Saturday 25 December 2010

Merry Christmas

Andrew Gelman channels Bryan Caplan:
From the Gallup Poll:
Four in 10 Americans, slightly fewer today than in years past, believe God created humans in their present form about 10,000 years ago.
They've been asking the question since 1982 and it's been pretty steady at 45%, so in some sense this is good news! (I'm saying this under the completely unsupported belief that it's better for people to believe truths than falsehoods.)

One way to think of this is that, for the overwhelming majority of people, a personal belief in young-earth creationism (or whatever you want to call it) is costless. Or, to put it another way, the discomfort involved in holding a belief that contradicts everything you were taught in school is greater than the discomfort involved in holding a belief that seems to contradict your religious values (keeping in mind that, even among those who report attending church seldom or never, a quarter of these people agree that "God created humans in their present form about 10,000 years ago").
I especially like the link between Caplan's theory of rational irrationality and religion; Caplan's presenting his theory at GMU back in 1999 is what broke what deism remained in me.

Caplan argues that when a belief is personally costless, folks will hold whatever belief feels good. Since no individual voter is decisive or has any chance of changing any economic outcome, they can hold severely mistaken views about how the economy works. In aggregate, this does harm. But no individual has incentive to change their beliefs. If any one of them were to be put into a decisive environment, like having to trade a futures contract on unemployment conditional on changes in the minimum wage, they'd take some time to reassess their position. But in a consequence-free environment, why bother? And especially when social pressure towards conformity with existing prejudices might make disagreement costly.

The parallels to my own take on religion were pretty obvious. Was it a belief that felt good? Check. Did I adjust the constraints of the belief when faced with changes in the costs of those beliefs? Check. Did I have any evidence at all that the belief was true? Nope.

How could I fault the faith-based beliefs of others about economics if I didn't at least try for rationality where I could among my own beliefs?

Ricky Gervais's holiday greeting is also very nice.

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