William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Dan Farber, Berkeley Lawyer, Confused Climate Clinger

According to the public figure's Facebook page, this is a self portrait.

According to the public figure’s Facebook page, this is a self portrait.

For the art of the sophist is the semblance of wisdom without the reality, and the sophist is one who makes money from an apparent but unreal wisdom. —Aristotle

Dan Farber calls himself a “public figure“, and I believe him.

Unfortunately, it’s not a distinguished category, and, given his performance (outlined below), the appellation invites unfortunate comparisons.

Rosie “9-11″ O’Donnell is a public figure, and so was Bozo the Clown (though the latter was beloved). And who could forget the People’s own scientist, comrade Trofim Lysenko?

But when I first read Farber’s “From germ theory to global warming, science denialism is beyond parody”, given the extreme violence he committed to calm reason and his mutilation of informed argument, the semblance which sprang to mind was public figure Jeffrey Dahmer.

Don’t think I’m picking on this heretofore unknown Dan Farber, God bless him. He is merely a symptom and not the disease. Delineating symptoms is an important part of understanding illness, however, so think of this article as a physician’s case report, all the while keeping in mind we’re dealing with a larger phenomenon than the mental corruption of one man.

Farber, like many, is a Climate Clinger. A man who, at least according to his public record, has no background in the science of fluid flow—would he, off the cuff, even know the atmosphere is a fluid? Did you?—yet who feels he knows enough to lecture his betters on (say) the modeling of radiative transfer using statistically derived inputs from satellites. How does instrument drift affect the input uncertainty?

Unburdened (it seems) with this knowledge, Farber apparently believes, and probably desires, the solution to global warming, but who (it’s a good bet) possess no real knowledge of the subject, beyond which he gleans from the media and other not-too-technical sources.

It’s surreal. It’s as if the bien pensant have been given their “talking points”, which they are able to parrot without having done the hard work of thinking, and who are so eager to please their masters that whoever is able to wound their enemies with the most vicious, facts-be-damned insult is to be awarded the highest position in that bright future which is to come.

Consider Farber’s feeble attempt to tie climate scientists who doubt the theory of apocalyptic global warming to those who deny the germ theory of illness.

If you’re inclined to doubt science, why not start with the germ theory of disease? After all, isn’t it implausible that illness, death, and even mass epidemics are caused by tiny invisible organisms that invade our bodies?

And what’s the evidence for that, really? Just the findings of scientists who can get big grants from NIH to study these so-called bacteria — not to mention studies financed by Big Pharm which makes a lot of money with supposed cures — and the views of doctors whose professional status and incomes are pumped up by their use of chemical antibiotics to treat diseases. And don’t forget about the massive government spending for sanitation and water treatment to eliminate “germs,” and the extensive regulation of the food industry, Big Government in action!

Sigh. This proves Farber has only read lightly, or has only retained little, of science history. That vapors, miasmas, and bad humors were the cause of disease was the consensus of the early nineteenth century. Why, 97% of scientists, and maybe even more, toed that line, and not only dared anybody to cross it, but they slew those who did.

Consider Ignaz Semmelweis who pleaded with his colleagues—with The Consensus—to at least listen to his arguments. Semmelweis’s reward? He was fired and hounded to an early grave.

The continued criticism and lash out finally broke him down. By 1865, he was suffering from depression, forgetfulness and other neural complaints and was eventually committed to an asylum. He only lasted there for two weeks and died on August 13, 1865 at the age of 47.

“When I look back upon the past, I can only dispel the sadness which falls upon me by gazing into that happy future when the infection will be banished…The conviction that such a time must inevitably sooner or later arrive will cheer my dying hour.”

Farber must have been possessed of a vague intuition that his intimation was ignorant, for he also said, “it turns out, there actually are germ denialists who accept that germs exist but don’t think they’re the real cause of disease. Rejection of the germ theory is found across the political spectrum…”.

That’s true, but misleading; because the stereotypical modern germ “denier” is a forty-four year-old first-time mother who aggressively pushes her stroller (affixed with faded “Obama-Biden 2012″ sticker) around Park Slope, Brooklyn, actively looking for reasons to be aggrieved. Curiously, this woman will also wholeheartedly “believe” in global warming.

So much for the disease. The cure? Since the malady feeds on (perceived or real) approbation, cut off its supply. With, say, articles like this.


Readers might have noticed the unusual number of qualifiers (“seems”, “probably”). Farber is a lawyer, and these folks when wounded have been known to abandon truth and to start barking about the law. It’s a good strategy, because it distracts their opponents while allowing them to avoid admitting they were wrong.

Philosophic Issues in Cosmology VIII: Foundational Propositions—Guest Post by Bob Kurland

George F.R.  Ellis

George F.R. Ellis

Bob Kurland is a retired, cranky, old physicist, and convert to Catholicism. He shows that there is no contradiction between what science tells us about the world and our Catholic faith.

Read Part VII. *Quotations, unless otherwise specified, are from Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology, George F.R. Ellis.

One question in science is not “is this hypothetical model true” but “is this model better than the alternatives”…If we believe dogmatically in a particular view, then no amount of contradictory data will convince us otherwise… —John Skilling, “Foundations and Algorithms” in Bayesian Methods in Cosmology.

Scientific Criteria

Ellis gives as an important criteria for a scientific theory that it be empirically testable. My position may be even stronger than that of Ellis: if a theory cannot be confirmed by quantitative measurements then it is not in my view (and that of Fr. Stanley Jaki), science, but something else—mathematical metaphysics?

  • What can be confirmed by measurement is limited by the time, distance and physics horizons mentioned in the first post.
    Using electromagnetic radiation we cannot see further back in time than when radiation decoupled from matter, about 380,000 years after the origin.
  • We cannot see further in space than given by the distance horizon, the distance at which space will be expanding at faster than the speed of light.
  • We cannot duplicate the tremendous energies present in the initial, quantum stages of the beginning of the universe (these energies are orders of magnitude greater than even the huge energies that will be available in the SLAC Hadron supper collider), so we cannot test projected theories of particle creation.

What can be measured are inferred consequences of various theories: what the cosmic background radiation (CBR) shows about homogeneity, isotropy, fluctuations, the cosmological constant (lambda, representing expansion pressure), etc. Recent examples are the report of Gurzadyan and Penrose of rings in the CBR representing cataclysmic events pre-Big Bang and B-mode measurements of the CBR from which are inferred gravitational waves in the early universe and thus inflation. One may disagree with the aspects of the theory, but the tie-in with measured data is commendable.


Ellis gives a series of theses for his position. The theses in Issue F, “The explicit philosophic basis”, are presented in detail. As a preliminary and review, here are Ellis’s theses pertinent to the science of cosmology.

  • THESIS A1: The universe itself cannot be subjected to physical experimentation. We cannot re-run the universe with the same or altered conditions to see what would happen if they were different , so we cannot carry out scientific experiments on the universe itself.
  • THESIS A2: The universe cannot be observationally compared with other universes. We cannot compare the universe with any similar object, nor can we test our hypotheses about it by observations determining statistical properties of a known class of physically existing universes.
  • THESIS B3: Establishing a Robertson-Walker geometry for the universe relies on plausible philosophic assumptions. The deduction of spatial homogeneity follows not directly from astronomical data but because we add to the observations a philosophical principle that is plausible but untestable.

In Thesis B3, Ellis refers to the notion that the universe is isotropic and homogeneous (on a large scale). From our vantage point, we can see that the CBR (cosmic background radiation) yields this result; but to show that the inference is valid for the universe as a whole, we would need to make the same observation from at least two other (far removed) vantage points. However, if the Copernican Principle is invoked that we do not occupy a special place in the universe (this is the philosophic principle Ellis refers to in Thesis B3), then what see is equivalent to what would be seen from other positions, and the homogeneity and isotropy is demonstrated.

  • THESIS B6: Observational horizons limit our ability to observationally determine the very large scale geometry of the universe. We can only see back to the time of decoupling of matter and radiation and so have no direct information about earlier times; and unless we live in a ‘small universe’, most of the matter in the universe is hidden behind the visual horizon. Conjectures as to its geometry on larger scales cannot be observationally tested. The situation is completely different in the small universe case: then we can see everything there is in the universe, including our own galaxy at earlier times! (emphasis and exclamation point added)
  • THESIS C1: The Physics Horizon limits our knowledge of physics relevant to the very early universe. We cannot experimentally test much of the physics that is important in the very early universe because we cannot attain the required energies in accelerators on Earth. We have to extrapolate from known physics to the unknown and then test the implications; to do this, we assume some specific features of known lower energy physics are the true key to how things are at higher energies. We cannot experimentally test if we have got it right.
  • THESIS C2: The unknown nature of the inflation means inflationary universe proposals are incomplete. The promise of inflationary theory in terms of relating cosmology to particle physics has not been realized. This will only be the case when the nature of the inflaton (the particle representing the scalar force causing inflation)has been pinned down to a specific field that experiment confirms or particle physics requires to exist.
  • THESIS D2: Testable physics cannot explain the initial state and hence specific nature of the universe. (emphasis added)

Ellis expands on Thesis D2 as follows:

A choice between different contingent possibilities has somehow occurred; the fundamental issue is what underlies this choice. Why does the universe have one specific form rather than another, when other forms consistent with physical laws seem perfectly possible? The reason underlying the choice between different contingent possibilities for the universe (why one occurred rather than another) cannot be explained scientifically. It is an issue to be examined through philosophy or metaphysics. (emphasis added).

This last proposition is, I believe, the most important of those Ellis sets forth.

  • THESIS E1: Physical laws may depend on the nature of the universe.

Philosophic Criteria

  • THESIS F1: Philosophic choices necessarily underlie cosmological theory.Unavoidable metaphysical issues inevitably arise, in both observational and physical cosmology. Philosophical choices are needed in order to shape the theory.
  • THESIS F2: Criteria of satisfactoriness for theories cannot be scientifically chosen or validated. Criteria of satisfactoriness are necessary for choosing good cosmological theories; these criteria have to be chosen on the basis of philosophical considerations. They should include criteria for satisfactory structure of the theory, intrinsic explanatory power, and observational and experimental support. These criteria are listed below:
  1. Satisfactory structure: a) internal consistency, b) simplicity (Ockham’s razor), and c) aesthetic appeal (‘beauty’ or ‘elegance’)
  2. Intrinsic explanatory power: a) logical tightness, b) scope of the theory—the ability to unify otherwise separate phenomena, and c) probability of the theory or model with respect to some well-defined measure.
  3. Extrinsic explanatory power, or relatedness: a) connectedness to the rest of science, b) extendability providing a basis for further development;
  4. Observational and experimental support, in terms of a) testability: the ability to make quantitative as well as qualitative predictions that can be tested; and b) confirmation: the extent to which the theory is supported by such tests as have been made. (emphasis added)

The last criterion in my view (and that of many other scientists and philosophers of science) is critical. If a theory cannot in principle be confirmed quantitatively it is not science, but belongs to other disciplines.

  • THESIS F3: Conflicts will inevitably arise in applying criteria for satisfactory cosmological theories. Philosophical criteria for satisfactory cosmological theories will in general come into conflict with each other, so that one will have to choose between them to some degree; this choice will shape the resulting theory.

Ellis elaborates on this last thesis:

The thrust of much recent development has been away from observational tests towards strongly theoretical based proposals, indeed sometimes almost discounting observational tests. At present this is being corrected by a healthy move to detailed observational analysis of the proposed theories, marking a maturity of the subject. (emphasis added)

  • THESIS F4: The physical reason for believing in inflation is its explanatory power as regards structure growth in the universe. … This theory has been vindicated spectacularly through observations of the CBR and matter power spectra. It is this explanatory power that makes it so acceptable to physicists, even though the underlying physics is neither well-defined nor tested, and its major large-scale observational predictions are untestable. (emphasis added).

Expanding on Thesis F4, Ellis adds:

Inflation provides a causal model that brings a wider range of phenomena into what can be explained by cosmology (Criterion 2b), rather than just assuming the initial data had a specific restricted form. Explaining flatness (omega0 approximately 1, as predicted by inflation) and homogeneity reinforces the case, even though these are philosophical rather than physical problems (they [the initial restricted conditions] do not contradict any physical law; things could just have been that way). However claims on the basis of this model as to what happens very far outside the visual horizon (as in the chaotic inflationary theory) results from prioritizing theory over the possibility of observational and experimental testing. It will never be possible to prove these claims are correct. (emphasis added)

Ellis asks, “how much should we try to explain” with cosmology? What should the scope of cosmology include?

  • THESIS F5:Cosmological theory can have a wide or narrow scope of enquiry. The scope we envisage for our cosmological theory shapes the questions we seek to answer. The cosmological philosophical base becomes more or less dominant in shaping our theory according to the degree that we pursue a theory with more or less ambitious explanatory aims in terms of all of physics, geometry and underlying fundamental causation.

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Summary Against Modern Thought: There Is Nothing In God Against Nature

This may be proved in three ways. The first...

This may be proved in three ways. The first…

See the first post in this series for an explanation and guide of our tour of Summa Contra Gentiles. All posts are under the category SAMT.

Previous post.

A short entry this week, for next week we start on something bigger and of more importance: that God is not a body. Plus, this is the last hurrah of summer and many of us are not around. We could skip this, but why not be complete during the lull? Besides, I can’t see any of this being controversial, granting the previous arguments.

Chapter 19: That in God there is nothing violent or beside nature

1 HENCE the Philosopher[1] concludes that in God there cannot be anything violent or outside nature. For whatever has in itself anything violent or beside nature,i has something added to itself: since that which belongs to a thing’s essence cannot be violent or beside nature. Now no simple thing has in itself anything that is added, for this would argue its being composite. Since then God is simple, as shown above,[2] there can be nothing in Him that is violent or beside nature.

2 Further. The necessity resulting from compulsion is a necessity imposed by another. Now in God there is no necessity imposed by another, for He is necessary of Himself, and the cause of necessity in other things.[3] Therefore nothing is compulsory in Him.ii

3 Moreover. Wherever there is violence, there can be something besides what belongs to a thing by its very nature: since violence is contrary to that which is according to nature. But it is not possible for anything to be in God that does not belong to Him according to His nature, since by His very nature He is necessary being, as shown above.[4] Therefore there can be nothing violent in Him.iii

4 Again. Everything that is compelled or unnatural has a natural aptitude to be moved by another: because that which is done by compulsion has an external principle, without any concurrence on the part of the patient.[5] Now God is altogether immovable, as shown above.[6] Therefore nothing in Him can be violent or unnatural.iv


iDon’t take violent in its most common meaning. A pin in a hip to keep it swinging free is “violent” in St Thomas’s words. As the rest of this argument shows, since God is not in potential, he cannot possess anything that is besides His nature. Here is Aristotle on nature, from St Thomas’s footnote (to understand the language used if nothing else):

(4) ‘Nature’ means the primary material of which any natural object consists or out of which it is made, which is relatively unshaped and cannot be changed from its own potency, as e.g. bronze is said to be the nature of a statue and of bronze utensils, and wood the nature of wooden things; and so in all other cases; for when a product is made out of these materials, the first matter is preserved throughout. For it is in this way that people call the elements of natural objects also their nature, some naming fire, others earth, others air, others water, others something else of the sort, and some naming more than one of these, and others all of them.-(5) ‘Nature’ means the essence of natural objects…

(6) By an extension of meaning from this sense of ‘nature’ every essence in general has come to be called a ‘nature’, because the nature of a thing is one kind of essence.

From what has been said, then, it is plain that nature in the primary and strict sense is the essence of things which have in themselves, as such, a source of movement; for the matter is called the nature because it is qualified to receive this, and processes of becoming and growing are called nature because they are movements proceeding from this. And nature in this sense is the source of the movement of natural objects, being present in them somehow, either potentially or in complete reality.

Then much later, about privation, an important term:

We speak of ‘privation’ (1) if something has not one of the attributes which a thing might naturally have, even if this thing itself would not naturally have it; e.g. a plant is said to be ‘deprived’ of eyes. (2) If, though either the thing itself or its genus would naturally have an attribute, it has it not; e.g. a blind man and a mole are in different senses ‘deprived’ of sight; the latter in contrast with its genus, the former in contrast with his own normal nature. (3) If, though it would naturally have the attribute, and when it would naturally have it, it has it not; for blindness is a privation, but one is not ‘blind’ at any and every age, but only if one has not sight at the age at which one would naturally have it. Similarly a thing is called blind if it has not sight in the medium in which, and in respect of the organ in respect of which, and with reference to the object with reference to which, and in the circumstances in which, it would naturally have it. (4) The violent taking away of anything is called privation.

Also, on accident, “Accident’ has also (2) another meaning, i.e. all that attaches to each thing in virtue of itself but is not in its essence, as having its angles equal to two right angles attaches to the triangle. And accidents of this sort may be eternal, but no accident of the other sort is.”

iiNobody forces God to do anything, not even 800-pound gorillas. But you get the idea.

iiiIf somebody dents your skull with a lead pipe, he has done violence to your cranium. But don’t miss the subtle point, repeated: “it is not possible for anything to be in God that does not belong to Him according to His nature, since by His very nature He is necessary being”. A necessary being is one which must exist and in the form, or rather essence, it takes. If it were other than its essence, it would be contingent and not necessary.

ivThe note is back to the important Chapter 13, where it is proved God is the Unmoved Move, the Unchangeable Changer. God must be the first cause, and therefore cannot be done violence, nor can He be compelled against His will—and this is so despite some fanciful and overly literal interpretations one occasionally runs into.

[1] 5 Metaph. i. 6 (D. 4, v. 6).
[2] Ch. xviii.
[3] Ch. xv.
[4] Ch. xv.
[5] 3 Ethic. i. 3.
[6] Ch. xiii.

Calvin & Hobbes’s Atheist Days?

First comes the irresistible dawning of an ego-driven theory.


Followed by the rejection and castigation of tradition and consequent feelings of superiority.


Which creates the inevitable narcissism and the mistaking of self-indulgence for the Good.


And finally, in some, a repair and maturation of the soul.


Winner Announced In What Should Artists Do About Global Warming Contest

This is art.

This is art.


Ten short days ago, we started the What Should Artists Do About Global Warming Contest. It was inspired by a performance “art” piece by one Sarah Cameron Sunde, who bravely stood in San Francisco Bay “for a full cycle of tides”, which is “more-than 13-hour process”.


To battle Global Warming, what else?

Now, modern art is pure evil, as is well known. But so is Global Warming. Therefore, why not set one evil to battle the other? No matter who loses, we win! At least one foe of humanity will have been vanquished. Hence our inspiration.

On to the contestants!


  • Hans Erren suggested any Cartoon by Josh. But this would not be sending evil to fight evil, since Josh’s cartoons are not ugly—and certainly not transgressive.
  • Paul Murphy suggested a visual performance piece, in which the artist takes stage and shows an image of the southern end of a northbound bull named “Global Warming”. The artist then “sits—back to audience, facing screen—[and] types on his iPad.” This is brilliant and earns Second Place.
  • Rich suggested playing John Cage’s hoax 4’33″, a fine start of an idea that needs fleshing out.
  • Chronus said, “I will build a pyramid of charcoal, then light it afire. After a suitable period of pondering my paleo ice age ancestors who tamed the flame and fought the earliest duel with Global Climate Change, I will forage in the ice(box) for mammal meat to char as they might have. Beer, the original killer app of civilization, will be served to the audience.” This is good, but would tend to put the audience in happy mood, whereas we are aiming for, at the least, is melancholy, if not outright despair.
  • AM (via email) sent in a project outline called “The Greening Planet”, the highlights of which follow.

    “As carbon dioxide spits forth unhindered from the smokestacks of civilization the chaotic tipping point between ice age and fire age may occur…already the Australian Outback is greener, more proof that the carbon cycle is being broken…

    We don’t care that it has been hotter, wetter, colder, dryer in the past. The past is history, and therefore it was somehow perfect. The future is a mystery, and the unknown scares us until we cry green tears. But don’t cry too much, you’ll waste energy metabolizing and spew out more carbon dioxide.

    …But we do know that the civilization that has taken us so far must somehow be our doom. Maybe we should create a new myth, the counter Prometheus, who stole fire from man, and gave it back to the gods so that we could live forever in shadow, safe from uncertainty of our own making and misunderstanding.”

    This is a good start, but not a full project idea. We need art that cuts and wounds for the winner.

  • Scotian (via email) sent in a completed project. Below are two images which our reporter on the spot was able to capture, both of which show the devastating nature of Global Warming and the ravages of sea-level rise!

    “I and my lady love, the strawberry blonde bombshell, decided on a lobster dinner at Hall’s Harbour before global warming caused the inevitable extinction of the lobster. I took the following photo on arrival. The boats were dragged up on the beach for safekeeping and could be easily launched down the central river.”

    Image 1

    Image 1

    “After a leisurely and very enjoyable meal of lobster, made even more poignant by the thought of their coming extinction, I and my one true love exited the restaurant to encounter a horrifying sight. The Greenland ice sheet had clearly collapsed while we were eating the last lobsters in existence, causing an unprecedented increase in sea level.”

    Image 2

    Image 2

    This clearly deserves an Honourable Mention, and could well have been the winner, if only Scotian had melted those glaciers himself in an effort to raise awareness.

The Winner!

Sheri suggested three projects, the best of which is this: “Alicia and George volunteered to spend one hour in light clothing in a meat freezer to show how the warming planet may actually make things more cold and there would be more snow and ice. Outside of the violent shivering, both reported the experience was certainly worth it and they would be doing more such art in the future, after the skin graphs are finished and the amputated fingers and toes surgeries heal.”

This is a clear and convincing winner because it neatly highlights the paradoxical nature of Global Warming, and the mysterious way it often makes things cold. Also, it involves amputation and bloody stumps, and if that doesn’t put the modern in “modern art”, nothing does.

The Prize

Sheri will receive a Kindle copy of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels by Alex Epstein (due to be released November 13, 2014). A Kindle is not needed to read the book; it can be read various ways using Amazon’s free readers.

Sheri, supply me your Amazon-preferred email by 5 September 2014. If you’ve forgotten my email, use the Contact Page.

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