each player would behave. When it was entered into the game via the food bowls, it took advantage and behaved like “Tit-For-Tat” on the second round; Rat on the puppet that had Rat-ted last time, and Stay Quiet to the one that had Stayed Quiet.

Variations on the Prisoner’s Dilemma are extremely common in the real world. Should I ignore that bacterium floating towards me, and risk being attacked, or should I pre-emptively start a battle? Will I hunt in a group and share my food, or hunt alone and hoard it? I’ve spotted a distant predator; should I put myself at risk by chirping in alarm, or stay quiet and hide? To play or snub? Attack or flee? Submit or defy? Our choice in each case effects our very survival.

This is evolution’s turf. Since behaviour can be partially controlled by our genes, we have been evolving solutions to these dilemmas for billions of years. It’s remarkable how closely the artificial and natural versions match; both result in populations where the majority use “Generous” or “Pavlov,” but a minority get away with “Always Rat” and a host of other less-than-optimal strategies.

Hopefully this also sheds light on an oddity I glossed over earlier. The total points awarded for mutual Quiet are greater than Rat/Quiet because that’s a closer match to reality. I share half my genes with my parents, siblings, and children, so helping them indirectly helps my genes spread as well. I get less benefit by helping others in my species, but keeping the gene pool diverse is still a net plus.[119] Therefore, both players get a minor bonus when they co-operate. There can even be some cross-species benefit; dogs provide us companionship, hunting skills, and early warning to a mutual predator, and we’re happy to return the favour.

Both players also get a minor bonus when they harm one another. While I’m worse for the encounter, at least the other player isn’t any better off and is less likely to threaten me in future.

Game Theory and evolution can explain a lot of moral behaviour. Why are we kind to strangers? Because altruism can pay off later. Why do we rarely lie and steal? Because we may get punished for it, by the victim or a third party, and if too many people do it everyone suffers. Why do people do it anyway? Because we can get away with it in small doses. Why are we fairly consistent in our moral choices? Because the best strategies are simple enough to be bred into our very bones. No higher power is needed for this, so no higher power should be assumed.

A common critique against this approach is that it fails to provide an absolute morality. It’s true, this morality only applies to anything that evolves. But do we need a moral system which accommodates for the experiences of rocks or solar systems?

If this approach seems greedy or short-sighted, sit tight. I need to cover a gaping hole before I move on.

[115]  “The Ethical Dog,” Scientific American Mind, March 2010

[116] This is a classic problem in Game Theory, developed by Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher back in the 1950’s.

[117]  Note that if both of you co-operate, the total reward is greater than the total reward when there’s one winner and one loser, and if both of you Rat you yourself do better than if you alone lost. As you’ll see later, this tends to be the most interesting award system, and thus most studied.

[118]  Can you guess where the worst performers of that round came from?

[119]  This is why homosexual behaviour has been found in every species we’ve studied. Why they are very unlikely to have children, non-breeders make excellent uncles and aunts and thus benefit even the greediest gene. [Future HJH: It’s ONE reason, not THE reason. Biology is complex, so it should be no surprise if multiple reasons exist, some of which are not due to adaptation.]

Proof from Morality (2)

Two Big Objections

That brings up a good point. The Morality proof states quite clearly that morality can only come from a god. Is that really the case, however?

It cannot be, if the god in question is omnipotent:

  1. God X’s actions define a moral code.
  2. God X is omnipotent.
  3. God X can therefore do any action.
  4. God X is therefore capable of an immoral act.
  5. 4. contradicts 1.

There are only two ways to solve this dilemma: give up on god X providing our moral basis, or give up on that god being omnipotent. The last way certainly seems the most sensible, even if it opens us up to questions of what that god can and cannot do.

A similar argument was made by Plato 2,400 years ago. Rather than invoke omnipotence, in the Euthyphro dialogue he had Socrates invoke causality: either the gods are good because they act according to a moral code, or they are good by definition and thus form a moral code.

Here’s the problem: only one of those possibilities can be true, yet they have radically different outcomes. If a god is only following a pre-existing moral code, then it must be constrained by that code as much as we are. We’d be better off ignoring or disputing the moral pronouncements of this god, and examining the moral code directly. Most theists reject this possibility out-of-hand.

Instead, let’s go along with the idea that a god’s actions provide our moral grounding. Where does that get us?

To a very scary place, I’m afraid. That means that every action a god does is moral. Period. So when your god slaughters thousands of people, condones slavery, and pushes actions based on faulty reasoning, you have no choice but to call it moral, even as you condemn other human beings for doing the same actions. A prime example of this comes courtesy of William Lane Craig, who was asked about an instance of genocide in the Old Testament, specifically Deuteronomy 20:10-18:

God has the right to take the lives of the Canaanites when He sees fit. How long they live and when they die is up to Him.

So the problem isn’t that God ended the Canaanites’ lives. The problem is that He commanded the Israeli soldiers to end them. Isn’t that like commanding someone to commit murder? No, it’s not. Rather, since our moral duties are determined by God’s commands, it is commanding someone to do something which, in the absence of a divine command, would have been murder. The act was morally obligatory for the Israeli soldiers in virtue of God’s command, even though, had they undertaken it on their on initiative, it would have been wrong.

On divine command theory, then, God has the right to command an act, which, in the absence of a divine command, would have been sin, but which is now morally obligatory in virtue of that command.

(“Slaughter of the Canaanites.” )

There are a number of rebuttals to the Euthyphro dilemma. This is a typical example:

The Christian rejects the first option, that morality is an arbitrary function of God’s power. And he rejects the second option, that God is responsible to a higher law. There is no Law over God.

The third option is that an objective standard exists (this avoids the first horn of the dilemma). However, the standard is not external to God, but internal (avoiding the second horn). Morality is grounded in the immutable character of God, who is perfectly good. His commands are not whims, but rooted in His holiness.

Could God simply decree that torturing babies was moral? “No,” the Christian answers, “God would never do that.” It’s not a matter of command. It’s a matter of character.

(“Euthyphro’s Dilemma,” Gregory Koukl. )

So absolute morality isn’t external to God, nor determined by God’s actions, but instead equal to God. Which means it must be determined by God’s actions, but that’s OK, because God would never order us to do anything immoral.

No really, this is not only a popular counter-argument, but the most popular one by my reckoning.

The Euthyphro dilemma is actually a false dichotomy. That is, it proposes only two options when another is possible. The third option is that good is based on God’s nature. God appeals to nothing other than his own character for the standard of what is good, and then reveals what is good to us. It is wrong to lie because God cannot lie (Titus 1:2),[108] not because God had to discover lying was wrong or that he arbitrarily declared it to be wrong.

(“What is the Euthyphro dilemma?,” Matt Slick.)

There is, however, a third option. As Christians we should affirm both God’s sovereignty and His non-derived goodness. Thus, we don’t want a standard that is arbitrary nor one that exists outside or above God. Fortunately, God is both supremely sovereign and good. Therefore, God’s nature itself can serve as the standard of goodness, and God can base His declarations of goodness on Himself. God’s nature is unchangeable and wholly good; thus, His will is not arbitrary, and His declarations are always true. This solves both issues.

(“What is Euthyphro’s Dilemma?,” http://www.gotquestions.org/Euthyphro-Dilemma.html )

But it might be permissible to lay down two negations: that God neither obeys nor creates the moral law. The good is uncreated; it could never have been otherwise; it has in it no shadow of contingency; it lies, as Plato said, on the other side of existence. […] But we, favored beyond the wisest pagans, knows what lies beyond existence, what admits no contingency, what lends divinity to all else, what is the ground of all existence, in not simply a law but also a begetting love, a love begotten, and the love which, being between these two, is also immanent in all those who are caught up to share the unity of their self-caused life. God is not merely good, but goodness; goodness is not merely divine, but God.

(“Christian Reflections,” C.S. Lewis. pg. 80)

There are other approaches, most notably this:

But the view which I am putting forward takes the first horn form for some obligations and the second for others. I suggest that we ought not to rape, or break a just promise (that is one which we had the right to make), whether or not there is a God; here God can only command us to do what is our duty anyway. By contrast only a divine command would make it obligatory to join in communal worship on Sundays rather than Tuesdays.

(“God and Morality,”  Richard Swinburne . Think 20, Vol. 7, Winter 2008)

Unfortunately, while dividing up morality into “necessary” and “contingent” sections seems like a good dodge, some thought reveals that it introduces more problems than it solves. You can’t rape if there’s no such thing as a universe, and most theists argue their god is responsible for the creation of universes; hence, a “necessary” moral truth is actually contingent on the existence of a god! Swinburne also tries to answer the obvious question, namely why we have to bother with the “contingent” moral codes at all, and offers up three reasons: they make good reminders of “necessary” morals, they help us work together, and they get us in the habit of doing good. All three can be done in a purely secular fashion, without the need for a god, which makes us justified in ignoring the divine portion.

Worst of all, the reliance on holy texts means this moral code is up for interpretation. Let’s return to the 613 Jewish mitzvot, specifically numbers thirty-three and thirty-four,[109] which are in this passage.

 If thou shalt hear tell concerning one of thy cities, which the LORD thy God giveth thee to dwell there, saying:
‘Certain base fellows are gone out from the midst of thee, and have drawn away the inhabitants of their city, saying: Let us go and serve other gods, which ye have not known’;
then shalt thou inquire, and make search, and ask diligently; and, behold, if it be truth, and the thing certain, that such abomination is wrought in the midst of thee;
thou shalt surely smite the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword, destroying it utterly, and all that is therein and the cattle thereof, with the edge of the sword.
And thou shalt gather all the spoil of it into the midst of the broad place thereof, and shall burn with fire the city, and all the spoil thereof every whit, unto the LORD thy God; and it shall be a heap for ever; it shall not be built again.

(Deuteronomy 13:13-17, Pentateuch. JPS 1917 translation)

The thirty-third mitzvot, specifically, calls for the burning of all cities that don’t worship YHWH. On the surface, this seems like a pretty clear-cut order to commit genocide. But what does it mean for YHWH to “give” you a city? Do you need the official stamp of a council of rabbis, or can it be revealed to you in a vision? Since YHWH can secretly alter the behaviour of people,[110] it’s also possible he could have steered you towards wherever you’re living right now, and this implicitly “give” you whatever patch of land you happen to be sitting on.

And how many believers in a false religion[111] do you need in a city before you burn it down? This passage talks about converting “the” inhabitants, which usually implies all of them, but it seems odd to wait until every last person worships another god before bringing on genocide, when later mitzvot make it clear that the same crime committed by a single person is worthy of death.

 If there arise in the midst of thee a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams–and he give thee a sign or a wonder,
and the sign or the wonder come to pass, whereof he spoke unto thee–saying: ‘Let us go after other gods, which thou hast not known, and let us serve them’;
thou shalt not hearken unto the words of that prophet, or unto that dreamer of dreams; for the LORD your God putteth you to proof, to know whether ye do love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.
After the LORD your God shall ye walk, and Him shall ye fear, and His commandments shall ye keep, and unto His voice shall ye hearken, and Him shall ye serve, and unto Him shall ye cleave.
And that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams, shall be put to death; because he hath spoken perversion against the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed thee out of the house of bondage, to draw thee aside out of the way which the LORD thy God commanded thee to walk in. So shalt thou put away the evil from the midst of thee.

(Deuteronomy 13:2-6,[112] Pentateuch. JPS 1917 translation)

With so many billions on the street it would be tricky to enforce the prohibition against resettlement, or the thirty-fourth mitzvot. Most cities began where they were for a reason, such as a close proximity to water or excellent soil. By forcing everyone to settle elsewhere, you’re not only giving up prime real-estate, this exodus would require destroying precious farmland to house the refugees. Note as well that YHWH explicitly bars resettlement of any ravaged city at any future time, thus devout Jews would have to guard all this rubble for an incredible length of time.[113]

Oddly enough, I don’t know of a single devout Jew who actually follows these two mitzvot. I’m quite thankful for that, but I do find it peculiar that so many Jews would interpret that passage to mean anything other than genocide.

We can generalize this problem to all religions. Even if your god possesses an absolute moral code, and even if it has communicated that code to us in some way, the interpretation of that code is the responsibility of human beings, who cannot possess an absolute moral code (because otherwise they’d have no need for this god’s moral code and the proof from morality falls apart). If it is possible for human beings to interpret, however, then it must be possible to misinterpret, and thus we cannot be sure we’re following this absolute moral code in totality; there will always be a small chance that we’re getting some part wrong. This is a huge problem, because every method of divine enlightenment involves a human middleman.

It’s as if someone crafted a perfect technique for making pottery, but only told people who were bad at the task. The results are guaranteed to be less than perfect.[114] So even if an absolute moral code existed, we could never follow it.

Or prove it, for that matter. “Absolute” implies that all possible observers would agree, given sufficient information. So let’s say we ask one hundred people if murder is bad, and all of them agree. Have we proven all observers agree? Nope. So let’s ask one billion people, and let’s say all of them agree. We still haven’t demonstrated everyone agrees. So let’s ask every single human being that has existed or will exist on this planet. Is that everyone? Nope, we still haven’t asked people who could have existed, but didn’t. Maybe one of them disagrees? It would destroy our assertion of having an absolute consensus on murder.

To many, this is a paradox. If there is no absolute moral code, why do we agree to such a large degree? Why do we consistently agree that murder is a bad idea, or that cheating is wrong?

[108] Actually, He can. See Jeremiah 20:7 and 2 Thessalonians 2:11.

[109] I’m using Maimonides’ list and ordering. A number of rabbis have developed their own mitzvot lists, some of which disagree, but Maimonides’ is the most accepted within the Jewish community.

[110] In Exodus 4:21, 9:12, and 10:20 (amongst others) YHWH hardens Pharaoh’s heart. Of course, according to Exodus 8:32 and 9:34 (amongst a few more) Pharaoh hardens his own heart. I’ve already mentioned 2 Thessalonians 2:11-13, too, where God deludes people into believing lies.

[111] Religion may not be necessary, either; while this passage explicitly mentions worshipping the wrong gods, that could be considered a metaphor for idolatry in general. And some rabbis [INSERT CITATION HERE] hold that any reproduction of the human form is a type of idolatry.[FUTURE HJH: Almost!] So in the most extreme interpretation, any city, town or village where someone has a photo or drawing of a human on their wall must be burnt to the ground.

[112] That’s not a typo, mitzvot fourty-three does refer to a passage which proceeds thirty-three and thirty-four. Maimonides arranged his list by category, not order.

[113]  Current estimates suggest the oceans will boil away in 500 million to one billion years, and that in four billion or so our Sun might expand out and swallow our planet. The former might not kill off all life on this planet, depending on how sophisticated the technology of the day is, and the second isn’t guaranteed to happen. Those Jewish guards may want to pack a lunch…

[114]  I’ll reuse this argument in the proof from holy texts, by the way. Adjust your reading plans appropriately.