the new ussr illustrated

welcome to the Urbane Society for Skeptical Romantics, where pretentiousness is as common as muck

Archive for the ‘statistics’ Category

the greatest country on Earth?

leave a comment »

let's call bullshit

let’s call bullshit

Canto: So Michelle Obama thinks America is the greatest country on Earth…

Jacinta: Not just thinks, but tearfully feels, in every cell of her body, but you know, even she must realise it’s all rhetorical baloney.

Canto: I prefer to call it balderdash – less American.

Jacinta: But you can’t blame pollies for getting all jingoistic come election time, can you?

Canto: I do. I can’t stand it at any time. But I want us to reflect for a while on the meaning of ‘the greatest country on Earth’. Is greatness measurable? Is there currently a fifteenth greatest country on Earth? What are the measuring criteria?

Jacinta: I think you’re taking it all too seriously, but it’s interesting – we’ve observed this before – that every nation in history that has had economic and military superiority over others has assumed this entailed moral superiority. Whereas in the world of realpolitik it just means they’re an apex predator.

Canto: I’m sure Donald Frump would agree, though I think he’s wrong to claim that the USA is no longer an apex predator. There can be room for more than one at the top, though it wouldn’t do to let that space get too crowded.

Jacinta: Yes, so ‘greatest’ can only mean ‘most powerful’, it’s not the kind of term you use to measure a nation’s quality for its own citizens.

Canto: But why are Americans so keen to trumpet their nation’s superiority? I mean methinks they do protest too much.

Jacinta: Well a couple of centuries ago, when the Brits had the strongest economy, weren’t they the same?

Canto: Well, not really… I mean, that wouldn’t be British, would it? I mean they thought they were morally superior of course, but they weren’t so utterly boorish as to proclaim it while banging their tits.

Jacinta: Well you’re making a good point. When imperialist nations or superpowers or whatever start believing they’re better than others in some moral way, they may act accordingly, pushing their weight around, hectoring, lecturing, even taking it upon themselves to punish other nations for not being like them.

Canto: Or invading other nations to show them how ‘being great’ is done. So that’s why we need correctives. We need more objective measures, not for measuring national greatness, which is just a term of power, or just rhetoric, but for measuring success in terms of the well-being, happiness, freedom or whatever of the members of that nation.

Jacinta: I think that people like Obama, and so many Americans, really believe in this rhetoric though. They take a term like ‘great’, and they really think it refers to all those other things – opportunity, well-being, smarts, etc.

Canto: Which is why reality checks are in order. Take the ‘land of opportunity’ rhetoric. What this refers to is social mobility. Anyone has the chance to be anything. But there are surely ways to measure social mobility, which are more or less objective.

Jacinta: Certainly more objective than just making the claim. And it’s interesting, we’ve looked at a few national surveys, based on various criteria, and I can’t recall the USA ever coming in the top ten in any of them. Usually it’s well down the list.

Canto: So it’s time to revisit those surveys. First the OECD survey that was posted on in the past, its better life index. The Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)…

Jacinta: Such a positive, feel-good internationalist title.

Canto: Isn’t it? It was founded in 1948, another of those positives to come out of the negativity of warfare. It’s headquartered in Paris, it has 35 member countries and its purpose is pretty well self-explanatory.

Jacinta: Yes, but while its focus is obviously on economics, primarily, the better life index is a kind of side project, which is almost saying ‘money ain’t everything’, there are all these other factors as well as the economic, to consider when striving for a better life, and a better country.

Canto: Yes they consider 11 factors in all: housing, income, jobs, community, education, environment, civic engagement, health, life satisfaction, safety, and work-life balance. People can give different weightings to these factors, and on their website they allow you to change the weightings so that you’ll come up with a different top ten or twenty of the 35 participating countries.

Jacinta: But according to the weightings they favour, the USA comes a fairly creditable ninth behind Norway, Australia, Denmark, Switzerland, Canada, Sweden, New Zealand and Finland, in that order. But since we’re in Australia we can surely permit ourselves some eye-rolling at your standard Yank jingoism.

Canto: Surely but of course many will say that these ‘objective’ assessment criteria are highly suspect, and possibly anti-American.

Jacinta: Naturally, and we haven’t the resources or the time to evaluate them, so instead we’ll look at a number of these surveys with the assumption that they’re not all anti-American, to see how our chauvinistic allies fare. But it’s interesting that the OECD survey doesn’t highly rate any of the non-Scandinavian European counties. A Scandinavian bias perhaps?

Canto: Well here’s another rather different international survey, which looks instead at cities.

Jacinta: Very relevant considering the world’s rapid urbanisation shift.

Canto: The Mercer Quality of Living rankings looks at living conditions in hundreds of cities ‘according to 39 factors, grouped in 10 categories’: Political and social environment, Economic environment, Medical and health considerations, Schools and education, Public services and transportation, Recreation, Consumer goods, Housing, and Natural environment. And again, you may want to believe its findings are biased and you may be right, but its highest ranking American city is Honolulu at number 31.

Jacinta: Honolulu? Hardly the heart of America.

Canto: Compare neighbouring Canada, which has 5 cities in front of Honolulu. Vancouver (4), Ottawa (14), Toronto (16), Montreal (21) and Calgary (28). Australia and New Zealand also rate far better than the USA with Aukland ranked at 4 (tied with Vancouver), Sydney ranked 10, Wellington 12, Melbourne 18, Perth 21 and Canberra 26. Some 16 European cities are in the top 25, with Vienna being ranked the number one city for the past 6 years in a row. There are no Asian, African or South American cities in the top rankings.

Viennese market, in front of some Euro-impressive pile. I was there a few months back, shivering in the rain, blissfully unaware that I was in the world's best city, according to some

Viennese market, in front of some Euro-impressive pile. I was there a few months back, shivering in the rain, blissfully unaware that I was in the world’s best city, according to some

Jacinta: Mercer, by the way, is a human resources consulting firm headquartered in New York, and it’s really hard to get full data from it because it restricts full access to ‘professionals’, presumably behind a paywall. Nosy impoverished amateurs like us are unwelcome. So most of the data we’re using is from back in 2010 (and that’s only from press releases, with little detail) but I doubt that the USA has become any ‘greater’ since then. So it’s clear that the USA is no great shakes, city-wise – in fact it would be classed as probably the lowest-ranked western country in the world, according to this survey…

Canto: Conducted by a New York based firm…

Jacinta: Insofar as the liveability of it’s cities are concerned. And that’s where most people live, after all.

Canto: So it’s not looking good for the bad old USA. Any more surveys?

Jacinta: And in case people quibble about the term ‘western’, let’s be a little more precise. The USA, in terms of the quality of its cities for their own residents, lags behind Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

Canto: That way greatness tells lies.

Jacinta:  There’s a website called numbeo which claims to provide ‘the world’s largest database of user contributed data about cities and countries worldwide. Numbeo provides current and timely information on world living conditions including cost of living, housing indicators, health care, traffic, crime and pollution.‘ Its ‘quality of life index’, based on countries,  looks somewhat similar to that of the OECD, with the USA ranked tenth, well below Australia and New Zealand, ranked third and fourth respectively. However it differs from the OECD in that it ranks a number of non-Scandinavian European countries above the USA, namely Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Spain. And it ranks Canada below the USA, which is unusual. And again the top rankings are dominated by western countries, with Japan being the top Asian country at 16.

Canto: I’ve never heard of numbeo, what are their bonafides and how do they gather data?

Jacinta: It’s a crowd-sourcing site, founded in 2009 by one Mladan Adamovic, a former Google software engineer. It’s evolving, and its findings suggest it’s not particularly an outlier, though at this stage not perhaps as reliable as the OECD.

Canto: Well, with crowd-sourcing, there would be some nation-participants where information would be scarce, or virtually non-existent.

Jacinta: That’s right, but all of these survey organisations and websites face the same problems, and it’s pretty likely that the places from which info is scarce wouldn’t be in the top rankings in any case. If you know your country’s doing well, you’d want to share it.

Canto: Okay, so we’ve looked at three sources. One more?

Jacinta: Yeah well a few more, which I’ll summarise. Monocle magazine, a British lifestyle magazine, has been doing an annual quality of life index based on cities since 2006. Its criteria are ‘safety/crime, international connectivity, climate/sunshine, quality of architecture, public transport, tolerance, environmental issues and access to nature, urban design, business conditions, pro-active policy developments and medical care’, and it ranks Tokyo at number one, whereas Mercer ranked it 44th! It did rank Vienna at number two, however. And it ranked Melbourne at 4 and Sydney at 5, so it must be very objective.

Canto: And the US?

Jacinta: Its highest ranking city was Portland Oregon at 25. So there’s definitely a pattern emerging.

Canto: Where’s Adelaide?

Jacinta: They’ve never heard of it. Another survey based on cities comes from the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), from the London-based group that publishes The Economist. They go into a lot of detail about their criteria on their website, so I won’t go into it here. I only had access to their current top 10. It shows Hong Kong at number one, and Sydney at 5. No US cities make the ten, and Vienna isn’t there either. Tokyo comes in at 10. It should be added that they seem to have drastically amended their criteria recently – before that, Vienna regularly came in at number 3, with Melbourne and Vancouver also in the top 5 regularly. Melbourne ranked number 1 in 2011.

Docklands in the Great City of Melbourne

Docklands in the Great City of Melbourne

Canto: That’s interesting about Hong Kong, because I read elsewhere that life expectancy of its residents is about the highest in the world. So the city must be doing something right.

Jacinta: Well I’m sure the Chinese government will put a stop to that.

Canto: Okay I think we’ve done enough survey of surveys – let’s summarise. We started with Michele Obama, in typical US pollie style, proclaiming the greatness of her country.

Jacinta: I.e. not just great but ‘the greatest on Earth’. So we had a look at a handful of the most well-known global surveys of nations and cities, based essentially on liveability criteria. Though it’s impossible to be entirely objective in these surveys, they collectively present a pattern. In none of them did the USA distinguish itself, and in terms of its cities it really did quite badly, as a western nation. As to why that might be the case, we leave that for the reader’s speculations, for now. The gap between US perceptions and reality, I would contend, is largely caused by the assumption that if you’re globally dominant in economic terms, you’re in a ‘great’ country in any or every other way.

Canto: Roman economic hegemony, in the old days, was largely based on a substantial slave population, wasn’t it?

Jacinta: Well, that and being able to dictate terms of trade with others, as every dominant nation or empire has been able to do. But you’re right, a lot of economic success in the past has involved the exploitation of a populous underclass. The USA is by far the most populous of the traditional western countries, and it effectively has no minimum wage. That’s very handy for the McDonald Frumps of that great nation.

Homless Vacant Homes

Written by stewart henderson

August 7, 2016 at 1:37 pm

The over-population clock

leave a comment »

a pro-democracy demo in Egypt, 2011

a pro-democracy demo in Egypt, 2011

Canto: From time to time I’ve shown my students the world population clock (WPC), because I’ve brought my discourse round to it for some reason, and they’ve been mostly fascinated. And I’ve usually told them that the world’s population will level out at about 9.5 billion by mid-century, because I’ve read or heard that somewhere, or in a few places, but is that really true?

Jacinta: So you’re wanting to investigate some modelling?

Canto: Well yes maybe. I was looking at the WPC the other day, and was shocked at how births are outnumbering deaths currently. What’s actually being done to stem this tide?

Jacinta: Looking at the WPC website, there’s a lot more data there that might enlighten you and calm your fears a bit – if it can be trusted. Ok we went past 7.4 billion this year and you can see that so far there’s 70 milliom births compared to around 29 million deaths, and that looks worrying, but you need to look at long-term trends. The fact is that we’ve added a little over 40 million so far this year, with a current growth rate of about 1.13%. That figure means little by itself, but it’s important to note that it’s less than half of what the growth rate was at its peak, at 2.19% in 1963. The rate has been decelerating ever since. Of course the worry is that this deceleration may slow or stop, but there’s not much sign of that if we look at more recent trends.

Canto: Okay I’m looking at the figures now, and at current trends the projection is 10 billion by 2056, by which time the growth rate is projected to be less than 0.5%, but still a fair way from ZPG. The population, by the way, was two point something billion when I was born. That’s a mind-boggling change.

Jacinta: And yet, leaving aside the damage we’ve done and are doing to other species, we’re doing all right for ourselves, with humanity’s average calorie intake actually increasing over that time, if that indicates anything.

Canto: Averages can carpet over a multitude of sins.

Jacinta: Very quotable. But the most interesting factoid I’ve found here is that the current growth rate of 1.13% is well down on last year’s 1.18%, and the biggest drop in one year ever recorded. In 2010 the growth rate was 2.23%, so the deceleration is accelerating, so to speak. It’s also interesting that this deceleration correlates with increasing urbanisation. We’re now at 54.3% and rising. I know correlation isn’t causation, but it stands to reason that with movement to the city, with higher overheads in terms of housing, and with space being at a premium, but greater individual opportunities, smaller families are a better bet.


Canto: You bet, cities are homogenously heterogenous, all tending to favour smaller but more diverse families it seems to me. That’s why I’m not so concerned about the Brexit phenomenon, from a long-term perspective, though we shouldn’t be complacent about it. We need to maintain opportunities for trade and exchange, co-operative innovation, so that cities don’t evolve into pockets of isolation. Ghettoisation. Younger people get that, but the worry is that they won’t stay young, they won’t maintain that openness to a broader experience.

Jacinta: Well the whole EU thing is another can of worms, and I wonder why it is that so many Brits were so pissed off with it, or were they duped by populist nationalists, or are they genuinely suffering under European tyranny, I’m too far removed to judge.

Canto: Well, if there were too many alienating regulations, as some were suggesting, this should have and surely could have been subject to negotiation. Maybe it’s a lesson for the EU, but you’re right, we’re too far removed to sensibly comment. Just looking at the WPC now – and it’s changing all the time – it has daily birth/death rates which shows that the birth rate today far exceeds the death rate – by more than two to one. How can you possibly extrapolate that to a growth rate of only 1.13%?

Jacinta: Ah well that’s a mathematical question, and I’m no mathematician but obviously if you have a birth rate the same as the death rate you’ll have ZPG, no matter what the current population, where as if you have a disparity between births and deaths, the percentage of population increase (or decrease) will depend on the starting population and the end-population, as a factor of time – whether you measure is annually or daily or whatever.


Canto: Right so let’s practice our mathematics with a simple example and then work out a formula. Say you start with 10, that’s your start population at the beginning of the day. And 24 hours later you end up with 20. That’s a 100% growth rate? But of course that could be with 1000 additional births over the day, and 990 deaths. Or 10 more births and no deaths.

Jacinta: Right, which indicates that the total number of births and deaths is irrelevant, it’s the difference between them that counts, so to speak. So let’s call this difference d, which could be positive or negative.

Canto: But to determine whether this value is positive or negative, or what the figure is, you need to know the value of births (B) and deaths (D).

Jacinta: Right, so d = B – D. And let’s set aside for now whether it’s per diem or per annum or whatever. What we’re wanting to find out is the rate of increase, which we’ll call r. If you have a start population (S) of 10 and d is 10, then the end population (E) will be 20, giving a birth rate r of 100%, which is a doubling. I think that’s right.

Canto: So the formula will be: r = S – E… Fuck it, I don’t get formulae very well, let’s work from actual figures to get the formula. It’s actually useful that we’re almost exactly mid-year, and the figure for d (population growth) is currently a little under 42 million. That’s for a half-year, so I’ll project out to 83 million for 2016.

Jacinta: So d now means annual population growth.

Canto: right. Now if we remove this year’s growth figure from the current overall population we get as our figure for S = 7,391,500,000 and that’s an approximation, not too far off. And we can calculate E as 7,474,500, approximately.

Jacinta: But I don’t think we need to know E, we just need S and d in order to calculate r. r is given as a percentage, but as a fraction it must be d/S. And this can be worked out with any handy calculator. My calculation comes out at 6.6% growth rate.

Canto: Wrong.

Jacinta: Yes, wrong, ok, a quick confab with Dr Google provides this formula. d = ((E – S)/S).100. But we already have that? E-S is 83 million. Divided by S (7,391,500,000), and then multiplying by 100 gives a growth rate annually of 1.1229%, or 1.12% to two decimal places, which is not far off, but significantly less than, the WPC figure of 1.3%. I must have stuffed up the earlier calculation, because I think I used the same basic formula.

Canto: Excellent, so you’re right, my fears are allayed somewhat. Recent figures seem to be showing the growth rate declining faster than expected, but let’s have another look at the end of the year. Could it be that the growth figures are higher in the second half of the year, and the pundits are aware of this and make allowances for it, or are we actually ahead of the game?

Jacinta: We’ll have a look at it again at the end of the year. Remember we did a bit of rounding, but I doubt that it would’ve made that much difference.

Some current national annual population growth rates (approx):

Afghanistan 3.02%

Australia 1.57%

Bangladesh 1.20%

Brazil 0.91%

Canada 1.04%

China 0.52%

India 1.26%

Iran 1.27%

Germany 0.06%

Morocco 1.37%

Nigeria 2.67%

Pakistan 2.11%

South Africa 1.08%

United Kingdom 0.63%

(These are not, of course, calculated solely by births minus deaths, as migration plays a substantial role – certainly in Australia. Some surprises here. The highest growth rate on the full list of countries: Oman, 8.45%. The lowest is Andorra with -3.61%, though Syria, with -2.27% on these figures, has probably surged ahead by now).


Written by stewart henderson

July 3, 2016 at 3:37 pm

some preliminary reflections on patriarchy

leave a comment »

worried woman

Canto: I want to talk about patriarchy, it’s weighing on my mind more and more.

Jacinta: Go on. And by the way, since we’ll obviously be talking about males and females and difference here, I notice that this blog is currently getting quite a few hits on a previous post, What do we currently know about the differences between male and female brains in humans?, and I think there’s information I’d want to add to that post, based on more recent research.

Canto: Go on.

Jacinta: Well what the research found, and it doesn’t in any way contradict the above-mentioned post, is that there are no categorical differences between the male and female brain, only statistical differences. It’s a nice thing to emphasise, that human brains are a kind of mozaic of ‘male’ and ‘female’ traits, with a very broad spectrum of possibilities. It essentially means that, unlike with genitalia, which, with a few statistically insignificant exceptions, can be used to identify maleness or femaleness, you wouldn’t, even with a lifetime’s neurological experience behind you, be able to say categorically that an individual was male or female based on an examination of the person’s brain alone.

Canto: But there might in some cases be a high probability.

Jacinta: Oh yes, maybe 80% in some cases, but that wouldn’t pass muster in a court of law, beyond reasonable doubt and all that. That would require a 99.9% probability or more. Think DNA ‘fingerprinting’. So, in all that was written in the previous post, the words ‘on average’, a statistical reference, should be kept in mind.

Canto: Right. And that term was used in the post, but perhaps not enough. But now let’s look at some other stats. According to IFL science, males commit some 85% of homicides, 91% of same-sex homicides, and 97% of same-sex homicides in which the victim and the perp aren’t known to each other (that’s to say, in which the likely motive was ideological)…

Jacinta: Or business-related, as in hired hit-men and the like…

Canto: It’s a stark but probably not surprising set of statistics. The IFL science post from which I got this data went on to provide an explanation, of sorts, in evolutionary psychology, through concept such as ‘precarious manhood’, clearly embedded in a patriarchal society which appears to be taken for granted. The notoriously macho Yanomamo people of South America are cited as an example, because the more men they kill the more their status rises. This is claimed as evidence that the quest for dominance is pretty well universal among males…

Jacinta: Well I can see a clear problem there.

Canto: Good.

Jacinta: And it relates very much to what I’ve been saying about male (and female) brains. Just as they vary over a very wide spectrum, so males themselves vary in the same way. So how can the quest for dominance be universal among males when males themselves are so various in their brain wiring and function?

Canto: Excellent point, and so let me leave this evolutionary psychology stuff aside, at least for the time being, and get back to patriarchy. There are many reasons that have converged to make western society less violent over the centuries, but I strongly believe that a ‘drop’ in patriarchy and a rise in gender egalitarianism has been one of the major civilising factors – possibly the major one.

Jacinta: So you have a solution for the world: patriarchy bad, matriarchy good?

Canto: Matriarchy probably better, but that wouldn’t make for such a good bumper sticker.

Jacinta: Seriously, I think you may be right. And it might actually be safer to challenge certain societies – Arabic, African and Indian societies for example – on their patriarchy than on their religion. It might actually be their soft spot, because if they react violently to a criticism of patriarchal violence they’ve lost the argument, haven’t they?

Canto: They probably wouldn’t care about losing the argument, as long as they kept their patriarchy.

does your boss look like this?

does your boss look like this?

Jacinta: I would challenge the women in those societies, too. Nowadays, in the interests of multiculturalism, we’re asked to respect the hijab, and we get soft interviews with women who almost invariably say it’s their choice to wear it, and when asked why they choose to wear it they almost invariably say something about modesty. And that’s where the tough questioning should come in, but it never does.

Canto: Such as?

Jacinta: Such as, Does your husband (or father, or son) wear a hijab? If not, is that because modesty isn’t a male virtue? And if not, why not?

Canto: I’ve no idea what they’d say. Maybe they’d say that in their culture women dress differently from men, just as they do in western culture. You don’t see many western men going about in frocks, or hot-pants.

Jacinta: Well… you don’t see that many women going about in hot-pants actually. And not even frocks except on special occasions. Trousers and a top, that’s probably the most common everyday dress for both sexes. But we’ll get back to that, imagine I’m trying to pin them down on this modesty question. I think maybe they’d have to admit that modesty is regarded as a feminine virtue in their culture.

Canto: Ah, and then you’d go for the killer blow, saying ‘isn’t this because modesty is a self-effacing virtue, whereas the male virtues would be more about confidence and assertiveness? And which of these virtues would you associate with power?’

Jacinta: Yes, that’d kill them stone dead.

Canto: Well, actually you don’t go for the killer blow, you soften them up with Socratic manoeuvrings.

Jacinta: Ah. Well, Socrates I’m sure that self-confidence and assertiveness are more associated with power than modesty.

Canto: And modesty, that tends to more associated with a desire not to wield power – to be, or to seem to be, lacking in power?

Jacinta: Yes, that is certainly true, Socrates.

Canto: So it would follow, would it not, that those who don’t wear the hijab, namely the males, would be assertive and dominant within such a culture, and the hijab-wearers would be more submissive, and rather dominated? For to be modest is surely not to be dominant.

Jacinta: Surely it isn’t.

Canto: And yet, research tells us that both females – the hijab-wearers in this culture – and males are both a mosaic of various traits, some of which have been traditionally associated with maleness, some with femaleness, though perhaps not with good reason.

Jacinta: Yes, that’s what the research clearly shows. And yet there’s this problem, even in our somewhat less patriarchal society, of male violence against women, both domestic and general. Is this just because of the statistical differences between male and female brains – not only in connectivity between neurons and between specific regions in the brain, but the flow of hormones and neurotransmitters such as oxytocin and testosterone and dopamine?

Canto: Well, yes, now we’re getting into very tricky territory.

Jacinta: Yes, like ‘I wasn’t responsible for killing her, it was my brain that was responsible – I can’t help the dangerous cocktail of chemicals that is my brain’.

Canto: Yes, but the fact is, for the vast majority of us, those chemicals are ‘in check’, they don’t cause us to harm others or ourselves, in fact they’re essential to our living socially constructive, civilised lives. And it seems that the feedback from the wider society regulates the circulation and effect of those chemicals. If you live in a society which rewards you for denouncing someone as a witch, or which more or less sanctions pack rape – and such societies or sub-cultures do exist, though hopefully they’re diminishing – then many will act accordingly. And many societies, as we know, sanction or reward the two genders differently.

Jacinta: Well, that’s interesting, and it raises another question – the extent to which the culture we live in, or the family we grow up in, affects the actual physiology of our brains. So, ‘my culture/my family made my brain make me do it’.

Canto: Well, we can’t get away from that. What we want is something like the universal declaration of human rights having real impact, so that these universal values are actually imposed at the level of the brain.

Jacinta: Brainwashing? And are they universal values?

Canto: They’re useful ones for our flourishing, that’s enough. Ok forget the word ‘impose’, but they should be encouraged and rewarded, and we should ask people to look critically, through education, at whether there are any effective alternatives – such as shari’a law, or any other cultural laws or customary behaviours.

Jacinta: Individual flourishing, or is there some other possibly better sort of flourishing?

Canto: No I’m actually talking about a broad social, human flourishing, imposing limits within which individuals can thrive, as members. And those useful values deal pretty well with patriarchy, in that they show that both the Catholic Church and whole religions such as Islam are violating those values by discriminating in terms of gender.

Jacinta: But the UDHR has freedom of religion as one of its values.

Canto: It’s not perfect.

Jacinta: Some values are more valuable than others?

Canto: Well actually yes. And, getting back to what we know about human brains, and what they tell us about diversity within each gender, any cultural or religious practice which delimits that diversity is a curtailment of self-expression, freedom and flourishing.

Jacinta: Fine words, but get this. This diversity within genders you talk about is based on one study. How many brains were examined in this study, and more importantly, from which cultural backgrounds were they drawn? Could it be that brains taken from subjects who inhabited cultures that had imposed strict gender divisions for generations would show considerably less diversity? Then it becomes a chicken-and-egg issue.

Canto: Good point, and unfortunately the details of the research are behind a paywall, but there’s been a lot of reporting on it, for example here, here and here. Some 1400 brains were studied, and there was a connected study of behavioural traits among 5500 individuals, and ages ranged from 13 to 85, but I couldn’t find anything on the cultural backgrounds of the subjects. The research was done from Tel Aviv University, using existing datasets of MRI images. I’m not sure what can be derived from that.

Jacinta: Well OK, I don’t think we’ve quite solved the patriarchy problem or even sufficiently addressed it here, but it was a start. Time to finish.

Written by stewart henderson

June 25, 2016 at 11:26 am

final remarks preliminary to a voyage, part 1

leave a comment »

Where in the world? At bustling Adelaide airport, surrounded by the usual well-wishers

Where in the world? At bustling Adelaide airport, surrounded by the usual well-wishers

I’ve been incommunicado for the last longest 24 hours of my life due to marathon (but OK common as muck for some) double hemispheral flights – north-south, east-west – and traveller net-availability issues, wholly predictable but probably eminently solvable if I had that ideal 13-y-o techwiz TC at my side, and I don’t mean to thus disparage my current uncommonly wise TC. But more of that enervation in due course, let me pick up the soi-disant story from my arrival at good old Adelaide airport.

Adelaide airport has been a rare destination and even rarer point of departure for me over the years. I’ve already described my first adult plane trip here, but didn’t focus much on the airport itself, and why would I as I’m fast learning that airports are generically unmemorable. No major disquisition on airport culture here, as if I could, just some vagrant impressions.
Just a couple of weeks ago my college colleagues were jokingly comparing Adelaide to the various city airports that they, as bona fide middle-class westerners of varied ethnic provenance, have processed through. They agreed that unlike other international airports, good old Adelaide airport is never busy, and they mean never busy busy. This is supposedly a stain on dear old Adelaide, this pretty little ornamental place that’s never choked with tourists or business conventioneers. I regularly feel stabbed to wounded pride for its putative dreariness, especially come festival time when over the past no less than 40 years now I’ve overheard chitchat among Big City visitors in which bright young things are informally instructed in sneering at small-city try-hardism by their smartarse seniors. Yet, take this, I just read somewhere that Adelaide is among the five most liveable cities in the world. Probably fifth. And that’s funny, I’ve no idea who makes these random pseudo-quantative studies but whenever I hear that Adelaide is one of the 10 or 50 or whatever best cities for xx (which I often hear) I always assume that it comes in 9th or 10th or 47th or 49th or something and I don’t know whether that’s just me following the fashion of putting Dear Old Adelaide down or me being quite rational, sort of. E.g., if DOA came 3rd on a list of 10 or 50 or 100 best x’s, you wouldn’t crow about it by saying ‘up yours, we’re in the top 100 cities for women over 75 sporting dreadlocks’, say. We’d surely boast ‘hey bro, toke on that, we’re in the top 5′, or ‘we is numero trio!’ Dang right. I would say that’s a top x rule in psychological statistics, if there is such a field, and dang right there is. If your city is in the upper half of a ‘top x statistical measure’, say 23rd out of 50, you must, for the purposes of most effective preening, divide the denominator [in this case 50] by the largest whole number [in this case 2] which provides a new denominator [in this case 25] that remains larger than the numerator [in ths case 23]. Only we’re not, sensu strictissimo, talking numerators and denominatora here… Am I being too pedantic?

Okay so I’ve run out of words and I’ve not even started on Adelaide airport yet (which would only take a sentence or two anyway). So at least I’ve arrived and I’m posting this from the lobby of the Mercure-Konica hotel, Budapest.

Written by stewart henderson

April 25, 2016 at 4:57 pm

the rise of the nones, or, reasons to be cheerful (within limits)

leave a comment »

This is a presentation based on a couple of graphs.

The rise of the nones, that is, those who answer ‘none’ when asked about their religious affiliation in surveys and censuses, has been one of the most spectacular and often unheralded, developments of the last century in the west. It has been most spectacular in the past 50 years, and it appears to be accelerating.

The rise of the nones in Australia


This graph tells a fascinating story about the rise of the nones in Australia. It’s a story that would I think, share many features with other western countries, such as New Zealand and Canada, but also the UK and most Western European nations, though there would be obvious differences in their Christian make-up.

The graph comes from the Australian Census Bureau, and it presents the answers given by Australians to the religious question in the census in every year from 1901 to 2011. The blue bar represents Anglicans. In the early 20th century, Anglicanism was the dominant religion, peaking in 1921 at about 43% of the population. Its decline in recent years has been rapid. English immigration has obviously slowed in recent decades, and Anglicanism is on the nose now even in England. In 2011, only 17% of Australians identified as Anglicans.  The decline is unlikely to reverse itself, obviously.

The red striped bar represents Catholics – I’ll come to them in a moment. The grey hatched bar represents devotees of other Christian denominations. In the last census, just under 19% of Australians were in that category, and the percentage is declining. The category is internally dynamic, however, with Uniting Church, Presbyterian and Lutheran believers dropping rapidly and Pentecostals very much on the rise.

The green hatched bar represents the nones, first represented in 1971, when the option of saying ‘none’ was first introduced. This was as a result of pressure from the sixties censuses – that seminal decade – when people were declaring that they had no religion even when there was no provision in the census to do so. Immediately, as you can see, a substantial number of nones ‘came out’ in the 71 census, and the percentage of ‘refuseniks’ (the purple bar) was almost halved. But then in the 76 census, the percentage of refuseniks doubled again, while the percentage of nones increased. The Christians were the ones losing out, a trend that has continued to the present. Between 1996 and 2006 the percentage of self-identifying Christians dropped from 71% to 64% – a staggering drop in 10 years. The figure now, after the 2011 census, is down to 61%. If this trend continues, the percentage of Christians will drop below 50% by the time of the 2031 census. Of course predictions are always difficult, especially about the future.

One thing is surely certain, though. Whether or not the decline in Christianity accelerates, it isn’t going to be reversed. As Heinrich von Kleist put it, ‘When once we’ve eaten of the tree of knowledge, we can never return to the state of innocence’.

The situation after the 2011 census is that 22.3% of Australia’s population are nones, the second biggest category in the census. Catholics are the biggest with 25.3%, down from 26% in 2006 (and about 26.5% in 2001). The nones are on track to be the biggest category after the next census, or the one after that. Arguably, though, it’s already the biggest category. The refusenik category in the last census comprised 9.4%, of which at least half could fairly be counted as nones, given that the religious tend to want to be counted as such. That would take the  nones up to around 27%. An extraordinary result for a category first included only 40 years ago.

Let me dwell briefly on this extraordinariness. As you can see, in the first three censuses presented in this graph, the percentage of professed Christians was in the high nineties. That’s to say, in the first two decades of the twentieth century, virtually everyone one identified as Christian. This represents the arse-end of a scenario that persisted for a thousand years, dating back to the 9th and 10h centuries when the Vikings and the last northern tribes were converted from paganism. We are witnessing nothing less than the death throes of Christianity in the west. Of course, we’re only at the beginning, and it will be, I’m sure, a long long death agony. Catholicism still has an iron grip in South America, in spite of the scandals it’s failing to deal with, and it’s making headway in Africa. But in its heartland, in its own backyard, its power is greatly diminished, and their’s no turning back.

The rise of the nones worldwide


But there’s an even more exciting story to tell here. The rise of the nones isn’t simply a rejection of Christianity, it’s a rejection of religion. And with that I’ll go to my second graph. This shows that the nones, at 750 million, have risen quickly to be the fourth largest religious category after Christians, 2.2 billion, Moslems, 1.6 billion, and Hindus, 900 million. These numbers represent substantial proportions of the populations of Australia and New Zealand, Canada, the USA and western Europe, as well as nations outside the Christian tradition, such as China and Japan. Never before in human history has this been the case.

One thing we know about the early civilisations is that they were profoundly religious. The Sumerians of the third millennium BCE, the earliest of whom we have records, worshipped at least four principal gods, Anu, Enlil, Ninhursag and Enki. These, as well as the Egyptian god Amon Ra, are among the oldest gods we can be certain about, but it’s likely that some of the figurines and statues recovered by archaeologists, such as the 23,000-year-old Venus of Willendorf, represented deities.

Why was religion so universal in earlier times?

We don’t know if the ancient Sumerians and Egyptians and Indus Valley civilisations were universally religious, but it’s likely that they were – because supernatural agency offered the best explanation for events that couldn’t be explained otherwise. And there were an awful lot of such events. Why did the crop fails this time?  Why has the weather changed so much? Why did my child sicken and die? Why has this plague been visited upon our people? Why did that nearby mountain blow its top  and rain fire and burning rocks down on us?

Even today, in our insurance policies, ‘acts of god’ – a most revealing phrase – are mentioned as those unforeseen events that insurers are reluctant to provide cover for. Nowadays, when some fundie describes the Haitian earthquake or Hurricane Katrina as a deliberate act of a punishing god, we laugh or feel disgusted, but this was a standard response to disasters in earlier civilisations. Given our default tendency to attribute agency when in doubt – a very useful evolutionary trait – and our ancestors’ lack of knowledge about human origins, disease, climate, natural disasters, etc, it’s hardly surprising that they would assume that non-material paternal/maternal figures, resembling the all-powerful and often capricious beings who surrounded us in our young years, and whose ways are ever mysterious, would be the cause of so many of our unlooked-for joys and miseries.

Why has that universality flown out the window?

It’s hardly surprising then that the rise of the nones in the west coincides with the rising success and the growing explanatory power of science. For the nones, creation myths have been replaced by evolution, geology and cosmology, sin has been replaced by psychology, and a judging god has been replaced by the constabulary and the judiciary. I don’t personally believe that non-believers are morally superior to believers because we ‘know how to be good without god’. We’ve just transferred our fear of god to our fear of the CC-TV cameras – as well as fear for our reputations in the new ultra-connected ‘social hub’.

It’s obvious though that the scientific challenge to ye olde Acts of God is very uneven wordwide. In the more impoverished and heavily tribalised parts of Africa, India, China and the Middle East, the challenge is virtually non-existent. Furthermore, it’s a very new challenge even in the west. To take one example, our understanding of earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic activity has greatly increased in recent times through advances in technology and also in theory, most notably tectonic plate theory. This theory was first advanced in the early 20th century by Alfred Wegener amongst others, but it didn’t gain general scientific acceptance until the sixties and didn’t penetrate to the general public till the seventies and eighties. Even today in many western countries if you ask people about plate tectonics they’ll shrug or give vague accounts. And if you think plate tectonics is simple, have a look at any scientific paper about it and you’ll soon realise otherwise. Of course the same goes for just about any scientific theory. Science is a hard slog, while the idea of acts of god comes to us almost as naturally as breathing.

In spite of this science is beginning to win the challenge, due to a couple of factors. First and foremost is that the scientific approach, and the technology that has emerged from it, has been enormously successful in transforming our world. Second, our western education system, increasingly based on critical thinking and questioning, has undermined religious concepts and has given us the self-confidence to back our own judgments and to emerge from the master-slave relationships religion engenders. The old god of the gaps is finding those gaps narrowing, though of course the gaps in many people’s minds are plenty big enough for him to hold court there for the term of their natural lives.

The future for the nones

While there’s little doubt that polities such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the European Union will become increasingly less religious, and that other major polities such as China and Japan are unlikely to ‘find’ religion in the future, we shouldn’t kid ourselves that any of the major religions are going to disappear in our lifetimes or those of our grandchildren. Africa and some parts of Asia will continue to be fertile hunting grounds for the two major proselytising religions, and Islam has as firm a hold on the Middle East as Catholicism has on Latin America. If you’re looking at it in terms of numbers, clearly the fastest growing parts of the world are also the most religious. But of course it’s not just a numbers game, it’s also about power and influence. In all of the secularising countries, including the USA, it’s the educated elites that are the most secular. These are the people who will be developing the technologies of the future, and making decisions about the future directions of our culture and our education.  So, yes, reasons to be cheerful for future generations. I look forward to witnessing the changing scene for as long as I can

a few thoughts on well-being, religion, doubt and science

leave a comment »


images2             images3

Well, the atheist wars continue to provide an amusing spectacle, as the rise of the nones proceeds apace. I recently took a look at 3 Quarks Daily, and this piece was heading the bill. Atheist David Johnson has launched into the soi-disant new atheists, dubbing them ‘undergraduate atheists’, and wondering whether we might not be better off with religion. The 3 quarks essay, written by Stefany Ann Golberg and Morgan Meis, is an interesting consideration of just this question, but I’ll look at it from a different perspective, before returning to their essay, which deals largely with existential doubt.

The question of whether are not we’re better off with religion appears to be answering itself, in the modern world, and my reading of history – and surely any reasonable reading of history – would support the view that our slow, patchy emergence from religion has been a positive thing. So I’m going to look, or glance, at it from both a diachronic and a synchronic perspective, as the post-modernists used to say.

Starting with the diachronic, Steven Pinker’s The better angels of our nature (which I’ve not read) chronicles human violence and brutality from our hunter-gatherer ancestors through to the early civilisations and their religio-cultural practices, then the long years of Christendom, the enlightenment, modern warfare and more or less secular modern western society. I don’t have to read it to know that his case for our society having become less violent is a convincing one. I’ve read enough history myself to independently verify this. To cite just a few texts – Robert Hughes’ The fatal shore, Martyn Whittock’s Brief history of life in the middle ages, Geoffrey Robertson’s The tyrannicide brief, Simon Schama’s Rough crossings and Ben Kiernan’s Blood and soil: a world history of genocide and extermination from Sparta to Darfur – these readings have overwhelmingly confirmed to me how lucky I am to be alive in the here and now, in the country I happen to live in, Australia.

So what does that have to do with religion, specifically? Well, the fact that life was nastier, more brutish and shorter in the past than it is today, and the more so the further back you go, suggests some kind of positive evolution. It hasn’t been smoothly linear, it’s bumped along in fits and starts, but being poor (which I am) in the 21st century, in a fairly wealthy country, has been far less of a pain than it was in most of the 20th century. The 19th century would’ve been far worse, and the 9th century – well, then I would’ve been subject to the vagaries of the politico-religious forces way above my head. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to read or write, I’d never have moved beyond my local district, my thoughts would’ve dwelt far more on basic survival, and knowing what I do today, I surely would’ve considered it a miserable and frustratingly circumscribed life (but at least I wasn’t a woman). And religion would’ve played its part in this. It’s been said recently, by an ultra-conservative government appointee looking into ‘reforming’ our schools, that Australia’s a Christian country.  But the very backlash created by such a statement, which would’ve been completely uncontroversial in the 1950s, indicates that in the interim things have changed, and quite dramatically. What it means to be a Christian country has changed over the past few decades, but you get an even better perspective if you look back over centuries, as I roughly did here. And it would be hard to deny that, as religion has loosened its grip, both politically and economically, life has improved. For example, the general view that held sway centuries ago, that probing into and questioning God’s creation was idle and pointless if not downright devilish (with sometimes devastating consequences for those who didn’t toe the line), held us back from a multitude of discoveries that would’ve improved the lot of humanity. The prevailing attitude seemed to be, don’t expect too much from this world, cause that’s just how God made it, but if you get through it and obey God, you won’t believe what’s waiting for you on the other side.

So let’s move now to the synchronic. Even if you agree that generally life’s better now than in the past, you might want to point to Somalia, or Syria, or Sudan, etc, so it matters which country or region you’re looking at. I’ve mentioned before the extraordinary fact that the Paris-based OECD has assessed Australia as ‘the happiest country in the world’ for the last three consecutive years, based on 11 separate social and economic indices. There are a few such regular surveys floating around, and Australia obviously doesn’t win them all, but it’s up there with the same handful of countries every time. Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and a few western European countries, particularly the Scandinavian ones – these are always at the top of the lists of best countries to live in, and they also happen to be the least religious countries on the planet. They share other features too, of course, such as affluence combined with social safety nets, long-term political stability, low crime rates, and high levels of social mobility and social participation, all of which prompts reflection on whether this is more influencing or influenced by the nones. In any case, it’s very clear that a large and growing percentage of the populations of the world’s happiest and most successful countries are deciding they’re better off without religion. And that’s not an opinion, it’s a fact.

So there’s an answer, on broad political and economic grounds. Now to look at the more existential, personal issues around belief and doubt, as explored in the essay that prompted this post. David Johnson argues that maybe we’re better off with religion, even though it’s not true. This poses immediate problems in that Johnson’s an atheist. I would find his argument more convincing if he himself embraced religion (but which one?) and denied its falsehood. Otherwise he’s muddying the term ‘we’ and taking on a position of Napoleonic condescension. ‘Religion keeps the people happy so I’ll make a pact with the pope and even build a few churches, but for me it’s all BS’. It’s a kind of bad faith argument, for once we’ve eaten of the tree of knowledge, we can’t return to a state of innocence.

Golberg and Meis look at the issue by re-examining the thoughts of Miguel de Unamuno, an early 20th century Spanish writer and philosopher not much read nowadays. Unamuno was raised Catholic, lost his faith, embraced ‘scientific rationalism’, found it unsatisfactory, and explored in his writing a kind of tortured existence between faith and doubt. What his work brings back to our mind, as we’re sometimes forgetful of it, is that doubt, not of the scientifically skeptical kind, but of the soul-gripping and sometimes soul-destroying kind, is a major factor in our lives, whether or not we’re religious. Not believing in the supernatural is easy, for me at least, but it doesn’t solve any of the major problems of life, such as what we owe to ourselves, what we owe to others, whether we should stay or go, whether we should submit or fight back, whether we should take a situation seriously or lightly, whether we should forgive or take umbrage, or even, in some instances, whether life is worth the candle. And of course most people who strongly believe in an afterlife, or profess to, still cling to this life tenaciously at the end. Doubt is everywhere.

Having said this, I must say that I personally take great solace in science, for many reasons, but perhaps mostly because it takes me out of myself into a much larger world. And I don’t think of it in rational terms. In fact, describing it as science doesn’t quite do it for me, it’s more a world of exploration and adventure, which, like the world of fractals, never ends, but just just keeps on giving. And if we’re talking of mysteries, as Unamuno does, there’s an ever-replenishing supply in such explorations.

Stefany Anne Golberg and Morgan Meis
Stefany Anne Golberg and Morgan Meis

Written by stewart henderson

January 19, 2014 at 1:01 pm

the rise of unbelief in the USA

leave a comment »

reason-rally signx-large

I’m always interested in statistics about religious belief and its decline in most western countries, and I like to keep up with the latest findings, so I want to post fairly regularly about this. This time I want to focus on that toughest nut to crack, the USA.

This is, of course another area where ideology influences or even creates facts – for example, the fanatical Christian theist William Lane Craig has trotted out claims that atheists represent 5% or sometimes 3% of the US population, and thus can be dismissed with impunity. He qualifies this by saying that the rising population of the non-religiously affiliated are not necessarily atheists, etc etc. It’s a tediously trivial point. Many individuals who clearly don’t believe in supernatural entities are uncomfortable with the term ‘atheist’ – Sam Harris among them – and I can identify with that discomfort. Some prefer to identify as secularists, sceptics, humanists or whatever, and their identification with atheism can vary with the time of day – as mine sometimes does. This has little bearing on the fact that this non-believing, uncomfortable-with-labels sector of US society is increasing in number and in proportion of the total. As to Craig, as I’ve written before, he will always be in as much denial of the truth as the flat-earthers of a previous century, and I guarantee that he will be saying on his death-bed, after as long a lifetime of fanaticism as I could possibly wish for him, that the number of atheists in the USA is down to 2% or possibly less, with most of them being drooling mental defectives. He is truly the Don Quixote of evangelical Christianity.

So let me start with this point of inquiry podcast from 7 years ago. It described a 2001 study, the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), by a group based at the City University of New York. According to Tom Flynn, reporting on the study, the number of ‘Nones’ (people who answered the question ‘what is your religious affiliation?’ with ‘none’) increased from just under 9% in the early nineties (in fact the ARIS website puts Nones at 8.2% in 1990) to just over 14.1% in 2001. The podcast explores the implications of this shift as well as the more detailed findings of the study, which I’ll explore shortly, but first let me provide an update to this finding, because another ARIS study was carried out in 2008, which put the proportion of Nones at 15%, a considerable slowdown in growth. My own reflection on this is that possibly this reduction in the speed of growth may be partially accounted for by the incumbency of the republican party during the period. I suspect that the next survey, presumably around 2016-2017, will show an increase in growth during the Obama presidency.

Much time is spent in the podcast on why this ‘rise of the Nones’ is occurring – and I should say that other independent surveys have also reported this trend. One reason for non-affiliation with traditional religious denominations (while not necessarily disavowing ‘spirituality’) is the loosening of old authoritarian ties, begun back in the sixties and seventies and still continuing, backed by an education system that encourages the questioning and challenging of establishment thinking. In keeping with this, it’s the more liberal protestant religions that, as in Australia, have been the biggest losers over the last fifteen years or so. In the USA, though, there has been a burgeoning pentecostal movement, essentially conservative in nature, which has gained much ground at the expense of the traditional churches. They appear to constitute a backlash against the many societal changes of recent decades, adding to the well-recognised polarisation of US society.

The University of Akron in Ohio also does regular surveys on religious trends in the USA. They did one in the run-up to the 2004 election, which recorded 16% of the nationwide sample as being not religiously affiliated – essentially Nones. Different questions were asked of course – and I suppose this raises the issue of how you might write a question or a series of questions which will provide you with the biggest percentage of Nones possible, without actually resorting to threats and intimidation. That was a joke. And yet… In any case, the Akron study asked further questions of this 16% group and found that more than two thirds of them were ‘non-spiritual’, that’s to say, definitely atheist, agnostic and/or humanist. That’s to say, more than 10% of the US adult population, if this study is to be trusted are explicitly non-religious, and in fact that mark was passed a decade ago. Ten percent is a bit of a magical number for minorities in the US, as Tom Flynn explains.

So what about the most recent data? There’s not much that’s really recent that I can find. The Pew Forum on religion and public life did a survey in 2007 that found 16.1% were Nones, but they broke that percentage down differently, and it gave the explicitly non-religious less of a share than the Akron survey.  As I’ve mentioned, the 2008 ARIS survey had the Nones at 15%. However, a biannual poll called the General Social Survey, probably the one discussed at Evolutionblog recently, and treated in more detail here, had the Nones up at 20% – up from 8% in 1990. There are obvious doubts about how exactly such percentages are arrived at, but there’s surely no doubt about the direction of the trend. This survey as with others, shows that liberals are more likely to be Nones than conservatives (by a long way), the youngest adults are more likely than the oldest (also by a long way) and men are more likely than women (by a small but substantial margin). May this overall trend continue, and may I long continue to observe and report on it.

Written by stewart henderson

July 14, 2013 at 10:22 am