William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

The 2014 CS Lewis Lecture By RR Reno: The Piety of Pedagogy. Guest Report by The Blonde Bombshell


The working topic for the lecture was “CS Lewis: First and Second Things“, no doubt inspired by the words of the Master himself, and perhaps with a wink toward a certain publication. However, RR Reno pivoted to present a talk that was subtitled: The Pedagogy of Piety.1 Dr. Reno’s remarks focused on the intersection of culture and academic life and how the students are poorer for it.

The talk was inspired by a letter signed by Columbia and Barnard College faculty urging the continuance of the ban on ROTC on campus after “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was rescinded:

But here is the most profound point of opposition between the military and the university as institutions: ROTC, and the military in general, trains people for obedience to the chain of command, whereas the university cultivates a critical and constantly questioning consciousness.

The phrase that Dr. Reno honed in on was “the university cultivates a critical and constantly questioning consciousness.” Ah, yes, critical thinking. He noted that while curriculum committees can disagree about course content and measures of success, all faculties, across all campuses, can stand with one voice for “critical thinking.”

When Reno taught classes on ethics, he would duly assign the pro and con readings on abortion, assisted suicide, and other controversies. Once the students were versed in both sides of an issue, Dr. Reno employed what he called a “pseudo-Socratic” method, which he did not find to be very successful. He realized he wasn’t imparting the ability to think critically.

Students who have been incubated in “critical thinking” exhibit a “fear of error” at the cost of truth, and are “overcommitted to things that are only half true.” Reno alluded to Pascal’s Law, “the certainty of our knowledge is inversely proportional to its significance.” Today, “only small truths are affirmed” and “expertise without wisdom” reigns.

The difference between “critique” and “criticism” was noted: a critique “pulls down” and is not able to build up, which is a perfect segue to Descartes.

Descartes’s willful destruction of the “old house of knowledge” and his replacement of one much more attractive and comfortable to the skeptical mind leads to the present day, where professors are dedicated to promoting “the critical” and who are “constantly questioning consciousness.”

The first step to getting a student to engage in critical thinking is to ask him or her to “step back” from whatever belief or tradition that they have previously held dear or had some esteem for. Once he is unmoored from his previous experience and education, he is ready to think critically; or, as a cynic might put it, is primed to more easily accept the word of the professorial clergy.

Today’s academics have a studied “distance” and “coolness”. They lead lives “untroubled by the big questions.” They are “freed from truth.” They adopt “culture for the sake life” rather than the other way around.

To paraphrase John Henry Newman, “souls are made for knowing” and the modern academy does not offer much in this regard. Reno’s primary point is that the university system cannot tell students how to “live well.” It cannot tell students what to say to their dying mother, or determine whom they should marry. The big questions are things that students, and former students, are left to grapple with on their own (and again, without the solace of any organized belief system that may have had the misfortune of being formed before one’s eighteenth year).

How can we pull ourselves up from this lowly state? Drawing support from Aristotle and Plato, Reno’s solution is more math and more literature (but not literature that is a front for the social theory du jour). Mastery of math allows students “the foretaste of knowing”, it helps them to “savor truth”, it “trains souls to recognize truth.” Literature can fulfill somewhat of the same purpose, but perhaps not as completely or robustly as mathematics. Spenser’s The Faerie Queen was cited as example of writing than can contribute to the “pedagogy of piety.”

What is missing from higher education is the “wise man”—the man who has a “settled conviction” and exercises “purity of thought” which leads to “purity of soul.” There is much to be learned from the Bower of Bliss.

In the Q&A, Reno noted that culture in the US “hasn’t changed since 1969″ which brought an energetic objection from Dr. Como. Reno said the clothing hasn’t changed; blue jeans are still commonly worn. “When I go into a coffee shop, the music is the same as it was in 1969. It is as if I were still in high school.” Como could not overcome this point and settled back in his seat.


1There was a fuller title, but not recorded. Your unintentional correspondent did not think to pull out paper until the remarks were well underway. The remarks may not be recorded as originally ordered.

A footnote: Taking the subway on the way home after the lecture, I could not help but notice a young girl across from me with the spanking-new Grateful Dead backpack and wearing pants which were a curious patchwork of corduroy that my babysitter would have worn in 1969, but with a red label sewn in the seam to indicate their expensive nature. The only difference is that my babysitter would have sewn her equally garish garment herself. That is probably the biggest change from 1969: the accouterments of culture can be purchased, and do not have to be manufactured at home.

Ferguson Open Discussion

Our dear leader said that the reaction in Ferguson was “understandable.” That implies that the reaction was a necessary or likely consequence of this particular white cop unfortunately having to shoot this black criminal.

I think our leader meant by “understandable” some form of “justifiable.” That’s certainly the legacy media’s, academia’s, and the everyday activist’s take. To these curious people, arson and looting and mayhem are a sort of natural phenomenon, like a hurricane or tsunami: somewhat predictable and of known characteristics. And fun to watch. The media tell themselves they are brave for standing close to the flames.

I don’t think our leader meant by “understandable” something like “that which follows from a long series of unfortunate, pandering, self-worth-draining policies and from the knowledge, well known to potential troublemakers, that they have license to misbehave—as long as they do so in concentrated regions for a limited time.”

My tweet above was not meant to be inflammatory, but a raw statement of fact. I don’t and can’t speak for all whites; but for myself, I don’t have even the slightest, barest, merest guilt for being white and for the (limited, very limited) success I have attained. I started with twenty bucks in my pocket and the clothes on my back and built up from there. Nor have I ever chased a man down the street because of his skin color, though this happened to me, once at 125th street (by the 6 train), and I was spat upon at Coney Island. Hate crimes.

Now it is indisputable, for whatever the reasons, blacks are more murderous than whites (about 8 times more), and commit far more crimes. It’s also true that much crime occurs in areas in which government beneficence is largest: the two go together like politicians and corruption.

There aren’t any data which show cops preferentially target blacks in disproportion to their criminality. Even so nanny-like a figure of Mayor Bloomberg was right when he said that, if anything, blacks were targeted at rates far less than those rates implied by crime statistics. Whites are targeted more.

In any case, the blacks that complain that cops are after them more than whites are right about that observation. But they are wrong about the causes. Cops go to crimes, not the other way around.

Update It is of course a well known and oft repeated academic theory, and a religious tenet, that all whites are guilty of racism. Even those whites who don’t commit overt racist acts are racist. Microracists. Insanity.

Question one: what sort of executive order might flow from this?

Question two: if a president gives a wink to violence, will that encourage or dissuade future violence?

Question three: what new forms of appeasement do you think will be implemented because of these riots?

Question four: what do you think?

Update Justice.

Update It is a must for all to read the microaggression article. Don’t skimp. Read it all. From these things Fergusons flow.

Don’t Use Statistics Unless You Have To

It's catching.

It’s catching. (Image source.)

We’re finally getting it, as evinced by the responses to the article “Netherlands Temperature Controversy: Or, Yet Again, How Not To Do Time Series.

Let’s return to the Screaming Willies. Quoting myself (more or less):

You’re a doctor (your mother is proud) and have invented a new pill, profitizol, said to cure the screaming willies. You give this pill to 100 volunteer sufferers, and to another 100 you give an identically looking placebo.

Here are the facts, doc: 72 folks in the profitizol group got better, whereas only 58 in the placebo group did.

Now here is what I swear is not a trick question. If you can answer it, you’ll have grasped the true essence of statistical modeling. In what group were there a greater proportion of recoverers?

This is the same question that was asked [before], but with respect to…temperature values. Once we decided what was meant by a “trend”—itself no easy task—the question was: Was there a trend?

May I have a drum roll, please! The answer to today’s question is—isn’t the tension unbearable?—more people in the profitizol group got better.

Probability models aren’t needed: the result is unambiguously 100% certain sure.

As before, I asked, what caused the difference in rates? I don’t know and neither do you. It might have been the differences due to profitizol or it might be due to many other things about which we have no evidence. All we measured was who took what substance and who got better.

What caused the temperature to do what it did? I don’t know that either. Strike that. I do know that it wasn’t time. Time is not a cause. Fitting any standard time series model is thus admitting that we don’t know what the cause was or causes were. This is another reason only to use these models in a predictive manner: because we don’t know the causes. And because we don’t know the causes, it does not follow that the lone sole only cause was, say, strictly linear forcing. Or some weird force that just happened to match what some smoother (running means, say) produced.

Probability isn’t needed to say what happened. We can look and see that for ourselves. Probability is only needed to say what might yet happen (or rather, to say things about that which we haven’t yet observed, even though the observations took place in the past).

Probability does not say why something happened.

I pray that you will memorize that statement. If everybody who used probability models recited that statement while standing at attention before writing a paper, the world would be spared much grief.

In our case, is there any evidence profitizol was the cause of some of the “extra” cures? Well, sure. The difference itself is that evidence. But there’s no proof. What is there proof of?

That it cannot be that profitizol “works” in the sense that everybody who gets it is cured. The proof is the observation that not everybody who got the drug was cured. There is thus similar proof that the placebo doesn’t “work” either. We also know for sure that some thing or things caused each person who got better to get better, and other causes that made people who were sick to stay sick. Different causes.

Another thing we know with certainty: that “chance” didn’t cause the observed difference. Chance like time is not a cause. That is why we do not need probability models to say what happened! Nothing is ever “due” to chance!

This is why hypothesis testing must go, must be purged, must be repulsed, must be shunned, must be abandoned, must be left behind like an 18-year-old purges her commonsense when she matriculates at Smith.

Amusingly for this set of data a test of proportions gives a p-value of 0.054, so a researcher who used that test would write the baseless headline, “No Link Between Profitizol And The Screaming Willies!” But if the researcher had used logistic regression, the p-value would have been 0.039, which would have seen the baseless headline “Profitizol Linked To Screaming Willies Cure!”

Both researchers would falsely think in terms of cause, and both would be sure that cause was or wasn’t present. Like I said, time for hypothesis testing to die the death it deserves. Bring out the guillotine.

Since this is the week of Thanksgiving, that’s enough for now.

Summary Against Modern Thought: God Is Not A Body

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.


Chapter 27: That God Is Not In The Form Of A Body

1 ACCORDINGLY, having shown that God is not the being of all,i it can be proved in like manner that God is not the form of any thing.

2 For the divine being cannot be the being of a quiddity that is not it own being, as shown above.[1] Now that which is the divine being itself is no other than God. Therefore it is impossible for God to be the form of any other thing.ii

3 Further. The form of a body is not its very being but the principle of its being. But God is being itself. Therefore God is not the form of a body.

4 Again. The union of form and matter results in a composite, and this is a whole in respect of form and matter. Now the parts are in potentiality with respect to the whole: but in God there is no potentiality.[2] Therefore it is impossible for God to be the form united to any thing.

5 Again. That which has being per se, is more excellent than what has being in another. Now every form of a body has being in another. Since then God is the most excellent being, as the first cause of being,[3] He cannot be the form of any thing.iii

6 Moreover, this can also be proved from the eternity of movement, as follows.[4] If God were the form of a movable thing, since He is the first mover, the composite will be its own mover. But that which moves itself can be moved and not moved. Therefore it is in it to be either. Now a thing of this kind has not of itself indefectibility of movement. Therefore above that which moves itself we must place something else as first mover, which confers on it perpetuity of movement. And thus God Who is the first mover is not the form of a body that moves itself.iv

7 This argument avails for those who hold the eternity of movement. Yet if this be not granted the same conclusion may be drawn from the regularity of the heavenly movement. For just as that which moves itself can both be at rest and be moved, so can it be moved with greater or less velocity. Wherefore the necessity of uniformity in the heavenly movement depends on some higher principle that is altogether immovable, and that is not the part, through being the form, of a body which moves itself.v

8 The authority of Scripture is in agreement with this truth. For it is written in the psalm:[5] Thy magnificence is elevated above the heavens; and (Job xi. 8, 9): He is higher than heaven, and what wilt thou do?…the measure of Him is longer than the earth, and deeper[6] than the sea.vi


iGod is not the universe. Pantheism is out.

iiAs proved before, God’s existence and essence are the same; existence itself is not a body; a body is partly in act, partly in potential, but in God there is no potential; just as God is not made of material stuff; thus God is not a body. These same (now proven) premises are picked up in arguments 3 and 4.

iiiThe thing to recall here is that objects, like bodies, are composites of form and matter. The same matter under the “influence” of other forms is a different object; i.e. objects are instantiated forms. Ed Feser’s favorite example (now forever stuck in my head) is rubber balls and erasers: two objects made of the same matter, but with different forms. But God is not made of matter, and God’s form is His existence, therefore He is not a body.

ivWe ever come back to Chapter 13, which is best to review. So much flows from the demonstration that God is Unmoved Mover, the Uncaused Cause, and other nicknames, that it is astonishing. The proof here flows directly (and easily).

vIt’s as well here as anywhere to remind us of the kind of movement Aquinas spoke of in his proof of God being the First Cause. He was not talking about the kind of movement like dominoes, where one pushes another and so on. He meant the here-and-now bottom-down ultimate cause of all movement. If you can’t remember this distinction, do the review before commenting.

viI normally leave the scriptural arguments out because they are not convincing to modern audiences. However in this case, since the question has often arise that since Jesus was in the form of a body, and in the Eucharistic species, and that Jesus is part of the Trinity, i.e. is God, does it not follow that God is a body? It does not. Jesus is God, and had a fully divine nature. But he was also a man and had a human nature, a nature that required a body. That part of him was not divine; it was human flesh, just like ours. The Eucharistic is likewise of two natures, divine and mundane. The bread is there, but do is the divine. Now how are these miracles brought about? I haven’t the slightest idea.

Likewise, when scripture uses figurative or metaphorical language (“Seated a the right hand of God…”), it is just that: figurative or metaphorical. Avoid the atheist temptation to read all of the Bible literally.

[1] Ch. xxii.
[2] Ch. xvi.
[3] Ch. xiii.
[4] Cf. chs. xiii., xx.
[5] Ps. viii. 2.
[6] Vulg., broader.
[7] Sum. Th. P. I., Q. iii., A. 8.

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