William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism


The tile of today’s post is the same as the new book by the National Association of Scholar’s Rachelle Peterson and Peter Wood, released yesterday and which can be downloaded by all and one. I’ll later review that book, but today a report on the NAS’s conference on the same topic held in the darkening shadow of the United Nations Tuesday. Your Roving Reporter was there.

Peter Wood is also President of the NAS and was master of ceremonies. Woods forte is the joke most subtle. He said the fight against rising ocean levels was foreseen by Hamlet (“…to take arms against a sea of troubles…”).

Anyway, Wood said the sustainability movement got started when college presidents were lured into signing the President’s Climate Commitment, a device which elites use to signal to other elites their devotion to all things progressive. This document is usually signed by college leaders in absence of any meddling from actual professors, who might damper ardors, particularly on matters scientific.

The American Enterprise Institute was represented by their boss, Arthur Brooks, who reminded us of Bach’s answer to the question “Why do you do write music?”. Bach said, “For the glory of God and the good of mankind.” Brooks also rightly said that since around 1970 the percent of folks living in abject, starvation-level poverty has declined by some 80% because of capitalism and adherence the rule of law. Yet, strangely, both principles are under attack.

His advice to fight the rising tide of progressivism was not to fight against things, but to fight for people. It was his opinion, shared by most of the room, that the Republicans never lost their minority mindset. That’s partly true, but it’s better to say that Republicans are the party of slightly smaller government.

Herb London, Chairman of the NAS, railed against sustainability’s “censorious passion”, its insistence on “ideological conformity”. He said that at one time (only the oldest of old timers will remember this) colleges sought to study Western culture, but that now their “purpose is to repudiate” that culture. This accounts for the “soft totalitarianism” found at colleges, strengthened by the “practice of consensus, which is really the avoidance of confrontation.”

He mentioned some universities have banned trays in student cafeterias or have otherwise annoyed them with other trivial save-the-earth actions. Why? To make students pay a “psychological sustainability tax.” Nudging students, the favorite buzz phrase, is thought superior to old-fashioned indoctrination.

Sp!ked magazine was there. Have you never see it? I recommend their Frank Furedi. Editor Neil Ross spoke. He said the magazine believes “Western Enlightenment ideals are worth standing up for.” Perhaps they are, but it’s those ideals that have caused (or are) progressivism, so it’s not clear what standing up for them would do.

Ross was also against nudging: “Leave students to make their own decisions.” Also good, to an extent. Students making their own decisions in ignorance, say in picking what to study, has not led to improvements in universities. Yet Ross was spot on when he said that those who would nudge think they can perfect the species through science. This is scientism.

Finally, the star of the show, because she was the main author, Rachelle Peterson. She emphasized “sustainability” had two meanings: “wise maintenance of a grand inheritance” or “desperate survival [in the face of looming apocalypse]”. Guess which ones colleges have chosen?

She said the endless elbows in the ribs policies were designed to produce “socially optimal behavior”. Colleges now have “eco reps” who have the job of “shaming students” into doing what elites want them to. That raging “eco-morality” produces inconvenience nobody disputes. But what’s less understood is that inconveniences are a “primary goal”. “Deprivation” is seen as a good.

Why? Sustainability, as has often been noticed, is a religion. It has, Peterson said, “abstention, fasts, purity rituals designed to cleanse guilt and to improve mortal rectitude.”

Through the so-called precautionary principle, which she called an “eco-themed Pascal’s wager”, the religion demands that we “minimize risks at all costs”. But this always and necessarily leads to “regulating or eliminating.”

I asked Peterson what were the main drivers of sustainability. Besides those mentioned, she thought identification with progressive social goals was the strongest incentive. This seems true because throwing a scientific fact, more matter how solid or how forcefully hurled, against an sustainability activist never leaves a mark. Good science bounces right off of them.


Global Warming Is Anti-Science

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori  says the earth has "rights".

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori says the earth has “rights”. Image source.

It is not anti-science to say that humans influence the climate, because, of course, humans, and every other species on the planet, influences the climate. At the least, humans move through the atmosphere, which influences it and hence the climate. Only a science denier would deny this.

It is an semi-open question how much humans, and each other species, influences the climate. What is not an open question, indeed it is a question as closed as can be, that the global-warming-of-doom promised by organizations like the IPCC has failed to materialize in the ways these groups have promised. Only science deniers deny this.

We know the IPCC (and etc.) is wrong because the warming they have swore would happen did not happen. We know that the models on which the IPCC relies did not perform these past two decades as well as a simple “model” stating that next year will be like this year. Climate models have no skill.

Only a science denier would deny this.

So what do we make of the New York Times, Natural Resources Defense Council, FEMA, the Episcopalian Church? These organizations deny science. And not only that, they would have everybody else deny them too.

The New York Time’s Justin Gillis, who is, as regular readers know, unteachable on this subject, is a True Believer. He said recently, “It is a lie to say that global warming poses no danger”.

A lie.

He must know the scientific fact that climate models have no skill, and therefore should not be used and cannot be trusted. Yet he says to acknowledge this scientific fact is a lie.

A lie. Fighting words.

FEMA has bruited a plan “making it tougher for governors to deny man-made climate change.” Says the report, “the agency will approve disaster-preparedness funds only for states whose governors approve hazard-mitigation plans that address climate change.”

No pinch of incense in the fire, no federal support. Which many would say—I say—is a good thing. Anything that restrains the reach and power of Leviathan is to be encouraged. But that is a political argument, and not a scientific one. Yet FEMA, which should know the science, which must know the science, must deny that science, is denying the science, to make their own, opposite political argument. So for them, at least, global warming is politics.

In the same report, one Becky Hammer, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an activist organization, said, “If a state has a climate denier governor that doesn’t want to accept a plan, that would risk mitigation work not getting done because of politics”.

Since the science is clear, and settled, that the IPCC models have no skill, it can only be that the phrase “climate denier” means “one who won’t play along”, or something similar. This necessarily follows, because knowing that IPCC models have no skill is not consonant with believing in a climate of doom. Why? Because there is no evidence for the climate of doom except through these models, and we have proved the models have no skill.

Once again, proof that global warming is politics—at least for the NRDC.

Earlier this week, Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church (yes, they still exist), said, “people who reject climate science are turning their backs on one of God’s most generous gifts: knowledge.”

She said, “Episcopalians understand the life of the mind is a gift of God and to deny the best of current knowledge is not using the gifts God has given you”. And she said, global warming was a “moral issue, in terms of the impacts on the poorest and most vulnerable around the world already.” Finally, she said the earth had “rights.”

It is through God’s gift of knowledge we know the IPCC models have no skill and should not be trusted. Yet Schori, herself once a scientist, denies that science, turns her back on it, even. Why? The clue is in her quip, “World Ends: The Poor Disproportionately Effected.” In other words, for Schori, global warming is politics.

Since the science that bad theories make for bad forecasts is settled and, indeed, basic, it should be known by every working scientist. Why don’t those scientists then admit this? Why aren’t they taking people like Gillis, Hammer, and Schori to task publicly when they say false and unscientific things?

Could it be that global warming is political even for scientists?


A Probability Non-Paradox


Before you is a box in which is a slip of paper on which is written either ‘0’, ‘1’, ‘2’, or ‘3’. Given that premise, what is the probability of X = “‘3′ is written”?

Right: it’s 1/4.

Notice, incidentally, the probability does not tell us how that number came to be written on the paper, nor why the paper is there, nor how you will “draw” the paper from the box, information which is any case is irrelevant. All that we deduce from the premise is that writing exists and you are partially but not wholly ignorant of what it is.

Different set up. In a new box (or even the same!) are three marbles, each either white or black. Given that premise, what is the probability of X = “The number of white marbles is 0 (or 1, or 2, or 3)”? First note that we deduce there may be no white marbles, or no black ones, or any combination of the two, as long as there are 3 in total.

The probability may not be as obvious, and indeed the formal mathematical proof begins with the hypergeometric “distribution”, noting the logical equivalence of constants, and carrying all this forward. You can take my word—or Laplace’s, a more eminent authority, and the man who first derived it—that the calculations produce a probability of 1/4 for 0 white marbles (and 1/4 for each of 1, 2, or 3), which might be in line with your intuition, as suggested by the first example.

Again notice that there isn’t any word about “drawing” the marbles out, how the marbles got their color, or anything else to do with causes. Though some thing or things must have caused the color and number of the marbles, but we know it not.

A third set up. In a new new box are three marbles, each either white or black, and we’re going to draw out three of them. Given that premise, what is the probability of X = “The number of white marbles is 0 (or 1, or 2, or 3)”?

Let’s enumerate. Given this premise, we could see any of the following sequences, and number of white marbles:

  1. W1W2W3, 3
  2. W1W2B3, 2
  3. W1B2W3, 2
  4. B1W2W3, 2
  5. W1B2B3, 1
  6. B1W2B3, 1
  7. B1B2W3, 1
  8. B1B2B3, 0

This indicates the probability (given the premises) of 0 whites is 1/8, of 1 white is 3/8, of 2 whites is 3/8, and of 3 whites is 1/8.

Something has changed. The second example, conditional on very similar premises to the third, gave a probability of 1/4 for each possibility, while the third example gives varying answers. What gives? “Paradox!” answer some. Howson and Urbach, in their influential Scientific Reasoning: The Bayesian Approach, argue from the apparent paradox to a justification of subjective probability (p. 59-62 in the second edition; pdf first edition). Besides being wrong, this is defeatist. “We don’t know what the probability should be so we can make up whatever feels best” can scarcely be a satisfactory answer. (Though it is to all “subjective Bayesians”.)

Still, it’s odd. Similar premises give completely different answers. To see what’s happening, let’s change the premise in the first example so that the slip of paper has the marking “W1W2W3“, or the marking “W1W2B3“, or, etc. Given that premise, what is the probability of the marking “B1W2B3“? Easy: 1/8—and it’s the same for any marking. The probability would also be 1/8 were the premise that the paper had the marking ‘1’, ‘2’, etc., ‘8’.

So what makes writing the labels 0 through 3 the same (in probability) as “In a new box are three marbles, each either white or black”? And why are they dissimilar to “In a new new box are three marbles, each either white or black, and we’re going to draw out three of them”?

Cause; rather, our knowledge of causes. All we require of the markings in the first example is that they be distinct. All? Well, not quite all. We also require that the label, whatever it is, be written in advance, by some (unknown, unspecified) cause. That cause fixes the labels or balls in advance. Our knowledge of cause in these cases is extremely limited: we only know that a cause, or causes, must have been present, and we know the outcome.

But there is no way to think of drawing out marbles without envisioning some kind of drawing-out cause. If you are practiced at simulation, this will make sense—and all of us are practiced at simulation. Think coin flips. There is no way to imagine, or rather to manufacture, a string of three flips, or three anythings with dichotomous outcomes, that does not make reference to physical causes.

Our understanding of causes in the two situations is a real, and huge, difference. At least for the very small. Once we get going and start taking observations, (it can be shown) the two views “collapse” to the same, especially for “large N” (many observations).

This is not the only system in which the measurement process dramatically changes our perspective, as the not inapt comparison to quantum mechanics reveals. Anything-we-know-not-what could have fixed the labels/constituents of the box, whereas not just any old thing could make a string of white/black (0/1, etc.) to emerge from a box. Far from being a paradox, the differences in probabilities highlight the importance of measurement and the knowledge which comes with it.

Conclusion? There is no problem with logical probability, a.k.a. probability as argument.


Science Officially Runs Out Of Things To Study

Belly up to the pasta bar.

Belly up to the pasta bar.

The headline in the peer-reviewed Physiology & Behavior paper by Soojin Park and Weon-Sun Shin says it all: “Differences in eating behaviors and masticatory performances by gender and obesity status“.

If that doesn’t convince you, then the official Highlights from this work must:

  • Men have significantly different chewing performances compared with women.
  • Eating behaviors are significantly different by obesity status.
  • Eating behaviors were differently associated with chewing performances by gender.
  • Gender-based chewing modulation could be promising behavioral treatments against obesity.

No more proof is needed. Science has officially run out of legitimate things to study.

Now our authors, from the Department of Oriental Medical Food and Nutrition, Semyung University, South Korea, are undoubtedly fine people, kind to strangers and animals, and who call their mothers at least weekly. Both are surely possessed of keen intelligence and are hard workers. And while they are the authors of this curious paper, that they had to write it was not their fault.

That means our authors had to gather 48 folks together and gauge their “chewing performance while eating 152 g of boiled rice…using electromyography”. It’s why they had to write “Compared with non-obese participants, pre-obese participants had significantly higher levels of disinhibition”.

They were forced to tell us “Males had a greater bite size” and that “obesity on eating responses may be explained as chewing performance.” External forces insisted that all this—and much, much more—was “proved” by wee p-values.

This is what Science must be: it is designed to work this way. Park and Shin were only following the rules and deserve nothing but praise for their assiduous attention to form.

But—and there had to be a but—it’s absurd for all that. The problem is twofold: scientism and enforced optimism, a.k.a. progressivism, a.k.a. Whiggism.

Scientism insists that the only knowledge worth having, the only knowledge possible, even, is scientific; and for knowledge to be scientific it must be measurable, quantifiable. This is why saying, “Fat people eat more than skinny” isn’t scientific. It hasn’t been quantified; it’s intolerably unspecific. Scientism is responsible for headlines like, “Researchers Confirm Fat People Eat More Than Skinny.”

Confirm? How could such an ancient, commonplace truth that fat people weigh more than thin be confirmed? Because Official Science (™) has finally measured it. Turns out Science never put calipers to lips and counted the number of bites the “pre-obese” take. (Science had previously defined, quantitatively, pre-obese.)

Once the number of bites have been counted—using electromyography or by some other device which requires calibration and scientific supervision—it becomes real. Before that it is only unworthy “folk wisdom” and unreliable. Numbers are serious. They are found in courtrooms and lawsuits and news reports. And scientific papers.

But why count bites? Because of the dreadful enforced “originality” which starts with Masters degrees, and only grows worse with doctorates and the race for tenure.

Anybody who has even a passing familiarity with history knows how rare originality is (taken in its plain English and not educationist sense), how brutal a battle it is (with the world) to be truly innovative. It’s true that in some fields, when they’re new and like a young bride, produce great flurries of fecundity (you heard me: flurries of fecundity). But it’s just as true that maturity brings, well, a certain slowing down.

Or should. But Science demands offspring. It is inconceivable for a scientist, or his bosses hungry for child support payments (as it were), to admit that there is nothing much left worth studying in Chewingology. Grants must be submitted, papers must be written, and a fairly fast rate.

Because scientists are required to do research, even when there is nothing to research, they research. And they have to write papers about that research, and because of that, journals to hold the tepid creations of research proliferate faster than Congressional subcommittees. There are now thousands, hundreds per field.

There is no solution. We have nothing ahead of us but acres of print saying things like this:

A small portion of boiled rice (Oriza sativa L., 152 g), a staple food for participants, was prepared as the test food. The boiled rice (Cheiljedang, Seoul, Korea) was purchased from a supermarket in Jecheon, and was heated for 2 min in the microwave as per the manufacturer’s instructions. It was served with 200 ml of water. The cooked rice (152 g) had an available carbohydrate equivalent of 50 g.

And, as always, more research is needed.


Thanks to reader Gary Boden for alerting us to this study.

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