The Philosophy of Probability and Statistics (Book. Sort Of.)

I'm going to add another one to the stack.

I’m going to add another one to the stack.

I have decided to let you, dear reader, help me finish my book, which I have tentatively entitled The Philosophy of Probability and Statistics. This is about the seventeenth version of the title, so it might change again.

I’ve been working on this book piecemeal for some time, but not consistently enough (I’ve been spending more time on another one, a more popular version about over-certainty). So I decided to release it as she is, in separated segments. In a sort of fashion. Kinda sorta. More or less.

Today, an outline. Comments more than welcome.

There’s chapters and fragments of chapters and bare notes floating all over my hard drive and on odd pieces of paper. Putting them up will force me to gather them into something resembling coherence.

The writing will be in Latex, in raw code. Maybe I’ll PDF a few, links at bottom of posts. Luckily, PPS is not a math book. Mathematics is useful to probability, and there exists a mathematical subdivision called measure theory which makes great purpose of it, but I am interested in probability as measures of evidence, probability as she is or should be used for real-life matters. In this sense, probability is not mathematics; therefore I don’t need as much of it as is ordinarily used. Meaning reading Latex code won’t be that difficult for the uninitiated.

Incidentally, there is no difference between probability and statistics, except that the latter is a name for data. So I’ll mostly use probability to mean what people usually mean of either subject.

The new category tag PPS has been added to note posts which are part of the book. Click it to see all post (just this so far).

Rough gross mysterious outline:

1. The way it’s done now has lead to an (unnoticed) epidemic of over-certainty. Logic and probability belong to epistemology, which is the study of what we can know. Truth exists, relativism is silly but understandable, skepticism is stupid and not understandable, Gettier problems aren’t. I am not a Bayesian, but I love much of it.

2. Logic, which isn’t formal. Logic is the study of the relations between propositions. Let’s return to syllogistic logic to educate initiates. Symbolic and mathematical logic, fine things, can be saved for adepts. Math and symbolic logic are formal because they constrain the range of propositions. With freedom comes responsibility!

3. Probability, which is logic, it is its natural extension, or rather, its completion. Every results which holds for logic therefore holds for probability; thus probability isn’t formal until its propositions are constrained. Probability is not (of course it is not) relative frequency, a fallacy which mixes up epistemological propositions with ontological ones, and neither is it subjective. Beliefs, decisions, acts are not logic therefore are not probability. Probability is rarely quantifiable.

4. Causality and Induction, which is fine. Logic is the not the proper language of causality, therefore neither is probability. Causality has four dimensions (formal, material, efficient, and final). Logic-probability can measure relations between causal propositions, but again beliefs etc. are not logic. Induction is fine and rational. Induction is rarely quantifiable. Grue is no problem.

5. Observational propositions, which are statistics. An observational proposition is “I saw m people in the drug group out of n become well, and r people out of s in the placebo group become well.” This is statistics as she is normally thought of. Measurements, except in exceptionally rare circumstances, and possibly not even then, are finite and discrete. Again, not all probability is quantifiable.

6. Probability models, most of which aren’t deduced, but some are. Deduced models aren’t models, but optimal and true statements of probability. Deduced probabilities aren’t well known, aren’t well developed, and will save your soul. Non-deduced, i.e. assumed, habitual, or customary, models are killing science softly and slowly and with a smile. And they lead to endless and incorrect debates about truths of models, which we know are false.

7. Over-certainty, which is parameters, p-values, hypothesis tests, estimation, credible and confidence intervals, and premature jumps to infinity. Domine exaudi orationem meam, let the Cult of Parameter end!

8. Predictive statistics, probability leakage. If you’re going to use a non-deduced model, then at least do it so it can be verified, which means use the model in a predictive sense (Bayesians say “predictive posterior distributions”).

9. Models to decisions to verification. Since probabilities aren’t decisions or acts or beliefs to be useful they must be transformed to decisions acts beliefs. Verifying probabilities is not the same as verifying decisions, since by definition probabilities are true statements and therefore not in need of verification. But decisions can be good or bad, as long as you understand what good and bad are.

10. Examples like time series, regression, and so on will be spread throughout. But maybe a special chapter with the regular suspects. There are thousands of procedures and I can’t hope to do more than a handful.

This not a recipe book, but a starting point for somebody to write one. One step at a time!

Are We Hard-Wired for Faith? Guest Post by Bob Kurland

Bob Kurland is a “retired, cranky, old physicist.” This article originally ran in modified form at Reflections of a Catholic Scientist.

“Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God”—St. John Damascene, as quoted in the Catechism, 2559.

“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven…”—John Milton, Paradise Lost

“Interestingly, the average human brain weighs about 1.5 kilograms, has about 160 billion cells and about 100 billion neurons connecting the cells. The complexities of the brain are inconceivable. One can look at the brain and see the incredible complexities and the miracles of the Divine…or one can respond…that this has nothing to do with G-d. Some people will be inspired with belief in the Almighty; others will claim that somehow billions of cells and neurons working together can be created through random evolution.”—Rabbi Dr. Warren Goldstein, Jewish World Review, 17 January, 2014

My favorite way to spend driving time is listening to audiobooks, the latest being The Spiritual Brain: Science and Religious Experience by Professor Andrew Newberg, Director of Research at the Myrna Brind Center for Integrative Medicine at the Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, who has used SPECT imaging (Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography) to show what brain regions (and thus, what brain functions) are activated or deactivated by such religious acts as prayer, meditation, contemplation.

The technique involves intravenous injection of a radioactive chemical that is metabolized by the brain during activity; the metabolic act/brain activity occurs almost immediately after injection, but enough residual radioactivity remains for it to be detected.

There are two relevant issues. The first: “Is mind purely material–is the brain simply a meat computer or something more/other?”. The second: “Given the relation between brain function and religious experience, how was this acquired—by adaptive evolution or bestowed by God?” If it were possible to build a self-aware android—Data of Star Trek—would that android naturally have a religious sense, or would it have to be endowed by his creator?

Brain regions

Certain regions of the brain are involved in various cognitive and emotional functions.1 Such regions are activated or deactivated (as appropriate) in different ways during prayer or contemplation of the Deity by those experienced in prayer and by atheists.

Newberg’s early study was on Franciscan Nuns who had decades of experience in contemplative prayer. During the act of prayer the “attention” and “language” regions of the brain were more activated than for a baseline study while the spatial orientation (sense of location) were deactivated, as shown in the figures below.

Franciscan Nun SPECT scan, from Prof. Newberg

In this figure, the brain image under “Baseline Scan” is taken during “normal” activity (no prayer or meditation). The image under “Prayer Scan” is the brain image corresponding to intense Centered Prayer. In the prayer image, the frontal lobe region (“attention”) is red, more activated than during the baseline. Similarly, the “language center” (lower left) is more activated (redder) during prayer than for the baseline.2

Franciscan Nun SPECT scan, from Prof. Newberg

This figure is also a SPECT scan image of one of the Franciscan nuns. Note the less intense spatial orientation area during prayer (yellow versus red). Prof. Newberg argues that the lower activity of the orientation area corresponds to a feeling of losing self, of oneness with the universe, a feeling often associated with deep meditation and contemplation. The same sort of changes are found for other adepts at meditation, for example, for Buddhist monks. On the other hand, an atheist contemplating God (or his/her notion of God) shows little change in brain activity, as the last figure shows.

Atheist contemplating God, from Prof. Newberg

One MRI study cited by Newberg (I can’t find the original reference) finds that those practicing prayer and contemplation have larger frontal lobes (concerned with attention and focusing activity) than do non-practitioners. But since this was not a study over time, one can’t know whether the prayer/contemplation activity is a consequence of the greater size or that the brain has increased in size after years of prayer.

Newberg also proposes that the practice of prayer/meditation will improve brain function, memory, and help alleviate various kinds of brain dysfunction. If religious experience modifies brain activity, and if one has a sudden conversion experience, how can that change brain activity if it is due only to some physical mechanism? Changes in the physiology of the brain take time, they’re not accomplished in an instant.

Let’s accept the proposition that changes in functional brain activity can be correlated with prayer, contemplation and other religious activity. What then? Is it the case that God changes the brains of the faithful? Or that the functional correlation of brain activity with religious activity is due to adaptive evolution?

The notion of adaptive evolution rests on a Darwinian mechanism for evolution–that prayer increases survival prospects and thus the transmission of a genetic predisposition to prayer is enhanced. Now both Pope John Paul II and I believe that evolution—the descent of species—is more than just a hypothesis. However, as far as the Darwinian model goes, some scientists and philosophers–faithful and non-believers–and I are skeptical; the Scottish verdict “Not Proven” applies.

A prehistoric savage chieftain is distraught over the death of a comrade and while watching the flames of a funeral pyre conceives of the spirit of his comrade going above, like the flames, and finds peace. I find it hard to credit that such a disposition to think of an afterlife is 1) genetically implanted and inheritable and 2) contributes to survival. Granted that general qualities—intelligence, the ability to form abstractions, imagination—may be due to genetic endowments and will therefore enhance survivability, but that does not imply particular aspects of those qualities are also due to particular genes. Indeed, the so called “God gene” proposal rests on minimal statistical evidence. As Carl Zimmer‘s criticism has it:

“Instead the book we have today would be better titled: A Gene That Accounts for Less Than One Percent of the Variance Found in Scores on Psychological Questionnaires Designed to Measure a Factor Called Self-Transcendence, Which Can Signify Everything from Belonging to the Green Party to Believing in ESP, According to One Unpublished, Unreplicated Study.”—Carl Zimmer, Scientific American Review of The God Gene

I think we can dispose of the argument that religious feelings have been engendered by adaptive evolution, or at least conclude that this proposition is not proven. The deeper and more difficult question is the nature and source of religious experience. If mind and consciousness are but emergent properties of a meat computer, the brain, then are religious feelings due only to fortuitous neural physiology, as philosophers such as Dennett, Churchland, Chalmers, would propose? Or do these thoughts and experiences come from another source, the Holy Spirit?

To address this question adequately requires a book at the very least: one would have to consider the nature of “Mind” and “Consciousness”, and that is a matter distinct from labeling the neuro-physiological factors at play during a religious experience.3 Quantum mechanics may have a role, as suggested in two of my previous articles, “Do quantum entities have free will..“and “Quantum Divine via God, the Berkeleyan Observer” and by several philosophers and physicists.4

An aspect of this problem that has not been explored fully by philosophers is the growth of self-awareness/consciousness and intelligence. We are born with only a rudimentary sense of self, and this progresses through infancy and early childhood in several stages to a more complete development, five stages according to Philippe Rochat. How does this development proceed? Is it genetically programmed?

I can only say that I don’t have enough knowledge to come to a conclusion. Although it seems evident from the arguments of Penrose and Searle that our brains are not meat computers, it is not clear how the mental and physical elements of consciousness are separable. I think that quantum mechanics plays a part in consciousness, but I don’t know how that can be specified. I have faith that the Holy Spirit inspires us, but I’m not sure how that is done, although evidence for this might be found from conversion experiences. Perhaps the most trenchant comment on consciousness and The Divine has been given by Rabbi Goldstein in the opening quote. That being said, I believe that consciousness, along with the deeper levels of quantum mechanics, is now and may continue to be a mystery.


1See the web presentation by Professor Elaine Hull, or books by Dr. Newberg, Why God Won’t Go Away, or How God Changes Your Brain.

2Metabolic activity of the brain is color coded–blue is least, red is most; the color coding is on a relative, not absolute scale. Changes in brain activity are more evident on a gray scale than with the color coding.

3The various views of Mind and Consciousness are explained nicely by John Searle in his book “The Mystery of Consciousness“. A later book by Searle, Freedom and Neurobiology proposes that quantum mechanics is a necessary basis for free will and thus enters into consciousness.

4In addition to Penrose’s books on quantum mechanics and consciousness, there are Quantum Enigma by Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner, The Mindful Universe by Henry Stapp, Mind,Brain & the Quantum by Michael Lockwood, Quantum Mechanics and Experience by David Albert, and The Conscious Mind by David Chalmers. The last three explore the relation of the Many Worlds/Many Minds interpretation of quantum mechanics to consciousness.

Bob Doyle’s website on information theory, consciousness and quantum mechanics is also interesting and informative.

Finally! Global Warming, The Musical

Our beneficent government gave $700,000 dollars to a theatre troup to create the musical The Great Immensity.

Maybe you didn’t catch that. Our most giving righteous wise government, through its National Science Foundation, gave seven-hundred-thousand dollars to a group to put on a play about global warming. Seven. Hundred. Thousand. Dollars. American tax dollars. Science.

Our friend LuboŇ° Motl writes all about it; Daily Caller has a few tidbits, too. The plot of the play:

Through her search, Phyllis uncovers a mysterious plot surrounding the upcoming international climate summit in Auckland. As the days count down to the Auckland Summit, Phyllis must decipher the plan and possibly stop it in time. With arresting projected film and video and a wide-ranging score of songs, The Great Immensity is a highly theatrical look into one of the most vital questions of our time: how can we change ourselves and our society in time to solve the enormous environmental challenges that confront us?

Right out of the Protocols of the Elders of Oil. The only reason everybody hasn’t rushed to link arms and cease exhaling carbon dioxide is because they have been hoodwinked. The ignorant fools!

Well just wait until the public gets a lot of the hit song from The Great Immensity “Margin of Error”, perhaps the first instance in recorded history in which an opinion poll is set to music. $700,000. Science.

Margin of Error from Polly on Vimeo.

The polls show
Fifty-seven per-cent
of Americans think something’s happening
to the Climate.

Now Yours Truly fancies himself a bit of a playwright. His Dinner with Atheists was performed on Broadway (the author read it aloud while walking down that very street). And his Sandra Fluke Mows The Lawn was considered by him for various nominations of actual awards, such as the Tony.

So it is with some authority I speak on this topic. You therefore know you can trust me when I say I want to get in on this. Seven-hundred-thousand dollars is a lot of money and I deserve it. Gimme.

My global warming musical will be called It’s the End of the World and it’s All Your Fault. Plot thus far:

Young scientist Nigel is watching Fox News when he has an epiphany. The reason his grants aren’t funded is that he hasn’t yet admitted the world is about to end. He converts and finds success! Join him on his one-man quest to find love and to never quite solve the problem of Global Warming (if it were solved, then no more grants). [I'm still trying to work in a sword fight. Everybody loves sword fights.]

I preview for you today fragments of the soon-to-be hit songs.

Wither the Weather?

The weather
   She’s a changin’
You’d betta
   Cry like a little girl

The storms
   Gettin’ stronger
Summer squalls
   Causing people minor inconveniences.

The hot heat
   She’s a risin’
Ever hotter
   Almost a whole tenth of degree more in the next fifty years.

Baby, It’s Hot Outside

Take off that coat, baby
   It’s hot outside.
No need for that scarf, baby
   It’s hot outside.

The thermometer is readin’ lower
   You know it’s hot outside
But the models say it’s higher
   That’s why it’s hot outside.

The icicles on your nose
   Confirm it’s hot outside
The endless winter weather
   Mean global warming’s on its way.
Oh baby! It’s so hot outside!


I met a man on the street this day
Who tried to tell me that
Global warming was no threat to me
That cooling was where it’s at.

So I shouted Denier!
And shot him in the head.
The judge,
who was an Obama appointee,
let me go Scott Free.


Get Me That Grant

Get me that grant, oh!
   Get me that grant
Get me that grant, oh!
   Get me that grant

Oh, Get me that grant
   A really big grant
Oh, Get me that grant
   A whopping big grant

Gimme that grant now
   How else can we learn?
I want it real bad now
   Else the world will burn!

And now for brilliance. Let’s make this a collaborative effort. Everybody join in and provide your own songs. But the time we’re finished even the fishes in the sea will be humming our tunes and then the world will be a better place!

My Genes Made Me Vote For Obama: Predisposed Reviewed

My brain made me pick this image.

My brain made me pick this image.

Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences by John Hibbing, Kevin Smith, and John Alford.

If a conservative is a person who clings to what is, who resists change and who distrusts innovation, then, to pick an example at random, a New York Times op-ed writer is a conservative. The last thing anybody who works at that paper wants is a change in the culture. Except for eliminating his enemies, he wants everything to stay just as it is.

What’s a liberal? Somebody who delights in the new? Who’s willing to take risks? Who thrills venturing into the unknown? Who is happy to leave other people alone as long as they leave him alone? Then, brother, Yours Truly is as liberal as they come. The last thing I want is a continuance of Modernity.

Maybe I had no choice except to be so liberal. Maybe each of us born with our politics and there’s nothing we can do about it. Why, babies born and raised in China, Kenya, or Fiji, were they transported here as eighteen-year-olds, would surely line up reflexively at the polls behind the jackass or elephant.

Sound strange? Well the key thesis behind Hibbing’s book is that we can “measure preferences on bedrock dilemmas and [that] these preferences should line up with political attitudes and beliefs in any given historical or cultural context” (emphasis original). Neuro- or bio-politics, as it were, is a new field, and one for which I have some sympathy. Our biology surely accounts for some of our behavior.

Yet I can’t figure the academy out. Haven’t we heard we’re all born equal, that none of us are different except for the pernicious or beneficent environment in which we were raised?

Take a lump of genes wrapped in skin and from birth let it live with two adults (let’s not be judgmental and call them “parents”) who listen to NPR, shop for organic food, and who attend marches for X Rights (where X is variable), and that lump will grow up to be one of the bien pensant. Or let him slog it out with a blue-collar mom and dad who watch Fox News, eat donuts, go to church, and attend Fourth of July parades. Then the lump will turn into Patrick Buchanan. Or Yours Truly. Environment and education—nurture, that is—rules.

But the academy also tells us there is no such thing as free will, that our genes our “selfish”, that our choices are made for us by that which is us biologically but not us mentally, that our behavior is hard-wired, that the reason we don’t like arugula is because of this gene, and the reason we are generous is because of that gene.

Hibbing and pals are somewhere in the middle—definitely not in the first camp. The view that “social context alone determines human behavior…has been a source of misunderstanding and even catastrophe throughout history.” Biology plays an under-appreciated role.

For example, they say it is because of biology that men are more likely to be math geniuses than women—no! Wait. No, no. That can’t be right. I correct myself. Absolutely not. Math ability can’t be genetic. Do you think these guys are some kind of sexists? No, sir. What Hibbing and others say is that the way we act politically is partly genetic.

They have the statistics to prove it. Weak, almost non-existent-correlation, small-sample, based-on-questionnaires, limited-applicability statistics. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a larger collection of maybes, perhaps, probablys, could bes, supposings, possibles.

Here’s the problem. To prove any biological component of ideology you first have to separate the sheep from the goats. Only way to do that is to ask questions, which must be shaded such that divisions can be found, further supposing these divisions are forever fixed. These divisions will be fuzzy and accompanied by great uncertainty. Next is to investigate some ideologically driven behavior, like (they claim) smell preference or what jokes people think funny. That, too, will be measured with error. Last is to correlate the two measures (almost always using a straight line) and report on statistical “significance.” Unless the measurement error is accounted for, which is never is, the conclusions will be far, far too certain, which (as far as I could tell) they always were for the studies reported in this book.

Nobody outside the academy disagrees that biology is influential in our makeup. Some people are naturally delightful, like Yours Truly, and some are naturally bitter pills, like Harry Reid. Some of us are inveterately honest (me) and others choke on the truth (Reid). Others have massive intellects (you know who) while some can only parrot easily won slogans (thanks, Nevada). And we won’t even mention pure physical handsomeness.

Yet biology cannot be fully determinative. Identical twins don’t act in lockstep. The few studies Hibbing cites show twins are often found to be on opposite sides of the same questions, but perhaps not quite to the same rate as non-identical siblings. Environment plays its part: our intellects are ever at work. A man who was a liberal (as that word is commonly thought of) for much of his life can change to be a conservative, and vice versa.

The biological signal of political views is weak at best. I was convinced by none of the studies described in the book, all of which used the kinds of classical statistics (p-values, mostly) which guarantee over-certainty. Though there is enough evidence (from the book and elsewhere) to say biology is often determinative. Why didn’t the authors look to, say, intelligence, which has a robust biological signal? Too political: the findings go in the wrong direction.

Anyway, the authors are keen on their program: they claim their research will bring happiness to one and all by drawing a parallel argument about the course of the politics of homosexuality.

If recognizing that sexual orientation is anchored partially in biology leads to greater tolerance of different lifestyle choices, recognizing that political ideology is also tied to biology will lead to greater tolerance of different political viewpoints.

My knuckles locked up on writing “lifestyle choices” (thank God for the lubricating powers of whiskey), and there is hardly definitive proof how much if any homosexuality is caused by biology (but let that pass), but this is balderdash. I’ll tell you what will be “recognized.” When somebody disagrees with a progressive on a political point, he’ll recognize that his opponent is genetically defective. God help us when genetics testing becomes (more) commonplace than it is (especially in abortion decisions).

A last funny thing. The studies of political differences due to biology strangely always come down on the side of liberals. I keep a list of these studies (here and here) and they invariably paint a dark picture of traditionalists. Oh, and yes: there are increasing calls for selective breeding.

Another Fool Calls For My Arrest: Or, Adam Weinstein Slips A Nut

Whinestein receives his orders via wire.

Whinestein receives his orders via wire.

Another eek-screeching scrawny-brained bug-witted pretty-boy addled cancerous ferret has called for my arrest.

My crime? Sanity.

Adam Weinstein (@AdamWeinstein), writing at a place with the puerile name of “Gawker”—come to think of it, only peeping Toms could reason so badly—demands “Arrest Climate-Change Deniers.

Arrest. As in detain by force and incarcerate. For how long, pretty boy never says. Deniers. As in those who have rationally concluded that more than two decades of busted forecasts can only mean that apocalyptic global warming must be false.

Whinestein is in bad company. He joins professor Rod Lamberts, who says the ends justify the means when dealing with “deniers”, and professor and Queen of Smug Lawrence Torcello who is convinced dark forces have banded together against him.

There used to be a name for these sorts of walking wounded, men whose brains have ceased performing their customary duties, but in modern psychology everything and nothing is a disease, so there is no point in using it.

“Man-made climate change kills a lot of people,” says Whinestein. Now it is useless telling this overgrown child that this statement is laughably false. He has constructed a wall of Legos under his mother’s kitchen table to block information like this from seeping in. There he sits, crouched in his safe gloomy murk, aligning his toy soldiers as they battle for All Mankind. If you needed proof of the danger of reading comic books past the age of twenty, this is it.

A man would have to have cheese between the ears to post in block letters above a picture the words “Consensus: 97% of climate scientist agree” and fail to realize that therefore there are 3% of climate scientists who disagree with the “Consensus.” We could therefore ask Whinestein how many of these scientists he would cart off to concentration camps if we didn’t already know his mathematical skills do not allow him to count past his twelve toes.

And anyway, that 97% is overblown by an order of magnitude. Dear activists: this means the number is too big; hold your arms apart to get an idea how big. Whinestein says he wouldn’t shoot actual scientists who disagree with his non-considered opinion, only those who repeat what the scientists who disagree with him say. Make sense? Expecting sense from a progressive is like standing on Wilshire Boulevard awaiting the Stage Coach. No matter how earnestly you desire it, it isn’t going to come.

Like Lamberts and Torcello, Whinestein believes he has stumbled across the Protocols of the Elders of Oil. Just like the 300-pound Wellesley graduate (major: Womyn’s Studies) who swears she was abducted by Greys and probed lovingly over a long weekend, Whinestein is on the corner screaming, “The truth is out there!” at passersby.

Conspiracy is always the first refuge of zealots. The ignorant, being ignorant, are unable to fathom that others can’t see the hidden patterns which are so plain to them. Those who disagree must be evil, and are therefore fair game for the firing squad.

I’ve told this so many times I’m sick of repeating it. Just once more. Whereas Whinestein is well compensated for his fact-free global warming rants, Yours Truly has never accepted consideration of any kind for his advice. Not that I didn’t and don’t want to. But nobody ever offered it and those I asked said come back next week—but next week never came. On the contrary, my reasoned skepticism has cost me plenty.

Just last week, I had a job lined up that would have been perfect. My dream job. But the organization came back, “Sorry, we don’t want to be associated with deniers or denial.” Me they liked. But they were frightened of foamy-mouthed knuckle-draggers like Whinestein. Last thing a businessman wants is to come to work and see monkeys ooking and eeking and swarming the shrubbery lining the parking lot. It’s a distraction.

I thus invite pretty boy Whinestein or lusty Lamberts or twiggy Torcello or any Gaiaian caped crusader—readers, please email these…these entities for me—to name the time and place and I’ll be there. There they can try their luck arresting me.

Update Reader Brad R reminds us of Richard ‘Killer’ Parncutt.

The Coming Schism

See these guys? Well don’t get used to it.

Maybe it’s not a schism but apostasy which I mean. Doesn’t matter. Continuing in our Curmudgeon Series, here are my guesses of the course of Christianity in the West over the next twenty years. Each point below deserves its own essay: these are rough points.

I am no prophet. And my political predictions have a mixed record—whatever you do, don’t ask me who will win a presidential election; though I’m driving ‘em in on social matters, boy. What follows is just a lot of Saturday mornin’ supposin’.

I invite you to play along in the comments. But let’s please keep emotion out of it. We’re making predictions here, not judgments. And how dare we if we do! I beg you, no arguments about right and wrong. We’re all forecasters today.


So the Church of England lost no time after the legalization of homosexual “marriage” in “signaling” its willingness to support these unions. It hasn’t accepted them yet, but will.

Traditionalists (for lack of a better word, but you know who I mean) aren’t happy. Most will grumble, carp, and bray, but when they see their local bishop mount the altar and say “I pronounce thee man and man”, they’ll accept it. Too much work to break a lifetime’s habit or to find a new church. But compromise in matters of faith is not enervating.

The hardcore (how inapt a term!) will vamoose, in spurts and in small numbers. The CofE will attempt to placate some groups by allowing them to hold to the past as they did for female ordinates, but these compromises won’t last. The Catholic church will be the beneficiary of the escapees, as will a few smaller denominations.

Same situation will play out in other Western countries, with the Protestants folding faster than a TV table sat on by an offensive linesman. Since elites of secular institutions only truly care about elites at other institutions, the leadership of these churches won’t want to fall behind the CofE. They’ll issue cheerful press releases boasting love and then arm wrestle for who gets to perform the first homosexual ceremony. Most denominations already allow homosexual clergy.

Theologically, since going to a service at a mainline Protestant church will increasingly be no different than reading the New York Times or Guardian op-ed section, which is more convenient and saves on gas, those willing to make the trek will dwindle and die off. If you’re in the market for an old church (aren’t they quaint?), look to the Methodists and Presbyterians. Besides, members are tired of being called stupid and irrational by the culture.

Evangelicals are going to benefit; or, rather, won’t see much change. Some already allow female ordination (as it were), so that’s not going to be a problem. But an Assemblies of God congregation in Oklahoma allowing a homosexual union or supporting abortion? Better chance of Harry Reid becoming a Republican. (I can hear my progressive readers thinking to themselves, “Who or what are the Assemblies of God?”)

Still, the children of folks from evangelical households will leak out like pinholes in a balloon. On the other hand, since these churches will absorb the fallout from mainline Protestants, they’ll stay at the same levels or possibly grow slightly (as a percentage of population, factoring in Muslim and Hindu immigration, of course). The Southern Baptists might split (again; see the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship); even now a few of the churches are becoming more like mainline Protestant ones.

Mormons won’t move much theologically, except to continue to put more shade over their doctrines, but because of their encouragement to have kids and eschew divorce and abortions (which mainline Protestants certainly do not), they will continue to grow. I don’t think they’ll become very large. The theology is too difficult for newcomers to swallow.

The leaves Orthodoxy and Catholicism. Orthodoxy now has state support in Russia and elsewhere. Neither group is going to budge on homosexual “marriage”, on female ordination, on abortion, on divorce, on birth control, on anything.

But their flocks will: budge, I mean. Many will fly away (flying sheep?) especially when reminded of Church teachings (a group of kids at a Catholic school freaked out when told by a nun what the Church’s position on homosexuality was). Homosexual “marriage” isn’t as divisive for these groups, not when compared to female ordination and the deep desire for abortion. Way it works now is that lefty priests ignore the official teachings and go their own way as much as possible. These congregations become functionally Protestant and have declining attendance, and many close.

The Orthodox, particularly where they have state support (like Russia) will be stable. Catholics? Somebody soon will hit on the idea of forming their own church. They’ll call it the American Catholic Church (or whatever) and claim to still be part of the Roman church. There will be much joy as the first female “priest” is ordained, but the morning after they discover they’re on their own will be the beginning of their end. (Just wait for the disputes over money! Some women have already been so “ordained.”) This schism will make the most noise because people recognize the Catholic church for what it is.

Many will still call themselves Christians, but there’s going to be far fewer mass-service-attending people in twenty years. Those that remain will be holy terrors.

Update Popular pastime. Priest weighs in with his own.

Update I stupidly forgot “transgendered” “rights.” Maryland 18th state to allow people to change their birth certificates to whatever “gender” individuals prefer. You figure the effect.

Update It’s in the air. A guy even gloomier than I.

Update Incidentally, we Westerners are very bad thinking about non-Westerners.

Update Well well. Some U.S. dioceses are reporting that 2014 will be an unusually fruitful year, in terms of the number of people welcomed into the Church. “For someone brought up in a Protestant tradition, finding the roots of Catholic doctrine in the Bible can be particularly helpful, Phillips said.”

Party’s Over, Baby: The Twilight of Abundance Reviewed

Not quite the end of the world.

The Twilight of Abundance: Why Life in the 21st Century Will Be Nasty, Brutish, and Short by David Archibald, visiting Fellow Institute of World Politics.

I am a curmudgeon, which is to say, a realist. Curmudgeons get a rough deal from society. Most think us permanently grimaced gloomy sourpusses whose only pleasures come from yelling at kids to get off our lawns and from contemplating the various awful ways the world will come to its inevitable and well-deserved end.

This is unfair. We are all those things, yes, but we are also healthy, robust souls. The inner peace which is a natural consequence of being right all the time—”I told you so” is ever on our lips—is why we live so long.

David Archibald is one of us, long may he live.

The good times, says he, the times of plenty and unbridled optimism, the times of cheap energy and unlimited economic growth, the times of warm summer afternoons and surplus crops, are over. What can we look forward to? Intemperate, possibly much colder, weather, failed crops, localized starvation, demographic collapse, mechanized theological disputes, increasing tribalization, wars of territorial conquest, societal conflicts, inflation, governmental encroachment—in other words, a return to normalcy. The End of History is not yet.

What can we do about it? Not much.

There is where Archibald excels. In the same manner as John Derbyshire’s classic We Are Doomed, Archibald sees no simple—read “ideological”—solutions, or, indeed, any solutions. He never, not even once, is tempted to say if only. If only everybody believed X, the world would be saved. If only the government acted, the world would be saved. If only if only. The closest he comes is to softly plead for government to get out of the way and let people figure things out for themselves. Which none of us think will happen.

Derbyshire showed us how Western culture will die (suicide), and Archibald outlines how the rest of the world will fare in the areas of climate, food, and political relations.

The frenzy that was Global Warming, which Archibald rightly calls a “millenarian cult”, is on its last legs. The notorious Climategate emails convinced all but bug-eyed zealots that the “peer-reviewed” “science” was largely a political concoction (Archibald provides a nice summary). The reason global warming was so eagerly embraced is because supporters loved the consequences—government should grow to handle the “crisis”—and because of religion—Gaia was pure until the cancer Man infected it, etc., etc.

Climate models have predicted temperatures that would go up, up, and away! Too bad for the models that the actual temperatures went the opposite direction (for almost 20 years now). Normally scientists abandon models which give failed predictions. When they don’t, which they haven’t, we’re right to suspect they’re not doing science.

Belief in manmade global warming depends on acting as if the laws of physics are suspended and we are living in a special time in which the climate is changing apart from the hand on man. In a sense we are actually living in a special time relative to the last 3 million years. The special time we live in is an interglacial period—a temporary respite in that ice age.

Archibald thinks the cool weather is caused by the sun, particularly the sunspot cycle, which has been shown to have a correlation with global temperatures. Periods with high numbers of sunspots are on average warmer: the last peak coincided with an increased temperature in the late 1990s, early 2000s (also the height of global warming panic). Periods with low numbers are on average colder. The correlation has proved regular and historically consequential.

We’re in a low period now, and, sure enough, it’s been a long cold winter. This low period is expected to last (according to reasonably good forecasts) for another one to two decades. And did I mention that another glaciation is on the way because of the earth’s orbital changes? It’ll be some time before it gets here, but the trend is down. Don’t put away the snow shovels.

Update [I goofed and mixed up volcanoes: Laki was in 1783 and caused grief, but the real ones was Tambora.] Then there was the Year Without A Summer, caused in 1816, eruption of Tambora. The dust blocked the summer sunlight and it never did get warm in the Northern hemisphere that year. Volcanoes do what volcanoes do, even in the presence of beneficent governments. The danger is that, if the sunspot-cold weather forecast is right and a volcano pops off, we could be in some pretty deep kimchee. The chance of this happening nobody knows. But even without the volcano, we should see colder weather.

That means smaller crop yields. Not such a big deal for countries like Canada (Archibald is never flustered and recommends they shift to winter wheat), USA, China, Russia, and a few others which provide enough for their citizens. But for a whole swath of nations which buy much of their food, there will be trouble. Here is a list of countries which import about two-thirds or more of their food: Afghanistan, Egypt, Yemen, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Israel, Iraq, Iran. No curmudgeon worthy of his title will need more information than this. Readers who are still progressives will have to buy Archibald’s book to learn the exciting details.

Archibald reminds, “The world’s last major starvation event was the Indian drought of 1967, which killed about 1 million people.” He means the last weather-caused event. China holds the record, with Russia right behind, of killings by government; a good order-of-magnitude guess is 100 million slaughtered in the name of Equality (about these countries, more in a moment). Ireland also had notable troubles due to crop failures, and everyone knows about Africa. The takeaway point is the curmudgeon’s rule-of-thumb: if it happened before, it will happen again, and it’ll probably be worse.

When country A has something country B wants, like food or land, and country B doesn’t want to part with it, country A, if sufficiently emboldened, might try and seize the thing against country B’s wishes. Right, Vladimir? Or it could be that country A simply hates country B, or that country A wants to build up his street cred.

If shortages of energy and food appear, which is a good bet at least at regional levels, then troubles will begin. Add to that Iran’s hatred of Israel, China smarting from what they see as a hundred-some years of taking it in the neck from the world (Opium Wars, foreign support of Chiang Kai-shek, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, etc., etc.), Japan still feeling its oats (one last hurrah before the nurseries close forever?), Pakistan displeased with India and Afghanistan (“In what [in 1971] was called Operation Searchlight, the Pakistani army duly killed 3 million people in what is now Bangladesh”; if it happened before…), and don’t let’s forget Africa and the recommunisation of South America. Venezuelans are already forced to stand in food lines.

Archibald outlines various scenarios for the fun which awaits us, including an eleven-page Tom-Clancy-like account from Wing Commander Peter Mills (Royal Australian Air Force) of how China might unleash its inner dragon. It’s even money whether Iran or Pakistan is the first to use nukes, though it would be foolish to count the Middle Kingdom out.

How much oil is left? Nobody knows. A hint might be that production peaked a few years back. One reason is the old wells, of course, must eventually run low, and even dry. A second is an amok environmental movement which has put a halt to new drilling, has frightened governments into believing coal and natural gas will cause catastrophic global warming, has effectively barred investments in coal-to-liquid and natural gas technologies, and so on.

How about nuclear—boo!—power? Environmentalists can’t even hear that word—nuclear: boo!—without shivering out of their socks. Fukushima didn’t help proponents, either. I happened to be in San Francisco right after the plant popped off and witnessed a run on iodized salt in Chinatown. Blue cans of salt were rolling down Stockton street as people tore into boxes of the stuff. The frenzy was the direct fault of this country’s Surgeon General warning people that radiation—boo!—was on its way and that taking iodized salt was a good precaution. Too bad the statistics show radiation isn’t as harmful as Hollywood thinks, and is probably even beneficial at low levels.

The best route to energy “independence” is a government which gets out of the way of innovation. Good work is being done with thorium reactors, but you rarely hear of it. Instead we get an EPA (which arms its agents) which, while protecting puddles as “wet lands”, touts wind farms (Bye Bye Birdie) and electric cars. We also turn a good portion of our food into “clean” fuel.

A nice touch of Archibald’s is opening each chapter with a quotation from the Revelation of St John. This puts the reader in the right frame of mind—melancholy. This is the curmudgeon’s natural state, and so we find ourselves nodding when he concludes, “The age of abundance is now long over, and a much darker future awaits the unprepared.”

Will we, now suitably warned, thus prepare ourselves?

Of course not.

Update Lest the state sink its icy claws into me, I hereby inform you that Archibald kindly gave me a copy of his book.

Update Archibald an alarmist? Good grief! I would have thought regular readers would have been the first to agree that all is not well in the world.