William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Ireland’s Same-Sex Gmarriage Vote: Or, The Snakes Return?

From the Irish Times, accessed late 20 May 2015.

From the Irish Times, accessed late 20 May 2015.

Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has “no wish to stuff [his] religious views down other people’s throats”—is that done with a shillelagh?—and so he won’t tell or even suggest or even hint to the Irish which way to vote on tomorrow’s referendum on same-sex “marriage” (hereafter gmarriage).

He did let it slip that he himself will vote no because, said his Excellency, he has “strong views” about the matter. Strength is a relative measure. Martin’s strong view: “decisions should not be taken lightly and that people should be informed of what is involved.”

Perhaps this is the place to recall that the Catholic Church has no choice but to call only marriage marriage, which is why it cannot support gmarriage. This position is inflexible for the Church and for its followers.

Unlike strength, inflexible isn’t relative: it is absolute. So how to read this incongruous report by the leftist Washington Post: “Priests are bucking Catholic Church leadership to support same-sex marriage in Ireland“?

For the Rev. Pádraig1 Standún, a Catholic priest in western Ireland, voting “yes” is a matter of what’s right. To another Irish priest, the Rev. Iggy O’Donovan, it’s about creating an inclusive state.

To the Rev. Martin Dolan, Ireland’s upcoming referendum on same-sex marriage is deeply personal.

“I’m gay myself,” he announced to his Dublin congregation in January. It was a surprise ending to Dolan’s homily, in which he urged his congregation to vote “yes” in the referendum. But his parishioners took it in stride — they gave him a standing ovation, according to the Belfast Telegraph.

The Belfast Telegraph reported that Dolan’s parishioners were “proud” Dolan was sexually attracted to males. Curious, that. One supposes (Northern) Ireland has had little else to cheer about.

Anyway, the Post says, “Rev. Tony Flannery, founder of the reform-minded Irish Association of Catholic Priests, estimated that 25 percent of the country’s clergy would vote ‘yes.'” By “reform” the Post means “dismantling”.

Perhaps Flannery exaggerates, wishcasts, that is. Even Yours Truly has been prone to this malady (and more often than he would like!). Given his ardent desires, Flannery might have estimated priestly support too high. But consider: the support should, in theory, be zero percent. Theory says no priest could be that duplicitous, that unfaithful, that heretical. Yet something in the wind tells us that Flannery is right and the theory wrong. Flannery might have even underestimated the turnout of the turncoats.

Imagine exit polls: “Did you vote in favor of gmarriage, father?” Those that did might even admit it, given their bishop’s strong views.

Step into the surreal. The Irish Times has a Q&A for “confused” readers. “Q. Will a Yes vote redefine marriage?” No, says the paper. If this is so—if marriage won’t be refined—then why have a vote? Next question, answers the paper.

“Q. Would priests be forced to perform same-sex marriages?” No, they guess. But they’re not quite sure, mentioning the relevant law might need “copperfastening”, i.e. strengthening. Right, your Excellency?

Q. (mine) Would citizens who do not want to pretend that two men who are pretending to be married have to pretend too or else face civil and criminal penalties? Yes, say I. They will.

Would it, at this late date, do any good to repeat that marriage is not a contract between two (why two?) people, but an understanding between a man and woman—one fleshand society? Probably not, but nothing ventured, etc.

Look: society must change if marriage does. Strike that: marriage won’t change: it can’t. But that-which-is-called-marriage can be expanded. And society’s rules must adapt to accommodate this “expansion.” This is why those who refuse to pretend must and will be coerced.

There cannot and will not be any compromise. How do I know? The same was true when that-which-is-called-marriage was expanded to include “re-marriages” after divorce. Is it even conceivable (or even legal) to now tell a man who is in his second (or third) go ’round that he is not married to the women with whom he lives despite whatever government paperwork he has? It sounds unbearably cruel.

And look what divorce has wrought.

Perhaps the good news is that the Church has been allowed by Leviathan to maintain its teaching that “re-marriage” is impermissible. Maybe the State will look the other way on gmarriage, too.

Of course, many in the Church are weakening on divorce as well as gmarriage. Wait and see what happens in Rome in October.

Meanwhile, the only organization in Ireland that is opposing gmarriage is the Church—those of her members who remember the promises they made, that is.

Polls have the referendum passing by about 70%. And while people don’t like to tell random callers they are against “progress”—the Psychological Society of Ireland said ‘No’ voters will cause psychological harm—so this number is therefore probably high, it would be a miracle if were so far off that the referendum failed.

Your guess of the final tally?


1Pronounced, if you can believe it, as porh-rig.


Are Wars And Violence Decreasing? Taleb’s New Paper Reviewed


The vale of tears

I’ve been asked by several people to comment on Pasquale Cirillo and Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s paper (thankfully, not peer-reviewed, unless you count this) “On the tail risk of violent conflict and its underestimation“. That paper was written partly in response to Steven Pinker’s contention that people (us, we) have been growing less violent thanks (mainly) to progressivism and democracy (a redundancy).

We met Pinker’s book before (link) so I won’t spend any time with it, except to say that I didn’t buy his argument.

So then. What is violence? Used to be, in days of yore, people fought constantly—men, anyway, or mainly men—and with fewer deaths than our sophisticated weaponry today provides. For proof, read any ethnology, or for a decent summary Constant Battles: Why We Fight by Steve LeBlanc. Men have always conked each other upside the head. LeBlanc gives too much weight to environmental causes for wars, when status and sex are are as influential.

But that’s neither here nor anywhere: fact is, men are violent. Wars for honor are still fought, though in the West we don’t call them “wars”—but we do call them battles. Mexican drug gangs are slicing and dicing each other. Citizens here are often unhappy. ISIS is chewing up the Mideast. Truly progressive governments are discovering they could do without certain citizens (for just one example). And this unpleasantness is only a small sample in a small piece of time.

Body counts are hard to come by. Do we include old-fashioned crime? Or only bloodlettings from officially declared wars? Seems to me any natural reading of violence would include those acts which purposely end somebody’s life. That would include abortion—the violent killing of a life—euthanasia and executions. Yet those killings make some squeamish, so as a favor to delicate readers I’ll skip over them.

Don’t skip by too lightly, though. If we’re going to quantify violence—which Pinker, Cirillo and Taleb all do—we need to have a rigorous definition of what counts. Another point: including only deaths is difficult. For instance, emergency medicine (battlefield and civilian) has improved dramatically these past decades. Many who would have died now live. Point is: much depends on what we’re quantifying.

Enter Cirillo and Taleb

Cirillo and Taleb looked for historian-defined “wars” and “conflicts” and not what we today call crime. These wars were classed as “events”, except when they lasted more than 25 years when the single event was cut up into multiple “events.” This makes the data more amenable to their model, but at the cost of changing reality. There are difficulties in counting the dead in named wars. Why not a year-by-year tally of violently killed regardless under what flag? Focusing on concrete historian-generated boundaries makes for better stories, but it hinders counting. And there is other fuzziness:

Further, in the absence of a clearly defined protocol in historical studies, it has been hard to disentangle direct death from wars and those from less direct effects on populations (say blocades [sic], famine). For instance the First Jewish War has confused historians as an estimated 30K death came from the war, and a considerably higher (between 350K and the number 1M according to Josephus) from the famine or civilian casualties.

Excellent points. Famine does not kill as many (I did not say none) today after a war because food production and distribution are more robust. The authors also say, “We can assume that there are numerous wars that are not part of our sample, even if we doubt that such events are in the ‘tails’ of the distribution, given that large conflicts are more likely to be reported by historians.” More likely does not imply certainly. And they say, “events are more likely to be recorded in modern times than in the past”

Measurement error, as admitted by the authors, and is by now obvious, is a tremendous and incurable problem. What that means is that any formal model of violence is going to be too sure of itself and in a way that we can’t quantify. This is not surprising: not all uncertainty is quantifiable.

Lastly, the authors “rescaled” the event death tolls by world population estimates (more unaccounted for uncertainty). This makes some sense, but it has its limits. When Cain whacked Abel, he reduced the world’s population by a quarter, but today when Boko Haram rapes a woman to death the effect on the tax rolls is minuscule. The figure above “Rescaled death toll of armed conflict and regimes over time” in their final dataset.

An Lushan? Led a revolt against the Tang dynasty and was so nasty his own son had to take him out. Is Zhang Xianzhong isn’t on the list? His motto was “Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill.” Reports are that he enthusiastically implemented it. And where’s Mao, Stalin? Caused the death of tens of millions. Here’s a problem: it isn’t “war” or “conflict” if you kill your own subjects. More uncertainty.

Are killings unusual?

Anyway, let’s assume the picture is in the ballpark (the rescaling technique suffers in smaller populations, as with Cain and Abel) but that it represents an error-prone way of counting violence (older events are more likely to have been missed). Including our knowledge of recent history, then ask yourself: is violence going down?

Yes and No. We haven’t, as observed, had a large scale (International-Socialism, WW2, etc.) kill-off this last half century, but that in no way implies we won’t have one in the next half century, or indeed at any time. We lasted some 50 years with only (only!) small-scale slaughter, if you except abortion. But there have been plenty of similarly lengthed periods “in-between” mass killings in history. Armageddons don’t happen yearly; they are sparse, but not unusual.

And we’re done. We don’t need a model or any other form of quantification to tell us the obvious. We never need a model to tell us what we’ve seen—unless we’re using that model to tell us what happened in the presence of measurement error, like exists here. But that’s not the use to which Cirillo and Taleb put their model. They use it to tell what happened. Or, rather, not what happened, but what happened to their model.

Now in their favor, everybody does this. Nobody is content to let the data speak for itself. People will build models and say, “Here’s what happened” when what they really mean is, “Here is a replacement of reality that pleases me and has these mathematical properties.”

The only reason to build a model of violence—and it’s a darn good reason—is to predict how many dead bodies we expect to create in the future (so we know where not to be). But given all the unquantifiable uncertainties mentioned, I would have very little confidence in that model.

Causes of war

Before I discuss (briefly) Cirillo and Taleb’s model, understand this: something caused each war. There are surely similarities in causes across wars (“I want to kill,” says somebody in each), but there are always causes for each death. There is thus no “mean rate” of violence that is “natural”, a rate which propels men toward slaughter. (This summary of the paper makes this error repeatedly,) There is no such thing as a “background violence rate”: there are only causes which we may or may not fully understand. If we understood them, we’d never need statistical models.

There are mean numbers of dead bodies, of course, measured over whatever arbitrary time points we pick, but that kind of summary gains us nothing over plots like that above. That picture—how it was created, the vagaries of the data included and unseen, and the like—is the entire analysis. Cirillo and Taleb are to be congratulated for the hard work in collecting this data (they credit one Captain Mark Weisenborn). Yet putting math to the data can only produce over-certainty unless we use the math to predict what will happen. But then we have to wait and see if the model made the correct predictions (put high probability on what happened and low on what didn’t).

Obviously, we haven’t waited and so can’t say whether the model Cirillo and Taleb posit is any good. The pair present some measures of model fit, and these are of modest interest, but they are far (as in far) from proof of the model’s goodness. Don’t forget climate and sociological models also show good fit but poor predictive skill.

We must avoid the Deadly Sin of Reification. This is the false belief that, somehow, mathematics is superior to reality, that the model is good because it makes reality cleaner. Cirillo and Taleb talk about the “stochasticity of under inter-arrival times” as if wars arrive or are guided by some mathematical process. This is the sin. Wars are caused by men. Our understanding of the uncertainty of when wars start might usefully be encapsulated by a model, but that’s as far as we can go (and we haven’t yet demonstrated that that is true for Cirillo and Taleb’s model).

Wars and rumors of wars

One thing that is obvious in the plot, and from any serious reading of (non-Howard Zinn-like) history, is that large kill-offs are not especially rare. Cirillo and Taleb’s model agrees (as it must). Why are they not rare? This is key. We know wars are caused by humans, and if we accept the premise that human nature is flawed, it is rational to conclude more wars will occur and that some will cause the creation of copious coffins.

Cirillo and Taleb appear (they don’t explicitly mention it) to accept this premise. Pinker does not. That premise is the real and substantial difference between the prediction of future wars. If you believe people are perfectible through education and enlightenment, then it follows wars will decrease in number and intensity. But if you believe men will always disappoint, and given the data in plots like Cirillo and Taleb’s, then it’s only a matter of time until the next full-scale war hits.

Good thing about both of these models is that they are testable. We just have to wait and see which is true.

Update I saw in other discussions of this paper (and of my discussion) words about how times between wars are or aren’t “random.” These are all wrong-headed. Just as something caused each war, something caused each peace. Random only means unknown. Data are not random: it is only that our knowledge of their causes is incomplete. No MODELS ARE NEEDED HERE.


Democracy And The Global Warming Consensus—And That New Arizona Survey


Guy named Jonathan Overpeck who makes a living ensuring people are nervous about global warming conducted a survey of Arizona residents and discovered three-fourths of them are nervous about global warming. Job well done?

Quote: “A large majority of Arizona residents believe that the world’s temperature has been rising (74%)”.

Now this is false, as in it isn’t true, as in it isn’t so, by which I mean that the proposition that “the world’s temperatures has been rising” when compared against reality produces a glaring mismatch. The proposition is not only false, but easily discovered to be false. And it is so easily discovered to be false that we must seek an explanation why so many people’s thoughts have gone awry.

According to Overpeck, “The survey findings show that the people of Arizona are aware of and interested in climate change and that they understand there are policy decisions that can be made to address it”. Well, he claims they are interested, but that’s not clear. All we know is that 800 people were called and made to answer questions on a subject about which they were largely uninformed. Whether they were interested before that call is anybody’s guess.

Here’s what’s odd: “According to the poll, more than half of Arizonans believe global warming has caused more droughts and storms around the world, and more forest fires and heatwaves in the state.” And this is verified by examining the survey results (pdf). I mean, some 60% of Arizonans do believe global warming has caused more droughts etc.

That’s also false. As in none of it is true, as in…but you get the idea.

We’re now at the main point of this post: people’s opinions about subjects in which they are demonstrably ignorant (and I mean this word politely, in its technical sense) and what this means in a democracy.

One Gregg Garfin, deputy director for science translation and outreach at Overpeck’s institute, thought it important to say, “This survey shows the majority of Arizonans seem to be concerned about climate change, which is pretty much in line with the majority of U.S. residents.”

We can guess Garfin would have been saddened had his fellow residents believed less strongly (in falsities) than the rest of the country. Does it then follow that in a democracy it is important that consensus is reached, even when the consensus is wrong, even whoppingly wrong?

The answer, I think, is yes. This is proved in the words of fellow survey author professor Jon Krosnick: “The University of Arizona has done a great service by using the science of survey research to give state residents an opportunity to express their beliefs about what has been happening to the Earth and what they want government to do and not do on this issue”.

What a strange thing to say! Were Arizona residents really burning with desire to tell academics their (false) beliefs about global warming, a stress only relieved by Krosnick’s call? If that’s true, there are still some 6.7 million unsurveyed people suffering. Krosnick ought to get them on the phone as soon as possible and put them out of their misery.

Now, either Krosnick is more concerned with consensus than with correcting error, or he himself is just as ignorant as the majority of his respondents. And if he is just as ignorant, and because finding the truth about weather records is easy, what does this say about the state of science?

The obvious: consensus is more important than truth.

All this is confirmed by none other than Bill “The Science Guy” Nye, who made a point of telling Rutgers graduates to “challenge those who dismiss” global warming. Nye actually said “climate change”, the preferred euphemism for global warming, a linguistic trick, incidentally, which also proves the desire for consensus. Nye said, “So, hey deniers—cut it out, and let’s get to work.”

Get to work? On what? Well, on the object of the consensus, a point so obvious that neither Nye nor the Arizona survey team felt they had to say it. And what is that object?

Hispanics are more concerned about the impact of global warming, and they more heavily favor policies such as cap and trade and government action to limit emissions. More women than men support government action to prepare for the effects of global warming, and 97 percent of young adults (ages 18 to 35) support government laws or tax incentives to reduce power-plant emissions.

What’s wrong with white men? Don’t they want consensus?

News You Can Use: I’ll be speaking at the Heartland Conference June 12th in DC. Autograph hounds are cautioned to bring their own pens.


Vote For Transhumanist Zoltan Istvan For President: It’s The Intelligent Thing To Do

Zoltan '16 For President.

Zoltan ’16 For President.

I normally don’t vote in presidential elections because the choices are between flavors of progressivism—D-type, R-type, etc.—and I desire none. But scrappy “transhumanist” Zoltan Istvan has changed my mind. He has my support.

Istvan is taking on the Clinton-Bush juggernaut and offering an alternative to standard issue progressivism. Complete, total, ran-to-its-logical-conclusion progressivism. Intelligence as salvation.

Our candidate promises to “overcome human death and aging within 15-20 years”! How? By creating a “cultural mindset in America that embracing and producing radical technology and science is in the best interest of our nation and species.” You can’t get more progressive that that.

These goals, Istvan says, “are so simple and obvious, you’d think every politician in the 21st Century would be publicly and passionately pursuing them.” They don’t because they don’t understand transhumanism. What’s that? A “movement [that] goes back decades, to a time when philosophers, futurists, and scientists began understanding how fast technology could solve all the world’s problems.”

All the world’s problems!

Telescopes pick up an object the size of the moon barreling our direction. With zero uncertainty it is proved the object will slam into the earth in 13.4 months, pulverizing the object and turning our planet into molten goo. How would we react?

We’d gather the smartest guys in the world in one room—Zoltan would be there—and give them anything they want. Money, booze, computers, sharp pencils, plenty of paper, companionship—whatever they desired and in whatever quantity they deemed sufficient. And what would happen?

Our planet would turn to goo in 13.4 months.

Intelligence is overrated. Yet almost every person now alive believes the opposite. Just as every person believes the opposite of these true propositions: There are some “problems” which cannot be solved, “problems” that we are under no obligation to solve, “problems” so intractable that even attempting to solve them is foolhardy and harmful.

I can peer into the minds of some readers—those who have read a lot science fiction, for instance—who are now feverishly imagining “scenarios” where the object is diverted from its murderous path. That these readers do so proves my point. And if you can see why their actions prove my point, then you will have truly grasped why intelligence is overrated. I’ll leave it as a reader exercise to solve this “puzzle”.

As a hint, the same answer is found in these words from John Maynard Keynes on the behavior of arch-intellectual Bertrand Russell (words we’ve seen before):

Bertie in particular sustained simultaneously a pair of opinions ludicrously incompatible. He held that in fact human affairs were carried on after a most irrational fashion, but that the remedy was quite simple and easy, since all we had to do was to carry them on rationally.

As the late lamented philosopher David Stove commented, “Just two effortless sentences, and yet how fatal they are to any belief in Russell’s political wisdom, or even sense! They are like a bayonet thrust through the heart and out the back.”

Two of the greatest minds who have ever lived were not keen on the saving powers of rationality. After a lifetime of thinking the deepest thoughts man can think, one was forced to conclude he “knew nothing”, while the other, a man who wrote the subtlest and profoundest philosophy, pronounced his life’s work “nothing but straw.”

These recommendations are sufficient, one would think, to sober us up. They obviously are not. And they are not because intelligence in the form of rationality is the weakest form of knowledge we have, yet we insist on judging all things rationally! It is weakest compared to what Aristotle called the nous, the act of intellection which infallibly connects us to those most fundamental, consequential truths which we know are true but cannot rationally prove, truths which we must believe before any rational argument can ever start.

Saying you can solve all problems with rationality is thus like thinking you can leap over Mount Everest if you desire it strongly enough. Human perfection is only one transhumanist gene manipulation away!

There is no killing Russell’s and Istvan’s corrosive idea, which advances inexorably, zombie-like throughout our culture. Modern men march under the Rationality banner and find it inconceivable that they should not do so. So why am I voting for the man?

Because his extreme form of progressivism has the better chance of burning itself out quickly and leaving some traditional culture intact, whereas the alternative is like a black hole that will eventually suck in and crush everything.

Vote for Zoltan!

Oh. There is one way of averting that collision. Divine intervention. But don’t count on that. In these days of marrying and giving in “marriage”, it’s not likely, and it surely isn’t rational, to count on God’s support.

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