William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

There Is No Such Thing As A 1000-Year Flood


Phrases like “100 year rainfalls” or floods or whatever for whatever period of time are awful. They convey an improper idea of uncertainty.

The phrase “X year event” is based on inverting the probability of the event; call that probability p. Thus “X year event” is equal to “1/p year event”, where p is the probability the event happens per year. That means a “100 year event” has a probability of 1%, and so on. A “1000 year event” sounds stupendous, and, to most ears, rarer than a 0.1% chance.

Anyway, these are all wrong. Since all probability is conditional, and the conditions which “generate” the probability are equally or more important than the number p itself, these conditions should be always be stated. There is no such thing as a “100 year flood” because there is no such thing as a flood “having” the probability 0.01. No physical thing “has” a probability.

There are such things as this: “Given the historical evidence, the probability of a flood of a certain size is p”, or, “Given history and our understanding of changed land use, and the information provided by these river flow and meteorological forecasts, the probability of a flood of a certain size is p.”

It’s perfectly correct to make the statements like this: “The last time a flood this size occurred was in 1945.” That statement is not, however, equivalent to (in 2015) “That was a 70 year flood.”

So what are the “right” conditions? There are none—except in one ideal sense. If we could identify true premises (conditions) that allowed us to say, “Given these true premises, the probability of a flood of a certain size is 1.” Anything short of that 100% means we are uncertain, and because we are uncertain, there are many candidates for premises.

One candidate is the raw historical data, the count of floods of this certain size and the number of years in which they happened. These can be fed into a simple probability model. But that count is subject to both uncertainty and effects of changing land use among other things. The conditions that caused the flood in 1945 may or may not be the same as the one that caused the flood in 2015. The ideal conditions we’re looking for are these causes.

Another misuse is to state the supposed rarity of the flood, tacitly using historical counts only as the conditions, to imply that the cause is something like “climate change” or “global warming.” That’s what the media does routinely. But it’s an immediate failure. If we knew the causes, or knew most of the causes, then the probability would be close to 1, and then the flood would not be rare, so there would be no use pointing to its rarity.

Another tactic is to suggest that the “rare” flood that happened now will be less rare in the future because of “global warming” etc. And this might be true. Then again, it might be false. One way to check for its truth would be to identify, here and now, the causes of the flood and prove which of these were due to “global warming” or whatever. And I don’t mean identify in some fast-and-loose sense common in the media. I mean a real scientific investigation which shows the physical forces involved would not have been in the state they were in had it not been for “global warming” or whatever. Vague implications, common in the media, are of zero value.

Those identifications are still weak next to the need of being able to predict, in advance, when the next flood (of the certain size) will occur. If this can’t be done, then there is no evidence we know the causes of the flood. And thus there is no reason to expect that the causes of previous and current floods are any different.

If that’s true, then using the historical counts are fine and so is stating the probabilities based on this history. But then, in the end, all we can say is something like, “Boy, these floods don’t happen often.” That’s saying something, but it isn’t saying much.

The historical premises can also be used for predictions. Given these, we can say things like, “In the next 10 years, the probability of seeing no floods (of a certain size) is p0%, one seeing just one flood is p1%, of seeing two floods is p2% ,…, of seeing ten floods is 10%.”

And, indeed, it is this historical prediction that sets the standard for any claims that we have identified some of the causes of floods. If we can’t beat that history-based prediction, it is almost certainly false we know what we’re talking about.

Never Adopt The Enemy’s Language


We should never adopt the enemy’s language. It unnecessarily concedes him a victory and lessens our ability to think and to argue. Listen to Orwell! I was reminded of this by Dover Beach, who at Twitter points us to the Maverick Philosopher, where that gentleman gives the same admonition.

Take ‘homophobia.’

A phobia is a fear, but not every fear is a phobia. A phobia is an irrational fear. One who argues against the morality of homosexual practices, or gives reasons for opposing same-sex marriage is precisely — presenting arguments, and not expressing any phobia. The arguments may or may not be cogent. But they are expressive of reason, and are intended to appeal to the reason of one’s interlocutor. To dismiss them as an expression of a phobia show a lack of respect for reason and for the persons who proffer the arguments.

Do not say homosexual (or gay; the former word is not preferred among this crowd by all either). The word has admitted use, as in a man who at certain periods in his life imagines or indulges predominately or exclusively in same-sex activities. But this sense has almost disappeared, to be replaced by something like this: a man who is not a man but something else, something superior to men in certain ways, and who imagines, etc. When most hear homosexual they imagine a creature that is exactly the same as a man—equal in every way!—but who is also not a man, a human of a genetically or biologically different sex, a kind of super hero with special powers, and a person who has attained perhaps the highest status anyone can reach in our culture, a Victim.

The old word was sodomite, but this is now seen as highly offensive. It merely means a man who at certain periods of his life imagines or indulges in same-sex activities, but it carries the connotation of sinfulness and disgust. Everybody knows what happened to Sodom and why. And that is unbearable. Still, using it can cause a man’s ears to stop up faster than a commode in a Florida retirement park the morning after Free Hot Dog Day.

You might consider same-sex attracted, but I fear this term will morph in the current homosexual. Best to avoid words classifying a man, and instead write of what he has done. The serious medical literature recognizes this and uses the acronym MSM, which stands for men who have sex with men. This isn’t quite right, since men can only have sex with women. But it’s close, and it captures the “Bs” in “LGBT” as well as the “Gs” and “Ts”.

Don’t say climate change. That term is also meaningful, but only in a sense that has also been forgotten. The old, scientific definition is obvious, but it carried the sensible and true notion that the climate has always changed, always will, and that changes cannot be stopped. The term is now laden with political baggage with the sense the climate is changing solely or mostly because of man, and that any change can be stopped by man. Say global warming instead. They promised global warming, not “climate change.” Make them stick to their promises.

Don’t say sex change or (sex) transitioning. There is and can be no such thing. Sex is fixed. It is not assigned, as some now falsely state. Sex is a biological reality; everything else is fantasy. Sexual intercourse is only between men and women; everything else is a corruption. Do not say trans-man or trans-woman. Instead say mentally ill person or man pretending to be a woman, etc.

Don’t say doctor-assisted suicide. Say hospital- or government-appointed (or assigned) killing, and when speaking of the act say executed or killed.

Don’t say had an abortion. Say killed the life inside her. Don’t in this context say choice. Say chose to kill.

Don’t say budget cut. Say smaller than desired increase in spending, or just spending increase.

Before I ask for your suggestions, let’s give Maverick the last word.

Language matters.

Why does language matter? Because clear thinking matters, and language is the medium of thought.

Why does clear thinking matter? Because clear thinking is truth-conducive.

Why does truth matter? Because living according to the truth is conducive to human flourishing.

How many truthophobes will react negatively to these admonitions? And what are your suggestions?

Atheists Claim There Is No Such Thing As Gravity—Or Shakespeare!


How’s this argument grab you? There are many competing theories of (quantum) gravity. They cannot all be correct. Therefore, they must all be wrong and thus there is no such thing as (quantum) gravity. Here’s another. There have been many theories about the model of an atom. These are often contradictory. Therefore, they must all be wrong and there are no such things as atoms. Another. Many historians disagree about the birthplace of Homer. These historians cannot all be correct. Therefore, they must all be wrong and Homer was born no place or Homer never existed. (Substitute Shakespeare or any of hundreds of other figures.)

Contrast those (and the myriad you can easily think up) with this one. There have been many gods worshiped in many places. These gods and their cults or religions are often contradictory. They cannot all be the true God or the true gods. Therefore, none of these gods exist and none are the true God or the true gods.

Atheists (no, not all) are fond of the last argument and think themselves clever for using it. In September of 2013, the University of North Georgia Skeptics Society set up a miniature “Graveyard of the Gods”, which included tombstones for Osiris, Zeus, Krishna, and a few others. Inspired, the Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics group at the University of Wisconsin, Madison created their own with 200 faux stones. A sign at the entrance to the prank read, “God Graveyard. Here lie the graves of thousands of dead gods. Once worshipped by entire civilizations, now only myths. How much longer will the gods of today last?” They stuck mostly to Western contributions to the pantheon. Good thing that didn’t go after Hinduism, which has 330 million deities.

Prominent atheist Richard Dawkins in his The God Delusion said, “I have found an amusing strategy when asked whether I am an atheist to point out that the questioner is also an atheist when considering Zeus, Apollo, Amon-Ra, Mithras, Baal, Thor, Wotan, the Golden Calf and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I just go one god further.”

Michael Shermer, chief Skeptic, echoed Dawkins in his book The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths said, “What is the probability that Yahweh is the one true god, and Amon Ra, Aphrodite, Apollo, Baal, Brahma, Ganesha, Isis, Mithra, Osiris, Shiva, Thor, Vishnu, Wotan, Zeus, and the other 986 gods are false gods? As skeptics like to say, everyone is an atheist about these gods; some of us just go one god further.”

(Shermer also said in that book “Once beliefs are formed, the brain begins to look for and find confirmatory evidence in support of those beliefs, which adds an emotional boost of further confidence in the beliefs and thereby accelerates the process of reinforcing them, and round and round the process goes in a positive feedback loop of belief confirmation.” Somehow he has been able to escape the confines of his brain.)

Instances of the Gravity-Doesn’t-Exist Fallacy litter the web. It’s rarely blatantly stated, but it is surely implied (it is in Dawkins and Shermer). Notice the Christian bias of these authors, which is natural enough. The GDE is a double-fallacy if it’s also used to imply a proof has been given for the non-existence of Zeus, Apollo, Baal and the other gods. Of course, no such proof is found here. And if such proofs do exist (and are accepted as background premises), these proofs can actually support knowledge of the Christian God.

We can weaken the GDE so that it’s not a fallacy. Many mean the GDE in this way: “Look, men have made many mistakes about gods. Therefore, they probably always do or will.” This is not a fallacy. But then this changed argument is useless to the atheist! If Zeus, Apollo and the rest are shown to be false, we could then say, “Since Zeus, Baal and a host of other gods have been shown not to exist, it’s more likely the Christian God does.” This is not a fallacy either. After all, some rivals to the God have been removed from consideration!

No, the GDE is a cutesy argument for the lazy. Those who use it imply they have proof Zeus et alia don’t exist therefore God doesn’t, either, plus, belief if God is just as silly as belief in Zeus seems to them. But this, as we have seen, is no argument at all. It is a mere statement of prejudice. And most likely uninformed prejudice.

The examples given at the beginning have the notion of increasing knowledge through time. We have abandoned various models of the atom since Democritus’s time and say we have a better one now. Perhaps the standard model is not the best or final model, but it is certainly better than one entertained, say, two centuries ago. There are two points here. The existence of other gods, or rather the existence of claims of other gods. While these claims don’t and can’t disprove the existence of the one true God, they can be said to show a humanity groping towards knowledge of this Deity. Incomplete and flawed efforts, perhaps. But we don’t chuck out all Science because false threads are often followed.

The second is that knowledge at least of the Christian God has changed through time. His existence hasn’t of course, but our understanding of Him has progressed. Followers of the series on Summa Contra Gentiles will know of this.

The Battle Over Sexuality In The Catholic Church Begins


Phase two of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family has kicked off at the Vatican. Perhaps you recall the “earthquake” set off at last year’s Phase one. Here’s a refresher.

Much is at stake. One faction wants the Church to adopt the ways of protesting Christians (which include the inaptly named Orthodox) and admit that Jesus was only kidding when he said “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” That God. What a card! Not uncoincidentally, this faction is largely German-led.

That same faction plus another of unknown size since much of it is underground, wants the Church to adopt the ways of the oldest Western protesting Christians and admit that God was only kidding when he had Paul say “Therefore, God handed them over to degrading passions. Their females exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the males likewise gave up natural relations with females and burned with lust for one another. Males did shameful things with males and thus received in their own persons the due penalty for their perversity.” The whole New Testament is one big yuck fest!

Many of these would-be protesters, based on reasonable but inconclusive evidence, believe Pope Francis is one of them. Whether this is so, the belief (or hope) that he is has emboldened some protesters to reveal themselves as protesters. Take Msgr Krzysztof Charamsa, a Polish priest who not only publicly announced his same-sex attraction, and who not only displayed his lover for all to see, but who went to the trouble of issuing a manifesto of demands to the Church.

Demands? Yes, sir. Demands. Before we get to these, recall that becoming a priest is voluntary. Charamsa knew what he was doing when he signed up, and knew the rules to which he was binding himself.

The rules in short form are these. That there are no such thing as “homosexuals” nor “heterosexuals”; there are only men and women. That mankind reproduces sexually and this requires and introduces a complementarity—the man and woman become one flesh. That any behavior that does not respect this complementarity is necessarily a (reproductive) disorder. (Divorce is also a disorder in this sense, since it breaks apart families, which are the reproductive unit.) This is not only the proper view of sexuality theologically via the natural law, but scientifically.

Some more preliminaries. The word disorder is often objected to, because it’s harsh and judgmental. But nobody said the truth had to be soothing, and nobody said life was fair. You aren’t cured of cancer by refusing to call it a disease. And then there is a saying that the Church doesn’t view “homosexuality” as a sin, but even though this is true in a sense the battle is lost when this kind of language is used. What should be said is that temptation is not a sin, which applies to everybody. Further, temptation is not a good place: “…and lead us not into temptation” goes the prayer taught to us by God Himself.

What those who are tempted to same-sex activities are attempting (get it?) is to be awarded special status because of their temptations. They hint or outright claim that their temptations are gifts. They say they are their temptations, and that their temptations are good. And this is preposterous. Why? Because that means woofies would have their own temptation-gifts to offer. And so would you with your temptations, as long as you can find enough people to form a political class.

So finally to Charamsa’s demands. They are nothing unusual. And they reveal that Charamsa knows almost nothing of the rules he swore he would learn and uphold. I don’t mean to single out this man. He is only the bravest. There are many more like him without the guts to come forward, though this Synod might draw more out. Here are the “demands:”

  1. Disposal of homophobia and anti-gay discrimination,
  2. Condemnation of punishment for homosexuality,
  3. Cessation of the Church’s interference in guaranteeing human rights by democratic states,
  4. Canceling incompetent and prejudicial documents,
  5. Immediate cancellation of discriminatory instructions about denying the priesthood to homosexual persons,
  6. Initiate a serious interdisciplinary scientific reflection over the morality of human sexuality,
  7. Revision of the interpretation of biblical texts on homosexuality,
  8. Adoption of ecumenical dialogue with our Lutheran and Anglican brothers about homosexuality,
  9. The need to ask for forgiveness toward homosexuals,
  10. Respect for and belief in homosexuals and change in the distorted position of the Church on what a homosexual Christian life should look like.

These are the headlines, and to understand them the descriptions should be read, too. We’ll see how these play over the coming weeks.

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