John Templeton’s unfortunate legacy

by It will fluctuate

There’s a new film out called Contrarian about John M. Templeton, who many of us admire for his investment skill, and who seems to have been a very nice man.

Unfortunately, as the film shows, Sir John put much of the money he accumulated during his investing life into the Templeton Foundation, with what I think have been tragic results.

The foundation’s aim is to help bring about discoveries relating to the “Big Questions” and to “encourage civil, informed dialogue among scientists, philosophers, and theologians“. What that really means is that it tries to make religion respectable by pretending its methods for producing knowledge are just as valid as those of science.

The foundation gives an annual £1 million prize that has often gone to the most prominent scientist it can find who is willing to say that science and religion can be pals, and the “research” it funds includes stuff like this $5 million study of immortality, that gets scientists and theologians to convivially study things together.

The trouble, of course, is that theologians don’t do research and they don’t try to falsify claims, but instead make things up – that’s why centuries of theological work haven’t gotten any questions answered, let alone the “big” ones (if you disagree, please name one demonstrably true fact we have learned through theology).

I think it’s a tragedy that so much money, amassed over a lifetime by a decent, smart, and generous man who wanted it to be used for the good of society, has been spent trying to undermine rationality.

The reason it happened is obvious: as the film makes clear, Sir John was a very religious man. And that’s what baffles me: how can some of us be very objective and rational in one field and at the same time very irrational in another?

John Templeton was a good investor because he could look dispassionately at a security to determine its value. Doing that well requires independent thinking, while religious faith requires believing things on other people’s say so. Good investors bet only when the evidence is clearly on their side, while faith means reaching conclusions on insufficient evidence.

Sir John is not alone, of course. For instance, Donald Yacktman appears to take his Mormon faith very seriously, to the point of having once been a bishop. And bear in mind that Mormons believe some particularly improbable things, consisting of Christianity plus a bunch of other odd ideas.

Templeton and Yacktman are two more names in a long list of people who are very rational in some fields, and also religious believers. But my guess is that, just as religious believers are a small minority among elite scientists, they also are a minority among elite value investors.

Buffett has publicly said he’s agnostic, and although I don’t think Munger has spoken publicly of his beliefs, I’d bet a large amount he doesn’t think Jesus actually resurrected.

Maybe Pabrai believes in reincarnation and Eveillard prays to baby Jesus, but I doubt it.

I’d love to see a poll done.