Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Talk is Cheap...So Charge for Being Wrong


Sinclair Oil's logo. Note the frickin dinosaur.


It's not news that human beings are bad critical thinkers who use language inexactly. Listen to someone - anyone - for five minutes and count the questionable, or more often meaningless, statements they make. Of course, we base our relationships largely on trust and know that even if our pal is talking a lot of nonsense (just like we are), s/he means well.

That's why in psychology, if you want to design an experiment that reliably shows what people really believe about the world, you design it with a financial reward or penalty. Of course, we take part in these kinds of experiments all the time. Futures markets like intrade.com are excellent - and a good option for creationists who insist that the foundations of evolution are about to crumble. ("When? One year? Ten years? I'll take that. Just put the money in escrow please." Odd how rarely these yahoos actually have the courage of their convictions.) People have even suggested pinning down political pundits and even scientists by penalizing them financially for being wrong. James Randi has been penalizing psychics and dowsers for years by not giving them a million dollars. Less exotically, of course there's also the stock market, and of course there's just plain old betting too.

And of course this suggests a different rhetorical angle from the one traditionally taken by rationalists: don't debate, just bet. It's a fun game to look how quickly the bravado and feigned beliefs of creationists and denialists of all stripes evaporate (or are papered over with excuses) once there's money in the deal. A cousin of mine who's given to conspiracy theories once told me - heatedly, because I wouldn't take him on faith - that the U.S. dollar would soon be replaced by the Amero, you know, New World Order, Bilderburgers, black helicopters etc. So I tried to bet him a hundred dollars (or the equivalent in Ameros if he was right) - and I even offered to let him pick the period (would it happen in one year? Five?) He proceeded to back out by telling me with a straight face that betting was immoral. But it shut him up; I never heard about Ameros again.

There are other questions for believers lurking at the intersection of atheism and finance. For example - why do insurance companies not bother asking how many people pray for you? Is it because there's a big atheist insurance company conspiracy hiding the power of prayer, or is it becaue talking to yourself with folded hands does nothing? Why do people who are formally prohibited from certain economic activities (charging interest, opening businesses on certain days) seek out infidels to create clever workarounds - are infidels invisible to God? Do Young Earth Creationists check their 401ks carefully to be sure they're not throwing their money away investing in these crazy companies like ExxonMobil that drill in the wrong place for oil because they think the world is billions of years old (no wonder we're running out of oil!) Do they refuse to buy gas at Sinclair because there's a frickin dinosaur right on the sign? Do creationists and homeopathic charlatans and AIDS denialists refuse medical treatment that uses the full set of tools from modern biology and chemistry? Yes, I know - a few of them do; most don't.

So the question is: why, in almost every case where their health and money are on the line, do these people behave exactly the same way that a materialist does?

A good question, if a little general. Fortunately it's very easy to ask more specific questions - profitably. At best, you get a little richer. Most of the time, they'll back out, but at least they're quieter.

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