William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Page 151 of 546

Belief In God Associated With Psychiatric Symptoms

It's all cool, dude.

It’s all cool, dude.

Medicalizing Belief

Would you say that a guy who claims he believes in a “just” God suffers from “psychiatric symptoms”? What if we swap “just” for “critical.” Do we have a loon on our hand then or what?

Ross Pomeroy at Real Clear Science wants to believe it. And Nava Silton of the Department of Psychology at Marymount Manhattan College thinks she’s proved it. She has the statistics to back it up, gathered in the modern scientific way: by conducting a survey filled with loaded questions and then manipulating the answers mercilessly with tortuous statistics.

Silton wrote about it in the peer-reviewed “Beliefs About God and Mental Health Among American Adults” in the 10 April 2013 issue of the Journal of Religion and Health.

It’s Science!

Here’s what Silton did. Via Gallup, she asked 1,400-some folks a bunch of questions, some to assess their “psychiatric symptoms”, their religion, and their race.

What’s a “psychiatric symptom”? Answering high on questions like these (allowed range: 0-4). You suffered from “Generalized anxiety disorder” if you said you “Worried too much about different things”. The horror of “Social anxiety” is experienced by saying you “Became anxious doing things because people were watching”. You know you’re under the thumb of “Paranoia” if you “Felt that people were taking advantage of you.”

A doozy symptom is “Obsession”, which possessed you if you “Thought too much about things that would not bother other people.” What about “Compulsion”? That’s when you told the anonymous person on the phone, who was writing down all your answers, and who knew who you were and where you lived, that you “Repeated simple actions that realistically did not need to be repeated”.

“Beliefs about God were measured by participants’ responses to a list of adjectives describing God: absolute, critical, just, punishing, severe, or wrathful” on a scale from 1-4. A “Punitive God” score was created by adding answers to “punishing” and “wrathful.” A “Deistic God” added “absolute” and “just.” Finally, a “Benevolent God” added (in reverse) “critical” and “severe”.

Now the theological usefulness of these adjectives is best described as (and your author looked this up) vaporous. How much distance is there—exactly, now—between “punishing” and “just”? And what’s the specific difference between the opposite of “severe” (since that’s how the question was used, in its opposite sense) and “absolute”? How much time do you think respondents spent thinking of these questions? Did everybody interpret the adjectives in precisely the same way? The same as Silton?

What fooled Silton, and what bamboozles other “researchers” like her, is that her survey gave numerical results, which made it feel scientific. All worry about the meaning of the questions is gone and replaced by comforting manipulatable quantities.

Manipulate them she did, using several “regressions”, which are common statistical models. The wrong ones in situations like this, where the outcome has a limited range (regressions are designed for outcomes which are continuous and wide-ranging, the opposite of Silton’s “psychiatric symptoms”).


Silton checked the “statistical significance” between the Benevolent God, Punitive God, and Deistic God scores with each of the five “psychiatric symptoms”. That makes 15 possibilities, of which she found wee p-values in only 8. The “discoveries” only pertained to Benevolent and Punitive God, with only Social anxiety, Paranoia, Obsession, and Compulsion.

For example, for every increase in the arbitrary Punitive God score of one unit, the curious Social anxiety “psychiatric symptom” increased on average 0.08 points. This is in the range statisticians classify as “trivial.” Worse—and here it gets technical—the explanatory power of this model measured by adjusted R22 was 0.04. This is less than trivial. What it means is that the increase in “symptoms” is only barely likely, that it only happens sometimes, at only a slightly higher rate than a coin flip, that decreases are just about as likely.

All Silton’s findings are like this: you have to squint to see them, and you must wear special glasses (provided at tenure ceremonies). Nevertheless, theory is on the line. The “Evolutionary Threat Assessment System Theory” to be specific. Belief in this theory was so strong in Silton that even with such watery results, she asserted “belief in a punitive God had a pernicious association with psychiatric symptoms”. There is hope, though: “belief in a benevolent God had a salubrious association” with the “psychiatric symptoms”.

This wasn’t her final word. No: future research is needed. Like “How might belief in a punitive God relate to depression and disordered eating?”


Thanks to Juan Ramirez for alerting us to this topic.

Two Kinds Of Bad Statistics Caused By Publish & Perish

Two (main) kinds of bad statistics: (1) where they are used to claim what is not true, and (2) where they are used to claim what is true.

The second might not seem bad, because a truth is trumpeted, and that is what one does with truths. But it is bad just the same, because the truths statistics “validates” did not need support. They were already well known to be true. Saying “Statistics has finally verified that X” where everybody already knew X has two consequences.

It starts you doubting your powers of reason, which did not need doubting. After all, they led you to X in the first place, and X is true. The second replaces the doubt with unwarranted trust in white-coated men. And that makes it much more likely that bad statistics of the first type are produced and accepted.

The reason bad statistics of the second type exist is that they must or the white-coated men will perish. As in “publish or perish.” There is a quota of papers required of all academics. These works may be good or bad, right or wrong, useful or harmful, penetrating or indifference, but regardless they must be written. Academics must write even when they don’t wish to, when they have nothing to say, when it would have been better had they remained quiet.

It is this absurd requirement which produces bad works of the second kind. (It has many other harmful effects, notably boosting the egos of the academics, but we can examine these another day.)

Example? How about “Vividness of the Future Self Predicts Delinquency”? A peer-reviewed work in Psychological Science by Jean-Louis van Gelder and others. Van Gelder opens the paper with these words:

The tendency to live in the here and now, and the failure to think through the delayed consequences of behavior, is one of the strongest individual-level correlates of delinquency.

This is our X, which everybody whose powers of reason are not stunted—as they are in, say, infants and those who have received overdoses of NPR—already knew. There was no reason in the world, save saving van Gelder’s job, that we had to be told this again, as if it were new or in doubt.

After all, it was from Aesop we learned the tale of the ant and the grasshopper, a story which was ancient before he wrote it down. Do you recall the crushing final line where Mr Ant, PhD (Assistant prof. up for tenure) lamented, “If only the grasshopper had a more vivid picture of his future self!”?

I had planned on reviewing the rest of the paper, which like all these things isn’t content with the obvious until it is lathered with dubious theory, but why bother. Did we really need to learn how a group of “young people” filled out sets of questionnaires from which wee p-values were squeezed? All to prove that those who thought about the future fared better in that unknown country than those who fiddled the day long? No, we did not.

Russian Roulette And Certainty

An American Classic

An American Classic

Suppose one fine day you pick up your Smith & Wesson 586 ($809 MSRP), a .357 Magnum revolver—which means that thingee in the middle spins around, advancing one round at the time. It has an old-fashioned, manly wooden grip and six inch barrel (not wooden).

You savor it for a moment, considering it is not, or at least not yet, on a list the White House can peruse. Then, as you take out your cleaning rag, a knock comes at the door! The rag and oil can are pushed aside. As you load it, you shout, “Just a minute!”

The hallway seems longer than usual. But as you near the door—the gun comfortably nestled inside your pocket—you begin to relax as you recognize the outline of the man standing at the entrance. It’s your neighbor Fred, a professor down at the college who frequently drops by to try his latest theories out on you.

Fred had been reading Peter Kreeft’s Summa Philosophica and came across this passage:

[S]ometimes we need certainty, e.g. in matters of life or death. If a gun had 100 chambers, then 100 of them must be checked, yielding certain safety, and not just 99, unless you want to play “Russian roulette.”

Fred notices the bulge in your pocket and says, “What a coincidence! Would you, for one million tax free dollars, play Russian roulette with your .357? One chamber with a round, the others a empty, and so forth?”

Since you are not an idiot, you say no. This is because you deduce there is a 1 in 6 chance you’d fail to take the dog for his evening walk, this night or any other.

It is not certain you’d live, nor is it certain you’d die. If it were certain you’d live, every chamber would have to be empty; and for it to be certain you’d die, every chamber would have to be loaded. So much is elementary.

But Fred makes the game more interesting. “Suppose I were to build a machine which is like your gun but could hold N chambers. Only one would be loaded, the rest empty. Same game. How large would N have to be for you to play?”

And that, dear reader, is the question to you. Is an N of 1,000 large enough? That gives you a probability of 999/1,000 of not ceasing upon the morrow. But it’s still a 1 in a 1,000 shot of the wrong kind of haircut. Maybe 10,000?

Besides telling us your N, would you agree with me that no matter how large N gets it is never certain you will survive? And that the phrase practically certain has the same logical relation to certain as practically a virgin has to a virgin?

Do you think you would say N = NA, or N = NaN. I.e., no number? That you would refuse to play? Then I wonder why you strap yourself into your car and drive yourself to your paycheck-issuing location each weekday. There is, after all, a non-zero chance that you will become the subject of a high school drivers training film.

Real examples abound. Flying, skiing, walking along a road, eating donuts, listening to NPR, etc. All which prove you are willing to endanger your life in return for moola or thrills.

Is there a difference between purposely risking your life, as in Russian roulette, and routinely risking it, as in driving to work? If so, what is it?

Epistemology: Peter Kreeft’s Summa Philosophica Part VI

Why did God create us? She is the mystery!

Why did God create us? She is the mystery!

Read Part V.

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

We are back on familiar stamping groups with Question VI, Epistemology. Directly related to probability and statistics, this stuff. So brighten up! See at least the summary in Article 2.

This is the last of the foundational meaty tough stuff. Next time we we’re on to the more succulent material: ethics.

Article 1: Whether Skepticism is refutable?

Oh, yes. The basic objection is that even the most uncontroversial syllogism must rest on premises that themselves have to be proved. And if those are proved, it is because they rest on still further, more basic premises, which also have to be proved, seemingly ad infinitum. And then even the workings of the syllogism itself—why is it that the conclusion follows—must be proved, etc.

As Aristotle showed, this “backward doubt” terminates in two places: psychologically indubitable immediate sense experience and logically indubitable first principles such as “X is not non-X” in theoretical thinking and “Good is to be done and evil to be avoided” in practical thinking.

Another way, with Pascal, to say “indubitable” is “by faith.” All who claim to be skeptics lie (at least to themselves). “To practice skepticism is to cease to speak, like Cratylus, who would only move his finger.” And even that’s cheating.

Article 2: Whether truth is objective?

Yes. If you think not, tell any professor “Evolution is false.” You will quickly learn not only is there objective truth, but that some truths are sacred.

[I]f all truth were subjective, then that truth also would be subjective. But what is subjective is changeable and uncertain. Therefore if all truth were subjective, it would be changeable and uncertain, and thus that “truth” also—that all truth is changeable and uncertain—would be changeable and uncertain. But what is uncertain may be false, and what is changeable can be changed. Therefore the “truth” that all truth is subjective, is uncertain, and may be false; and it is changeable, and can be changed—and if changed, then changed to “truth is objective.”

What’s true for thee, is true for me, baby, and vicey verso. Truth is “thinking and saying what is” (Aristotle, again). It’s not “what works” or the “coherence of ideas with each other.” And it certainly isn’t idealism. I love this checklist-summary so much, that I can’t resist quoting it all (but still buy the book!):

(1) Is this thing real?

(2) If so, do I, or do we, or can I, or can we, know that this thing is real?

(3) If so, is that knowledge certain rather than merely probable?

(4) If so, can I convince others of that certainty by rational arguments?

(5) If so, does the argument use the scientific method?

A thing can be real without being known.

A thing can be known without being known with certainty.

A certainty can be private rather than demonstrable.

And proof or demonstration may use other methods than the scientific method.

Confusion between (1) and (2) produces philosophical idealism.

Confusion between (2) and (3) produces skepticism or probabilism.

Confusion between (3) and (4) produce subjectivism.

And confusion between (4) and (5) produce scientism

Article 3: Whether we know things-in-themselves?

Yes. Though Kant said we can’t. I’ll only point you to David Stove’s famous contest to identify the worst argument in the world (see Jim Franklin’s page, or this PDF). Here’s the stinker:

We can know things only {as they are related to us; under our forms of perception & understanding; in so far as they fall under our conceptual schemes etc.}

So: We cannot know things as they are in themselves.

Article 4: Whether appearance coincides with reality?

No. We need the distinction of what is “true (in which appearances faithfully coincide with reality) and the false (in which appearances deceive because they fail thus to coincide with reality).”

To ask (1) what a thing is, (2) whether it is, or (3) why it is, is to express the will to know what is true; and this is to assume that there are both true and false, i.e. real and only apparent, answers to those questions, and thus that appearance and reality are not identical.

“In order to judge appearances, we must know something more than appearances.” Which is to say, reality.

Article 5: Whether all ordinary (natural) human knowledge begins with sense experience?

Yes. Though it seems we know tidbits like “X=X, that 2+2=4, and that if it is true that X is, then it is false that X is not” without benefit of sense experience.

On the other hand, “The blind have no innate idea of color, nor the deaf of sounds.” And we “must distinguish the claim that all our knowledge begins with sense experience from the claim that it is limited to it” which is false.

We don’t learn tautologies like X=X “unless we fist experience some things through the senses and only then rise to such principles by abstraction and inductive reasoning. It is not infants but philosophers who formulate such tautologies.”

Article 6: Whether there is a priori knowledge?

Yes. But didn’t we just agree “that all knowledge begins with sense experience, which is another way of saying that all knowledge is a posteriori knowledge”? Maybe a stronger objection:

If there is a process of thinking that leads from a posteriori knowledge of sensed particulars to a priori knowledge of understood universals, it is invalid; for it is invalid to conclude to a universal merely from particulars. “All men are mortal” does not follow from “this man is mortal” or “these men are mortal” or “some men are mortal.”

Yet there “is no contradiction between saying that all our knowledge begins with sense experience and saying that from sense experience we can rise to knowledge that does not depend on sense experience” which is a priori knowledge.

The process is not first of all one of inductive reasoning…but the understanding…of a universal which we find embedded in sensory particulars and which we abstract from those particulars…We can distinguish necessary and essential features of human nature (e.g. mind and body) from contingent and accidental ones (e.g. race and gender), but abstracting the former from the latter…Thus our knowledge that all men are mortal is a priori knowledge, known with certainty even prior to observing everyone die, but it emerges only from abstraction from experience which is a posteriori and empirical.

Stove (again!) shows the difficulty begins with improper use of inductive, which is now unfortunately taken to mean all non-deductive reasoning, instead of solely the type which leads to universals. Not for the first time I recommend his Rationality of Induction.

Article 7: Whether ideas are the immediate object of knowing?

No. Idealism, as we have long agreed, is deader than Marley. Kreeft slips in a joke. “[I]f the objects of our thinking were ideas, all sciences would be subdivisions of psychology. (Perhaps some psychologists would not regard this as a reductio ad absurdum.)”

Another opportunity to push Stove: see his essay “Idealism: A Victorian Horror Story”, reproduced in many places.

Article 8: Whether certain knowledge is possible?

Yes. And if you say no, you say yes, so you must say yes. And if you say maybe, you also say yes. Put up any fight at all and you say yes. Thus, yes.

Examples of certainty? Non-contradiction, whatever comes to be is caused (God does not come to be, therefore is not caused, thus He can be the uncaused first cause). Again, try the “evolution false” gag at your nearest college campus. Or try to write a blog post about which every reader agrees (the temptation is to say it certainly cannot be done).

Article 9: Whether the essential questions of philosophy are “mysteries”?

Yes. Mysteries not in the sense of whodunnits, but are thought puzzles in the sense of nobody knows, or can know, their whys. Not to beat you over the head with Stove, but in Rationality he has a lovely essay explaining that it is senseless to ask how something which is necessarily true is true.

Why is it true that “X=X” (or pick your favorite axiom)? I don’t know, and you don’t either: it’s a mystery. It’s just true. The terms is broader than this, though:

Marcel defines a “mystery” as distinct from a mere “problem,” as “a problem that encroaches upon its own data,” i.e. a question which so involves the very being and life of the questioner that it is impossible, and even undesirable and misleading to have total detachment and objectivity, as is required in the sciences.

Incidentally, many (not all) “problems” in philosophy aren’t. They are called so because the natural conclusion derived from cherished premises is unacceptable, or a conclusion is believed but can’t be derived from acceptable premises.

Article 10: Whether we can have knowledge of mysteries such as God, freedom, immortality, morality, and the meaning (purpose) of life?


[I]f we have no knowledge of [mysteries], how do we know them well enough to know that we have no knowledge of them? For instance, how can we know God so well that we know we cannot know Him at all? Is not such skepticism, like all skepticism, ultimately both self-contradictory and arrogant?

It’s as well to leave off with another shade of faith.

Religious faith is not the same as opinion. For faith, whether true or false, is a human response to a divine revelation, like light reflected in a faithful mirror, and thus its content is in itself most certain, even if not logically provable, for God can neither deceive nor be deceived; while mere opinion rests on the uncertainty of the human mind alone.

Faith is not (always) identical with intellectual belief.

Read Part VII.

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