William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Page 148 of 425

Best statistical advice: Do not read “5-star” reviews, glowing recommendations, or positive plugs. Go straight to the sourpusses, the rants, and the ravings. If you already want the thing, the thumbs ups tell you what you already believe, but the thumbs downs tell you something new. Plus, the positives are often fakes, frauds, or fleshed-out flimflam filed by PR flacks.

Should Humanity Take Religion on Interstellar Space Voyages?

In case you thought it was only theologians who debated strange questions like how many angels could dance on the head of a pin1 (ouch), today we have a group of sober (hic) scientists arguing over how many cherubim should waltz inside a space capsule. Consensus: none.

Not just scientists, no. Celebrities—I cross myself—too. Yes, and artists and even a few “religious leaders”, all of whom met at the “second annual 100 Year Starship Symposium“, a fête funded by DARPA (hence you) “to ponder the technology, psychology, sociology, and economics of interstellar spaceflight”, and to debate on whether and how to freeze dry seraphim for the long journey.

Given the utterly insane, unimaginable distances between the stars—go ahead, try and imagine them—and the technology to reach them equivalent to a leaky bicycle tube strapped to the ankle of a blind, broken-legged, ninety-year-old swimmer trying to circumnavigate the globe, the question whether to “take religion on an interstellar voyage” is not especially pressing. But as befits queries whose answers matter not the least to anybody, flags were planted, positions were staked, tempers flared.

For example (according to Live Science, from where I lifted the title):

“The only way humanity can survive is if they leave behind the Earth-based religions,” charged Rev. Alvin Carpenter, pastor at First Southern Baptist Church West Sacramento. “If there’s any way to make this fail, bring Earth-bound religions.”

Wait a second. Reverend? Baptist? Must be a typo. Nope. “When you bring religion on a starship, you bring the toxicity that we have seen on Earth…This is something that we do not wish to export to the stars.” Religions, he said, echoing one of the Enlightenment’s most endearing myths, “breed aggression and conflict.” The reverend must enjoy repeating the punchline “A good start!” to that old Twentieth Century state-sponsored joke, “What do you call a body count of 100 million?”

Hang on. This is Reverend Carpenter, isn’t it? Living in that puntastic city Sacramento?

Incidentally, how long before the American Atheists sue to have them, and cities like Saint Anthony (San Antonio), change their name? Never mind.

Taking counterpoint to the good rev. was Jason Batt, group life director at Capital Christian Center, also from the city of the Blessed Sacrament, who said, “I’m not going to lie,” which is good news indeed, “we’ve got a horrible history,” which isn’t so good. Neither was this: “There is a nastiness around religion.” Batt used the strategy of constructive retreat, popular with many Christians, so that his opponent’s guard would be down as he slipped him the knife: “But I would argue that might be part of humanity in general.” Touché!

The real story is of course this curious, inaptly named Carpenter, who on his website said, “I challenge anyone to make a case that religion should be introduced to a multigenerations interstellar starship.” If he really is a Southern Baptist—which isn’t clear: not much info on his purported church—his stance may hint at what is happening to this once stalwart denomination.

He said, “I have pastored for 40 years and there is nothing I have done that could have not been done by an atheist.” I believe him. And that is true, or near enough, as we have seen, of preachers in many mainline Protestant congregations.

Carpenter’s views are probably outré to most Southern Baptists, or at least I hope they are (“[religions] all seek to expand by some form of coercion”, “why would God impose any moral code?”, etc. ). We must wonder, however, how DARPA pegged him as an expert of religion in space. Yours Truly never gets invited to serve on these kind of panels, even though he is as opinionated as Carpenter (he also has the advantage of being right, bearing in mind that nobody bats 1.000).

Nevertheless, the good Reverend has issued an official Challenge. Can we answer him? Can anybody provide good arguments that religion be taken into space? Can we discover scenarios where it would be positive rather than a negative? Or should we instead recommend to him some decaffeinated brands “which are just as tasty as the real thing?”


1A debate which never happened but was alleged to by those unable to follow theological arguments beyond minimal complexity.

Update Correction made as per Alvin Carpenter. Thanks!

Aristotle On Non-Contradiction: Why UN Chief Ban Ki Moon’s Views On Free Speech Are Invalid

The simplest version The Philosopher gave is this:

It is impossible to hold the same thing to be and not to be.

If something is a “Quantum Superposition” it cannot also simultaneously be “Not a Quantum Superposition”. If something is a “House” it cannot also simultaneously be “Not a House.” That is to say, somebody cannot think that a thing is a “Quantum Superposition” or “House” and also think simultaneously that is it “Not a Quantum Superposition” or “Not a House.” Somebody may certainly claim to hold both beliefs simultaneously, but they are either confused about the word simultaneously, or they are lying or switching between beliefs temporally. It is plausible, or at least intelligible, to say that at this instant I think “House” and at the next instant I think “Not a House“, and that I may oscillate between these views, but I may not hold both at the same time.

Another example: UN chief Ban Ki Moon said yesterday, “Freedoms of expression should be and must be guaranteed and protected,” but then he also said, “When some people use this freedom of expression to provoke or humiliate some others’ values and beliefs, then this cannot be protected in such a way.” So he is either deluded (or thinks his audience is), or he is lying or he changed his mind and settled on the position that speech should be regulated by the UN. Time will tell.

Dispute this? Then forget all of mathematics for a start, which depends fundamentally on this principle. Aristotle goes on to say (Metaphysics Book 4, Article 4):

There are some people who, as we have said, both maintain that the same thing can be and not be and say that it is possible to hold this view. This is the view of many who study nature. We have assumed here that it is impossible for the same thing to be and not to be at the same time, and on the basis of this we have shown that of all principles this is the least open to question.

But this principle is one which is not provable: it is one that just is true, or we believe is true, based on no evidence except our introspection.

Some people, through their lack of education, expect this principle, too, to be proved; for it does show a lack of education not to know of what things we ought to seek proof and of what we ought not.

Note to moderns: this is not an ad hominem, but an observation. Here is the kicker:

For it is altogether impossible for there to be proofs of everything; if there were, one would go on to infinity, so that even so one would end up without a proof; and if there are some things of which one should not seek proof, these people cannot name any first principle which has that characteristic more than this.

If you don’t have a ground, then down you must go and forever, as each turtle supports the weight of those above it. You will never have anything to say that anybody should ever believe, and this by your own admission. Every valid argument, on the other hand, is a chain, anchored to a immovable base of truth.

Now, if you are one of the Moons of the world and believe (based on what principle?) the law of non-contradiction false, but do not wish to defend this view, then Aristotle says you are “no better than a vegetable” and shame on you. But if you do try a defense, then Aristotle asks you to “say something that has meaning both for [yourself] and for someone else. For this [you] must do if [you are] to say anything at all.” But in doing this while you are “trying to do away with reason, [you are] also accepting it.” And obviously, if you say Non-contradiction is false, you have “conceded that something is true quite independently of the process of proof.”

Aristotle then goes on to destroy the not-non-contradiction position, adding in the end that

if all contradictory assertions made about the same thing are true [a necessary implication is non-contradiction is false], all things will clearly be one. A trireme, a wall, and a man will all be the same thing, if it is possible to assert or to deny anything of everything…For if anyone thinks that man is not a trireme, according to their theory he clearly is not one; but in this case he also will be a trireme, if the contradictory statement is true.

There is of course more, much more. Best to go to the original.

What Do Philosophical Proofs Prove? — Guest Post by DAV

Note about civility: we are all, or should be, ladies and gentlemen here. Non-gentlemanly comments will henceforth be censored. Arguments, however, are more than welcome. —Briggs

There have been some recent posts which I believe have reached unwarranted conclusions.

First though, space is short here so I must resort to shortcuts. I don’t wish to get into arguments over definitions. It’s the concepts and not the words used to describe them that is important. The following are provided to move the discussion along:

  • Reality: that outside of ourselves. If you are inclined to believe reality is only in your mind then posting arguments here seems to put you in the curious position of convincing yourself to come around to your own point of view. Sounds like a family fight which should remain private. Concepts are real in the sense that they can exist in other minds as well as our own. However, I will limit real to mean outside of our collective minds.
  • Proof: Suffice it that, here, I mainly use the word to mean existing in reality.
  • Validity: proof of reality.

Let’s consider mathematical proofs. Theorems are proved in math through logical deduction. That is, they are shown to be logically true and can be traced back to the starting assumptions (axioms). Mathematical theorems exist only in the framework of mathematics. They can be used as simplifications in other problems by analogy. This doesn’t mean they exist in reality. Confusing these simplifications with reality can lead to problems such as over-confidence.

The scientific method sidesteps the concept of proof in the mathematical sense. This doesn’t mean science doesn’t employ logical deduction. Scientific results are not logical deductions. Science relies on consistency with observations: information that comes to us from outside of ourselves. Observations are generally taken as fact. In science, the only thing that can be proven with certainty is inconsistency with observations. Theories that fail to predict future results are in need of modification and are rejected as is. Science provides ideas which are testable, that is, verifiable against observation. In short, science comes up with ideas that seem to work and, whenever possible, eliminates those that don’t.

But, you might ask, what about theories that can neither be proven nor disproven to exist in reality? There are a number of these — the Theories of Everything, for example. Presumably, their status is temporary and hopefully they can be tested in the future. Until then, their validity remains an open question.

There are those theories that seem to be forever excluded from testing for validity, for example, the existence or non-existence of God. It’s been mentioned that God cannot be sensed. This precludes using any observation to test whether theism should be preferred over atheism.

Lately, we have seen claims that God has been “proven”. Well, in the logical deduction sense, yes indeed.

Logical consistency is expected for otherwise it would constitute disproof. I’m fairly certain atheism is also logically consistent given its assumptions. If not then why hasn’t its disproof been widely circulated?

The deductive proof is insufficient when it comes to the question: is it real? It accomplished nothing beyond non-elimination toward a validity test. In the common person’s mind, “proved the existence of God” means “proved God is real.” In this case, at least, the deductive proof is the analog of p-value. It provides a misleading answer.

Has God been “proven” by logical argument? My take: in the sense of “shown to be real”, not at all — to claim otherwise is unwarranted. At best what can be said is that the concept of God is not illogical. On the other hand, the concept of no God is not illogical either.


As always, reasonably and well written guest editorials are welcome.

NASA Faked Moon Landing—Academic Psychologists Swoon, Tie It To Climate Change

One day a terrific psychological study is going to be written on the madness and mass lunacy which arose after climate change swam into the public’s ken. I don’t mean the actions and thoughts of the man-in-the-street, which were and are no different in this area than they were and are in any political matterhe . No: the real curiosity is what happened to academia, inside departments which haven’t anything to do with climatology.

There, surrounded by people eager to agree with each other and fueled by infinite estimates of their own intelligence, great hoards of degreed non-experts, people who couldn’t derive the Omega equation if you threatened to remove their tenure and who think Vorticity is a town in Spain, lectured all of mankind on why The End Was Near, Unless…

Unless they, the non-experts, were hearkened to, esteemed, feted, moneyed, and just plain listened to, dammit.

The cornerstone of this future pathological report may well be the peer-reviewed Psychological Science paper “NASA faked the moon landing—Therefore (Climate) Science is a Hoax: An Anatomy of the Motivated Rejection of Science” by Stephan Lewandowsky, Klaus Oberauer, and Gilles Gignac, perhaps the completest, most representative work of its odd era.

Everything that could have been done wrong, was done wrong. Every bias that could have been manifested, was manifested. Every fallacy pertinent to the matter at hand was made. The conclusions, regurgitated from unnecessarily complicated statistical procedures, did not follow from the evidence gathered, which itself was suspect. In its way, then, the paper is a jewel, a gift to the future, a fundamental text to how easy it is to fool oneself.

Consider that its errors are not far to seek1. Take the opening sentence: “Although nearly all domain experts agree that human CO2 emissions are altering the world’s climate, segments of the public remain unconvinced by the scientific evidence.” Isn’t that gorgeous? I count at least seven mistakes, and we are only at the very beginning!

  • Mistake 1: Lewandowsky is not a domain expert, and by his argument is not qualified to speak on matters climatic, yet speak he does.
  • Mistake 2: His opinion about how to consider the science of climate change is therefore no more valuable than any other non-domain expert’s (about the physics), but he considers by this act of publishing that it is.
  • Mistake 3: He conflates voting with truth. His fallacy is to suppose that because the majority of domain experts say X, X is therefore true.
  • Mistake 4: He conflates numbers with weight of evidence. His fallacy is to suppose the minority of domain experts who do not agree with the majority are not to be listened to because they are only a minority.
  • Mistake 5: He confuses physics with economics, a vulgar but common error. It may be true that, say, temperatures will rise by 0.5o C in the next five decades, but it does not follow that any theory of what will happen because of this temperature rise is true, nor is it true that anybody’s suggestion to combat the adverse consequences of what will happen is therefore worthy of consideration.
  • Mistake 6: Since Lewandowsky committed this howler, and is obviously unaware of it, he cannot see it in the people he interviews, who often make a similar error. That is, when a civilian is asked, “Do you believe in climate change?” he often answers “No,” but the mistake is to assume he is answering the question as stated, when in reality he has answered the modified question, “Do you believe in climate change and should the government regulate, rule, tax, control, mandate, penalize, etc., etc. to combat this change?” Such an elementary mistake by a psychologist shows us just how far the madness has progressed.
  • Mistake 7: Lewandowsky, because he is not a domain expert, misunderstood the basic physics. There are no domain experts who do not agree that mankind changes the climate. The only matters in question are: how much? where? when? with what certainty can we know? Notice the absence of “What can be done?” because this requires expertise in human behavior, and that expertise is what is suspiciously missing in this paper.

My dears, I emphasize that this was merely the opening sentence, and that much worse was to come. But before that, there was one more error, more grievous than any other, embedded in his starting sentence. This is Lewandowsky’s befuddlement that any non-domain expert could deign to question “the scientific evidence” (when much of what is “science” is instead politics). He assumes that any who do so, even in the admitted presence of disagreement over what “the” science is, suffers from a psychological flaw. Science has spoken, thinks he, and therefore nothing remains to be said. An actual instance of doublethink, and really quite marvelous when you consider the economy of words used to express it.

Now, the rest of Lewdandowsky’s work is more mundane. He commits the freshman mistake of only seeking evidence for his beliefs, and for none that would contradict him (and of which there is plenty); he says things like “Another common attribute of the contemporary rejection of science is its reliance on the internet” and then uses the internet himself in his “science”; he questions the influence of Steven McIntyre of Climateaudit forgetting that McIntyre is a domain expert and he, Lewandowsky is not.

He admits confirmation bias by calling dividing his sample into “pro-science” and “skeptic”, when the point in question is what the science says. He builds “latent variable” models to “prove” what he already believed, and biased himself to confirm; latent variable analysis being a lovely technique to give desirable results. He amusingly assures his audience of his “theoretical results”: not theories of climate, but psychological (academics do love a theory). He can’t help himself but use the ugly term denial, an appalling word one would have thought a psychologist would have understood was inappropriate.

As I said, a book could be written, and probably will be written on everything that has gone wrong with this paper.


Thanks to K.A. Rodgers who alerted me to the precious topic. Thanks too to John Moore for keeping me sharp.

1We haven’t time here to list and review each error: we leave that to genuine psychologists.

Update At Lewandowsky’s site, he puts up this puzzler: “Quick, consider the following: all polar bears are animals. Some animals are white. Therefore, some polar bears are white. Is this conclusion logically implied or not?” After you answer, “Yes”, he writes, “There is a 75% chance you might endorse this conclusion despite it being logically false.”

This is typical of the “gotcha” questions academics tease civilians with to prove that they, the academics, are smarter than the rest of us and therefore needed. Lewandowsky’s goes straight downhill after “Quick.” Of course people are going to say yes because every damn polar bear is white. They are not answering the question, which was absurdly required to be answered quickly, but instead recalling what they know to be true: polar bears are white.

To get at the true psychology, Lewandowsky should have instead asked, “Take your time and consider the following: all polar bears are animals. Some animals are white. Therefore, some polar bears are white. Is this conclusion logically implied or not? I am not asking whether polar bears are white—we know they are—but whether this logical argument is valid.” Not everybody will get this right, but we’ll at least be able to better estimate the actual percentage of folks who can’t.

As Joseph Epstein observed about speedy answers required by academics:

Only years later did I realize that quickness of response–on which 95 percent of education is based–is beside the point, and is required only of politicians, emergency-room physicians, lawyers in courtrooms, and salesmen. Serious intellectual effort requires slow, usually painstaking thought, often with wrong roads taken along the way to the right destination, if one is lucky enough to arrive there. One of the hallmarks of the modern educational system, which is essentially an examination system, is that so much of it is based on quick response solely. Give 6 reasons for the decline of Athens, 8 for the emergence of the Renaissance, 12 for the importance of the French Revolution. You have 20 minutes in which to do so.

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