William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

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10 Misunderstood Scientific Ideas

The man sitting is about to enjoy a pinch of all-natural arsenic in his organic artisinal whiskey.

The man sitting is about to enjoy a pinch of all-natural arsenic in his 100% organic artisanal hand-crafted whiskey.

Friday, time to relax. From reader Ken Steele comes a link to io9′s “10 Scientific Ideas That Scientists Wish You Would Stop Misusing” which will be fun to peruse.

Can we think of more than 10?

1. Proof

Even scientists get this wrong. Proof means incontrovertible indubitable doubt-free evidence that a proposition is true. It is not almost true or mostly true or I-think true or true enough true. How many scientific theories have been proven in this sense? None that I know of.

Proof is for metaphysics, not physics, for math and logic.

2. Theory

Good that this one follows because it’s even more misused. A theory is a set of propositions/premises. Theories can thus be true, as in proven true. But that means we’re in the realm of mathematics.

Most theories are not true in the sense of proved true, but are only “mostly true” or “true enough”, or “true such that the exceptions we have noted are not now of any consequence.”

Still more theories are vague, or only suspicions. Some are contrary to observation but loved all the same, like “global climate disruption.”

When you hear theory, you haven’t heard much.

3. Quantum Uncertainty and Quantum Weirdness

Quantum means discrete. In only it were called Discrete Mechanics! And uncertainty means unknown not uncaused.

Everybody is always mixing up ontology (existence) with epistemology (knowledge of existence). Just because you don’t know where Pittsburgh is doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

4. Learned vs. Innate

It is the nature, i.e. it is innate, of men that they can learn languages, but nobody is predisposed, thank the Lord, to learn French. Identical twins do not act always identically. Nobody has to learn to eat, but only the most perspicacious come to enjoy duck tongue (yum!).

Are these terms really that misused?

5. Natural

In one sense, whatever is is natural, in another it is that which acts in accord with its end, in another it is whatever man had nothing to do with—which is very little. All species work together in one vast brotherhood, mostly one that finds each other tasty. Man is one among many. We’re natural. Get over it.

6. Gene

It took 25 scientists two contentious days to come up with: “a locatable region of genomic sequence, corresponding to a unit of inheritance, which is associated with regulatory regions, transcribed regions and/or other functional sequence regions.”

I had a gene for making me write that. My genes are exceedingly selfish and make me do all sorts of things I have no interest in doing.

7. Statistically Significant

Die die die die die die die!

If I were emperor, besides having my subjects lay me in an amply supply of duck tongue, I’d forever banish this term. Anybody found using it would be exiled to Brussels or to any building that won an architectural award since 2000. I’d also ban the theory that gave rise to the term. More harm has been done to scientific thought with this phrase than with any other. It breeds scientism.

Unsignificant Statistics: Or Die P-Value Die Die Die and many more.

8. Survival of the Fittest


Fittest does not mean strongest, or smartest. It simply means an organism that fits best into its environment, which could mean anything from “smallest” or “squishiest” to “most poisonous” or “best able to live without water for weeks at a time.” Plus, creatures don’t always evolve in a way that we can explain as adaptations. Their evolutionary path may have more to do with random mutations, or traits that other members of their species find attractive.

Excepting the wanton violence done to random, this is what people mean by “Survival of the Fittest”, isn’t it? io9 quotes biologist Jacquelyn Gill: “there’s major confusion about evolution in general, including the persistent idea that evolution is progressive and directional”. Gee. Where would people get that idea? The observed increased complexity must be an illusion. Or coincidence.

9. Geologic Timescales

I have the suspicion this one is included so that title wouldn’t have to read “9 Scientific Ideas…” I can’t recall knowing anybody who misunderstood that a million years were greater than a thousand.

10. Organic

I only eat inorganic food. It’s cheaper.

I’ve never understood post-Christian food religions.

Climate Change Summer Camp!


“The National Park Service (NPS) is spending $140,368 to fly 10 students to Sydney, Australia so they can experience a ‘climate change journey.‘…The grant [which supports this odyssey] also includes funding to employ a graphic recorder, a person to draw the group’s ideas on paper, to ‘help facilitate the youth participation at the Congress.’” Much of what follows is, unfortunately, not made up.

Jayden: Gee, Professor Denning, that’s cool!

Denning: Yes. You see, Hayden—

Jayden: —I’m Jayden. He’s Hayden.

Aiden: No, I’m Aiden. He’s Hayden.

Jayden: Oh, yeah. Sorry.

Denning: Yes. Well, you see boys—and you girls, too! I meant young ladies! No, wait. I mean…wait. Children. No, sorry. We can’t be judgmental. Young adults. You see, young adults, Graphic Recording isn’t just playing with crayons.

Jayden: It isn’t?

Denning: No, no. But many lesser people think it is. You see, climate change is so important that we owe a service to all humanity to record our Climate Change Journey. Future generations will be in our debt.

Jayden: But it feels like coloring.

Denning: To the laymen. Only to those who don’t know better, like us. To us, who are climatologically aware, it is full of deep meaning. Let me quote to you from the source: “Graphic recording (also referred to as reflective graphics, graphic listening, etc.) involves capturing people’s ideas and expressions—in words, images and color—as they are being spoken in the moment…it helps to illuminate how we as people connect, contribute, learn and make meaning together.

Colorful pens on the tables and a plentiful supply of blank paper provide the opportunity for participants to write down the key words, phrases, images and symbols that reflect ideas emerging in their conversations.

By viewing the drawings and musings at various tables, participants begin to see patterns emerging; the collective wisdom of the group starts to become more visible and accessible.

When a recorder works in large format, a record of the proceedings is visible for all to see. Enabling people to see their contribution to the whole increases participation and fosters trust and connection and the large displays of themes and insights naturally weave together diverse perspectives into a composite “picture” that reflects the collective intelligence in the room.”

Jayden, Aiden, Hayden: Gosh! Gee! Golly!

Denning: Our collective wisdom—for we are wise!—our wisdom, I say, will be preserved for the ages! Just wait until the press sees our drawings!

Aiden, Hayden: Cool.

Jayden: I don’t get it, professor. I don’t even know what a climate is. My mom says it’s something bad. That’s why she sent me on this journey. I’m supposed to learn about how bad it is.

Denning: It is bad, Payden. As bad as it can get! It’s worse than we thought! This camp, this identified journey, may be our last chance!

Jayden: But what’s bad, professor?

Denning: Why, the climate! It’s positively awful! It’s cataclysmic! It’s Thermageddon!

Jayden: Gosh! Now I’m scared. But…we will be able to go swimming later? My mom made me bring my bathing suit.

Denning: Swimming? Why, of course. It’s a beautiful day. However, we can’t go until we’ve all filled out our “Letters to A Denier.” Don’t forget to be harsh: it’s for their own good. I may even let you get away with using—[giggles]—bad words.

Aiden: I’m calling them stupid faces!

Hayden: Yeah—Stoopy-poopy faces!

Denning: And don’t forget this afternoon we have our Hope session.

Jayden: I hope we get to go swimming.

Denning: Naughty boy! By “Hope”, I’m referring to our Circles of Climate Awareness. This is where we kick off our shoes, gather into a circle, and where I, your leader, lead us in positive-thinking Climate Chants and other meditative exercises. We really dialogue.

Jayden: What’s a dialogue?

Denning: That’s where we tell deniers why they’re wrong, really force them to understand their mistakes. That’s the first part. But it takes two sides to dialogue. The second part is where we let deniers admit their mistakes. The ones that do so publicly are rewarded.

Jayden: Gosh.

Denning: It’s really rather beautiful. After the Hope session—and, yes, we can do swimming after that: the Park Service has arranged a crab and lobster cookout for us on the beach [kids cheer]—anyway, after Hope comes our finale, the Perceptions of Awareness.

This is our final gathering, where we come together in a spirit of nonjudgmentalism and dialogue about how much other people—people not like us—don’t know. It’s our last chance to discuss how we feel, really feel, about climate change. It’s what Science is all about!

What I Have Learned From Global Warming: Contest Winner Essays

Global warming will cause an increase in clement afternoons.

Global warming will cause an increase in clement afternoons.

Two of the essays from the winners of the Rename Global Warming Contest are in! A big hand from all, please. More are to come—when the winners send them in!

Alan Cooper: “The Anthropaclysm”

The most important thing I have learned from Global Warming (so far) is that I have probably been right in giving significant credence to predictions based on general scientific principles. More specifically, I have learned to take seriously the predictions of basic physics when made in the context of the simplest model that fits the known facts without introducing additional variables whose values and effects are less well understood. But since I am not dead yet (and hope not to stop learning before I am), I could find no way of addressing the topic without including that extra word in the title.

When the simplest scientific models predict something, it really should be considered as quite likely to happen—even if deniers and naysayers are able to point out various more complicated models in which the predicted effect may be reduced or counteracted by various other secondary effects. In the case of CO2 induced global warming, it was of course conceivable (before measurements proved otherwise) that the predicted absorption of outgoing radiation might be limited by saturation of CO2 energy levels (after all, if equipartition could not be at least temporarily defeated then lasers would be impossible); and if bicarbonate can buffer the addition of acids or bases to a solution then perhaps something could similarly damp the effects of atmospheric CO2; or maybe the global surface temperature is automatically stabilized by an increase in reflective cloud cover whenever the temperature goes up a bit, etc. etc.

All of these scenarios could of course have prevented global warming, but each is dependent on very special circumstances that we had no reason to expect were actually the case—and for each anti-warming scenario it was equally easy to come up with some hypothetical mechanism for amplifying rather than damping. So now that the trend is becoming clear, perhaps more and more people will see that banking on complicated second order effects as an excuse to postpone mitigating action against something predicted by a simple and clear first order argument was foolish. In this case it might well turn out to have been the most foolhardy and irresponsible and ultimately harmful act in the history of humanity.

Let’s hope that others learn quickly enough so that as a species we can keep my extra word in the title—at least until the phenomenon really is history, because if it becomes “What We Learned” within the century or more that it will take to reliably stabilize our impact on the climate, then that will only be in our epitaph.

Tom Scharf, “Ecopocalatastrophe”

Thank for you this glorious honor.

I have learned that only through new euphemisms can we hope to raise public awareness that anything undesirable in people’s lives has been caused by global warming, and is destined to get much worse. Additionally people must understand that life’s joys will come only rarely, if at all, if we continue our present destructive course. My hope is that through an improved and well-informed communication strategy we will be able to reach the masses in an emotional manner.

This will encourage many more people to join the courageous alliance of those who wish to further mankind’s future through a new and innovative social order that will foster the proper reverence for our one and only fragile ecosystem. We are at a fork in the road, we can choose a path that our grandchildren will recognize the sacrifices we make for their benefit, or we can continue down a path of darkness that jeopardizes their very existence. The choice is ours, and I appeal to the better nature in us all that we choose wisely.

Making Gay Okay Reviewed. Part I, The Acts

reillyMaking Gay Okay: How Rationalizing Homosexual Behavior Is Changing Everything, by Robert R. Reilly (Ignatius Press: sample chapter).

It’s common in medicine to track men who have (or who simulate) sex with men, instead of asking patients whether they are “gay” or “homosexual”. This is abbreviated “MSM.” The letters for women aren’t as common, but let’s write WSW. In fact, let’s write PSP for people who simulate sex with those of the same sex.

Men can only have sexual intercourse with women, so that when two men or two women engage in certain acts, these can only be simulations and not the “real thing.” Also, the words “gay” and “homosexual” are variable, troublesome, and not universally accepted (are men in prison who engage in certain acts with other men “gay”?); thus, PSP is as neutral a word or term as we’re likely to get.

About these simulations: in particular, sodomy (this applies to both man-on-man and the much rarer man-on-woman). Is it moral or immoral? Normal or abnormal? Natural or unnatural? Disgusting or relative? Sinful or virtuous? Praiseworthy or disdainful? Nobody’s business or everybody’s business? If unhealthy, should it be banned? If immoral, should it be unlawful? Given the heated debate of all things PSP, it’s strange that these questions are scarcely ever asked. Reilly asks, and answers.

But first a distinction. Let us take an act, say, helping an old lady across the street. The act is praiseworthy per se, irrespective of the person carrying out the act, a person who may or may not have had good motives for committing the act and who may be at heart an evil or holy person (a person carrying out a per se praiseworthy act for an immoral reason is still acting immorally, just as a person who carries out an immoral act for the good reason is still acting immorally1). That is, we can and must discuss the merits and demerits of this or any act without bringing individuals into the question. It is the act we want to know about, and not the person.

The word natural is ambiguous. In one sense it means whatever is, but in another it means that which acts in accord with its purpose. The yearly murder rate in the USA is about 5 in 100,000, and, though variable, it is somewhat constant in that it was never 0, and nobody expects it ever will be. This rate is natural in the first sense. But we do not say therefore that because murder is natural in the first sense, it is therefore allowable or praiseworthy or moral. Murder is per se wrong because it is an act which is not in accord with the purpose of human beings. It is unknown at what rate old ladies are helped crossing streets, but whatever this “natural” rate is also does not determine the rightness of the act. The act is natural in the second sense, and obviously so.

Pointing to the number of people who engage in an act thus does not give us proof of its rightness or wrongness. We have to look at how the act relates to our purposes or ends. Reilly: “Deeds are considered good or bad, natural or unnatural, in relation to the effect they have on man’s progress toward his end in achieving the good.” The Good, according to Aristotle and many other profound thinkers, is the fulfillment of a thing or being’s essence or nature (a third meaning). Thus was born the Natural Law, which we will discuss later. For now, accept only that one of the ends of which the human body is directed is health, the idea that, in general, it is better to be healthy than ill (there are exceptions, like a man jumping on a grenade to save his comrades, etc.).

Sodomy is not healthy; it is not an act which is directed toward the health of either participant. Reilly reminds us of this quote from Aristotle, from his Ethics: “‘Those who love for the sake of pleasure do so for the sake of what is pleasant to themselves, and not in so far as the other person is loved’ (emphasis in original).” Reilly uses this example, which ties health to the natural end of an thing:

A person stuffing objects into his ears is endangering his hearing, because he could puncture his eardrums or precipitate an infection. Ears are made for hearing, not for the storage of objects. Using them for the latter endangers the former. Any responsible person would advise someone stuffing objects into his ears not to do this because of the harm it could bring.

The “made for” is derived from Natural Law, which again we do not discuss today, though in the case of ears being “made for” hearing, few would object. In the same sense, we say the southernmost end of the human alimentary tract is made for the evacuation of waste material. This appears indisputable; nevertheless, it is disputed. But, like sticking sharp pencils into ear canals, objects inserted into the human anus tend to (it is in their nature) to cause damage and bring disease.

Reilly lists many of these damages and diseases, removing most to an appendix because they are not pleasant to contemplate. He also includes damages and diseases occurring to WSW, as many acts in which these people participate differ from regular procreative practices and are thus also dangerous.

This material can be found in the medical literature, where it is a specialty, though it’s unlikely to be familiar to many (e.g. type “MSM” into PubMed). A good survey is provided by Dr John Diggs: “The list of diseases found with extraordinary frequency among male homosexual practitioners as a result of anal intercourse is alarming: Anal Cancer, Chlamydia trachomatis, Cryptosporidium, Giardia lamblia, Herpes simplex virus, Human immunodeficiency virus, Human papilloma virus, Isospora belli, Microsporidia, Gonorrhea, Viral hepatitis types B & C, Syphilis” to name a few, including mechanical damages (tears, etc.), much lower life expectancy; there is also that which follows after the act due to uncleanliness and incaution (certain oral-alimentary-tract practices); the frequent appearance of certain drugs. Diggs also relates the departures from health due to other non-procreative activities. All of these maladies and misfortunes occur at rates far, far exceeding man-woman (true) sexual practices. Reilly shows, for example, that there is a 4,000 percent increase in anal cancer rates for those who practice sodomy.

HIV/AIDS is of course its own category, and though it is more known, it is curiouser than you might have imagined.

All rationalizations for sexual misbehavior, no matter of what sort, are allied to and reinforce one another. The rationalization being complete, anything goes, including “bug chasing”—the new craze in which homosexuals actively seek HIV infection because of the added sexual thrill. They call the men who infect them “gift givers”. One bug chaser said, “It’s all about freedom.”

This passage included a footnote to a 2003 Rolling Stone article “Bug Chasers: The Men Who Long to Be HIV+”. I have only been able to discover snippets of that article2. One source has the article beginning by discussing a man named Carlos, who is brought to consider HIV: “His eyes light up as he says that the actual moment of transmission, the instant he gets HIV, will be ‘the most erotic thing I can imagine.’ He seems like a typical thirty-two-year-old man, but, in fact, he has a secret life. Carlos is chasing the bug.”

There is a Wikipedia entry on Bug Chasing, and searching in the usual way brings up a wealth of literature. There is even a new book advocating the chase by W. C. Harris who (says Taki magazine’s Christopher Hart) is “a radical gay activist and Professor of Queer Studies and Early American Literature”. The book is Slouching Towards Gaytheism: Christianity and Queer Survival in America. There are many intriguing passages in Hart’s review, but this one stands out:

“Breeding the virus in another man’s body develops new kinships,” explains Harris (rather than, say, new burdens on health services), and they become one more couple in the “bug brotherhood.” The one who does the infecting is called the daddy, the recipient the son, and such incestuous overtones are also very exciting, argues Professor Harris, for they too are transgressive, subversive, and liberating.

What is indisputable is that sodomy in general, and “bug chasing” in particular, are damaging to one’s health, and are even life-threatening. It is also true that these are all avoidable risks, that the risks are based on willful acts. It is also true that people who were always celibate or always monogamous (in the literal interpretation of these words) face disease risks at or near zero (exposure to some diseases through, say, blood transfusions or through “dirty needles” are always possible).

Should physicians be barred from communicating these risks? Should ordinary individuals? Would it be right to call any who communicated these facts a “bigot”? (Facts themselves cannot be bigoted, but their presentation could be.) Is stating, “Sodomy is an enormous health risk” “homophobic”? How about stating, “Sodomy is disgusting”? Should prepubescent children be taught that sodomy is “natural” and “normal”? In the first sense of these words—that it exists—it surely is, but in the second—that it is good or oriented toward health–it surely is not. Or should we let kids come to adulthood before exposing them to their “choices”? Should sodomy be encouraged as an “alternate lifestyle”, even though we know of its harms?

Lastly, dear reader: bug hunting. Good or bad? (It will be interesting to see who avoids this question.)

The reader is cautioned to keep the discussion at a high level. Comments not in accord with gentlemanly or lady-like behavior will be edited or deleted. Let’s also stick to the topic at hand, the act. The history and other cultural consequences we will come to another day. For those tending to apoplexy or who are feeling undue stress over this topic, I recommend this.

Update Somewhat curiously, we seem not to be answering the series of question put to us at the end of this post.


1“It is never acceptable to confuse a ‘subjective’ error about moral good with the ‘objective’ truth rationally proposed to man in virtue of his end, or to make the moral value of an act performed with a true and correct conscience equivalent to the moral value of an act performed by following the judgment of an erroneous conscience. It is possible that the evil done as the result of invincible ignorance or a non-culpable error of judgment may not be imputable to the agent; but even in this case it does not cease to be an evil, a disorder in relation to the truth about the good.” From Veritatis Splendour.

2Reilly listed in a footnote this URL for a PDF copy of the Rolling Stone article, but I was unable to locate it there.

Summary Against Modern Thought: What’s God Like?

This may be proved in three ways. The first...

This may be proved in three ways. The first…

See the first post in this series for an explanation and guide of our tour of Summa Contra Gentiles. All posts are under the category SAMT.

Previous post.

If you haven’t yet been convinced of St Thomas’s argument for God’s existence, re-read all of the posts on Chapter 13, starting with this one. The terminology and concepts we have developed are absolutely necessary to know before continuing on. We have learned that the Unmoved Mover, the Unchanged Changer, must exist, or nothing else could move or change. But that’s all we learned. Today, we start with the consequences of this knowledge. But we’re not doing much in today’s lesson. Is everybody away on vacation?

Chapter 14: That in order to acquire knowledge of God it is necessary to proceed by the way of remotioni

1 ACCORDINGLY having proved that there is a first being which we call God, it behooves us to inquire into His nature.

2 Now in treating of the divine essence the principal method to be followed is that of remotion. For the divine essence by its immensity surpasses every form to which our intellect reaches; and thus we cannot apprehend it by knowing what it is.ii But we have some knowledge thereof by knowing what it is not: and we shall approach all the nearer to the knowledge thereof according as we shall be enabled to remove by our intellect a greater number of things therefrom.iii

For the more completely we see how a thing differs from others, the more perfectly we know it: since each thing has in itself its own being distinct from all other things. Wherefore when we know the definition of a thing, first we place it in a genus, whereby we know in general what it is, and afterwards we add differences, so as to mark its distinction from other things: and thus we arrive at the complete knowledge of a thing’s essence.

3 Since, however, we are unable in treating of the divine essence to take what as a genus, nor can we express its distinction from other things by affirmative differences, we must needs express it by negative differences. Now just as in affirmative differences one restricts another, and brings us the nearer to a complete description of the thing, according as it makes it to differ from more things, so one negative difference is restricted by another that marks a distinction from more things.

Thus, if we say that God is not an accidentiv, we thereby distinguish Him from all accidents; then if we add that He is not a body, we shall distinguish Him also from certain substances, and thus in gradation He will be differentiated by suchlike negations from all beside Himself: and then when He is known as distinct from all things, we shall arrive at a proper consideration of Him. It will not, however, be perfect, because we shall not know what He is in Himself.v

4 Wherefore in order to proceed about the knowledge of God by the way of remotion, let us take as principle that which is already made manifest by what we have said above,[1] namely that God is altogether unchangeable.vi This is also confirmed by the authority of Holy Writ. For it is said (Malach. iii. 6): I am God (Vulg., the Lord) and I change not; (James i. 17): With Whom there is no change; and (Num. xxiii. 19): God is not as a man…that He should be changed.vii


iOED: “The method or process of examining the concept of God by removing everything which is known not to be God; (also) a thing known not to be included in a concept.”

iiThe analogy given earlier is that we can know, say, that infinite numbers exist, and even describe some of their characteristics, but we cannot know everything about the infinite; we certainly cannot experience it. For example, Don Knuth invented the following notation: 10\uparrow 10 = 10^{10} , or 10 billion, where the arrow has replaced the caret, but then 10\uparrow\uparrow 10 , which is 10 raised to the 10 raised to the 10 raised to the 10, etc., 10 times (the arrow iterates the caret) Now that’s a big number! We can write it down all right—Knuth calls it K—but we cannot know it, cannot form a real appreciation for it. It’s too big.

Knuth, a computer scientist, invented the terminology because, as he says in his classic paper, “Finite numbers can be really enormous, and the known universe is very small. Therefore the distinction between finite and infinite is not as relevant as the distinction between realistic and unrealistic.” That’s true for mechanical computer operations, but if you rely, as some are tempted, on “really very big” to replace “infinite”, you’ll go astray. The two just aren’t the same. Even K is still infinitely far from infinity. It is a small number in that sense, but incomprehensibly large to us. But we are not God.

iiiIt’s too tempting not to quote Sherlock Holmes here, expressing a related sentiment: “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”
[1] Ch. xiii.

ivaccident: “In Aristotelian thought: a property or quality not essential to a substance or object; something that does not constitute an essential component, an attribute.” OED again!

vFinite minds cannot grasp the whole of the infinite. Most of us cannot even remember what we had for lunch two weeks ago Tuesday.

viThis was proved in Chapter 13. It’s the Unmoved Move, the Uncaused Cause, the Unchanging Changer. It followed from the premise that whatever is moved is moved by another. The Unmoved Mover is not moved by another, and is therefore unchanging. Now we called this necessary force, the Prime Mover, God, but that to modern ears sounded like a cheat. Why call what after all is a physical force “God”? Well, that’s what we’re about to find out. Not uncoincidentally, Ed Feser was talking about the First Cause argument the other day.

viiThere are any number of poor critiques of Biblical passages in which God is shown to have changed, because, for instance, He “changes his mind.” Atheists are awfully prone to read the Bible everywhere literally and, worse, are then satisfied that they have plumbed all possible depths.

Next week we learn God is eternal. Eternal? Change? What’s that? Stick around.

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