A Parable On Obsolete Ideologies

Followup to:  Yudkowsky and Frank on Religious Experience, Yudkowksy and Frank On Religious Experience Pt 2
With sincere apologies to: Mike Godwin

You are General Eisenhower. It is 1945. The Allies have just triumphantly liberated Berlin. As the remaining leaders of the old regime are being tried and executed, it begins to become apparent just how vile and despicable the Third Reich truly was.

In the midst of the chaos, a group of German leaders come to you with a proposal. Nazism, they admit, was completely wrong. Its racist ideology was false and its consequences were horrific. However, in the bleak poverty of post-war Germany, people need to keep united somehow. They need something to believe in. And a whole generation of them have been raised on Nazi ideology and symbolism. Why not take advantage of the national unity Nazism provides while discarding all the racist baggage? "Make it so," you say.

The swastikas hanging from every boulevard stay up, but now they represent "traditional values" and even "peace". Big pictures of Hitler still hang in every government office, not because Hitler was right about racial purity, but because he represents the desire for spiritual purity inside all of us, and the desire to create a better society by any means necessary. It's still acceptable to shout "KILL ALL THE JEWS AND GYPSIES AND HOMOSEXUALS!" in public places, but only because everyone realizes that Hitler meant "Jews" as a metaphor for "greed", "gypsies" as a metaphor for "superstition", and "homosexuals" as a metaphor for "lust", and so what he really meant is that you need to kill the greed, lust, and superstition in your own heart. Good Nazis love real, physical Jews! Some Jews even choose to join the Party, inspired by their principled stand against spiritual evil.

The Hitler Youth remains, but it's become more or less a German version of the Boy Scouts. The Party infrastructure remains, but only as a group of spiritual advisors helping people fight the untermenschen in their own soul. They suggest that, during times of trouble, people look to Mein Kampf for inspiration. If they open to a sentence like "The Aryan race shall conquer all in its path", then they can interpret "the Aryan race" to mean "righteous people", and the sentence is really just saying that good people can do anything if they set their minds to it. Isn't that lovely?

Soon, "Nazi" comes to just be a synonym for "good person". If anyone's not a member of the Nazi Party, everyone immediately becomes suspicious. Why is she against exterminating greed, lust, and superstition from her soul? Does she really not believe good people can do anything if they set their minds to it? Why does he oppose caring for your aging parents? We definitely can't trust him with high political office.

It is four years later. Soon, the occupation will end, and Germany will become an independent country once again. The Soviets have already taken East Germany and turned it Communist. As the de facto ruler of West Germany, its fate is in your hands. You ask your two most trusted subordinates for advice.

First, Colonel F gives his suggestion. It is vital that you order the preservation of the Nazi ideology so that Germany remains strong. After all, the Germans will need to stay united as a people in order to survive the inevitable struggle with the Soviets. If Nazism collapsed, then people would lose everything that connects them together, and become dispirited. The beautiful poetry of Mein Kampf speaks to something deep in the soul of every German, and if the Allies try to eradicate that just because they disagree with one outdated interpretation of the text, they will have removed meaning from the lives of millions of people all in the name of some sort of misguided desire to take everything absolutely literally all the time.

Your other trusted subordinate, Colonel Y, disagrees. He thinks that Mein Kampf may have some rousing passages, but that there's no special reason it has a unique ability to impart meaning to people other than that everyone believes it does. Not only that, but the actual contents of Mein Kampf are repulsive. Sure, if you make an extraordinary effort to gloss over or reinterpret the repulsive passages, you can do it, but this is more trouble than it is worth and might very well leave some lingering mental poison behind. Germany should completely lose all the baggage of Nazism and replace it with a completely democratic society that has no causal linkage whatsoever to its bloody past.

Colonel F objects. He hopes you don't just immediately side with Colonel Y just because the question includes the word "Nazi". Condemning Nazism is an obvious applause light, but a political decision of this magnitude requires a more carefully thought-out decision. After all, Nazism has been purged of its most objectionable elements, and the Germans really do seem to like it and draw a richer life from it. Colonel Y needs to have a better reason his personal distaste for an ideology because of past history in order to take it away from them.

Colonel Y thinks for a moment, then begins speaking. You have noticed, he says, that the new German society also has a lot of normal, "full-strength" Nazis around. The "reformed" Nazis occasionally denounce these people, and accuse them of misinterpreting Hitler's words, but they don't seem nearly as offended by the "full-strength" Nazis as they are by the idea of people who reject Nazism completely.

Might the existence of "reformed" Nazis, he asks, enable "full-strength" Nazis to become more powerful and influential? He thinks it might. It becomes impossible to condemn "full-strength" Nazis for worshipping a horrible figure like Hitler, or adoring a horrible book like Mein Kampf, when they're doing the same thing themselves. At worst, they can just say the others are misinterpreting it a little. And it will be very difficult to make this argument, because all evidence suggests that in fact it's the "full-strength" Nazis who are following Hitler's original intent and the true meaning of Mein Kampf, and the "reformed" Nazis who have reinterpreted it for political reasons. Assuming the idea of not being a Nazi at all remains socially beyond the pale, intellectually honest people will feel a strong pull towards "full-strength" Nazism.

Even if the "reformed" Nazis accept all moderate liberal practices considered reasonable today, he says, their ideology might still cause trouble later. Today, in 1945, mixed race marriage is still considered taboo by most liberal societies, including the United States. The re-interpreters of Mein Kampf have decided that, although "kill all the Jews" is clearly metaphorical, "never mix races" is meant literally. If other nations began legalizing mixed race marriage in the years to come, Party members will preach to the faithful that it is an abomination, and can even point to the verse in Mein Kampf that said so. It's utterly plausible that a "reformed" Nazi Germany may go on forbidding mixed race marriage much longer than surrounding countries. Even if Party leaders eventually bow to pressure and change their interpretation, the Party will always exist as a force opposing racial equality and social justice until the last possible moment.

And, he theorizes, there could be even deeper subconscious influences. He explains that people often process ideas and morals in ways that are only tangentially linked to specific facts and decisions. Instead, we tend to conflate things into huge, fuzzy concepts and assign "good" and "bad" tags to them. Saying "Jews are bad, but this doesn't apply to actual specific Jews" is the sort of thing the brain isn't very good at. At best, it will end out with the sort of forced politeness a person who's trying very hard not be racist shows around black people. As soon as we assign a good feeling to the broad idea of "Nazism", that reflects at least a little on everything Nazism stands for, everything Nazism ever has stood for, and every person who identifies as a Nazi.

He has read other essays that discuss the ability of connotations to warp thinking. Imagine you're taught things like "untermenschen like Jews and Gypsies are people too, and should be treated equally." The content of this opinion is perfectly fine. Unfortunately, it creates a category called "untermenschen" with a bad connotation and sticks Jews and Gypsies into it. Once you have accepted that Jews and Gypsies comprise a different category, even if that category is "people who are exactly like the rest of us except for being in this category here", three-quarters of the damage is already done. Here the Colonel sighs, and reminds you of the discrimination faced by wiggins in the modern military.

And (he adds) won't someone please think of the children? They're not very good at metaphor, they trust almost anything they hear, and they form a scaffolding of belief that later life can only edit, not demolish and rebuild. If someone was scared of ghosts as a child, they may not believe in ghosts now, but they're going to have some visceral reaction to them. Imagine telling a child "We should kill everyone in the lesser races" five times a day, on the assumption that once they're a teenager they'll understand what a "figurative" means and it'll all be okay.

He closes by telling you that he's not at all convinced that whatever metaphors the Nazis reinterpret Mein Kampf to mean aren't going to be damaging in themselves. After all, these metaphors will have been invented by Nazis, who are not exactly known for choosing the best moral lessons. What if "kill all lesser races" gets reinterpreted to "have no tolerance for anything that is less than perfect"? This sounds sort of like a good moral lesson, until people start preaching that it means we should lock up gay people, because homosexuality is an "imperfection". That, he says, is the sort of thing that happens when you get your morality from cliched maxims taken by drawing vapid conclusions from despicably evil works of literature.

So, the Colonel concludes, if you really want the German people to be peaceful and moral, you really have no choice but to nip this growing "reformed Nazi" movement in the bud. Colonel F has made some good points about respecting the Germans' culture, but doing so would make it difficult to eradicate their existing racist ideas, bias their younger generation towards habits of thought that encourage future racism, create a strong regressive tendency in their society, and yoke them to poorly fashioned moral arguments.

And, he finishes, he doesn't really think Nazism is that necessary for Germany to survive. Even in some crazy alternate universe where the Allies had immediately cracked down on Nazism as soon as they captured Berlin, yea, even in the absurd case where Germany immediately switched to a completely democratic society that condemned everything remotely associated with Nazism as evil and even banned swastikas and pictures of Hitler from even being displayed - even in that universe, Germans would keep a strong cultural identity and find new symbols of their patriotism.

Ridiculous, Colonel F objects! In such a universe, the Germans would be left adrift without the anchor of tradition, and immediately be taken over by the Soviets.

Colonel Y just smiles enigmatically. You are reminded of the time he first appeared at your command tent, during the middle of an unnatural thunderstorm, with a copy of Hugh Everett's The Theory of the Universal Wave Function tucked under one arm. You shudder, shake your head, and drag yourself back to the present.

So, General, what is your decision?

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Reading this article is one of the things that caused me to become an atheist.

This is beautiful. My only problem with it is that I can't show it to anyone who'd be able to directly benefit from the cognitive dissonance, because they would be too offended about being compared to Nazis to glean anything useful.

I think you, perhaps, miss the ideal target audience of this post. What Yvain presents here is in effect a counterargument against people who argue that religion isn't all that bad, even if it's false, because of the other benefits it gives people. Anyone who is reduced to defending religion on these grounds is likely not a typical theist.

This isn't an argument against theism, it's "opiate of the masses" vs. "just say no to drugs".

Sure. But I wouldn't be inclined to try to convince those people because I'm inclined to tolerate tolerance of religion.

I think it's bad to punish people for their tolerance, but it has to be OK to try to change their mind?

Hmm... I think the argument against objecting when people don't dislike religion enough is a lot stronger than the argument against objecting when people actually spread false statements minimizing the harm from religion.

Yeah, I think I'm just going to link it anyway. See what happens.

I'd be interested to see what kinds of results you get, from brittle and less brittle recipients of the link.

Posted to my personal journal here, so we'll see if any angry comments turn up.

Besides, these comments are (currently) at the top of the page -- if they've read all the way through, there's no reason they couldn't self-report =)

As someone who grew up hearing countless sermons comparing the conquest of Canaan and other Old Testament battles to the spiritual victories we should have in our lives, I can really appreciate this. For example, when the walls of Jericho fall down, this means that the "walls" that keep us from spiritual blessings need to fall down. Of course, the actual writers meant the destruction of real, stone-and-mortar walls and the death of real, flesh-and-blood people. (1)

As a child the true implications of killing every man, woman, and child in a city were lost on me. Rethinking the Bible stories as an adult, especially after seeing real footage of the aftermath of war, has a very different effect. It is interesting to note the rationalizations people use to try to reconcile the cognitive dissonance: http://epsociety.org/library/articles.asp?pid=63&ap=1

(1) I think this is what the writers of the Old Testament had in mind, regardless of whether or not the specific battles actually took place.

This reminds me of a rather interesting argument I foolishly got into on an internet forum that had no connection to religion. First mistake.

Anyhow, it involved someone saying Christianity was a religion of peace, and I couldn't help but quote:

"Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father..." (full quote here)

His response, with what I assume was a completely straight face, was, "I'm glad you quoted that. Christ is just encouraging spirited debate within the household."

This would be hilarious if it weren't so terrifying.

My own view of that and similar statements is that Jesus was clearly expecting world-changing divine intervention to occur during his lifetime - he was basically the leader of a "the end is near" cult, waiting for God to go all Old Testament on the Roman Empire, much like he did to the Egyptians in the book of Exodus. The "Kingdom of Heaven" was to be a Jewish nation-state on Earth, which would be established after Rome was defeated by the hand of God. (Yes, indeed, embrace pacifism and endure your suffering, because God is coming to smite the wicked. And he's coming any day now!)

The religion that we now know as Christianity owes at least as much to Paul of Tarsus than to a certain wandering preacher that pissed off the local authorities and ended up nailed to a piece of wood.

There is no meaningful historical evidence that "Jesus" ever existed. The arguments for the existence of that figure boil down to "I don't think Paul would have made all that stuff up, it's too awesome", and I don't think they merit a high degree of belief in the historicity of Jesus (although plenty of career academics would argue vociferously that this argument does indeed merit belief in a historical Jesus).

There is no meaningful historical evidence that "Jesus" ever existed.

Not even a rather bland carpenter who got slightly popular, enough for folks like Paul to make stuff up?

No, just as there is no evidence for Russell's teapot.

There is only one historical document from the time of Jesus' supposed life which even resembles evidence of a teacher called Jesus (or Yeshua or whatever), and that is just a reference to a rabbi with the right name who had one brother with the right name. Given that Jesus supposedly had four named brothers and multiple sisters, at least one of whom is also named, there's plenty of scope for that to be a false positive. Taking it as strong evidence would be like taking the discovery of a journalist named Clark who worked with a journalist named James in the 1920s as strong evidence that those two were the historical basis for the story of Superman.

There could have been a historical Yeshua so boring that none of his contemporaries, including the Romans, wrote anything about him during his life or for decades after he died. Or the character could have been entirely made up. Evidence to differentiate these two possible universes does not currently exist.

There are passages in Flavius Josephus that talk about him but are clear fakes. The untampered versions might have been about a real guy named Jesus, but more likely they were reports of Christians beliefs, or just nonexistent. I don't know of any other evidence for the existence of a carpenter turned rabbi who disliked Romans.

No, just as there is no evidence for Russel's teapot.

As the word evidence is commonly used, there is evidence for Russell's teapot -- just not evidence that you or me believe in. If someone says "Russell's teapot exists! I've seen it!", that is anecdotal evidence for its existence. Anything that suggests something is true or false is evidence, no matter how flawed that evidence may be.

It is by considering all the evidence, for and against our beliefs, that we progress towards truth.

I think I might have to write something specifically addressing this misconception because a few people seem to have picked it up.

It's only evidence for the existence of Russell's teapot if more people say they have seen it than you would expect in a universe where Russell's teapot does not exist.

(That's ignoring the fact that Russell's teapot is by stipulation non-observable and hence in that artificial situation we can skip Bayesian updating and just go straight to p=1 that anyone claiming to have observed it is lying or deluded).

I think I might have to write something specifically addressing this misconception because a few people seem to have picked it up.

I think our disagreement is to do with our differing usage of "evidence", not a misconception. I'd say that a sole anecdote of someone seeing Russell's teapot can be considered evidence for its existence, even though it's not credible evidence.

It's only evidence for the existence of Russell's teapot if more people say they have seen it than you would expect in a universe where Russell's teapot does not exist.

I would add that different situations require different standards of evidence, depending on how willing we are to accept false positives. The fire service only requires one phone call before they respond.

I think our disagreement is to do with our differing usage of "evidence", not a misconception. I'd say that a sole anecdote of someone seeing Russell's teapot can be considered evidence for its existence, even though it's not credible evidence.

Perhaps a less abstract example would help. Uri Geller used to claim he was projecting his psychic powers over the TV or the radio and invite people to phone in if something "spooky" happened in their home. Inevitably people phoned in to report clocks stopping or starting, things falling off shelves and so on. It was pretty convincing stuff for people who believed in that sort of thing, but it turned out that when skeptics with no psychic powers whatsoever pretended to be psychic on the radio and invited people to phone in they got exactly the same flood of calls. Odd things happen all the time and if you get a large enough sample of people looking about the house for odd things to report you get a fair number of calls.

What would have been evidence for Uri Geller having psychic powers is if he got more calls than normal people when he did that stunt. Just getting the base rate of calls anyone else would proves nothing. As you said yourself, you have to look at all the evidence.

You might be thinking "I read this Bayes theorem essay, and it said evidence for X was whatever was more likely to be true in a universe where X was true. In a universe where Russell's teapot existed I'd be more likely to hear someone say they saw Russel's teapot, right? So it's evidence! Bayes says so". That line of reasoning only works if you don't have all the evidence to look at so you can't determine the base rate. If you can determine the base rate then it's probably going to turn out that the number of claimed teapot-sightings is consistent with the base rate of stupid noises humans make.

If all you have is the one anecdote then it does count as evidence, but only in a strictly philosophical or mathematical sense. Not in any practical sense though since the shift in the relevant p value isn't going to be visible in the first twenty or thirty decimal places and I doubt anyone alive has that level of precision in their decision-making. (The odds of someone having seen Russell's teapot could be said, very conservatively, to be lower than the odds of someone winning the lotto twice in a row).

Perhaps a less abstract example would help

I don't think a less abstract example will solve a dispute over word usage.

What would have been evidence for Uri Geller having psychic powers is if he got more calls than normal people when he did that stunt.

And even if they did receive a statistically significant number of calls, perhaps people lied, grouped together and phoned in supernatural events that hadn't actually occurred.

If all you have is the one anecdote then it does count as evidence, but only in a strictly philosophical or mathematical sense. Not in any practical sense though since the shift in the relevant p value isn't going to be visible in the first twenty or thirty decimal places and I doubt anyone alive has that level of precision in their decision-making.

I don't have a problem with dismissing evidence if it truly is highly irrelevant. I think the problem is that in some cases evidence that at first seems irrelevant turns out to be important.

How relevant a piece of evidence truly is might not become apparent even after significant consideration. This is why, for important matters, I explore as much evidence as possible, even the seemingly irrelevant evidence.

I don't think a less abstract example will solve a dispute over word usage.

This is really a dispute over maths. The laws of probability are the law, they don't depend on word usage.

And even if they did receive a statistically significant number of calls, perhaps people lied, grouped together and phoned in supernatural events that hadn't actually occurred.

Of course people can mock up evidence of things that are not in fact true. It's still evidence from the perspective of people who are not in on the plot. All of our evidence for everything could in theory have been mocked up by the architects of the Matrix and it would still all be evidence, from our perspective.

I'm not clear how this is relevant to the base rate fallacy though.

How relevant a piece of evidence truly is might not become apparent even after significant consideration. This is why, for important matters, I explore as much evidence as possible, even the seemingly irrelevant evidence.

Strictly speaking what's going on there is that you are collecting facts which might later turn out to be evidence for a hypothesis you have not articulated yet. This is an entirely rational approach to solving certain classes of problems. It doesn't change the definition of evidence though,

This is really a dispute over maths. The laws of probability are the law, they don't depend on word usage.

Explaining the way one uses a word isn't a statement about maths or the laws of probability either.

I'm not clear how this is relevant to the base rate fallacy though.

It's not. I was riffing on what you said.

Strictly speaking what's going on there is that you are collecting facts which might later turn out to be evidence for a hypothesis you have not articulated yet.

I was discussing ascertaining the trustworthiness of evidence concerning a hypothesis you are currently considering. Like an investigation into whether Uri Gellers phone calls were genuine reports of supernatural events, for example.

It doesn't change the definition of evidence though,

Of course not. I'm not trying to suggest that my usage of "evidence" is somehow better or superior than yours. I do think mine is more common, but that's a matter of opinion.

Explaining the way one uses a word isn't a statement about maths or the laws of probability either.

It is, actually. It's the Bayesian definition that evidence for X is something more likely to be true in a universe where X than in a universe where -X.

Part of the point of Bayes' Theorem is that correction for the base rate fallacy is baked in. That's a large part of what separates Bayesian rationality from irrationality,

It is, actually. It's the Bayesian definition that evidence for X is something more likely to be true in a universe where X than in a universe where -X.

What you're saying here is that you use Bayes' theorem to inform your definition of "evidence".

If I used a different definition of evidence, that doesn't mean I'm saying something about Bayes' theorem. That simply means I use the word differently.

When it comes to evidence, I don't believe Bayes' theorem deals with the real-world problems that arise when considering a hypothesis. For example, it doesn't deal with the "garbage in, garbage out" problem.

As I said, we might plug the number of calls Uri Geller got into Bayes' theorem and because of the answer believe that supernatural events did actually occur. But that would be an incorrect conclusion because we have based our conclusion on the faulty premise that more calls means supernatural events are more likely to have occurred.

When it comes to evidence, I don't believe Bayes' theorem deals with the real-world problems that arise when considering a hypothesis. For example, it doesn't deal with the "garbage in, garbage out" problem.

If you mean things like the base rate fallacy, then yes it does. If you mean that putting in random numbers for your priors doesn't solve your problems, then there isn't any method of considering evidence that fixes that in principle.

If you mean things like the base rate fallacy, then yes it does.

In the paragraph after the one you quoted, I gave an example of what I was discussing.

If you mean that putting in random numbers for your priors doesn't solve your problems, then there isn't any method of considering evidence that fixes that in principle.

You can check the source of the evidence and try to make sure that you're not putting in random numbers but reliable data.

When considering hypotheses in the real world -- like "Does God exist?" or "Is my wife cheating on me?"-- Bayes' theorem doesn't encapsulate all the skills you need to arrive at a trustworthy answer. You must clearly understand what it is you're trying to establish -- Aquinas's conception of God is very different from your average Christian's. You must be willing to question beliefs that you are attached to or identify with -- maybe your wife is sleeping with anything that moves, or maybe you're a needlessly jealous, insecure husband. You must gather as much evidence as possible, including the evidence that you might initially deem to be irrelevant. You must be diligent, fastidious, and detached when performing the investigation -- not hiding behind "Oh, my wife would never do that" or allowing your emotions to effect your judgment.

People will have done all the above and still arrived at erroneous conclusions. Such is the difficulty of testing a hypothesis.

What you're saying here is that you use Bayes' theorem to inform your definition of "evidence".

Absolutely. Otherwise I can't exclude from the domain of "evidence of X" all things which should not incline a rational person to amend their views about X, and I very much want to do that.

Note that something can be "evidence" without being "evidence of X" where X is one specific something. Someone calling in to say their watch stopped is evidence that someone called in and evidence that a watch stopped and so on, just not evidence that Uri Geller has radio-propagated psychic powers.

I agree with you to the extent that Bayes' theorem is not a magic wand that cures all epistemological ills. You don't have to browse this site for too long to come across people advancing silly ideas under the banner of Bayesian inference because they are using it incorrectly. However while it's not a magic wand it's a mathematical truth about how the universe works, and any time you deliberately deviate from Bayes' theorem you are deliberately going wrong as a matter of mathematical fact.

As I said, we might plug the number of calls Uri Geller got into Bayes' theorem and because of the answer believe that supernatural events did actually occur. But that would be an incorrect conclusion because we have based our conclusion on the faulty premise that more calls means supernatural events are more likely to have occurred.

What is actually going on here, assuming you are applying Bayes correctly, is that the prior probability of Uri Geller having radio-propagated psychic powers should be seen as astoundingly low. Far lower than the odds of me winning the lotto twice in a row, for example - let's say one on ten to the fourteenth as a very generous prior probability. If Uri Geller got a lot more phone calls than a skeptic pretending to be a psychic that should tip the scales a little in his favour but nowhere near enough to get P(Uri Geller has psychic powers) up to a level we should take seriously.

The premise "more calls makes psychic powers more likely" is not flawed at all. If we lived in a bizarre universe where Uri Geller really could reach out through your radio and stop your watch then we would indeed see more calls coming in, and if we lived in that bizarre world we should want to believe we lived in that bizarre world. I'm very sure we do not live in that world but that's because the evidence is against it, not because I would dismiss that evidence if it supported it.

Absolutely. Otherwise I can't exclude from the domain of "evidence of X" things which should not incline a rational person to amend their views about X, and I very much want to do that.

If someone believes the Bible is central to question of whether God exists, you can challenge that without having a definition of "evidence" that is informed by Bayes' theorem.

The premise "more calls makes psychic powers more likely" is not flawed at all.

It could be flawed if there are things that effect the number of phone calls other than Geller's proposed psychic powers. One show might get more calls but also have more viewers, and that obviously doesn't make Geller more likely to be psychic during that particular show.

But I am in agreement with you generally with the Uri Geller example. I don't think phone calls to a television show would alone change my mind, but if we did live in a world where he truly did have psychic powers, I would hope that such evidence would lead me to investigate the matter further.

If someone believes the Bible is central to question of whether God exists, you can challenge that without having a definition of "evidence" that is informed by Bayes' theorem.

Fair comment. I should have said "all things", not "things", and I've edited the grandparent appropriately.

It could be flawed if there are things that effect the number of phone calls other than Geller's proposed psychic powers.

There's an implicit "all else being equal" in such statements, which really shouldn't need to be spelled out if all parties are respecting the principle of charity. Any number of things (time of day, stooges working for Uri, number of listeners, service to the telephone system) could also affect the number of calls received, but if all else is equal as far as we are aware then Uri getting more calls than the skeptic is more likely in a universe where he has psychic powers. Hence by Bayes' theorem it's evidence he has psychic powers - just extremely weak evidence which is alone insufficient to shift our prior probability much.

It's also more likely in a universe where Uri has more listeners, has stooges working for him, or has some other non-psychic factor working in his favour of course, and those hypotheses have much, much higher prior probabilities.

If someone says "Russell's teapot exists! I've seen it!", that is anecdotal evidence for its existence.

But nobody is saying that... er, right?