William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Author: Briggs (page 2 of 419)

On Being Certain There’s No Certainty

I’m certain I’m pretty sure that that’s Voltaire.

Neurologist Robert Burton describes this “delusion of certainty” in his book On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not: “Despite how certainty feels, it is neither a conscious choice nor even a thought process. Certainty and similar states of ‘knowing what we know’ arise out of involuntary brain mechanisms that, like love or anger, function independently of reason.”

This was quoted in “Christianity is wildly Improbable” by John W. Loftus in the book The End of Christianity edited by the same gentleman (this is the book in which Richard Carrier’s deeply flawed essay appears). Loftus was concerned of his friend’s disquieting certainty that God exists.

Loftus, who was certain he was right that his friend’s certainty in God’s existence was flawed because one cannot be truly certain, was quoting Burton in support of his (Loftus’s) certain belief that one cannot be certain, because Burton is authoritatively certain that his theory, that no one can really be certain, is certainly true.

Got it?

Now what I’m hoping is that Loftus’s passion that he be certain that there is no certainty has misled him about Burton’s theory, and that Burton didn’t really mean what his words seem to mean. Where would academia be if people actually thought things like that?

On the other hand, don’t we already know?

Wasn’t it Voltaire, another reliable voice, perhaps following Pliny the Elder who said “The only certainty is that nothing is certain”, who said, “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd”? Yes; yes, it was Voltaire. I’m certain of that. Voltaire was certain that certainty was absurd. And I’m pretty sure that it was John Stuart Mill who said, “There is no such thing as absolute certainty, but there is assurance sufficient for the purposes of human life.” I am sure that Mill—if, indeed, it was Mill, and it surely was—was certain there was no such thing as absolute certainty.

And didn’t the greatest brain of them all (forget he rejected the confirmed portions of quantum mechanics as being certainly wrong), Albert Einstein, say, “I believe in intuitions and inspirations. I sometimes feel that I am right. I do not know that I am” (and now recall that he rejected the confirmed portions of quantum mechanics of being certainly wrong).

This is how we can be certain that many modern philosophers are skeptics when it comes to certainty. I have witnessed the uncertainty in certainty. These fellows—fellowettes, too!—agree that one cannot be truly certain of anything. And that’s a certainty.

Why, take Mr Falsifiability himself, Karl Popper, who unmistakably said, “Our aim as scientists is objective truth; more truth, more interesting truth, more intelligible truth. We cannot reasonably aim at certainty. Once we realize that human knowledge is fallible, we realize also that we can never be completely certain that we have not made a mistake.” Make no mistake: he also said, “Since we can never know anything for sure, it is simply not worth searching for certainty”. I certainly won’t.

I don’t know if the skeptical philosophers, who are legion in the academy, in being certain there is no certainty, know of Burton’s work that all certainty is really just various arrangements of neurochemicals (or whatever), that it’s our brains telling us to feel certain, even when there is no certainty. But if these philosophers aren’t aware, upon hearing of it, it’s certain they would be certain Burton is right, because Burton’s theory would be pleasing to them, as certain confirmation their philosophy holds.

How nice to think we are nothing but irresponsible unaccountable unpunishable, and of course in a few cases superior, bundle of chemicals!

William M Briggs, “Statistician To The Stars”, Now A Thought Leader

Thought Leader, Second Class.

Thought Leader, Second Class.

Some unexpected travel today, so a friendly reminder the purpose of this blog is, at base, mercenary. Hire me. Ask me to come and give a talk.


It can now be revealed that my recent secret trip was to secure a reverse MBAectomy, a painful operation which has frappéd my cranial capacity a statistically significant 342.7%. I am now qualified to be, and do hereby accept the title of, Thought Leader.

Forbes defines this pinnacle of business leadership thusly: “A thought leader is an individual or firm that significantly profits from being recognized as such.” This is right: I am ready to profit from being me.

Mashable says, “a thought leader has earned his or her title because that person’s ideas have gone viral.” Many on this very blog have said that Briggs’s philosophy must be the result of some sickness, so I’ve got the viral prerequisite nailed, too.

I’ve been on hundreds of Thought Leader sites and have noticed the following phenomenon. All leaders have mastered the Thought Leader hand gesture; a kind of soft yet authoritative one-handed karate chop (the off hand holds an advance-a-PowerPoint-slide clicker device). The chop says, “I’m so bursting with thought leadership that I don’t have to raise my voice. But mess with me and I’ll talk about my credentials.” I’ve worked on this for hours and I’m very convincing.

Not only that, but I can now use the following list of words without blushing or choking from embarrassment: bucketized, action-item, partnering, peel-the-onion, and of course data-driven. I can synergistically turn any noun into a verb, and grow any verb into a noun—when I have the bandwidth.

This momentous announcement has also appeared on Twitter, so you know it’s true.

Stand by for future announcements of my patented demotivational lectures. For example, my “Why You’re Wrong” series unpopular with climatologists and epidemiologists the world over.

All fees are painful and necessary, just like taking medicine. Call today. Ask about my St Valentine’s Day special.

Yes, you will

Yes, you will

Ad Hominem, My Sweet


Ad Hominem, My Sweet, a mini-play in one act.

MOOSE: “Hey, Hayden. C’mere.”

HAYDEN: “Not now, Moose. Please?”

MOOSE: “What are you? Deaf as well as stupid? I said get over here.”

HAYDEN: “But Moose…Ouch! That hurts!”

MOOSE: “When I say get over here, it means get over here. You savvy?”

HAYDEN: “Okay, so I’m here. What’s so urgent.”

MOOSE: “I got something to tell you, and I don’t want no argument about it. You ready? Listen good, ’cause I ain’t gonna repeat it, and you better have it—or else. Got me? Here it is. If P, then Q. Q. Therefore P. Now say it back.”

HAYDEN: “Hey! There’s no need to hit me. I heard you. If P, then Q. Q. Therefore P.”

MOOSE: “Whadda ya know! He can learn!”

HAYDEN: “Only…”

MOOSE: “Only what, smart ass.”

HAYDEN: “Only…oh never mind. Look, I’m late to see my mother. She expects me. You know if I don’t show or call, she worries.”

MOOSE: “Always a mama’s boy. But you’re not gettin’ outta here until you have it. Now. Do you have it. Yes or no?”

HAYDEN: “I have it. Butitisn’tright!

MOOSE: “Whadda ya mean, it isn’t right. I told you. That should be enough for you.”

HAYDEN: “But…but…isn’t that a formal fallacy? That I should believe you just because you threatened me?”

MOOSE: “Don’t give me any of that fallacy malarkey. You just do what I tell you and you’ll get through this.”

HAYDEN: “Hey! I told you! No Hitting!”

MOOSE: “I’ll do what I need to. Just so you know that. I’ll do what I need to.”

HAYDEN: “Someday…You just wait and see.”

MOOSE: “I don’t know why I like smacking you around so much. It’s that look on your face. Now say it again.”

HAYDEN: “Fine! If P, then Q! Q! Therefore P! Have it your way!”

MOOSE: “That’s right, Spunky. My way. It’s—”

PHILIP: “—Hello, big guy. Circus in town?”

MOOSE: “What? Just who do—”

PHILIP: “—Only I just heard your boyfriend here, and she’s right. Right twice. You can’t bully him into believing a fallacy. Affirming the consequent is as old an error as denying Truth exists. See how you like it. If you hold to fallacies, you’re a bully. You’re a bully. Therefore you hold to fallacies.”

MOOSE: “Who’s a bully! He likes it. Don’t ya, Spunky.”

HAYDEN: “He hit me!”

MOOSE: “Besides, you can’t tell me I’m wrong because I’m givin’ Spunky what he needs. That’s you’re own fallacy. A grade-A ad hominem.”

PHILIP: “No, it isn’t.”

MOOSE: “The hell it ain’t. I know what you’re tryin’ to do. You’re appealing to Spunky’s prejudices and emotions, his special interest in not being pushed around, rather than to his intellect or reason. And you’re attacking my character rather than answering my argument. That’s an ad hominem, pal. No gettin’ around it.”

HAYDEN: “Don’t hurt him, Moose!”

MOOSE: “Ah, these amateur philosophers ain’t worth hurtin’. Now blow, Socrates, before I squeeze your spinal column into some symbolic logic.”

PHILIP: “Who wants to stay? It’s clear brawn is no substitute for brains.”

MOOSE: “See what I mean, Spunky? A little friendly pressure and Socrates here starts in with remarks which cannot be construed as necessary or objective. Ad hominem all the way.”

HAYDEN: “You should be nice to Moose, mister. He doesn’t take disagreement well.”

PHILIP: “Nicest thing you can do for somebody is tell them the truth. He has it. He doesn’t want it.”

MOOSE: “What truth? All I hear are insults. You think by makin’ me look bad in front of Spunky, here, that we’ll forget you don’t have an argument. Noting’ but distractions.”

PHILIP: “There are none so blind as those who won’t listen.”

MOOSE: “Ha! He can’t even keep his metaphors straight. C’mon, Spunky. We’re never going to get through to this guy. So long, Socrates.”

HAYDEN: “Okay, Moose. We can go. But I have to see mother first.”

Climate Hustle, Readers Write


Hustling along

I was over at the UN yesterday and met Marc Marano, who interviewed me for his upcoming documentary tentatively titled Climate Hustle.

With fedora jauntily tipped back to reveal my sparkling hazel eyes, tie loosely knotted and purposely mismatching the pocket square, all counter-balanced by my genetically British teeth and Honda-sized honker, I launched into my defense of the slogan, “Actually, the science is settled.”

It is, too.

Used to be, before the tsunami of money washed over Science, drowning much common sense, a scientific precept was that when a theory made rotten predictions, the theory was condemned. The coupled GCMs around which climatology revolve have been making rotten predictions for decades. Therefore, in the days or yore, we would have said there is something wrong with the models.

And that is still so for those traditionalists among us who cling to the old ways. We say the models stink, because why? Because the models stink: they do not make skillful predictions. You would have done better with persistence. To us old timers, that means something about the models is wrong.

What, exactly, is wrong, I haven’t a clear idea. Too many tunable parameters in the models to know with any certainty. Anyway, if we knew, we’d be able to fix or adjust. We don’t know, so we can’t.

But to young whippersnappers, and especially to their worshipful followers, model accuracy means nothing. What matters more than anything is how consonant the theory which drives the models is with their “lifestyles”—or with their livelihoods.

The theory has become more important than reality. This is so true that even attacks on the theory using reality are seen by believers as confirmation of the theory. “Why is he denying my theory? He must be evil. My theory is stronger than his hate.”

A secondary problem is the expansion of democracy. Yes. Oh, yes. I know you don’t believe it, but it’s true. Somehow we have developed the idea that everything can be put to a vote. Why else do we see these bug-witted attempts to convince us of the theory’s truth because this-or-that percentage of scientists believe it? Why else would people take to the streets for “climate justice”, in hopes their mere numbers would sway?

With my fellow gloom-and-doomers and grinning curmudgeons, I see no way out of this. Comfort yourself with the thought that, except for God, nothing good lasts forever.

Readers write

At the time of writing, I have 185 emails in my Inbox, all containing ideas for posts, another 200 or so in a folder of post ideas saved for future, and 656 in a third folder called “global warming” sent in by readers, again all with material that demands my attention.

First, from the southernmost tip of the right ventricle of my heart, I thank you for these emails. Please keep them coming. Your emails make this blog work, and provide all of us which prime material.

Second, please understand when I don’t write back and say thanks. I eventually try to thank everybody and answer each question, but I am many, many months behind and I’m not confident I’ll catch up.

If I would have had a secretary, I would have had to let her go for such negligence. But as the amount of money I get from Big Oil, and from all other sources, for my avant-garde work in climate denialism is, at last count and rounded to the nearest dollar, rapidly approaching single digits, I can’t afford a secretary. So there is nobody to fire.

Oh course, it doesn’t help that I seem to taken the wrong position on every culture matter. But no matter.

I got this email this morning:

…often your website is the only interesting thing I can find upon rising and drinking my morning coffee. At other times, the fall back to statistics or assaults on specific individuals that I’ve never heard of makes me feel uninformed and is not interesting.

I enjoy posts that are “pro stuff” not just “anti stuff”. This website tips in favor of the “anti stuff” approach.

What say you about the “balance”?


Richard Carrier’s Argument To Show God’s Existence Unlikely Is Invalid And Unsound

Self-described world-renowned author and speak Richard Carrier.

Self-described world-renowned author and speak Richard Carrier. Image source.

In the comment section to an earlier piece of mine on Strange Notions, Richard Carrier invited me to “interact” with him through his article “Neither Life nor the Universe Appears Intelligently Designed”, found in The End of Christianity, edited by John W. Loftus. This article is the “interaction” Carrier requested. I apologize for its delay.


Richard Carrier’s argument to show that God probably didn’t create the universe, and therefore He probably doesn’t exist, in Carrier’s “Neither Life nor the Universe Appears Intelligently Designed”, like many attempts to use probability in defense of atheism or theism, is invalid and unsound, and based on fundamental misunderstandings of who God is and of the proper role of probability.

It is also a maddening, rambling screed, little more than bluff, bluster, and bullying, as well as an endless source of egotistical phrases, pace “critics know (and when honest, admit)”, “what any rational person would conclude”, “everyone else who’s rational and sane”, and “no rational person can honestly believe”. Nevertheless, let us “set aside ignoramuses who don’t know what they’re talking about and don’t even try to know” and analyze his main errors (it would take a monograph to examine every mistake).

His argument, repeated in different contexts, is essentially this. If God did not exist, life, the universe, and everything in it (including our minds) would look just the way they do. But if God exists, He could have created life, the universe, and everything in innumerable ways and, Carrier conjectures, surely not in the fractured, imperfect, pain-guaranteeing way we see. Therefore, because “the probability that a ‘designing’ god exists but never intelligently designed anything is likewise virtually zero, since by definition that’s also not how such a god behaves” and for other reasons Carrier creates, it is likely God does not exist.

The first and last part are pure bluff. We have no idea what a “designing god” would do for a living, nor what the universe would look like had God not created it. To say we do assumes we have (absent God) an explanation of why there is something rather than nothing, which we do not have. Note carefully that “something” includes quantum fields, the “laws” of the universe, mathematics, anything you can think of. To say we know what the universe would look like had God not created it, is to claim one knows precisely why whatever physical, mathematical, mental, and philosophical foundations exist, exist the way they do, without circularly drawing on those foundations for their explanation. And that is impossible.

The second part is bluster. Call it the Carrier-as-God thesis, which can be summarized: “If I, Carrier the god, were to design the universe, it would pink and happy with ‘bodies free of needless imperfections’ with endless complimentary ice cream for all. Since the Christian God obviously did not create this delightful world, he must not exist.” This is as silly as it sounds. How can Carrier presume to know why God did what He did?

The last part is bullying, probabilistic persiflage. Carrier thinks that by thumping the reader with (unnecessary, as it turns out) mathematics that science is happening, and thus nothing else need be said.

Carrier’s main argument

Carrier first defines “nonterrestrial intelligent design”. “By ‘intelligent design,’ I mean design that is not the product of blind natural processes (such as some combination of chance and necessity), and by ‘nonterrestrial,’ I mean neither made by man (or woman) nor any other known life-form.”

Anything that happens by necessity, must happen; necessary events are determined, i.e. caused, to happen in the way they did. But nothing happens because of chance: chance is measure of knowledge and not a cause; it is not an ontological force and thus cannot direct events. Chance cannot be creative, though necessity, which implies design, is creative by definition. “Natural processes” cannot therefore be “blind.”

God is not a “life-form”. He nowhere takes up physical residence, nor does He live amorphously in some outer reach of the universe. God is not a creature, nor is He the same as the universe. In his inadequately described “designing god”, it’s clear Carrier doesn’t understand he is rejecting a god classical theologians also reject. Carrier’s god is not the ground of being, He whose name is I Am, existence itself, a necessary being who sustains all creation in each and every moment. Carrier’s god is instead a smart, long-lived creature possessed of fancy toys, perhaps made of pasta, who occasionally likes to tinker with bits and pieces of the universe but who is subject to the wiles and rules of the universe like other beings, though perhaps not to the same extent, an extent which Carrier always left vague.


Carrier introduces Bayes’s probability theorem, but only as a club to frighten his enemies and not as a legitimate tool to understand uncertainty. I must be right, he seems to insist, because look at these equations. Bayes’s theorem is a simple means to update the probability of a hypothesis when considering new information. If the information comes all at once, the theorem isn’t especially needed, because there is no updating to be done. Nowhere does Carrier actually needs Bayes and, anyway, probabilistic arguments are never as convincing as definitive proof, which is what we seek when asking whether God exists.

A simple illustration. Suppose we accept the prior evidence (a proposition) “A standard deck of 52-playing cards, from which only one card will be pulled, and only one of which is labeled eight-of-clubs” and we later learn that “Jack removed the Jack of hearts from the deck.” Conditional on these facts, we want the probability of the proposition, “I pull out an eight-of-clubs.” This probability is obviously 1/51 whether we start with the first proposition and update with the second using Bayes, or just take both propositions simultaneously. Incidentally, this example highlights the crucial distinction that all probability is conditional on evidence which is specifically stated (there is no such thing as unconditional probability).

Carrier artificially invents for himself various sets of “prior” information which he later tries to update using Bayes, but it’s all for show. Just like in the cards example, nowhere did he actually need Bayes for any of his arguments. Carrier further shows he misunderstands his subject when he says “Probability measures frequency”. This is false: probability measures information, though information is sometimes in the form of frequencies, as in our card example. Suppose our proposition is “Just two-thirds of Martians wear hats, and George is a Martian.” Given that specific evidence, the probability “George wears a hat” is 2/3, but there can be no frequency because, of course, there are no hat-wearing Martians.

Probability errors

There is more than ample evidence Carrier is confused about the difference between probabilistic and philosophical argument. Here are some examples.

In order to form his priors, Carrier says the frequency of observed designed universes “is exactly zero.” A statement which, of course, assumes what he wants to prove, a classic error in logic, an error he duplicates when he insists he knows “full well” that intelligent extraterrestrials must, somewhere or somewhen, exist. In both places, Carrier has substituted his desire for proof.

Again, “Yet any alien civilization selected at random will statistically be millions or billions of years more advanced [at designing life than we are].” Which alien civilizations are we selecting “at random”? What proof beyond conjecture and desire is there that (a) any other alien civilization exists and (b) that if any does exist it will be technologically and “statistically” more advanced than we, and that (c) even if they are more advanced, they would want to use their technological prowess to build lifeforms? This statement is nothing but an unproven science-fiction argument from desire. There is no set of premises which all can agree on that would allow us to deduce a probability here.

“You cannot deduce from ‘God exists’ that the only way he would ever make a universe is that way. There must surely be some probability that he might do it another way. Indeed, the probability must be quite high, simply because it’s weird for an intelligent agent of means to go the most inefficient and unnecessary route to obtain his goals, and ‘weird’ means by definition ‘rare,’ which means ‘infrequent.’ which means ‘improbable.'” Carrier constantly assumes he knows not only what God would do, but what various lesser gods would do. His case would have been infinitely strengthened had he given the evidence for these beliefs, rather than merely stating them.

“Conversely, the probability that a ‘designing’ god exists but never intelligently designed anything is likewise virtually zero, since by definition that’s also not how such a god behaves.” Who says? Has Carrier conducted a survey among deistical gods and their designing proclivities? Or is he merely assuming, without proof, that the gods must needs design (maybe it scratches some intergalactic itch)? Anyway, Carrier’s god can’t create a universe (defined as everything that exists). That level of heft requires the God of infinite ability, the only way to get something from nothing.

“Hence it’s precisely the fact that God never does things like that in our observation that makes positing God as a causal explanation of other things so implausible.” So much for miracles, then; and a rather dogmatic dismissal at that.

Design and intelligence

Carrier misunderstands other aspects of probability, too. He appears to believe, like many, that evolution occurs “randomly” and is a “product of chance”. That’s impossible. Nothing is caused by “chance” or occurs “randomly” because chance is not a cause and neither is randomness. Chance and randomness are measures of our ignorance of causes, and are not themselves ontological realities. It is always a bluff to say that “randomness” or “chance” caused some effect. You either know the cause or you do not. If you know it, state it. If you do not, then admit it (using probability).

Intelligent design enthusiasts make the same mistake, and when they do, to his credit Carrier is there to show us. “Michael Behe’s claim that the flagellar propulsion system of the E. coli bacterium is irreducibly complex and thus cannot have evolved”. The system’s evolution, to Behe, was completely “improbable.” Yet improbability arguments don’t work for or against evolution. If a thing has happened—and the propulsion system happened—it was caused. That we don’t know of the cause is where probability enters, but only as a measure of our ignorance of the cause. Whether we know or don’t know of the cause, there is still a cause. Things don’t “just happen.” That’s why when we see that organisms have evolved, which is indisputable, we know there must be some thing or things causing those changes.

What about the start of all life, i.e. biogenesis? Carrier says, “by definition the origin of life must be a random accident.” Thus does hope replace reality. Life could not have sprung up “randomly”, for randomness isn’t a cause. As it is, there is no direct evidence of how life arose, a gap which Carrier replaces with bluster, a science-of-the-gaps theory. I have no idea how life got here. God might have done it, or merely designed the system so that it had to arise. But something caused it. To say “I don’t know what the cause was” is not proof that “God was not the cause”.

How about the start of the universe? Carrier says, “Suppose in a thousand years we develop computers capable of simulating the outcome of every possible universe, with every possible arrangement of physical constants, and these simulations tell us which of those universes will produce arrangements that make conscious observers (as an inevitable undesigned by-product). It follows that in none of those universes are the conscious observers intelligently designed (they are merely inevitable by-products), and none of those universes are intelligently designed (they are all of them constructed purely at random).” And “Our universe looks exactly like random chance would produce, but not exactly like intelligent design would produce.”

No, no, no, no no no no. It’s now a cliché to say so, but this isn’t even wrong. It is impossible—as in not possible, no matter what—for “random chance” to create even a mote on the speck of a quark let alone an entire universe. Anyway, how would Carrier or anybody know what a designed universe looks like? No guidebook exists. To say this one isn’t designed is stunningly bold, a belief without evidence of any kind—except the desire that it not be so.


Perhaps the following sentences reveal how Carrier so easily fooled himself: “Hence I have demonstrated with logical certainty that the truth of Christianity is very improbable on these facts. And what is very improbable should not be believed. When enough people realize this, Christianity will come to an end.” And, contradicting himself in the matter of certainty of Christianity, he later says, “Christianity is fully disconfirmed by the evidence of life and the universe.”

Carrier nowhere in the body of his argument spoke of Christianity, but only vaguely of ETs, gods, and some curious ideas of what God would act like if He were Richard Carrier. Strange, then, that he should be so confident he has destroyed all of Christianity. And no other religion.

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