William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

On The Severe (And Unrecognized) Limitations Of fMRI


So this 44-year-old Frenchman—let’s call him Jacques—presented for a “mild left leg weakness“. The leg bone being connected to the hip bone, etc., it was eventually discovered that Jacques’s “skull was filled largely by fluid, leaving just a thin perimeter of actual brain tissue.”

Here’s the kicker:

And yet the man was a married father of two and a civil servant with an IQ of 75, below-average in his intelligence but not mentally disabled…

While this may seem medically miraculous, it also poses a major challenge for cognitive psychologists, says Axel Cleeremans of the Université Libre de Bruxelles.

“Any theory of consciousness has to be able to explain why a person like that, who’s missing 90% of his neurons, still exhibits normal behavior,” says Cleeremans. A theory of consciousness that depends on “specific neuroanatomical features” (the physical make-up of the brain) would have trouble explaining such cases.

To say that explaining this man via current theories of the brain is a “major challenge” is like saying Bill Clinton has a “small problem” with the ladies. According to these theories, the man should be a “vegetable”. It’s always vegetable, isn’t it? I guess neurologists didn’t see the original The Thing. Skip it.

The missing matter of Jacques’s brain was noticed by Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). The MRI picture above is from the Lancet (under the bland title “Brain of a white-collar worker”).

Functional MRI is similar, except that fMRI takes pictures to discover functions of parts of the brain. That is the claim, at any rate. How do they work? People are asked to think about, say, vegetables and then squeezed into an fMRI machine, which duly takes its pictures. Loads of statistical manipulations then take place after which it will be discovered that certain areas of the brain glow statistically significantly more brightly than other areas. These glowing areas will then be declared vegetable-fantasizing areas of the brain.

But this wouldn’t work for Jacques, because poor Jacques is light in the head. Yet it’s a sure bet that Jacques knows his vegetables from his Peugeot.

Enter Kate Murphy, who wrote “Do You Believe in God, or Is That a Software Glitch?” in the New York Times (I’m guessing Murphy didn’t provide the article’s title: writers rarely do). Murphy reminds us of the “study published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences uncovered flaws in the software researchers rely on to analyze fM.R.I. data. The glitch can cause false positives — suggesting brain activity where there is none — up to 70 percent of the time.”

Murphy said, “This cued a chorus of ‘I told you so!‘ from critics who have long said fM.R.I. is nothing more than high-tech phrenology.”

No need to click on the link: I am the “I told you so.” I have long warned readers that the statistical methods behind fMRI rely on wee p-values and hypothesis tests, methods guaranteed to lead to over-certainty—as I document in nauseating detail in my new award-eligible book Uncertainty: The Soul of Modeling, Probability & Statistics. Another must-read book is Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience by Sally Satel (psychiatrist) and Scott Lilienfeld (psychologist).

About those statistical methods, Murphy rightly reminds us of the dead fish hooked to an fMRI which “found neural activity in its brain when it was shown photographs of humans in social situations.” This happens because the fMRI is not taking pictures of your brain. It is showing you statistical models based on estimates of which might be happening in your brain.

Other statistical problems in analyzing fM.R.I. data have been pointed out. But these kinds of finger-wagging methodological critiques aren’t easily published, much less funded. And on the rare occasions they do make it into journals, they don’t grab headlines as much as studies that show you what your brain looks like when you believe in God.

…The fM.R.I. errors added fuel to what many are calling a reproducibility crisis.

“People feel they are giving up a competitive advantage” if they share data and detail their analyses, said Jean-Baptiste Poline, senior research scientist at the University of California, Berkeley’s Brain Imaging Center…

There is also resistance because, of course, nobody likes to be proved wrong. Witness the blowback against those who ventured to point out irregularities in psychology research, dismissed by some as the “replication police” and “shameless little bullies.”

For the record, I am a often-shame-filled big bully.

MRIs are not useless. After all, they can show us nearly empty skulls à la Jacques. Shrapnel and other miscellaneous objects also show up nicely. But for telling the difference in brains between rational theists and ultimately irrational atheists? Nuh-uh.

Uncertainty Reviewed In The New Criterion


“William Briggs, the civilized world’s most amusing statistician.”

Roger Kimball, author of The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia, The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art, Future Tense: The Lessons of Culture in an Age of Upheaval, the classic Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education, and half a dozen more including editor of volumes of David Stove’s work Against the Idols of the Age,
Darwinian Fairytales: Selfish Genes, Errors of Heredity and Other Fables of Evolution, publisher of Encounter Books, which puts a stream of must-haves, including Stove’s What’s Wrong with Benevolence: Happiness, Private Property, and the Limits of Enlightenment and Schoen’s Putin’s Master Plan: To Destroy Europe, Divide NATO, and Restore Russian Power and Global Influence, and scores of others, editor of The New Criterion, the preeminent journal of the arts, and a man who knows how to dress well, very kindly reviewed my book Uncertainty: The Soul of Modeling, Probability & Statistics at the New Criterion. Read the review there. Or here:

Nonfiction: Uncertainty: The Soul of Modeling, Probability & Statistics, by William Briggs (Springer Publishing): I know it’s the end of August and your preferred reading is something light. But I would be remiss if I did not bring to the attention of any hard-headed truth seekers out there—for whom exerting the cerebellum, even in August, is not an untoward occupation—a new book by William Briggs, the civilized world’s most amusing statistician. I know what you’re thinking: “statistician” and “amusing” do not belong in the same sentence, or, at least, that they cannot refer to the same man. (Disraeli’s comment about “lies, damned lies, and statistics” shows that the subject, anyway, can admit of some humor.) But do not take my word for it: nab a copy of Briggs’s latest, Uncertainty: The Soul of Modeling, Probability & Statistics. It’s not for sissies, true, but its clear-headed (i.e., Aristotelian) approach to the subject of truth (which, in the end, is what exercises in probability and statistical analysis are all about, notwithstanding what they tell you in school) is refreshing: a long, cool drink of plain speaking about intellectual topics that, in these hot and humid days, is as enlivening as it is enlightening. One sadness that can be remedied in later reprintings: the index refers to a “Stove, S.” It is “Stove, D.,” as in “David Charles Stove,” the Australian philosopher, a patent and healthy influence on this book, who is meant. –RK

So you can see my enemies managed to slip in a typo of Stove’s name. My enemies are relentless buggers, the creatures. I’ve already alerted the production side about the mistake. And I’m sure it will not only be fixed in reprintings, but in the Second Edition.

In any case, listen to what Kimball says: buy the book today!

Summary Against Modern Thought: Our Intellects Are Not Material

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.

Our intellects are not material, i.e not bodies. The proof of this is this week. The enormous consequences of this amazing fact have to wait until later.

Chapter 49 The the intellectual substance is not a body(alternate translation)

1 FROM the foregoing it is shown that no intellectual substance is a body.

2 For no body is found to contain anything except by quantitative commensuration: wherefore also if a thing contain a whole thing in the whole of itself, each part will contain a part, the greater part a greater part, and the lesser part a lesser part. But an intellect does not contain a thing understood by quantitative commensuration: because by its whole self it understands and comprehends both whole and part, things both great and small in quantity. Therefore no intelligent substance is a body.

Notes You can’t chop your intellect into pieces. Your arms, legs, nerves, and, yes, your brain, but not your intellect.

3 Moreover. No body can receive the substantial form of another body, unless it lose its own form by corruption. But an intellect is not corrupted, but rather is it perfected by receiving the forms of all bodies; since it is perfected by understanding, and understands by having in itself the forms of things understood. Therefore no intellectual substance is a body.

Notes Forms, don’t forget, are not material. For instance, there is no material form “as tray” in a clay ash tray, but there is clay.

4 Further. The principle of distinction between individuals of the same species is the division of matter in respect of quantity: because the form of this fire differs not from the form of that fire, except by the fact of its being in different parts into which matter is divided; nor is this otherwise than by division of quantity, without which substance is indivisible. Now that which is received into a body, is received into it according to quantitative division. Therefore a form is not received into a body, except as individualized. If, therefore, an intellect were a body, the intelligible forms of things would not be received into it except as individualized. But the intellect understands things by their forms which it has at its disposal. Consequently the intellect would not understand universals but only particulars. Now this is clearly false. Therefore no intellect is a body.

Notes Thus, contra some science fiction stories I vaguely remember, you can’t eat somebody’s brain and assimilate their intellect.

5 Again. Nothing acts except in accordance with its species, because the form is the principle of action in everything. If, therefore, an intellect be a body, its action will not transcend the order of bodies. Wherefore it would understand nothing but bodies. Now this is clearly false: since we understand many things that are not bodies. Therefore the intellect is not a body.

Notes Question: What’s 1/0? Answer: Not a body. (Joke.)

6 Again. If an intelligent substance is a body, it is either finite or infinite. Now, it is impossible for a body to be infinite actually, as is proved in the Physics. Therefore it is a finite body, if we suppose it to be a body at all. But this is impossible, since in no body can there be infinite power, as we have proved above. Now the power of the intellect in understanding is in a manner infinite, for by adding it understands species of numbers to infinitude, and likewise species of figures and proportions. Moreover it knows the universal, which is virtually infinite in its compass, since it contains individuals which are potentially infinite. Therefore the intellect is not a body.

Notes How can we know that 1, 2, 3, … goes to infinity? How can we know that (my old saw) that for natural numbers x and y, that if x = y then y = x for x, y = 1, 2, 3, …? How can we grasp any infinite concept? This is what induction is about. This is wonderful subject, to be explored later. For now, it is enough to concede our intellects somehow operate in an infinite manner.

7 Moreover. It is impossible for two bodies to contain one another, since the container exceeds the contained. Yet two intellects contain and comprehend one another, when one understands the other. Therefore the intellect is not a body.

8 Again. No body’s action reflects on the agent: for it is proved in the Physics, that no body is moved by itself except in respect of a part, so that, namely, one of its parts be mover and the other moved. Now the intellect by its action reflects on itself, for it understands itself not only as to a part, but as to the whole. Therefore it is not a body.

Notes Ain’t those last two arguments pretty, as Captain Aubrey would say?

9 Again. A body’s action is not the object of that body’s action, nor is its movement the object of its movement, as proved in the Physics. But the action of the intellect is the object of its action: for just as the intellect understands a thing, so does it understand that it understands, and so on indefinitely. Therefore an intellectual substance is not a body.

10 Hence it is that Holy Writ calls intellectual substances spirits: in which way it is wont to name God Who is incorporeal, according to Jo. iv. 24, God is a spirit. And it is said (Wis. vii. 22, 23): For in her, namely Divine Wisdom, is the spirit of understanding,…containing all intelligible spirits.

11 Hereby is excluded the error of the early natural philosophers, who held that there was none but corporeal substance: wherefore they said that even the soul is a body, either fire, air, or water, or something of the kind. Which opinion some have endeavoured to introduce into the Christian faith, by saying that the soul is the effigy of a body, like a body outwardly imitated.

Notes It’s not only the early natural philosophers who make this error, many modern-day natural philosophers, i.e. scientists, make it, too. Hence we see experiments where a live body is weighed and weighed again after death to determine the weight or mass of the soul. Or we see others, usually on television, where researchers look for “energy patterns” of the soul. And so on.

Reader Query & Assist Request: Health Data In India


Busy Saturday, so a plea from reader Aman Rastogi:


I am a student from Lucknow University, INDIA, pursuing my Masters in Public Health there.

Few days back I have watched two of your videos on youtube about statistical fallacies and crisis of evidence in public health and it has changed my perception of viewing the collected data, thank you for that.

In those videos you were saying that without observing each and every individual we cannot come on a correct conclusion about the causation or even the association of the problem with the disease because it may give a lot of statistical junk that we would believe.

So, what would you prefer for a country like INDIA where even the data collection is a big problem because of so many reasons like the weak health information system, low salaries and huge population covering burden on the local data collector, a not much interest of people itself, etc. here are so many uncountable problems to face for a health professional. So, what can be a one solution to counter this problem and engaging all of the needed population with a reliable statistical data.

Because the data suffers here when it goes from one level to another as either professionals don’t want them to be reported or some other reason. And the policy makers get a very manipulated data that arises the big problem. Because at first the data was not collected with keen observation and then it got manipulated.

Even the big shot organizations at state level or organization like UNICEF have to rely on the collected data, whatever it is, and then they make up the policy for it.

So please give me some sort of solution to counter this problem or please publish the solution in one of your paper or book ASAP.

I put this up for reader discussion since I know little about Indian health care and almost nothing about how the Indian government collects data.

But I do know about “anecdotal” data, which has been given a bad name. “Observational” or “anecdotal” data have different senses. The first are the daily living “data” that comes to us unbidden via regular experience, “data” which is responsible for tradition, commonsense, stereotypes, street knowledge, and so on. This is usually great data, and there is little wrong with the judgments we make using it.

Nobody bats 1.000, of course. For instance, Steven Goldberg in When Wish Replaces Thought and Fads and Fallacies in the Social Sciences shows us that our stereotypes are usually correct in their form. But they aren’t always right in their theory, i.e. what caused the stereotypes to be true.

The second sense is what we usually think of as observational data, collected ad hoc, say, from health ministries, and not gathered from controlled experiment. I use control in the same sense an engineer or physicist does, actual material control of a thing, and not in the statistical sense, which isn’t control at all but a way of seeing how uncertainty might change as a thing changes. That people mix these uses up accounts for much over-certainty.

Anyway, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with this second sense of observational data, except that it’s far, far too often input into statistical routines which guarantee over-certainty, like hypothesis testing and parameter estimation. People will claim causation has been found merely because they were able to quantify the analysis of observational data. Quantification is seen universally as superior to the conclusions reached by observational data of the first kind, when usually the reverse is true. This is because observational data of the second kind is often of a much more limited nature than the first kind, which reflects the broad experience of many.

Now WHO is one of those organizations, like all modern bureaucracies, that insist on quantification. This insistence is why so much is wrongheaded in government, because the insistence drives over-certainty. And the same would hold for true with the Indian medical system if it were to embrace rapid data collection. Again, it’s not that collecting data is bad per se, but that it’s collected for the sake of collection and then quantified because that’s what turns it into Science™ is a problem.

Therefore, it would be best to advocate discussions of elders, those who have had the longest experience in medicine as she is actually practiced.

Obviously there is much more that can be said, but you get the idea, I hope.

« Older posts

© 2016 William M. Briggs

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑