William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Author: Briggs (page 3 of 537)

The Day I Made The Front Page!

I am the fellow on the left, age 15.

I am the fellow on the left, age 15.

In case you can’t see the fine print, it reads:

FRESH PUDDLE ICE formed from the January rains collapsed under the weight of a car driven by Adam Kennedy, above right, Sunday on Otsego Lake. Kennedy and friend Matt Briggs, both of Gaylord, examine the spot where the car’s wheels rest on thick lake ice. With an assist from lake resident Wayne Miller, a tow truck on shore south of the state park arrived and Kennedy attached the 300-foot cable to the trailer hitch. Miller paced the car’s distance from shore at 288 feet before the vehicle eased out.

Now that’s what I call news!

Sign of the old times.

Sign of the old times.

The date is Thursday 24 January 1980. We lived on a sort of bluff at the south end of Otsego Lake and were sitting have Sunday dinner (Banquet Chicken, probably) and we saw this guy spinning donuts on the ice. Somebody wondered if the ice was too thin.

Kerplunk. Just to show that you can’t trust anything you read, I didn’t know Adam from Adam, though the paper says we were pals. And how thick could the ice have been if the car had gone through? Global Warming was a menace even then! We sure were examining the spot where the car nearly sank into oblivion, though. Our postures positively radiate examinationness, or perhaps it is examinationativity. Anyway, not much else we could have done until the tow truck arrived.

The sticker on the side of the car, incidentally, is for Alpenfest 76. The town at all times of the year dresses itself up in an ersatz Bavarianism, but during the third week of July the residents, who were predominately Polish, join in for the thing which is Alpenfest. There is the burning of the Boog, die grosse kaffeepause, the singing of Edelweiss, a Queen contest which is always the subject of intense betting, booths of cutesy country crap (crafts! I meant crafts) on the Alpenstrasse (main street), a parade in which I marched as part of the High School band, and carnival rides.

The carnies used to have the Dime Game in which bettors placed dimes on colored squares and where somebody tossed a racquetball into a pen with colored holes. The prize was candy. Loved it. But the State in its role of in loco parentis shut it down because it looked too much like gambling. Or maybe it’s because the State treasures its monopoly on that sport. Or maybe it was standard American puritanism. Whichever way, it’s gone.

Careful readers will have noted the absence of ice fishing houses in the picture. Most of these were on the north side of the lake anyway, but many took them off because of the rain.

But there’s no mistaking the foggy grayness which is a permanent fixture of Northern Michigan winters. If it wasn’t snowing, it was about to. Gaylord is the high and snowiest point in the lower peninsula. Lots of lake effect. Sunny days in winter were rare, but boy were they pretty. Perfect time to go cross-country skiing.

Or hunting. My friend Chuck Coonrod—whose dad, then a school bus driver, is coincidentally mentioned in this same issue of the stately Herald Times—would head up the hill behind his house and go an kill animals. I still remember the first time I baked a liberally salted and peppered squirrel in the oven. It was good!

Behind his house was a steep, winding hill. Chuck had metal saucers on which we would sit and launch ourselves into near oblivion. This was still in the day of cloth snow suits. The end of a good afternoon saw us drenched and steaming sitting by his kitchen table snacking on the bacon his mother always had by the side of the stove.

Soft spots in the lake weren’t the only danger. My nephew had a video which I am unable to rediscover which showed how in the spring the wind would push chunks of ice onto the land. An inexorable flow, like cold lava. It doesn’t sound much, but all that weight does damage. I got my leg stuck once and thought it would going to break off.

Good thing we can simulate all this stuff on a computer now. So much safer.

Update The horrific (placed there by my enemies) of mislocating Alpinefest to the wrong month has been fixed. Consider this a belated trigger warning.

The Scientific Ethicist: Mathematics & Logic Edition

The Scientific Ethicist, PhD

The Scientific Ethicist, PhD

This week, three letters from concerned readers.

Can I Skip College?

Dear Scientific Ethicist,

I am a junior in high school and will graduate in the first semester of my senior year. Someday I would like to be a stay-at-home mom. I have no interest in going to college. I feel it would be a waste of money for me to go when I don’t intend to use my degree.

To say my parents are disappointed in me over this is putting it mildly. They have a life planned for me that includes college. I would also like to move away to somewhere where it’s warm year-round, and they don’t like that idea either.

How do I make them understand that this is MY life and everything will be OK?

Uninterested in Idaho

Dear Uninterested,

This is obviously related to the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus. Let me quote Wikipedia, “The first part of the theorem, sometimes called the first fundamental theorem of calculus, is that an indefinite integral of a function[1] can be reversed by differentiation. This part of the theorem is also important because it guarantees the existence of antiderivatives for continuous functions.

The second part, sometimes called the second fundamental theorem of calculus, is that the definite integral of a function can be computed by using any one of its infinitely many antiderivatives. This part of the theorem has key practical applications because it markedly simplifies the computation of definite integrals.”

As you can see, the rest follows easily. That’s the power of mathematics!

The Scientific Ethicist

P.S. See also the first, second, and third laws of thermodynamics in reference to your comment about heat.

Dating Woes

Dear Scientific Ethicist,

The school year has started and many high school girls like me are faced with a similar problem: how to politely decline when a boy asks you to a dance.

Whether it be homecoming, winter formal or prom, some boys go all out and ask girls in elaborate and creative ways. I don’t know what to do in these situations if I don’t want to go with the boy who is asking me. I feel bad saying “no” because of all the work they put into it, and also sometimes there is an audience watching. Should I just go anyway?

Saratoga Teen

Dear Saratoga,

Meta logic is the answer here, especially formal systems. A formal system must have a finite alphabet, a listing of the strict rules of grammar (exceptions aren’t allowed), a specified list of inference rules, and finally a set of indubitable axioms. The latter may be made up because, of course, science has no way of externally checking the validity of any set of axioms.

The point for you, and I’m sure you already see it, is that since you can create this formal system any way you like, the next time to you attend a formal you can act any way you like. Logic guarantees this.

Truly there is nothing more logical than logic!

The Scientific Ethicist

Social Media Prayers

Dear Scientific Ethicist,

I frequently receive requests via Facebook and other social media sites asking for prayers for people who are ill or suffering a loss. I’m not a religious person, but I would like to acknowledge their pain and extend my sympathy. Any suggestions?

Challenged in Tucson

Dear Challenged,

Have you considered that e is irrational? Every schoolgirl ethicist knows that

e = \sum_{n = 0}^{\infty} \frac{1}{n!}\cdot .

Now if e were rational, it would have the form a/b where the two numbers are integers, and where obviously b does not equal 1. Then

\frac{1}{1}\ + \frac{1}{1}\ < e = \frac{1}{1}\ + \frac{1}{1}\ + \frac{1}{1\cdot2}\ + \frac{1}{1\cdot2\cdot3}\ + ...  < \frac{1}{1}\ + \frac{1}{1}\ + \frac{1}{1\cdot2}\ + \frac{1}{1\cdot2\cdot2}\ + ... = 3.

Well, we repeat a procedure like this, working with infinite series, manipulating this way and that, and we finally conclude that e cannot be rational.

But you can be, using math, logic, and science!

The Scientific Ethicist

Be sure not to miss other penetrating installments of The Scientific Ethicist. Or send in your questions today!

Summary Against Modern Thought: God Is Not The Universe

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.

Pantheism is the belief that the universe (or multiverse or whatever is all that exists) is identical with God. It is an ancient and current belief. See inter alia Star Wars or attend any yoga class. Atheists speak like pantheists (see discussions about “spontaneous” effects, creation from “nothing”, etc.).

Chapter 26: That God Is Not The Formal Being Of All Things

1 FROM the foregoing we are able to refute the error of some who have asserted that God is nothing else than the formal being of everything.[1]

2 For this being is divided into substantial and accidental being. Now the divine being is neither the being of a substance nor the being of an accident, as shown above.[2] Therefore it is impossible for God to be the being whereby everything is formally.i

3 Again. Things are not distinct from one another in that they have being, since in this they all agree. If, then, things differ from one another, it follows that either being itself is specified by certain differences added thereto, so that different things have a specifically different being, or that things differ in that being itself is attached to specifically different natures. But the former of these is impossible, because an addition cannot be attached to being in the same way as a difference is added to a genus, as already stated.[3] It remains, therefore, that things differ because they have different natures, to which being is attached in different ways. Now the divine being is not attached to another nature, but is the nature itself, as shown above.[4] If, therefore, the divine being were the formal being of all things, it would follow that all things are simply one…ii

5 Further. That which is common to many is not something besides those many except only logically: thus animal is not something besides Socrates and Plato and other animals except as considered by the mind, which apprehends the form of animal as divested of all that specifies, and individualizes it: for man is that which is truly an animal, else it would follow that in Socrates and Plato there are several animals, namely animal in general, man in general, and Plato himself.iii Much less therefore being itself in general is something apart from all things that have being; except only as apprehended by the mind. If therefore God is being in general, He will not be an individual thing except only as apprehended in the mind. Now it has been shown above[6] that God is something not merely in the intellect, but in reality. Therefore God is not the common being of all.iv

6 Again. Generation is essentially the way to being, and corruption the way to not-being. For the term of generation is the form, and that of corruption privation, for no other reason than because the form makes a thing to be, and corruption makes a thing not to be, for supposing a certain form not to give being, that which received that form would not be said to be generated. If, then, God were the formal being of all things it would follow that He is the term of generation. Which is false, since He is eternal, as we have shown above.[7]v

7 Moreover. It would follow that the being of every thing has been from eternity: wherefore there would be neither generation nor corruption. For if there were, it would follow that a thing acquires anew a being already pre-existing. Either then it is acquired by something already existing, or else by something nowise pre-existing. In the first case, since according to the above supposition all existing things have the same being, it would follow that the thing which is said to be generated, receives not a new being but a new mode of being, and therefore is not generated but altered. If on the other hand the thing nowise existed before, it would follow that it is made out of nothing, and this is contrary to the essence of generation. Consequently this supposition would wholly do away with generation and corruption: and therefore it is clear that it is impossible…vi

We skip the next six arguments, which refute an error not of main interest to us.


[1] Sum. Th. P. I., Q. iii., A. 8.
[2] Ch. xxv.
[3] Ch. xxv.
[4] Ch. xxii.
[5] Ch. xv.
[6] Ch. xiii.
[7] Ch. xv.

i“This being” is the pantheistic deity, if it existed. Obviously, the universe is made of parts, is in potential, and all those things we already know God cannot be. This is probably the simplest proof in the whole book! So obvious is this that we’ll skip around the remaining arguments, though there is plenty there that is of interest.

iiThere was some confusion about this in the past. If you exist and I exist (and we do) then we both share existence, or being. But after that, we begin to differ. That’s all this means, and Aquinas draws the implication in the next sentence. There are not different kinds of to exist. The takeaway point is that in God existence is essence, or nature.

iiiThat is, we can know the essence of animal, and other essences, too! Once you grasp this seemingly simple point, boy howdy do things change.

ivIn other words, God cannot be a thing which only exists in your imagination.

vA good review: things which are in existence, have being, have form and matter. Take away the form of you and what is left? Nothing but dust. The form of man is his soul.

viI find this argument beautiful. Put another way around, if the universe were God, then nothing could change; things change; therefore the universe is not God. Being cannot alter into new ways of being Being, and nothing can come from nothing. If God were there universe, it would be a dull constant unchanging void with not even a seething quantum “vacuum” to liven it up.

Predicting Doom—Guest Post by Thomas Galli

Some treatments are more efficacious than others.

Some treatments are more efficacious than others.

I am not a statistics wizard; an engineer, I value the predictive power of statistics. Indeed, if one can precisely control variables in the design of an experiment, statistics-based prediction of future material properties is remarkably accurate. The joy of predicting end strength for a new carbon nanotube concrete mix design in minutes versus days melts the heart of this engineer.

This predictive power has a foreboding downside. It attaches to other projections, including those used by the medical profession to forecast life after diagnosis with late-stage cancer. Unfortunately, I have first-hand experience with this. I was granted but 6 months of remaining life nearly 11 years ago! My doom was predicted with certainty, and for a while, I believed it.

In the dwell time between treatments, I searched for methods used to generate projections of doom. Each patient’s type, stage, age, ethnicity and race were reported to the National Cancer Institute upon diagnosis. Deaths were also reported but not the cause of death. Nothing was captured on complicating health problems like cardio-pulmonary disease, diabetes or other life-threatening diseases. The predictive data set appeared slim.

My battle turned while mindlessly searching web pages of the American Cancer Society. Ammunition in the form of a powerful essay from the noted evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould—“The Median Isn’t The Message”—contained the words: “…leads us to view statistical measures of central tendency wrongly, indeed opposite to the appropriate interpretation in our actual world of variation, shadings, and continua.”

The statistician seeks to aggregate and explain. I’d forgotten that I was in a “world of variation,” was but one data point in about 1.4 million Americans diagnosed in 2004. I might be “the one” on the right-shifted curve prohibiting intersection with the x-axis.

There was one benefit from my encounter with predictive doom. I found hope—something no statistician can aggregate or explain.

Gould survived 20 years beyond his late-stage, nearly always statistically fatal, abdominal cancer diagnosis. Ironically, he passed after contracting another form of unrelated cancer. A distinguished scientist, Gould eloquently described the limits of science and statistics by suggesting that “a sanguine personality” might be the best prescription for success against cancer. There is always hope, with high confidence.


Editor’s Note I have long been interested in working with physicians who routinely make end-of-life prognoses. The concepts of rating such judgments are no different than, say, judging how well climate models predict future temperatures. I mean predictions should be rated on their difficulty. I haven’t yet discovered docs willing to conduct these experiments, but if anybody happens to know somebody, let me know.

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