What’s Wrong with the World

The men signed of the cross of Christ go gaily in the dark.


What’s Wrong with the World is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: the Jihad and Liberalism...read more

I got a bridge to sell ya'

...if you believe this outcome was decided by a fair and random lottery.

Let's see: Twenty-one spots put up by the city of Santa Monica for "holiday" decorations. Thirteen people applied to decorate them. The rules say that one person cannot win more than nine spots. Two people, both atheists, won eighteen of the twenty-one spots (nine apiece). Of the remaining three, two were won for Christian displays and one for a Jewish display.

The only way I can think of for this to be done actually "by a lottery" would be this: Thirteen names in a hat, one pulled randomly for the first spot. The name pulled is replaced and the process is repeated until and unless some one person's name is pulled nine times, at which point that person's name is not replaced and the odds for the others go to one in twelve. That goes on until and unless a second person maxes out, at which point the odds for the others go to one in eleven for any remaining draws. Drawing takes place twenty-one times. If you can think of a different fair lottery procedure, please share.

Now, I'm a lazy bum. I simply don't have the energy or motivation to calculate, in detail, the astronomically low probability that any given two individuals in that process, done fairly, will get nine slots apiece. Besides, I doubt that my calculator has enough spots for all those zeroes on the screen. (If the drawings were all fair, these are independent probabilities, and since the twenty-one results could come in any order, the combinatorics get a bit complicated.)

A different explanation that, shall we say, springs to mind is that two atheists were deliberately given eighteen of the slots and that the remaining three slots were appointed, perhaps by lottery, among the remaining eleven people after atheists were guaranteed eighteen display spots. (The atheists fill up the displays, when they bother to do a display rather than just leaving them empty, with pontifications about various "myths.") There are other non-random ways it could have been done. For example, some set-aside drawings could have been done among all and only atheists (if there were more than two). Or some non-atheist applicants could have been taken out of the pool for some of the drawings. Lots of complicated ways to do it non-randomly, but the simplest is just simply to hand out eighteen spots to two atheists.

It would be even more interesting if those were the only two atheists applying; the story doesn't say. It would tend to explain why the results weren't made more plausible in appearance by allocating the eighteen among at least a larger number of atheist individuals.

The news story says churches are "crying conspiracy." Well, no, it needn't be a conspiracy. The story doesn't bother to tell us how many people were involved at City Hall in allotting the spots. Maybe it was only one person, and we're being asked to take his word that he gave out the spots by lottery. But, honestly, even if we had to have a "conspiracy" involving several people in the Santa Monica city government, perhaps one to "do the lottery" and another couple to keep a straight face and accept and register the results, this wouldn't strain credulity all that much. Small potatoes compared to what happens in Chicago or Detroit.

One wonders whom they think they're fooling. Do liberals who read this story really believe these eighteen out of twenty-one spots just happened to be awarded to two atheists by chance? Or do they defend that proposition in public while simply not caring whether it's true? Or do they convince themselves that it must be true by something like the following syllogism:

Christian conservatives will believe that this was not the outcome of a fair lottery.
Christian conservatives are bigoted fools, and anything they believe is probably untrue.

Therefore, probably,

This was the outcome of a fair lottery.

Such are the mysteries of the liberal mind.

Comments (20)

News story has very little info, and of course the news likes to make the story sensational. Here's a theory which is consistent with all the info in the news story, but makes it a much less exciting story: People request specific spots. In years past, when requests clashed, somebody was given a different spot (perhaps whoever put in the request first got their requested spot, everybody else gets asked if they want another spot). This year, the religious people all request the same few most popular spots, as usual, and the two atheists each request 9 of the less popular spots. As in past years, when only one person requests a spot, they get it. But there are no free spots to give to people who make clashing requests, so they decide to go with a lottery to decide which of the people who put in a request for a contested spot would get that spot.

Did it work like that? No idea. Would that be a good system? Not really, but bureaucracies have certainly come up with worse. Whatever happened, I'm betting it's probably closer to my idiotic bureaucratic process theory than the conspiracy theory. But the conspiracy theory makes a better news story, so the reporters have an incentive to avoid mentioning anything that might make it sound less suspicious.

Generally the phrase "conspiracy theory" refers to a situation in which there is a fairly obvious explanation but people prefer an un-obvious, complex, highly improbable and invisible conspiracy as an explanation. Since you yourself admit that the story, as reported, _does_ sound suspiciously like the spots were simply awarded to the atheists while pretending that they were drawn for, this isn't a "conspiracy theory" in that sense.

I suppose, Aaron, in your scenario (which is _not at all_ what the story is implying by saying that the spots were awarded by lottery, I want to stress) that the atheists happened not to request the most popular spots but instead requested nine apiece of the less popular ones just because they wanted to be considerate and let the Christians and Jews have the most popular ones?

Given the lack of details, I certainly can't fault you for finding the result strange. But there is at least one possible benign explanation of the result.

First, as quoted in the article, the limit is on the number of sites a person can request, not on the number they can win

From the facts that they limit the number of sites you can request and that the atheists got exactly that limit, I suspect that the rules for the lottery were that each entity can only submit one request, but that request can be for 1 to 9 spots. At drawing time, a request is drawn at random, and that entity is granted either the number of slots they requested or the number of slots remaining (which ever is smaller). They continue drawing requests until all slots have been granted.

If those were the rules, then it is possible that the Nativity Scene committee (the Christian group) request was for 2 or more sites, the Chabad Channukah Menorah request was for 1 and among the remaining 11 requests were 2 (and probably more) from atheists each requesting 9. At the drawing, two of the atheists and Channukah Menorah group were the first three picked: giving them 19 of the 21 slots. The Nativity Scene was picked 4th and got the remaining two spots.

So my guess is that it was a poorly designed lottery that was fairly executed.

But even so, I think the gaming of a well-intended system by the atheists was disrespectful of the community, especially since that lottery system was created at their request. But worse, since they only have used 2 of the 18 sites so far, I fear that their intent was not just to display their own message but also to suppress the message of their competitors. If so, I find that especially distasteful.

Note too that of the eighteen displays that were allocated to the atheists to display a message, they have actually used only three. The other fifteen are completely empty. So not only did the city preferentially provide space to atheists over religious groups, they are actively preventing religious groups from putting up displays in places that are empty and ostensibly available to the public to put up displays.

Peter, your scenario is more plausible than Aaron's. If _that_ was the method, it positively invites the sort of gaming that you are describing, however, because each spot is not drawn for separately. One would think it would be obvious that if there is really going to be competition for these spots, each slot should be the subject of a separate and independent lottery, with replacement. It gives an overwhelming advantage to the person whose name happens to be chosen first if he can thereby win, at a blow, 9 out of 21 spots to do with (or not do with) as he pleases. And the same for the second person who happens to be chosen.

That would be such an obviously poor design that I find it a bit difficult to believe anyone would actually, in all innocence, design a lottery for contested spaces in that way.

And it is worth noting that these atheist displays are not, typically, performing the same role as typical religious displays. Typical religious displays tend to celebrate some religious tradition or integral symbol of the faith. With some exceptions, Atheist messages almost always tend to denigrate religion rather than promoting "freethinking" or whatever. (Why, exactly, would you need to be able to promote *that* at Christmas time specifically?)

Now, imagine a Christian group that put a sign next to the Hannukah display that said: "Judaism is failed religion. It is supplanted by the New Covenant" and that would be a fair approximation of what most of these atheist displays are actually all about. They are not celebratory nor are they expressions of any meaningful cultural tradition. They are typically nothing more than a public stick-in-the-eye.

But if the atheists want to continue acting like a bunch of aggressive, anti-social [jerks, ed. LM], more power to them.

Lydia, I can only guess at the motivation. It is a bit of a reach, but the article did mention that traditionally, the Nativity Committee did a series of displays across multiple sites. The group request feature might have been an attempt to accommodate them and the rest is unintended consequences. Flaws like this are more obvious after the fact, especially if you unconsciously assume good intentions...

Another possibility: the article mentioned that the lottery was requested by Damon Vix (evidently an atheist). If the group request feature was his idea as well, it could have been a deliberate trojan horse on his part. But that is also a lot of supposition.

I don't find the city attorney's statement very convincing, since—as Brett points out—this is not so much an issue of freedom of speech as of the freedom to silence other folks' speech. I don't see how the First Amendment actually protects the freedom to silence others without making a positive statement of one's own.


Peter seems correct. The atheists gamed the system (which hardly seems fair) and the city and churches got blindsided. In another life, I spent quite a bit of time in Santa Monica and passed by the displays many times. The atheists are making themselves look like jerks.

Based on the article, Peter's explanation is the most plausible.

Since it was 13 groups for 21 sites, wouldn't it have made sense to make it so everyone gets one spot and those who want more than one get put into a drawing? The system seems designed to make it so groups get excluded. It would have been nice if the article had discussed how the lottery system was designed. The comments aren't much help since they mainly consist of gloating atheists.

As a side note, displays that require fencing to protect them indicate a sad state of society.

"As a side note, displays that require fencing to protect them indicate a sad state of society."

Palisades Park has a great view of the Pacific Ocean and an appalling collection of homeless folk. If the displays weren't screened they would become homeless housing.

"The system seems designed to make it so groups get excluded."

It wasn't designed, they seem to have defaulted to prior sop which included displays that required several booths. California cities are under real funding and staffing pressure. This probably wasn't at the top of anyones list.

Sorry for the saucy epithet, Lydia. My point is simply that if the Atheists really want to start behaving in this way, then they are well on the road to becoming the next PETA. Good for an occasional headline, but incapable of anything more serious than sporadic attention grabbing and self parodying public displays. If they want to alienate 90% of the human race from their cause, great.

If they want to alienate 90% of the human race from their cause, great.

I hope it works that way. I'm beginning to think people are more influenced by bullying than one would think. Influenced, that is, in the direction of the perspective of the bully.

"If they want to alienate 90% of the human race from their cause, great."

"I hope it works that way. I'm beginning to think people are more influenced by bullying than one would think. Influenced, that is, in the direction of the perspective of the bully."

I suspect they're not interested in the immediate effect. Their view is longer-ranged than that.


I'd not heard of the Overton Window before, but I think it makes sense. Many of these people, consciously or unconsciously, are simply stretching the bounds of discourse for the next generation. Ideas and behaviors that are outrageous in our time can be, with properly laid foundations, completely acceptable in the next.

And yeah. Whatever the details, the selection doesn't pass the smell test.

Joe, I'd never heard that phrase "Overton window" before, myself, but that atheist's idea does sort of get at what I meant. The more familiar, though still neologistic, phrase is "pushing the envelope." Let's face it: Plenty of people in formerly Communist Europe have *major contempt* for all religion. They've been taught that that's the only intellectually respectable point of view. _That's_ what these atheist missionaries are trying to accomplish. What many in America now view as "being jerks" is what they want to make the new normal. Push the envelope enough and people will become inured to it, indifferent to it, at which point they'll stop thinking it's nasty and jerk-like behavior.

Now, I'm going to be honest: I think conservatives need to learn this lesson, too. Almost no conservatives understand that nice guys finish last and that you can't allow the culture to define what counts as "radical" and "can't say that." For example, I'm sick unto death of hearing that we shouldn't call abortion murder because it alienates people. That's just one of a zillion examples I could give. We need to stop apologizing for existing.

The atheists get this. Frankly, I think this jerk-like behavior will alienate some but will be part of an overall strategy of bullying the culture into changing towards their perspective that might just succeed in the not-terribly-long run.

I'd never heard that phrase "Overton window" before...

Really? I think I first read about it from your old compatriot, Josh Trevino. Btw, while I was trying to remember his name, I found a copy of ye olde Enchiridion Militis. I don't know if you all want to do something about it, but you deserve to know it is out there.

Step2, that's one of the weirdest things I've ever seen. I have no idea who could have done that. No names on anything, and all the same date. It's just a copy done by some anonymous person. Maybe whoever it is lifted the content from a snapshot at the wayback machine, purchased the domain name, and recopied it all. Huh. A mystery. I'll pass the word along.

If the spots were individually randomly assigned, I make the probability of this occurring to be 2.113556*10^−27, i.e. 0.000000000000000000000000002113556, or 0.0000000000000000000000002113556%. That's the probability that two people get 9 slots, not that two atheists get 9 slots. The probability that two atheists get 9 slots is of course lower, but I can't say just how much lower without knowing how many atheists applied.

I calculated this as 9*[21 choose 9]/13^21 * 8*[12 choose 9]/12^12.

If things are as Peter suggests, then it's not so terribly improbable.

Overall, it seems that the atheists won most of the spots not due to random lottery but intelligent design.
The article notes:
“Damon Vix is behind the effort to allocate the spaces by lottery. Last year, he put up a sign with the Thomas Jefferson quote and selections on U.S. Supreme Court decisions about the importance of separating church and state. Vix now helps other atheists acquire the park spaces, including American Atheists Inc. and the Freedom From Religion Foundation.”

Post a comment

Bold Italic Underline Quote

Note: In order to limit duplicate comments, please submit a comment only once. A comment may take a few minutes to appear beneath the article.

Although this site does not actively hold comments for moderation, some comments are automatically held by the blog system. For best results, limit the number of links (including links in your signature line to your own website) to under 3 per comment as all comments with a large number of links will be automatically held. If your comment is held for any reason, please be patient and an author or administrator will approve it. Do not resubmit the same comment as subsequent submissions of the same comment will be held as well.