William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Bill Nye The Science Guy Confuses Scientific Uncertainty Versus Doubt

Uncertainty versus Doubt.

Uncertainty versus Doubt.

On the road, so something quick.

Reader Paul Mullen writes:


A fellow at the salt mine was thoughtful enough to leave a copy in the break room of April’s issue of *Men’s Journal*. The back page features a short interview with Bill “The Science Guy” Nye. One of the questions was, “What do you think the average American needs to understand about science?” His reply:

The seriousness of climate change. It’s serious, serious business. Do not screw around with it. The fossil fuel industry has been very successful—using techniques pioneered by the tobacco industry—introducing the idea that scientific uncertainty is equivalent to doubt, which wouldn’t matter if we weren’t all going to die.

Ignoring his failure to answer the question, it seems to me that if you’re feeling uncertain while simultaneously not having any doubts, you’re doing it wrong. Does his statement make any sense from a formal epistemic standpoint?


That’s too telegraphic, so here’s a more expansive answer. It’s Lent, so I’ll interpret Nye’s response in the most generous way possible. Even given that, what he said is a mixture of falsity, confusion, and error.

Nye’s global warming conspiracy theory is either a direct lie on his part or blank ignorance, and anyway something close to the opposite of the truth. The fossil fuel industry is scarcely shoveling money into the hands of non-governmental scientists. Indeed, as Alex Epstein showed in the Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, they’re working against their own interests to appear to be good global citizens.

I’ve had my hand out, but have not received penny one from any fossil fuel company, nor any of their affiliates. I’m far from alone. Many global warming activists, on the other hand, are earning a tidy living pushing doom. I’m sure Nye gets something for his sky-is-falling speeches.

Suppose what is false: that I and my fellow skeptics have been as lavishly funded as Nye claimed. Not to the extent that research professors awash in the millions and millions of government—and activist and even fossil fuel industry!—grants are funded, just that we got money.

Are fossil fuel companies acting immorally or unscientifically when funding research which might provide information useful or amenable to them? If so, then isn’t the government as immoral and unscientific in funding research which provides information useful and amenable to them? What makes the government so pure? Nothing.

Isn’t it true that however scientific information comes to be known its source of funding is irrelevant to whether that information is true or false? Yes: yes of course.

About the phrase “scientific uncertainty is equivalent to doubt”. It appears—and this is only a guess on my part—that Nye equates “scientific uncertainty” with “highly probably true” or “mostly true with negligible indeterminateness on matters scientists will mop up in time”. And he implies, or appears to imply, “doubt” is tergiversation, purposeful evasion of known truths.

Epistemologically speaking, uncertainty is the measure of how probable some proposition is with respect to given evidence. Doubt is to say the proposition is not certain, or, familiarly, that it is improbable, or not likely on that same evidence. Nye is saying, or seems to be accusing, that because somebody finds uncertainty (given some evidence) that they are equating that uncertainty with doubt, or improbability. In other words, that global-warming-of-doom skeptics insist any probability less than one is automatically equivalent to a very small probability.

But nobody is saying this about global warming. Well, no scientist is. Lord only knows what the Internet holds. What some of us say is that, given the twenty-some year failure of climate models to make good predictions, it is rational to doubt them and the theories which created the models. It used to be a well known and accepted-by-all scientific principle that bad forecasts imply wrong theories. That principle, which Nye denies or is ignorant of, was abandoned in the face of strong politics.

What to make of Nye’s we’re-all-going-to-die hysteria? Well, it’s true. All of us will die. This should not be particularly newsworthy given the solid evidence that tens of billions of those not now alive have already died. Unless Nye means to claim that we’re all going to die because of global warming.

That is preposterous, utterly ridiculous, grossly irresponsible. It can only be doubted. Give what we know about model performance, it seems almost impossible any man even the least bit familiar with climate science would suggest such a thing. Yet it has happened. Why?


Summary Against Modern Thought: God Is Intelligent

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.

Saint Wiki is back! But in case it disappears again, I’ll keep running links to both our translations.

Chapter 43 That God is Intelligent (alternate link)

[1] IT may be shown from the above that God is an intelligent being.

[4] Moreover. In no order of movers do we find that a mover by the intellect is the instrument of that which moves without intellect; but rather the opposite. Now all movers that are in the world, are compared to the first mover which is God, as instruments to the principal agent. Since then we find in the world many movers by intellect, it is impossible that the first mover move without intellect. Therefore God must of necessity be intelligent.

Notes Did you notice we return to Chapter 13 more than any other? Review, review, review. If, as is true, God is (ever) the first mover, then He must be intelligent, because why? Because randomness certainly cannot be intelligent and causal (think about it).

[5] Again. A thing is intelligent from the fact of its being without matter: in sign of which forms become understood by being abstracted from matter. Hence also understanding is of universals and not of singulars, because matter is the principle of individualization. Now forms actually understood become one with the intellect actually understanding. Wherefore, if forms are actually understood from the very fact that they are without matter, it follows that a thing is actually intelligent from the fact that it is without matter. Now it was shown above[2] that God is absolutely immaterial. Therefore He is intelligent.

Note Not only God’s, but our intellects are also immaterial. We are not our brains. See this review of Feser’s The Last Superstition for more detail.

Consider first that when we grasp the nature, essence, or form of a thing, it is necessarily one and the same form, nature, or essence that exists both in the thing and in the intellect. The form of triangularity that exists in our minds when we think about triangles is the same form that exists in actual triangles themselves; the form of “dogness” that exists in our minds when we think about dogs is the same form that exists in actual dogs; and so forth. If this weren’t the case, then we just wouldn’t really be thinking about triangles, dogs, and the like, since to think about these things requires grasping what they are, and what they are is determined by their essence or form. But now suppose that the intellect is a material thing—some part of the brain, or whatever. Then for the form to exist in the intellect is for the form to exist in a certain material thing. But for a form to exist in a material thing is just for that material thing to be the kind of thing the form is a form of; for example, for the form of “dogness” to exist in a certain parcel of matter is just for that parcel of matter to be a dog. And in that case, if your intellect was just the same thing as some part of your brain, it follows that that part of your brain would become a dog whenever you thought about dogs. “But that’s absurd!” you say. Of course it is; that’s the point. Assuming that the intellect is material leads to such absurdity; hence the intellect is not material.

[7] Moreover. Whatever tends definitely to an end, either prescribes that end to itself, or that end is prescribed to it by another: else it would not tend to this end rather than to that. Now natural things tend to definite ends, for they do not pursue their natural purposes by chance, since in that case those purposes would not be realized always or for the most part, but seldom, for of such is chance. Since then they do not prescribe the end to themselves, for they do not apprehend the notion of end, it follows that the end is prescribed to them by another, Who is the author of nature. This is He Who gives being to all, and Who necessarily exists of Himself, Whom we call God, as shown above.[6] Now He would be unable to prescribe nature its end unless He were intelligent. Therefore God is intelligent…

Notes The acorn doesn’t know it’s heading towards and oak: it is merely fulfilling its genetic plan. If conditions are right. If they are not, then the acorn does not reach its end. Now we know that acorns become oaks and not Buicks or octopuses. If there was no regularity, there’d not only be no oaks, there’d be no us, thus there’d be no arguments on whether teleology was real.

It’s not only acorns that move toward ends but photons in double-slit experiments, too. Those photons don’t become kumquats or icicles, but move in regular, predictable patterns—as if they had an end, which they do. Slide from acorns to photons to whatever is smaller or more basic. It will be the same story. Ends are being met. And those ends could not be caused by “chance”, which cannot be a cause. At base, there must be a first mover, first cause, that designs the ends which are met. There is no other way to produce regularity. The “laws” which govern the universe (all there is) must come from an intelligence; they cannot come from nothing or “blind chance”, which isn’t a power.

So we’re right back at Chapter 13 again. Plus, it doesn’t seem likely that most people would argue God is not intelligent (though they do incorrectly argue He doesn’t exist).


[1] Ch. xiii.
[2] Chs. xvii., xx., xxvii.
[3] Ch. xxviii.
[4] Ch. xxxi.
[5] 3 De Anima viii. 1.
[6] Ch. xiii.
[7] Ps. cxxxviii. 6.


This Week In Doom (Indiana’s RFRA Too!)

Who are you to judge?

Who are you to judge? Link


We’ve tried various ways of doing this over the years, but none successfully. So I’m going to steal an idea from Nick Steves and give the weekend collection of miscellany a snappier title. We won’t do this every week, only when theme material piles up.

No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service

“Hey, buddy. Can’t you see the sign? Get out or put some clothes on.”

“It’s okay. I’m sexually attracted to members of my own sex.”

“All right then. What’ll you have?”

Rape Culture

Women now outnumber men on most college campuses (those not devoted to the most difficult subjects like engineering, physics, math, and so on), a disparity which is increasing. And therefore must be caused by -ism or -phobia or some kind of dark prejudice because imbalances only happen for evil reasons. Or so says our Supreme Court.

Anyway, why are women rushing to rape havens in such great numbers? Don’t they know that 4.2 out of every 2 women, or whatever, are raped or sexual assaulted on campuses?

Since women have greater numbers, and rape culture must be real because women claim it is, it must mean there are some pretty industrious men out there. All it takes is one! It’s a war on women!

It ought to save a lot of time and grief if we were to simply assume all men are pre-guilty, and treat them accordingly. After all, what matters is the seriousness of the charges.

Sort of like in the #TeamHarpy episode (those in the know will recognize the name of truth hacker PZ Myers):

But mobs and countermobs are no alternative to a criminal court. The fact remains that there a small but influential minority on the left have become obsessed with eroding due process in rape and sexual assault allegations. As we see in this story, they openly boast about destroying reputations using nothing more than hearsay. Even when complainants admit their allegations were false, their supporters will continue to attack the reputation of their victims. Treating the legal system as an inconvenient distraction, they press on to their desired goal: community-led ostracization.

Unintended Consequences

Jonathan Last thinks the campus left is imploding because three ex-off-the-cliff lefties posted anonymous articles regretting their foolishness.

One of those who sobered up wrote:

Another reason students resort to the quasi-medicalized terminology of trauma is that it forces administrators to respond. Universities are in a double bind. They’re required by two civil-rights statutes, Title VII and Title IX, to ensure that their campuses don’t create a “hostile environment” for women and other groups subject to harassment.

Ah. Titles VII and IX. Government mandated fairness. What could possibly go wrong with “fairness”? Well, everything that has gone and is wrong with campuses. Administrators, ever greedy, hungry for government money, necessary to fund their lavish lifestyles (and their university’s thirteen offices of diversity), sign over the souls of their institutions reasoning that they can control the Beast.

Which reminds me, did you know that you can get a degree in college administration? If that isn’t proof enough of impending doom, then nothing is.


Best news for Doom Watchers is the acceleration of the loss of essence. From another of Last’s ex-converts:

Consider otherkin, people who believe they are literally animals or magical creatures and who use the concepts and language of anti-oppressive politics to talk about themselves. I have no problem drawing my own conclusions about the lived experience of otherkin. Nobody is literally a honeybee or a dragon. We have to assess claims about oppression based on more than just what people say about themselves. If I took the idea of the infallibility of the oppressed seriously, I would have to trust that dragons exist.

Yes, and if you fail to acknowledge another person’s born-that-way dragoness, you are a despicable dragonaphobe not fit to be a member of civilized society.

Not only do you get to be whatever you want, a fine American tradition, but you get to insist that everybody else plays along—or else—a fine totalitarian tradition.

Castro Cupcakes

“I’d like to order three dozen with the message, ‘Sodomy is a sin,’ please.”

“Sir, given our beliefs, we can’t print that message.”

“Owning a business is a privilege, not a right.”

“What flavor would you like?”


Probability’s Empirical Bias

Big Jule's dice have no spots. But probabilities are still possible.

Big Jule’s dice have no spots. But probabilities are still possible.

Bit of logic (a favorite example) from our teacher Lewis Carroll: given “All cats understand French and that some chickens are cats”, what can we say about the proposition “Some chickens understand French”?

We can say that it follows, that its probability is 1, that it is proved, that it is deduced, true. True conditionally, true given the premises, locally true.

But we also know it is false. Universally false, false because we observe that no cats understand French and that no chickens are cats. Universally or necessarily false, but conditionally true. And also conditionally false, conditional on different premises (such as “No cats understand French” and “No chickens are cats” and, also necessary, “No non-human animals, and very few human animals, understand French”).

Conditional truth is no trouble for logic, because logic is merely the study of the relation between propositions. Logic has nothing to say about the propositions themselves, not formally. Not about where they come from, their utility, their practicality or their lyricism. This is why the premises do not need to be empirical for logic to “work”.

For instance, given “All Martians wear hats and George is a Martian” it is conditionally true that “George wears a hat”—even though we know there are no Martians. Examples abound. See this site for a wealth of Carroll’s fun logic puzzles.

Probability, part of logic, is also concerned only with the relation between propositions and not the origin or usefulness of those propositions. We deduced “George wears a hat” had probability 11, just as we deduce the probability of “George wears a hat” is 3/4 given the premise “Three-quarters of Martians wears hats and George is a Martian.”

Probability, like logic, has no difficulty with non-empirical propositions. This is how we know it is (conditionally) true that “One creature must come out” given the premises “A gnome, fairy, and Godzilla are in a room and only one must come out”, and it is how we know the probability of “Godzilla comes out” is 1/3 given those same premises. We deduced the certainty of both conclusions (we are certain the probability is 1/3 in the second case).

Probability got its start answering empirical questions, mostly about gambling and people’s guilt (see Jim Franklin’s The Science of Conjecture: Evidence and Probability Before Pascal). Aristotle also relied on many empirical questions when delineating logic, but somehow logic came to be seen to be general, whereas probability hasn’t. Probability is empirical to many.

The empirical bias in probability is strong. It accounts for the frequentist fallacy that no probability exists except limiting frequencies of empirical events. A frequentist must remain mute about hat-wearing Martians, and about every other non-empirical proposition, including counterfactual ones. For example, historians often debate about whether there would have been a World War II in Europe if America had not joined World War I. Germany would have won WWI, these historians say, thus ensuring a kind of peace, or at least a Germany victory would not have created the conditions necessary for the National Socialists in that country and the International Socialists in Russia to come into existence.

Now those are perfectly understandable (and debatable) propositions, as are most “What if?” questions. And probability (and logic) can handle them, but no system which is empirically based can. Given (Stove’s example) “Bob is a winged horse” it follows that “Bob is a horse”, a statement which makes sense in logic and probability-as-logic, but a frequentist must pretend it is incomprehensible because there is no way to construct any empirical relative frequency.

More subtly, the empirical bias accounts for de Finetti’s and Ramsey’s error of defining probability as coherent gambles. This is backward. That coherent gambles are good decisions is result of probability, not its definition. (See this about Dutch Books.) There will be no “payoffs” for “events” which will never occur (or never not occur).

Besides, coherence is a weak criterion and mixes up consequences of evidence with evidence itself. A subjectivist can say the probability Godzilla comes out is 0.015764 (or any 0-1 number). As long as he also insists the probability Godzilla does not comes out is 1 – 0.015764, he is coherent. And you cannot prove his probability is wrong if probability is a gamble. No empirical evidence will ever be available.


1In measure theory “with probability 1″ has a technical meaning which I do not here use. I mean this phrase in plain English.

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