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Correlation & Causation Pt. 1: Exploitation by Media

This is the first in a two-part series on correlation and causation, and how conflating the two can dramatically distort our perceptions and thinking.

The first part will be about the exploitation by media, and the second part will be about the related philosophical and theological “bugs” that we must work to root-out.


Let’s take a look at event patterns in the world.

When we notice, through some study, that pattern A is correlated with pattern B, what does it tell us?

  • Does it mean that A makes B more likely?
  • Does it mean that B makes A more likely?
  • Does it mean that a third pattern, C, makes both A and B more likely?
  • Or, was the coincidence of A and B simply random noise?

The sad fact is that we don’t know which of these causal possibilities (and a non-causal possibility) is actually true. This is why we say, “Correlation does not equal causation.”

It turns out, though, that the brain is very eager — dopamine stimulated — to jump to causal conclusions. Furthermore, we’re most excited at the possibility — of the above four — that is most startling and weird.

It “feels” like new revelation.

And Commercial Media Knows This

Let’s say there’s a study that correlates non-married cohabitation with a higher incidence of physical abuse. What is the most sensible, boring explanatory possibility?

The most sensible, boring explanatory possibility is that there is a third factor C — likely something to do with socio-economic status, and population density, and the cultural byproducts therefrom — that makes non-married cohabitation and physical abuse rise in tandem, without being causally related to one another with any statistical significance.

But that’s “boring.” It doesn’t sell tabloid newspapers and doesn’t serve as social clickbait.

The more “exciting” possibility is that being non-married causes abuse.

This would have us conclude, “To lower partner abuse, those partners should get married.”

Which is, of course, precisely the opposite strategy one should employ.

The problem is, again, that we love counterintuitive revelations. There’s a measured “second opinion bias” that has us feel excited about having the “privilege” of being an honest devil’s advocate. As soon as we’re tricked into thinking that some bizarre claim is merely misunderstood, or deceived into thinking it has statistical backing, its “bizarreness” becomes extra fuel to fight on its side with conviction.

Whenever you read, or hear from a friend, about a study showing some A-to-B causation, do the following in your brain:

  • Un-cause the causation. Separate the two parts into “A” and “B.”
  • Run through the four explanatory possibilities mentioned before.
  • Evaluate which possibility makes the most sense. Extra points if it’s also boring, which is a memetic weakness.

But Remember: Common Sense Isn’t Infallible

At the same time, remember that certain systems in the world really are very complex, and can yield causal relationships that are both counterintuitive and true. Common sense gets you past the exploitive headlines, but it’s no replacement for an actual, knee-deep understanding of complicated systems.

In other words, common sense isn’t “common,” but it also isn’t always “sense.”

And Remember: Studies Can Be Awesome or Crap

When I did product management for social games, one of my jobs was user experimentation and data analysis in order to make design decisions that optimized the interests of the customer and company.

The reality is this: Data is absolutely vital for getting a correlative, and ultimately causal, understanding of how the world works.

At the same time: There’s no shortage of ways to screw it up, and even maliciously fudge the data, and perhaps even get away with it. We’ve seen this happen with the “vaccines cause autism” fiasco, where an atrocious study catalyzed a tragic memetic bloom that, today, continues to threaten the health of our children.

Conclusion

I think, if we all get a healthy scrutiny against urban myths about causal claims, and fight hard for the “boring,” we’ll go a long way toward killing memetically strong falsehoods, which is necessary to optimize peace, wisdom, virtue, and charity in the world.

For more about memetics and how to avoid the value pitfalls therein, rewind to the four-part series we ran earlier this year.

 

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The Gift Game & Prudent Hermeneutics

Let’s play the Gift Game! It’s the hottest new game around.

The Gift Game tests your ability to extract the meaning of an unknown term by means of investigating the surrounding context.

But beware! The Gift Game can be sneaky, and if you’re not careful, you could end up practicing reckless hermeneutics.

Let’s begin!

– Round 1 –

guitarist1Okay. Take a look at the above passage. The Christmas gift represents a single word or phrase — used twice in the above sentence — whose meaning is unknown. You have to figure it out!

So, can you do it? Are you able to discern the contents of those gifts?

The correct move in the Gift Game, at this juncture, is to say, “I don’t know yet. I don’t have enough information.”

Okay, that round was easy. Let’s try the next one.

– Round 2 –

guitarist2Oh my! That’s an interesting addition. Does this provide us sufficient clues to “unwrap” the gift in our noggins?

Unfortunately, as might be apparent to you, we still don’t have enough information. The gift might contain “perfect,” as we Christians say that our God is perfect. But it might also just contain, “great.”

If it contained “great,” that wouldn’t mean that God lacks something. It just means that he is great. And that’s great! Lots of things are great across various metrics of measurement, finite and infinite.

– Round 3 –

guitarist3Yes, that’s more like it! Now we know that my daughter is an impeccable guitarist. Surely that means the gift contains something like “perfect” or “immaculate” or “infallible,” right?

No, I suppose not.

We’re still lacking vital information. The gift still could contain just “great.” What a challenging game the Gift Game is!

– Round 4 –

guitarist4Now we’re onto something! Given that last sentence, we now know enough to say that the gift contains something like “great” or “awesome” or “impressive.”

WE KNOW It does not contain “perfect,” because my son makes mistakes occasionally.

HOWEVER… This admission does not mean that we’re saying God is imperfect. That would be a non sequitur from the above admission.

Let’s open the gift box and see if we were right:

reveal1Excellent. “Hermeneutical Hero” achievement unlocked!

Round 5 presents us with a new set of sentences.

– Round 5 –

aion1Watch out now! Remember what we learned before. It might be tempting to rush into assuming that the gift box contains “forever,” but that’s a trick of the Gift Game. It included the third sentence so that you would jump to that conclusion.

If we’re to be prudent sleuths, we need to recognize how much we know and how much we don’t. The gift box could, for example, contain “a long time” or “the future.”

– Round 6 –

aion2

Look at that! We were right not to make our guess just yet. Now, with these new sentences, WE KNOW that the gift box does not entail “forever.” HOWEVER… we can say this even as we believe that God’s dominion will endure forever. This is because God’s dominion will also endure for a long time and into the future, two softer statements that are nonetheless true.

When we examine these sentences, it looks like each of the gift-boxes contains something that means “age-related” or “of an age” or “of ages.” We also notice that it has certain overtones of significance (as in the case of the age of Moses) and perhaps long domain (like Isaiah’s patient silence or God’s dominion).

Let’s open the box.

reveal2Congratulations! We’ve beaten the Gift Game.

The Real Gift Box

The latter gift box corresponds to a real word family we find in Scripture.

  • The Hebrew word is olam.
  • The Greek words are aion, aionios, and aionion. In the Greek Septuagint, likely the Bible with which Jesus and the Apostles were familiar, these words are often used in verses where the Hebrew was olam.

The Hermeneutical Error

There are intelligent, rational scholars today — and indeed scholars in ancient Christendom — who when confronted with Round 5 of the Gift Game, proclaimed, “The gift box contains ‘forever.'”

This is because the Gift Game’s tricky way of telling them that the life was forever, and contrasting the “life” destination with the “punishment” destination in the very same sentence.

We’ve talked about this problem before, when we covered St. Augustine’s dispute with the theology of St. Gregory of Nyssa. If you remember, St. Augustine wrote in his Enchiridion:

“Even so, if they suppose that the text applies to all men, there is no ground for them further to suppose that there can be an end [of punishment] for those of whom it is said, ‘Thus these shall go into [aionion] punishment.’ Otherwise, it can as well be thought that there will also be an end to the happiness of those of whom the antithesis was said: ‘But the righteous into [aionion] life.’”

In this case, St. Augustine — obviously an intimidating intellectual — nonetheless “lost the Gift Game.”

Here’s theologian Dr. Todd Miles, from his book, A God of Many Understandings? (emphasis mine):

“Since the biblical testimony is clear that the life granted by faith in Christ is eternal, the only possible interpretation of Matt 25:46 is that the punishment of the wicked is likewise eternal.”

Here’s pastors Dr. Francis Chan and Dr. Preston Sprinkle, from their book, Erasing Hell: What God Said About Eternity, and the Things We Made Up (emphasis mine):

“While it is true that aionios doesn’t always mean ‘everlasting,’ when used here to describe things in the ‘age to come,’ it probably does have this meaning. Think about it: Because the life in this age will never end, given the parallel, it also seems that the punishment in this age will never end.”

As you’ve seen, each of these brilliant men were nonetheless caught off-guard when it came to the Gift Game.

WE KNOW olam (and aion/aionios/aionion) does not ever mean “everlasting,” just as “great” never means “perfect,” and “broad” never means “infinite in broadness.”

HOWEVER… this fact does not imply that olam means “not-everlasting,” just as “great” doesn’t mean “not-perfect,” and “broad” doesn’t mean “limited in broadness.”

And the parallelism tells us literally nothing beyond this, just as “The great king Solomon owed his wisdom to his great God” would not imply that Solomon was perfect, or of equal greatness to God.

To win the Gift Game on olam (and the Biblical usage of aion/aionios/aionion), the answer is to stick to the only definition we can derive. If it leaves us with ambiguity, then so be it; theological quietude demands that we boldly embrace the boring ambiguity and not use it as a platform for reckless conjecture.

This is why I applaud Dr. Chan and Dr. Sprinkle for the following:

“What about the word aionios? Bible scholars have debated the meaning of this term for what seems like an eternity, so we’re not going to settle the issue here. It’s important to note that however we translate aionios, the passage still refers to punishment for the wicked… The debate about hell’s duration is much more complex than I first assumed. While I lean heavily on the side that says it is everlasting, I am not ready to claim that with complete certainty. I encourage you to continue researching, but don’t get so caught up in this debate that you miss the point of what Jesus was trying to communicate…. I believe His intention was to stir a fear in us that would cause us to take hell seriously and avoid it at all costs.”

Amen!

 

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Memetics Pt. 4: Short Towers + Secret Gnosis

In the first two videos on memetics (see schedule below), we talked about how truth — and other things we like — may not be decisive when it comes to the “spreadiness” and “stickiness” of certain ideas. In other words, “goodness” does not necessarily yield “fitness.”

In the third video, we talked about how some of the neuropsychological patterns that drive our decisionmaking can prompt and prevent virulence and resilience (“spreadiness” and “stickiness”). In that video, we focused primarily on loss aversion.

In this video, we’re going to talk about another such pattern, called secret gnosis stimulation.

secretgnosis

We’ll find out why having and enjoying “hidden knowledge” can make you feel privileged, validated, and “rooted” to your local “tower,” even if it’s not tallest. This “hidden knowledge” often takes the form of esoteric or counterintuitive claims that can be convincing when internally consistent, and/or without a competitor recognized as viable.

We’ll also discuss several specific case examples of groups of people who are rooted to false conspiracy theories. Controversial!

Secret gnosis stimulation is very effective here, too. … It gets you locked into conspiracy theories when the body of [apparent evidence for the conspiracy] is dwarfed by reality.

Schedule

 

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Memetics Pt. 3: The Short Tower Problem

In the last two videos on memetics (see schedule below), we talked about how truth — and other things we like — may not be decisive when it comes to the “spreadiness” and “stickiness” of certain ideas. In other words, “goodness” does not necessarily yield “fitness.”

But that’s not the whole picture. Vital to memetics is an understanding of how neuropsychological patterns can prompt and prevent virulence and resilience (“spreadiness” and “stickiness”).

Today, we’re going to talk about one of the most important patterns to understand — loss aversion — and how it impacts memetics.

We’ve already talked about loss aversion twice on this site:

  • In “Bibliopsychology: Why the Servant Did Nothing,” we talked about the reluctance to commit our charity, a failing against which we must fight.
  • In “Up a Tree,” we talked about a good way to think about loss aversive rooting behavior. Today’s video will echo some of these themes.

Its impact on memetics is manifold, and I think you’ll enjoy how the breakdown plays out through the story of the tower seeker.

(For those familiar with genetic algorithms, this is “local maxima” in function.)

Get out there and really investigate. I can’t believe this guy when he says, “I’m an authority,” “I’m Dr. Tower (even if he is Dr. Tower),” “They have a conspiracy”… These things might all be the case, but you are the final gatekeeper to the keep of what you believe.

Schedule

 

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Appellate Prayer, Sovereignty, and Superstition

For us Christians who believe in absolute sovereignty in the classical sense — that is, a God with an optimal predetermined plan for everything — we see appellate prayer not as a way to derail God’s plan of action, but to express ourselves and establish a conduit by which a communicative connection can be made between ourselves and God.

1 John 5:14

And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.

That is, when we pray for something in service of his will, and that thing comes to pass in startlingly, apparently significant ways, it’s not as if we think those prayers surprised or jarred God into action.

With All of Our Hearts

We who reject such a “surprising God” paradigm say instead that, by praying for something, we engage in two important Graces.

First, we’re given a release to express our tensile poverties and weaknesses.

Philippians 4:5b-7

The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Second, we’re establishing a “flagpost A,” and when the thing comes to pass as “flagpost B,” we ostensibly have communicative evidence and, as such, appellate prayer is a vital “faith-helper.”

Jeremiah 20:13, 33:3

[To the exiles in Babylon:] You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. … Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known.

1 Chronicles 16:11

Look to the Lord and his strength; seek his face always.

That’s what it means to say that God answers prayer, even while being completely sovereign (in the classical sense) and non-contingent. This is also why we echo Christ and say in our hearts to the Father, after every appeal, “Yet not my will, but yours be done.”

We temper and humble ourselves also because we know that we’re really bad at asking for what we really need

Sometimes this is due to selfishness, but other times it’s merely due to our woefully volatile and corrupt interest sets, combined with our pathetic faculties of discernment and foresight.

James 4:3,8a

You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions… Come near to God and he will come near to you.

As a result, “Flagpost B,” is very often completely unexpected, very often shrewdly timed, and very often startlingly profound, because the Spirit transforms our subpar vocalizations into secret prayers that conform to the Father’s sovereign will.

Romans 8:26-27

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.

With All of Our Minds

At the same time, if we’re to have the kind of faith that is reasonable, we have to be self-critical and temper our faith with careful scrutiny.

It’s all-too-easy to go from what we Christians consider healthy faith into destructive superstition, over-attributing every little thing to miraculous divine intervention. You’ve seen this happen when reckless Christians claim God’s miraculous stamp of approval for every decision they make, and when certain Christians, like modern-day Dr. Panglosses, arrogantly and sinfully make false prophesies about the specific reasons for natural disasters and the like.

We have all sorts of skeptic’s considerations to keep our judgments prudently humble which we must diligently employ.

  • Littlewood’s Law. Given enough time, weird stuff is bound to happen naturally and without discernible purpose. (Be careful with this one; “enough” is an ungrounded antecedent.)
  • Confirmation bias. We tend to recklessly rush to conclusions when we’d prefer them to be true.
  • Placebo. Thoughts and attitudes can have recursive psychological and physiological effects on ourselves. This isn’t inherently bad or good; there are healthy and unhealthy ways that this can affect us.

That said, there may come a threshold, in an individual’s experience, after this healthy scrutiny, at which it can be reasonable to conclude “God.”

Counterintuitively, this can be reasonable even if God doesn’t exist or doesn’t answer prayerReason (in the Kantian sense) proceeds from fully-considered experience tempered by fully-employed logic, and is not synonymous with “truth,” because an appeal is made to an individual’s corrupt faculties of observation and contemplation.

At the same time, we’re not Solipsists in practice, and so we come to conclusions given imperfect evidence. We do our best prep, then make our best guess. Relentless skepticism is not a religion, but relentless skepticism risks an opportunity cost, just like any religion.

Between Heart and Mind

Prayer is our tether to an interactive God, who is nonetheless “He Who Is Unseen.” It’s a prerequisite for reasonable faith, essential for genuine humility, and a conduit to unload our anxieties to he who is in complete control of the global situation.

But his activity is subtle and shrewd, and the wisdom underpinning it — beyond human understanding or dissection — warrants humble, diligent seeking and sifting, and not reckless prophesying.

 

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When Should We Legislate Morality?

Is it good to push what we consider “Biblical morals” into law?

The answer is often “no,” for two very important reasons:

Reason 1

When church and state are mixed, the church is corrupted by the state, and the state is corrupted by this new church.

Reason 2

“My small church disagrees with your mega-church.”

Koinodoxy is not orthodoxy; what is popular is not always right, and what is right is not always popular.

A Heuristic for Moral Legislation

It’s fine to legislate morality under the following set of conditions only:

  1. Without the law, things are (or would be) gravely harmful in terms of values near-universal to people.
  2. This harm is demonstrable (we can’t just declare the harm).
  3. The law would be demonstrably effective at fixing this problem (we can’t just assume the fix will work).
  4. The “costs” of the law and its byproducts would not outweigh its “benefits.”

It goes without saying that many Biblical proclamations would not qualify under the above conditions. Many come down to issues of discipline or scruple. Many are rooted in a bygone culture, like where braided hair was considered immodest. And many are explicitly meant only for the church.

This is why:

  • We don’t make laws against lying except under grave and demonstrable circumstances.
  • We don’t make laws against getting angry except under grave and demonstrable circumstances.
  • We don’t make laws against coveting, gossip, etc.

… even though the Bible clearly generally frowns upon lying, anger, coveting, and gossip.

Something in the world may irritate you or violate a tenet of moral propriety to which you hold. But if your first thought is, “There oughtta be a law!,” it may be a symptom of hasty prohibitionism.

Prohibitionism from Simple Thought

Many do not realize that “Is X morally wrong?” and “Should there be a law against X?” are two completely different questions.

Prohibitionism from Memetically Strong Fictions

In the heuristic above, you may have noticed that demonstrability is required at several stages. This is necessary to maintain a “sandbag wall” of careful criticism to defend ourselves against urban myths, “common sense” nonsense, and various other memetically strong fictions.

For example, did you know that in the late 19th century, American public schoolchildren — particularly in the culturally “drier” states — were taught that drinking alcohol could cause spontaneous combustion?

However ludicrous this was, memetic fiction can have a life of its own if left unchecked. Over-demonizing was one of the many factors that helped catalyze the later nationwide prohibition, which is now universally regarded as a complete disaster.

Prohibitionism from Tribal Pride

The attempt to inject religious prescriptions into state law without qualifying under the above conditions comes often from pride.

Consider pride in a hometown football team. If I love the Spearmen, I might put a “Go Spearmen!” banner in my window.

But as soon as I spraypaint “Go Spearmen!” on my neighbor’s house, I am a vandal, which is a certain brand of property thief.

spearmen

It doesn’t matter if I feel great pride in my Spearmen. I may say, “I feel that spraypainting my neighbor’s house would be standing up for my team, and expressing my support for the Spearmen.”

Unless I can demonstrate a grave harm in universal terms that would be fixed by my vandalism and that it would lack significant side-effects, my vandalism cannot be justified.

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Memetics Pt. 2: The Four Brothers (and Their Business Booths)

In the first of our four-part series on memetics, we talked about how the virulence (“spread-iness”) and resilience (“stickiness”) of ideas determines the flourishing of those ideas, even if those ideas are bad in terms of things we call “goodness,” like truth, justice, and quality of life.

This has the counterintuitive result of labeling really bad things as “fit.”

Today, we’re going to apply this to a thought experiment in which four brothers try to make their businesses successful through four different strategies.

First, we’ll meet Reilly, Murtagh, Shane, and Lochlan.

booths

Later in the video, we’ll also be introduced to a fifth (bonus!) brother, Gerrard, and see what strategy he employs, and how it works out for him.

The illustration of the brethren and their booths will demonstrate how:

… memetic action — resilience and virulence — is what matters [for flourishing]. Truth kinda goes by the wayside. Making sense can kinda go by the wayside. And if you and I care about truth and making sense — which I’m sure we do — then we’ve gotta watch out…

Schedule

 

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