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America remains in the grip of an opiate* epidemic. Over 70,000 Americans died from legal and illegal drug overdose in 2017 alone, more than four times higher than in 1999.

The tragic history of this crisis was carefully documented by investigative journalist Sam Quinones in his 2015 work, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic.1 Cast members in this drama represent a cross section of human society, from Mexican laborers to executives of multinational corporations. A sobering element of this story is that the American medical community bears much responsibility for the crisis. This example serves as both a lesson and a reminder that sometimes the scientific community can err en masse. In previous posts we examined pitfalls in belief formation and the perils of overconfidence from a theoretical perspective. This story underscores the dire consequences of ignoring these principles—in this case by highly educated professionals. We will focus on two salient biases: information cascade and confirmation/disconfirmation; and two nonrational contributors to belief formation: moral grandstanding and economic self-interest

Information Cascade

Experts once widely accepted the notion that opiate narcotics were highly addictive. However, some people questioned the idea in the early 1990s as a movement gained traction to treat pain with aggressive medication. A powerful new belief ignited and sustained the boom in narcotics; namely, that addiction from prescribed opiates was actually quite rare. Yet, there was never any evidence for this belief, and considerable evidence to the contrary.

The wildfire was unwittingly sparked by an innocuous five-sentence letter to the editor in the 1980 New England Journal of Medicine.2 The authors commented that new addictions seemed to be rare in hospitalized patients receiving low doses under direct supervision with no prior history of addiction. In ensuing years, this source was repeatedly cited, then those sources were cited, snowballing into a widespread false consensus regarding the low risk of addiction.

By early 2017, over 400 scientific papers had cited the letter as evidence that addiction from prescribed opiates was rare.3 It was a classic information cascade. Physicians were not basing their opinion on the evidence but on what other experts said, who were themselves biased by earlier opinions. Almost no one, it seemed, knew or gave much thought to what the original citation actually said. (And it was a letter, not a clinical investigation!)

As a consequence, almost 218,000 Americans died from prescription opioids between 1999 and 2017, while the annual fatality rate rose 400% over the same period.

Confirmation/Disconfirmation Bias

Throughout my medical training and early years in practice, physicians generally agreed that narcotics were potentially addictive and should be used with restraint. This belief wasn’t necessarily based on hard data, but the stream of addicts passing through the healthcare system left little room for doubt. That was anecdotal evidence, but it was evidence, nonetheless.

But physicians were not emotionally invested in withholding narcotics; in fact, quite the opposite. Restraint was the path of greater resistance. Liberal prescribing took less time, gratified patients, and left one with a sense of accomplishment. The new paradigm—we could dispense without concern—was liberating. But how could we justify it scientifically?

Confirmation bias is the tendency to favor evidence in support of one’s own position. If a doctor wanted to prescribe opiates freely, scientific papers in support of that position were proliferating due to the previously mentioned information cascade. As we noted, it was faulty yet adequate evidence if someone really wanted to believe it.  

Disconfirmation bias is the tendency to dismiss evidence against one’s belief. What about all the addicts? In the case of opiate addiction, physicians began to argue that opiates didn’t cause the addiction; rather, those who were already addicts sought out the opiates. That was a false dilemma between two partial truths, which is why the deception was so persuasive.

Moral Grandstanding

A powerful driving force behind the rise in prescription narcotics emerged from the belief that too many patients suffered unnecessary, easily treatable pain. Convinced that the risk of addiction was low, there was no downside to liberal use of narcotics. If narcotics were safe, it was virtuous to prescribe them and heartless to withhold them.

Interns and residents were taught that these drugs were now not addictive, that doctors thus had a mission, a duty, to use them.4

Once framed in moral terms, the stage was set for moral grandstanding and ramping up. Consequently, physicians and health care organizations competed in expressing their zeal for pain remediation. By 1998, over 1000 multidisciplinary pain clinics had been established. They vanished almost as rapidly, as the increasing use of narcotics effectively eliminated the need for multiple disciplines.5 Other social influences kicked in. As the epidemic unfolded, physicians faced increasing pressure from patients while accreditation agencies demanded proof that they were relieving pain—and that meant more narcotics.6

Economic self-interest

One particular drug occupied the epicenter of the prescription drug crisis: OxyContin, a slow-release preparation of oxycodone. This was a proprietary product of Purdue Pharma, privately held by the Sackler family. Upon the release of OxyContin in 1996, Purdue unleashed a sales and marketing juggernaut to aggressively promote it. According to Quinones:

Purdue set about promoting OxyContin as virtually risk-free and a solution to the problems patients presented doctors with every day.7

Eleven years later, Purdue Pharma pled guilty for, among other things, misrepresenting OxyContin’s abuse potential, for which it was fined over $600 million.8

Complicit physicians, driven by greed, began and continue to run prescription mills in some of our most vulnerable communities. Many have been caught, convicted, and sent to prison. But it’s a lucrative business and demand is virtually unlimited. In April of 2019, the biggest crackdown to date charged 60 healthcare providers in rural Appalachia with the illegal distribution of narcotics.9 As many as 32 million pain pills were distributed, and at least five patients died.

Inside each of us runs a highly tuned excuse factory, efficiently manufacturing plausible beliefs to justify our own behavior.

At this point, some may object, “What does belief have to do with it? They knew they were doing wrong and did it just for the money.” This may indeed be true for genuine psychopaths but is otherwise a one-dimensional view of human nature that overlooks our compelling need and skill for self-rationalization. Inside each of us runs a highly tuned excuse factory, efficiently manufacturing plausible beliefs to justify our own behavior. According to the science of human nature—and ancient scripture (“Every way of a man is right in his own eyes” Proverbs 21:2, KJV)—most perpetrators probably believed they were not doing wrong.

A lesson for us all

While science is our best source for understanding the physical world, physicians and scientists are subject to the same cognitive pitfalls as everyone else. In certain circumstances, they err communally with potentially disastrous consequences. Familiarity with the science of belief can help us to discern when a prevailing consensus should be questioned. Is there emotional investment? Moral grandstanding and ramping up? Peer pressure? Information cascade? Economic self-interest? We all must endeavor to avoid these traps.

In this case, silence was complicity. Had more people been willing to speak up and challenge the paradigm, the false consensus surrounding opiates might have been thwarted, sparing thousands of lives. It takes courage to stand against the crowd—after clearing the logs from our own eyes—but sometimes it is morally necessary.

Beliefs have consequences. False beliefs have worse consequences. Intellectual humility is the first line of defense. After all, just because we think doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true.

*Note: for purposes of this article, “opiate,” “opioid,” and “narcotics” are basically synonymous. For precise definitions, click here.

Endnotes

[1]. Sam Quinones, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2015).

2. Jane Porter and Hershel Jick, “Addiction Rare in Patients Treated with Narcotics,” New England Journal of Medicine 302 no. 123 (January 10, 1980): doi:10.1056/NEJM198001103020221.

3. Pamela T. M. Leung et al., “A 1980 Letter on the Risk of Opioid Addiction,” New England Journal of Medicine 376 (June 1, 2017): 2194–95, doi:10.1056/NEJMc1700150.

4. Quinones, Dreamland, 95.

5. Quinones, 109.

6. Quinones, 98.

7. Quinones, 127.

8. Barry Meier, “Origins of an Epidemic: Purdue Pharma Knew Its Opioids Were Widely Abused,” New York Times, May 29, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/29/health/purdue-opioids-oxycontin.html.

9. Terry DeMio, Dan Horn, and Kevin Grasha, “Ohio, Kentucky Doctors among 60 Charged in Pain Pill Bust Acted ‘Like Drug Dealers,’” Cincinnati Enquirer, April 17, 2019, https://www.cincinnati.com/story/news/2019/04/17/opioid-pain-pill-federal-prescription-bust/3482202002/.

Most of us think we’re smarter than most of us! In a recent large survey, 65% of Americans rated themselves more intelligent than average.[1] [Sounds of unrestrained laughter, barking, and howling – the Spaniel and pals]. Believing we’re very smart, we assume we’re usually right. But is that confidence warranted?

“Do you see a man wise in his own eyes?
There is more hope for a fool than for him.”

Proverbs 26:12

In the course of my medical career, I have known brilliant physicians of many different faiths. Among the most committed adherents, it is safe to say that all were quite sure regarding the truth of their particular faith. But each tradition contradicts all others in one or more matters. They could all be wrong in part or in whole; they cannot all be right. Logically, we must conclude that not only is it possible to be brilliant, certain, and wrong, but that it is common.

In the previous post, we looked at several nonrational factors that can lead to false beliefs: heuristics and biases, emotions, and social influences. We noted that education and intelligence are unreliable predictors of rational thinking.

Yet false beliefs comprise but one side of the coin. The other side, of equal or even greater importance, is the level of certainty attached to those beliefs. Confidence is our estimate of the probability that we are correct. It is a belief concerning our belief—metacognition, in psychological parlance.

The Illusion of Certainty

Ideally, our confidence should be roughly proportional to the mathematical probability that we are correct. In other words, if we are 90% certain, we should be right 90% of the time. But studies repeatedly show that our degree of certainty consistently exceeds our accuracy. For example, people who are “99% sure” are wrong 50% of the time. This disparity both defines and demonstrates the phenomenon of overconfidence. Our unwarranted certainty could be blamed on misplaced trust; that is, by placing too much credence in an unreliable source. However, since we tend to favor sources we already agree with (confirmation bias), excess certainty usually reflects an excessive faith in ourselves (pride).

In his 2009 tome On Being Certain, neuroscientist Robert Burton argued that certainty is not a state of reason but of feeling, influenced by unconscious physiologic processes.[2] Certainty is mostly illusion, Burton argues, and there is considerable evidence supporting this hypothesis.

Overconfidence has been demonstrated and measured in many domains besides intelligence: driving ability, economic forecasting, and medicine, for example. In almost every domain studied to date, significant majorities express a confidence in their abilities far beyond what is warranted, or even mathematically possible. [“Like my distant cousin who somehow still thinks he can catch a car” – the Spaniel].

Sometimes, the least competent people are the most confident, whereas the most skilled and knowledgeable people slightly underestimate their ability. This phenomenon has been dubbed the “Dunning-Kruger” effect, after the original researchers whose landmark paper, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments,” not only opened a new avenue of research but has prompted many a smile from those who sensed its ring of truth.[3]

The Intelligence Trap

Highly intelligent people constitute another group with an elevated risk of overconfidence. Intelligent people know they are intelligent, making them less likely to doubt themselves, respect other opinions, or change their minds. They are also every bit as attuned, if not more so, to social influences that motivate belief.[4]

Highly intelligent people can and do believe crazy things. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the ruthlessly logical Sherlock Holmes, was a devout believer in spiritualism and fairies. [“I once knew a Border Collie who claimed he’d been abducted by penguins” – the Spaniel]. Albert Einstein expressed a naïve and unshakeable optimism concerning Lenin, Stalin, and the Soviet Union:

I honor Lenin as a man who completely sacrificed himself and devoted all his energy to the realization of social justice. I do not consider his methods practical, but one thing is certain: men of his type are the guardians and restorers of humanity.[5]

In The Intelligence Trap, science writer David Robson informs us that:

  • College graduates are more likely than nongraduates to believe in ESP and psychic healing
  • People with IQ’s over 140 are more likely to max out on their credit
  • High IQ individuals consume more alcohol and are more likely to smoke or take illegal drugs[6]

While the popular perception is that intelligent people are naturally skeptical, in fact all humans are believing machines. We drift with the cultural tides, embracing popular ideas on the flimsiest of evidence, then clutch those beliefs tenaciously to protect our egos, strut our virtue, justify our actions, and advertise loyalty to our in-group. This view may seem cynical, but it is well-validated.

There are many strategies for overcoming the “intelligence trap.” They include cognitive reflection, actively open-minded thinking, curiosity, emotional awareness and regulation, having a growth mindset, distrusting the herd, and consistent skepticism. However one habit of mind undergirds all others: an attitude of intellectual humility.

Knowing Our Limits

Intellectual humility could be defined as merely having a realistic view of our mental processing; viz., that our knowledge is inevitably limited, our thinking is unavoidably biased, and that even the smartest among us are prone to error.[7]

In recent decades, psychology has embraced a model of personality based on the “big five”: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. The more recent version adds a sixth measure: HH, for honesty-humility. Researchers have demonstrated that HH shows a consistent negative correlation with all three elements of the “dark triad”: psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism.[8] [“We just call that ‘being a cat’” – the Spaniel]. On the other hand, HH correlates positively with healthier traits such as cooperation and self-control.

In a 2018 paper from UC Davis, researchers showed that intellectual humility is associated with openness during disagreement, and that promoting a growth mindset served to enhance intellectual humility.[9] Intellectual humility also helps to reduce polarization and conflict.[10] In one study, it was even superior to general intelligence in predicting academic achievement.[11]

Research Affirms Scripture

According to most theologians in the Judeo-Christian tradition, pride is the deadliest sin. Humility is its opposite. It may be tempting to assume this peril concerns only the skeptic, but it’s not just about “them.” It’s about all of us. And the greater the visibility or the higher one’s position in Christian circles, the greater the problem is likely to be.

“Do not be wise in your own conceits.”

romans 12:16, KJV

Scripture repeatedly warns against unwarranted confidence in our own wisdom. Decades of research in cognitive science shows this to be a common human problem that only worsens with intelligence. The antidote begins with intellectual humility, an ancient virtue whose wisdom has been validated by the latest empirical data.

Article also posted (without canine commentary) at Reasons to Believe on August 9, 2018

Endnotes

[1]. Patrick R. Heck, Daniel J. Simons, and Christopher F. Chabris, “65% of Americans Believe They Are above Average in Intelligence: Results of Two Nationally Representative Surveys,” PLoS ONE 13, no. 7 (July 3, 2018): e0200103, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0200103.

2. Robert Burton, On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008).

3. Justin Kruger and David Dunning, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77, no. 6 (January 2000): 1121–34, doi:10.1037//0022-3514.77.6.1121.

4. Dan M. Kahan, “Ideology, Motivated Reasoning, and Cognitive Reflection,” Judgment and Decision Making 8, no. 4 (July 2013): 407–24.

5. Lewis Samuel Feuer, Einstein and the Generations of Science 2nd ed. (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1989), 25. [JA10] [SW11] 

6. David Robson, The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2019).

7. Peter C. Hill et al., “A Few Good Measures: Colonel Jessup and Humility,” in Everett L. Worthington Jr., Don E. Davis, and Joshua N. Hook, eds., Handbook of Humility: Theory, Research, and Implications (New York: Routledge, 2017).

8. Joseph Leman et al., “Personality Predictors and Correlates of Humility,” in Worthington, Davis, and Hook, eds., Handbook of Humility.

9. Tenelle Porter and Karina Schumann, “Intellectual Humility and Openness to the Opposing View,” Self and Identity 17, issue 2 (August 9, 2017): 139–62, doi:10.1080/15298868.2017.1361861.

10. Porter and Schumann, “Intellectual Humility.”

11. Bradley P. Owens, Michael D. Johnson, and Terence R. Mitchell, “Expressed Humility in Organizations: Implications for Performance, Teams, and Leadership,” Organization Science 24, no. 5 (February 12, 2013): 1517–38, doi:10.1287/orsc.1120.0795.



Feeling blue? Tried therapy and medication? Here’s a radical thought: try visiting your local church next Sunday.

A new study adds further evidence to what we have known for quite some time: going to church is good for your mental health. Last Thursday, the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing issued a press release announcing its latest findings. Following over 6000 adults aged 50 and over for six years, they found that regular church attendance (mostly Catholic in this group) was strongly associated with a lower incidence of depression.

“Although we did not find longitudinal evidence for a causal effect between religiosity and mental health, we found a robust association between religious attendance and lower depressive symptoms at baseline.”

The researchers found that this benefit could be partially, but not entirely, attributed to higher levels of social engagement. Religiously minded individuals who did not attend services were actually worse off. (The study design was unable to determine why that might have been so, leaving ample room for speculation but no evidence).

Human behavior and religious faith are both highly complex matters, making it nearly impossible to tease out the exact connection between religion and mental health. Is it merely the social engagement? In this study, that only partially explained the benefit. Would this apply to every church? Probably not, considering that many are admittedly dysfunctional. Should one “embrace a lie” just to enjoy the benefits? Be honest. There’s plenty of good evidence for God. To believe or not is a matter of choice. How about non-Christian faiths? A few studies show similar benefits; though again, it probably depends on the details.

Despite the complexity of the matter, the accumulated research is sufficiently compelling that psychologists can conclude:

“The amassed research indicates that higher levels of religious belief and practice (known in social science as “religiosity”) is associated with better mental health. In particular, the research suggests that higher levels of religiosity are associated with lower rates of depression, anxiety, substance use disorder, and suicidal behavior. “

Religious faith could even save your life. There is a powerful connection between church attendance and reduced risk of suicide. Writing in the July 2019 Wall Street Journal, Erika Andersen reported:

“A 2016 study published in JAMA Psychiatry found that American women who attended a religious service at least once a week were five times less likely to commit suicide…. It’s true that correlation doesn’t prove causation, but there’s strong evidence that people who attend church or synagogue regularly are less inclined to take their own lives.”

Our most current understanding regarding the cause of depression offers further explanation why religious faith – particularly Christian faith – may be protective. The most effective and enduring treatment available is cognitive therapy. In its simplest terms, this means learning to break through mental habits of despair, self-absorption, and self-abasement. Strange as it may seem to some, this means thinking Biblically:

Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!

Philippians 4:4
  • Instead of despair we find hope. (Romans 5:2)
  • Instead of self-absorption, we are to embrace humility and concern for others. (Philippians 2:3)
  • Instead of self-abasement, we find unconditional forgiveness and can stop comparing ourselves to others. (Romans 4:7)

So, if you’re attending regularly, good for you! Look out for new visitors and make them feel welcome. Pay them a visit, or at least a phone call. Haven’t been in a while? It’s never too late to go back. Everyone will be happy to see you. Tried and it didn’t work? Try a different church. Never been and wouldn’t know where to start? Ask someone you know, or look for one with a lot of cars in the parking lot. Someone may greet you, or no one may, but fill out that little card and you may get a friendly call or visit.

[“Speaking of mental health, aren’t you forgetting someone?” – the Spaniel. “Never, little buddy” – me.]

The secret is out. Going to church is good for your health!

In this podcast recorded at Reasons to Believe in May 2019, Philosopher-Theologian Ken Samples and I discuss the nature of belief, pride, humility, and the life of the mind.

Topics:
-My personal journey from early atheism to Christian faith
Are people rational?
The role of emotions in belief formation
Intellectual pride and humility
The Intelligence Trap” by David Robson
The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins
Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII
Tenwek Hospital
As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God.” Matthew Paris, The Sunday Times, December 27, 2008
-Responding to skeptics

Recently, the Spaniel and I sat down for a two-on-one [imaginary] conversation with renowned atheist Prof. Richard Dawkins. The following is a transcript of our conversation.*

*The answers come from his essay and the accompanying transcript in The Four Horsemen, Random House, 2019.[1] Of course they’re taken out of context – that’s the nature of this genre – but not in such a way as to alter the meaning.


Professor, it is such an honor for us to be with you here today. The Spaniel and I have heard so much about you – but we don’t believe all of it. Dr. Dawkins, are you a spiritual man?

“Religion is not the only game in town when it comes to being spiritual.” [2]

It may surprise some people that you are actually a great fan of the Bible. Why is that?

“Because you cannot understand literature without knowing the Bible. You can’t understand art, you can’t understand music, there are all sorts of things you can’t understand, for historical reasons – but those historical reasons you can’t wipe out.”[3]

You seem quite focused on the idea that religion is bad. Is that why you are an atheist?

“My concern is actually not so much with the evils of religion as with whether it’s true. And I really do care passionately about the fact of the matter: is there, as a matter of fact, a supernatural creator of this universe?”[4]

Well, is there a creator of this universe?

 “The fundamental constants of the universe are too good to be true. And that does seem to me to need some kind of explanation.”[5]

As you are aware, we have no idea what could have caused the Big Bang singularity. In your essay, you mentioned Lawrence Krauss’s idea that Nothing is unstable so it must produce Something. What do you think of his approach?

“Ignorance is something to be washed away by shamelessly making something up.”[6]

What does that make Professor Krauss?

“It is characteristic of theologians that they just make stuff up. Make it up with liberal abandon and force it, with a presumed limitless authority, upon others.”[7]

I guess we don’t know how the universe got started, do we? How about life? How did life get started?

“How did life begin? I don’t know, nobody knows, we wish we did.”[8]

Well, the biology textbooks suggest it just happened. Isn’t DNA the secret to it all?

“Almost all biology textbooks are seriously wrong when they describe DNA as a “blueprint” for life. DNA may be a blueprint for protein, but it is not a blueprint for a baby. It’s more like a recipe or a computer program.”[9]

Wow. Recipes and computer programs don’t just happen themselves into existence, do they? What else? Are there any other great mysteries that science cannot explain?

“How does brain physiology produce subjective consciousness? Where do the laws of physics come from? What set the fundamental physical constants, and why do they appear fine-tuned to produce us? And why is there something rather than nothing? Science can’t answer these questions.”[10]

With all these unexplained fundamental questions, it must be hard maintaining one’s faith as an atheist….

 “The human mind, including my own, rebels emotionally against the idea that something as complex as life, and the rest of the expanding universe, could have ‘just happened’.[11]

Emotions can throw us, for sure. So you’re sticking with the ‘just happened’ bit for now?

It takes intellectual courage to kick yourself out of your emotional incredulity and persuade yourself that there is no other rational choice.”[12]

You’re a brave man, Prof Dawkins. It must have been very risky to come out as an atheist at Oxford. (About as risky as licking yourself when nobody can see you” – the Spaniel). Now, you’ve clearly gone on record that no one can disprove God’s existence. You just think it’s improbable. Could you elaborate on that a bit?

“A creative intelligence capable of designing a universe would have to be supremely improbable… However improbable the naturalistic answer to the riddle of existence, the theistic alternative is even more so.”[13]

Could you explain to us how you calculated the improbability of God?

“To my regret I am not among the mathematically gifted of my species.” [14] (“Gimme four!” – the Spaniel).

That’s OK, professor. We all have our limits. So, with all those questions that science cannot answer, what’s your advice to people? Should we accept on faith that consciousness, life, and the universe came into existence out of nothing?

“Whether it’s astrology or religion or anything else, I want to live in a world where people think skeptically for themselves, look at evidence….if you go through the world thinking that it’s OK to just believe things because you believe them without evidence, then you’re missing so much.”[15]

I couldn’t agree more. Dr. Dawkins, this has been a very enlightening conversation.

“I think we’ve had a wonderful discussion.”[16]

Before we close, the Spaniel has a few questions he’d like to ask…

 “Unfortunately, we’re running out of time”[17]


Do you have any questions for “Dr. Dawkins” or the Spaniel? Please enter them in the comments section below. And don’t forget to subscribe so you’ll be automatically notified of future postings!


[1] The Four Horsemen: the conversation that sparked an atheist revolution Random House, 2019

[2] P49

[3] p111

[4] p123

[5] p79

[6] p9

[7] P5

[8] P8

[9] P18

[10] P21

[11] P22

[12] P22

[13] P2

[14] P17

[15] P99

[16] p131

[17] p130

Although it’s been out now for 13 years, The God Delusion  by Richard Dawkins still sets the standard for 21st century atheist polemics. Both lionized by atheists and demonized by some believers, he is deserving, I think, of neither.

I’ve followed Dawkins for a while, mostly because of his particular pronouncements on the “improbability” of God. This thought intrigued me, because as someone  who has studied advanced probability (all right, I took a senior level math course in college), I was curious how that improbability was determined, and the methodology behind it.

Dawkins’s argument appears in Chapter 4, and reduces to this:

  1. The origin of life is an extremely improbable event. (on that we all agree).
  2. The history of life has been an inexorable progression from simple to complex. (conceded by most, except for young earth creationists).
  3. Darwinian evolution is the one thing we know that builds increasing complexity over time. (highly tendentious).

And finally, in his own words:

4. “The designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer. The whole problem we started out with was the problem of explaining statistical improbability. It is obviously no solution to postulate something even more improbable.”

Elsewhere, he states (more clearly) that a cosmic designer would have to be more complex than life, so it seems [to him] illogical to explain complexity by postulating something even more complex. The latter is probably true, as far as it goes.

In a way, I was disappointed. I hoped he might have something interesting to offer on calculating the probability for or against God’s existence, but instead he merely offers a philosophical argument, and not a very good one.

In making his case, Dawkins commits three logical fallacies:

  1. Begging the question. Dawkins assumes what he sets out to prove. His thesis on Darwinian evolution assumes it happened without divine intervention. Even if we know evolution happened, which is almost certainly true on some scale, we don’t really understand how it happened. Natural selection, which Dawkins so reveres, is the black box, but inside is the biochemistry. Dawkins is no biochemist. (He’s no mathematician, either). If evolution was actively guided by the same designer, the case for improbability collapses. One has to assume it was not, which is begging the question.

2. Category error. Truly, I’ve been surprised that theologians would try to refute his argument by insisting that God is simple, not complex. How about neither? The words “simple” and “complex” as we apply them in the physical realm have no meaning with regard to an immaterial being that exists outside of space, matter, energy, and time. It’s as meaningless as talking about the “color” of God. Drop the assumption of material complexity, and the case collapses.

3. Equivocation fallacy. All Theists define God as uncreated, self-existing, and the first cause. Dawkins brushes right past by asking “who designed the designer?”This is just an unimaginative restatement of the old “who made God?” argument. A God that was “made” would not, by definition, be God. Dawkins own twist is to try and add a patina of authority by reframing it in scientific verbiage. The argument is purely a philosophical one. There is no way in the realm of science or mathematics to assign a probability to the solution.

This little discussion is neither intended as proof of theism nor a refutation of atheism. There is but one point to conclude. Dawkins’s many references to the extreme “improbability” of God amount to nothing more than an expression of personal feeling, not mathematics or science.

By U.S. Army, Post-Work: User:W.wolny - Archivesnormandie 1939-45, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=765569

It is early spring of 1943. The Axis powers are beginning to crumble against the massive and unrelenting Allied onslaught. Plans for the imminent invasion of Sicily are underway, establishing a base for the invasion and liberation of continental Europe.

Meanwhile, back at US military intelligence, a tightly knit group of outliers have been poring over captured Nazi military communications. They conclude that Berlin is a Potemkin facade – the entire brain trust of the Nazi war machine is hiding away in the Canary Islands. “That is their true vulnerability,” they determine. “Capture the Canaries, and victory is assured.”
 
The Allied command views the minority report as pure nonsense, but a third of the officer corps is persuaded and defects. Soldiers, seaman, and marines are transferred to the Canary Islands and commence their assault. Strangely, the beaches are deserted except for driftwood, dead starfish, and a noisy flock of seagulls. The befuddled Germans sense an opportunity too great to pass up, and begin to airdrop a few unfortunate paratroopers to keep the Allies distracted.
 
Meanwhile, with a third of Allied forces diverted, the Germans retake North Africa. The Japanese overrun India, then Australia. With the British Empire in full collapse, German warships and troop carriers begin to amass at Cherbourg for the final amphibious assault upon the British Isles.
 
In this counterfactual scenario, faulty intelligence led to a commitment of resources to fight the wrong battle in the wrong location, snatching defeat from the very jaws of victory. In other words, kind of like Christians fighting over the age of the earth.
 
This should be the golden era of science apologetics. Never has there been more evidence in support of a Divine Creator and the wisdom of His plan for humanity. Astronomy and physics have established beyond doubt that our universe of space, time, matter, and energy had a beginning. There is nothing in our realm of understanding to explain it. The universe and our planet are exquisitely designed for human civilization, with nearly a thousand specific parameters tuned in perfect alignment. In the realm of theoretical physics, the nature of fundamental physical reality looks too complex for comfort.
 
Biology, biochemistry, and genetics have revealed unfathomable complexity in the nature of life and reproduction. There is no working model for the origin of life. The problem of human consciousness remains so intractable we don’t even know where to start.
 
Medical research confirms beyond any doubt that the Biblical model of heterosexual monogamy is uniquely conducive to the mental and physical health of adults and their children and to social stability. Psychology and the social sciences corroborate the Biblical view of human nature as naturally proud and self-serving, with a propensity toward evil.
 
Every year more scientists and intellectuals come to embrace Christianity as the only adequate explanation for all they know and see.
 
With overwhelming firepower at our command, what do we do? A tiny contingent  with quasiscientific credentials insists that the Earth is really only six thousand years old (faulty intelligence). Their strategy has engaged a large proportion of the Christian community (diversion of resources). They make that hill the one upon which the Truly Faithful must stand or die (wrong battle in the wrong location). Opponents of Christianity are gleeful to engage, knowing full well their real vulnerabilities lie far from that battlefront. Young people raised in the Church are losing their faith in college, being persuaded over this one peripheral issue that Christianity is anti-scientific. Non-Christians simply roll their eyes and groan. And no one seems to get why.
 
To the apostle Paul, the Truth of Christianity stood on the resurrection of Christ. He penned those words when eyewitnesses to the risen Christ still walked the Earth, of whom Paul was one. For some Christians today, the Truth of Christianity stands or falls on a six thousand year old Earth. There’s only one way to lose this war, and we’re making great headway. The seagulls are getting nervous.

Sexual orientation and health

October 2, 2018 | apologetics | No Comments

Here, as anywhere, the wisdom of the great C. S. Lewis should be taken to heart:

“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. .. It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind…which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.”  C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory. [italics added]

Mental health

§  “A twofold excess in suicide attempts in lesbian, gay and bisexual people”
§ ” Lifetime prevalence of suicide attempt was especially high in gay and bisexual men (RR 4.28, CI 2.32, 7.88)”
§  “The risk for depression and anxiety disorders (over a period of 12 months or a lifetime) on meta-analyses were at least 1.5 times higher in lesbian, gay and bisexual people”
§  “Alcohol and other substance dependence over 12 months was also 1.5 times higher
§  “Lesbian and bisexual women were particularly at risk of substance dependence (alcohol 12 months: RR 4.00, CI 2.85, 5.61; drug dependence: RR 3.50, CI 1.87, 6.53; any substance use disorder RR 3.42, CI 1.97–5.92)”
Scapegoating the Church for LGBT Suicide and Stigma

This June 27, 2019 article by Family Practice physician Andre van Mol, MD reviews nearly two dozen research publications in the areas of suicidal behavior and intimate partner violence in LGBT-identifying individuals. Studies show an across-the-board increase in suicidality that is unaffected by liberal community attitudes. All studies to date either show no effect, or a protective effect, from religious faith. No one has been able to conclusively demonstrate a causal connection between stigmatization and mental illness in the LGBT community.

Domestic violence

CDC, The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, 2010:

Sexual minority respondents reported levels of intimate partner violence
at rates equal to or higher than those of heterosexuals.

•Forty-four percent of lesbian women, 61% of bisexual women, and 35% of
heterosexual women experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an
intimate partner in their lifetime.
•Twenty-six percent of gay men, 37% of bisexual men, and 29% of heterosexual
men experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner
at some point in their lifetime.
•Approximately 1 in 5 bisexual women (22%) and nearly 1 in 10 heterosexual
women (9%) have been raped by an intimate partner in their lifetime.

Rates of some form of sexual violence were higher among lesbian
women, gay men, and bisexual women and men compared to
heterosexual women and men.

•Approximately 1 in 8 lesbian women (13%), nearly half of bisexual women
(46%), and 1 in 6 heterosexual women (17%) have been raped in their lifetime.
This translates to an estimated 214,000 lesbian women, 1.5 million bisexual women,
and 19 million heterosexual women.
•Four in 10 gay men (40%), nearly half of bisexual men (47%), and 1 in 5
heterosexual men (21%) have experienced SV other than rape in their lifetime.
This translates into nearly 1.1 million gay men, 903,000 bisexual men, and 21.6
million heterosexual men.   

Sexually Transmitted Disease

Mojola SA, Everett B. STD and HIV risk factors among U.S. young adults: variations by gender, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation. Perspect Sex Reprod Health. 2012;44(2):125-33.

  • “In the United States, sexual minorities, such as gay and bisexual men, as well as racial and ethnic minorities, such as blacks and Hispanics, have higher rates of STDs and HIV than their majority counterparts.”
  • “People who have multiple minority identities are at disproportionate risk of acquiring STDs, including HIV.”
  • “Gay males of every race or ethnicity reported a higher number of sexual partners than heterosexual white males”

Ritter, L. J., & Ueno, K. (2018). Same-Sex Contact and Lifetime Sexually Transmitted Disease Diagnoses Among Older Adults. Journal of Aging and Health.

  • “Older adults who report any SSC have higher lifetime counts of STDs. This difference persists even when controlling for sex, race, education, age, military status, and incarceration. Propensity matching models show that this difference persists when respondents are matched on several factors that may influence SSC prior to STD contraction.”

 

Marriage and Health

October 1, 2018 | apologetics | No Comments

A glimpse of current literature regarding the benefits of monogamy:

Effects on adults

What Do We Know About the Link Between Marriage and Health? Journal of Family Issues 31(8):1019-1040, 2010:

§  “Marriage reduces depression”
§  “Unmarried adults are more likely to drink, use marijuana, and drive recklessly”
§  “Married men and women experience lower mortality at every age relative to those who remain unmarried or lose their spouse through widowhood or divorce”
§  “A number of rigorous studies reveal that marriage can also lead to better general physical health and better outcomes for some specific health conditions, including arthritis, hypertension, and heart disease”

The impact of polygamy on women’s mental health: a systematic review | Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences 22(1):47-62, 2013

“Individual studies report a higher prevalence of somatization, depression, anxiety, hostility, psychoticism and psychiatric disorder in polygynous wives as well as reduced life and marital satisfaction, problematic family functioning and low self-esteem.”
 

 Effects on children

Parental Divorce or Death During Childhood and Adolescence. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 204(9):678-695, 2016:

“Participants reporting a history of parental divorce present a significantly higher prevalence of psychiatric disorders, particularly alcohol and drug use disorders compared with control subjects. While participants experiencing the death of a parent reported a poorer overall health, the prevalence of psychiatric disorder after 17 years of age was not significantly higher than that of the control subjects.”

The consequences of fatherlessness:

“Children from fatherless homes are more likely to be poor, become involved in drug and alcohol abuse, drop out of school, and suffer from health and emotional problems. Boys are more likely to become involved in crime, and girls are more likely to become pregnant as teens.”

Economic benefits

Marriage and divorce’s impact on wealth. Journal of Sociology 41(4):406-424, 2005:

“Married respondents experience per person net worth increases of 77 percent over single respondents. Additionally, their wealth increases on average 16 percent for each year of marriage. Divorced respondents’ wealth starts falling four years before divorce and they experience an average wealth drop of 77 percent.”

On human nature

September 11, 2017 | apologetics | No Comments

In the realm of logic there is a principle known as the fallacy of the false dilemma. The rules of logic are violated when a complex question is restricted to an arbitrary number of answers, typically just two.
This occurs regularly in the public discourse and is a major contributor to polarization. Either global warming is a hoax, or global warming is the gravest threat to human existence. Either the complete neo-Darwinian paradigm is a fact or a total fabrication.  With both issues, there is a broad continuum of enlightened opinion that attracts little notice – because moderate people are boring. Recent insights from social psychology account for why we tend to gravitate toward extreme positions. It requires greater mental effort to parse complex issues, and we are naturally lazy. It enhances our ego when we can claim the mantle of moral superiority and vilify our opponents. That’s a lot less satisfying if your opponent might be even partially correct.
A recent columnist asserted that liberals think Wall Street is the source of moral decay, and conservatives believe the decay stems from Washington. Are we facing a false dilemma?
Let’s look a little closer. Taken at face value, the premise immediately leads to contradictions. The upper echelons of our federal government have been dominated by wealthy business types under both Republican and Democratic administrations, and for many a short career in government has been a Launchpad to success in business. Wall Street and Washington are more symbiotic than antagonistic.
If we pause to think but a second, both right and left harbor a list of villains that extends far beyond Wall Street and Washington. Liberal villains include pro-lifers, most Christians, white males, married white females, the military, Republicans, and pretty much anyone who hasn’t drunk the newest flavor of Kool-Aid. Conservative villains include Socialists, Communists, most of the media, sexual revisionists, Democrats, climate alarmists, and any liberals not otherwise listed. Clearly it is false that either side sees the “rot” as confined to a particular group.
Everyone with a pulse knows about the Holocaust. But the Holocaust was not the first genocide of the 20th century. That dishonor falls to the Turks, for their slaughter of over a million Armenian Christians starting in 1915. Nor was the Holocaust the largest mass slaughter. At least 20 million human souls perished at the hands of Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin between 1917 and 1953.
In the wake of the Holocaust, Western society was gripped with the question “what could drive normal people to such evil?” That concern prompted the famous Milgram experiments of the early 1960’s. In the initial experiment, 65% of participants willingly inflicted a fatal electric shock (fake, but they didn’t know) on a pretend “student” when instructed to do so by a man in a white coat. Shocking, indeed.
If you seek comfort in the belief that violence is mostly caused by radical ideologies or authoritarian regimes, forget it. Between 2001 and 2016, more Americans were killed in Chicago than the Middle East. Anthropologists have come to accept that murder has been a common cause of death throughout history and even prehistory. If anything, it has declined with more powerful states.
Psychologist David Buss of the University of Texas at Austin reported in 2005 – based on a survey of over 5000 people – that 91% of men and 84% of women have entertained at least one fantasy of committing murder. That most haven’t followed through has more to do with our personal comfort and fear of consequences than the strength of our character.
Of course, murder is merely the most dramatic manifestation of “rot”. Lesser manifestations – greed, deceit, infidelity, lust – permeate all of human society. All of history, science, reason, and experience lead to the inevitable conclusion that deep within every human spirit lies an inclination toward evil.
Few could have spoken with greater authority – or greater eloquence – than Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, survivor of the Soviet Gulag, who wrote: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” For two thousand years this principle has been known by a particular name. The theologically inclined may still recognize it as the doctrine of original sin.
This reality lead 17th century political philosopher Thomas Hobbs to argue for strong authoritarian central governments to keep the darker human impulses in check. Others saw a different path – if the population was religiously observant. (The founder of modern political science, Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote“Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.”)
A century ago the London Times inquired“What’s wrong with the world today?” Noted Catholic writer and Christian apologist G. K. Chesterton responded:
“Dear Sir,
I am.

Yours, G. K. Chesterton.”