A couple of weeks ago, I read Douglas Todd's short post about a new linguistic analysis study. It compared the frequency of certainty words in New Atheist books versus fundamentalist Christian books (read: religious extremists).
I sat on this for awhile. It was one of those posts that started a lot of conversation in my head but I didn't really quite know how to react to it.
Famous atheists more ‘certain’ than religious extremists: Study
So I guess that's sort of interesting. It reminds me a bit of the Twitter study that was done awhile back that seemed to show that Christians were happier than atheists (or at least pretended to be so on Twitter). I remain dubious about how useful a statistical survey is when determining the degree of certainty in one's language.
Douglas Todd, on the other hand, is all for this. He even calls the researcher a wise American psychologist. This surprises me coming from a man who writes for a living. Surely he must realise the nuances of language which make it a challenge to write and be properly understood. Imagine a computer program being able to understand the written word properly? What a challenge that must be.
As far as I can tell, a certain Prof. Jonathan Haidt at NYU-Stern School of Business used a linguistics computer program, Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC), to analyse the frequency of phrases that convey certainty in books by both religious extremists (e.g. Glenn Beck) and non-religious extremists (e.g. Sam Harris). He apparently did this because New Atheist books sounded angry and their level of certainty seemed higher than within scientific writing (which is not surprising).
I analyzed Glenn Beck’s Common Sense, Sean Hannity’s Deliver Us from Evil, and Anne Coulter’s Treason. (I chose the book for each author that had received the most comments on Amazon.)
As you can see in the graph, the New Atheists win the “certainty” competition.Graph from Haidt's article here.
Of the 75,000 words in The End of Faith, 2.24% of them connote or are associated with certainty. (I also analyzed The Moral Landscape—it came out at 2.34%.)
Anyway, all this is quite interesting in its own way. From my Computer Science background, it seems to me like this program is just trying to pluck out common phrases from a dictionary from the texts. I just don't see how this can bring our meaning or context. I guess the writing style can bring forth personality traits from the author - or writing style but who's to say that what's in the books isn't affected by how they codify their meaning in print or what the publishers encouraged them to modify their language to?
This same text with a high degree of certainty could also very well be the most understandable and economical fashion to convey the point. This is how textbooks work - they are laced with certainty. What a bunch of dogma and fundamentalism.
Also, from a publisher/editorial point of view, I may be more likely to promote crisp, confident and certain sounding language than weasely doubtful language. If these books are meant to arouse passions of activism (eg. Greta Christina's Why Are You Atheists So Angry?) or stir emotions of wonder or awe at the universe or science, words of doubt or concession are hardly apt.
Furthermore, it is ultimately up to the reader to analyse what the author believes and decide for themselves.
So, what am I supposed to do with this information? What is Todd trying to say here? What's he trying to prove with all this? Going back to the beginning:
Who is more rigid in their thinking — atheists or religious fundamentalists?
It’s often said that Christian, Muslim and other religious fundamentalists are very “certain” in their beliefs. Another term for this is dogmatic.Has some kind of point been horribly missed here? Who cares which group is very certain? How does this relate at all to the validity of the truth claims? Not one jot, that's what.
Facts and reality is not a popularity contest. You could be the world's most obnoxiously certain person and still be 100% correct. You could be a Dr. House or a Sherlock Holmes. You could also have an open mind but lot leave it so open your brain falls out!
Look, nothing is 100% certain, but once something reaches a threshold level, you can begin to use the certain language. Questions like does a narrowly defined fundamentalist Christian god exist? or is evolution true? are certain nos. In fact, the sillier the religious belief, the higher the degree of certainty it's false and the stronger the language admonishing the ridiculousness is appropriate.
Todd ends his work by letting us know that not all atheists are so closed minded. He links to his piece on Albert Camus, where he sings praises for the 20th century existentialist who could accept very little as true. You'll find my response to that here.
For me, Camus stood out from more celebrated atheists, including Jean-Paul Sartre. And, in his humility, Camus remains in a different class entirely from today’s know-it-all atheists, such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.
Now I know why Todd called Haidt a wise American psychologist. He was looking for someone to confirm his personal bias against know-it-all atheists.