William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Predictions For 2015—Re-Register Yours Today!

This post is one that has been restored after the hacking. All original comments were lost. Would you mind pretty please making the predictions again?

Happy New Year! Hangover? Since I engaged in the ancient custom of hunkering down under blankets in case this turning of the calendar should usher in the long-awaited apocalypse, I have no hangover. This means my little gray cells are refreshed and limber, allowing me to make predictions superior to those made in previous years.

They’d better be, because my hit rate to date is ugly low. (Last year, 2013; more I’m too lazy to search for.)

Reader Gary suggests having a subject at which we can all have a go, in order to make fair comparisons. Since we have a lot of fun teasing people who still believe in global warming models, despite their record of having an even worse performance than ours at guessing the future, why not pick the upcoming Paris summit?

The purpose of this confab is to reach an agreement which is legally binding on everybody. So, though it seems an easy prognostication, let’s all say whether this agreement will indeed be reached.

The twist is the USA. The Obama administration, fond as it is in ignoring Congress, might well sign on to such an agreement feeling an “executive order” is sufficient for action. So your prediction comes in two parts: (1) will the Obama administration pretend it has a treaty, and (2) will the Senate ratify this or some suitable modification of this agreement?

As in previous years, please number your predictions, which makes it easy on me when I check them next year. You have one week to enter your guesses.

Here are my predictions.

(1) The Obama administration will bring back some kind of “agreement” which is not binding, but which they will pretend is by claiming that this is our “final chance.”

(2) The Senate, led now by the Republican branch of the Democrat party, will come close to accepting this “agreement”, but in the end will dither, cower, and hope the matter is forgotten. Which it will be, officially. The EPA, however, will assume it is real and ramp up their already exponentially increasing stream of regulations.

(3) “Student suspended for twirling pencil, subjected to five-hour evaluation”, “Teacher suspended on weapons charge for demonstrating carpentry tools”, “Student, 13, shares lunch, gets detention”. This are three of many Outrageous ‘Zero Tolerance’ Follies of 2014 collected by Lenore Skenazy. Not only will these asininities increase, but there will include at least two well publicized events tied to Common Core, that attempt by the federal government to lessen parental influence on their kids’ education.

(4) The NSA, CIA, FBI, and probably even the EPA, will continue to spy on citizens. There will be no recriminations. It’s for your own good.

(5) “Harvard Law School finally threw in the towel Tuesday after a four-year fight with the Obama administration over Title IX.” Source. Because Title IX—originally having something to do with sports but, as with all government regulations, expanded to cover more and more and more—mandates that colleges adopt the truly absurd idiotic monumentally dumb preponderance of evidence criterion of guilt for sexual “assault”, we really will see an “epidemic” of sexual “assault” cases (not assault, “assault”). This will lead to “outrage” and demands that even more stringent measures be adopted, which will (of course) cause another increase in cases, which will…you get the idea. This despite another branch of discovering a real sexual assault rate of 0.0061.

(6) “When rich conservatives give money to Republicans, it is a sign that the whole system has been corrupted by fat cats. When it is revealed that liberal billionaires and left-wing super PACs outspent conservative groups in 2014: crickets.” Source. “The premise of that case, Roe v. Wade, was also a hoax. Norma McCorvey lied about being raped to get an abortion in Texas…” Source. I don’t know what it will be, but some case will rise to national prominence which will confirm to all lefties that their worst fears have been realized, but which will turn out to have been a fraud. No lessons will be learned. Only the fear, which is self-justifying, will be remembered.

(7) The Synod on the family concludes this October. Truth will win, as it must, having the Ultimate Judge on its side. But this will lead to great dissatisfaction in those who assume the Church is yet another political association. Some of these malcontents will break away, receiving much sympathy for the “horrors” which they had to endure.

(8) On a less gloomy note, this will be the year in which your host finally lands a position appropriate to his abilities (such as sweeping floors down at the Walmarts).


Another Puzzled Atheist Wonders Why Religion Persists


Orientation quiz. True or false: periodically, some societies have gone insane. The answer is True, true with bells on. Many examples will suggest themselves. Thing about these cultural sanitariums is that most of the folks living inside them didn’t know they were inmates.

Second question. We in one of these places now? Belay your answer. Here’s question number three. Should voting decide truth? Those who answer this wrongly usually answer question number two wrong, too.

Anyway, one John G Messerly, proud but puzzled atheist, writes that only about fourteen percent of English-speaking academic philosophers have a firm grasp of truth, the remaining eighty-six percent having lost their way. Messerly think this disparity should “cause believers discomfort.” It does. How could so many smart people make such fundamental mistakes? See question two.

Even though the majority of academics align against religion, Messerly says that “religious beliefs [still] have a universal appeal”. How can this be, he wonders, when smart people say “arguments for the existence of gods, souls, afterlife and the like” are “unconvincing”? Why aren’t people listening to their intellectual betters?

Genes, he says. “Genes and environment explain human beliefs and behaviors—people do things because they are genomes in environments.” So says proud atheist, high IQ, Messerly. Messerly the intellectual.

Thus that Messerly is an atheist is because of his genes and environment, yes? He had no choice. His genes interacting with his environment made him reject God. Poor thing. What a disability! Can we then say “The near universal appeal of” religious antagonism among academics “suggests a biological component” to atheistic beliefs and practices, and that “science increasingly confirms this view”? Messerly must say yes.

I say bunk. But then Messerly would have to argue that I have no choice but to say this. It’s cold where I am (my environment), which mixed with my genes makes me say hurtful things like this. I’d really like not to do this kind of thing, but my genes are such horrible taskmasters.

Today there are two basic explanations offered [why religious beliefs persist in the face of ardent intellectuals]. One says that religion evolved by natural selection—religion is an adaptation that provides an evolutionary advantage. For example religion may have evolved to enhance social cohesion and cooperation—it may have helped groups survive. The other explanation claims that religious beliefs and practices arose as byproducts of other adaptive traits. For example, intelligence is an adaptation that aids survival. Yet it also forms causal narratives for natural occurrences and postulates the existence of other minds. Thus the idea of hidden Gods explaining natural events was born.

A false dichotomy. Messerly the intellectual forgets that religion could have arisen because it was correct or close to correct, because the ideas behind religion were true or approached truth.

It is self-evident from the fact that religions are predominant in certain geographical areas but not others, that birthplace strongly influences religious belief. This suggests that people’s religious beliefs are, in large part, accidents of birth.

It is just as self-evident that atheism is predominant in certain geographical areas but not others. This suggests that people’s atheistic beliefs are, in large part, accidents of birth.

There is also a strong correlation between religious belief and various measures of social dysfunction including homicides, the proportion of people incarcerated, infant mortality, sexually transmitted diseases, teenage births, abortions, corruption, income inequality and more. While no causal relationship has been established, a United Nations list of the 20 best countries to live in shows the least religious nations generally at the top.

There is also a strong correlation between atheistic belief and mass murder, such as in the Soviet Union, Red China, and other scientifically engineered near paradises. Anyway, casting aspersions through statistics is the act of a politician, not an intellectual.

More than three times as many Americans believe in the virgin birth of Jesus than in biological evolution, although few theologians take the former seriously, while no serious biologist rejects the latter!

Joke: What do you call a theologian who doesn’t believe in the virgin birth? Professor!

Messerly goes on and on in a similar vein, making as many as two logical errors per sentence. He never once attempts to understand that there are perfectly good, rational, logical, definitive reasons to believe. I’m betting he’s unfamiliar with these arguments. We really should take his article apart, piece by piece, but I haven’t the time. The kicker is this:

Why is all this important? Because human beings need their childhood to end; they need to face life with all its bleakness and beauty, its lust and its love, its war and its peace. They need to make the world better. No one else will.

Atheists are always saying things like this. They always forget that after childhood come the rebellious teenage years. The years of atheism. With maturity and age come wisdom. Let’s hope our adolescence doesn’t last long.


Resolved: Statisticians To Cease Using “Independence”, Change To “Irrelevance”

What’s the difference between “independence” and “irrelevance” and why does that difference matter? This typical passage is from The First Course in Probability by Sheldon Ross (p. 87) is lovely because many major misunderstandings are committed, all of which prove “independence” a poor term: (and this is a book I recommend; for readability, I changed Ross’s notation slightly, from e.g. “P(E)” to “Pr(E)”)

The previous examples of this chapter show that Pr(E|F), the conditional probability of E given F, is not generally equal to Pr(E), the unconditional probability of E. In other words, knowing that F has occurred generally changes the chances of E’s occurrence. In the special cases where Pr(E|F) does in fact equal Pr(E), we say that E is independent of F. That is, E is independent of F if knowledge that F occurred does not change the probability that E occurs.

Since Pr(E|F) = Pr(EF)/Pr(F), we see that E is independent of F if Pr(EF) = Pr(E)Pr(F).

The first misunderstanding is “Pr(E), the unconditional probability of E”. There is no such thing. No unconditional probability exists. All, each, every probability must be conditioned on something, some premise, some evidence, some belief. Writing probabilities like “Pr(E)” is always, every time, an error, not only of notation but of thinking. It encourages and amplifies the misbelief that probability is a physical, tangible, measurable thing. It also heightens the second misunderstanding. We must always write (say) Pr(E|X), where X is whatever evidence one has in mind.

The second misunderstanding, albeit minor, is this: “knowing that F has occurred generally changes the chances of E’s occurrence.” Note the bias towards empiricism. In other places Ross writes “An infinite sequence of independent trials is to be performed” (p. 90, an impossibility); “Independent trials, consisting of rolling a pair of fair dice, are performed (p. 92, “fair” dice are impossible in practice). “Events” or “trials” “occur”, i.e., propositions that can be measured in reality, or are mistakenly thought to be measurable. Probability is much richer than that.

Non-empirical propositions, as in logic, easily have probabilities. Example: the probability of E = “A winged horse is picked” given X = “One of a winged horse or a one-eyed one-horned flying purple eater must be picked” is 1/2, despite that “events” E and X will never occur. So maybe the misunderstanding isn’t so minor at that. The bias towards empiricism is what partly accounts for the frequentist fallacy. Our example E and X have no limiting relative frequency. Instead, we should say of any Pr(E|F), “The probability of E (being true) accepting F (is true).”

The third and granddaddy of all misunderstandings is this: “E is independent of F if knowledge that F occurred does not change the probability that E occurs.” The misunderstanding comes in two parts: (1) use of “independence”, and (2) a mistaken calculation.

Number (2) first. Because it is a mistake to write “Pr(EF) = Pr(E)Pr(F)”, there are times, given the same E and F, when this equation holds and times when it doesn’t. A simple example. Let E = “The score of the game is greater than or equal to 4″ and F = “Device one shows 2″. What is Pr(E|F)? Impossible to say: we have no evidence tying the device to the game. Similarly, Pr(E) does not exist, nor does Pr(F).

Let X = “The game is scored by adding the total on devices one and two, where each device can show the numbers 1 through 6.” Then Pr(E|X) = 33/36, Pr(F|X) = 1/6, and Pr(E|FX) = 5/6; thus Pr(E|X)Pr(F|X) (~0.153) does not equal Pr(E|FX)Pr(F|X) (~0.139). Knowledge of F in the face of X is relevant to the probability E is true. (Recall these do not have to be real devices; they can be entirely imaginary.)

Now let W = “The game is scored by the number shown on device two, where device and one and two can show the numbers 1 through 6.” Then Pr(E|W) = 1/2, Pr(F|W) = 1/6, and Pr(E|FW) = 1/2 because knowledge of F in the face of W is irrelevant to knowledge of E. In this case Pr(EF|W) = Pr(E|W)Pr(F|W).

The key, as might have always been obvious, is that relevance depends on the specific information one supposes.

Number (1). Use of “independent” conjures up images of causation, as if, somehow, F is causing, or causing something which is causing, E. This error often happens in discussions of time series, as if previous time points caused current ones. We have heard times without number people say things like, “You can’t use that model because the events aren’t independent.” You can use any model, it’s only that some models make better use of information because, usually, knowing what came before is relevant to predictions of what will come. Probability is a measure of information, not a quantification of cause.

Here is another example from Ross showing this misunderstanding (p. 88, where the author manages two digs at his political enemies):

If we let E denote the event that the next president is a Republican and F the event that there will be a major earthquake within the next year, then most people would probably be willing to assume E an F are independent. However, there would probably be some controversy over whether it is reasonable to assume that E is independent of G, where G is the event that there will be a recession within two years after the election.

To understand the second example, recall that Ross was writing at a time when it was still possible to distinguish between Republicans and Democrats.

The idea that F or G are the full or partial efficient cause of E is everywhere here, a mistake reinforced by using the word “independence”. If instead we say that knowledge of the president’s party is irrelevant to predicting whether an earthquake will soon occur we make more sense. The same is true if we say knowledge that this president’s policies are relevant for guessing whether a recession will occur.

This classic example is a cliché, but is apt. Ice cream sales are positively correlated with drownings. The two events, a statistician might say, are not “independent”. Yet it’s not the ice cream that is causing the drownings. Still, knowledge that more ice cream being sold is relevant to fixing a probability more drownings will be seen. The model is still good even thought it is silent on cause.


This sections contains more technical material.

The distinction between “independence” and “irrelevance” was first made by Keynes in his unjustly neglected A Treatise on Probability (pp. 59–61). Keynes argued for the latter, correctly asserting, first, that no probabilities are unconditional. Keynes gives two definitions of irrelevance. In our notation, “F is irrelevant to E on evidence X, if the probability of E on evidence FX is the same as its probability on evidence X; i.e. F is irrelevant to E|X if Pr(E|FX) = Pr(E|X)”, as above.

Keynes tightens this to a second definition. “F is irrelevant to E on evidence X, if there is no proposition, inferrible from FX but not from X, such that its addition to evidence X affects the probability of E.” In our notation, “F is irrelevant to E|X, if there is no proposition F’ such that Pr(F’|FX) = 1, Pr(F’|X) \ne 1, and Pr(E|F’X) \ne Pr(E|X).” Note that Keynes has kept the logical distinction throughout (“inferrible from”).

Lastly, Keynes introduces another distinction (p. 60; pardon the LaTex):

$h_1$ and $h_2$ are independent and complementary parts of the evidence, if between them they make up $h$ and neither can be inferred from the other. If x is the conclusion, and $h_1$ and $h_2$ are independent and complementary parts of the evidence, then $h_1$ is relevant if the addition of it to $h_2$ affects the probability of $x$.

A passage which has the footnote (in our modified notation): “I.e. (in symbolism) $h_1$ and $h_2$ are independent and complementary parts of $h$ if $h_1 h_2 = h$, $Pr(h_1|h_2) \ne 1$, and Pr(h_2|h_1) \ne 1$. Also $h_1$ is relevant if Pr(x|h) \ne Pr(x|h_2).”

Two (or however many) observed data points, say, $x_1$ and $x_2$ are independent and complementary parts of the evidence because neither can be deduced—not mathematically derived per se—from each other. Observations are thus no different than any other proposition.


Climate Paper Causes Chaos, Angst, Anger, Apoplexy! (Hacking?)

Last Wednesday, the Daily Mail told the world of the peer-reviwed paper Lord Monckton, Willie Soon, David Legates and I wrote entitled “Why models run hot: results from an irreducibly simple climate model” (the post which highlighted this will be restored soon). The article was “Is climate change really that dangerous? Predictions are ‘very greatly exaggerated’, claims study“.

  • Researchers claim global warming predictions are ‘greatly exaggerated’
  • Large climate models typically require computers to perform calculations
  • They consider factors such as animal numbers and tectonic variations
  • By comparison, a team of researchers has created a ‘simple’ model
  • It looks at levels of solar energy absorbed and reflected by Earth
  • Using this simple model, they claim current predictions are wrong
  • Once errors are corrected, global warming in response to a doubling of CO2 is around 1oC or less – a third of the predicted 3.3oC

The scientific community reacted with clam, reasoned, logical argument.

Kidding! I’m kidding. People flipped out. Less than two days after our paper was generally known, I was hacked. The posts and comments from my old WordPress account were wiped out. Thank the Lord, I had backups for most things. Although I was off line for almost five days, I’m mostly back.

Here is one of the other asinine reactions. I’ll have more later because this makes for a fascinating case study of how outrageously political science has become.

Saul Alinksky

A meager-witted unctuous twit of a “reporter” rejoicing under the unfortunate name Sylvan Lane (cruel parents) from the far-left Boston Globe was assigned to attack the authors of “Why Models Run Hot”. Lord Monckton and I are independent and Legates’s position is solid. So Lane went after Soon. He emailed asking for “information.” I offered to provide it. Lane wrote back:

I apologize if I wasn’t clear before. The kind of questions I would like to ask Dr. Soon are the same ones Science Bulletin insisted you and your colleagues answer before it published your paper. Here’s a link to its conflict of interest policy, which outlines the same type of questions any writer is required to answer before being published in the journal.

I do agree with you that these questions are best left up to him, which I why I’ve cc’d him on this email. While Science Bulletin’s conflict of interest policy is comprehensive, it doesn’t specify whether it pertains to the specific submitted study or an author’s body of work. I’ve contacted them to clarify and contacted Dr. Soon and Harvard-Smithsonian to ask them about their interpretation of the policy. Those are my only intentions.

I replied:

Allow me to doubt that “clarifying” Dr Soon’s employment status and his employer’s understanding of a journal’s publication policies are your only intentions. But if on the wee small chance they are, is it your habit to investigate the employment status of every author of every science paper, or just those papers the content of which are disconsonant (in some way) with your employer’s or your views? What a dull job that would be.

But now I come to think of it, this might be a fun line of questioning. Let me try. How much money are you getting for this work? Do you feel that this money discredits the work you’re doing? Do you feel tainted by the money? Do you feel tempted, or will you, change what you write so that it more closely matches that of your employer? Have you had training as a scientist or in other ways feel competent to judge the content of science papers like ours? If not, why are you writing about this particular paper?

You’ll of course know the fallacy of the non sequitur. If not, here’s an example. A man makes a claim X. X might be true or again it might be false. A reporter says, “I don’t like that man, therefore X cannot be true. I shall write a story about this, to the cheer and admiration of my fellow journalists.” He does so, and is feted as predicted.

What a sad tale, eh?

Anyway, if you have relevant scientific, logical, climatological, meteorological, or statistical questions, I’d be glad to help. But I’ll trade answer for answer.

Not surprisingly, the dull-minded Lane did not respond. Instead, filled with notions of his own self importance and a nearly complete ignorance of how conflict-of-interest declarations work, the untutored Lane filed a report with his partisan political sheet: “Climate change skeptic accused of violating disclosure rules“.

I contacted Lane on Twitter (@SylvanLane: his visage reminds of a smugger version of Pajama Boy) to let him know what a foolish and stupid thing he had done. The coward did not respond.

Absolutely nowhere in this fictional “controversy” are any questions of science asked, addressed, or even hinted at. What is that Alinsky tactic? Teach the controversy and not the idea, or whatever? So blatant was Lane’s purpose that I hope his parents, if they haven’t been forced into hiding, are at least blushing for him.

Need I point out that it doesn’t matter if any or all of us authors were racist sexist homophobe slave trader twice-convicted con artists from Pluto, none of that, in any way, would be relevant to the points we made in “Why Models Run Hot”?

Any notion of responding to Lane’s preposterous “charges” would be giving him a victory, if you can call such callow acts “victorious.” Therefore I’ll insist that if you want to talk about the paper, talk about the paper.

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