Ken Jennings


December 15, 2006

Yesterday I was referred to a poker forum where someone called David Sklansky (evidently a gambler and poker author of some renown, unless he writes his own Wikipedia page) has posted a challenge.

In broad strokes: he’ll wager $50,000 that no Bible-believer (someone who can pass a polygraph test as a believer that Jesus was resurrected, and that non-Christians won’t go to heaven) can beat his score at the math SAT or GRE. You’d think some Christians somewhere would be able to beat a poker player on a standardized test, but no, says Sklansky, this is clearly impossible. “I’m betting fifty grand they are not. Their beliefs make them relatively stupid (or uninterested in learning). Or only relatively stupid people can come to such beliefs.”

It takes less than a page of comments before someone suggests me as a potential challenger. “I’m ready. Bring him on. No polygraph required,” responds Sklansky.

It’s true that I couldn’t pass the second polygraph question. (Latter-day Saints don’t believe heaven will be some all-Mormon church social. According to Mormon belief, all the great philosophers and religious teachers were inspired by God, and good-hearted people of all faiths, or no faith at all, will be saved.) Sklansky clarifies in a follow-up post that the exclusionary belief targeted by this second polygraph question is what really gets his goat. “Catholics and Jews don’t believe that,” he says, presumably referring to Purgatory-like doctrines in those religions that give nonbelievers a shot at heaven. This is meant to reassure us that he’s just after dumb Protestants.

But really. If holding a strictly Calvinist view of the afterlife makes you stupid and irrational…then aren’t there things in all religious beliefs that sound just as improbable? Wouldn’t it be just as dumb to believe that God wants you to wear a yarmulke, or that Vishnu has ten avatars, or that wine can transform into the blood of a Judean carpenter, or that Joseph Smith was given gold plates by an angel? All religions fall somewhere on the Xenu Implausibility Scale, right? Okay, Sklansky’s got a beef with evangelicals in particular because he’s gotten into a lot of dumb arguments on creationism, but I don’t think he’s thought his worldview through very well.

Also, if you read the challenge thread, you’ve probably noticed that he comes off as a bit of a jerk. Whether or not religious belief is tied to intelligence is an interesting academic question, but he doesn’t offer any argument or scholarship to back up his belief that you’d only be into Jesus if you were dumb as a bag of hammers. Instead he offers a dumb, arbitrary intelligence test, presumably cherry-picked to match his own aptitudes. (Why not a standard IQ test or something else with a broader range than a college-level math test? Because anyone who consistently misspells “resurrected” as “ressurected” isn’t going to beat my SAT verbal score anytime soon.) The competitive angle is what gets me: it’s not enough to insult people of faith. He wants you to know he can best them, one at a time, all comers. Maybe this kind of bluster is expected in the poker world, but here in the real world, it makes you sound like an arrogant jackass. Or a pro wrestler.

Confusingly, he ends his post by suggesting that religious people won’t take him up on his challenge (cluck cluck! chicken!) not because they’ll lose but because they’ll fail the polygraph. Huh? Which is it? If you’re arguing that Christians’ sincere beliefs prove they’re idiots, why would you then argue that their beliefs are probably insincere as well?

Whether or not I believe in his polygraph dogma, Sklansky wants me to “bring (it) on” anyway. Sure, okay. But I’ve already taken the SAT–why bother taking it again? I know what I got, and the College Board can back me up on it. Sklansky looks older than me, but I assume he took the 1600-point SAT at some point. I’ll show you mine if you’ll show me yours. Fifty grand, math/verbal total. Oh, and by Sklansky’s lousy reasoning tying religious belief to intelligence, he’d need to posit that, should I win, it would demonstrate now and forever that all religious people of all faiths are smarter than he is.

Posted by Ken at 12:42 pm