William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Author: Briggs (page 151 of 423)

Stressed Men Prefer Chubby Chicks

Here’s a title for you, “BMI Not WHR Modulates BOLD fMRI Responses in a Sub-Cortical Reward Network When Participants Judge the Attractiveness of Human Female Bodies.” How about that? I had my money on WHR.

What? Waist-to-hip ratio, of course. The preferred marker of attractiveness for many men. I myself like to reward my sub-cortical network with larger WHR and not higher BMI. But that’s just me, and I’ve been under a lot of stress.

Which makes my proclivity even stranger when you consider that one of the same authors of this paper, Martin J Tov&eactue;e, also wrote this one: “The Impact of Psychological Stress on Men’s Judgements of Female Body Size.” It says that men under stress reach for more.

Men just shy of freaking out rate “significantly heavier female body size as maximally attractive”, while fellows who swim in more placid waters like ‘em thin. This is what science says, this is therefore what is so.

What happened was that Swami and Tov&eactue;e gathered 81 British white WEIRD men and split them asunder, half-plus-one (rounding down) undergoing a stressful trial, and half allowed not to fret. WEIRD equals “Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic.” I.e., college students; white ones here to acknowledge that different races like different kinds of womenfolk.

The stress group got the TSST (say it) “a 15-minute laboratory stressor that has been reliably shown to increase levels of acute psychological stress.” Apparently this is 10 minutes of chatting followed by an abrupt requirement to “serially subtract the number 13 from 1,022 as fast and accurately as possible.” Watch them free cortisol levels soar! At least it wasn’t adding fractions.

After allowing the math challenged students—no calculators!—to cool their heels for twenty minutes, they ushered them aside and asked them questions about pretty girls. The control group just had to sit in a room “where they waited quietly” and then had to answer the same questions. All 81 men had their weight and height measured. “[W]ithout shoes and in light clothing.” Naturally.

The men then ogled “10 photographic and standardized images of women in front view. The women depicted in the PFRS represent the full range of established BMI categories, from emaciated to obese.” Then they “rated each of the 10 images for physical attractiveness on a 9-point Likert-type scale (1 = Very unattractive, 9 = Very attractive).”

I bet that not one of those men, before they came to this experiment, knew they were employing the scientifically validated Likert-scale when they previously engaged in the very popular hobby of rating looks. Here, however, we must wonder how the men dealt with the rescaling; I mean the missing “10”.

Oh yes, then the men were asked whether they agreed with statements like “I have never been more hungry.”

Turns out that the stressed and calm men liked the Emaciated and Obese pictures least (the labels are so given in the paper). Both groups thought the same about the Underweight, but the stressed gave slightly higher mean marks to Normal and Overweight pictures. The variance of the marks of the stressed men was almost everywhere higher (except for the Emaciated group).

From this they conclude “that participants experiencing psychological stress selected a significantly heavier female body size as maximally attractive compared to the control group.” The “significantly” meant statistically significantly (thank you p-values!) and not in size because, as the authors admit, “the shift in preferences may appear small from a practical point-of-view,” but they still got a paper out of it.

They were however able to theorize that “human mate choice preferences are likely context-specific and recalibrate as local conditions and experiences change, the end result being mate preferences that remain adaptive regardless of the environmental landscape.” Also, some men “may idealise larger body sizes because such body types are associated with better ability to handle environmental threat.” Get a big one in case a famine hits!

The real good news is that “future work” is needed, figuring whether or how “the experience of stress impacted on state self-esteem, empathy, or related constructs…may have impacted on body size perceptions.”


Thanks to Al Perrella for the tip.

Psychic Cleaners, Emails, & Dialogue

No starch on the auras, please

This is a somewhat famous sign on the royal road in Mountain View, California. To economize, the sign is shared by a gypsy and a dry cleaners. I passed by and saw the sign but did not see any mountains. Which is fair enough. My folks live in a town called Mt. Pleasant, which is flatter than an EEG of an audience member at an Al Gore speech. When it comes to cities, you can’t go by names.

Regulars will have noticed a diminution of posts and answers to comments these past two weeks. I’m traveling and particularly busy and I haven’t had the time to keep up. I anticipate this frenzied state will last about another week.

I also have a few hundred emails from you (yes, the word is hundreds); story tips, comments, requests to read this or that, and so forth. I appreciate these very much. But I do apologize that I cannot answer each email personally. I have not yet even been able to read them all.

It’s kind of curious. There are many regulars here, people whom we all know by their comments. There are also many who come but who never leave a comment. And many more who come and who prefer to comment via email. Earlier this week, a habitué sent a charming missive which stated, “You are a liar.” Another said, “Small-minded People like you are doomed to be miserable.” And then I got one that fixated on my growing lack of hair (“A bald head is not an indication that you have matured.”).

As far as emails go, I have noticed a distinct correlation between the sex of the sender and the level of vituperation. I’ll let you guess what this is.

Finally, dialogue. Have you ever remarked that a person or group asking for dialogue is interested in anything but? That instead it is a code word for, “You change your ways, because I’m not changing mine.”

Back to work! Oh, I was able to do a post this morning despite being busy by the simple expedient of arising at 4 am to a trilling car alarm. I went into the motel office at 6 for coffee and said to the clerk, “Aren’t car alarms great?” He replied, “Oh, I’m sorry. That’s actually my car. My battery died on my remote and I’m not allowed to leave the property until somebody relieves me.”

Reasoning To Belief: Feser’s The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism — Part II

Read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part Interlude, Part IV, Part V, Part VI. Part Last.

Act and Potential

TLS is not a complete work of theology or philosophy, nor is it intended to be. The answers to All Questions are not found in its pages. Every distinction with a difference is not parsed, every depth is not plumbed. Feser did not, and did not intend to, build a complete theory of anything; he provided just enough material to show his central argument was true and then signed off.

Nor is this a book of religion. You won’t discover why Catholicism is to be preferred to Methodism. There is no discourse on the valuable insights on the nature of God given to us by Buddhists and Muslims. The festival of Obon never makes an appearance. There isn’t the slightest attempt to proselytize. Thus any rebuttal focusing on some Christian in history who has acted badly, or information on another who has acted saintly, is irrelevant.1 The first person to wield these themes in an effort to dispatch Feser has admitted losing the argument.

The argument is this: that there is no dispute between science and classical metaphysics, that you cannot have science without this philosophy, that it is possible to come to a knowledge of God purely through reason and here are some irrefutable arguments, that the universe is not a giant machine nor are the things in it (including us) small machines, that the charges of “wishful thinking”, “rank ignorance”, “pastafarianism”, “believers are stupid (and I’m smart!)” flung about by New Atheists are not just false, not just the opposite of the truth, but self-rebounding.

And so to work.

Realism is the “view that universals, numbers and/or propositions exist objectively, apart from the human mind and distinct from any material or physical features of the world.” Plato’s Theory of Forms is one such view, though not the only, nor the best. For that we turn to Aristotle—“The Philosopher,” as he was known to the Schoolmen—as so many have in the past, and as an increasing number are today, after a long period of shocking neglect.

On the historical slight ushered in by Bacon and others, Feser says, “Abandoning Aristotelianism, as the founders of modern philosophy did, was the single greatest mistake ever made in the entire history of Western thought” (emphasis original).

Just what have we left behind? Much.

Feser is fond of rubber balls: he is forever bouncing or abusing one. In TLS his ball is blue, in Aquinas he changes it to red. This is useful in itself, because it is obvious that a blue rubber ball is potentially a red one because, of course, a blue one could be painted or dyed red. A blue ball is just as obviously actually blue.

In this simple example are two concepts central to understanding Aristotle’s metaphysics: actuality and potentiality. The actual rubber ball may potentially be a gooey mess, but it is not this potential to be gooey which causes the ball to melt; something external (like heat) to the potential must act on the ball and turn the potential into a new actuality. Act turns potential to actuality.

From these observations is derived Aristotle’s dictum that whatever is moved is moved by another, which in modern phraseology is better put as whatever is changed is changed by another, a slicker way to say that a potential cannot act. A potential has to be a potential for something actual, too; only something actual can be something else potentially. There cannot be a thing which is purely potential and is nothing actually. But there can be things which are actual and which have potentialities. And it even so that there is a thing which is purely actual with no potentiality.

Other examples, more well known: a statue is potentially in a block of marble, but it takes the act of a sculptor to bring it out. A block of wood is potentially a table, but it takes the act of a carpenter to make it so. But I think it wise Feser did not emphasize these old saws because they too quickly bring to mind the idea of a designing intelligence which is rarely needed, especially in the case of rubber balls. Too see this: a blue rubber ball dropped from a soaring aeroplane at 10,000 feet is potentially at 0 feet, but it is not the potentially 0 feet which acts on the ball, it is something external.

What else can the ball potentially be? Well, it can’t be a walrus. For one thing, there isn’t enough mass or energy in a blue rubber ball that can, through the physical means known to us, be changed into a walrus. We can of course imagine the ball morphing into a living, two-ton tusked beat, say via a magical spell, but then we have left reality for the world of fantasy. It is also not that something cannot be added to the ball, like in the case of red paint turning a blue ball red, but that there is no way even adding the right amount of mass or energy the ball can change.

So far there is nothing controversial, very little which could act on your potential belief in God and make it into an actual belief in God. But that’s coming.

Note I am sorry for the brevity of this installment, which probably has more than its usual share of typos. But I am traveling and staying in a motel which has lost its internet connection, and so I’m finishing this post on my portable radiophone. My cell abuts the 24-hour laundry room and so I’m also operating on less sleep.

Read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part Interlude, Part IV, Part V, Part VI. Part Last.


1Note: all comments about Feser’s tone or about the personalities of the New Atheists will be removed to Part I of this series. A related dodge—which is always obvious—is to say, “Feser’s arguments stink” and then to leave without saying exactly, precisely, logically why. However, you’re welcome to use this ploy if you think that, just this once, it will work. The comment by “Rob” at the top illustrates this technique.

Read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part Interlude, Part IV, Part V.

USA Homicide Rates: 1950-2010; By Race And Sex

How has the homicide rate changed through time? The Bureau of Justice Statistics of our great government compiles statistics on just this kind of thing.

This data arises from the report “Homicide Trends in United States” by Erica Smith and Alexia Cooper, from their table “Number of homicide victims, 1950-2010.”

This first chart is the rate per 100,000 population. Note that the early 1980s and of course the late 2000s were period of recessions.

Homicide rates per 100,000

Let the theories fly!

The next two figures break down the rate by Whites and Blacks. Note that the scale changes from picture to picture (the White rate is about a tenth of the Black rate). There are two lines in each: the red line shows the homicide rates (the “Killed”). The black line shows rate that each group was the assailant (the “Killers”).

Homicide rates per 100,000 for Whites

Whites killed and are killed by about the same, and falling, rate.

Homicide rate per 100,000 for Blacks

Blacks kill at higher rates than they are killed. Interestingly, the difference in the killer/killed rate appears roughly constant for most years, and narrowing slightly in recent years.

Finally, the same two plots for Males and Females (note the scale change again; Males are about five times higher).

Homicide rates per 100,000 for Males

Males have either a victim deficit or they are killing at rates higher than one would expect if there were no differences in sex.

Homicide rates per 100,000 for Females

After looking at the Female data, we conclude there is a discrepancy in sex: perhaps a government program can address this.


This post was inspired by my friend Charlie Martin who gave me the link for “Homicide Trends in the United States, 1980-2008“. But that website appears down, perhaps slain by too many hits?

Reasoning To Belief: Feser’s The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism — Part I

The pummeling Read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part Interlude, Part IV, Part V, Part VI. Part Last.

This begins a series of posts reviewing Ed (if I may call him that; for all I know he goes by the more elegant Edward) Feser’s The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism. (The posts won’t be contiguous.) We’ll also make use of Feser’s Aquinas, his Theory of Mind, and of his paper “Existential Inertia and the Five Ways,”1 which contains a tight, crystalline summary of Aquinas’s Five Ways.

Every atheist must read this book. Every atheist who is sincerely committed to his belief, that is. Casual atheists who would rather stick with unproven, but comforting, orthodoxies had best keep away. Because this book will be rough on them. Perhaps, some claim, too rough for a book from a Christian.

It is well to dispense with certain irrelevant matters immediately. Feser gives us a manly Christianity, in muscular language. His words oft have the tone of a teacher who is exasperated by students who have, yet again, not done their homework. The exasperation is justifiable. “Aquinas,” he tells us, “as is well known, always painstakingly considered all opposing arguments, and always made a point of attacking an opponent’s position at it strongest point.” Yet most of Aquinas’s modern-day opponents do not consider him at all. Or they gleefully poke at the remnants of a straw effigy theologians set fire to long ago, all the while congratulating themselves on their brilliance.

This does not compute for Feser, who does not suffer (arrogant) fools well—or at all. This perplexes some readers who undoubtedly expect theists to be soft-spoken, meek, and humble to the point of willing to concede miles to gain an inch. Feser is more of a theological Patton: he is advancing, always advancing, and is not interested in holding on to anything except the enemy’s territory. This stance has startled some reviewers. Typical is the (self-named) Unpublishable Philosopher who ignores the meat of the book and whines about “ad hominems.”

Now if a man, a theist, says, “Richard Dawkins is a jackass and here is a proof showing his attacks on God’s existence fail utterly” and a second man, an atheist, is interested in whether this proof is valid, then it is irrelevant to the proof that the theist calls Dawkins a jackass—unless that statement forms part of the proof. Which in Feser’s book, which is loaded with similar phrases, such statements do not. (Feser nowhere uses the word jackass.)

However, if the atheistic Dawkins fan hears the theist, all that penetrates through to his ossicles is jackass. The word lodges deep in his auditory canal and blocks further entrance: the proof goes unheard, or it is heard but badly distorted. And this is so—it is an empirical and not a philosophical question—whether Dawkins is a jackass. The proof is forgotten and the argument turns to whether the theist is himself a jackass for claiming Dawkins is; or if he is not a jackass, then whether he is a good Christian because (the atheist once read) good Christians don’t call people jackasses, even if their targets demonstrably are jackasses, or about the use of the ad hominem, etc. Then comes the final fallacy which says that because somebody who claims to be a Christian does an unChristian deed, Christianity must be false or unworthy of study. Or that Feser’s book needn’t be taken seriously.

Feser does spend a fraction of his time upbraiding his enemies for not heeding their lessons, and he isn’t shy about publicizing the “F”s he hands out. He says that Dawkins and Dennett are “ignoramuses” because of their “embarrassingly ill-informed dismissals” of proofs of God’s existence. He calls the work of Sam Harris a “disgusting spectacle.” He says that views held by eliminative materialists “are titillating and have, for obvious reasons, an emotional appeal for adolescents of all ages. But from a rational point of view, they are completely worthless; as David Stove once said, at the end of the day their proponents have little more to offer in their defense than ‘shit-eating grins.”

He says that “smugness is half the fun of being a liberal (the other half being the tearing down of everything one’s ancestors, and one’s betters generally, worked so hard to build).” He claims the “New Atheist’s pretense that a religious view of the world can only ever be the result of wishful thinking rather than objective rational argumentation is thereby exposed as a falsehood, the product, if not of willful deception, at least of inexcusable ignorance”. “No doubt”, says Feser, a New Atheist responding to his book will be “sputtering some response” but there is also no doubt that “the response will be superficial, ill-informed, and dogmatic, long on attitude and short on understanding.”

Dawkins’s attempts to counter the Unmoved Mover argument is a “serious lapse in scholarly competence and/or intellectual integrity”. Of the now-dead Hitchens and the other prominent New Atheists he says that one “gets the impression that the bulk of their education in Christian theology consisted of reading Elmer Gantry…supplemented with a viewing of Inherit the Wind“.

Well, gasp. Keep in mind, though, that these are all questions of fact, not metaphysics. If Feser can prove them—I say he can—this is fine. But if not, it does not imply he cannot prove his philosophy.

Warning Note: Many of the arguments to come, especially about the nature of causality, will be unfamiliar to us, and were once to Yours Truly, who was raised in the Scientific Way. If any of my summaries are suspect, defer to the book. It is vastly more probable that I have screwed it up than has Feser.

Warning Prediction: you may think you have discovered a shiny new, never-thought-of-before aha-zinger that guts classical metaphysics, leaving nothing but a greasy spot, but the chance of this is low. Philosophers have been gnawing away at these questions for hundreds to thousands of years. So while you may deliver us an argument which allows you to dismiss classical metaphysics, an argument which none of us here at the humble WMBriggs.com recognize for what it is (stale fish), this does not imply your discovery is unique, persuasive, or valid. The burden is on you to search the authorities, pro and con, and definitively prove your claim.

So today—and today only—let’s argue about whether Feser should or should not have called Dennett an ignoramus, whether Feser’s empirical claims about this or that political question are right or wrong, whether the pugilistic tone had better been left out of the book, etc., etc. Get it out of our system. Get it off your chest. Adopt the ton supérieur and educate us on just what the ad hominem is and why it’s use is discouraged. Because next time we start in on the arguments themselves and we can’t be distracted by irrelevancies.

Update To newcomers unused to our ways: swearing, threats, and other idiotic behavior is not allowed. All comments which are abusive will be summarily censored.

Read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part Interlude, Part IV, Part V, Part VI. Part Last.


1American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 85, no. 2 (2011).

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