Aug 05 2011

Believers vs. Non-believers: Everyone Gets it Wrong

Category: Epistemology,religionJames @ 5:45 pm

A friend of mine shared the following video on Facebook, as if it were by itself a damning attack on religious belief:

I think that the research summarized in the video is fascinating, but the video’s creator commits a huge logical fallacy that really undermines its conclusion. The psychology experiments described in the video explain quite well about group dynamics and how we form opinions, but they tell us nothing about how we should react to the majority opinion of a group or how to approach the question of the truthfulness of Christianity.

The studies presented in the video generally involved situations where the study subject was presented with a situation where everyone else in the group (who, unbeknownst to the subject, are all actors and not true study subjects) expressed an opinion that clearly contradicted the study subject’s personal observation. Rather than contradict the rest of the group, the subjects would give answers that they secretly believed were wrong.

This does not perfectly replicate the real world, however. In many cases, the majority of the group will come to the right conclusion (which is probably why we evolved this cognitive bias for group conformity in the first place — probably because in many cases, it may help us arrive at the right conclusion). The internet has proven quite well that the “wisdom of the crowds” can do wonders (just look at prediction markets or Wikipedia) at coming to better answers than one person could come up with by themself.

Overcoming group bias is a great thing to strive for — but it is not useful to try to overcome group bias just for the sake of being a contrarian (which is what this video seems to advocate). The video is a great tool to remind us groups can be wrong. But it is a huge leap to then conclude that groups are usually wrong .

The video says that the answer to our tendency to conform to groups is “dissent.” The video presupposes, without providing any basis for doing so, that Christianity is false and advocates that non-believers dissent against the group to give fellow dissenters the courage to also make their true opinions known. But what if Christianity is true? What is the point of “dissent” if your group is already right?

Dissent is probably a reasonable tactic, but only after you’ve come to a valid conclusion that the group’s opinion is wrong. The first step after you learn about the problems with group dynamics and conformity is not dissent. The first step is to figure out a proper approach to epistemology. Read some basic books about the philosophy of science and some basic philosophy on epistemology. Another great book to read is The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Once you’ve nailed down some good approaches on how to know things, you will probably realize that no one can ever really be completely certain about anything. The next step after studying epistemology is to evaluate your personal beliefs and opinions and come to some conclusions about what you think is the most probable conclusion. Only then would dissent be warranted. But even after this, you need to watch out for the big problem of confirmation bias. You should thus keep an open mind and continually look out for evidence that contradicts your current beliefs. Always be willing to reject your beliefs and opinions if you find disconfirmatory evidence, or if you find new ideas or conclusions that better fit the facts.

And in all of this, remember that, as I’ve previously discussed, emotions and spiritual feelings are not a reliable guide to truth.

Aug 03 2011

Do It Yourself Genetics

Category: Brazil,Evolution,genetics,multiculturalismJames @ 5:05 pm

A new industry of direct-to-consumer genetic tests is springing up which let you get information about your ancestry and genetic traits. For Christmas, I ordered a test from 23andme. I’ve discovered interesting information about my health (such as that I am unlikely to get Parkinson’s disease when I get old) and my ancestry.

The ancestry part of it has been particularly fascinating, given my mixed ethnic background (my mom is Brazilian, and Brazil is a real melting pot of races and cultures). The first interesting thing that I discovered is that my mitochondrial DNA is from the L3 haplogroup, which means that four or five hundred years ago, my direct maternal ancestor was probably living in what is now Mozambique, and she was almost certainly brought to Brazil as a slave — it has been interesting to get little bits of information about my ancestors that I never could have known before. The 23andme data also showed that I had some indigenous ancestry as well (listed as “Asian” in 23andme’s results, but Native American DNA shows up as Asian, since Native Americans are descendants of Asians who came across the Bering Strait ).

The Dodecad Project is an online project which collects and analyzes samples of people who have done tests from places like 23andme. They have just released a tool which you can use to analyze your 23andme data to get an idea about the percentages of admixture from 12 different ancestral groups in your own genotype. It is an interesting way to get an idea about where your ancestors came from.

Here are my results from the tool:

East_European                 11.17%
West_European                42.00%
Mediterranean                  28.65%
Neo_African                    1.02%
West_Asian                     7.05%
South_Asian                    0.88%
Northeast_Asian               2.16%
Southeast_Asian               1.71%
East_African                    0.39%
Southwest_Asian              1.92%
Northwest_African           2.78%
Palaeo_African                 0.27%

As you can see, I’m mostly European / Mediterranean, with added admixture of a little bit of everything else. I wonder if the Northwest African / West Asian / Southwest Asian indicate some Moorish ancestry from my Portuguese ancestors who moved to Brazil.

I can’t wait until it is cheap enough for anyone who wants to sequence their entire genome. Until then, all of these tools are very interesting indeed.