Fun with Math

Posted date: 2010-03-18

Posted By : Marc

I was recently reminded of a discussion I had some time ago with a commenter on Lawyers, Guns, & Money by a rant by Larry Wallberg (if that is your real name, Tom Delay). In it I posited that a sizable fraction of our Congresscritters must be non-believers. My antagonist insisted, not unreasonably, that I was making baseless assertions. I say this wasn't unreasonable, but really only at first glance. My immediate response was a quote:

Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.
-Seneca
In retrospect, that was the kind of tactic that the god-botherers tend to use. It was really unnecessary. I do statistics for a living, and this is an easily solved statistical problem (probability, really, but I'm sure no one is interested). Granted, it is not nearly as simple to make predictions on sentient beings as on inanimate objects. But I think people follow statistical patterns well enough that we can at least conduct a little thought experiment.

Hypothesis: Of the 535 voting members of the Legislative Branch (435 Representatives and 100 Senators), several members are non-theists. I am not sure what the exact claim was, but I seem to recall suggesting that perhaps a double-digit percentage of legislators were non-theists. So my stated hypothesis will be that 10% of Congressmen are in-the-closet non-theists.

Assumptions:
1) The 15% of Americans who claim no religious affiliation are non-theists
2) Every individual in Congress has the same probability of belief as a member of the public at large
3) No member* would claim to be a non-theist, as to do so would preclude election.

*Pete Stark (D-CA) is the exception, but only because he has been in Congress so long, the ass-groove in his chair would not accommodate anyone else.

In the description, a success is equal to no religious affiliation. A failure is equal to religious affiliation. I threw this together, but I discovered that no software I have can do a factorial function on any number over 170. I was able to work around this limitation, so without further ado:


Not rigorous, but a bit of fun.

Note that that is about one in 3,000 chance. I am not claiming this is accurate. I know there are any large number of things to control for that weren't. It is also entirely possible that the kinds of people who run for government are the kind of people who are predisposed to belief in a cosmic hierarchy. I didn't really spend too much time on this, so if I made any math boo-boos, I'd appreciate it if you would let me know.

Author: Larry Wallberg Date: 2010-03-19

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I don't remember the probability formulae. But to find the probability that no members of Congress are non-theists: Why not just use the chance that any single Congressperson will be a theist (.85), and multiply that by itself n-1 (or 534) times. Subtract that result from 1 and you will find the chance that at least one person in 535 is a non-theist. If that chance is more than 50%, count him or her as a likely non-theist.

So remove that non-theistic person from the queue, and start again, this time having n-1 = 533. Again, remove the likely non-theist from the queue. Repeat this process, over and over and over.

If you follow these directions carefully, you'll find that only four Congresspersons remain on the theist side of the aisle.

Q.E.D. L.O.L. W.T.F.
Author: marc Date: 2010-03-18

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Strange, that I reply to your comment before your comment was posted. From the math-nerd perspective, your analysis is sort of like Zeno's paradox, in that the weirdness is easily explained away. I wish I had more free time. I would really like to go over the data in a more rigorous fashion, with all of the available data. Unfortunately, there is still the enormous flaw in the system that I would have difficulty getting around. Religious belief is self-reported. A few years ago, even I might have claimed "belief" of some sort. I think until I read Dawkins, Dennet, Harris, and Hitchins, I never even considered the harm.

Aside: I remember making a point of not hiding any of those titles when traveling (I travel a lot for work), expecting someone to say something. Even the crazed bible-thumpers who do their little hand-cross and lord's prayer ritual before takeoff didn't say a word.

Approximately half of my colleagues have told me they are atheists. Of those, one still goes to church every Sunday and sends his step-daughter to an evangelical private school despite the fact that it requires the parents sign a form affirming they accept the Christian holy book as the literal and true word of God. It would be really hard to develop a method for differentiating between half-assed quasi-believers like I was and real True Believers like some of my co-workers.

Aside 2: Why is it that my True Believer colleagues are almost completely clueless about the content of their holy book?
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Aside 2: Why is it that my True Believer colleagues are almost completely clueless about the content of their holy book?

Answer: Because it's really a flask in disguise, and they've gotten drunk on the contents without reading them first.
Author: marc Date: 2010-03-19

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Isn't the Italian word for flask fiasco?
Author: Larry Wallberg Date: 2010-03-19

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Oh, you're good! Perfect response.
Author: marc Date: 2010-03-19

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I know maybe a dozen words in Italian, and I'll be damned if I'll let that knowledge go to waste.
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