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Leaving Las Vegas … Rich

by Michael Shermer, Jul 17 2012

Report from the Front Lines at TAM and Freedom Fest

By “rich” I mean intellectually, of course, because as all skeptics know, the laws of probability are precisely employed by all Las Vegas casinos to insure that if you play long enough the money in your pocket will end up in their coffers. It is not for nothing that it is called Lost Wages.

Actually, there are two ways to win at gambling. You can do it the way I did after the final session at TAM Sunday: play for a brief period of time and quit when you are ahead. I started with $200 at a $5 minimum Blackjack table. For around 20 minutes I bounced around between $150 and $250 in chips artfully stacked in front of me as I pretended to be a big spender. The inevitable losing streak then kicked in and I was suddenly down below $50, then clawed my way back up to $228 when it was time to go, saving myself from the over-confidence bias that would have, in time, left me with nothing but green cloth beneath my empty palms. (The other way to win at gambling in Las Vegas? Be the owner of a casino.)

Wednesday afternoon the Skeptics Society photographer Dave Patton and I made the drive to Vegas after our annual bike ride to Mt. Wilson and subsequent Subway sandwich stop to assuage the guilt to come from eating and drinking too much in Sin City. Wednesday night I dined with Mark Skousen and guests at the world-famous Circo restaurant at Bellagio’s, a joint so pricey that the prices are not even printed on the menu. I got to sit next to John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, who just completed his book entitled Conscious Capitalism (due out 12-12-12), in which he wants to rewrite the economic narrative of conservatives who have too long embraced the “greed is good” and “the virtue of selfishness” messages of conservatives and libertarians such as Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand. As he told me (I’m paraphrasing from memory, slightly cloudy from imbibing some very fine red wine), “Entrepreneurs, inventors, and creators don’t go into business just to make money. They go into business because they want to change the world, follow their passions, create something new. The money is nice but it isn’t the most important thing.” Conscious capitalism puts people and community and jobs and quality products and service first, money second. Mackey believes what he preaches, carefully selecting from the Circo menu a vegetarian dinner with only the healthiest ingredients, and he tries to do that in his grocery stores. Yes, eating super healthy can cost more, and in some cases some skepticism is appropriate as to whether or not those more expensive foods really make you healthier or not. (I went Vegan once—it started just after breakfast one day and ended at dinner that night.)

John Mackey is an interesting contrast with Steve Jobs, a comparison I made at a Friday panel discussion at Freedom Fest on the late Apple CEO. I noted my concern that the popularity of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs is an example of a selection bias in publishing: no one writes biographies of all the failed Silicon valley entrepreneurs of the 70s, 80s, and 90s. People scour through the personalities and developmental histories of successful entrepreneurs and CEOs in search of the (pick your number) X habits of highly effective leaders (and such). It’s all malarkey. Yes, optimism can be a good trait to have in order to overcome the normal obstacles that one encounters in building an organization or company, but pessimism might make one more realistic when it comes to risk taking, changing directions before it is too late instead of stubbornly pressing on when there is no hope of success. Yes, perhaps being tough minded makes for strong leaders who get more out of their employees by intimidating them or staring at them without blinking (Jobs’s tactic), but tender-minded leaders can also motivate employees through empathy and caring about their welfare. Open-mindedness is good because you are more likely to see the value of new ideas, but if you are too open-minded your brains might fall out and you’ll believe every wacky (and wrong) idea that comes your way. And so forth. You get the idea. There are lots of ways to be successful. Steve Jobs and John Mackey have (near as I can tell) radically different personalities, and yet both were and are successful entrepreneurs and CEOs.

I also sat on a panel with Charles Murray about his new book, Coming Apart, about the state of white America from 1960 to 2010. Murray argues that a cognitive elite has arisen as a result of the fact that our economy is now so dependent on science, technology, and information that requires cognitive skills learned in college and graduate school, and these needed skills under employment have led to a distinct two-culture system of those who live in Fishtown (blue collar) and Belmont (white collar). It’s a good book chockablock full of sociological data, so I focused my attention on his claim that the decline of religiosity and increase in secularism has contributed to the culture divide and the loss of values (so he claims). I disputed that premise that America is losing its religion, given that the polls consistently show that 90% to 95% of Americans believe in God, although I did acknowledge the fact that the fastest growing religious group in America is the “nones”—those who tick the box for “none” when asked by pollsters for their religion.

Murray holds that America’s Founding Fathers, while not especially super religious themselves, believed that religion was necessary for self-governance. That is, if moral controls are not imposed from above by government then they must be imposed from within through religion. Murray believes that the rise of secularism has led to a decline in morals. I asked him what he believes. He said, “I’m a reluctant agnostic who wishes he could believe.” I cited Gregory Pauls’ 2005 study published in the Journal of Religion and Society—“Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies”—that found an inverse correlation between religiosity (measured by belief in God, biblical literalism, and frequency of prayer and service attendance) and societal health (measured by rates of homicide, suicide, childhood mortality, life expectancy, sexually transmitted diseases, abortion, and teen pregnancy) in 18 developed democracies. “In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies,” Paul found. “The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developed democracies, sometimes spectacularly so.” Indeed, the U.S. scores the highest in religiosity and the highest (by far) in homicides, STDs, abortions, and teen pregnancies.

In fact, I sent this study to Murray before Freedom Fest so that he would have time to think about it and provide a thoughtful answer, rather than my trying to ambush him or trip him up. I made the point that I do not believe that religion causes these societal ills, and that in fact I am quite certain that each of them has a different set of causes. Sure homicides have one set of causes different from that of STDs, and the like. But, I noted, if religion is suppose to be such a powerful prophylactic against sin and other societal problems, why is it not working very well here in America, the most religious of all the Western democracies. As well, I pointed out, South American countries are 99% Catholic. All those South Americans accept Jesus as their savior, and yet crime rates are high, poverty is high, etc. By contrast, I concluded, Northern European countries such as Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Germany, etc. have some of the lowest rates of religiosity in the Western world and yet they have exceptionally low rates of homicide, abortion, teen pregnancy, STDs, etc.

Murray’s response surprised me: “Michael, to resolve these issues would best be done over a late night drink and long conversation. But in general my sense about your writings on religion is that you are unnecessarily harsh and unsophisticated and non-subtle in your analysis.” He then explained that even though he’s not a believer his wife is a deeply believing Quaker who takes her religion very seriously, and this impresses him and makes him respect religion.

Interestingly, Charles Darwin felt the same way. He called himself an agnostic (in the sense that his friend Thomas Huxley meant it when he defined the word in 1869 to mean “unknowable”) and noted: “In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an Atheist in the sense of denying the existence of God. I think that generally (and more and more as I grow older), but not always, that an Agnostic would be the more correct description of my state of mind.” But his wife Emma was a deeply religious woman who bemoaned the fact that if her husband did not believe then they would not spend eternity together. Thus, Darwin avoided the subject when he could. For example, in 1880, Darwin clarified his reasoning to the British socialist Edward Aveling, who solicited Darwin’s endorsement of a group of radical atheists by asking his permission to dedicate a book Aveling edited entitled The Student’s Darwin, a collection of articles discussing the implications of evolutionary theory for religious thought. The book had a militant antireligious flavor that Darwin disdained and he declined the offer, elaborating his reason with his usual flare for quotable maxims: “It appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against christianity & theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds which follow[s] from the advance of science. It has, therefore, been always my object to avoid writing on religion, & I have confined myself to science.” He then appended an additional hint about a personal motive: “I may, however, have been unduly biased by the pain which it would give some members of my family, if I aided in any way direct attacks on religion.” My sense is that Charles Murray is taking a page from the playbook of Charles Darwin in the interests of domestic tranquility and out of love and respect, admirable qualities both.

Nevertheless, I would have liked to get an answer to my question about why the über-religious America has so many societal ills, why über-Catholic South American countries are so socially ill, and why the practically non-religious northern European countries are so socially healthy. Inquiring minds want to know.

I’ll post more later on TAM and Freedom Fest, including an analysis of one of the most magnificent take-downs of a pseudoscientist I’ve ever seen when I arranged to have skeptic Steve Novella debate an anti-vaxxer at Freedom Fest. I’ll also summarize my own debate at Freedom Fest with a Catholic Thomist philosopher on the question: “Is Man a Machine, Animal, or Special Creation?” I think I did about as well as Novella did against the anti-vaxxer, but libertarians are a mixed bag when it comes to religion, with some super skeptical of Big Government but have not an ounce of skepticism when it comes to Big Religion. Likewise when it comes to corporations, which they adore, unless it is Big Pharma in cahoots with Big Government conspiring to make us all sick in the name of Big Profits. (Bill Maher, an anti-vaxxer himself, is the liberal doppelgänger of these libertarians, loving Big Government unless they are in cahoots with Big Pharma, in which case they’re all evil.) Stay tuned…

17 Responses to “Leaving Las Vegas … Rich”

  1. Old Rockin' Dave says:

    A former brother-in-law of mine had an uncle who found another way to make money off of Vegas gambling. He was a well-known “character” among the regular poker players on the Strip. His method was to carry a modest wad of big bills. When one of the regulars tapped out, he would give them fifty or a hundred bucks to get back in the game. When they won big they would come back and “remember him” with a nice “tip”. He never got rich at it but he came out ahead just enough to live in reasonable comfort.
    I wouldn’t recommend that to anyone else. Times have changed; it wouldn’t be safe to be known for walking around with a pocket full of cash. Besides, knowing who to give how much to was an art that took him years to learn.

  2. Ian Dodd says:

    I have to raise a skeptical eye at your broad-brush generalities about social ills in South America. Having been a student of just such things in college and having spent a fair amount of time in Latin America, particularly Brazil, I have watched with interest as the poverty rate in that country has been slashed by half in past 20 years. Here’s what I’m referring to:

    Yes, I’ll admit I’m cherry-piking my data her, but only in the interest of brevity. There are plenty of resources that will corroborate this. Over those years I doubt that religiosity in Brazil has shifted nearly as much as poverty levels (interesting question though). In general, I agree with your contention that religiosity and social ills tend to be positively correlated. But just because a society has been traditionally religious, does not mean that is locked into an unbreakable cycle of poverty and underdevelopment.

  3. Bad Boy Scientist says:

    I raise some concerns with respect and admiration for Dr Schermer…

    Note: I’ve only read summaries of Paul’s study, but I am not sure that it is compelling

    Let me start off with the old saw “Correlation does not imply causation” – even if a sample of 18 nations shows this connection – so what? There could no no real cause here – the correlation could be due to chance (which is why statisticians talk about P-values). These things fluctuate, it could be that the time of the study, among the sample of those 18 nations the ones with higher religiosity had greater rates of the societal ills examined.

    Secondly, even if there is causation, which way does it point? Does high religiosity cause greater societal ills or do greater societal ills lead to higher religiosity? There is other evidence supporting the second explanation – historically people turn to god in times of crisis. So that could lead to the correlation.

    My third, probably most important concern, is it could be a false correlation, IOW: there is a hidden common cause (or a handful of causes) which produces both high religiosity and greater societal ills. It is obvious that this comparison is NOT ceteris paribus (“All other things being equal”) there are *many* cultural, economic, historical and environmental differences between the countries … it is virtually impossible to correct for all of these differences – and therefore eliminate hidden causes for these effects. For all we know, climate plays a role in both of these (notice the religiosity of Northern States in America & Northern Nations in Europe compared to their southern counterparts) – and some of these effects have to do with geographical population shifts. (I’m not advocating that as a reasonable explanation – but crazier things have turned out to be true!).

    I raise these concerns in the spirit of “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (Ie. Who is skeptical of the skeptics?)

    • tmac57 says:

      You could however see a very plausible connection between high religiosity and higher rates of STDs, abortions, and teen pregnancies,due to condemnation of condom use,abstinence only sex education (if any at all),and the general ‘head-in-the-sand’ attitude toward human sexuality that pervades the thinking of the most religious among us.

    • MajorityofOne says:

      I believe you guys are missing the point here. It isn’t about caustion or data or anything.

      If being religious prevents you from sinning — big daddy in sky is watching you — then you should refrain from raping, killing, pillaging, burning, etc etc etc. Highest number of non-sinners = lower number of criminals. This is what Dr Shermer is pointing out. Not causation.

      Taking another tack still: if god so loves the united states of america and is protecting it from all ills as the christians I know presume, hence their unwillingness to part with god, then why is the crime rate in the US so damn high???

      Maybe the US has the highest percentage of liars or wishful thinkers? (I wish I believed in god so I’ll tick the “believes in god” box on the survey just in case sky daddy is watching me.)

      • tmac57 says:

        Since the religious always have a pat answer for every contradiction,my guess is they would go with the old “God is just testing our faith” trope.Can I get an Amen brother?!!!

    • MadScientist says:

      I’ve never given any truck to these claims of religiosity vs. wellbeing. Even the best of graphs out there look decidedly dishonest to me – hell, if I had a student making claims on such data there’s no question they’d get a failing mark. People are definitely imagining a significant correlation and deliberately ignoring many of the more extreme (but absolutely valid) data points simply because it doesn’t fit in with their preconceived notion of US exceptionalism.

      Religion can definitely contribute to the perpetuation of ignorance and misery though. I think the Philippines offers a prime example of that – the catholic church is the greatest champion of ignorance and evil. Some competent public servants are trying to change things for the better but the church is not shy about combating change and perpetuating suffering and ignorance.

  4. Phea says:

    Dishonest people, liars, cheats and thieves, can always be found in just about any size group. They’ve always been and always will be a minor problem. We have a major problem when we accept and reward business people for behaving immorally, unethically, and criminally. It’s a huge problem that can’t be solved by passing laws or any other top down approach. I believe it has to be solved by society, as a whole, demanding and rewarding decency and honor, and shunning the corrupt and greedy.

    We will get what we deserve, which is always what we are willing to accept.

  5. sailor says:

    As long as the casino keeps plying you with free drinks, you are winning as long as you stay even.

  6. mechtheist says:

    The real American exceptionalism, we appear to stare into the mirror in the first Harry Potter book, seeing only what we most want to be. How else can the lovers of corporate greed, capital punishment, and attacks on government programs to help the less fortunate, avow themselves devout followers of Jesus? Where some of the biggest, most adamant of christian sects spend an inordinate amount of time trying to squash gay people? The liberal democracies of Europe are far more christian than fundamentalists/evangelical America. They’ve but dispensed with the fantasies and kept the principles.

  7. MadScientist says:

    Quitting while you’re ahead is no winning strategy either. In the long run you’ll always lose. You may have won a grand total of $28, but for each time you’re ahead by a tiny fraction of what you were prepared to lose, how much do you lose? My bet is a hell of a lot. Touting the rare events in which you come ahead by a miniscule amount only encourages the wrong idea that you can win. You barely scraped through the battle – it was essentially a stalemate – and unless you’re one of an extremely small minority, you’re going to lose the war and quite badly at that.

  8. MadScientist says:

    “… even though he’s not a believer his wife is a deeply believing Quaker who takes her religion very seriously, and this impresses him and makes him respect religion.”

    Without the express intention of being rude, I could never respect a fool for their fervent foolish beliefs. Why are so many people impressed by pig-headed adulation of stupid beliefs?

    • Max says:

      Sam Harris noted that religious fundamentalists are more consistent and intellectually honest than moderates. Like, if you truly believe that abortion is murder, then you should oppose it in case of rape and incest.

  9. Carl says:

    A third way to win in Vegas: cheat.

  10. sittingbytheriver says:

    well i have been drinking. but i have been to Vegas and I think STK restaurant at the Cosmo hotel is pretty good. Cosmo has an Italian restauran i don’t remember the name, they have a duck ravioli that is sublime.

  11. Degiglavegas says:

    OK, (if) the Northern Europeans are indeed more socially healthy, yet they by and large prescribe to the Big Govt leviathan of Democratic Socialism, what does that say about the views of right-wing American libertarianism? Dr. Shermer, as a libertarian–is there not a positive socio-economic/political connection between these European-style Social Democracies and the basic good health of their societies?

  12. Beelzebud says:

    What no photo album from Freedom Fest, where you pick out the oddest looking people you can find, and pose with them?