William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

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Applied Ethics: Peter Kreeft’s Summa Philosophica Part VIII

Read Part VI.

Remember, we’re doing summaries of summaries here; only bare sketches are possible. Buy his book for more detail.

Question VIII is Applied Ethics. Time to get dirty!

Article 1: Whether there is a moral obligation to worship God?

Yes. Yet the Qur’an teaches “there must be no compulsion in matter of religion”, plus not everybody knows or believes God exists.

And what about those folks not exposed to religion? St Paul says that knowledge of God is “clearly perceived in the things that have been made.” Paul “does not argue that [pagans] were wicked because they did not know the truth but that they did not know the truth because they were wicked: ‘who by their wickedness suppress the truth.’…And St. John also diagnoses evil as the cause of ignorance rather than ignorance as the cause of evil…This obligation [to worship God] is known by nature, and binds.”

Obligation is not the same as compulsion. Moral obligation itself does not work by compulsion but by free conscience, as the Qur’anic quotation says. Enforcing a moral obligation by public and civil sanctions does add compulsion, and this is an argument for the separation of church and state, contrary to what Muslims practice, but it is not an argument for a denial of the moral obligation itself to worship God.

Article 2: Whether it is immoral to worship idols?

Certainly; and this includes the Mighty Dollar, you “consumer” you.

If God is the infinitely perfect Creator, then this…excludes the worship of any finite creature whatsoever, including abstract causes, ideas, or ideals, as well as concrete things and people, whether others or oneself—or one’s pleasure, wealth, health, honor, comfort, intelligence, freedom, or virtue.

Article 3: Whether leisure is as necessary for man as work?

Yes, so go home. Kreeft reminds, “Higher civilizations appeared only among those peoples who cultivated leisure.” David Stove (yes, another plug) often said the only path to learning is quiet and leisure. So remove the thinking suppression device from your skull, switch off the IQ-lowering box, and take a walk to no place in particular. Maybe even read a book. Make it a real one because if it’s connected to the internet or on a computer you will invariably be distracted.

Article 4: Whether family and ancestors must be revered?

Of course! Such a question would not have seemed necessary, say forty years ago, since the answer was blindingly obvious. Now we don’t see as well.

[H]onor to family and ancestors is morally obligatory because it is a debt of justice. In fact the debt of justice owed to one’s parents and ancestors cannot possibly be adequately repaid, for our parents transmitted to us human life itself…and our ancestors invented almost all the good things, physical and spiritual, that we inherit by entering the world they civilized.

Part of reverence is respect for tradition. Chesterton:

Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.

Article 5: Whether private property is a natural right?


[S]tealing another’s private property would not be wrong by nature if the possession of private property was not a right.

Also, “the original version of the American Declaration of Independence spoke of three nature, ‘inalienable’ rights: life, liberty and property (which was changed to ‘the pursuit of happiness’ for rhetorical purposes).”

Article 6: Whether it is ever right to kill?

Yes, especially for dinner.

The use of lethal force when necessary to protect innocent human life does not claim the authority to remove the natural right to life, but responds to the fact that the attacker has already done so…

The Hebrew word misleadingly translated “kill” means not all forcible taking of human life, but only murder. In fact, though private vengeance was outlawed, the right of capital punishment was instituted, by the same Authority that have this commandment.

There are many worried what will happen to the culture if the state refuses its duty to punish capital crime.

Article 7: Whether it is ever right to lie?

No, not really. But what about lying to the murderer about where his victim is hiding? Or to the government who is after your neighbor for a thought crime? Or to your wife (if we’re still allowed to use that word) when she asks about the possibility of excess poundage?

Lying breaks trust, “which is obviously a great evil.” What is a lie? “[T]he deliberate contradiction between what one knows or believes and what one says to one who has a right to know the truth.” Note carefully the last condition. Also know that there “is no universal right to know the truth about everything, even if tyrants, the paparazzi, and the media may assume they have such a right.”

Lying is bearing false witness; but not all speakers are in the position of giving witness, for a witness swears to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”

Telling the murderer an untruth is not lying, nor is refusing to rat out your neighbor, and everybody knows “Am I too fat” always means “Do you still love me?” “[D]eliberately deceiving those who have no right to know is not lying.”

St Thomas agrees with St Augustine that one may “prudently conceal the truth by some dissimulation” in certain situations. Like if your wife really wants to know about her pants size.

Article 8: Whether sex is sacred and not to be adulterated?

Yes. The commonest objection is that before the sexual “revolution”—a state of internal war with bitter fighting and gruesome casualties—“when sex was seen as a sacred taboo, mankind lived in fear and superstition about sex.” We are now “liberated” and even schools should and “must” teach (by example) kiddies porn is good.

Yet isn’t it curious that every culture except the modern West’s have approached sex and death (its natural pairing) “with awe and reverence, surrounded them with taboos, proprieties, ceremonies, and laws, and taken great care not to adulterate them.” Now “the sacredness of sex can be deduced from two premises: the sacredness of each individual person and the fact that sex is his origin.” To call sex “sacred is not to deny its ‘secular’ status in reason and nature.”

The casualties of the sexual revolution? Glad you asked: “divorce, and the dead victims of backup birth control, or abortion.” Children born in wedlock. Now marriage and the family. Soon civilization.

Article 9: Whether lust is evil?

Yes. On the other hand, “Condemning lust causes fear, guilt, a low self-image, and a lack of self-esteem, and these are evils. Therefore it is the condemnation of lust, rather than lust itself, that is evil.” Oh! Don’t hurt anybody’s feelings, you brute!

Lust treats people as objects, as ends to your personal means. The ends do not justify the means.

Lust is disordered because it is selfish. It is selfish because instead of loving the other as such, for his or her own sake, it loves the experience of sexual pleasure in oneself…The commonest opposite and enemy of love is not hate but use.

Is lust “natural”? Depends on what you mean by “natural”. If it’s “behavior that is observed” then lust is natural, but then so is murder and theft. If instead it’s “behavior that complies with a man’s essence” then it is not natural and is a perversion.

Article 10: Whether greed is evil?

Yes, Ayn, it is.

Recall Marley’s lament—and warning:

‘Business!’ cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. ‘Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!’

Greed is selfishness, as is lust. Yet some see greed, masked by the sometime euphemism “profit motive”, is good and that it “stimulates” the economy. But this does not prove that greed is good, “but that the world economy is bad because it is dependent on something bad, viz. on disordered human desires not on genuine human needs.” Plus this little tidbit:

“Richer” does not entail “happier.” Suicide, the most obvious index of happiness, is found much more among the rich than among the poor.

And so is institutionalized lust, abortion, divorce, etc.

Read Part IX.

Subjective Versus Objective Bayes (Versus Frequentism): Part I

Pierre-Simon, marquis de Laplace, Chance Master


We first have to define what subjectivity and objectivity are and from these see what happens. For those unused to reading long stretches of prose, here is the conclusion, which will be proved in due time:

Like in The Highlander, “There can be only one”…correct interpretation of probability (uncertainty), but many approximations. Objective Bayes is the correct interpretation. Subjective Bayes fails in theory but often works in practice because subjective Bayesians act like objectivists. Frequentism fails except when it overlaps objective Bayesian methods (and when it does it works “in the long run” too). All others fail or are approximations too. Despite the labels, all three groups operate at least partly subjectively, partly objectively.

To assert without argument is to be subjective. There are two divisions to subjectivity, the internal and external. Internal subjective propositions are those which you believe (either not at all, somewhere in-between, or fully), whether via argument or observation or both. External subjective propositions are those which you seek to convince another to believe or disbelieve or to give weight to. It is subjective to say “I think I might be catching a cold1,” “I am hot,” or “I dislike rice pudding”. If I am feeling or thinking these things, and I believe them and am not trying to fool my listener, then these propositions are true, given my internal state.

Externally, however, these kinds of propositions may be doubted. If you hear your neighbor say “My favorite color is red” and if you add to that the premises “My neighbor is sane and honest and sane and honest people faithfully report their beliefs” then it follows your neighbor’s favorite color is red. But other premises are possible which cause you to doubt your neighbor or to disbelieve him. Thus internal subjective statements of one person can be argued against externally by another. Think of a cop grilling a suspect. For example if I gave prior evidence of relishing rice pudding, you can put this to me. Or it may be freezing out which makes you question why I report being hot. Thus depending, or conditional, on the premises which are or aren’t accepted by the parties, the proposition in question can be true for one and false for another, or somewhere in between.

“Garfield was a better president than Tyler” is an internally subjective statement which has as much evidentiary support as the statement “Tyler was a better president than Garfield”, which is to say none except the implicit force of the speakers. That force is a premise, but difficult to clarify. To hear one and believe it and not the other is therefore to be subjective.

This next argument is also subjective, but only in part, and illustrates the sort of internal argument which happens when one hears a raw assertion like “Garfield’s better.” “Garfield was a better president than Tyler because Garfield’s vice president went on to be president himself and better presidents see their vice presidents go on to be presidents.” This is an (inverted) valid syllogism, and therefore the conclusion (“Garfield’s better”) is true given the premises. Not everybody will agree with the conclusion because not everybody will agree with the premises. The premises are merely asserted, and are therefore subjective. The argument as a whole is then also subjective, but interior to the argument there is no subjectivism; interior is it objective.

In order for an argument to avoid being subjective, and therefore be completely objective, it has to begin with premises which are true (and which has unambiguous terms) and ends with a conclusion which validly follows from the premises. Mathematical theorems are like this, though they are not usually presented in that fashion. Instead a theorem will begin with premises which are accepted but not proven in place as true. The premises are accepted as true because they have earlier been derived via other arguments, themselves with premises which are accepted but not proven (in place) as true. This chain eventually ends at axioms and rules of deduction which everybody believes are true. This is how we can all agree that propositions like “2 + 7 = 9″ are true. The premises which led to this are suppressed, but always there.

Though with many propositions (like “2 + 7 = 9″), the premises are different for different folks, and hence so are the arguments. Quite a lot of people cannot prove these propositions true, but believe them anyway. But this is because they use a valid argument from authority, trusting in the experts who told them about propositions like this. This shows that there can be more than one path to a true conclusion.

The shorthand of only presenting a few premises when deducing new mathematical theorems is handy, but its use can be dangerous in other kinds of argument. Arguments can appear purely objective, like mathematical theorems are, but which are really not because the chain of premises do not lead back to unassailable axioms but instead to propositions which are dubious or do not share universal approval.

This is why propositions like “Garfield was a better president than Tyler” are often contentious. It is too difficult, especially seated at a bar stool or in a blog combox, to expose and agree to the exact and relevant chain of premises which lead unambiguously to proving the proposition certainly true or certainly false. It is even too difficult for sober scholars who devote their entire lives to studying the subject. What is the precise, unambiguous list of qualities and circumstances which defines presidential quality? It is also difficult or impossible to give a complete list of premises which lead me to say “I feel hot” or “I like this Mozart sonata better than that one.” Sometimes all I can do is just state it and believe it. Thus the hardest and simplest propositions are often irremediably subjective.

It isn’t always hopeless. Simple propositions are often proved via short chains of premise-arguments. It isn’t a long road to “One should do good and eschew evil” or “I am mortal.” And here lies the problem. Too often when seeking to understand a subject we try to peel off the more difficult problems first, like “What values do we give this prior?” when we should be starting with simple ones like we’ll see next time.

Part II.


1Note: the proposition “I think I might be catching a cold” differs from “I will catch a cold by tomorrow.” One is a report of health, the other is a forecast. The forecast is a “somewhere in-between” kind of belief, i.e. uncertain, i.e. probabilistic.

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Poor Statistics Undermine The Reliability Of Neuroscience

I'm all aglow

I’m all aglow

Note carefully the picture which accompanies this post. The right-most glow is centered on the upper-middle-fifth amygdalic cingulatum region of your author’s brain. Statistics show that this region is “associated” with feelings of joy; more specifically, the shivers of delight one experiences when saying, “I told you so!”

(The other smaller glow to the left is “associated” with pleasant thoughts of Myers Dark rum, now ridiculously expensive.)

The synaptic juices started flowing and the glow glowed after I read “Many Neuroscience Studies May Be Based on Bad Statistics” in Wired, which opens:

The fields of psychology and cognitive neuroscience have had some rough sledding in recent years. The bumps have come from high-profile fraudsters, concerns about findings that can’t be replicated, and criticism from within the scientific ranks about shoddy statistics. A new study adds to these woes, suggesting that a wide range of neuroscience studies lack the statistical power to back up their findings.

The study is “Power failure: why small sample size undermines the reliability of neuroscience” in Nature Reviews Neuroscience by Katherine Button, John Ioannidis, and several others. Best thing about that paper was a short guide to terms researchers ought to know. My favorite:

Winner’s curse
The winner’s curse refers to the phenomenon whereby the ‘lucky’ scientist who makes a discovery is cursed by finding an inflated estimate of that effect. The winner’s curse occurs when thresholds, such as statistical significance, are used to determine the presence of an effect and is most severe when thresholds are stringent and studies are too small and thus have low power.

Button and team did a meta-meta analysis of fMRI studies and the like and discovered what will be no secret to regular readers: the statistics of these works ain’t too hot. Specifically, many (most?) have very low power. “The consequences of this include overestimates of effect size and low reproducibility of results.”

They looked at 48 meta-analyses, which comprised “730 individual primary studies.” The median power was 18%. If you don’t have a feel for that, the “normal” power for medical studies is 80%+. That’s the level grant granters want, anyway. Button’s finding means half the studies are worse than anemically powered.

The Scientist quotes Hal Pashler, a psychologist at the University of California, San Diego, as saying, “This paper should help by revealing exactly how bad things have gotten.” Can’t go too much by that, because it’s standard journalistic practice to fetch a quote from somebody who didn’t write the paper (and often didn’t read it). But in this case Pashler is right.

Or maybe I’m just happy to agree with him. Here’s why I do.

Point one, I did an extensive (maybe too extensive) critique of Sam Harris’s paper “The neural correlates of religious and nonreligious belief.” One of the worst papers, in a series of bad papers, that I’ve ever read. Shoddy experimental design, editorialism masked as science, data mysteriously disappearing, biases galore, et cetera.

If you’re only going to read two things, read these entries of the review “Can fMRI Predict Who Believes In God?” Part I and Part Last.

Points two and higher: click to one of these two reviews: Yet Another Study ‘Proves’ Liberal, Conservative Brain Differences, Brain Atrophy Responsible For Religious Belief?

I’ve done many more, but these capture the gist. Strange that these “studies” have a sort of theme to them, no?

Wired had the sense to ask why so many bad studies? Reason one: studies are too expensive. But since scientists must publish lest they perish, reason two: “[T]he pressure on scientists to publish often, preferably in high-profile journals, to advance their careers and win funding from the government.”

Since that pressure will not be lifted even after Button’s identification of systematic flaws, it is rational to expect a continuation of systematic flaws. Gives me a kind of job security, though.

IDing poor science doesn’t pay as well as generating it, however,. Actually it pays not at all. That’s why I think warm thoughts about rum: to keep my brain lit up.


Thanks to Mike Flynn for pointing us to this fine news.

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