William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

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The Letter The Lancet Wouldn’t Publish

The Lancet's crack team of editors.

The Lancet’s crack team of editors.

Here’s the title of a big new peer-reviewed paper in The Lancet:

Effects of long-term exposure to air pollution on natural-cause mortality: an analysis of 22 European cohorts within the multicentre ESCAPE project

Take your time and answer this question (you will be graded): TRUE or FALSE, scientists measured the effects of air pollution on mortality of a group of folks in Europe.

Come on. After seeing the words effects of air pollution on mortality, what else can you say but TRUE?

It is FALSE, of course. The three or four dozen researchers listed as authors never measured, not even once, the amount of air “pollution” any person was exposed to. Further, every single author knew that the title was false. And so did every editor.

So why was it allowed? What about the children!

No, it was our old friend The Epidemiologist Fallacy, a.k.a. the ecological fallacy. Nothing is better at generating papers—the currency in academia—than Old Reliable. Using it is vastly cheaper than relying on reality, which often lets scientists down (right, Gav?). I beg you will read the linked article to understand this ubiquitous menace and driver of scientism.

Not only wasn’t air “pollution” (dust, mostly) measured on individuals, but the proxies of air “pollution” weren’t even measured at the same time as mortality. And not only that, but, well, read the letter, which has it all.

The three of us submitted, fixed, and resubmitted a letter which explained the shortcomings of the Beelen et al., not asking it to be withdrawn—if journals withdrew epidemiologist fallacy papers, there would be oceans of blank pages—but to highlight the false claims made.

Alas, observation rarely trumps theory (right, Gav?). The Lancet decided not to publish and to let the paper stand, doubtless reasoning that since so many others used the epidemiologist fallacy, and got away with it, there was no reason Beelen shouldn’t, too. And anyway, it’s embarrassing to admit to error.

The epidemiologist’s fallacy – yet another example

Yours Truly

Pieternella S. Verhoeven
Associate professor at the Roosevelt Academy, Middelburg, the Netherlands
Head of the Institute of Undergraduate Research ‘Eleanor’, Middelburg, the Netherlands

Jaap C. Hanekamp
Associate professor at the Roosevelt Academy, Middelburg, the Netherlands
Adjunct Associate professor University of Massachusetts, Environmental Health Sciences, Amherst, US
Chair of the Chemical Food Safety & Toxicity Working Group of the Global Harmonization Initiative

Beelen et al.’s paper carries a peculiar title considering that the authors never did what they claim: exposure to air pollution was never measured on any individual. It is only poorly guessed at, and not even guessed at over the right time.

The land-use regression models, which guessed the different kinds of pollution, are calculated using data from October 2008 through May 2011. Yet, the agglomerated studies ran from 1992 through 2007, with most from the 1990s. So even with correct pollution estimates, it would have had to operate backwards in time. Besides, it cannot be claimed that pollution from 2008-2011 accurately represents pollution in the 1990s because of weather dependency.

The “variance explained” by the land-use models is 57-89%, meaning the guesses are often wrong. Nevertheless, the guessed values at the participants’ residencies are presented as actual exposures, unreasonably leaving the participants ‘fixed’ in their residences within the study-timeframes.

Furthermore, the considerable error in the ‘exposure’ estimates is not encapsulated in the statistical analysis: the guesses are taken as fixed without accompanying plus-or-minuses. If that were done, the study‚Äôs results would have been rendered insignificant.

Additionally, the cities with the highest guessed pollution (Athens and Rome) had no and even a slight negative effect for PM2.5. Strangely, the one location (VHM&PP), which found a significant effect, was accorded the largest weight (ten times any other) in the meta-analysis.

Overall, the paper’s conclusions are obviated by making the exposure guesses error free, inflating one (of eight) slim results in favour of the proposed hypothesis.

Live From Heartland Climate Conference, Wrap Up


Profound thanks

I cannot say enough about the generosity of my benefactor, who not only footed the bill for my trip, but wined and dined and rummed our Secret Society most luxuriously. I had a small taste of how (dead broke) Hillary Clinton must regularly feel. A forty-eight hour prince. I am deeply grateful.

I am also still recovering. Hence the tardiness of this post.

Weather weenie

Ever hear that term before? Describes—most lovingly, of course—the kind of guy who has memorized storms in the same way a baseball fanatic can name the batting averages, number of home runs, and ERAs of the lineup of the 1957 Detroit Tigers. And the 1956, and 1955, and, well, you get it.

Joe Bastardi, growing up, used to have posters of hurricanes on his walls. He still knows their names, 500 mb thicknesses, minimum pressures, wind speeds, landfalls, and everything else you would never think anybody could remember. And he can rattle them off faster than the EPA can create new regulations.

Does it really matter to the public, dear reader, that the USA is suffering a paucity of these tropical storms? And that this scarcity repeats itself over just about any climatological or oceanographic characteristic of importance? Tornadoes are down. Sea level isn’t doing squat. Ice is icier. Droughts, especially considering those had before rampaging global warming took over, are down and less severe. The maximum maximum temperatures were seen long ago (#2 was in Death Valley, good old USA, back in the 20s or 30s). Even polar bears are back full blast eating cute seals—and each other (nasty animals, really).

But what does everybody who doesn’t bother to think think? That we are spiraling down, down, down to the gloomy depths.

Who says advertising does’t work? You denier.

This just in

One of my favorite sessions was with everybody’s favorite villain Marc Morano, Steve Goddard (going by his real name), and Russell Cook. How blogs can help; that sort of thing. Shout out to machinist and Cajun musician Greg Olsen, who very wisely read a certain statistics book.

Goddard has newspaper clippings from all over the world from as far back as the mid nineteenth century showing that hysteria is an old and ever-present acquaintance. First the world was going to end in ice, then in fire, then back to ice, and sometimes both at once. Something always had to be done.

The lesson is that lessons are never learned; therefore, we can expect that when this scare ends it will rapidly be replaced by another.


Sam Karnick’s opinion (he’s from Heartland) is that the environmentalists have learned at least one lesson. Global Warming was too specific. It made definite predictions: the world will hot up. And when it didn’t, as it hasn’t, it became obvious that the scare must die.

Thus the trick is not to be specific. Thus sustainability.

What a wonderful word! Beautifully unspecific and utterly without content. Don’t do that, that’s not sustainable. Our manufacturing process is based on sustainability principles. Sustainable Pittsburgh’s Green Workplace Challenge.

Everything is at once sustainable and unsustainable. You will never know when you are guilty of unsustainability. Just think of the layers and layers of bureaucracy that will be required to inform you!

We had here a contest for the next environmental scare, but I hereby cancel that and award the banner to Karnick. Sustainability is bound to be a winner.

Am I blue?

Saw a trailer for a new film called Blue by Jeff King. Proof complete that Reagan was right was he said the eight scariest words in the English language are “I’m an environmentalist and I’m here to help.” Or something.

Do just a little harm

Best story was how Lord Monckton punked one of the UN climate conferences. He slipped into an empty seat (Burma’s/Myanmar’s) just as the chairman asked if anybody representing a group had any comments. So his Lordship pushed the button for his mike and said he represented the Asian Coastal Cooperative Institute (or something; made up on the spot) and told the audience that seeing there had been no global warming for over sixteen years and that all the predictions had been a bust, and that it would be cheaper and more efficient to adapt to any warming rather than try to prevent it, shouldn’t we reexamine our priorities? Response from the chair? Not a valid participant. Brave, brave.

And speaking of his Lordship, here he is speaking. Quite a performance—as usual. (The entire video is worth watching, but if you’re in a hurry, LM starts at around 32 minutes in.) Careful watchers will recognize some of the names.

His best line? The Greens are too Yellow to admit they’re Red. Or maybe the joke starting at around 33 minutes. Or maybe the joke starting at 38 minutes. Or the curious picture at 1:01:00.

Conference surprises

How good Willis Eschenbach looks in a suit. Ouch! How three Craigs ended up in one session (Craig Loehle, Craig Idso, Craig Rucker). What are the chances of that? (Regular readers had better be able to answer, or else.) How many people forget or skip over Dwight Eisenhower’s equation (which Cato’s Pat Michael’s recalled for us) Science + Big government money = Bad news. How coincidences are everywhere. Roy Spencer and his wife grew up in “The Soo”, which is Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, where I was stationed as a weather forecaster for the NWS back in ’93.

Pony up

If you do like these conferences, and wish them to continue, and you are deep of pockets, do as Joe Bast suggested and slide them a few.

More to come

This has only been a precis. Here’s a link to all the talks, which were recorded.

I haven’t been blogging on global warming as much as I did four or five years ago, but that’s because it takes a lot of time, and it was my idea that people were caring less. And people are caring less. But the power hungry are not. Our dear leader is but one example of many (though the poor soul’s intellectual capabilities do not allow him to rise above the level of sarcastic cliché).

But circumstances might soon allow me to return to this line of query. Stay tuned.


Total amount gambled: $0.00.

Live From Heartland Climate Conference, Day Two

What happened to Day One?

If I find out, you’ll be the first to know.

Through the extreme generosity of one of us, I’m here in Las Vegas at Heartland’s 9th Annual Climate Conference. You too can be here, albeit virtually, by clicking here. I’m not speaking, just listening. See if you can spot me in today’s crowd. I’ll be in seersucker.


I got here at the fag end of the awards ceremony yesterday, so I might not have my details straight, but it appears one of our great friends won the coveted Handsomest Climate Skeptic 2014 prize. This came with a lifetime supply of bow ties.

Running total of funds gambled

$0.00. Stay tuned.

Who still believes?

For twenty-ish years a small bevvy of climatologists have told the world, “Just wait until next year!” And as each next year passed, and the end did not come, and neither did temperatures rise in cooperation with their models, the climatologists were heard to say, with increasing volume, “Just wait until next year!”

Bosh. If your theory repeatedly says a thing will happen which does not happen, then, brothers and sisters, your theory is wrong. This is fundamental.

And everybody knows it, including the fellows making the predictions. That means, excepting the True Believers for whom love of Theory trumps reality—environmentalists, scientists who search for “missing” global warming like northwoods boys who search for Bigfoot—and the genuinely ignorant and naive, nobody does still believe.

This goes double for certain politicians, who don’t give a damn one way or the other, except as the manufactured crisis can be spun to increase their grip. Our friend Lord Monckton walked us through years of UN documents as bureaucrats there tried, and from time to time succeeded, in increasing their livelihoods by labeling themselves as saviors. Pathetic, unscrupulous, evil.

More to come

The subheadline says it all. I’m already late.

Evolution Under Fixed Constraints; Or, Why Random Changes Don’t Cut It

Not actual human beings.

Not actual human beings.

See if this analogy makes sense. A ramp onto which you loose a ball, which can roll down and fall into one of three slots. The configuration is such that the ball must go into one of these slots. It cannot get stuck or jump off the ramp. Suppose, like a pachinko machine, the ramp is covered in plastic to prevent leakage.

Now something will cause that ball to go into one of the three slots, but suppose you’re no expert in physics and can’t figure out the equations of motion. So you don’t know the cause.

But can you agree with me that the ball must go into one of the three slots? As a matter of logic, or information, given the setup, the probability of any slot is 1/3. The probability didn’t cause the ball to end up anywhere; chance isn’t a cause. That the ball could potentially be in one of the slots also wasn’t a cause.

Randomness isn’t a cause, either. Neither “chance.” The ball did not fall “randomly” in any causal sense. It fell because of the physics; our ignorance of the physics means nothing.

The ball had to go into just these three slots. Why? Well, that was the way the setup was designed.

And there it is. The “D” word.

The system from its start to its end could be said to have evolved. Evolution in action! But it could have only evolved in certain set ways. The ball could evolve only into one of three configurations. It could not have evolved into fourth slot, for one doesn’t exist. It could not have evolved into a petunia.

This is a stretch of the word evolution, however, which is why it is only an analogy. But ordinary evolution cannot be different in manner, though of course it differs in mechanism.

When DNA undergoes a mutation it must do so only in certain constrained ways. Like the ball, it must fall into prescribed “slots.” Some thing or things will cause the mutation. Nobody might know these causes, or even the range of possible “slots”. This ignorance is called “randomness”. But randomness isn’t ontological. There is nothing physical there.

These facts are why explanations of evolution are often screwy. Take this example from The Scientist:

Are mutations truly random?

Do genetic mutations really occur at random spots along the genome, as researchers have long supposed? Maybe not, according to a study published online today (January 13) in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, which proposes a mechanism for how new mutations might preferentially form around existing ones.

Truly random has no physical or biological meaning. Here it seems to be a stand in for uniform. Whether mutations are uniform along a genome, or express a preference for other sites, some thing or things still causes each one, and under some constraints. It is the duty of the biology to discover whether these causes are biased towards this or that direction. That is, what the “slots” are and their natures.

Another frequent mistake is made by those anxious to argue evolution is “unlikely”. For example, the paper The Mathematical Impossibility Of Evolution by Henry Morris, Ph.D. Morris’s argument is along the same as we met yesterday, when a fellow calculated the probability you existed was nearly impossible.

All probability—a measure of our information—is conditional on the premises supplied. Change the premises, change the probability. Morris starts with the central error of his opponents, “Mutations are random changes in genetic systems”, as if randomness is a cause, from which he concludes “Since random changes in ordered systems almost always will decrease the amount of order in those systems, nearly all mutations are harmful to the organisms which experience them.”

This is a theoretical conclusion, not one based on observation. (I recall people used to say bumblebees couldn’t fly because aerodynamical theory forbade it.) It seems to also be based on the premise that random is not only a cause but also uniform in action. That would be like saying that while we can only see three slots, theory demands there be four thousand (maybe there are slots besides the three which are too narrow, but which theory insists are options).

Just like “you exist” cannot be that impossible since you, in fact, exist, evolution cannot be impossible because it, as observations prove, exists. The nature of evolution is badly misunderstood on both sides.

We still have not succeeded purging the mysticism of randomness from probability. Frequentist statistical theory is rife with it. But then so are many interpretations of quantum physics.


I was reminded of this after popping over to Mike Flynn’s place and seeing this and this. Travel day today and tomorrow.

The Probability Of Your Existence

Typical college student.

Typical college student.

To the nearest order of magnitude, there have existed, including us, about 100 billion human beings. This proves what was always, until our day, quite obvious: that people are good at breeding. (Or were, before discovering contraception and abortion, of course.)

That’s a lot of people in a relatively short period of time, geologically speaking. Humans have only existed some few hundred thousand years.

According to Harvard Law blogger Ali Binazir, author of Awaken Your Genius, you, dear reader, only have a “1 in 102,685,000” chance of existing. Pretty small, no?

But since there’s been so many of us, each one of us being next to impossible, something has gone wrong in the calculations or our thinking.

Nothing better illustrates the truth that all probability is conditional than Binazir’s calculation. It’s sort of a Drake equation for individual human existence. The Drake equation is a probability-like calculation which gives the chances of other life forms like us, i.e. rational, existing on other planets. It is notorious in its liquidity: it won’t stay solid. Binzair’s calculations suffer from the same flaws: he’s unable to keep straight which side of the equation he’s on.

Given you’re reading this post, the probability you exist is 1, i.e. it is certain. That’s because there must be a you to read. But Binazir tells us that the probability you exist is a number nearly equivalent to 0, the other end of the probability spectrum. Both probabilities can be right, since all probabilities depend on the premises used. Depends on the meaning of “to exist”, also. Does it mean “being made” or “alive and functioning now”?

Alive and functioning now is easy: you exist certainly. But how did you get made? Well, mom met dad and they did what came naturally. Out came you. You, logic insists, could not be other than you. This is necessary to emphasize.

The probability your parents had any kids is also 1, because you are one of them. But the probability that two mated humans reproduce is different. That probability doesn’t exist because no premises have been specified. One possible premise: both over 80 years old? Another: one is sterile, by natural or artificial means. Another: one is forever on the road. And on and on.

Now each time the mates attempt to reproduce, either a baby is produced or it isn’t, a tautology. In either case, something caused the baby to be made or to stop it from being made. We (typically) won’t be in the position of knowing these exact causes, so we say the creation or lack of it is “random”, which is just another label of our ignorance of the causes. But if we assume these causes are “regular”, and are careful to specify the kind of mates to which they apply (say, 20-30 year-olds, of this and such background, etc.), then we can use probability to express our incomplete knowledge and make reasonable predictions over groups of mates.

In any case, we are not asking what is the probability your parents had kids, because they obviously did. We asking the probability of you yourself coming into being. Assuming each of your mom’s and dad’s gametes were unique (are male gametes like snowflakes? has anybody checked? I ask in ignorance), then each mating could make a different baby. But each mating will have a list of causes which either make or stop the baby. So again we’re not talking about what causes the individual gametes to meet.

What premises to use? Any individual attempt? Thus the number of male gametes and a fixed female gamete. In ignorance of the causes, and assuming conception, there are n male gametes and one female, thus the probability is 1/n that this male gamete meets this fixed female one. Is that newly created baby you or somebody else? Assuming no conception, then no you and no anybody either. What is the probability of no conception? Well, what premises do we assume?

You can see this is getting nowhere slow.

The problem is in the question. What is the probability you exist? This is not what is the probability somebody else exists, or the probability somebody in your place exists. It isn’t even the probability some other human exists—which is one by the plain meaning of the question. Why? Because people exist.

You exist, too. Therefore it must be the probability you exist is 1. That you might not have existed is a counterfactual question, which is perfectly comprehensible as long as we supply the premises under which you would not have existed. Say, you imagine your dad got called away on a business trip during the time in which your parents conceived you. Or that your dad never met your mom. Then, given those premises, the probability would not have existed is also 1, because there would have been no causal way of you coming into existence.

Face it. Probability is never as easy as you hope it is.


Thanks to The Carolina Cowbody for suggesting this topic.

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