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Evolution and the 'Wisdom of Crowds' 804

Posted by CowboyNeal
from the better-and-better dept.
An anonymous reader writes "An essay by a developer of recommendation systems makes a case for why so many people have trouble grasping Darwin's theory of evolution. Downplaying its conflict with religion, the essay suggests that evolution is in a specific class of "equilibrium seeking" concepts that tend to be extremely counterintuitive to most people. The hypothesis is supported by the observation that so many people reject the notion that evolution-like systems such as Wikipedia, prediction markets, and recommendation systems can actually be effective. Particularly fascinating is the description of his surprisingly simple algorithm for competing in the Netflix prize contest."
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Evolution and the 'Wisdom of Crowds'

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  • Eh. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Desipis (775282) on Friday October 19, 2007 @05:54AM (#21038571)
    The hypothesis is supported by the observation that so many people reject the notion that evolution-like systems such as Wikipedia, prediction markets, and recommendation systems can actually be effective.

    While there may be many that reject that these systems can be effective at all, I'd suggest that there's many more that would actual argue that while these systems do work, they aren't necessarily the best or only method that is effective.
  • "Wisdom Of Crowds" (Score:3, Insightful)

    by mastershake_phd (1050150) on Friday October 19, 2007 @05:56AM (#21038587) Homepage
    The "Wisdom Of Crowds" put George W Bush in power, twice. Had Americans believing Saddam caused 9/11 and was a threat. Then of course there is religion..
  • by jacquesm (154384) <j@NOsPAm.ww.com> on Friday October 19, 2007 @06:02AM (#21038621) Homepage
    Is a great theoretical concept, but unfortunately it only makes sense in the context of assuming that everybody really thinks for themselves. As soon as the media enter into the equation the crowd becomes as manipulatable as the most stupid upper limit that can still be sold a bill of goods. If that's > 50% then the equation no longer holds, no matter how much the rest invests in staying educated. You'd almost have to filter out media bias somehow because otherwise anybody with an agenda and some money to burn will come out on top. Witness politics, marketing of unnecssary goods and services and so on.
  • Bad analogy? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by IkeTo (27776) on Friday October 19, 2007 @06:15AM (#21038679)
    > Comparing it to evolution, an edit of Wikipedia might be considered equivalent to a genetic mutation. A
    > mutation, of course, is non-directed...that is, "random." It could be bad or good, but most of the time
    > it is bad.

    IMNSHO this is simply untrue. If this is true Wikipedia is dead for long: it never keeps a large, visible "pool" of "genes" (different version of the same article) that the "nature" (viewing public) can "select", and the "nature" simply is too busy to "select" them anyway. They have many version of the same article, but there are not many who will go into the version and select to revert to one of those. To me, the success of Wikipedia is that those who don't know much about a subject will normally refrain from editing the subject, so most edits are actually of a rather high quality. It is a social behavior, not an evolution behavior.
  • Re:typo (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 19, 2007 @06:16AM (#21038691)
    Who rated this funny? Insightful, rather.

    Every other developed country in the world has a significantly higher number of people who prefer the scientific version to the religious one when it comes to the origins of the species.

    When it comes to evolution, the USA is closer to Turkey than the west-european nations. In fact, in a lot of Europe, Creationism/"Intelligent design" are almost unheard of. (AFAIK, and I just live there..)

    Not only that, but the USA is the only country in the western world with a declining preference for evolution. So much for enlightenment.

    So yes, this has everything to do with religion. And not just religion, but religion as it's often practiced in the USA. If you were to poll European Christians versus American ones, you'd have the same difference, or probably an even bigger gap.
  • Re:typo (Score:3, Insightful)

    by OeLeWaPpErKe (412765) on Friday October 19, 2007 @06:26AM (#21038745) Homepage
    You know, just because in 80% of countries around the world there just isn't any discussion, that does not make it a given that evolution wins.

    EVERY muslim university preaches creationism (even more stupid than that : young-earth creationism)
    Most Indian universities preach creationism
    and most Chinese also believe in creationism

    That's 50% of the world where there isn't any discussion ... creationism is the truth. The fact that there can even be discussion about this without violence in America is a very rare thing.

    But you're cowards, so simply lamenting that the universities of ankara or teheran or baghdad for example preaches creationism, you just don't do. Because doing it, might get you actually hurt.
  • by oncehour (744756) on Friday October 19, 2007 @06:28AM (#21038753)
    As the parent mentioned, the "Wisdom of Crowds" put Bush in power. Honestly, it seems to me to be nothing more than overhyped bullshit pushed alongside "Web 2.0" and other over-hyped concepts that are filling the current bubble with hot air. People love to cite Wikipedia as proof of the wisdom of crowds, but let's stop and analyze that for a moment:

    Who controls the content of Wikipedia articles? Is it a large crowd of seemingly random contributors each imparting their own bits of wisdom? Or is it a small set of contributors providing the base of an article with a few mostly minor revisions submitted by random people passing by? In my experience, it's the latter. Usually a small set of people, no more than 3 to 5 which make the core of a Wikipedia article.

    These same people are also generally the ones that cultivate the article and keep it consistent and well editted. Occasionally these same few people come to disagreements and end up in "edit wars" in which they call in another set of few members interested in judging to judge the issue. There's no "crowd" at work here, it's a lot of small groups of vested individuals who have interest in a particular domain and an efficient way of contributing and collaborating in that domain.

    There may be hundreds of such groups, but they typically stick to their domain or they become edit whores and stick to minor revisionary work on a large amount of articles. Either way, I don't see much of a "crowd" once I break it down and look close, much less a wise crowd. Have you ever noticed that different subsections of Wikipedia have their own "feel" or "identity"? Maybe the particular manner of phrasing or the type of consistency shown throughout that sub-section which differs somewhat from another unrelated domain. This is largely a result of edits by the aforementioned small group of vested individuals. Each group leaves their own tint which colors a section and gives it life.

    Wisdom of Crowds? No. Small, intelligent groups of people focused on achieving a well defined goal? Yes. If you really want to test this "Wisdom of Crowds" concept, take a look at SomethingAwful.com or any of the various large web forums and learn of the "Wisdom of Crowds". Even there, it's generally a very few amount of people contributing intelligently with the rest just being meaningless drivel. This meme needs to die.
  • Re:typo (Score:4, Insightful)

    by bigtomrodney (993427) * on Friday October 19, 2007 @06:33AM (#21038795)
    That's a big logic jump you made. Not all religions ban the teaching of evolution. Pope John Paul II never condemned evolution. Catholic schools throughout Europe teach evolution without any conflict of interest.
    Religion and science are not viewed as polar opposites. They do disagree on several points but that does not mean anyone with religion is against scientific teaching. Darwin himself was obsessed with the Bible.
  • by Jayde Stargunner (207280) on Friday October 19, 2007 @06:42AM (#21038855)
    "Conventional wisdom says that the primary reason why so many people do not accept Darwin's theory of evolution is that they find it threatening to their religious beliefs. There is no question that religion is a big part of the reason behind the large number of people who reject evolution. But I am convinced that just as often, the cause and effect is reversed: people hold onto their fundamentalist religious beliefs because evolution by natural selection -- the strongest argument against an Old Testament-type creator -- is so counter-intuitive to so many."

    Honestly, I find these kinds of statements to be a bit off-base. I really get the feeling that Creationism and Evolution/Darwinism are artificially pitted against each other as if one or the other has to "win."

    The interesting thing is that there is absolutely nothing in either of the standpoints that cannot coexist with the other. I would say that the consistant framing of them being exclusive is what causes resistance (from both sides, most likey) when it isn't even needed.

    If one wants to get anyone to believe in a scientific theory they are having difficulties with, framing it as, "you should believe this because what you believe is wrong and you are stupid," is not really going to win anyone over. Especially when one could easily take the stance of, "here's why this theory makes sense, and really it doesn't have anything to do with what you may or may not believe."

    I've seen no strong theology that would rule out that evolution did not happen. Creationism is about a supernatural force overseeing things--it says nothing specific about how things actually happened. (And, I think, most theologists will agree that Genesis is highly metaphorical.)

    So, bottom line is, if science-minded people want others to "see the light" on this one, stick to the facts and leave the religion-bashing alone. Making people defensive generally is not an effective way of getting an idea across.
  • by pkphilip (6861) on Friday October 19, 2007 @06:47AM (#21038873)
    The success of wikipedia has nothing whatsoever to do with evolution.

    1. It is not like a 1000 monkeys typing randomly on a type writer came up with the wikipedia.

    2. The content of the wikipedia is controlled more so than most people think. There are editors, there is peer review etc.

    3. You don't find a million slightly varying copies on a single topic which are then "naturally selected"

    A wikipedia has as much value as shouting out a question in a packed stadium to receive the answers from a million people. Most of those who will bother to answer are those who will know something about the subject and most who won't answer are most likely those who don't know enough about the topic to comment.

    How is this in any sense similar to evolution?
  • by ResidntGeek (772730) on Friday October 19, 2007 @06:50AM (#21038895) Journal
    So, then, because crowds left to their own devices don't say wise things all the time, they have no wisdom? That would imply that wisdom (knowledge, really, in this context) causes monotonous focus on intellectual matters. Not true at all.
  • by Smidge204 (605297) on Friday October 19, 2007 @06:51AM (#21038901) Journal
    "Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction."

    Historically, some of the worst atrocities have been carried out in the name of God. While your idea has merit for a very young civilizations, religion as a means of social control became obsolete as soon as secular law was invented. Since then it's only been abused to manipulate and extort people, at least on a scale that has any impact on society as a whole. (Exceptions made for those small groups who actually practice what they preach.)

    Evolution is a pretty slow process... I guess 3000 years or so isn't quite long enough to breed out the religious nutjobs.
    =Smidge=
  • by MikeRT (947531) on Friday October 19, 2007 @06:56AM (#21038915) Homepage
    The defenders of the theory of evolution often get as hot under the collar at any challenge to it, as your stereotype fundamentalist gets at having his or her religion challenged. People instinctively see that as more of a sign of **religious** faith in evolution than pure rational, empirical faith in evolution.

    Mod me down for calling it as I see it if you want, but don't even try to deny that many of the advocates of evolution aren't as faithfully passionate about it as their creationist counterparts. I know the excuse, that "science is under attack in America." If it is under attack, it is under attack by many things, not just religion. Just take a serious look at how Watson is being treated over his comments about race and genetics. Even most scientists are unwilling to consider the possibility that *gasp* if evolution be true, not all races are created equal, and that some might be statistically inferior to others. We don't live in a perfectly rational world, live with it.
  • by v01d (122215) on Friday October 19, 2007 @07:11AM (#21039003) Homepage
    Societies may have "invented" the notion of religion because religion led to ethics, which led to less killing of their neighbors. All of the sudden, it's survival of the fittest, as non-ethical tribes tended to be killed off, while religious tribes thrived.


    That's a wild-ass guess. There are many alternatives that I find far more convincing, if you read "The God Delusion" there's a chapter devoted to a few alternatives.

    One very simple alternative is that children are genetically disposed to believing their elders for obvious survival reasons, as a side-effect if you get a child to believe in your tribal religious system during their formative years for the rest of their life they are more likely to act in the best interest of your tribe. Seems to match history far better in the sense that religious groups have always been eager to be highly immoral in their dealings with outsiders.


    So my question is: Even if there is no God, and you are an atheist, is it possible that a world containing religious people is actually a "better" society than a world full of atheists?


    Well, we've never had a world based on reason to compare with but it seems clear that a religious world has produced a very small minded us against the world mindset. Read the Old Testament; personally I can't imagine living in that kind of brutality. Rape, murder, theft and slavery are all perfectly fine as long as they're directed at Them, not Us.

  • Re:typo (Score:5, Insightful)

    by OeLeWaPpErKe (412765) on Friday October 19, 2007 @07:16AM (#21039029) Homepage
    I do not just think that. And yes, for the moment this is not going to happen in (most of) America.

    muslims inside england use terror to avoid evolution in biology lessons :
    http://forums.muslimvillage.net/index.php?showtopic=37975 [muslimvillage.net]

    in france:
    http://islamineurope.blogspot.com/2007/02/france-muslim-anti-evolutionist.html [blogspot.com]

    This is in Turkey, the most moderate muslim nation existing (where both islamists and atheists massacre eachother, creating a balance) :
    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/17/science/17book.html?_r=1&oref=slogin [nytimes.com]

    If you thought Christians are trouble when it concerns evolution, you're in for a rude awakening. Christians don't kill you. Don't threaten you. And they don't gang up on your family just because you don't "respect" creationism. Muslims do.
  • by hummassa (157160) on Friday October 19, 2007 @07:19AM (#21039059) Homepage Journal
    And I don't mean it as an offense, this being /. and all ;-)

    According to TFA, the "Wisdom of Crowds" WRT Wikipedia is: "If I can't do better than this, I won't touch it". So, the very definition of the "Wisdom of Crowds" (and I agree with you that "Wisdom" is a very innapropriate term) is that "an active minority drives the inactive majority".
  • Randomness (Score:5, Insightful)

    by pubjames (468013) on Friday October 19, 2007 @07:26AM (#21039107)

    I think the main problem with people's understanding of evolution is the fact that it is not taught very well in schools, and people get the strong idea that evolution is a random process. I also think it is a problem with the timescales involved, which are hard for the human mind to grasp.
  • Re:typo (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ultranova (717540) on Friday October 19, 2007 @07:28AM (#21039117)

    All religions seem to be awash with variations, each sure they are the One True Version and that the others are deluded.

    That's true of humans in general. Religions don't have a monopoly on arrogance.

  • by asliarun (636603) on Friday October 19, 2007 @07:30AM (#21039133)

    why so many *Americans* have trouble grasping Darwin's theory of evolution
    IMHO, the reason why this is so difficult is because of the awe and wonder (and fear!) we feel when we see the magnificent complexity and interconnectedness in the nature around us. We are today not very different from our cavemen ancestors in the sense that we still go through most of our lives in a state of bewilderment, and most of our efforts focus on bringing some measure of control and understanding over the complexity that is bombarding us every minute! Technological evolution for that matter is not very different from biological evolution. The only advantage we have with technological evolution is that it is evolving in our lifetime. Trying to make your grandparent understand modern technology is probably as difficult as making them understand evolution and the related nuances such as game theory and Nash equilibrium. This is merely because the said technology of our time did not evolve with our grandparents, but with us. For our grandparents, this is simply a case of trying to cope with future evolution instead of past evolution as is the case with the Darwinian/Dawkinsian theory.

    What is happening today to the common man is that he/she is getting immune to technology, which leads us to the possibly false premise that the lay person understands technology any better than say, evolution. Given this assault of seemingly illogical and complex information (which completely undermines a person's ego, mind you), religion provides a very convenient framework to make life simple, seemingly secure, and less fragile. Religion is hence, more of a survival tool for a society that shields away a person's insecurities. For that matter, that is the reason why societies and families formed in the first place, which is to increase the probability of our survival and proliferation. For the common man, religion and society practically mean the same thing, and hence interchangeably attribute the positive aspects of one with the other. This is also why they are willing to put up with the restrictions and rules of religion, just as we do for society's laws and restrictions!
  • by Chapter80 (926879) on Friday October 19, 2007 @07:31AM (#21039135)
    I wasn't trying to take a position for or against birth control. I was trying to say that families who believe in having large families tend to grow. Families who believe in having small families don't tend to propagate their ideas or beliefs as rapidly. And if your parents are sterile, you will be too.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 19, 2007 @07:32AM (#21039151)
    The wisdom of the crowd is good for estimating a black and white answer. For example, how many oranges are in a particular box. The median value from the range of answers given is more likely to be closer to the correct answer as the crowd grows. Not all questions have definitive, black and white answers though.

    What about a question like, 'How did the events of the Cold War affect the average Russian citizen?'. I don't think a question like that is served at all well by the wisdom of the crowd. It's a question that requires an open ended discussion and will have at least as many answers as there are Russian citizens affected by the Cold War. If someone was attempting to provide an answer to a question like this, I would definitely want to know who they were, what their background was and what biases they may bring with them. What is the chemical make up of water? Well, that answer is either correct or not, and the wisdom of the masses should sort that one out.

    Wikipedia has huge limitations, but then so does any reference tool. They each have great strengths as well.

    I don't think Wikipedia has any greater limitation than other forms of encyclopedia, and has a lot of benefits over traditional forms.

    As for GWB, I think it proves that we are not as wise as we like to think we are.

  • Re:typo (Score:5, Insightful)

    by clickclickdrone (964164) on Friday October 19, 2007 @07:43AM (#21039205)
    >Christians don't kill you. Don't threaten you
    There is a theatre production by the Reduced Shakespeare Company where they do the entire bible in 90 mins or somesuch. *Everytime* I have seen it there have been jossling, abusive Christians outside telling me I was going to hell for watching it. I've also numerous reports of people killing in the name of Christianity. I think we need to be clear on this, all religions, whether Muslim, Christian or whatever have extremist factions and that's where the problems are. the mainstream ones are generally fairly laid back.
  • Re:typo (Score:4, Insightful)

    by ZeroExistenZ (721849) on Friday October 19, 2007 @07:55AM (#21039289)

    Disclaimer: I'm not saying that all muslims think that way.

    Welcome fellow Belgian. It's horrible to see how we've been conditioned in excusing ourselves for statements which "potentially could be read in a racist way" because of the constant idea we are "against multiculturism" and are overly sensitive to "cultural differences".

  • Bullshit. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by NotZed (19455) on Friday October 19, 2007 @08:08AM (#21039403)
    The only reason people do not accept Evolution is because they cannot believe that apes are our brothers. Partly because of mis-placed egotism, and mostly because of religion. After-all if we were made in "god's image" to "rule over all beasts", then it Evolution is an unacceptable concept.
  • by richieb (3277) <richiebNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Friday October 19, 2007 @08:16AM (#21039481) Homepage Journal
    The "Wisdom Of Crowds" put George W Bush in power, twice.

    Actually in 2000 the "wisdom of the crowds" picked Al Gore. The electoral college and the Supreme Court put GW in the Whitehouse.

  • by KnightTristan (882222) on Friday October 19, 2007 @08:18AM (#21039517)
    Are you kidding me? Calling Darwin's theory a theory of random mutation show how little you understand of it, because you emphasize the wrong half of his theory. There's basically two parts about Darwin's theory: (1) mutation and (2) selection. Most people consider the first one as most important, but nothing could be further from the truth than that. It's SELECTION that is the keyword here. The mutation part is merely the "fuel" that feeds the selection "engine". In fact, the mutation doesn't even need to be random at all. Let me say that again:

    The mutation in Darwin's theory does NOT have to be random!

    Although random mutation is perhaps the most effective way compared to its complexity. It surely is the most simple way for nature to "implement" it. And most of the time it results in very good "fuel". About your example: although the mutations are made by intelligent designers, some designs are rejected and some accepted (to be built further upon). The mutations are not random, but the selection is still in place. That's good enough.

    So if you don't want to call Darwin's theory a theory of evolution, call it a THEORY OF NATURAL SELECTION instead.

    Keep in mind: you do not need DNA, big gene pools, parallel mutations, sexual mutations, ... to have a Darwinian evolution at work. It doesn't have to reflect the biological method of evolution at all. At its core you only need (1) mutation (2) selection. Once you have that, you have Darwinian evolution. I believe it was Richard Dawkins who coined the term MEME to apply Darwin's theory to cultural evolution! Though it is has entirely different mechanism than biological evolution, it still consists of mutation and selection. Not all variants work equally well though: sexual mutation seem to work better than asexual mutations , cultural evolution is much faster than biological evolution, because the latter can only pass information between generations what is very slow. The evolution of mankind in the last few thousands of years are mostly cultural driven.
  • by dave420 (699308) on Friday October 19, 2007 @08:25AM (#21039609)
    Evolution, in the Darwinian natural sense, is accumulative, not completely random. Richard Dawkins explains it very well in "The Blind Watch Maker". Wikipedia's content is just like evolution. Articles are first created (and as we know, the theory of evolution does not cover actual creation of life, but how it changes), and are slowly perfected, with each "edit" being a mutation/new trait in the gene pool which is carried on to the next generation. The parts of the article which are not altered are analogous to genes which are not affecting the "organism" of the article as severely (either positively or negatively) as the change which was effected. As an article reaches its most suitable state, where further edits are not required, you have an article that is completely correct, with no "genes" (edits) that need removing/adding.

    The notion of n monkeys typing randomly is used to illustrate the absurdity of evolution. It would be a great illustration if it were not intrinsically flawed from its very conception. A better analogy would be, again as Richard Dawkins again demonstrated in said documentary/book, that each change the monkeys made that took their current works of Shakespeare away from the actual works of Shakespeare were ignored, or favoured less, than changes which improved the similarity of the monkeys' work with that of Shakespeare.

    So, in a nutshell, it's similar to evolution as you clearly don't understand evolution enough to ask that question :)
  • by Tom (822) on Friday October 19, 2007 @08:42AM (#21039807) Homepage Journal

    The interesting thing is that there is absolutely nothing in either of the standpoints that cannot coexist with the other.
    Err... I'm actually lost for words. You are seriously saying that evolution (things change into whatever is most appropriate at that moment, with little regard for past or future) and design (things are as they are because they were intentionally made that way) are not diametrically opposed theories?

    Well, there's just the small, unimportant, inconsequential matter of intent.

    Also, a total reversal of roles, look:

    I've seen no strong theology that would rule out that evolution did not happen. Creationism is about a supernatural force overseeing things--it says nothing specific about how things actually happened. (And, I think, most theologists will agree that Genesis is highly metaphorical.)
    No, creationism isn't about that at all. The very point of it is that it starts with something complex, in fact the most complex things of them all - the creator.

    Evolution, on the other hand, claims that complexity emerges during the process of evolution, which starts with very simple things.

    I really see no way for two theories to coexist if their claimed starting points are exact opposites. If you can't even agree on that, everything down from there is either dishonesty or an intentional scam of one theory to not have its core assumptions examined too closely.

  • by keraneuology (760918) on Friday October 19, 2007 @08:57AM (#21039959) Journal

    Even then I was utterly fascinated by astronomy, and looking at the night sky, especially in Australia, where we actually had a visible star scape, was an experience that filled me not with religious conviction, but with a determination to find explanations for what I saw. 'God did it' was never an option.

    Denying God because you understand the tools he uses is like denying Michaelangelo because you once saw a chisel.

  • by fredrated (639554) on Friday October 19, 2007 @09:04AM (#21040037) Journal
    "With the 'default' society with no religion, a system of natural selection would have existed within the tribe. While there may have been stronger individuals within that tribe, the 'religious' societies produced stronger tribes as a whole."

    I disagree. Natural selection doesn't mean "strong people beat up weak people", it means things become more efficient at survival. In the case of humans, who only survived in groups, this would mean groups would evolve toward cooperation. A group of cooperative people has a better chance of success than groups where the weaker half are in fear of being trashed by the stronger half. The latter would only discourge the weak from contributing to a system that did not protect them. Thus evolution would tend toward cooperative groups with or without religion. I believe the Golden Rule, 'do unto others as you would have others do unto you' probably preceeds religion by a long shot. In fact, since humans tend to react, then use their brain to justify what they did, I suspect religion was invented to justify the Golden Rule.
  • by Andy_R (114137) on Friday October 19, 2007 @09:06AM (#21040049) Homepage Journal
    "Wisdom of Crowds" systems produce good results because there is a feedback loop, and elections don't have that feedback.

    To sift the wisdom from the noise, there has to be some method of determining which are 'good' inputs and which are 'bad'. With Evolution, the feedback is easy to understand, bad mutations die/fail to breed/whatever, good ones get more food/sex/whatever and are more likely to reproduce.

    An election has no such feedback. There is no good method of looking at the individual inputs from the results and pruning out the bad ones or promoting the good ones. Nobody gets to change their mind and alter their vote when they see the results, because for each election, the candidates change. The crowd isn't able to look at Bush v Gore and apply the results to Bush v Kerry, because Gore != Kerry. Only once in the last hundred years have the candidates been rematched (Eisenhower vs Stevenson in 1952 and 1956), so only one has meaningful feedback been applied... and even then it's not very good feedback as the first election was Eisenhower vs Stevenson and the second was President Eisenhower vs Stevenson, which is a different case even if you don't look at increased age, policy shifts, running mate changes, etc.

  • I come from a country (the whole continent actually) which was torn apart for nearly two hundred years by religous conflict.
    OK, so you're from Old Europe (now known as Atheist Europe) where for two-hundred years the royalty attempted to twist religion to their own, quite political, ends.

    And now you have an extremely secular culture, far beyond most of the rest of the world.

    Do you really think you're an atheist because of some great factual insight on your part, or because you grew up acculturated to an extremely atheistic society? How can you consider yourself any better or wiser than the American kid who gets sent to Jesus camp?
  • Re:typo (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Fred_A (10934) <fred.fredshome@org> on Friday October 19, 2007 @09:11AM (#21040115) Homepage

    Oooh, a lunatic fringe group sent a handful of copies of a book to some education institutions.
    How dare they.

    Are you one of those US people who lives in the fantasy world where the middle east is invading Europe ? You might want to book a ticket on one of those cruises [independent.co.uk] if that's the case, you'll make lots of like minded friends (and I heard psychiatrists weren't allowed on board so everyone is perfectly safe).
  • No, you can't say that a world of atheists would be a better or worse world, since a world of people who don't believe in God isn't really different from a world of people who don't believe in pink unicorns or celestial teapots. Saying what someone doesn't believe doesn't tell you enough about what they do believe.
  • by Nerdposeur (910128) on Friday October 19, 2007 @09:14AM (#21040147) Journal
    "Historically, some of the worst atrocities have been carried out in the name of God."

    Well, let's not forget Stalin, Hitler, Communist China, and others. Shining examples of people not controlled by "nutjob" religious ideas, eh?

    They were all in the idealogical line of Rome, which killed Christians for not worshipping Ceaser. Atheists are capable of the worst atrocities by making Gods of themselves.
  • "Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction." Historically, some of the worst atrocities have been carried out in the name of God

    That's simply not true. This charge has been parroted by the anti-religious people, and it completely ignores the historical record.

    Let's compare the post Roman world to the pre-Roman world. Prior to Christianity, the world believed in conquest without justification. IF someone had more stuff than you, you sent in an army and took it. Then you brought home a bunch of loot, and were rewarded for it. Look at all the Roman celebrations of conquest - called "triumphs." In the ancient world - if the people were not of your country, it was desirable to kill them and take all of their stuff.

    Julius Caesar was no bible thumper, but under him, the Romans practiced a particularly vile form of ethnic cleansing in Gaul. Imagine the outcry today if someone wrote a book bragging that they killed over a million people. That is what Caesar did, and it made him MORE popular, not less. And then there all the lesser cultures that have been wiped our destroyed. Read about emperors of various ancient empires having all of the children killed, burning cities to the ground, and so forth. It was the advent of religion and the idea that people had souls which ultimately drove the idea that everyone had some sort of natural rights.

    Similarly, Islam spread as quickly as it did in the middle east because of its promises of fairness and lower taxes to the people.

    Both religions, carrying with it a divine proposition against killing, act as a natural brake against social forces that otherwise glorify it.

    The last time we had an organized group of people that held the ancient view of empire, we called them the most evil people that had ever lived. The NAZIs didn't kill out of a belief in God - rather, they just felt that conquest and ethnic cleansing were part of the natural order of things, and they fused ancient roman values with modern ideas about evolution to back them up. Even today, extreme racists reject christianity (particularly in American prisons), precisely because of its moral condemnation against genocide and other racial killings.
  • by EvolutionsPeak (913411) on Friday October 19, 2007 @09:32AM (#21040383)

    Creationism is about a supernatural force overseeing things--it says nothing specific about how things actually happened.
    I am afraid this is not true. I'm going to use the bible as an example for this post, but this would apply to any organized religion. The bible teaches that Eve was made from the rib of Adam, and this statement directly conflicts with evolution. Most theologists may agree that Genesis is highly metaphorical, but it wasn't always that way. Theologians are forced to take this as metaphorical because there is massive amounts of evidence that this didn't happen and they are rational people that can see that evidence. Any conflict with these people would be artificial. However, there are MANY people who take a strict interpretation of the bible and for them there can be no metaphor and thus direct conflict remains. This is not a small cult of people, it is in the millions at least. It can't be discarded as some aberration. There is nothing artificial about this conflict.
  • by ArcherB (796902) * on Friday October 19, 2007 @09:34AM (#21040427) Journal
    I find it very difficult to think a world with Jerry Fallwell and Pat Robertson is better than one without them.

    Jerry Fallwell and Pat Robertson do not make up all of Christianity. Just like Pol Pot, Kim Jong Il and Stalin do not make up all of atheism. But if we were to play by your rules:

    I find it very difficult to think a world with Pol Pot and Stalin is better than one without them.
    For that matter, I think these two have killed more people this century than all of Christianity has in the past 500 years. So, using your logic, it seems to me that the world would be a better place without atheism.

    Just adding up the body count should convince anyone that religion is a bad idea for humanity.
    I think that statement has just been shot to hell!
  • by mdwh2 (535323) on Friday October 19, 2007 @09:36AM (#21040439) Journal
    1. Hitler was not an atheist. I don't know why this myth keeps coming up so often. His religious beliefs [wikipedia.org] are unclear, but he referred to "God" at various times, and there seems to be no evidence of him actually being an atheist.

    2. The claim is not "some people who happened to be theists also did bad things", but rather that "people did bad things in the name of their religious belief". If you want to counter that, you need to show how someone's lack of belief caused them to do bad things.
  • by Achromus (810984) on Friday October 19, 2007 @09:46AM (#21040587)
    Parasites convey selective disadvantage to their individual hosts; but parasites still exist. As long as the parasites don't kill their hosts too quickly, and are good at reproducing and spreading to other hosts, the parasites succeed. It's because the parasites can reproduce between already existing hosts. Ideas can also reproduce between hosts. An idea doesn't [i]have[/i] to be helpful to succeed at spreading (although it can be). It just has to good at spreading.
  • by Tom (822) on Friday October 19, 2007 @09:49AM (#21040627) Homepage Journal

    In my experience, it's the latter. Usually a small set of people, no more than 3 to 5 which make the core of a Wikipedia article.
    Yes, for a Wikipedia article.

    But Wikipedia has about 2 mio. articles, and it ain't the same 3-5 people doing them all. That is what TFA alleges to when it talks about "wisdom of crowds".
  • by rucs_hack (784150) on Friday October 19, 2007 @10:03AM (#21040831)
    Denying God because you understand the tools he uses is like denying Michaelangelo because you once saw a chisel.

    Understand? did I say that? Want to understand yes, but understand the reason for the existence of the universe? hah, as if I could. The best I can do is study and research using the scientific method.

    What I do though is not put myself into a cushioned frame of mind that requires no conclusions beyond 'god did it'.
  • by pbhj (607776) on Friday October 19, 2007 @10:48AM (#21041619) Homepage Journal
    >>> Religion is like the appendix, it was useful at some point in our evolution, but for modern man, it's more likely to kill you than to do anything for you.

    If you genuinely mean religion is useless .. then yes as a Christian I agree. Christ himself despised blank religion, true faith brings action and transformation. Religion brings rule following, guilt and selfish living.

    Anyway. Did you know that the appendix is currently considered to be used as a bootstrap for your digestive system. It harbours bacteria in the event of diseases that flush out bacteria from your gut. It was even reported on Slashdot with a link to http://www.cnn.com/2007/HEALTH/10/05/appendix.purpose.ap/index.html [cnn.com] .

    Oh yeah and God wants you to return his calls ...

    Modern Man? The psychology, philosophy and physicality of man hasn't moved on in thousands of years. Just because we've built up our system "on the shoulders of giants" don't make us any more advanced. We have more technology and information. We have _more_ but to my mind we are less.
  • by The_Noid (28819) on Friday October 19, 2007 @10:52AM (#21041703) Journal
    Who created your God?

    If your God does not need a creator, why does the universe do need one?

    God is redundant.
  • by AdamHaun (43173) on Friday October 19, 2007 @11:19AM (#21042191) Journal
    Here's a question that I would love to see answered to any degree of my satisfaction: why is all religion immediately discarded as a logical impossibility because some religious beliefs are illogical and inconsistent?

    Because once you're willing to discard some religious beliefs you don't have much reason for keeping gods around. Only your first teaching above might require God to be there, and even that's questionable -- rearrange the sentences a bit and you have an entirely secular philosophy. Why add a god? You're right that there's nothing logically impossible about what you're saying, but I don't think most people go that far. It's just pretty obvious to a lot of us that when people argue for the existence of God they're doing so because they want a god to be there, not because they found God out of honest inquiry. I'm not picking on you specifically; many great philosophers do this. Look at the leap you need to get from something like the ontological argument to Christianity and you'll see what I mean.

  • by snowwrestler (896305) on Friday October 19, 2007 @11:31AM (#21042421)
    I think the reason is simply that many people cannot intuitively comprehend the vastness of time, or at least they don't dedicate the time to really try. My own personal opinion is that for many people the concept for God is simply a placeholder for this line of thinking. Viewed from a typical human's perspective, the time that evolution has taken to produce life as we know it today, is functionally the same as pure infinity. To them infinity is associated with God. Talking to them about "change over time" doesn't make sense, because in their intuitive understanding of time, the time of kings and knights in Europe was extremely long ago. And everyone knows that animals and people were basically the same back then.

    To stretch this line of thinking--I sometimes wonder if the United States is not hampered by its relative youth. The entire history of the white culture of this nation fits into about 500 years. Whereas for the rest of the world, 500 years is not that long ago in their history. In places, people are still fighting over things that happened more than 500 years ago.
  • by Xodmoe (995824) on Friday October 19, 2007 @11:38AM (#21042555)

    "That's pretty much what I tell people when they start preferring religion to science - they are the same thing!"

    More precisely, they are both attempts by people to make sense of the world around them.

    But they do not work the same way, nor were they meant to.

    "Do you really believe God was too stupid to create a universe that didn't have to be held together with magic? Studying science is studying God's work, and thus you are in fact learning about God."

    I read a rather eloquent way of saying the same as the above, though I forgot who I'm quoting: "Religion tells us about what God did. Science tells us about how He did it."

    The problem with the above is that religion and science should and were intended to offer different answers to different questions. They fulfill different needs and expectations in the way that reason and faith do or the way philosophy and spirituality do. None of the aforementioned pairs are truly opposites any more than science and religion because they too are human endeavors to extend limits of ideas that aren't always so tangible or approachable to everyone.

    Unfortunately, there are those on both the faith/religious side and on the reason/rational side who either can't or won't tolerate other world-views that well. These are the folks who have good intentions, but they end up applying answers found in their faith to questions better left to science (think "creation museums").

    The other side of this paradigm is more common on Slashdot where we find really good "reasons" not to believe in God and "proof" to back it up.

  • by Scrameustache (459504) on Friday October 19, 2007 @11:40AM (#21042595) Homepage Journal

    >>> Religion is like the appendix, it was useful at some point in our evolution, but for modern man, it's more likely to kill you than to do anything for you.

    If you genuinely mean religion is useless .. then yes as a Christian I agree. Christ himself despised blank religion, true faith brings action and transformation. Religion brings rule following, guilt and selfish living.

    Anyway. Did you know that the appendix is currently considered to be used as a bootstrap for your digestive system. It harbours bacteria in the event of diseases that flush out bacteria from your gut. It was even reported on Slashdot with a link to http://www.cnn.com/2007/HEALTH/10/05/appendix.purpose.ap/index.html [cnn.com] .
    Yes, and I made a glib comment about it too. It harbors bacteria, good or bad, and it sometimes inflames, bursts and kills you. If you have it removed, you live fine.

    Something that *might* help you recover bacteria or *might* kill you is not useful or needed. If you need a fresh dose of digestive bacteria, just french somebody, or grab a yogurt.

    Just as something that *might* ease your anxiety over our mortality or *might* make you more anxious about hell, or lead to other people stoning/torturing/burning/censoring you isn't useful.

    I stand by my comparison.
  • by Bat Country (829565) on Friday October 19, 2007 @12:51PM (#21043973) Homepage
    That's a moot point.

    You can only really validly apply Darwinian evolutionary principles to the idea itself, not the adherents of the idea.

    Or if you insist on applying it, use it as social Darwinism - the evolution of the society which plays host to an idea, not the individual which plays host to it.

    Ideas are accepted and perpetuated regardless of their fitness to survive. Ideas are accepted and perpetuated based on how useful they are to the alphas in any society.

    For instance (and not escaping the subject of religion) cults have a fairly low survival rate, usually resulting in the death of quite a few followers and permanent psychological, social, and financial damage to their adherents, but only seldom to the fatal detriment of the cult leader.

    The ideas that survive, like the major organized religions, survive because they are aesthetically pleasing to their hosts - namely humans. They answer ugly questions in pretty fashions, and cover up doubts with prettier promises. This makes them extremely pleasing to an organism whose approach to survival is to organize, categorize and identify its environment strongly.

    Does religion increase the survivability of the organism? It could be said to relieve stress in a majority or at least sizable minority of its adherents, and it could be said to foster cooperation amongst societal groups most likely to breed with each other.

    The most important thing to realize here, however, is that a trait which cannot be shown to contribute significantly to the survivability of the organism exhibiting that trait cannot be pointed at and held up as an example of a survivability trait.

    Some traits survive because they are simply not sufficiently maladaptive to inhibit the breeding capacity of the organism displaying that trait.

    Do violet and green eyes affect survivability in humans who display those traits? It's not been shown that they do. Does male pattern baldness reduce the probability that people will breed? It's never shown significant enough effect to make the effect die out.
  • by smaddox (928261) on Friday October 19, 2007 @01:04PM (#21044201)
    I would have to agree with you.

    Mainly because I believe the real problem is the people who think their way is the only truth.

    I'm a strong atheist, and have only become more so in the past few years. I (like everyone else) sometimes find myself angry at others for their beliefs. However, I try my best to stay calm and logical any time a heated discussion comes up. When we let ourselves get angry, it only builds barriers that become harder and harder to break down.

    The best thing to do is to step back, and imagine yourself in the other persons shoes. See it from their perspective. Only then can you give a calm and useful explanation for why you see it differently.

    The people who let their emotions get the best of them are the people that are going to suck no matter what religious views they have. Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Atheist... It doesn't matter, as long as you have a reason for believing what you believe, and let other people have their own reason for believing what they believe.
  • by hondo77 (324058) on Friday October 19, 2007 @01:54PM (#21045175) Homepage

    Prior to Christianity, the world believed in conquest without justification.

    I'd like to direct you to the not-too-ancient concept of Manifest Destiny [wikipedia.org].

  • ...all atheists (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Xodmoe (995824) on Friday October 19, 2007 @02:55PM (#21046147)

    " Well, no [creighton.edu] . Japan, Holland, Canada, and a slew of other nations have a lower instance of religious belief, and a lower rate of crime, lower infant mortality, etc."

    ...and higher suicide rates. ...Japan and Canada anyway.

    "Even within the USA, the Bible Belt states (actually the Red States in general) have higher infant mortality rates, lower productivity rates, higher crime rates, worse education systems, along with being worse-off in a range of other criteria."

    Congratulations to NYC, Chicago and Los Angeles! You are now "Red, Bible Belt states". ;-)

    "It isn't a stark difference--I'm not saying they're in the dark ages--but the difference is easy to spot if you look at the data."

    Just for a moment, imagine that we live in a world where numbers don't tell the whole story.

    ...and then snap out of it. We're already there.

    "And in one way or another, we're all atheists."

    ...as is each and every tree, rock, and banana slug are all atheists too. One significant difference is that they have no doubts about their atheism. ...even when they near the end of their respective existences.

    People are supposed to be different because of what we believe and the small matter of being capable of believing at all.

    ...not because of what we do not believe.

    "Is the world worse off because people don't believe in Thor anymore?"

    Not that many people believed in Thor to begin with. It's a rather smaller number today, but they might even have a website.

    Apollo on the other hand... There was a thunder god.

  • by snowwrestler (896305) on Friday October 19, 2007 @03:48PM (#21047017)

    I know the excuse, that "science is under attack in America." If it is under attack, it is under attack by many things, not just religion. Just take a serious look at how Watson is being treated over his comments about race and genetics.
    Thanks for the example of how science is misunderstood. While Watson is a scientist, his comments were not science, they were opinion.

    That's one crucial difference between science and religion: everything the Pope says is religiously significant, whereas a scientist's statements only matter to the degree to which they can be tested and supported.

    Even most scientists are unwilling to consider the possibility that *gasp* if evolution be true, not all races are created equal, and that some might be statistically inferior to others.
    Scientists are quite willing to believe all sorts of things, provided they can be objectively proven. They're just not willing to take someone's word for it.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 19, 2007 @06:27PM (#21049539)
    > 2. The claim is not "some people who happened to be theists also did bad things", but rather that "people did bad things in the name of their religious belief". If you want to counter that, you need to show how someone's lack of belief caused them to do bad things.

    I think that the Stalinist purges and repression in China both qualify. They both see theism in general as something to be wiped out and it's not hard to find out that religious folks were a significant contingent of those "undesirables" they purged.

    If you need more documentation, there's plenty available on who all was getting purged under Stalin and why. There's also plenty of information about what's going on right now in China. I believe the US State Department has reports on it which should be available via a bit of Googling.

    Someone else pointed out that Stalin once studied to become a priest, but he sure as hell abandoned that later on. Hitler I wouldn't use as an example of an atheist, sorting out his real beliefs from his politics is a mess, but in at least one citation I'm aware of, he claimed to be using religious prejudices to advance his cause and hoped that Christianity would later die off naturally, even though he didn't want to kill it actively (he was too busy playing people off against one another). More than anything, Hitler was into eugenics and the alleged supremacy of his 'race'.

"Irrationality is the square root of all evil" -- Douglas Hofstadter

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