Archive for the ‘questions/challenges’ Category

Contending with Bart Ehrman

2013/04/29

This post reviews an essay in the book Contending with Christianity’s Critics, the latest installment in the Ultimate Philosophy Challenge that I undertook some time ago. This time I’m looking at Daniel Wallace’s essay “How Badly Did the Early Scribes Corrupt the New Testament?”.

I was looking forward to Daniel Wallace’s essay, because it is the first to directly address a professional skeptic whose work I’ve seen*. Wallace speaks to Bart Ehrman’s arguments for scriptural corruption – that is, the position that the texts of the Bible as we have them are not the same as those penned by the original first-century authors. He doesn’t address Jesus Interrupted (the book that opened this Challenge), but Ehrman’s earlier book, Misquoting Jesus (MJ from here on). So I had some more Ehrman to read. I didn’t mind – he’s a clear and engaging writer, and it was nice to have an excuse for a sidetrack from the apologetics.

Interestingly, the main disagreement Wallace has with Ehrman isn’t a deep split over how to approach the problem of New Testament studies. They both appeal to the same sort of evidence. They even agree on some key conclusions: of the seven major examples where Ehrman suggests important doctrinal points depend on passages that have been changed, Wallace flat-out agrees with Ehrman on three of them. (That is, Wallace agrees that the passages as we have them were not written by the original authors. He denies that this fact undermines important doctrines.) On the other points, he disagrees in highly technical ways, so that I cannot competently referee the disagreement.

What sort of differences can I evaluate?

Well, Ehrman focusses on the fact that we cannot be sure they are authentic, and Wallace focusses on the fact that we cannot be sure they are inauthentic.

Call me conciliatory, but maybe they’re both right. Maybe the original texts of the New Testament books were fairly close to what we have today. But, using evidence available to us, we cannot be certain how close, or on what points. A belief in Biblical inerrancy seems to be fatally undermined by the evidence. But it’s likely true that the original authors of the books in the New Testament believed most of the main things Christians today believe about Jesus.

The great lesson I took away from Ehrman’s book is that the evidence that has survived is undeniably altered in some places. There’s a whole lot of evidence that has not survived. (Ehrman and Wallace both talk about “patristic” writings – by early church fathers – that talk about texts we do not have any more.) What changes may have taken place without leaving a paper trail for people like Ehrman and Wallace to follow? All of the key evidence has spent most of its history in the hands of people who were hell-bent on making sure we believe one story: the now-dominant, orthodox story. It is biased evidence. Even knowing that, I’m willing to take it as probably being fairly close to the original, for the most part. But those qualifications (“probably” and “fairly close”) stand.

So much for the philosophical differences. Unfortunately, some of the content of this article is more personal. Wallace’s rhetoric leaves me with strong doubts about his inclination to be impartial. He uses the term “radical” about any view that departs from orthodox Christianity, and anyone who promotes such a view. And he distorts Ehrman’s own claims in rather easy-to-spot ways. Here is one of his main accusations (p152):

“There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament,” argues Ehrman. Elsewhere he states that the number of variants is as high as 400,000. That is true enough but by itself is misleading. Anyone who teaches NT textual criticism knows that this fact is only part of the picture and that, if left dangling in front of the reader without explanation, is a distorted view. Once it is revealed that most variants are inconsequential – involving spelling differences that cannot even be translated, articles with proper nouns, word order changes, and the like – and that only a small minority of the variants alter the meaning of the text, the whole picture begins to come into focus. Indeed, less than 1 percent of the textual variants are both meaningful and viable.

(As a side note, even before I read MJ, the math of this jumped out at me. Less than 1% of 400,000. Wallace is basically saying, “Ehrman exaggerates. There are only upwards of four thousand meaningful and viable variants in the New Testament texts.” Is that supposed to inspire my confidence?)

And here is a passage from Ehrman that gives the claim Wallace pounces on (pp10-11):

Possibly it is easiest to put it in comparative terms: there are more differences among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.

Most of these differences are completely immaterial and insignificant. A good portion of them simply show us that scribes in antiquity could spell no better than most people can today (and they didn’t even have dictionaries, let alone spell check).

Do you notice the immediate context of the line Wallace quoted above? The very next sentence completely undermines Wallace’s claim that Ehrman is alarmist in his rhetoric. Ehrman raises readers’ interest with an impressive statistic, then provides context, encouraging us not to over-interpret that statistic. Wallace claims that “Scholars bear a sacred duty not to alarm layreaders on issues where they have little understanding.” What about undermining a colleague’s credibility with selective quote-mining?

So Wallace is quite willing to use misleading rhetoric to undermine Ehrman’s credibility. But let’s return to the actual claims at hand.

I am open to the possibility that Ehrman overstates the corruption of the biblical texts. Wallace is right that Ehrman would probably sell fewer books if he put more emphasis on the uncertainty and less on the possibility that the texts are altered. On the other hand, Ehrman came to these conclusions from within an evangelical belief system. He was a believer; he learned about the texts; and the evidence forced him against his inclination to reject the inerrantist position he preferred. That gives him far more credibility as an unbiased investigator than those who believe their salvation and self-identity rely on the conclusion they defend.

The question of how unchanged our modern reconstructions of the New Testament are from their original forms is a fascinating debate from a sociological standpoint. But I think I should close by pointing out that, however this debate comes out, it doesn’t really affect the underlying question at issue in the Challenge: does a god – the Christian God or any other – actually exist? If the Greek and Hebrew texts we have today are exactly the words written by the first people to put them to paper, and if those words faithfully record the recollections of the early Christians, it would still just be a report of the beliefs of some ancient people. It would, at best, make the merest smidge of a difference in my estimate of how likely a god is, or the possibility of life after death. It would have no affect on my moral rejection of the idea of substitutiary atonement or the doctrine of infinite consequences for finite actions.

Footnote:
* Yes, a couple of the earlier essays in this book responded to Dawkins. But they were responding to Dawkins’ philosophy (an area of interest to him, but not one where he is an expert), not his science (where he is a recognized leader in his field). This essay takes on Ehrman in his home arena: New Testament studies.

Duty and futility

2013/02/02

Oh, woe is me!

Anyone who has been watching me eke through the Ultimate Philosophy Challenge (put forth by Luke Muehlhauser) over the past year and a half may have noticed that my postings have become more and more sporadic.

I could claim real-world interference with my writing, but that would be a distraction. The fact is, I am rapidly losing my motivation.

I did not undertake the challenge expecting it to change my mind. But my experience of Luke’s writing and podcasting (+here) suggested that this challenge would put in front of me the most thought-provoking apologetics, rather than the appalling works I had previously run across. I had read C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity before I had even heard of humanism and begun self-identifying as such; Lee Strobel’s Case for a Creator as I was beginning to explore things and identify as a humanist; and most recently John Blanchard’s book, Does God Believe in Atheists, which I reviewed in a series of five posts on this blog (1 2 3 4 5). Summary: apologetics in print have seemed as self-congratulatory and vacuous as the more degenerate online discussions of atheism versus Christianity (from either side).

Anyway, having appreciated and occasionally been challenged by the balance and pursuit of truth (as opposed to confirmation) that Luke exemplified, I had hopes that these authors he was pointing me to (none of whom, Christian or atheist, I had read before) would at least make me pause for thought, and perhaps puncture one or two of the more comfortable, self-satisfied conclusions I was happy to hold.

But I find that the atheist arguments are familiar and seem sound, and the apologists’ arguments are familiar and easily refuted. They set up straw men of real atheist positions, and subject their own arguments to only the flimsiest tests. I enjoy being proven right as much as the next guy, but it’s disappointing that this challenge isn’t more challenging. Is it because I actually do have the right answer already? Is it because I’m too close-minded to see the value in the opposing arguments, or the flaws in the atheist arguments? Either hypothesis is consistent with the superficial details of the experience.

 

I know that an open mind is necessary in order to grow toward truer belief. But I can’t help think of the prayer experiment I undertook with our Mormon missionary friends back in Edinburgh. They said to pray honestly for insight, I tried it, I got not message from Heaven. They said to keep trying until I got a message. But to keep asking the same question until the answer comes out the way you want is not the way to truth. So I ended that experiment. If I ever get reason to believe that it’s worth trying again, I will, but until then I have a reasonable conclusion based on honest testing.

I feel like the same thing is happening with Christian apologetics at large. I had a suspicion that there wasn’t any knock-down argument for God, based on my previous experience. I have tried out the best arguments, recommended by what seemed to me to be an open-minded, thoughtful source. And they’ve failed to stir my doubt-o-meter. Case closed?

Not quite. The problem is, I’m really just halfway through the Challenge. I still have a book by Swinburne and one by Craig to wade through, in addition to two further atheist offerings. And that’s after I finish the current book – a dense pack of essays ranging from transparently vapid to impenetrably opaque, without offering any illumination.

I can’t plead the excuse sometimes used in clinical trials – that people seem to be suffering or dying from one leg of the experiment – for halting early. I’m just really, really tired of wading through garbage philosophy, in the interest of fairly testing what is really a very low-probability hypothesis. (Christianity is only one of many popular theistic hypotheses of roughly equal prior probability; and all of them are but a subset of the domain of logically possible deistic hypothesis).

So this is my dilemma. I am engaged in an exercise that feels increasingly futile. And yet, as part of my duty to the pursuit of truth, I cannot reasonably beg off the remaining part of the exercise. So I should carry on. But, knowing that my state of mind is increasingly opposed to the whole endeavour, I’m not sure I can claim to be fairly evaluating the ideas I’m coming across.

I’m tempted to leave off – take an indefinite hiatus. But that isn’t really a solution is it? It’s just an escape.

I’m tempted to just skim through the remaining books. But that isn’t really an honest fulfilment of my original resolution to fairly examine the claims.

I’m honestly puzzled here. I think I’m procrastinating toward the hiatus solution by default. There’s always something more interesting to do/read/whatever than this. Perhaps I should skip to the next book (an atheist collection – perhaps a bit more palatable), to help get back in the mood for the project.

What do you do when you have a task that (a) has no deadline or external pressure to finish, (b) feels futile or pointless, but (c) you feel some sense of duty or responsibility to complete? Have any of you undertaken this challenge or something similar? How did you overcome (or succumb to) the hurdles you encountered?

Do you have any insight that would let me see the problem in a different light, perhaps resolve the dilemma more easily?

Evolving Free Will

2012/08/25

Usually, when arguing a point of religious philosophy, a writer will offer some premises and then argue that they support a particular conclusion. And often, especially with the theistic philosophers, the premises themselves fall apart when I look at them. So I dismiss the argument and move on.

But I have discovered something interesting while reading through offerings in the Ultimate Challenge. I’ve discovered that, even if I provisionally accept the premises, I can have fun with the argument. It doesn’t always have to go the way the original writer takes it. In keeping with my naturally inquisitive character, I thought I’d try articulating one or two of these byways.

The first was inspired by Greg Ganssle’s use of libertarian free will as “evidence” for theism over naturalism. Here is the basic structure of the argument:

Premise 1: Libertarian freedom exists.

Premise 2: Libertarian freedom is more compatible with theism than naturalism.

Conclusion: All else being equal, we should prefer theism over atheism.

Now, Premise 1 is easily dismissed as unproven. In fact, I suspect it is unprovable. So the conclusion collapses without even looking at Premise 2. But let’s see what we can do with Premise 2 anyway, shall we?

Anatomy of the premise

First, I think Premise 1 entails two further premises:

Premise 1a: There is a freedom ether - some realm or substance that can carries or bestows libertarian free will.

Premise 1b: There is some means by which a physical human being could access the freedom ether, thus becoming able to act without being fully caused to act.

If we take these as given, do we need to accept Premise 2? Well, a Christian creator god could be expected to plug humans into the freedom ether (provided it isn’t a Calvinist god). But we haven’t yet looked at what to expect from a naturalistic perspective.

So, as a naturalist, what would I expect from a universe that (1a) contained a freedom ether and (1b) had some means for humans to connect to it?

Well, it seems to me that the capacity to do an end-run around the clockwork universe would provide a selective advantage – one that would be stronger the more complex an organism’s brain is (so that it could evaluate the different options in its “choose-your-own-adventure” universe). So, if the means referred to in Premise 1b is something that could be acquired by genetic variation, we should positively expect evolution to plug humans into libertarian free will, sooner or later.

Now the whole question now looks slightly different. Given premises 1a and 1b, which seems more likely: that an all-powerful god exists that is inclined to grant its creatures libertarian free will, or that the means exist for evolution to grant humans libertarian free will?

Oh, I don’t really know which is more likely. In all this, I have been studiously ignoring the various metaphysical problems I have with the very idea of libertarian free will. But I think this line of argument casts considerable doubt on what Ganssle (and probably others) seem to think is a clear path from libertarian free will to theism.

And it was a fun thought experiment to try out.

Help computers sound more human!

2012/06/01

The annual Blizzard challenge has been launched. This isn’t some crazed track-meet for mad-scientist climatology. It is a competition – a sort of annual standardized test – for speech synthesis systems.

I could gabble on about speech synthesis and the exciting progress that is being made in the underlying technology, to help computers sound more natural and human-like. But I don’t want to bore you. (If you want a post on that, leave a comment. If I get any interest, I’ll post something.)

I think I’ll just mention that, aside from having a less grating voice in automated phone systems and whatnot, high-quality synthesis may be a real help for people with severe disabilities. You are likely familiar with Stephen Hawking, rock-star physicist and mathematician. You probably also know that he is wheelchair-bound and uses a computer to talk, due to a degenerative neural disorder.

He and many others, old and young, rely on computers to give their thoughts a voice. The better we get at producing human-like speech with computers, the more naturally these people will be able to interact with each other and with those of us who take fluent speech for granted.

So, I invite you to help make speech synthesis better. Your role in the Blizzard challenge is to rate the synthetic speech generated by the systems that have been entered in the contest. Just go here to start. (If you are a speech expert – such as a phonetician or speech technologist – then you need to use this link instead. It’s well-established that studying speech alters your perceptions in important ways. The task is the same, but the data will be analysed separately.)

Have fun!

 

Maybe I’m missing something here.

2012/03/01

“Mommy! John said I like tomatoes!”

“Do you like tomatoes, Tim?”

“No. But he said I did!”

“Well, nobody believes him. Just ignore him – he’s only wasting his own breath.”

“But he keeps saying it!”

“I know, sweetie. And if you ignore him, he will keep wasting his own breath.”

Kids are so strange – I’m sure many parents have had to deal with similarly bizarre claims of injury to one child by another. Fortunately, they tend to grow out of such things as they grow up, and learn a little perspective. Usually …

Several Jewish organizations and individuals are upset that some Mormon individuals continue to perform (remote) baptisms of dead people – including Jews who died in the Holocaust. They seem to see it as an intolerable attack on the religious identity of the dead. (CBC, BBC)

Maybe I’m missing something here. The Jews don’t believe the Mormons have any actual access to the spirits of dead Jews; the Mormons are not doing anything to the physical remains of people; and the historical record remains unchanged. What exactly is the nature of the injury?

The Jews do not believe the Mormons have special access to God’s will or the souls of dead people. (If they did, I would think they’d call themselves “Mormons” rather than “Jews”.) So they don’t think the Mormons are actually stealing their loved ones’ souls for their non-Jewish god. Besides, even if they believed, the Mormon posthumous baptism is an invitation, not an initiation. According to Mormon belief, the soul of the deceased can accept or reject the baptism as they choose. So even if you believe there is something to Mormon posthumous baptism, the deceased is, at worst, voluntarily converting.

The baptisms are performed in absentia – a volunteer from the church stands in for the person being baptized. So no violation of physical remains is taking place.

The only evidence that anything happened is in the LDS records; so there is no chance that the historical records of people’s identity, or of the numbers of Jews that died in the Holocaust, will be distorted by these actions.

So all we’re left with is that the Mormons are performing rites in the privacy of their own homes and temples that express their belief that Joseph Smith’s revelation was a genuine message from God, and that all other religious messages are inferior.

So how is that any worse than, you know, being Mormon? How is it (for example) any more religiously insensitive than the orthodox Jewish prayer thanking their god for not making them a gentile? (Or, to be nice and ecumenical, is it any different from the traditional Catholic prayer for their god to convert the Jews?)

I just don’t get it.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not surprised at the outrage. After all, I’m accustomed to hearing people complain that atheists are “militant” because they lay out, clearly and without apology, their reasons for not believing in any gods, and because they wish to live in a society where they are not treated as second-class because of their personal beliefs. The Jews are understandably sensitive about their religious identity.

It’s rather insensitive of the Mormons conducting these baptisms to publicize them in such a way that Jews can learn about them. (Yes, if they did them in private without telling anyone, I would see no problem beyond the fact that they’re expending energy on false beliefs.) And it should be remembered that Jews aren’t being singled out. Various others, from Adolf Hitler (and family) to Obama’s mom, have also been named in this ritual. This doesn’t make the practice less offensive, but it does suggest at least that anti-Semitism is not a motive.

So, to sum up my understanding: Nobody – real or imaginary, living or dead – is being coerced into anything by these “baptisms”. Nobody except the Mormons themselves believes that the dead are in any way affected by the baptisms. No physical remains are disturbed. No historical record is being altered.

Why is it that so many Jews think this is worth shouting about?

Please let me know what I’m missing.

A new challenge

2011/06/13

Luke Muehlhauser, over at Common Sense Atheism, set a challenge early last year: The Ultimate Truth-Seeker Challenge. He challenges his readers to read several books discussing two worldviews: Christian theism, and atheism. About ten thousand pages of (primarily) philosophical arguments, divided roughly equally between those defending Christianity and those defending atheism. These are the best presentations, in Luke’s opinion, of the two sides.

It is an admirable undertaking, but far beyond my ambitions as a casual philosopher, both in the level of some of the books, and the sheer volume.

Never fear! A couple of months later, Luke came out with an abridged version of the challenge.

The basic idea (in either version of the challenge) is to encourage people to challenge themselves to read the best arguments for an opposing worldview to the one they currently hold.

This sort of activity appeals to Deena and me. Similar reasons have, in the past, led us to check out Christianity Explored at a local church in Edinburgh, to attend a philosophy book group organized under the Humanist Society of Scotland, to become involved through the student humanist group with the Chaplaincy Centre at the university there, and to invite Mormon missionaries into our home for a series of discussions.

So, starting late last spring, we began working our way slowly through the more manageable list of eight books – four apologetic, four atheistic.

We’re going slowly. At times I’ve been tempted to give up, for various reasons. I may tell you more about that in a later post.

For now, I just want to lay out the situation.

As I write this, we are working our way through the fourth book, a collection of apologetic essays. Going in to this exercise, I would say that I held three main positions that are relevant to the question being debated in these books:

  1. I was a negative atheist. By this I mean that I was unconvinced by existing arguments purporting to demonstrate or support the existence of any god. I was not particularly convinced by (or committed to) definite claims about the non-existence of a god.
  2. I was an enchanted naturalist. A naturalist in that I thought that everything that exists (ie, interacts causally with the world I experience) is natural (as opposed to supernatural). This is also known as physicalism. Enchanted because I think the universe presented to human experience through the naturalist lens is beautiful and exciting.
  3. I took all religious beliefs, systems, dogmas, etc. to be products of human minds – through wishful thinking, hyperactive agency detection, pareidolia, misunderstanding of probability, political and social pressures to conform, a desire to externally codify innate moral sense, etc.

I don’t want my use of the past tense in that list to suggest that I no longer hold those positions. I just mean that, at that time, those were my positions, as closely as I can remember. When we’re done the challenge, I’ll check my state of beliefs and see if any of these points has shifted appreciably.

So, next up, I will start posting my reviews of the books we have read. I won’t necessarily do a point-by-point philosophical analysis, but I do want to share my overall impressions, as well as any belief-shift that each book occasions. Of course, there will be individual points that I’ll want to discuss in more detail.

Here are the eight books, as Luke presents them:

And here it is, my Ultimate Truth-Seeker Challenge (Easy Version):

  1. Bart Ehrman – Jesus, Interrupted (304 pages). A leading Biblical scholar explains the basic facts of Biblical scholarship, and why they undermine conservative Christian views.
  2. C. Stephan Layman – Letters to Doubting Thomas (240 pages). Presented as a series of letters between a Christian and an atheist, this book presents a case for God not based on the usual arguments but on why God is the ‘best explanation’ for the way things are. A careful and respectable case for God’s existence.
  3. Guy P. Harrison – 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God (354 pages). Each brief chapter explains one of the 50 most common reasons people give for believing in a god, and summarizes why skeptics are not persuaded by that reason.
  4. Paul Copan & others – Contending with Christianity’s Critics (304 pages). Eighteen major apologists respond to the New Atheists and other contemporary critics of Christianity.
  5. John Loftus & others – The Christian Delusion (385 pages). Michael Martin writes: “Using sociological, biblical, scientific, historical, philosophical, theological and ethical criticisms, this book completely destroys Christianity.”
  6. William Lane Craig – Reasonable Faith (416 pages). A leading Christian philosopher’s defense of theism and Christian doctrine, with all the standard philosophical and historical arguments.
  7. Richard Swinburne – Is There a God? (144 pages). Many philosophers think Richard Swinburne has given the best evidential case for God ever conceived. This slim and attractive book is Swinburne’s own attempt to make his arguments accessible to the layman.
  8. Richard Carrier – Sense and Goodness Without God (444 pages). A comprehensive case not just for atheism but for a full, enriching, purposeful, and moral naturalistic worldview.

I will begin soon with a discussion of Bart Ehrman’s book Jesus, Interrupted, which is in the “atheist” category. In the meantime, I’m curious what people think of Luke’s list. If you’re interested, don’t forget to head over to his blog to see the discussion of the books there.

As I post my reviews, I will link to them from here:

[Added 2013 April 24:]

For those who are still following along, you may have noticed one or two sidetracks – not exactly reviews of the texts above, but lines of thought clearly connected with them. I’ll keep a list here for anyone interested:
  • Evolving Free Will – Inspired by an assertion in one of the essays in Contending with Christianity’s Critics. This post looks at how we might expect evolution to interact with libertarian free will, if such a thing were possible.
  • The precariousness of libertarian free will – I reflect on the main reasons why I take a compatibilist approach to free will. (Sort of connected with the previous item.)
  • Duty and futility – In which I ponder the value of carrying on once it has become clear that the Christian apologists in the series are largely leaning on the same tired old arguments.

And, just for completeness, here are some books I have picked up as a result of issues raised in the Challenge:

  • Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman. I picked this book up so I could more fully evaluate the claims made by Daniel Wallace in his essay from the fourth book in the series. (Wallace’s essay is about this book, not Ehrman’s other book, Jesus, Interrupted, which began this Challenge.)
  • Proving History by Richard Carrier. This book I wanted to read because it addresses historical claims from a Bayesian perspective. (Ultimately, in a follow-up volume, it aims to address questions of this historicity of Jesus.) Bayesian reasoning is a mathematically rigorous way of determining the probabilities of claims (how credible we should think they are) based on evidence available to us.

Exploring language

2010/12/20

Thanks to Steve Novella of the Neurologica blog, I have discovered a new toy to play with: the Google Ngram Viewer. I’d like to share it with you, and encourage you to play as well.

You may have heard of all the books that Google has been digitizing for their Google Books project. (It caused some stir among publishers and writers – it seems to have been sorted out now.) Well, the Ngram Viewer is a very Google-esque* way of looking at word count statistics from that huge collection of books.

Let’s say you’re curious about the relative popularity of two words – say, “humanist” and “atheist“. Well, you enter them as search terms, and voila:

humanist/atheist unigram graph, 1800 to 2000

Relative frequencies of "humanist" and "atheist" in the Google Books corpus, from 1800 to 2000.

We can watch the relative frequencies of these words over time. Unexpectedly (to me at least), we see “humanist” (blue) overtake “atheist” (red) during the first half of the twentieth century, following a couple of decades (20s and 30s) tracking together.  I’ll leave it up to readers to try to infer the reason for this inversion.

The term “n-gram” (yes, pronounced the same as “engram”, but there’s no connection to neuropsychology or Scientology) is used in corpus-based linguistics to denote sequences of words. A unigram is a sequence of 1 word; in the graph above, we compare the frequencies of two unigrams (relative to the total number of unigrams in the corpus). A bigram is a sequence of 2 words. Trigram: 3 words. From there on, it is common just to use the number: 4-gram, 5-gram, etc.

One more unigram comparison that I thought was interesting: function words. Check out this graph comparing “the”, “and”, “of”, “for”, “a”:

Unigram frequencies for selected function words, 1800 to 2000.

Unigram frequencies of "the", "of", "and", "a", "for", from 1800 to 2000.

What is interesting here is that the relative (and even the absolute) frequencies show very little change over two centuries. Think about all of the change in the language that those two centuries represent – from shortly after the founding of America to around the time of the latest millennial fever. And these five words have shown such amazing constancy. Sure, there is some change, but compare those to the changes in other graphs, and the difference is clear.

So, let’s check out a bigram comparison. Here’s a chart of “national debt” and “social security”:

Bigram frequencies for "national debt" and "social security"

Bigram frequencies for "national debt" and "social security" from 1800 to 2000.

I’m no political scientist, but it looks like interest in social security leaped onto the scene in the late 30s, and has been slowly climbing ever since, while talk about national debt (in the English-speaking world) has steadily declined basically since the earliest samples in this corpus.

I could go on all day about this, but I’d rather leave it to you now. Before you take off to do your own informal surveys of this delicious data repository, let me offer a couple of caveats.

First, the numbers are only as reliable as the sources. What are the sources? Google gives some information on this. They note some sources of error; they also acknowledge some inherent biases. For example, there are more computer books in recent years than in the 1800s. Whether this is a problem or not depends on the sort of question you’re asking, and how you are interpreting it.

Second, there are different numbers of books in different time periods. They actually go back as far as 1500, but you get problems when, say, a particular year only has one book published. (Check out the results for that nice constant graph of function words, if you go back to 1500.)

Third, always always keep in mind what it is that you’re measuring. These graphs do not measure belief (search “bigfoot, ufo, unicorn“). They do not measure popularity or approval (search “murder, charity“, or the “national debt, social security” illustration above). They simply measure how often people mention the words (or bigrams, trigrams, etc) in published books. (Periodicals are excluded.)

Having said that, it is still a delightful way to while away a day. If you’re stuck for ideas, here are a couple of classic sources of interesting patterns:**

  • What are the relative frequencies of different number words? Is there anything systematic here? Any surprises?
  • What are the relative frequencies of gender-marked pronouns (“he, she”, for example)? How about gender-marked nouns (“man, woman”)?***

Have fun, my merry scientists!

Footnotes:

* Google-esque: powerful, easy to use, with the potential to distract me from real work with its endless possibilities to explore.

** Before doing any search, see if you can guess what the results will be. Form a hypothesis, give a reason for your expectation. If the results agree with your expectation, congratulations! If not, see if you can explain why. Does this new explanation generate predictions about some other word frequency pattern that you could now test?

*** There is at least one pair of gender-marked nouns that seems to reverse the general trend. Can you find them? Why would they be different?

Not about gun licensing

2009/10/27
The following is the near-verbatim contents of a letter I recently received. It has been redacted for the privacy of the individuals involved, and cunningly revised. Can you tell what the letter was actually about? (Note: this is an issue that affects British people, and those in some other countries. It will be unfamiliar to Canadians and Americans.) Can you tell what bothers me about it?

WARNING: THIS PROPERTY IS UNLICENSED

To the Legal Occupier,

We’re writing to inform you that we have authorised Enforcement Officers to visit your home. If they find evidence that you own a firearm illegally, they can take your statement under caution in accordance with the relevant criminal law.

We are taking this step because:

  • According to our records, there is no Firearm Licence for this address
  • You must have a Firearm Licence to own a firearm
  • We have tried to contact you about this, but have received no reply

An enforcement visit is the first step in our action to seek prosecution. Please be aware that should your case go to court, your statement can be used as evidence. The maximum penalty is a fine of £XXXX. We take this offence extremely seriously, and catch around 1,000 evaders every day.

We strongly advise that you act to stop our investigation by buying a Firearm Licence. You can do this in minutes by visiting http://www.firearmlicensing.co.uk or by calling 08XX XXX XXXX. A licence costs £XXX.XX for a rifle and £XXX.XX for a pistol.

Yours faithfully,

XXXXXX XXXXXX
Regional Manager
Scotland East Enforcement Team

If you have recently moved home, please transfer your old Firearm Licence to your new address. You can do this at http://www.firearmlicensing.co.uk/moving or by calling 08XX XXX XXXX. Please have your Firearm Licence number to hand.

If you don’t have a firearm, please let us know by calling 08XX XXX XXXX.

How to Pay:

  • Visit http://www.firearmlicensing.co.uk to pay by Direct Debit, debit card or credit card.
  • Call 08XX XXX XXXX to pay by Direct Debit, debit card or credit card
  • Go to any PayPoint outlet to pay by cash or debit card.
  • More ways to pay are listed overleaf.

Overleaf, it is finally mentioned that if you, in fact, don’t have a firearm, you can let them know. They will then verify the situation. People who are deemed unable to use a firearm because of infirmity can get a reduced rate or a free licence, depending on circumstances. Payment details and a change of address form take up most of the back side.

Logic puzzles

2009/10/11

My online gaming world just got much more interesting.

And much more geeky.

I’ve learned about The Hardest Logic Puzzle Ever. Awesome.

And, in the same vein (but less superlative), here’s a site full of Knights and Knaves puzzles (Knights can only tell the truth, Knaves can only lie, and you can only ask yes-no questions. Can you tell which is which?)

Here’s another logic puzzle site I frequent. It doesn’t have story-based puzzles, but it does have plenty of sudokus and other interesting grid-based logic puzzles.

(Thanks to commenter Berenike for pointing me to Agent Intellect, who links to the above games here. Agent Intellect’s blog is intriguing in its own right too.)

I have an idea …

2009/10/07

At work, I recently came across an amazing resource: CiteULike. It’s a free website where you can build up a list of citations. I use it to manage the long list of papers and books I read and cite as a researcher. I can label citations, like I label blog entries on this site, according to common themes.

It also has social features: sharing citations between users, getting automated recommendations based on common research interests. And there are Groups.

Which gives me an idea.

There are loads of skeptical blogs out there. There are the science-based parenting folks (such as SBP themselves, Rational Moms), the science-based medicine gang (SBM, Ben Goldacre, etc), and of course the general skeptics (Bruce Hood, Massimo Pigliucci, Richard Wiseman, and loads more).

These blogs often bring up new or interesting research that bears on our lives – as parents, as users (and taxpaying supporters) of health care, and just as people trying to navigate the modern world. But finding a particular study that I remember reading about on some skeptical blog can be a real pain.

So it occurs to me – why not set up a group, or a set of groups, on CiteULike, where skeptics could post scientific articles of interest to the community? You can put notes on each article – for example, pointing to reviews on skeptical blogs. You can talk about the articles (and the body of evidence around given topics, like acupuncture or spanking) in forums. You can associate informative tags with articles. Or you can simply hang out and see what other people have dug up. The resource could be used by bloggers who like to check original research, and also by skeptical consumers of new and traditional media claims.

It’s not something I can do on my own. I don’t have the time or the expertise to dig up all the relevant papers.

So this is a call to all you skeptics out there who have a little bit of time or expertise. Are you willing to help get things started?

I’ve taken the first step: I’ve created a CiteULike group, Skeptical Parenting, to pilot this idea. I chose parenting partly because that’s where I am closest to having some substantive expertise, and partly because my second child is due to arrive any day now.

The next step is up to you. Here is what I ask of anyone who is interested:

  • Join me as a member of the group, or start another group. “Paranormal Research”, “Science-Based Medicine Users” – whatever you’re most into as a skeptic. If you start another group, let us know in the comments here. (Do a search on CiteULike before starting the group to make sure someone hasn’t already started one.)
  • Blog about this yourself – not many people read my blog, but some of you have very widely-read blogs. The more people read about this idea, the sooner we’ll reach a sustainable number of participants.
  • Tell your friends. We don’t all have blogs, but we all have skeptical acquaintances on- and off-line that we can share cool new ideas with.
  • Comment here, so I know that I’m not just talking to myself.

I think we could build this into a really valuable resource. What do you think?


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