The ASA is meeting arguing whether p-values are of any use has just concluded. They are not. Buy Uncertainty today to see why and to discover their replacement.
This is in the I-wish-I-had-thought-of-it category. A simple tool that suggests where fraud or major malfunctions in statistical research might exist.
First, a description of the tool; second, a description of the suspicious studies which called for their use. The tool is SPRITE, thought up by James Heathers. Sample Parameter Reconstruction via Iterative TEchniques.
Research reports statistical results in all sorts of forms, but a common one is the sample size and its mean and standard deviation. Since these are simple calculations, with a given n, given mean, and given SD, only certain sets of data can support them. For instance, with n = 2 and mean of 3, the sample (1000, 1) is impossible regardless what the SD is. Specifying the SD further restricts the possible samples, as does other information, such as e.g. each number must be positive.
This SPRITE takes the mean, SD, etc. specifications and runs through the possible samples. Think of it as a form of reverse engineering. Once the possible samples are arrayed in front of you, interesting things might emerge.
Now for the study which led Heathers to SPRITE. It is one of a set of curious, which is to say suspicious, work coming out of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University. This is the opinion of inter alia New York magazine and Slate.
The paper here in question is “Attractive Names Sustain Increased Vegetable Intake in Schools” by Wansink et.al. (2012). See Retraction Watch for words with Wansink. Heathers says the paper “presents a simple thesis: change the name of ‘carrots’ and ‘beans’ and ‘broccoli’ to something exciting that the kids are doing (I don’t know, ‘Buzz Lightyear chard’ or ‘Pokemon kale’ etc.) and children will eat more of it.”
In the control group (at some elementary school), which called carrots carrots, the number of carrots served by the lunch lady had a reported mean of 19.4 and SD of 19.9, and n = 45 (kids). The number eaten of those carrots served was small, at least compared to the group called carrots “X-Ray Vision Carrots”. Wee p-values confirmed the “findings.”
Wait. Did Wansink say kids in the control group were served on average almost 20 carrots? They did. X-Ray carrot kids were served an average of 17 (but reportedly ate more).
Well, if the mean was 19.4, and SD was 19.9, what are the possibilities for the maximum number of carrots with a sample size of n = 45 and that “you can’t have less than zero carrots (there are no negative carrots, this isn’t Star Trek).”
Heathers’s SPRITE showed the minimum max-carrots was 53, with a maximum max-carrots of 73, with more likely values being in the neighborhood of 60-some carrots.
Given what we know of lunch ladies, serving trays, and size of carrots, is it plausible to suggest some kid was really served 60 carrots? Only if, according to Heathers, “at least one of [the students] is a Clydesdale horse.”
What makes the story cute is that Heathers assembled 60 baby carrots to see what the pile looked like. (I suppose Wansink could have meant slices of carrots and not carrots, but there’s no indication of this that I could discover.)
This was not the only difficulty of the Wansink study; Heathers details more. And it’s not the only difficulty with the research group. New York magazine called their work “really shoddy”.
…Wansink published a strange blog post last month, which led to the subsequent discovery of 150 errors in just four of his lab’s papers, strong signs of major problems in the lab’s other research, and a spate of questions about the quality of the work that goes on there. Wansink, meanwhile, has refused to share data that could help clear the whole thing up.
Here come the wee p-values.
Wansink was acknowledging, with surprising openness, taking a “failed study which had null results,” slicing and dicing the data until something interesting came out, and then publishing not one but four papers based on said slicing and dicing…One of the truisms of statistics, after all, is that if you analyze enough data from enough angles, you will discover relationships that are “significant,” in the statistical sense of the term, but that don’t actually mean anything.
God bless the magazine for its scare quotes around “significant”. If you can’t find a wee p-value in your data, you’re not trying hard enough. And God bless them for these final true words:
“Many of psychology’s most exciting ‘This One Simple Trick Can X’—style findings have turned out to be little more than statistical noise shaped sloppily into something that, in the right light and if you don’t look too hard, looks meaningful.”
This post ran in full on One Peter Five on 7 July this year, and on this site in abbreviated form, but because there is a suspicion some did not read the entire thing (a terrible suspicion), and due to the importance of the topic given the Pope’s recent comments, I thought it well to re-run here in its entirety. See also Feser’s latest very strong comments on the subject.
Sometime in the mid-1990s in Colombia, Luis Alfredo Garavito Cubillos lured a 6-year-old boy into an isolated spot and sodomized and murdered him. There were bite marks and other evidence of “prolonged torture” found on the boy’s body. The boy’s head was discovered some distance from his torso; the boy’s penis was severed and stuffed into the corpse’s mouth. This act might have occurred while the boy still lived.
Cubillos, unaffectionately known as La Bestia (The Beast), confessed to the crime.
He also confessed to a second crime where he sodomized and tortured a young boy to death. And then a third. And a fourth. And fifth, sixth, seventh, …
Altogether, La Bestia admitted to sodomizing, maiming, torturing, and murdering 147 boys, but he admitted his memory was hazy, and some say the real total approaches 300.
Cubillos was arrested, tried, and found guilty of murdering (only) 138. Colombia’s constitution says “The right to life is inviolable. There will be no death penalty.” That same merciful attitude is responsible for the country forbidding lifetime imprisonments, too.
In 2006, the Superior Court of Bogotá reduced Cubillos’s sentence from 30 years to 22 because of a technicality. He is due to be released in 2021, though, if I understand correctly, with good behavior he can be out by 2018. La Bestia will be 61 in 2018.
Many Catholics would say that the mercy shown to Cubillos represents a true “pro-life” position, and that those who say Cubillo should be executed say so only because they themselves are “eager to kill” and are “bent on maximizing killing no matter what”.
The official stance of the Catholic Church, however, as reinforced by some 2,000 years of teaching, is that the death penalty can be, has been, and continues to be, a just punishment. In the case of Cubillos, it is surely his due. Scheduling his execution, offering him the sacraments, and then speedily carrying out the sentence is the best chance La Bestia has to save his soul. As it now appears (though only God knows), Cubillos is on a blood-greased slide to Hell.
I do not want to make light of this, but it is better than a good bet that unless Cubillos after his release is restrained by illness or circumstance or he is not killed or otherwise incapacitated by vigilantes, La Bestia will kill again. That blood, if God forbid it should flow, will be on the heads of those authorities who refused their Christian duty.
Why Capital Punishment?
Enter By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment by Edward Feser and Joseph Bessette, a book so thorough and so relentless that it is difficult to imagine anybody reading it and coming away unconvinced by the lawfulness and usefulness of capital punishment.
Whether to hang any man is in each case a matter of prudential judgement, because the circumstances surrounding any crime always varies. Two Catholics can disagree whether Cubillos should be executed, but that execution might be a just punishment is a question long settled. Which makes you wonder why some, including members of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), say things like “human life is sacred…[which] compels us as Catholics to oppose…the use of the death penalty.”
Capital punishment is a theorem of the natural law, a philosophy which the Church “strongly affirms” (and which is well examined in the book). “Moreover, since it arises from a natural inclination, the tendency to punish is a virtue, so long as it is motivated by justice, say, rather than hatred,” a position held by inter alia St Thomas Aquinas, who (as quoted by Feser and Bessette) says, “Vengeance is not essentially evil and unlawful”.
Punishment should fit the crime—the legal phrase is lex talionis—which flows from the principle of proportionality.
The restoration of what Aquinas calls “the equality of justice” by inflicting on the offender a harm proportionate to his offense is known as retribution, and it one of the three traditional purposes of punishment, the others being correction or rehabilitation of the offender and the deterrence of those tempted to commit the same crimes the offender has. Other purposes are incapacitation…and restitution.
To “deny proportionality is implicitly to deny desert, and thus implicitly to deny the legitimacy of punishment.” Cursed be he that withholdeth his sword from blood (Jer 40:10).
Aquinas says “the death inflicted by the judge profits the sinner, if he be converted, unto the expiation of his crime; and, if he be not converted, it profits so as to put an end to the sin, because the sinner is thus deprive of the power to sin no more.”
Steven Goldberg makes the latter point in his When Wish Replaces Thought and Fads and Fallacies in the Social Sciences, pointing out the non-negligible frequency of murderers (including of guards) that take place in prison, and of those committed by criminals released who otherwise might have been executed. This argument is usually ignored by those who offer lifetime imprisonment as an alternative for executions.
Feser and Bessette acknowledge this argument. In one harrowing section, they list the gruesome crimes committed by the forty-three murderers executed in 2012 in the USA. Many are recidivists.
Take Robert Brian Waterhouse. In 1980, he beat a woman severely with a “hard instrument”, raped her, “assaulted her rectum with a large object, and stuffed her bloody tampon down her throat” and then drowned her. This was after he was released from prison for the murder of a seventy-seven-year-old woman; he served only eight years before being paroled. While in prison for the “twenty-one years and tens months” awaiting his execution, he “committed sexual battery on a cellmate”.
Or how about William Gerald Mitchell? He was “on parole…for the stabbing murder of a woman” when he brutally raped and murdered another woman, by “[running] over his victim several times with his car”. You could go on and on. Our authors do.
And this brings up a pretty point. We have all heard the media report upcoming executions, giving full voice to anti-death-penalty activists who usually attend these events. These reports go something like this (my summary, but the quotes are genuine):
Critics of the death penalty gathered outside State Prison to protest the upcoming execution of Luis Cubillos. Longtime prof-life advocate Father Mercyme, a priest in the Catholic Church, pleaded with the governor that the death penalty is “a violation of the sanctity of human life”, and that the state “is usurping the sovereign dominion of God over human life”. Cubillos was accused of a 1995 murder.
The media never gives the details of the crimes committed, because this, they rightly suspect, would lead listeners to conclude the criminal is getting what he deserved. (This is the same argument against showing the results of abortion victims.) Righteous anger is fled from, and effeminacy embraced. John Crysostom: “He who is not angry, where he has cause to be, sins. For unreasonable patience is the hotbed of many vices, it fosters negligence, and incites not only the wicked but even the good to do wrong.”
Common pro and con arguments
The death penalty is racist and discriminatory. It is. Whites are disproportionately executed over blacks (this knowledge may cause some to support capital punishment). (Blacks commit violent crimes at rates about eight times higher than whites.) But, I hasten to add, those on death row earned their punishment.
The death penalty does not deter. Please, no statistical arguments. I have yet to see any statistical evidence, for or against, that was not wrong-headed. Of course the death penalty deters. Everybody knows increasing the severity of a punishment leads to greater abatement of a crime. Why would not moving to the ultimate penalty prove the strongest deterrence (Goldberg makes the same argument)? Our authors supply anecdotes—which are perfectly acceptable evidence—of men who would have killed except that they were worried about getting the chair. Even just one instance of this is sufficient empirical proof of deterrence; fancy models are not needed. The penalty would do a greater job of deterrence were it not common knowledge that even for the worst crimes, the legal systems lets men stretch their day of judgment out for decades or forever (as it were).
Why not life imprisonment? For one, if “mercy” demands the cessation of executions, why does not mercy also demand, as in Colombia, the cessation of life imprisonment, or the cessation of any punishment at all? For another, violent (even demonic) men in prison who would otherwise be executed commit crimes. And see the next point about rehabilitation. The subject of how often the innocent are wrongly executed is a tangle, made so on purpose by those who want to exaggerate this rate. The authors delve into this thicket and clarity does emerge.
What we do not know is whether any innocent person was executed during this period. From 1977 through 2014, thirty-four American states executed 1,386 convicted murderers and the federal government another 3. Were any o these 1,389 actually innocent of the crimes for which they were sentenced to death? Although there is no way to know this with certainty, it seems likely that at most 1 or 2 innocent persons—and very possibly none at all—have been executed since the Furman decision of 1972…
In Wish Goldberg (p. 29) says “even the opponent of the death penalty who emphasizes wrongful executions is willing to sacrifice thousands of lives each year for the social advantages of motor vehicles.” And he reminds us that if the death penalty deters it saves lives.
The death penalty does not rehabilitate. Does it not? As everybody quotes, a hanging wonderfully concentrates the mind. In a wonderful section, the authors tell the story of repentance of several of the murderers on death row. Repentance, I say, the most important thing in any man’s life. All of us stand in need of it (at times), but those guilty of the worst crimes stand in greatest need. Concentration of the mind encourages salvation.
The death penalty encourages vengeance. Does all punishment encourage vengeance? If not, why not? The authors give a nice history and derivation of vengeance, incidentally, contrasting its old and new uses, and its distinction between retribution. In another terrific section, the authors write of the family members of victims, of their satisfaction of the punishment of the criminals, and of their forgiveness, too. The feeling that a debt has been paid, not only by the family members, but of the criminals and members of society, is great. When that feeling is missing, there is often despair. And vigilantism. When people lose hope of the government doing its job, they often take vengeance into their own hands.
There is no decent argument that the Church does not authorize use of the death penalty. It is true authorities lately have emphasized “mercy”, but mercy does not obviate capital punishment. And don’t forget “forgiveness and mercy presuppose that the offender really does deserve the punishment we refrain from inflicting.” What follows here is only the barest, briefest sketch of the vast wealth of material in the book. Experts on this subject may be assured that Feser and Bessette have covered every facet with the same assiduity of a lawyer preparing a Supreme Court brief.
First is scripture. God, you will remember, has warned that the potential punishments awaiting unrepentant sinners is far worse than the early shuffling off of this mortal coil. The threat of punishment (as we saw above) deters. And God said, “He who kills a man shall be put to death…” (Deut 19:11). And far from repudiating this law, Christ said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets…I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil” (Mt 5:17). “Then there is Romans 13:1–4, traditionally understood as a straightforward affirmation on the right of the state to execute criminals”.
The Fathers and Doctors of the Church supported the death penalty. Among the others, “Saint Jerome…says that ‘to punish murderers, the sacrilegious, and poisoners is not the shedding of blood, but the duty of the laws.'” The First Vatican Council decreed that “it is not permissible for anyone to interpret Holy Scripture…against the unanimous consent of the fathers.” And
…even those among the Fathers who were largely or wholly opposed in practice to capital punishment—and who thus had every incentive to try to find in Scripture or Tradition a warrant for an absolute condemnation of the practice—affirmed that capital punishment in principle morally legitimate…It is inconceivable that they could have been mistaken about this matter of moral principle, given the authority of the Church has always attributed to them…
The Catechism agrees on the licit nature of capital punishment, “not only in order to ‘protect the innocent’ but also to ‘punish the guilty’ and ‘avenge…crime'” (ellipsis original). And so do the popes agree—including even Pope Saint John Paul II and Pope Francis. Yes, even Pope Francis, about whom our duo says, “Given the obscurity and lack of precision in some of Pope Francis’ remarks…” which is all the quotation I believe this audience requires, except to add that Francis’s words are “plausibly read as having rhetorical rather than doctrinal import.” Whether plausible or not, that’s the way they have to be read to keep his thoughts in line with the constant teaching of the Church.
Now it’s true that the USCCB has waded into the debate implying that the “‘values of the Gospel’ are contrary to the use of the death penalty” (where have we heard that language before?), but these good men forgot to mention the possibility of Hell. Feser and Bessette show that “every element of the bishop’s case against the death penalty fails, including their scriptural interpretations, their moral and philosophical arguments, and their understanding of the practical effects of capital punishment.”
The authors are correct when they say “we now find ourselves in the rather odd situation in which the majority of churchmen appear to be against the death penalty but Catholic teaching is not. This is a recipe for massive confusion among the faithful.” Worse, if we do not execute our worst criminals,
Society will lose sight, first of the idea of proportionality, then of the idea of desert, and finally of the idea of punishment itself. And when the idea of punishment goes, the very idea of justice will go with it, replaced by a therapeutic or technocratic model that treats human beings as cases to be managed and socially engineered than as morally responsible persons. Nothing less is at stake in the death-penalty debate.
And so let us remind ourselves, as do the authors in their last word, of Genesis 9:16, Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.
Angels are as different from one another as are dogs to cats, as Peter Kreeft is fond of saying.
1 From the preceding observations concerning these substances it can be shown that there are not several of them belonging to the same species.
2 For it was shown above that separate substances are certain subsisting quiddities. But the species of a thing is what is signified by the definition, which is the sign of a thing’s quiddity. Hence, subsisting quiddities are subsisting species. Therefore, several separate substances cannot exist unless they be several species.
Notes The modern way to say it is that each angel is a separate species.
3 Moreover, things specifically the same, but numerically diverse, possess matter. For the difference that results from the form introduces specific diversity; from the matter, numerical diversity. But separate substances have no matter whatever, either as part of themselves or as that to which they are united as forms. It is therefore impossible that there be several such substances of one species.
4  Then, too, the reason why there exist among corruptible things several individuals in one species is that the specific nature, which cannot be perpetuated in one individual, may be preserved in several. Hence, even in incorruptible bodies there is but one individual in one species. The nature of the separate substance, however, can be preserved in one individual, because such substances are incorruptible, as was shown above. Consequently, in those substances there is no need for several individuals of the same species.
5 Furthermore, in each individual that which belongs to the species is superior to the individuating principle, which lies outside the essence of the species. Therefore, the universe is ennobled more by the multiplication of species than by the multiplication of individuals of one species. But it is in separate substances, above all, that the perfection of the universe consists. Therefore, it is more consonant with the perfection of the universe that they constitute a plurality, each diverse in
species from the other, rather than a numerical multiplicity within one and the same species.
Notes This is the argument by beauty we met a few weeks back. It is hard to accept in a culture where ugly is called beautiful.
6 Again, separate substances are more perfect than the heavenly bodies. But in the heavenly bodies, on account of their very perfection, we find that one species contains only one individual; both because each of them exhausts the entire matter pertaining to its species, and because each heavenly body possesses perfectly the power of its species to fulfil in the universe that to which the species is ordered, as the sun and the moon exemplify conspicuously. For all the more reason, then, should we find in separate substances but one individual of the one species.
1 We must now consider in what respect species is diversified in separate substances. For in material things which are of diverse species and of one genus, the concept of the genus is taken from the material principle; the difference of species from the formal principle. Thus, the sensitive nature, whence the notion of animal is derived, is in man material with respect to the intellective nature, from which man’s specific difference, rational, is obtained. Therefore, if separate substances are not composed of matter and form, as we have seen, it is not clear how genus and specific difference can apply to them.
2 It must, therefore, be known that the diverse species of things possess the nature of being [ens] in graded fashion. Thus, in the first division of being we at once find something perfect, namely, being through itself and being in act, and something imperfect, namely, being in another and being in potency.
And passing thus from species to species, it becomes quite apparent that one species has an additional grade of perfection over another—animals over plants, and animals that can move about over those that cannot; while in colors one species is found to be more perfect than another the nearer it approaches to whiteness. Wherefore Aristotle says in Metaphysics VIII  that “the definitions of things are like number, the species of which is changed by the subtraction or addition of unity”; just as in definitions the subtraction or addition of a difference gives us a new species.
Hence, the essence of a determinate species consists in this, that the common nature is placed in a determinate grade of being. Now, in things composed of matter and form, the form has the character of a term, and that which is terminated by it is the matter or something material.
The concept of the genus must, therefore, be taken from the material principle, and the specific difference from the formal principle. Accordingly, from genus and difference, as from matter and form, there results one thing. And just as it is one and the same nature that is constituted by the matter and the form, so the difference does not add to the genus a nature extraneous to it, but is a certain determination of the generic nature itself. For instance, suppose that the genus is animal with feet, and its difference, animal with two feet; this difference manifestly adds nothing extraneous to the genus.
3 Clearly, then, it is accidental to the genus and difference that the determination introduced by the difference be caused by a principle other than the nature of the genus; for the nature signified by the definition is composed of matter, as that which is determined, and form as that which determines. Therefore, if a simple nature exists, it will be terminated by itself, and will not need to have two parts, one terminating, the other terminated. Thus, the concept of the genus will be derived from the very intelligible essence of that simple nature; its specific difference, from its termination according as it is in such a grade of beings.
4 From this, also, we see that if there is a nature devoid of limits and infinite in itself, as was shown in Book I to be true of the divine nature, neither genus nor species is applicable to it; and this agrees with the things we proved concerning God in that same Book.
5 It is likewise clear from what has been said that no two separate substances are equal in rank, but that one is naturally superior to another; because there are diverse species in separate substances according to the diverse grades allotted to them, and there are not here several individuals in one species. And so it is that we read in the Book of Job (38:33): “Do you know the order of heaven?” While Dionysius says in The Celestial Hierarchy [X] that just as in the whole multitude of angels there is a highest, a middle, and a lowest hierarchy, so in each hierarchy there is a highest, a middle, and a lowest order, and in each order, highest, middle, and lowest angels.
Notes Inequality is built right into the system.
6 Now, this disposes of the theory of Origen, who said that all spiritual substances, including souls, were created equal from the beginning; and that the diversity found among these substances—this one being united to a body and that one not, this one being higher and that one lower—results from a difference of merits. The theory is false, because we have just shown that this difference of grades is natural; that the soul is not of the same species as separate substances; that the latter are themselves not of the same species with one another; and that they are not equal in the order of nature.
As this latest controversy shows, science also has its monuments to white supremacy. Like Confederate monuments, these statues should be removed. They are daggers to the open wounds of communities that have long known that white supremacy reaches far beyond the sphere of conventional politics into medicine and science. But removing these monuments won’t be sufficient on its own. The row about Sims reminds us how hard the scientific establishment works to present an image of science as “apolitical”. What is needed is an honest re-examination of science’s history and politics — an examination of the kind that scientists have often tried to silence…
While some alternative marches for science have since embraced science alongside social justice, the official March for Science group didn’t.
Amidst the cries of (can you guess?) “racism” and “sexism”, and dividing through for scientism, the glory days of science are over. Politics has discovered it.
Last week, Commentary magazine, a long-established mouthpiece for hard-line interventionist and neoconservative views issued a denunciation of these realists in a piece titled “Saving Realism from the So-Called Realists.”…
For interventionists, “retrenchment” is just another word for “isolationism,” which of course is the great bogeyman of interventionist foreign policy. Realists have lost their way, we’re told, because they no longer support “forging a stable international order” by which the interventionists mean “non-stop intervention in every region on earth.”…
Today, it may be that modern realists have learned from the mistakes of their grandparents. Contrary to claims that communists would happily throw their lives away in service to the party, it appears communists of old behaved like most everyone else. Many of them were too busy taking bribes and running black markets to busy themselves with taking over the world. It’s now clear that authoritarian regimes — especially hard-core socialist ones — tend to undermine their own power with their backward economic systems. Experience suggests that nuclear deterrence has worked even with history’s most deranged dictators. It’s now clear that wars such as those in Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan have done nothing to enhance the safety of Americans.
So, it’s hard to fault the realists for learning something from history.
The neocons still have the ear of the President, however. Why must we inflict democracy on others by force, or support those regimes who call themselves democracies? The joys of shared misery?
Before Season 4 of Transparent started production, transgender actress Alexandra Billings, who plays Maura’s friend and mentor Davina on the series, walked into the writer’s room to pitch. She said she wanted to be naked….
The milestone for Billings is about far more than nudity. It’s another step in a career spent working to normalize and expand opportunity for transgender actors.
This man Alexandra and the writer are right. This will further “normalize” gender dysphoria.
“No priest in the church of Sweden can refuse to wed married couples,” says Prime Minister Stefan Löfven (S) in an interview with the Church newspaper.
He compares a priest who refuses vigorous couples with a midwife who refuses to perform abortions.
In this slightly older item, the joke writes itself: Hey, if we’re allowed to do one immoral Hell-worthy thing, we must do another.
The Church of Sweden is Lutheran, but no longer as officially connected with the government. Still, the wise money is on betting they will fold.
A bitter row has erupted after a fashion show featuring satanic designs was held at a historic church.
Leading clerics branded the event ‘blasphemous’ after models dressed as devils and vampires sashayed in front of the altar…
Ms Findikoglu, who has been described as an ‘up-and-coming rebel of the fashion world’, told Vogue magazine earlier this month of her fascination with the occult and magic.
This was Church of England and not a Catholic church as some earlier reports had it. But nobody would have been surprised had it been the latter.
…It’s the simple, sweet romance Call Me by Your Name.
The irresistible element of the film, which hits theaters November 24, is that it’s a gay love story…At a screening last week for the film’s debut at the New York Film Festival, I walked out at the end only to discover that virtually everyone else in the theater was absolutely bolted to their seats, transfixed, probably weeping.
The title of the Item is a joke, but only in the barest sense. Readers will recall I also predicted the Oscar for Name. Don’t miss reading about the infamous “peach scene.”