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Monday, August 19, 2019

Some People Don't Like Being Passed

A lot of folks don't like being passed. I happen to be one. It's no secret that I'm a bit hyper-competitive, which can lead me to "detect" competitive situations when none really exist. Like when I'm being passed. It does have its advantages, though. My competitiveness is a major reason why I played professional baseball, earned a blackbelt in Tae Kwon Do, and obtained a PhD from Stanford.

Hyper-competitiveness can also lead to rather humorous situations. I've noticed this when biking to and from one of my offices away from the office (i.e., various coffee shops in the area). When doing so, I usually take the Los Gatos Creek Trail, and I apparently bike fairly close to the "flow of traffic." That is, I do not pass or am passed by too many other bike riders. The exception to this are bikers on road bikes. Their bikes are much lighter, have thinner tires, and typically use higher quality derailleurs. Thus, they are far more likely to pass me than I am to pass them.

Interestingly, on those few occasions when I do pass a biker on a road bike, many of them seem to take offense, and as soon as they realize what has happened, they speed up and pass by me. Once they do so, however, it's not unusual for them to slow down, which means I eventually pass them again, leading them speed up once again so they can pass me. Recently, I caught and passed a gentlemen on a road bike, and predictably he soon sped up and caught up with me. He, however, didn't try to pass. Instead, he slid in close behind me (known as drafting) and stayed their for several miles. No doubt he rationalized his behavior as smart biking, but I'm pretty sure he just doesn't like getting passed.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Us vs. Them: When Winning Becomes Everything


Social identity theory, which I have written about before ("Uncivil Agreement: Social Identity and Political Polarization"), argues that we derive our sense of self-worth through a combination of our personal achievements and the accomplishments of the groups to which we belong. Because much of our self-worth is tied to our group affiliations, it’s quite easy to believe that our groups are superior to others and to favor in-group members over out-group members. It can also lead to the tendency to deride other groups that present a challenge to our own group. In fact, putting down members of other groups, such as political liberals making fun of Trump followers, can make us feel quite pleased about ourselves and our place in this world. All of this is somewhat captured in the graph below:


What’s more, it doesn’t take much to activate a sense of group identity. Social psychologists have run experiments where they’ve asked participants to perform a simple task, such as counting the number of dots on a screen or evaluating a paintings by different artists, and then randomly assigning them to groups but telling the participants that they’ve been assigned based on how they performed on the tasks. The participants are then asked to allocate some type of reward (e.g., money) to either members of their own group or members of another group, and most allocate more rewards to in-group rather than out-group members. This even occurred when the experiment was designed so that participants would walk away with more rewards if they didn’t favor in-group members. What’s interesting is that the participants typically didn’t know one another prior to the experiment, and after they’d been assigned to a group, they didn’t meet other members of their group (e.g., they were all assigned to different rooms). In fact, sometimes their group members were nothing more than a computer program.

Such experiments capture what is known as a minimal group paradigm; that is, they use minimal manipulations in order to trigger identification with a group. Imagine how much stronger one’s loyalty to a group and its members can be when we interact with other group members on a regular basis. Subcultural identity theory has been used to help explain prejudice and discrimination, why some religious groups thrive and others don’t, and the emergence of isolated terrorist cells that identify with groups such as ISIS or al-Qaeda.

An important implication of these studies is that sometimes “winning” becomes more important than choosing a course of action that benefits everyone: that is, not only members of your own group but also members of your opponents. And it isn’t just “winning.” Often it means beating down your opponents, punishing them, like shooting 3’s when you’re leading by 30 with a minute to go or stealing bases in the top of the 9th when you’re winning by 10 runs or more. Most of us have probably witnessed this in some of the organizations we have worked for. An office or department splits into two over one or more issues, and both sides seem more intent on winning than doing what is best. Of course, both sides convince themselves that what they’re doing to win really is what’s best for the organization. 

The importance of “winning” has been highlighted by the political scientist, Lilliana Mason, who draws on social identity theory to help explain the high level of polarization in American society today (“Uncivil Agreement: Social Identity and Political Polarization”). She presents evidence that although Republicans and Democrats are not nearly as far apart on policy issues as many assume they are, both sides (and she means both sides) are far more interested in winning (e.g., politically punishing the other side) than they are in compromising, even if the latter might be better for the nation as a whole. She sees no short-term solution for the current situation although she has hope for the long-term future. That said, I’d be willing to bet that electing less polarizing candidates and not making fun of our opponents would certainly help in the short-term. Whether we (and by “we,” I mean both sides) will do this or not, however, is very uncertain.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Is a World Series Win Inevitable for the Dodgers?


Is it inevitable that the Dodgers will win the World Series? Not necessarily, but the odds that they will are certainly high. Maybe not this year, but with their nose for finding talent, they'll probably have several chances to bring home a ring. As I've noted before, winning championships involves more than simply assembling a talented team. You also need to have a little luck. Sometimes luck runs against you (e.g., bad bounces, untimely injuries), sometimes it doesn't, which is why teams are far more likely to win championships if they consistently reach the playoffs, something the Dodgers have been doing in spades lately.

In baseball the St. Louis Cardinals have been the best at doing this historically. They're a small market team. They don't possess the payroll of the Yankees (or the Dodgers), but they always seem to be in the hunt for a playoff spot. In football, the Patriots have been great at doing this. Since 2001, they've reached the playoffs every year except 2002 and 2008, and of course they've won 6 Super Bowls. However, people forget there was a 10 year gap between their third (2004/2005) and fourth (2014/2015) titles. In basketball, the San Antonio Spurs come to mind. Unlike the Lakers for which recruiting talent hasn't ever been too difficult, the Spurs are in a small market and not the destination of choice for many NBA players. Still, at least since Gregg Popovich took over as head coach, they almost always reach the playoffs. In fact, this past season the Spurs matched an NBA record for most consecutive playoff appearances with 22. I have little doubt they'll beat the record next year.

Will the Dodgers follow suit? They are blessed to play in a large market and with a talented front office. Giants fans such as myself hope that by snatching Farhan Zaidi from the Dodgers, we may have weakened their front office somewhat. Still, it looks like we're at least a couple of years away from making another run at a championship, and that may not be soon enough to prevent the Dodgers from reaching (and finally winning) a World Series.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Retool or Rebuild: A Choice, Not a Question


Retool or rebuild. That's not a question. It's a choice. If championship teams don't constantly retool, they'll be forced to rebuild (or watch other teams take a run at the championship). In baseball, the St. Louis Cardinals are the quintessential team when it comes to retooling. They never appear to intentionally engage in a rebuild, but almost every year, they're in the hunt for a playoff spot. Given that winning championships always involve a bit of luck, the more times you can make the playoffs, the more likely you'll walk away as champs from time to time. It's no accident that the Cardinals have won 11 World Series titles, which ranks second only to the Yankees, a team that historically has operated with far larger budgets than the Cardinals.

Much to the chagrin of Giants fans, in recent years, the Dodgers have become experts at retooling. They've won six National League West titles in a row (2013-2018) and appear to be well on their way to a 7th. And while there has been some continuity in terms of players from year to year, there are only a couple on this year's team who were on the 2013 team. The only consolation for Giants fans in the face of this dominance is that the Dodgers have yet to claim a World Series title.

By contrast, the Giants have failed in their attempt to retool. They held on to players too long and traded away prospects for older players in the hope of making another run at a pennant. Now, they've been forced to rebuild, and will soon be unloading top pitchers like Madison Bumgarner and Will Smith with the goal of acquiring future prospects. Moreover, it looks like it won't be until 2021 that they become serious contenders again. It is possible that they could surprise everyone in 2020 if a few prospects pan out sooner and/or better than expected, but few of us are holding our breath. Then again, 2020 is an even year...

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Pete Buttegieg Won't Save American Christianity, But He'll Probably Help It

Back when we lived in Bend, Oregon, in the 1990s, a proposition qualified for the state ballot that would've have limited the rights of gays and lesbians, and the "mainline" Bend ministerial association decided to put together a pamphlet opposing it. When I received a draft, I looked it over, thought it was fine, and passed it on to to the Associate Minister of the local United Methodist Church. After he read it, he handed it back to me and remarked, "There's nothing remotely Christian about this." And he was right. There were references to Franklin and Jefferson, but there was nothing about Jesus, which strikes me as bit odd if not sad. Buddhists routinely cite the Buddha, Muslims frequently quote the Prophet, but theologically-liberal Christians seem reluctant, almost embarrassed, to talk about Jesus. Perhaps it's because we're afraid of what others might think. Remember how the media sneered at George W. Bush who, after being asked who is favorite philosopher was, replied, "Jesus."? Such reluctance has led me to quip on more than one occasion that "we liberal Christians are more likely to quote Jefferson than we are Jesus."

This is too bad because so many Americans have absolutely no idea that not every one who calls him or herself a Christian believes God helped elect Donald Trump to make America great again. Instead, many of us consider Trump to be amoral at best and find the repeated attempts by some Christians to explain away his behavior as theologically troubling. But it's more than troubling. Explaining (or rationalizing) away Trump's behavior calls into question the very legitimacy of the Church. If Trump's behavior is fine, then what's "appropriate? It's no wonder that so many young Americans feel disaffected from the church.

And that's where Pete Buttegieg comes in. He's a theologically-liberal Christian who isn't afraid to talk about Jesus. As the Economist recently noted, he happily fuses liberalism with tradition. If asked, I don't know if he would name Jesus as his favorite philosopher, but it wouldn't surprise me if he did. And that, I think, is a good thing. More Americans need to know that not all Christians believe Trump's the greatest thing since sliced bread. In fact, many of us count ourselves among the majority of Americans who did not vote for him, think he's morally challenged, and is not making America great again. At best, he's turned us into a laughing stock. And while I don't think Mayor Pete will "save" the church, he'll almost certainly improve the perceptions that many people have of it.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Should the Giants Pull the Plug?

About a month ago, I speculated that the Giants had a good chance of outperforming the predictions of experts ("How Will the Giants do in 2019?"). I argued that they had decent starting pitching, great defense, and an excellent bullpen. The primary wildcard was their offense, but if their core position players (Posey, Panik, Belt, Crawford, and Longoria) ended up hitting close to their career averages, then the Giants might send manager Bruce Bochy into retirement with a winning season. They probably wouldn't make the playoffs, but at least they'd do okay.

Well, 50+ games into the season, it's becoming clear that Bochy's last year won't be a memorable one. Although the defense and bullpen have been more than adequate (Mark Melancon being a notable exception), starting pitching has been a disappointment, and the offense has been terrible. For the most part, the core position players have not hit. Only Joe Panik is close to his career average, and it wouldn't surprise me that by season's end, Buster Posey closes in on his. However, Longoria, Belt, and Crawford are struggling, and there have been few signs that they will turn things around anytime soon. All three look as if they can't catch up with a good fastball. It's hard not to wonder if the increase in average pitch velocity is taking a toll on their performance ("Pitch Velocity and Aging Curves").

As far as pitching, of the starters, only Madison Bumgarner is showing flashes of his former self. The rest of the members of the original starting rotation -- Jeff Samardzija, Derek HollandDereck Rodríguez, and Drew Pomeranz -- have struggled. Holland has been sent to the bullpen, Rodriguez was relegated to AAA to regain his command, Samardzija has continued to give up home runs at an alarming rate, and Pomeranz, in spite of displaying absolutely wicked stuff at times, has pitched inconsistently.

What should the Giants do? I wouldn't pull the plug on the season. I hate giving up. Nevertheless, at a minimum the Giants should begin lighting a few fires for the future. To begin with, it's probably time for the Giants to move (keep) Samardzija, Holland, and Pomeranz to the bullpen and let their young starters (Dereck Rodríguez, Andrew Suarez, Tyler Beede, and Shaun Anderson) take over. All four have demonstrated they can win in AAA, so there's no point in wasting their arms there. Instead, the Giants should use this year to find out whether they can win at the major league level. In other words, the Giants should seek to make this season as "productive" as possible. They may not win any more games. They might even lose more. But, come September, they will have a pretty good sense which of their young starters, if any, will be a part of a future Giants' rotation.

As far as position players go, few, if any, are trade bait. Some are saddled with long contracts, and others appear to no longer have what it takes to be attractive to other teams. If possible, I'd jettison Longoria, but that'll be tough to do with his contract. For now, I'd keep Crawford, Panik, and Belt. Panik might have a few productive offensive years left in him, and all three are playing good defense. Still, the Giants should see if they can pick up potential replacements through trades over the next couple of months (see the next paragraph). I don't see the Giants ever trading Posey, but they might want to move him to 1B soon in order to extend his career. He can't afford too many more concussions, and his knees won't hold up forever. Plus, Joey Bart may be ready for the big leagues by the middle of next season.

Only Bumgarner and the bullpen offer the Giants much hope of getting some decent prospects. I'm not sure how much the Giants can get for Bumgarner, but they should get a pretty decent return for closer, Will Smith. Several teams seem interested in him, including the Milwaukee Brewers, which is where the Giants got him from in the first place. The Brewers might be willing to give up quite a few prospects, including Lucas Erceg, who is from the Bay Area, if it looks like they'll reach the postseason. I hate to see Bumgarner go, but if he's traded, I hope he lands with the Houston Astros, which looks like the team most likely to keep the Dodgers from winning the World Series. That would offer me (and other Giants fans) some consolation for losing one of the greatest Giants of all time.

P. S. It'd be nice if the Giants could figure out a way to rid themselves of Mark Melancon, who has turned out to be one of the worst investments the Giants have made in recent years, that would be great. It would help make room for players who actually might help the Giants get back to the playoffs in the future.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Pitch Velocity and Aging Curves


On numerous occasions I have railed with the training regimens imposed on young arms by today's youth baseball leagues, primarily because it has led to an exponential increase in arm injuries (""). That said, it has also led to an increase in the number of pitchers who can throw exceptionally hard. Pitchers who threw 100 mph used to be rare. Now, they're becoming more and more common. As an article in the Washington Post ("Velocity is strangling baseball — and its grip keeps tightening") recently noted:
Im 2008, there were 196 pitches thrown at 100 mph or higher... In 2018, there were 1,320, a nearly sevenfold increase. In 2008, only 11 pitchers averaged 95 mph or higher; in 2018, 74 did. Aroldis Chapman of the New York Yankees and Jordan Hicks of the St. Louis Cardinals have both been clocked at 105 mph.
Average pitch velocity has also increased. Not at quite the rate of 100 mph pitches and pitchers, but,  as the graph below from 538 illustrates ("Where Have All The Crafty Pitchers Gone?"), the increase has been steady and substantial for the last several seasons.


Unsurprisingly, this increase has led to a decrease in batting averages and a rise in the number of strikeouts. In fact, 2018 marked the first time in the history of major league baseball that there were more strikeouts per game than hits.

Not only is this decline in offensive production because pitchers are throwing harder, but also because teams are using more pitchers each game. It is rare for a starter to finish a game. There is too much evidence that shows that a starting pitcher's effectiveness decreases the third time through the batting order. Thus, teams are increasingly using relievers, most of whom are only expected to pitch an inning or less, which means that they can throw as hard as they want without worrying about having to pace themselves. Thus, while in the past, in later innings batters could "look forward" to a pitcher's whose velocity had fallen from the start of the game and they had already seen at least twice, now they have to face a fresh (and unseen) arm.

What I'm curious about is the effect that the increase in pitch velocity, if it remains unchecked, will have on the aging curves of position players. What's an aging curve? An aging curve measures the average improvement or decline expected based on a player’s age. Here's a brief description from FanGraphs ("The Beginner’s Guide To Aging Curves"):
Human beings generally can’t run as fast at 36 as they can at 26. They get injured and tired more easily. Sometimes their vision or hand-eye coordination diminishes. No two players bodies age in exactly the same way, but overall there are consistent trends, [but]... players are typically much better overall at 27 then they are at 37.
The graph below plots expected or average runs above average (RAA) by player age. As it indicates, an average player peaks in terms of run production around the 26 years old, and at around 30-32 years old, their productivity drops below that of an average 21 year old. Better players tend to age slower or at least are still productive into their early 30s, but what this graph (and corresponding data) suggests is that when a player reaches 30, it is probably time to start looking for a replacement.


So, what might the increase in pitch velocity have on aging curves? Well, it's not hard to imagine that having to hit a high-90 to low-100mph fastball becomes increasingly difficult as reaction time diminishes. Thus, I wouldn't be surprised that the long term effect could be to push the curve to the left. That is, players might peak at a younger age or their decline could occur more rapidly.

The decrease in offense has corresponded with a decline in attendance. People may lament the steroid era, but it brought people out to the ball park. Not any more. Attendance has declined for six straight seasons. In 2018, average attendance was 28,659 per game, which is 13 percent from its 2007 peak. Thus, it is no surprise major league baseball (MLB) is looking into ways to address the issue. Back in 1968 when batting averages hit an all-time low, the MLB lowered the mound 5 inches (from 15 to 10) and reduced the strike zone. Now, they are talking about moving the mound back. The last time MLB moved the mound back was in 1893. Back then, they moved it back 10 feet, and batting averages jumped 35 points and strikeouts dropped by 34 percent. I don't anticipate anything quite so drastic. In fact, beginning in the second half of the 2020 Atlantic League season, the mound will be moved back by two feet. It will be interesting to see its effects.

Friday, May 10, 2019

The Rockets Have Run Out of Excuses

Last year, the Houston Rockets and their fans claimed that if Chris Paul hadn't been hurt, they would've won Game 7 of the Conference Finals. They probably were right, but as I noted last year, the Warriors probably would've won Games 4 and 5 if Andre Iguodala hadn't been injured. In those two games, the Rockets won by only a combined score of 7 points. Put differently, if Iguodala hadn't been hurt, there's a really good chance there never would've been a Game 6 or 7 for Chris Paul to miss.

This year, the Rockets have no excuses. At full strength, they couldn't beat a Warriors team without Kevin Durant and a Steph Curry playing with a dislocated finger. It's time for the Rockets (and Rockets fans) to come to terms with the fact that the Warriors are simply a better team. I don't know if the Warriors will win it all this year (they've been pretty inconsistent), but we know for sure the Rockets won't.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

How Will the Giants do in 2019?

Shortly before the beginning of the baseball season, a friend asked how I thought the Giants would do. I said that I thought they would be better than most experts were predicting, but it would take career hitting years from most of their core (Posey, Panik, Crawford, Belt, and Longoria) or a big year from a rookie (e.g., Duggar) for them to make the playoffs. The Giants have decent starting pitching, great defense, and apparently the best bullpen in MLB, but if they don't hit, it could be a long year.

So far, members of the core aren't even hitting close to their career averages, let alone having career years, which is why they are currently 5 games below .500. It is likely that Posey, Panik, Crawford, Belt, and Longoria will break out of their current slumps and their output will begin to get back to where it belongs (Posey and Belt are showing signs of life; hopefully, the others will soon follow suit). If that happens, then there's a good chance that they will be better than the experts think. However, I think we Giants fans will have to wait another year before we make a run at the playoffs. This is one of those times when I really want to be wrong. For Bruce Bochy's sake, I hope I am.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Do Mean Gods Make Nice People?

Perhaps destined to be a thorn in the side of theologians, priests, and pastors who preach that "God is Love" (1 John 4:8) are a series of studies that find that belief in a punishing God or gods is more likely to induce prosocial behavior than a belief in a God or gods who don't. Put somewhat differently, belief in the possibility of supernatural punishment appears to serve as a deterrent to behavior that, while potentially beneficial to the individual, is harmful to the larger group. At the same time, belief in a loving or kind deity has just the opposite effect. It appears to encourage anti-social behavior.

First, consider two experiments using North American undergraduates (who received partial course credit for participating) that examined the effect that their views of God had on the likelihood of cheating ("Mean Gods Make Good People: Different Views of God Predict Cheating Behavior"). In both experiments, the students were given a “test” designed in such a way that they had an opportunity to cheat. In addition, all answered a series questions so the researchers could control for basic demographic factors, assess their level of religious devotion, and measure how they viewed God (or gods) in terms of seven positive traits (forgiving, loving, compassionate, gentle, kind, comforting, and peaceful) and seven negative ones (vengeful, harsh, fearsome, angry, punishing, jealous, and terrifying). With regards to the latter, the students were asked to rank on a seven-point scale how much each one of these traits applied to their conception of their God or Gods, or, if they were nonbelievers, how much they felt each trait applied to their culture’s conception of God or Gods. The researchers then averaged the rankings in order to calculate "Loving God" and "Punitive God" scores, from which they then constructed a "God Negativity Scale" by subtracting the former score from the latter. Multivariate analysis (logistic regression) found that in both studies students who scored higher on the God Negativity Scale were much less likely to cheat on the test. At the same time, other factors, such as ethnicity, gender, and level of religious devotion exerted no effect. 

The figure below plots the correlation between the average scores for the fourteen "God" traits and the likelihood of cheating. Bars above zero indicate a greater likelihood to cheat, while bars below zero indicate a lower likelihood to cheat. The seven positive traits lie to the left, and the seven negative traits lie to the right. One doesn't have to be a trained statistician to see that punitive traits are much more likely to discourage cheating than are loving traits.


Of course, we should be cautious not to make too much of results of experiments using U.S. college students. However, cross-cultural experiments conducted in conjunction with ethnographic interviews have uncovered similar results. In particular, a series of experiments involving 591 individuals in eight societies from around the world ("Moralistic Gods, Supernatural Punishment and the Expansion of Human Sociality") found that people who believed in punishing and all-knowing deities ("moralistic gods") were much more likely in a series of experiments to allocate geographically-distant co-religionists money than were those who did not. This was true even after taking into account ("controlling for) other factors that could have an effect. 

This is captured in the figure below, which plots the odds that a participant would award a distant co-religionist money. It indicates that those who believed in a punishing deity were 1.26 times more likely and those who believed in an all-knowing deity was somewhere between 1.15 and 1.25 times more likely. Unsurprisingly, when someone believed in an all-knowing and punishing God, the effect was even higher (results not included in this figure). The figure also shows that belief in local gods that punished had no effect, while belief in an all-knowing local deity actually reduced the likelihood they'd give money to a distant co-religionist. Finally, while the number of children reduced the likelihood of awarding any money, material security actually increased it.


Finally, consider the analysis of those who examined the predictors crime rates in as many as 67 countries ("Divergent Effects of Beliefs in Heaven and Hell on National Crime Rates"). It found that the proportion of people who believe in hell is negatively associated with national crime rates, while the proportion of people who believe is heaven is positively associated with them. In particular, the higher the proportion who believe in hell, the lower the average rate of robbery, rape, assault, theft, drug crime, auto theft, and burglary (with opposite effects for the proportion who believe in heaven). No effects were found for the rate of kidnapping and human trafficking. The figure below presents an interesting graph that plots the proportion who believe in heaven less the proportion who believe in hell by the overall crime rate (normalized) for several countries. As you can see, the greater the difference between the proportion who believe in heaven and the proportion who believe in hell, the higher the crime rate.


And for readers who wonder if the results hold after taking into account a variety of factors, such as GDP, inequality, type of religion, religious attendance, and so on, the answer is yes.

It may be tempting to dismiss these results with claims such as "you can prove anything with statistics" or "you can't replicate the real world in the lab." But those are just sophisticated ways of crying, "fake news!" It is true that statistics can be bent in misleading ways. For example, when I was young, I used to joke that I knew my mom better than my dad since I had known her 100% of my life, but he'd only known her 50% of his. But while statistical sleight of hand may pass muster in some quarters, it does not in the journals in the which the studies mentioned above appeared. And while it is also true that experiments can't replicate the real world, that isn't their purpose.  They are designed to isolate the effect of particular variables that are hard, if not impossible, to isolate in the real world. And when experimental results are combined with field work and/or robust statistical analyses, they can provide a compelling evidence on behalf of a particular hypothesis, as they do here. In fact, in light of the studies noted here, the burden a proof now lies with those who disagree, and needless to say, anecdotal evidence simply won't do. Hard (empirical) evidence is needed.

These studies are part of a much larger project associated with cultural evolutionists who argue that some (but not all) evolutionary processes operate at the group, rather than at the individual, level. Their basic argument (see "The Cultural Evolution of Prosocial Religions" and "The Secret of Our Success") is that evolutionary processes select for any psychological traits, norms, or practices that
  1. Reduce competition among individuals and families within social groups (reduce selfish behavior that harms the group); 
  2. Increase and sustain group solidarity; and 
  3. Facilitate differential success in competition and conflict between social groups by increasing cooperation in warfare, defense, demographic expansion, and/or economic ventures
And although they argue that while cultural evolution can select for non-religious cultural practices, religions are often well-positioned to benefit from the process. And a key reason is that they typically include a belief in powerful, morally concerned gods that monitor human behavior.

For a time, group-level adaptation was scorned by evolutionists such as Richard Dawkins, but no longer. The use of advanced mathematical models and cross-cultural research (experiments, field work, and statistical analyses) has moved it into the mainstream, which interestingly coincides with the thinking of none other than Charles Darwin:
When two tribes of primeval man, living in the same circumstances, came into competition, if (other circumstances being equal) the one tribe included a great number of courageous, sympathetic and faithful members, who were always ready to warn each other of danger, to aid and defend each other, this tribe would succeed better and conquer the other… The advantage which disciplined soldiers have over undisciplined hordes follows chiefly from the confidence which each man feels in his comrades. Obedience… is of the highest value, for any form of government is better than none. Selfish and contentious people will not cohere, and without coherence nothing can be effected. A tribe rich in the above qualities would spread and be victorious over other tribes.
On a final note, these studies have important, albeit somewhat disturbing, implications for the evolution of theological ideas. They suggest that "fire and brimstone" beliefs are more likely to perdure over time (i.e., be selected for) than are beliefs that promote a loving God. It makes one wonder whether "liberal" theology is doomed from the start and will only appeal to a small segment of the religious market. One would hope not, but it is no secret that theologically conservative faith communities, which are more likely to include notions of hell and damnation in their theological arsenal, consistently outperform theologically liberal ones. Could it be that "our" preference for fire and brimstone is a product of our evolutionary past and the destiny of our evolutionary future?

References

Henrich, Joseph. 2016. The Secret of Our Success: How Culture is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Norenzayan, Ara. 2013. Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Norenzayan, Ara, Azim F. Shariff, Will M. Gervais, Aiyana K. Willard, Rita A. McNamara, Edward Slingerland, and Joseph Henrich. 2016. "The Cultural Evolution of Prosocial Religions." Behavioral and Brain Sciences 39:e1.

Purzycki, Benjamin Grant, Coren Apicella, Quentin D. Atkinson, Emma Cohen, Rita Anne McNamara, Aiyana K. Willard, Dimitris Xygalatas, Ara Norenzayan, and Joseph Henrich. 2016. "Moralistic Gods, Supernatural Punishment and the Expansion of Human Sociality." Nature 530:327-30.

Shariff, Azim F., and Ara Norenzayan. 2011. "Mean Gods Make Good People: Different Views of God Predict Cheating Behavior." The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 21(2):85-96.

Shariff, Azim F., and Mijke Rhemtulla. 2012. "Divergent Effects of Beliefs in Heaven and Hell on National Crime Rates." PLoS ONE 7(6):e39048.

Monday, April 1, 2019

The Evolution of a Survey Question About Evolution

Surveys have generally found that a high proportion of Americans do not believe evolution. For example, 2009 Pew Survey, for instance, found that 31% of Americans rejected evolution. However, Pew began to suspect that the way it was asking the question may be impacting peoples' answers. So, in a survey conducted in the Spring of 2018, it conducted an experiment. Half of the respondents were given this question, which mirrors questions used in previous surveys ("The Evolution of Pew Research Center’s Survey Questions About the Origins and Development of Life on Earth"):

1. Which statement comes closer to your own views, even if neither is exactly right?
a. Humans evolved
b. Humans have always existed in their present form since the beginning of time.
If the respondents answered that humans evolved (and only if), then they were asked this follow-up question:

2. Which of these statements comes closer to your own views, even if neither is exactly right?
a. Humans have evolved over time due to the processes such as natural selection; God or a higher power had no role in this process.
b. Humans have evolved over time due to the processes that were guided or allowed by God or a higher power.
The other half of the respondents were given this single question:

1. Which question comes closest to your view?
a. Humans have evolved over time due to processes such as natural selection; God or a higher power had no role in this process.
b. Humans have evolved over time due to processes that were guided or allowed by God or a higher power.
c. Humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.And the results are startling. 
Using the old dual question approach 31% (the same percentage as in 2009) responded that humans have always existed in their present form. However, using the alternative single question approach, only 18% responded that humans have always existed in their present form. Unsurprisingly, people's view of evolution vary by religious tradition. The following graph breaks the results down by religious tradition ("How highly religious Americans view evolution depends on how they’re asked about it"). It presents the percentage of people within each broad category who "reject" religion according to how the question is asked:


White evangelicals and Black Protestants are still the most likely to reject evolution, but the percentage who do drops dramatically when the second, single question was used.

In short, then, Americans are not as ignorant of science as some believe them to be. In fact, a recent article on 538 confirms as much ("Americans Are Smart About Science"). What is striking is the difference the phrasing of survey questions can make. Unsurprisingly, going forward, Pew intends to use the alternative, single-question format.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Deaths of Despair and the Decline in Religious Affiliation

"Deaths of Despair" is a common term for the increasing number of middle-aged white Americans who have been dying from suicide, conditions related to alcoholism, and drug overdoses (e.g., opioids). At the recent meeting for the Association for the Study of Religion, Economics, and Culture (ASREC) in Boston, the economists Daniel Hungerman and Tony Giles of the University of Notre Dame, presented research that explores the relationship between the decline in religious affiliation and deaths of despair ("Opiates of the Masses? Deaths of Despair and the Decline of American Religion"). Like others, they trace the trend back to the early 1990s, thus dismissing the opioid abuse epidemic as a leading cause of the phenomenon, since the drugs central to that epidemic were unavailable 30 years ago. What they found is that the group that has experienced the largest increase in deaths of despair is the same group that has seen the largest decline in religious affiliation over the same time period: middle aged (45-54), non-Hispanic white Americans with no college education. While this group had the lowest levels of non-affiliation before the 1990s, today they have the highest.

Correlation, of course, does not necessarily mean causation, so Hungerman and Giles acknowledge they need to continue their research before it is ready for publication. Yet, they added that they "know of no other large coincidental changes of this kind.” Their initial findings also fit with J.D. Vance's observations in his book, Hillbilly Elegy, on the positive role that religion can play in peoples' lives. In it he laments the decline in church attendance rates among his "hillbilly" peers and notes that communities of faith offered something desperately needed for people like him, growing up in Appalachia:
For alcoholics, it gave them a community of support and a sense that they weren’t fighting addiction alone. For expectant mothers, it offered a free home with job training and parenting classes. When someone needed a job, church friends could either provide one or make introductions. When [my] Dad faced financial troubles, his church banded together and purchased a used car for the family. In the broken world I saw around me — and for the people struggling in that world — religion offered tangible assistance to keep the faithful on track. (pp. 93-94)
That there is positive relationship between religion and health and subjective well-being is well-established in the available research. It has been documented by thousands of studies (that is not a misprint), dating back to the 19th century, that have appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of the American Medical Association, the British Medical Journal, the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, the American Journal of Psychiatry, the American Journal of Epidemiology, and so on (for details, see Jeffrey S. Levine. 2016. "'For They Knew Not What It Was": Rethinking the Tacit Narrative History of Religion and Health Research." Journal of Religion and Health 56:28-46.) Thus, the findings of Hungerman and Giles should not come as a surprise. I suspect, though, that for many, especially those who have a mad-on with religion, they do. As I tell my students, however: just because you want something to be true, doesn't mean that it is.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Comparing the Complexity of Thinking of Believers and Atheists

The philosopher John Gray's latest book, "Seven Types of Atheism," caused a minor stir when it was released late last year. Unlike many critiques of atheism, this one comes from within, that is, from a fellow atheist. As the Economist's brief but excellent review of Gray's book ("When Atheists Lack the Courage of Their Convictions") notes, it's one thing when a believer critiques the logic of atheism; quite another when an atheist does:
Alister McGrath’s “The Twilight of Atheism” and Nick Spencer’s “Atheists: The Origin of the Species” are excellent critiques; but both writers are Christians, so they have been relatively easy for unbelievers to dismiss. It has taken a prophet seated firmly in an atheist pew to publicise the creed’s contradictions more widely.
(Never mind that McGrath earned a doctorate in molecular biophysics from Oxford in 1977). But critique it Gray does. He argues, for example, that "While atheists may call themselves freethinkers, for many today atheism is a closed system of thought” (p. 2). As the Economist summarizes:
[Gray] is as exasperated with knee-jerk unbelief as he is with unthinking devotion, and has no time for several of the types of atheism he enumerates. All of them look to replace God with some form of secular humanism, science or politics. Their high priests tend to be just as blinkered as the ecclesiastics they abjure.
Put somewhat differently, many are as dogmatic and "simple-minded" as the believers they often ridicule. Interestingly, a new study by the psychologist Shannon Houck and her colleagues ("An Integrative Complexity Analysis of Religious and Irreligious Thinking") uncovered results that lend support to Gray's critique. Houck et al. used a measure known as integrative complexity (IC) to evaluate complexity of the underlying cognitive structure of the written and spoken languages of religious and irreligious individuals.

They first compared the complexity of the written and spoken communications from several famous religious (Christian) and irreligious person from comparable time periods:
  •  G. K. Chesterton and Robert Blatchford (written)
  •  C. S. Lewis and Bertrand Russell (written)
  •  Alister McGrath and Richard Dawkins (written)
  •  David Quinn and Richard Dawkins (spoken - debate)
  •  Rick Warren and Sam Harris (spoken - debate)
  •  Bill O’Reilly and Bill Maher (spoken - debate)
They found that although Christians displayed higher levels of overall complexity, there was enough variability to conclude that the results should not be interpreted to mean that "religious believers are uniformly more complex thinkers than the nonreligious" (p. 5). Instead, the argue that while "it is often assumed that religious persons are very simple thinkers who do not readily recognize alternative viewpoints, our data suggest that this assumption may be inaccurate on the whole. Rather, religious thinkers are sometimes more complex than nonreligious thinkers, and vice versa" (p. 5).

Next, they compared the IC of 37,000 individuals who who voluntarily wrote about the things that matter to them at the website, "This I Believe." They note that while these results "cannot be interpreted directly to mean that religious people are more or less complex... [they] can be directly interpreted to evaluate the degree that persons who spontaneously use religious language are more complex when they discuss their beliefs (as opposed to people who use less religious language)" (p. 5). Consistent with the first part of their study, they found that people who used religious language exhibited higher levels of complexity than those who used less.

Finally, they compared the writings of C.S. Lewis before and after he converted to Christianity. In particular, they examined letters he wrote to one of his friends (Arthur Greeves) when he was still an atheist and those he wrote to him after he became a Christian. Here again, the results are consistent with the previous two. Lewis's writings scored higher in terms of IC after his conversion than they did before.

Although all three aspects of their study found that religious believers exhibited higher levels of complexity than secularists, the authors are quite cautious in interpreting their results. They do not want to suggest that irreligious individuals are simple-minded or that believers always display higher levels of complex thinking. Instead, they argue that their "findings at least suggest that the narrative of the simplifying effects of religion ought to be reconsidered. In the same way that conservatives were once considered more simple-minded, recent evidence calls that into question... these results suggest that perhaps religious persons are also not as simplistic as once believed" (p. 9).

I'd also add that their results suggest that perhaps irreligious persons are also not as complex in their thinking as many like to believe they are.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Why Checking Bags Ought to Be Free

I'm not a frequent traveler, but I'm not an infrequent one either, and it's been hard not to notice that airlines often struggle with boarding. A lot of the time the cause appears to be carry-on baggage. Often there is not enough room for all the bags brought on board (and sometimes they don't fit), so the the airlines are forced to check bags at the gate (and sometimes after people have already boarded).

Many airlines offer to check the bags for free at the gate, but this strikes me as using incentives backwards. Checking a bag when checking in should be free and having to check a bag at the gate should not, rather than the other way around. This would lead to less bag checking at the gate and quicker boarding times. Because more bags will be checked under such a system, the airlines might need to raise ticket prices a bit, but in my book, it would be worth it.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Brady is Just 2 Wins Away From Catching Bart Starr

If the Patriots win the Super Bowl, Tom Brady will be one championship win away from catching Bart Starr. That's right. What gets lost in most of the debate about who's the greatest quarterback of all time (Joe Montana or Tom Brady), is that if the number of championships is THE metric by which we are to decide, then Bart Starr is the guy. Starr won 7 championships (he went to 8 championship games), including the first two Super Bowls.

But should championships be the only metric? What about the great quarterbacks who played for lousy teams most of their careers (e.g., Archie Manning)? And I'm pretty sure if John Elway had played for Mike Shanahan (or someone like Mike Shanahan) his entire career, rather spending a good piece of it playing for Dan Reeves, he might have put up numbers that may never be reached. Or what about QBs like Sammy Baugh, Johnny Unitas, and Otto Graham? Why are they left out of the conversation? Do we only consider QBs who careers occurred in the Super Bowl era? That strikes me as unwise.

Of course, I'm one those who thinks such conversations are a waste of time. It's hard, if not impossible, to compare QBs from different eras because they played under different rules, with different offensive schemes, and against different types of defenses. I think the best we can do is identify the best of each era, but even that has its difficulties (e.g., there are many who think Peyton Manning is better than Brady but Brady had more success because he played for better coaches and teams).

Still, if you're going to argue about who's the greatest, use more metrics than championships. The number of championships is one piece of evidence, but it isn't the only one. Using the NBA as an example, does anyone really think that Robert Horry, who won 7 championships, is better than LeBron James (who's won 3)? Of course not. So, expand your metrics. Just don't expect me to join in on the conversation.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Pope Francis and President Trump: Twin Sons of Different Mothers?

First Things is a theologically conservative scholarly journal. It was founded in 1990 by Richard John Neuhaus, who was ordained a Lutheran minister in the 1960s, but he then converted to the Roman Catholic Church in 1990 and entered the priesthood a year later. Although he was active in the Civil Rights movement and associated with the theological and political left, after Roe v. Wade (1973), which he opposed, Neuhaus moved to the right. Here is Wikipedia's description of First Things (FT):
With a circulation of approximately 30,000 copies, FT is considered to be influential in its articulation of a broad Christian Ecumenism and erudite social and political conservatism. George Weigel, a long-time contributor and IRPL board member, wrote in Newsweek that, after its founding, the journal "quickly became, under [Neuhaus's] leadership and inspiration, the most important vehicle for exploring the tangled web of religion and society in the English-speaking world." Ross Douthat wrote that, through FT, Neuhaus demonstrated "that it was possible to be an intellectually fulfilled Christian".
Neuhaus was the author of several books, but he was probably best known for two columns that appeared in each issue of FT: "The Public Square" and "While We're At It". Neuhaus died in 2009, and it is now written by FT's current editor, R.R. Reno, a former professor of theology at Creighton University. In the most recent issue (February 2019), Reno begins "The Public Square" as follows:
The current regime in Rome will damage the Catholic Church. Pope Francis combines laxity and ruthlessness. His style is casual and approachable; his church politics are cold and cunning. There are leading themes in this pontificate—­mercy, accompaniment, peripheries, and so forth—but no theological framework. He is a verbal semi-automatic weapon, squeezing off rounds of barbed remarks, spiritual aperçus, and earthy asides (­coprophagia!). This has created a confusing, even dysfunctional atmosphere that will become intolerable, if it hasn’t already.
It struck me that if "President Trump" was substituted for "Pope Francis" (along with other related changes), we'd have what many would consider an apt description our current President:
The current administration in Washington will damage the U.S. President Trump combines laxity and ruthlessness. His style is casual and approachable; his politics are cold and cunning. There are leading themes in this administration--freedom, patriotism, and pride--but no ideological framework. He is a verbal semi-automatic weapon, squeezing off rounds of barbed remarks, patriotic aperçus, and earthy asides (@#$%&?!). This has created a confusing, even dysfunctional atmosphere that will become intolerable, if it hasn’t already.
It's curious how we disparage the behavior of those who promote policies with which we disagree, but explain away the same behavior of those who promote policies with which we do agree. Perhaps "curious" isn't the right word.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Stephen Hawking and the Questions Science Can (and Cannot) Answer

The late Stephen Hawking's collection of essays, Brief Answers to the Big Questions, was released this past Fall. Interestingly, most of the publicity it did attract seemed to focus on Hawking's belief that there isn't a God. Toward the end of the essay, Hawking writes (p. 64),
We are each free to believe what we want, and it's my view that the simplest explanation is that there is no God. No one created the universe and no one directs our faith. This leads me to a profound realisation: there is probably no heaven and no afterlife either. I think belief in the afterlife is just wishful thinking. There is no reliable evidence for it, and it flies in the face of everything we know in science.
It's worth considering this passage in more detail. At the front end, he speaks of belief and probability: belief in God and the probability in a heaven or the afterlife. Interestingly, he distinguishes between the existence of a God (or gods) from the possibility of an afterlife or heaven, correctly recognizing that the existence of one does not demand the existence of the other. The focus on belief and probability is appropriate given that scientific enterprise can only speak to the functioning of the natural world. Unfortunately, Hawking immediately abandons this perspective when dismissing the possibility of the afterlife because "there is no reliable evidence for it, and it flies in the face of everything we know in science." All of which is too bad, for as the sociologist, Christian Smith, notes, that just because we can't observe or discover something, doesn't mean it isn't true (Atheist Overreach, p. 93). One would hope that someone as brilliant as Hawking would know the limits of the scientific method, but apparently he does not.

Hawking also displays little or no interest in learning why faith continues to persist in the modern world. He remarks toward the beginning of the essay that people "cling to religion, because it gives them comfort, and they do not trust or understand science" (p. 25). If he had bothered to actually spend some time studying religion (and it's clear that he didn't), Hawking would have learned that religion's persistence is not due to a lack of education, a poor understanding of science, or because it offers comfort in the face of a meaningless universe. Rather, it appears that religion’s appeal is rooted much deeper in our evolutionary history. At least three streams of thought inform this perspective. One, which is associated with cognitive scientists of religion, argues that religion is an evolutionary accident, that is, a byproduct of separate (but adaptive) process. Another contends that religion, or at least some forms of it, helped human groups adapt to various evolutionary pressures; this perspective is associated primarily with the work of the evolutionist, David Sloan Wilson. Finally, the philosopher Steven Asma argues that religion persists because it is good for us; he sees it is a necessary and much needed mechanism that has helped and continues to helps people manage and regulate their emotional instincts, of which "comfort" is only one of five emotional instincts he identifies.

If Hawking had studied religion, he would've also learned that approximately 40% of American scientists affirm a belief in a God "to whom one may pray in the expectation of receiving an answer." by which they meant "more than the subjective, psychological effect of prayer." (This is a surprising high percentage given that a high proportion of mainline Protestant pastors wouldn't even be able to affirm it.) And, then, there is Hawking's fellow member of the Royal Academy of Science, John Polkinghorne, who taught mathematical physics at Cambridge (as well as spending time at Princeton, Berkeley, Stanford, and the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN)), where he explored quantum theory and played a role in discovering the quark. Polkinghorne resigned his position at Cambridge to study theology and be ordained as an Anglican priest. He subsequently served several parishes, but he is best known for his writings on the intersection of science and religion. Surely, Hawking would concede that Polkinghorne "understands science."

Finally, Hawking begins his essay noting that scientists are "increasingly answering questions that used to be the province of religion" (p. 25). He is correct, of course. What is interesting, though, is how little scientists who make claims about religion take any time to actually study it. Imagine if the reverse was true. What would happen if theologians began writing about quarks, black holes, and multiple universes, but before doing so, they only bothered to consult an undergraduate textbook on physics? They'd be laughed out of the building. But that is exactly what many scientists do with regards to religion. Scientists with little or no knowledge about religion feel competent to pontificate about it at length. As the Marxist (and Roman Catholic) literary critic, Terry Eagleton, remarked in his review of Richard Dawkins's book, The God Delusion:
Imagine someone holding forth on biology where only whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster. ("Lunging, Failing, Mispunching")
So, why are scientists who lack any competence in matters of theology taken seriously when they make theological claims? They are because of the "authority, status, and prestige" science enjoys in the West (Atheist Overreach, p. 97). Be that as it may, "authority, status, and prestige" aren't a substitute for actual knowledge. Thus, I agree with Christian Smith, who argues that before scientists
Publicly pronounce on metaphysics and theology, they should be obliged to satisfy two conditions. First, they should learn enough about real metaphysics and religion to be able to speak accurately and intelligently about them. And second, they should make clear in their writing and speaking that they are no longer making scientific claims but rather switching modes of discourse and epistemological frameworks to discuss metaphysics or religion. (Atheist Overreach, p. 99)
Unfortunately, I doubt Smith's argument will have much effect, at least in the short run. As the philosopher (and atheist) John Gray notes in his recent book, The Seven Types of Atheism, "While atheists may call themselves freethinkers, for many today atheism is a closed system of thought” (p. 2). Put differently, many are as dogmatic as the religious believers they deride.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Writing the Possessive Singular Right

Let's start the year right by learning (or re-learning) a simple, but often violated, rule concerning the possessive singular. Contrary to much conventional wisdom (and a lot of press headlines), a possessive singular noun that ends in "s" should be followed by an apostrophe and then another "s." This is actually the first rule in Strunk and White's classic book, The Elements of Style (p. 1). As they note, we should write,
Charles's friend
Burns's poem
not
Charles' friend
Burns' poem
Strunk and White are not alone. The authors of Grammar Smart note (p. 122) that we should add an apostrophe and an "s" for proper nouns that ends in "s", such as
Yeats's poem
Ross's riddle
Chris's crisis
And aside from a few exceptions, the Chicago Manual of Style and the Associated Press agree ("Apostrophe-S vs. Apostrophe: Forming Possessives of Words Ending in S (or an S Sound)"). Still skeptical? Consider the following "real life" examples from a wide-range of authors and disciplines (updated from previous posts):
Johann Arnason has pointed out that Jaspers's "most condensed statement" of the axial age, describing it as the moment when "man becomes conscious of Being as a whole, of himself and his limitations," and "experiences absoluteness in the depths of selfhood and in the lucidity of transcendence," is remarkably similar to Jaspers's own version of existential philosophy.
-- Robert N. Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, p. 272
In using it to build a science of the materially extended world, Descartes missed the significance of empirical measurement and inductive mathematical principles in physics; he went so far as to dismiss Galileo’s law of gravity because it was merely empirical. Descartes’s methodological pronouncements missed the actual procedures of the scientific revolution as badly as Bacon’s. Nevertheless, Descartes’s deductive system became for a generation or more the leading emblem of the “mechanical philosophy”; his Principles of Philosophy in 1644 was the most comprehensive statement across the range of science, incorporating everything from physics, chemistry, and physiology to celestial mechanics into a single materialist system.
-- Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies, p. 568
During our period at the abbey his hands were always covered with the dust of books, the gold of still-fresh illumination, or with fellowship substances he touched in Severinus’s infirmary.
-- Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose, p. 17
,
Anyone who chooses to believe something contrary to evidence that an overwhelming majority of people find overwhelmingly convincing... will not be convince... And so, with this book, I do not expect to convince anyone in that boat. What I do hope is to convince genuine seekers who really want to know how we know that Jesus did exist, as virtually every scholar of antiquity, of biblical studies, of classics, and of Christian origins in this country and, in fact, in the Western world agrees. Many of these scholars have no vested interest in the matter. As it turns out, I myself do not either. I am not a Christian, and I have no interest in promoting a Christian cause or a Christian agenda. I am an agnostic with atheist leanings, and my life and views of the world would be approximately the same whether or not Jesus existed. My beliefs would vary little. The answer to the question of Jesus's historical existence will not make me more or less happy, content, hopeful, likable, rich, famous, or immortal.

-- Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?, pp. 5-6
"Don't be silly, my boy. You can't have Peters's job."
-- Dick Francis, Flying Finish, p.19 
He stowed a bottle of a local rotgut called Five Island Gin--nicknamed Five Ulcer Gin--in radioman Harry Brooks's gas mask holster.

-- Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken, p. 90

I plunge into a maze of cobbled alleys and mews cottages that once comprised the Circus's outstation for Covert Operations -- or in the parlance, simply Marylebone.

-- John le Carre, A Legacy of Spies, p. 106

Over the course of a week Amos [Tversky] gave five different talks about his work with Danny, each aimed at a different group of academics. Each time the room was jammed--and fifteen years later, in 1987, when Biederman left Buffalo for the University of Minnesota, people were still talking about Amos's talks.

-- Michael Lewis, The Great Undoing, p. 205

Yet it is also at once clear not only that Rawls’s priorities are incompatible with Nozick’s in a way parallel to that in which B’s position is incompatible with A’s, but also that Rawls’s position is incommensurable with Nozick’s in a way similarly parallel to that in which B’s is incommensurable with A’s.

-- Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, p. 249
At the time, Aleander had seemed full of humanist promise. With Erasmus's encouragement, he had traveled to Paris and secured a position at the Sorbonne.
Michael Massing, Fatal Discord, p. 409  
Note that religion is singular in James's definition and plural in Dennett's. James is describing an experience that he takes to be universal among religions of all descriptions, while Dennett sees religions as distinct 'social systems.'

-- Marilynne Robinson, Absence of Mind, p. 8

But Harry was already pulling a roll of parchment from the owl's leg. He was so convinced that this letter had to be from Dumbledore, explaining everything -- the dementors, Mrs. Figg, what the Ministry was up to, how he, Dumbledore, intended to sort everything out -- that for the first time in his life he was disappointed to see Sirius's handwriting... "I can't stop the owls coming," Harry snapped, crushing Sirius's letter in his fist.

There are plenty of more examples, but surely these should suffice.