Monday, 17 December 2012

Coins, Astrology, Pseudomedicine and Gun Control

You can try this at home!

I have just tossed a coin ten times. I got three heads and seven tails. Should I assume that this coin has a probability of 0.7 for tails and 0.3 for heads? Let's see.

That sample of ten times was one of a hundred such samples that I recorded when tossing the same coin 1000 times. Taken as a whole, I had 503 heads and 497 tails, giving a probability (to two significant figures) of 0.50 for each possible outcome. What should I assume now? That the other 900 trials were flawed, or that my penny has a statistically equal probability of heads or tails?

I suggest that reasonable people will assume that the cherry-picked ten times was a normal statistical "blip" and that the coin is, in fact, "fair".

Apologists for pseudomedicine, which include the present Secretary of State for Health, eschew the same reasoning when it comes to clinical trials. They focus on the equivalent of the trial that gave seven tails and proclaim that "some trials show that homoeopathy [or antidepressants, or some other pseudomedicine] works better than placebo".  Somehow they refuse to acknowledge that it is the totality of trials -- the thousand coin-tosses -- that must be taken into account, not just the few subsets that show a balance in favour of their pet species of pseudomedicine.

Similarly, those who subscribe to belief systems like astrology systematically ignore the many trials that demonstrate that, as a predictive or descriptive tool, it is no better than random chance and, instead, focus on those whose statistical-blip outcomes favoured the belief system.

So why do  so many otherwise intelligent people seem reluctant to apply the same reasoning to beliefs like astrology or the efficacy of pseudomedicine as they effortlessly do to coins?

The short answer is confirmation bias, probably reinforced by backfire effect. The unfortunate consequence is that those of us who are open to rational argument are unlikely to ever be able to convince those that are not.

Unfortunately, this also feeds into things like arguments for gun control, so it is unlikely that the recent appalling events in Connecticut will do anything other than polarise opinion even further.

And, following this argument to its rational conclusion, why did I even bother even to write this blog post?

I would be delighted to be shown to be wrong.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Sex, Marriage and Religious Privilege

Preface: I am not gay. I am married, but we would have much preferred to have had a civil partnership, had it been available to us: the institution of marriage, with its implied subservience, is not something I naturally support. Although I do not support it, I find it utterly abhorrent that some religious people are trying to impose their dogmas on some of those who do support it.

Last week, Cardinal Keith O'Brien characterised plans for same-sex marriage as "grotesque" and asserted that they would "redefine" marriage. Yesterday, Roman Catholic congregations in Britain were read a letter written by Archbishops Vincent Nichols and Peter Smith. This letter tells Catholics that changing the nature of marriage (so as to include same-sex marriage) would be a "profoundly radical step". If it is "radical" for the Roman Catholic Church to afford equality to all, then I have to agree: as with most, if not all, Abrahamic religions, the Roman Catholic Church has a long and ignoble history of maintaining privilege by reinforcing inequality. However, what is truly grotesque here is not, as O'Brien insists, same-sex marriage, but the Christian Churches' attempts to impose their dogma on others and to ignore and rewrite their own history where marriage is concerned.

If one refers to the Christian guide-book, it opposes both marriage and sex between people of opposite sexes: the first Pope taught, in his first letter to the Corinthians,
"It is good for a man not to touch a woman. (...) For I would that all men were even as I myself. But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that. I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I."
(1 Corinthians 7: 1,7&8)
Roman Catholics, of course, hold the Pope to be infallible, so presumably they should still endorse this. However, it is also clear that Roman Catholics don't really hold Popes to be infallible and that, when it is convenient for them to do so, Popes will utter things that are contradictory to previous papal utterances.

Marriage is a case in point:  O'Brien hypocritically complains that the plans for same-sex marriage would "redefine" marriage, conveniently ignoring the fact that the Roman Catholic Church has redefined it whenever it has suited it to do so for millennia. It wasn't until the 1215 that marriage became regarded as a Christian sacrament. Prior to the Council of Trent (1543), the presence of a priest at a marriage was not required: all that was necessary was that the couple declared, "I marry you." The function of the Church was primarily to register marriages. It was a catechism issued subsequent (1566) to the Council of Trent that first declared that marriage was
"The conjugal union of man and woman, contracted between two qualified persons, which obliges them to live together throughout life,"
and required that a priest officiate at the marriage ceremony. The Roman Catholics did a major redefinition of marriage in 1962 at the Second Vatican Council. To the procreative purpose of marriage, it added the unitive purpose, in which it asserted that sex was good if it promoted love and friendship between the participants.

Since the Christianisation of Britain in the 4th Century CE, marriage has become part of canon law so, in that sense at least, the Church did "own" it. However, whilst it is true that, prior to the Marriage Act of 1753, an Anglican priest had to be present at a wedding ceremony for a marriage to be considered legal, it was not mandatory for banns to be called, a marriage license issued, or even for the wedding to occur in a church. The 1753 Act was introduced primarily to put an end to clandestine (aka "Fleet") marriages and was largely concerned with legitimacy of property inheritance. In reality and practice, unpropertied people took a far more casual attitude to marriage. The Marriage Act of 1836 reintroduced the notion of a civil marriage (which was first available in England in the 1650s during the Republic), largely in order to circumvent an anomaly in the 1753 Act, in which Hindus, Muslims, atheists and Roman Catholics (but not Jews and Quakers, who were exempt) had to be married with an Anglican ceremony. In this context, it is fair to say that the Church has not "owned" marriage for the last century and three quarters.

Other arguments wheeled out against same-sex marriage include "tradition". Prior to the Roman invasion, the "tradition" included polyandry and polygamy (the latter is, of course, also promoted in the Old Testament). At least as late as the 13th Century, marriage was essentially a business arrangement, largely centred around maintaining and combining wealth within families. Under Norman rule, the Church and the Norman authorities worked together to promote marriage; the authorities promoted it with respect to ensuring that land inheritance passed through legitimate lines of descent, and the Church promoted it as part of its obsession with controlling sexuality. Until relatively recently it was "tradition" in Britain that a woman was her husband's chattel and that she must obey him. Perhaps the Christians want us to go back to that as well, on the grounds of not undermining what the Bible says? "Tradition" has long been used as an argument to maintain privilege; one would hope that, in a civilised society, traditions that discriminate against people on the grounds of race or gender will be considered to be obviously outdated and inappropriate. Similarly, one would hope that traditions of discriminating on the grounds of sexual preference would be similarly viewed.

Christianity has, like so many other religions, a tradition of trying to exercise control over sexuality. The reproductive urge, and hence sex, is fundamental to the continued existence of the species, which is why it is such a powerful urge. By turning many normal sexual practices into sins, it produces feelings of guilt for these "sins" that it is inevitable that many will commit and which, according to its doctrines, only it can forgive. It's a cynical, yet powerful, ploy to exercise control. The issue here for O'Brien and his like is not really anything to do with matrimonial tradition or redefinition of marriage; as we have seen, his sect is has been willing to redefine marriage whenever it has suited it to do so. It is a matter of trying to stem the gradual erosion of the privileged position that religion in general and Christianity in particular enjoys in Britain.