Monday 21 December 2009

Wanna bet?

Forcing a bet can work to induce rationality. Someone makes a claim you think is false, offer a bet on it. Sometimes you'll get a clean agreement on odds and terms. But sometimes folks wishing to hold on to preferred beliefs will state a sufficiently difficult list of auxiliary conditions to make the claim untestable, and consequently unbettable.

Chris Blattman, a Yale political scientist doing field work in Liberia, reports on a Liberian hunter who claimed to be able to transform into any animal.
Last Liberia trip, my survey staff tried to convince me that Liberian hunters have the power to transform themselves into animals. I bet them otherwise, and they pledged to prove it the next time I came to Liberia.

Staff excitement rose after a reader pointed out there’s a million dollar prize for proof of the supernatural.

Well here we are.

A more or less trustworthy and credible staff member says he has located someone, and promises I can meet this amazing man Saturday, where he will turn into an animal.

What animal? “Dog, hog, chimp, anything” was the text reply. And yes, he says, he has seen it himself.
Blattman then updates:
In the end, it turns out he can’t perform the full transformation in the city, only in forested regions. We offered to drive out of the city, but it seems only in his home county of Nimba can he do so. Nimba will have to wait for my next trip (we have, in fact, a project there) but you’ll forgive me if I haven’t reserved judgment.
Hey, I can fly like Superman too. But only on dates that are prime numbers and only if the wind is right.

Blattman goes on to point out some of the rather unpleasant consequences of superstitious beliefs. A fun one:
Just today a senior diplomat bemoaned a recent by-election. The popular, qualified candidate lost to a less scrupulous one whose entire campaign aimed at convincing the populace that his opponent would die from evil spirits if elected. It seems to have won him the election.
I do work on political ignorance; I should stop complaining about things in NZ and the US.

It's also more than a little worrying that Blattman's field staff, presumably among the more educated folks, are taken in by claims of mystical powers.

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