Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Bitterness of Loss

A narrative essay by – Heather Spoonheim

I have a gambling problem – a very serious one. I have never lost so much money that I couldn’t pay the bills or had to sell prized possessions, but it is still a serious problem. The reason I think it is serious is because I have such a clear and perfect understanding of the futility of ever truly earning a profit at the activity but I just can’t ever get the thought of profit out of my mind when I’m taking part. If I had any sense at all I would never ever gamble again – but I will. I do have sense though, I’m sure of it, but I guess my wits become compromised whenever someone pulls out the cards and that is the behavioral dysfunction that is my gambling addiction.

I manage the problem very well and have kept my losses to under $1000 over the past decade. I do so by setting very strict limits and fighting desperately to maintain them. The most important tool in managing gambling addiction is to learn to swallow losses, no matter how bitter that pill might be. Your money is gone and you have nothing to show for it and that’s all there is to it. If you don’t give up the activity altogether, then you better get used to the taste of that bitter pill, because you’ll need to swallow it over and over again. If you are crazy enough to continue with the activity, well then learning to swallow that pill can at least offer you some protection. This is especially true when playing communal pot games like Texas Hold’em.

You see, a lot of gamblers become overwhelmed by Texas Hold’em because they fail to accept that the money they have put into the pot is no longer theirs – they’ve already lost it. You have to swallow your loss the very moment you pull those chips off of your stack. If you don’t swallow your loss right then and there then you will be left with the delusion that some of those chips in the middle of the table are yours – and this leads to the fallacy of believing that you will incur a loss if you fold.

When you swallow your loss the moment you pull those chips off of your stack then you will realize that folding doesn’t cost you a thing. With each round of betting you need to evaluate the revealed odds, consider the total prize available in the pot, and determine how much you are now willing to risk for that total prize. You just cannot factor loss into your evaluation at that point.

There are other factors like implied odds and evaluation of opponent behavior, but understanding that risk and reward are based on the current bet for the current pot is the most important thing to keep straight in your mind. If, even for a moment, the thought crosses your mind that you will lose chips if you fold then you had best pack up and go home. It NEVER costs you a penny to fold because the chips that you put in the pot were lost the moment you pushed them towards the center of the table.

I’ve watched so many gamblers lose all of their faculties by refusing to swallow their losses that I can’t even count them. Every time it happens at a Texas Hold’em game it is because they view the pot as an investment and just can’t bring themselves to accept that their investment is being wiped out. They start pushing good money into the void until they have no more to push and then, often enough, they start pushing the table itself. That money in the pot is NOT an investment to be pursued, pushing money onto the table does NOT secure an investment, and no one has any claim to the pot until it has been won.

This concept of recognizing risks and accepting losses at the moment I assume those risks has actually helped me a lot in business. When I buy a piece of equipment at auction, it usually comes ‘as is’ and without any options for recourse if I am unhappy with the purchase. I need to accept my loss at the time of purchase, and I am often happy to do so because I’m getting a $7,000 dishwasher for $850. I no longer have my $850, I have a dishwasher that didn’t cost me $7,000 and that’s a good thing. If it doesn’t work, I can’t very well go freaking out about my $850 because it isn’t my $850 to freak out about. I can get the machine repaired, or perhaps that is not viable and I need to dispose of it, but I can’t go lamenting about somebody else’s $850. In my experience the odds have been in my favour in these transactions, and accepting the losses at time of trade helps to keep me focused on my winnings.

Consider then a person who regularly gives their money to an investment firm. So many of these people walk around feeling secure that their money is still there and that there will be even more money awaiting them when they return. This is a complete fallacy though, because their money disappeared the moment they handed it over. What they purchased was incredibly strong odds that they can get the same amount of money back with the bonus of weaker odds that there might even be more money handed to them some day. There remains the risk, however small, that there will be zero money waiting for them when they return. Because of this risk, they really need to accept that the money they gave to the firm is gone – but just like compulsive gamblers, investors will find every rationalization they can to keep from swallowing that bitter pill. Even after being contacted by authorities and hearing all over the news that their investment firm left town over night, there is no way to prevent them from gathering outside the empty building to protest in vain. They will believe for years that ‘their’ money is safe and sound somewhere and that there exists some means of investigation that will reveal its location to them.

How, then, can I be the least bit surprised at the emotional reactions I get when I tell investors that their ultimate retirement plan is nothing more than a Ponzi scheme; when I tell them that the firm that they, their cousins, parents, and grandparents have been investing in will never payout one red cent; when I tell them that the retirement home where Grandma and Grandpa went is a big void and Grandma and Grandpa aren’t even there.

How can I be surprised when investors in such a firm react to the news by becoming more adamant than ever to push more chips to the center of the table? How can they do anything other than push all of their chips to the center and then start pushing on the table itself? How can I be surprised when they blow up and become madmen like so many compulsive gamblers I have faced across a poker table?

The fact of the matter is that most churches press hard to get people to put money into the pot. Those who can possibly afford to do so often give in to the pressure to push 10% of their earnings onto the table, although most will calculate on net rather than gross income. Those who can’t possibly afford it are pressed to put in more than they can possibly afford. Many of them have seen the remainder of their grandparent’s wealth pushed into the pot as well. Many of them have volunteered hours upon hours of their time to the special projects of their churches.

Imagine the 58 year old woman who has been tithing for over 30 years. If she has worked a professional career and never had children she might have easily invested $150,000. If, looking at her investment account, she realizes that she has invested the same amount of money in mutual funds and now that investment is waiting to pay her $500,000 then she has to swallow one hell of a loss and its going to be damn bitter. She could have literally been a millionaire. Worse yet, she stayed the course on that bad investment for 30 years, and that represents a lifetime of pushing chips into the void.

I think we all need to remember these things as we deal with theists. It’s easy to call them stubborn or pigheaded, but just think about what we represent to them – no one likes an armchair critic pointing out the odds after they’ve already put their life savings in the pot. When debating with theists, one should try to remember their own most difficult loss and remember how bitter that pill was to swallow. We would all do well to remember the bitterness of loss.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Atheist Debt

An essay by – Heather Spoonheim

I used think there was an inherent justice in the way that I was able to simply look at the evidence for the existence of Yahweh and recognize it as nothing more than a collection of superstitious notions that, when combined, had coalesced into a misleading but compelling emotional appeal. That other people were captivated by such an emotional appeal didn’t contradict my sense of justice because they too were free to simply recognize it for what it was and liberate themselves of the fallacy; that they didn’t do so was nothing more than their own folly – or so I thought.

It should be noted, however, that calling the argument an ‘emotional appeal’ is a monumental euphemism; it is an overwhelmingly monumental euphemism because the argument is, in truth, nothing less than emotional extortion, a proverbial offer that one cannot refuse. For you see, fresh indoctrinates are repeatedly instructed or, more accurately, threatened that failure to accept the appeal will result in indescribable tortures that defy the imagination.

Upon first consideration of the threat of unimaginable torture by the devotees of a death cult it would seem that the mind of the victim should be filled exclusively by an overwhelming desire to escape. To combat this survival instinct, the doctrines of the death cult of Yahweh employ a tactic common to other sociopathic predators: a friendly introduction accompanied by an offer of candy. You see, the glossy brochures of this death cult rarely open with images of torture but, rather, dangle the most enticing piece of candy imaginable: the hypothetical possibility of conquering death itself.

Even given the superlative nature of this emotional extortion, I still managed to cling to my belief that justice was available in a philosophical market governed by the laissez faire doctrines of caveat emptor; after all, common sense (another fallacy) seemed to make it readily obvious that if an offer seemed to be too good to be true then it likely was not. Those who were foolish enough to trade their faculties of reason for a bag of magic beans, regardless of the magnitude of the promised returns, deserved exactly what they got – or so I used to believe.

You see, just like all too many people who attribute their own successes to self-proclaimed virtues, I was mislead by confirmation bias. I used circular logic to assert the power of ‘common sense’ by mistakenly citing it as the means of my escape and then citing the success of my escape as proof that ‘common sense’ was all it took. What I failed to acknowledge was the fortunate timing of my birth coupled with my aptitude for science, at least as it was presented in the grade schools of my time.

In my day, the eloquence with which Carl Sagan fueled wonder at the cosmos formed a brick wall upon which the awkward rationalizations of theists splattered instantly. Other scientific minds seemed to find increased courage from this and public discourse in scientific matters became noticeably less apologetic. As if to crown this revolution, the producers of the very popular, prime-time television series, ‘All in the Family’, went so far as to introduce a well-rounded and explicitly Atheist character, Michael Stivic.

All of these factors contributed greatly to my escape from cult indoctrination but my ability to perceive these factors was obscured by my own ego, by my faith in my own ‘common sense’ and my desire to believe there was any sort of inherent justice in life. As the years passed though, I began to learn more about the great minds that had contributed to our modern world and my ego became increasingly tempered. These days I am no longer able to maintain the delusion that my fallacious notions of ‘common sense’ in any way compare to the genius of the real heroes of modern thought who had the courage to declare that their own, original, empirical observations contradicted the highly revered Bronze Age notions of their time.

In this way I owe a huge debt to the courage of such a long list of rational thinkers that any attempt to name them couldn’t aspire to reveal anything more than an even greater list of glaring omissions. In lieu, all I can offer is my solemn acknowledgement of this debt and my embarrassingly inadequate ability to ever repay it. In doing so, I also acknowledge that there was no inherent justice in my liberation, only some very fortunate timing. More importantly, this acknowledgement allows me to realize just how the tables have been turned by modern cultists.

Unable to fabricate rationalizations elastic enough to stretch around our modern world’s ever expanding base of scientific knowledge, the strategy of the cultists has turned to outright, underhanded dishonesty. They have so saturated the very infrastructures by which information is disseminated that it is no longer possible to tune into the information stream without finding it befouled by their propaganda of doubt.

No longer able to credibly assert the certainty of their deity, they now repeatedly chant, “But you can’t prove he doesn’t exist.” No longer able to refute the credibility of scientific truths they respond, “But science doesn’t know everything.” And finally, no longer able to exert their authority to crush the very institution of science itself, they have taken to attacking the integrity of that institution.

Television networks that are supposedly devoted to the dissemination of scientific knowledge are riddled with programs that point out anecdotal transgressions of scientific fraud or bias; they do this without pointing out that such transgressions are repeatedly rooted out and expelled within decades rather than being upheld unapologetically for centuries. Newspapers fallaciously cloak themselves in anachronistic notions of journalistic integrity while adhering to nothing other than capitalist greed as they design sensational headlines of scientific folly while simultaneously ignoring profound, although usually more mundane, revelations of how genetics is solidifying the certainty of the evolutionary tree. Radio commentators repeatedly substitute editorials for news and assert that science is arrogant for not giving due consideration to ‘alternative theories’ without a single mention of the fact that these purported ‘alternative theories’ are generated by scientifically illiterate cultists.

Preschool indoctrinates are told that scientists are liars, without even an attempt to justify that claim. Biology teachers are compelled to assume a tone of apology when discussing evolution. When scientific curriculums are publicly debated the floor is left open to those who have absolutely no understanding of the subject matter and children are sent forth to make emotional appeals for cultist ‘values’ rooted in ignorance.

Where they can’t elicit doubt in scientific observation they try to insert reinforcement of any superstitious predilection they can identify. The recent barrage of ‘investigative’ television programs dealing with ‘scientific observation’ of paranormal phenomenon is almost overwhelming. Otherwise perfectly rational people are left to wonder if there might not be some validity to the concept that ‘life energy’ can leave a ‘metaphysical fingerprint’ in certain geographic locations. Failure to acknowledge at least a modicum of authenticity to these ‘investigations’ is maliciously labeled ‘close-minded’ prejudice.

It has become nearly impossible to evaluate the integrity of ‘educational programming’ without taking the time to google the credentials of the ‘experts’ that are paraded forth. For any single rational individual this tidal wave of misinformation presents an insurmountable battle of debunking. For those not yet liberated from superstitious indoctrination, however, the odds of recognizing this volcanic spew of fallacies for what it really is are infinitesimal.

In this challenge, I think I may have finally found the means by which to make a payment towards the debt I owe for my own intellectual liberation. Looking back, it wasn’t one voice of reason that guided me out of intellectual subservience, but a veritable chorus of rational voices. Every voice was important, even the droning, boring tones of my grade eight science teacher, and I know I can carry the tune a little better than he ever did.

The internet has given me a platform for self publication coupled with the resources to easily debunk inane cultist ‘documentaries’. It may seem like a chore to sit through a painfully ignorant program that asserts some holy book to be an archeological treasure trove, and even more of a chore to cite its obvious shortcomings in a well thought out blog entry, but I owe at least that much, even if I can only carry the tune of reason for just a few more bars.

Furthermore, I don’t have to debunk everything myself because there are plenty of Atheist and skeptic bloggers who are much better at it than I will ever be. By simply keeping tabs on some of their blogs, I am slowly gathering a nice collection of links that provide quick rebuttals to online friends infected with various superstitions and cultist misinformation.

Even in daily my daily encounters with the superstitious, nothing seems to shut some of them up faster than pointing out that there is one million dollars awaiting them if they can prove their claims to be true. Before informal exchanges head south of the boarder of rationality I can often infuse some rational thought by talking about the latest news of satellites orbiting distant planets – satellites that were put there by profoundly accurate scientific knowledge.

Finally, through the various online Atheist communities I can try to encourage other Atheists to continue the chorus of reason as well. I think I’ll start right now by posting a blog that might inspire others to consider ways of paying off some of the Atheist debt.