Why Atheists Are Irrational

October 26, 2012

In today’s Huff Post, Psychologist Nigel Barber writes about his research on the link between material comfort and atheism. According to his data, it seems like the belief in God is stronger in poor countries where you are more likely to die young than in wealthy countries with modern health care and social welfare. The reason for this is, in Barber’s own words,

It seems that with better science, with government safety nets, better health, and longer life expectancy, there is less fear and uncertainty in people’s daily lives. As a result there is less of a need for religion to help people cope with the otherwise uncomfortable feeling that they have little control over their lives.

This seems like a plausible theory to me, although I feel Barber fails to notice what this says about atheism – that this attitude is highly situational, and for that reason also highly irrational.  If we assume that the idea that atheism is rational then the rational person would stick to it regardless of the situation. But according to Barber’s data, countries without material safety have hardly any atheists at all. This suggests that most atheists rely on external factors rather than rational thought in arriving at their atheism. In other words, they are irrational.

Another possible conclusion that can be drawn from this theory is that most atheist revert to religion when facing imminent death. There is of course no reliable data on this, but if the theory is correct, then it makes perfect sense that those who are atheist because they have a sense of safety and security will revert when these prerequisites are gone.

 

 

 

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72 Is Not Going to Be the New 30 for Honey Boo Boo – A Few Thoughts on National Character, Health, and Longevity

October 22, 2012

30 might just feel little bit like 72 for this girl…

Under the headline “Modern humans found to be fittest ever at survival, by far” Los Angeles Times recently featured an article about a study from the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, on the increase in life expectancy,

A typical Swede, for instance, is more than 100 times more likely to survive to the age 15 than a typical hunter-gatherer. And a hunter-gatherer who has reached the ripe old age of 30 is about as likely to die in the following year as the world’s champion of longevity — a 72-year-old woman in Japan.

But are Swedes and the Japanese really representative of all modern humans, or even of populations in the developed countries? I think it’s safe to say that these two people are known to have certain traits, national characters, that set them apart. Hardly anyone would argue with the claim that they are less impulsive than the average.

Research on national characters – the specific collective personality traits that distinguish on nationality from another – has proven difficult. A large study by Terracciano back in 2005 found that the national characters don’t accord with mean levels of personality traits. So is this idea just in our heads, that say the Chinese are more introverted than Americans?

Most likely not, since all research into stereotypes so far tends to find a kernel of truth in them – Jews as a group make more money, African Americans as a group are more violent etc. But personality research is almost exclusively done with self-report questionnaires. When people answer question about their own personality they relate it to other people in their own country. This means that differences between countries can be due to other factors like how socially desirable a trait is in that country or how prone a certain people are to self-enhancement, portraying themselves as better than they are. Studies have found that East Asians are not as prone to this as Westerners which could explain why Americans for instance measure higher than the Japanese on conscientiousness.

Some psychologists have tried to get around this problem by looking at how personality traits are expressed in different cultures, or to use ethos in the form of institutions that embody ideals that are typical of certain traits. But that’s all very problematic since it involves measuring the same thing in different and indirect ways.

A better way to do this (which at least I haven’t read about) is to measure actual behavior related to personality traits. Because there are traits that have universal behavioral outcomes.  Take impulsivity for instance. This trait predicts drug abuse, violent crime, traffic accidents etc in all parts of the developed world.  So if these outcomes differ according to stereotypical notions of national characters then we have some evidence that these do reflect actual personality differences between nations.

Since I haven’t come across any such research I decided to dabble a little myself, just to see if there might be anything to this. I took two measures – adult lifetime use of cannabis, and road fatalities – and combined them into a composite measure of impulsivity. The countries included are mainly those commonly thought of as impulsive, New Zealand, USA, Australia, and Denmark. I contrasted these against the two nationalities mentioned in the article, those of Sweden and Japan. So here is what I found.

Adult lifetime use of cannabis according to Wikipedia/EMCDDA: Stereotypically impulsive nations like USA 42.4 percent, New Zealand 41.9 percent , Denmark 36.5 percent, and Australia 33.5 percent. As a contrast Sweden has 12 percent and Japan a mere 1.5 percent.

Road fatalities per 100K inhabitants and year according to Wikipedia/WHO: Again looking at the stereotypically impulsive nations we have, Australia 5.7, New Zealand 8.6, USA  12.3,  Denmark 7.4,  whereas Sweden has 2.9 and Japan 3.85.

If we combine these percentages to a composite measure of impulsivity by adjusting so both measures have the same average, we find the following order with life expectancy in the second column,

USA                       50           78.2

Australia               56           81.2

New Zealand        77           80.2

Denmark               67           78.3

Sweden                 24           80.9

Japan                    17           82.7

This gives us a clear indication that nations thought of as impulsive actually have more outcomes that are known to correlate with impulsivity on the individual level. Their average level is 62.5, which is 3 times the average of Japan and Sweden combined. It’s especially striking to see the big difference between the neighbors  Denmark and Sweden that are very similar in many other ways.  And this measure of impulsivity also correlates  -0.6 to life expectancy which is quite respectable.

…but not for this one.

Although it’s not a scientific study, I believe this little exercise clearly raises the question of whether any developed country can be taken as a measure of how technological progress translates to longer life expectancies in general. It suggest that this is not the case, and that differences in personality traits between countries, often referred to as national characters are in fact real, and affect health and longevity in the same way as they do on the individual level.


Big Cities Are Not So Big Anymore Says Recent Gallup

October 9, 2012

Eagle Mountain, Utah. This, according to a recent survey by Gallup, is the place to be.

All the experts seem to agree: large cities are smarter, sexier, and definitely more productive than small cities, and much more so than rural areas where ignorant and bigoted people chew tobacco, have sex with their relatives and play the banjo. The reason why big cities are more productive is thought to be that they create more business interaction and competition. They also attract more intelligent people with their schools and universities. On top of this they provide diversity and all the cultural attractions that come with that making them the clearly best places to live. Right? Maybe not.

Gallup recently indexed different states in America after according to their future livability. And the result shows that rural states rock. All the top five, Utah, Minnesota, Colorado, Nebraska, and North Dakota are what you’d have to call rural. Largest city is Denver with just above 600K inhabitants. The states with the 10 biggest cities are not one of them in the top ten in livability. Not a single one.

So how can this be? I imagine a lot of the big city hype is just hype. Businesses compete and interact with each other all over the world these days so the geographical location means less than it may have done before the internet. While intelligent people go to university they don’t necessarily stay. And large cities attract other, less intelligent people too. Like criminals.

Large cities create diversity for sure, but that’s not always a good thing. When different social, ethnic, and religious groups live close together you don’t merely have a good exchange but also conflicts, violence, and riots. And in a small community there is probably more social support than in the city where people are coming and going and in doing so becoming strangers to each other.

This is not to say that rural areas are inherently attractive to live in. The bottom five states on the Gallup list are in fact rural – Mississippi, West Virginia, Kentucky, Nevada (well semi-rural),  and Arkansas.  So being rural or small town does not guarantee a state a high livability. Maybe it’s just a necessary but not sufficient condition?

If we compare the top and bottom five we can see some obvious differences. Besides all being rural the top five are on the average much less densely populated, the have less diversity and they have more people of European ancestry. The latter relates to the economy because it’s obvious that ethnic groups differ in how financially successful they are.  Black people make the least money so that kind of diversity will affect the economy more than say that of California which is based more on Asians, Hispanics, and Jews. That said, California (containing three of Americas ten biggest cities) is only average on the list so their nonblack diversity is no hit either.

It’s also a fact that the top five have a significantly cooler climate than the bottom five. Not sure how that would affect things, maybe less flooding and hurricanes?

But whatever the reasons, it seems the big cities aren’t so big anymore. What do you think makes a community a good place to live in?


Farmer Eaten by His Own Pigs – Why Are We Interested in the Morbid?

October 2, 2012

This little piggy went to town.

In Oregon, a 69 year old farmer named Terence Vance Gardner appears to have died a macabre and possibly suspicious death. He set out to feed the hogs, some of which weighed around 700 pounds, but didn’t come back. A few hours later his dentures and pieces of his body were found in the enclosure.

Stories like this are bound to make headlines. People love horror stories and sensationalism, and I have to confess that I’m no exception to the rule. I immediately thought that he probably would have liked to die surrounded by a big bunch of grandchildren instead. And then a little voice in my head said, maybe he did. That creepy sense of humor seems to go hand in hand with the morbid interest in other people’s misfortune.

Why don’t we shy away from these horrid tales? I guess we need them somehow – as a way to cope with life, when real horrors knock at our own door step perhaps? Or maybe it’s that our brains have been formed by evolution to be very alert to danger. The modern environment doesn’t provide that much of it giving us horror abstinence.

At any rate it’s clear that the vast majority love gruesome tales as titillation and even humor. Maybe it’s healthy to give our brains a little dose of what it’s built for but rarely encounters these days. Like having a glass of wine now and then to clear up the arteries.  It sounds cruel but then again life is cruel. We all die and become fodder for pigs or for sick jokes. It’s the circle of life : )


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