Trying to assuage guilt

On my return from Sri Lanka last week, I read the back issues of the Cleveland newspapers and found that a big story was the vicious beating of a middle-aged white man by a group of six black teenagers who had accosted him while he was on a walk in his neighborhood. The man was saved from possible death because of the alarm raised by a resident (who is a faculty member at Case) who had observed the assault from his home front window and raised the alarm, which caused the attackers to flee.
[Read more…]

Jury service and jury nullification-2

The fourth time I was empanelled was for a criminal case involving charges of felonious assault where the defense said that it would argue self-defense. Once again, there was an oral voir dire, which included questions about whether we had ever been involved in any physical altercation.

It was during the voir dire that I ran into a problem. One of the prosecuting counsel asked if the jurors would be willing to convict a person on the facts of the case even if they felt the law under which the person was being prosecuted was unjust. It was clear that he expected you to answer ‘yes’ to this question. We have all seen at least some courtroom dramas where the judge instructs the jury on the law to be applied and the jury is asked to judge based only on the facts of the case, and not to judge the validity of the law itself.

What is not well known is that the jury has the right, in criminal cases, to acquit the accused even if he or she is clearly guilty on the facts, if the jury feels that the law that was used to convict was unjust. This procedure is known as jury nullification and I have written about it before. (See here and here.) In the past, juries have nullified laws and brought in acquittals in cases involving freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, harboring fugitive slaves, and so on, and their repeated refusal to convict have led to the repeal of those unjust laws and given us some of the basic freedoms we now take for granted. But despite this fundamental right that juries possess, courts do not inform juries of this right and are actively hostile to doing so.

I was placed in a quandary by the prosecutor’s question. What I knew about the case at hand was such that it seemed highly unlikely that it would involve an unjust law. But since I knew about jury nullification, I could not in good conscience agree to a blanket statement that I would convict even if I felt the law to be unjust. But if I said in open court that I could not convict based on an unjust law, then I would have to explain the whole business of jury nullification. While that might have been educational for my fellow jurors, it might have prejudiced the entire jury panel and thrown a spanner in the works for a case that did not involve a high principle. So I asked the judge if I might talk to him privately. This was allowed and the judge, all the counsel, the court recorder, and I moved to his chambers next door where I explained my problem. We then went back to the courtroom where the prosecutor asked me a few more questions. Then she dismissed me from the panel.

I expected this to happen. Prosecutors do not like jury nullification because it works only one way, and that is against them, since it only gives jurors the right to acquit on the basis on an unjust law.

This is the problem currently with jury nullification. It is a right of juries that is not only not publicized but actively hidden from jurors by the court system. If someone is aware of it and says so, he or she is likely to be struck from the pool of potential jurors in criminal cases. There are ways to get around this, apparently based upon the fact that the oath or affirmation one takes during voir dire is not enforceable, so one can apparently say that one will convict on the basis of the law even if one has no intention of doing so. Whether one takes this route has to be up to the individual. But I am uncomfortable doing this, especially in a case where there is no high principle involved. When one swears or affirms that one is going to tell the truth, one is obliged to follow the spirit as well as the letter of the law. Politicians use the careful parsing of statements to lie to us and make us think they mean one thing while intending to do another. But it is this kind of behavior that leads to bad governments and gets us into wars. There is no reason for ordinary people to copy that kind of disgraceful behavior. I much prefer that the issue of jury nullification become public knowledge so that juries routinely know about it, even without being told by the judge, the way we currently know about our Miranda rights. The best way to do this might be for the popular courtroom dramas in TV and film to deal with it frequently. For example, I think the William Penn trial would make a terrific film, that would put the focus on jury deliberations even better than the classic Twelve Angry Men, both for its dramatic content and for its educational value

As things stand now, it looks like I will never be able to serve on a criminal jury because of my knowledge of jury nullification.

It is important that everyone know about jury nullification because we have entered an era in which there are increasing violations of those rights we have long taken for granted. Laws are being passed that are taking away many cherished and hard-won rights, such as habeas corpus. We are already having trials in which ordinary people are being subject to harsh treatment and even torture and tried under draconian and unjust laws, all in the name of security and fighting the so-called war on terror, but in reality to serve the power needs of the state.

If we are called as jurors for such trials, we have to be willing to uphold our constitutional right to acquit people who are accused of crimes under unjust laws, when in reality what they may have been doing is standing up for fundamental rights. If we are asked to convict someone on the basis of evidence that has been obtained under torture, we should be willing to acquit, simply on the grounds that using torture to acquire evidence is cruel and unjust and any information gleaned from such practices is inherently suspect.

POST SCRIPT: Catholic priests caught in the lingerie section

I came across this funny clip from the 1990s British TV comedy series called Father Ted.

Jury service and jury nullification-1

By a coincidence, while writing and posting my series on the law and religion in public schools, I was also called for jury service and spent the better part of the week of November 5, 2007 in the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court in downtown Cleveland.

I feel strongly that the jury system is one of the greatest inventions of modern society and has been the foundation for democracy and creating and preserving freedoms. So I feel that to serve on a jury is a privilege and do not resent doing my time on the jury though it does involve some minor inconveniences and disruptions in work and home routine.

This was the third time I have been called for jury duty but I have yet to actually sit in on a case. For those not familiar with how it works, at least in Cuyahoga County where I live, when you are called for jury duty to the Common Pleas Court, it is not for a particular case but to be part of a large pool of jurors that serve many courts. So much of the time is spent waiting until your name is randomly called as needed if a case cannot be settled and should need to go to trial.

There are forty courtrooms in the building so the pool of potential jurors is quite large. All the jurors wait in a large room until such time as they are called to serve on a panel in a particular trial. The court system treats the jurors well. The jury pool room is well-lighted and spacious, has comfortable chairs, carrels with electrical outlets for people to use computers (but no internet access), plenty of newspapers and magazines to read, jigsaw puzzles, three TVs tuned to different channels in different corners of the room, vending machines and a nearby reasonably-priced cafeteria and, most importantly, a quiet room for those who simply want silence in order to read or take a nap. The court employees who run the operation are courteous, friendly, and helpful and the whole system works very smoothly.

Furthermore, I have been impressed with my fellow jury panel members. They come from all walks of life and occupations and backgrounds, and although there is a lot of joking and kidding around while we are waiting in the jury pool room about what they would prefer to be doing, they all seem to have a sense of duty and seriousness about what they have been called to do. I always feel good about the experience and would not hesitate to put my own fate in the hands of a jury if an event should arise that I am put on trial.

I have been called for four jury panels so far. They usually call a panel of eighteen potential jurors for a civil trial (from which eight jurors and two alternates are finally selected) and twenty-two for a criminal trial (from which twelve jurors and two alternates are selected). Civil trials require only a ¾th majority (i.e. at least six votes) for a verdict while criminal trials require a unanimous verdict.

Once a panel is randomly selected from the large pool in the room, we first assemble in the jury deliberation room for that particular court, and the bailiff tells us the order in which to line up to enter the court and where to sit once we get there. As we march in, the judge and the attorneys and the litigants are already present and standing, and once we are all in our places, the judge tells us to sit. The courts have sense of friendly formality and dignity, with the judge in his robes and the counsel in suits.

Then the voir dire (“to speak the truth”) process begins with the judge asking us to swear or affirm (the latter for the benefit of us atheists) an oath to tell the truth. He then tells us very briefly what the case is about and how long he expects it to last, and then he and the two attorneys ask each juror a lot of probing questions about our lives (such as where we work and what we do, what our hobbies are, how many children and what they do) plus questions about any life experiences or opinions that we may have had that are relevant to the particular case we are about to judge. For example, in one civil case involving an employee being fired, we were asked if any of us had even had problems with our employers or been fired or sued. In an assault case, we were asked if we had been assaulted. This voir dire process can take quite a while, and the rest of the jury panel listen while each potential juror is questioned. On the basis of the answers, jurors can be dismissed either for cause (because, say, they know someone involved with the case) or for no reason. The latter can be done by the attorneys for either side but each has only a limited number of such peremptory challenges at their disposal.

In my very first panel about eight years ago, the two sides made a deal and the case was settled just before the voir dire process even began. The second panel I was called for about four years ago was for a murder trial. There was an exceptionally large panel called (about 40 people) suggesting that the judge felt that it was going to be difficult to select an impartial jury. The voir dire in that case was a very detailed written questionnaire that ran to over twenty pages. I was dismissed from that panel. I had requested to be excused because the judge had said that the case would last at least three weeks and this was the week before the semester began which made it awkward for me. The fact that I had stated that I opposed the death penalty also may have contributed to my dismissal.

The third time I was empanelled (which was last November) involved a civil case, a contract dispute involving an employee who had been fired. I did not request to be excused but after the oral voir dire, I was the first person to be dismissed, by the attorney for the employer. No reasons need be given for such peremptory dismissals so I have no idea what reasons he might have had.

It was in the fourth case (also last November) that I ran into a problem because of my knowledge of the legal system and jury nullification. I will write about that in the next post.

POST SCRIPT: Textbook disclaimers

Some readers will recall how in Cobb County, GA the school board inserted stickers saying, “This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered” into the biology textbooks. This was ruled unconstitutional.

But why do advocates of such disclaimers limit themselves only to biology? Here are some other textbook disclaimer stickers that can be used. Here’s one suitable for a physics textbook:

This textbook asserts that gravity exists. Gravity is a theory, not a fact, regarding a force that cannot be directly seen. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.

And here’s a disclaimer that is suitable for almost any textbook:

This book teaches kids the difference between facts and myths. Because this erodes belief in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and, well, other things, parents should homeschool their kids until the age of 27.

Why rush election results?

Ever since election day on November 6, 2007 news reports in Cleveland have been obsessing over the fact that the results were delayed by a couple of hours due to a systems crash that required the backup to kick in.

I am puzzled by this obsession with speed in elections. Why is there such a rush to get election results out so quickly? This drive for speed seems particularly paradoxical in the US where election campaigns are dragged out longer than in any other country and where there is a long time interval between voting day and the newly elected person actually taking office. New office holders typically take over at the beginning of the following year, allowing for a two-month transition period. The new president does not take the oath of office until January 20.
[Read more…]

What is science?

(I am taking a break from original posts due to the holidays and because of travel after that. Until I return, here are some old posts, updated and edited, for those who might have missed them the first time around. New posts should appear starting Monday, January 14, 2008.)

Because of my interest in the history and philosophy of science I am sometimes called upon to answer the question “what is science?” Most people think that the answer should be fairly straightforward. This is because science is such an integral part of our lives that everyone feels that they intuitively know what it is and think that the problem of defining science is purely one of finding the right combination of words that captures their intuitive sense.
[Read more…]

Necessary and sufficient conditions

(I am taking a break from original posts due to the holidays and because of travel after that. Until I return, here are some old posts, updated and edited, for those who might have missed them the first time around. New posts should appear starting Monday, January 14, 2008.)

The problem of finding definitions for things that clearly specify whether an object belongs in that category or not has long been recognized to be a knotty philosophical problem. Ideally what we would need for a good definition is to have both necessary and sufficient conditions, but it is not easy to do so.

A necessary condition is one that must be met if the object is to be considered even eligible for inclusion in the category. If an object meets this condition, then it is possible that it belongs in the category, but not certain. If it does not meet the condition, then we can definitely say that it does not belong. So necessary conditions for something can only classify objects into “maybe belongs” or “definitely does not belong.”

For example, let us try to define a dog. We might say that a necessary condition for some object to be considered as a possible dog is that it be a mammal. So if we know that something is a mammal, it might be a dog or it might be another kind of mammal, say a cat. But if something is not a mammal, then we know for sure it is not a dog.

A sufficient condition, on the other hand, acts differently. If an object meets the sufficient condition, then it definitely belongs. If it does not meet the sufficient condition, then it may or may not belong. So the sufficient condition can be used to classify things into “definitely belongs” or “maybe belongs.”

So for the dog case, if a dog has papers certified by the American Kennel Association, then we can definitely say it is a dog. But if something does not have such papers it may still be a dog (say a mixed breed) or it may not be a dog (it may be a table).

A satisfactory demarcation criterion would have both necessary and sufficient conditions because only then can we say of any given object that it either definitely belongs or it definitely does not belong. Usually these criteria take the form of a set of individually necessary conditions that, taken together, are sufficient. i.e., Each condition by itself is not sufficient but if all are met they become sufficient.

It is not easy to find such conditions, even for such a seemingly simple category as dogs, and that it the problem. So for the dog, we might try define it by saying that it is a mammal, with four legs, barks, etc. But people who are determined to challenge the criteria could find problems (What exactly defines a mammal? What is the difference between an arm and a leg? What constitutes a bark? Etc. We can end up in an infinite regression of definitions.)

This is why philosophers like to say that we make such identifications (“this is a dog, that is a cat”) based on an intuitive grasp of the idea of “similarity classes,” things that share similarities that may not be rigidly definable. So even a little child can arrive at a pretty good idea of what a dog is without formulating a strict definition, by encountering several dogs and being able to distinguish what separates dog-like qualities from non-dog like qualities. It is not completely fool proof. Once in a while we may come across a strange looking animal, some exotic breed that baffles us. But most times it is clear. We almost never mistake a cat for a dog, even though they share many characteristics, such as being small four-legged mammals with tails that are domestic pets.

Anyway, back to science, a satisfactory demarcation would require that we be able to find both necessary and sufficient criteria that can be used to define science, and use those conditions to separate ideas into science and non-science. Do such criteria exist? To answer that question we need to look at the history of science and see what are the common features that are shared by those bodies of knowledge we confidently call science.

This will be discussed in the next posting.

Improving the quality of our snap judgments

(I am taking a break from original posts due to the holidays and because of travel after that. Until I return, here are some old posts, updated and edited, for those who might have missed them the first time around. New posts should appear starting Monday, January 14, 2008.)

In a previous post, I mentioned that my Race IAT results indicated that I had no automatic preference for black or white people. This surprised me, frankly. Although I am intellectually committed to thinking of people as equal, I am still subjected to the same kinds of images and stereotypes as everyone else in society so I expected to have at least a small automatic preference for white people. But the section on Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink on ‘priming’ experiments might give an explanation for the null result.

The priming experiments were done by psychologist John Bargh. What he did was give two randomly selected groups of undergraduate students a small test involving words. The results of the word test itself were not relevant. What was relevant was that the first set of students encountered words like “aggressively”, “bold, “rude”, “bother”, etc. in their test while the second set encountered words like “respect”, “considerate”, “patiently”, “polite”, etc.

After they had done the word test, the students were asked to go down the hall to the person running the experiment to get their next assignment. This was the real experiment because it had been arranged to have a confederate blocking the doorway, carrying on an inane and seemingly endless conversation with the experimenter. The experiment was designed to see if the set of students who had been unknowingly ‘primed’ with aggressive words would take longer to interrupt this conversation than those who had been primed with polite words. Bargh expected to see a difference, but expected that difference to be measured in milliseconds. He said “I mean, these are New Yorkers. They aren’t going to just stand there. We thought maybe a few seconds, or a minute at most.”

What he found was that the people primed to be rude eventually interrupted after an average of five minutes, but 82% of the people primed to be polite did not interrupt at all, even after ten minutes which was the cut-off time that had been pre-set for the experiment, thinking that no one would ever wait that long.

What these and other priming experiments suggest is that the kinds of experiences we have carry their effects subconsciously over to the next events, at least for some time.

This may explain my negative result because for some time now I have been studying the achievement gap between black and white students in the US. The more I looked at it, the more I became convinced that the concept of race is biologically indefensible, that it cannot be the cause of the gap, and that the reasons for the gap have to be looked for elsewhere.

Since my book on the subject called The Achievement Gap in US Education: Canaries in the Mine came out in June 2005, I had been thinking a lot about these ideas at the same time as I took the test, and so I was probably ‘primed’ to think that there is no fundamental difference between the races, and hence my null result on the Race IAT test.

This ties in with other research that I quote in my book that deals with the role that teacher expectations of students play in student achievement. Teacher expectations are an important factor but a lot of the efforts to improve teacher expectations of low-achieving students have been along the lines “All children can learn!” sloganeering. But having teachers just saying this or plastering it on school walls may not help much, if they are not convinced of its truth. If people are conscious that they are being primed, then the priming effect disappears.

What is needed is for teachers to improve their overall expectations of students is for them to have opportunities to actually see for themselves traditionally underachieving students excelling. If they can have such experiences, then the inevitable snap judgments they make about students, and which can have an effect on student performance, may be more equitable than they are now.

I have long been in favor of diversity in our educational environments but my reasons were more social, because I felt that we all benefit from learning with, and from, those whose backgrounds and experiences differ from our own. But it seems that there is an added bonus as well. When we have a broader base of experience on which to base our judgments, our snap judgments tend to be better.

Snap judgments and prejudices

(I am taking a break from original posts due to the holidays and because of travel after that. Until I return, here are some old posts, updated and edited, for those who might have missed them the first time around. New posts should appear starting Monday, January 14, 2008.)

In an earlier post, I described Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink about the way we instinctively make judgments about people. The way we make snap judgments is by ‘thin-slicing’ events. We take in a small slice of the phenomena we observe and associate the information in those slices with other measures. People who make good snap judgments are those people who associate the thin-slice information with valid predictors of behavior. People who make poor or prejudicial judgments are those people who associate the thin-slice information with poor predictors.

Think about what you observe about a person immediately as that person walks into your view. Gender, ethnicity, height, weight, color, gait, dress, hair, demeanor, eyes, looks, physique, gestures, voice, the list just goes on. We sweep up all these impressions in a flash. And based on them, whether we want to or not, we make a judgment about the person. Different people will weigh different elements in the mix differently.

If someone comes into my office wearing a suit, my initial impression of the person is different than if she had come in wearing jeans. (If you were mildly surprised by my using the pronoun ‘she’ towards the end of the last sentence, it is because, like me, you implicitly associate suits with male attire, so that the first part of the sentence made you conjure up a mental image of a man.)

A personal example of snap judgments occurs when I read Physics Today which I get every month. The obituary notices in have the magazine have a standard form. There is a head-shot of the person, with the name as the header, and one or two column inches describing the person.

Almost all of the obituaries are of old white men, not surprising for physicists of the generation that is now passing away. I found myself looking at the photo and immediately identifying whether the person was of English nationality or not. And I was right a surprising number of times. And I was not reasoning it through in any conscious way. As soon as I saw the picture came into view, I’d find myself thinking “English” or “not English”. I don’t know the basis of my judgments. But as I said, I was right surprisingly often.

Gladwell describes a very successful car salesman who over the years has realized that gender, ethnicity, clothes, etc. are not good predictors of whether the person is likely to buy a car or not. Someone who his fellow salespeople might ignore or dismiss because he looks like a rustic farmer, this salesman takes seriously. And because this salesman has been able to shape his intuition to ignore superficial or irrelevant things, his senses are better attuned to pick up on those cues that really matter.

Some of the strongest associations we make are those based on ethnicity, gender, and age. We immediately associate those qualities with generalizations associated with those groupings.

People are not always comfortable talking about their attitudes on race, gender, and other controversial topics. This is why surveys on such topics are unreliable, because people can ‘psyche out’ the tests, answering in the way they think they are expected to, the ‘correct’ way, rather than what they actually feel. This is why opinion polls on such matters, or in elections where the candidates are of different races or ethnicities, are hard to rely on.

There is a website, developed by researchers at Harvard University, that recognizes this problem. They have designed a survey instrument that tries to overcome this feature by essentially (as far as I can tell) measuring the time taken to answer their questions. In other words, they are measuring the time taken for you to psyche out the test. Since we have much less control over this, the researchers believe that this survey gives a better result. They claim that you cannot change your score by simply taking the test over and over again and becoming familiar with it.

If you want to check it out for yourself, go to the test site, click on “Demonstration”, then on “Go to Demonstration Tests”, then on “I wish to proceed”. This takes you to a list of Implicit Association Tests (or IAT) and you can choose which kinds of associations you wish to check that you make.

I took the Race IAT because that was what was discussed in Gladwell’s book, and it took me less than five minutes to complete. This test looks at the role that race plays in making associations. In particular it looks at whether we instinctively associate black/white people with good/bad qualities.

It turns out that more than 80% of people who have taken this test have pro-white associations, meaning that they tend to associate good qualities with white people and bad qualities with black people. This does not mean that such people are racists. They may well be very opposed to any kind of racist thinking or policies. What these tests are measuring are unconscious associations that we pick up (from the media, the people we know, our community, etc.) without being aware of them, that we have little control over.

Gladwell himself says that the test “always leaves me feeling a bit creepy.” He found himself being rated as having a moderate automatic preference for whites although he labels himself half black because his mother is Jamaican.

I can see why this kind of test is unnerving. It may shake our image of ourselves and reveal to us the presence of prejudices that we wish we did not have. But if we are unconsciously making associations of whatever kind, isn’t it better to know this so that we can take steps to correct for them if necessary? The successful car salesman became so because he realized that people in his profession made a lot of the unconscious associations that were not valid and had to be rejected. And he used that knowledge in ways that benefited him and his customers.

Although you cannot change your Race IAT scores by simply redoing the test, there are other things that can change your score. When I took the Race IAT, the results indicated that I have no automatic preference for blacks or whites. In a later posting, I will talk about the effects that ‘priming’ might have on the test results, and how that might have affected my results.

POST SCRIPT: Saying Iraq and Iran

I noticed that President Bush pronounces Iran the same way that I do (“E-rahn”) but pronounces Iraq as “Eye-rack” (instead of “E-rahk”), which really grates on me. He is not the only one who does this.

I don’t know how the people who live in those two countries pronounce the names but it seems reasonable to me to pronounce the two names similarly except for the last letter. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, which provides audio as well, agrees with me on this.

Snap judgments

(I am taking a break from original posts due to the holidays and because of travel after that. Until I return, here are some old posts, updated and edited, for those who might have missed them the first time around. New posts should appear starting Monday, January 14, 2008.)

I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink. It deals with how we all make snap judgments about people and things, sometimes within a couple of seconds or less. Gladwell reports on a whole slew of studies that suggest that we have the ability to ‘thin-slice’ events, to make major conclusions from just a narrow window of observations.

I first read about this as applied to teaching in an essay by Gladwell that appeared in the New Yorker (May 29, 2000) where he described research by psychologists Nalini Ambady and Robert Rosenthal who found that by showing observers silent videoclips of teachers in action, the observers (who had never met the teachers before) were able to make judgments of teacher effectiveness that correlated strongly with the evaluations of students who had taken an entire course with that teacher. (Source: Half a Minute: Predicting Teacher Evaluations From Thin Slices of Nonverbal Behavior and Physical Attractiveness, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1993, vol. 64, No. 3, 431-441.)

This result is enough to give any teacher the heebie-jeebies. The thought that students have formed stable and robust judgments about you before you have even opened your mouth on the very first day of the very first class is unnerving. It seems so unfair that you are being judged before you can even begin to prove yourself. But, for good or bad, this seems to be supported by other studies, such as those done by Robert Boice in his book Advice for New Faculty Members.

The implication for this is that the cliché “You never get a second chance to make a first impression” is all too true. And what Gladwell’s New Yorker article and book seem to suggest is that this kind of thin-slicing is something that all of us do all the time. But not all of us do it well. Some people use thin-slicing to arrive at conclusions that are valid, others to arrive at completely erroneous judgments.

Those who do it well tend to be people who have considerable experience in that particular area. They have distilled that experience into some key variables that they then use to size up the situation at a glance, often without even consciously being aware of how they do it.

Seen in this way, the seemingly uncanny ability of people to identify at a glance who the good and bad teachers are might not seem that surprising. Most people have had lots of experience with many teachers in their lives, and along the way have unconsciously picked up subtle non-verbal cues that they use to correlate with good and bad teaching. They use these markers as predictors and seem to be quite good at it.

I was self-consciously reflecting on this last week when I ran two mock-seminars for visiting high-school seniors as part of “Experience Case ” days. The idea was to have a seminar class for these students so that they could see what a seminar would be like if they chose to matriculate here. I found that just by glancing around the room at the assembled students at the beginning, I could tell who was likely to be an active participant in the seminar and who would not.

It was easy for me to make these predictions and I was pretty confident that I would be proven right, and I usually was. But how did I do it? Hard to tell. But I have taught for many years and encountered thousands of students and this wealth of experience undoubtedly played a role in my ability to make snap judgments. If pressed to explain my judgments I might say that it was the way the students sat, their body language, the way they made eye contact, the expression on their faces, and other things like that.

But while I am confident about my ability to predict the students’ subsequent behavior in the seminar, I am not nearly as confident in the validity of the reasons I give. And this is consistent with what Gladwell reports in his book. Many of the experts who made good judgments did not know how they arrived at their conclusions or, when they did give reasons, the reasons could not stand up to close scrutiny.

He gives the example of veteran tennis pro and coach Vic Braden. Braden found that when watching tennis players about to make their second serve, he could predict with uncanny accuracy (close to 100%) when they would double fault. This is amazing because he was watching top players (who very rarely double fault) perform on television, and many of the players were people he had never seen play before. But what drove Braden crazy was that he could not say how he made his predictions. He just knew in a flash of insight that they would, and no amount of watching slow-motion replays enabled him to pinpoint the reasons.

But Gladwell points out that we use thin-slicing techniques even is situations where we do not have much experience or expertise and these judgments can lead us astray. In later postings, I will describe the kinds of situations where snap judgments are likely to lead us to shaky conclusions and where we should be alert.

POST SCRIPT: Charlie Wilson’s War

The film with the above name tries to make a comedy out of the role that the US played in creating the Taleban in Afghanistan. Stanley Heller points out that this was no laughing matter for the million Afghans who died as a result of the geostrategic games played by the Soviet Union and the Carter-Reagan governments.

Atheism and Agnosticism

(I am taking a break from original posts due to the holidays and because of travel after that. Until I return, here are some old posts, updated and edited, for those who might have missed them the first time around. New posts should appear starting Monday, January 14, 2008.)

In an interview, Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, who called himself a “radical atheist,” explains why he uses that term (thanks to onegoodmove):

I think I use the term radical rather loosely, just for emphasis. If you describe yourself as “Atheist,” some people will say, “Don’t you mean ‘Agnostic’?” I have to reply that I really do mean Atheist. I really do not believe that there is a god – in fact I am convinced that there is not a god (a subtle difference). I see not a shred of evidence to suggest that there is one. It’s easier to say that I am a radical Atheist, just to signal that I really mean it, have thought about it a great deal, and that it’s an opinion I hold seriously…

People will then often say “But surely it’s better to remain an Agnostic just in case?” This, to me, suggests such a level of silliness and muddle that I usually edge out of the conversation rather than get sucked into it. (If it turns out that I’ve been wrong all along, and there is in fact a god, and if it further turned out that this kind of legalistic, cross-your-fingers-behind-your-back, Clintonian hair-splitting impressed him, then I think I would chose not to worship him anyway.) . . .

And making the move from Agnosticism to Atheism takes, I think, much more commitment to intellectual effort than most people are ready to put in. (italics in original)

I think Adams is exactly right. When I tell people that I am an atheist, they also tend to suggest that surely I must really mean that I am an agnostic. (See here for an earlier discussion of the distinction between the two terms.) After all, how can I be sure that there is no god? In that purely logical sense they are right, of course. You cannot prove a negative so there is always the chance that not only that a god exists but, if you take radical clerics Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell seriously, has a petty, spiteful, vengeful, and cruel personality.

When I say that I am atheist, I am not making that assertion based on logical or evidentiary proofs of non-existence. It is that I have been convinced that the case for no god is far stronger than the case for god. It is the same reasoning that makes me convinced that quantum mechanics is the theory to use for understanding sub-atomic phenomena or natural selection is the theory to be preferred for understanding the diversity of life. There is always the possibility that these theories are ‘wrong’ in some sense and will be superceded by other theories, but those theories will have to have convincing evidence in their favor.

If, on the other hand, I ask myself what evidence there is for the existence of a god, I come up empty. All I have are the assurances of clergy and assertions in certain books. I have no personal experience of it and there is no scientific evidence for it.

Of course, as long time readers of this blog are aware, I used to be quite religious for most of my life, even an ordained lay preacher of the Methodist Church. How could I have switched? It turns out that my experience is remarkably similar to that of Adams, who describes why he switched from Christianity to atheism.

As a teenager I was a committed Christian. It was in my background. I used to work for the school chapel in fact. Then one day when I was about eighteen I was walking down the street when I heard a street evangelist and, dutifully, stopped to listen. As I listened it began to be borne in on me that he was talking complete nonsense, and that I had better have a bit of a think about it.

I’ve put that a bit glibly. When I say I realized he was talking nonsense, what I mean is this. In the years I’d spent learning History, Physics, Latin, Math, I’d learnt (the hard way) something about standards of argument, standards of proof, standards of logic, etc. In fact we had just been learning how to spot the different types of logical fallacy, and it suddenly became apparent to me that these standards simply didn’t seem to apply in religious matters. In religious education we were asked to listen respectfully to arguments which, if they had been put forward in support of a view of, say, why the Corn Laws came to be abolished when they were, would have been laughed at as silly and childish and – in terms of logic and proof -just plain wrong. Why was this?
. . .
I was already familiar with and (I’m afraid) accepting of, the view that you couldn’t apply the logic of physics to religion, that they were dealing with different types of ‘truth’. (I now think this is baloney, but to continue…) What astonished me, however, was the realization that the arguments in favor of religious ideas were so feeble and silly next to the robust arguments of something as interpretative and opinionated as history. In fact they were embarrassingly childish. They were never subject to the kind of outright challenge which was the normal stock in trade of any other area of intellectual endeavor whatsoever. Why not? Because they wouldn’t stand up to it.
. . .
Sometime around my early thirties I stumbled upon evolutionary biology, particularly in the form of Richard Dawkins’s books The Selfish Gene and then The Blind Watchmaker and suddenly (on, I think the second reading of The Selfish Gene) it all fell into place. It was a concept of such stunning simplicity, but it gave rise, naturally, to all of the infinite and baffling complexity of life. The awe it inspired in me made the awe that people talk about in respect of religious experience seem, frankly, silly beside it. I’d take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day.

What Adams is describing is the conversion experience that I described earlier when, suddenly switching your perspective seems to make everything fall into place and make sense.

For me, like Adams, I realized that I was applying completely different standards for religious beliefs than I was for every other aspect of my life. And I could not explain why I should do so. Once I jettisoned the need for that kind of distinction, atheism just naturally emerged as the preferred explanation. Belief in a god required much more explaining away of inconvenient facts than not believing in a god.

POST SCRIPT: The Noah’s Ark horror

One of the great triumphs of Judeo-Christian propaganda is getting their followers to overlook the fact that the Biblical Noah story, which many of them believe to be true, would be the worst act of genocide ever, and committed by god to boot. Hellbound Alleee tries to correct this.