William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Author: Briggs (page 3 of 423)

Don’t Say “Natural Variability”


Word that the climate of doom we were promised (repeatedly) has not obtained has begun leaking out. Climatologists have known this for quite some time, but now even environmental activists are beginning to realize the horrible truth that their worst fears have not been realized.

The excuses have thus begun.

We have already learned “Don’t say ‘Hiatus'” because that is to speak nonsensically. Saying there is a “pause” or “hiatus” assumes the models which predicted the doom which did not happen were somehow right after all, and that it is Reality itself that is error.

It cannot be in the models we currently possess, because these models did not foresee what actually happened. The incontrovertible evidence is that these models are wrong. That they should not, in their current state, be trusted. That whatever they say is subject to extreme reasonable rational doubt. That decisions should not be made based upon their predictions (except the decision to produce better models).

To say there is a “pause” is to say that the models were right after all, even though Reality differed from the models. To say there is a “hiatus” is to say Theory is better than Reality. This is to commit the Deadly Sin of Reification.

One of the excuses is that the models were right after all, but the missing high temperature they predicted is actually in hiding. Sort of like in those movies where the Leader sneaks out of his palace or house and mixes with the ordinary people, and thus he learns What’s Really Important. That is, Global Warming has realized that people are important, too, and has given up its nefarious plans. Or something.

Anyway, the “in hiding” excuse can’t be right, not exactly, because the models already swore they took into account all the sources of heat, including the oceans. Obviously the models were wrong and they didn’t take some thing or things into account. What’s wrong, though, is anybody’s guess. Because some thing or things are wrong, however, it does not mean the thing you guess was wrong was the thing that was wrong. To prove it, you’ll have to redo the models and reforecast the future. Then we wait and see. In the meantime, keep quiet.

One thing we know with certainty is that the thing (in error) cannot be natural variability.

Natural variability, sisters and brothers, is what the models said they could predict skillfully. The models did not skillfully predict natural variability. Natural variability just is, in this sense, what the temperature does.

There is another sense of the phrase, though, a kind of enviro-religious sense that people might be using, which is, “What the temperature would do in absence of humans”. Now that is a valid thing to study. Only trouble is, it’s counterfactual. We can produce answers by the grant-load, but we’ll never know, or that is, we can never verify, whether any of them are true.

Because why? Because, of course, we humans are here and have been here. There is no way to remove our influence (or the influence of any species), so there is no way to know with certainty what the climate would be like without us. Of course, we might make reasonable guesses about what a never-were-humans climate would look like. But we would know those guesses are reasonable only after we can create models that can skillfully predict what the climate will look with us. Yet, as said, we’d never be able to verify those guesses because, of course, here we are.

Humans—and ants, aardvarks, and antelopes—are in integral part of the climate. All creatures influence the climate to some degree (get it? get it?). We are thus part of nature, thus part of real natural variability.

It was never a question whether humans influenced climate, for the answer was always yes; instead, the real science lay in understanding how we effect it. And how everything else effects it. And we’ll know we’ve done a good job with those questions—with understanding “natural variability”, that is—one we can produce good forecasts.


The Imposing-Their-Beliefs Fallacy

Perry trying to impose a curious view.

Perry trying to impose a curious view.

Here is an example of the Imposing-Their-Beliefs Fallacy (ITBF), taken from the New Republic article “The Straight, White, Middle-Class Man Needs to Be Dethroned” by Grayson Perry, a self-labeled “artist” (the trick these days is to discover who is not an “artist”):

They dominate the upper echelons of our society, imposing, unconsciously or otherwise, their values and preferences on the rest of the population. With their colourful textile phalluses hanging round their necks, they make up an overwhelming majority in government, in boardrooms, and also in the media.

Incidentally, it was only after reading up on Perry’s background and noting his obsession with the sexual, that I figured out that “colourful textile phalluses” meant ties. Skip it.

The fallacy does not lie in the statement itself, because, of course, it is possible, and even common, to impose one’s beliefs, values, and preferences on another. Indeed, it is even necessary that imposing occur. That fallacy thus lies in stating that it should not or could not.

Since some form of imposition is necessary, the presence of the fallacy, then, is always an attempt to impose beliefs, values, and preferences other than the ones being railed against. First a proof of the necessity, then proof that the fallacy wielder really just wants his own way.

Newborn and infants must have beliefs, values, and preferences imposed upon them, or else they will die. Children, too. The State imposes the belief that killing for fun and profit (of those human beings who managed to escape the womb, at any rate) is wrong, and it further imposes its value that those who kill will be punished; and it expresses preferences for the kinds of punishment. You can dispute that the State should do this, but even insisting on anarchy is to impose beliefs, values, and preferences.

If you say to another man, “Do not steal from me” or “Do not slit my daughter’s throat” you have imposed or are seeking to impose. If you ever say “should” or “ought” you are imposing, and the same is true if you use synonyms of these words like “judgmental” and “hateful” and so on.

It doesn’t even matter if, as Hume insisted, there really is a distinction between “is” and “ought” (and that is disputable), any time you approve or disapprove of another’s actions, you have imposed or are seeking to. The only slim possibility of non-imposition is if you are utterly indifferent to not only your own self, but to all others. That indifference includes the absence of love or hate or any other emotion.

Now evidence that the fallacy is always inverted.

At Truth-Out.org, in the article “Meet the Right-Wing Christian Companies Trying to Impose Their Values on Their Workers“, the author echoes the common complaint that employees not being given (government-mandated) free things because they are employees is an imposition. Which, of course, it is. The employees instead want to impose their belief that they should be given whatever it is they want and to not be required to give anything in return for it. Strangely, and in an indication of how far gone our culture is, the ITBF was convincing to Government.

Think Progress carried the article “Catholic Bishops: ‘Religious Liberty’ Includes Right To Discriminate Against Gay People, Impose Values“, which is seeped in the Imposing-Their-Beliefs Fallacy. Many today have forgotten the (what used to be) obvious fact that imposing beliefs is what religions do, and so to complain about this is a marker of insanity, stupidly, or political Machiavellianism. The Think Progress folks instead want to impose their values in the expected way.

These examples can be multiplied indefinitely, so it is easy to lose the wonder you should feel whenever you encounter the fallacy. But do try to be vigilant.

Now this Grayson Perry who supplied our first example of the fallacy goes on to say that straight, middle-class white men is a “group that punches far, far above its weight.” A curious claim given the list of accomplishments by this “tribe” (to include the computer on which Perry wrote his fallacy and the internet which served it up to his readers).

But it is clear which beliefs, values, and preferences Perry wishes to impose on us (for I can reveal Yours Truly is a member of this suspect group). I wonder if he’ll get away with it.

Summary Against Modern Thought: God Is His Own Essence

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.

The soup thickens. We haven’t learned much about God yet, other than He exists, is not composite, is outside time, is pure actuality and so forth. To go further, we need to expand our vocabulary and introduce the idea of essence. Well summarized by The Catholic Encyclopedia (CE), this is “the radical or ground from which the various properties of a thing emanate and to which they are necessarily referred. Thus the notion of the essence is seen to be the abstract counterpart of the concrete entity; the latter signifying that which is or may be [(in actuality, in potential)], while the former points to the reason or ground why it is precisely what it is.”.

Chapter 21: God Is His Own Essence

1 FROM what has been laid down we are able to conclude that God is His own essence, quiddity or nature.i

2 In everything that is not its own essence or quiddity there must needs be some kind of composition: for since each thing contains its own essence, if a thing contained nothing besides its own essence, all that a thing is would be its essence. Therefore if a thing were not its own essence, there must be something in it besides its essence: and consequently there must be composition therein. For which reason the essence in composite things has the signification of a part, as humanity in a man. Now it has been shown[1] ^1 that in God there is no composition. Therefore God is His own essence.ii

3 Again. Seemingly that alone which does not enter into the definition of a thing is beside the essence of that thing: for a definition signifies what a thing is.[2] Now only the accidents of a thing do not enter into its definition: and consequently only accidents are in a thing besides its essence. But in God there are no accidents, as we shall show further on.[3] Accordingly, there is nothing in Him besides His essence. Therefore He is His own essence.iii

4 Moreover. Forms that are not predicated of subsistent things, whether the latter be taken universally or singly, are not single per se subsistent forms individualized in themselves. For we do not say that Socrates, or man, or an animal is whiteness, because whiteness is not singly per se subsistent, but is individualized by its subsistent subject.iv Likewise natural forms do not per se subsist singly, but are individualized in their respective matters: wherefore we do not say that this individual fire, or that fire in general is its own form. Moreover the essences or quiddities of genera or species are individualized by the signate matter of this or that individual, although indeed the quiddity of a genus or species includes form and matter in general: wherefore we do not say that Socrates, or man, is humanity.v Now the divine essence exists per se singly and is individualized in itself, since it is not in any matter, as shown above.[4] Hence the divine essence is predicated of God, so that we say: God is His own essence.vi

5 Further. The essence of a thing is either the thing itself, or is related to it in some way as cause: since a thing derives its species from its essence. But nothing can in any way be a cause of God: for He is the first being, as shown above.[5]vii Therefore God is His own essence. Again, that which is not its own essence, is related in respect of some part of itself to that essence, as potentiality to act: wherefore the essence is signified by way of form, for instance humanity. But there is no potentiality in God, as shown above,[6] therefore it follows that He is His own essence.viii


iQuiddity: the whatness (as Kreeft says), “the essence that makes something the kind of thing it is and makes it different from any other” (Wesbster, from where we learn the rarely used synonym haecceity).

iiThe essence of you, dear reader, is that you are a man (male or female), which is to say, a rational creature (in Aristotle’s sense). But you are also more than just your essence. Some of you are tall, others are not as blessed. Some have hair on head and some wear hats. That is, as Aquinas says, you are composite, made of more than one thing. But we already know God is not composite, thus He must be His own essence.

iiiHaving or not having hair, or having or not having facial freckles, is an accident. With our without, the essence behind them is still man or woman. The Aristotle reference has him saying (what is obvious) that “we must argue from a definition, viz. by assuming what falsity or truth means.” Else we go nowhere. And that “the essence of a thing is that which is expressed by its definition” (CE, above).

ivWhiteness does not go walking about on its hind legs, i.e. it is not individualized in itself. But my white hat carries on being white because the hat carries on (continues to exist).

vPerhaps it’s obvious, but that humanity exists as an essence, and that Socrates or you is not that essence, but merely examples of it, is one point. How we know it is another, as it always is. Why mention it? Well, Star Trek fans, since our essence is being a rational animal, that essence might come in other accidental packages. See this essay by Fr Schall. Or work by David Oderburg (where’s the link?).

viThis obviously follows from the premises. But on that subject, more next week, when we learn that God’s existence is His essence.

viiBack to the Unmoved Mover, the Unchanging Changer! Chapter 13, that is. See the links from last week’s review.

viiiThis follows simply from above; i.e. don’e forget the second premise “if a thing contained nothing besides its own essence, all that a thing is would be its essence.” And do meditate on the difference between potentiality and actuality. So much flows from this distinction that it isn’t funny (as my old grandma used to say about a related topic).

[1] Ch. xviii.
[2] 4 Metaph. viii. 4.
[3] Ch. xxiii.
[4] Ch. xvii.
[5] Ch. xiii.
[6] Ch. xvi.

A Common, Unfortunate, Avoidable, Devastating Error In Statistics

Smilin' Joe demonstrates our fallacy.

Smilin’ Joe demonstrates our fallacy.

It’s a doozy, this error of ours. So ubiquitous is it that it’s hardly noticeable. Yet it is sinking us into scientism and wild overconfidence.

Every time it appears, both the public and scientists themselves become a tiny bit more over-enamored of science, giving it more honor than it deserves. The effect of any one appearance of the error is small, scarcely noticeable. But when it is repeated ad nauseam the product is deadly to clear thinking.

Of ado, no more. Here’s an example: “conservatives demonstrate stronger attitudinal reactions to situations of threat and conflict. In contrast, liberals tend to be seek out novelty and uncertainty.”

Did you see it? Maybe not. If you thought the corruption lay in the subject matter of the proposition itself, you were understandably wrong. The quote was taken from the peer-reviewed paper “Red Brain, Blue Brain: Evaluative Processes Differ in Democrats and Republicans” by Darren Schreiber and several others in PLOS One1.

What you thought was the main error was instead yet another in a long and growing line of misguided, probably ideologically but unconsciously motivated attempts to demonstrate to the level of satisfaction required by progressive academics that conservatives are biologically different than they are.

Need a hint about the bigger error? Here’s another example, culled from the same paper: “Republicans and Democrats differ in the neural mechanisms activated while performing a risk-taking task.”

Have it yet? Not the content. After an incredible amount of statistical manipulation, such that we can’t really be sure of what we’re seeing, the authors discovered that slightly more registered Democrats had high (statistically derived) activity in their left posterior insula than did registered Republicans (groups which they later re-labeled as liberals and conservatives).

From this, I remind us, they concluded that Republicans and Democrats differed.

This is false. They did not differ; or, at least, not all of them did. Only just enough differed to (after scads of manipulation) provide a wee p-value. But because all of them did not differ, and there is no reason to suppose that in new batches of registered party members, all of them will differ either. The statement is false.

Nor did, as cited above, “conservatives demonstrate stronger attitudinal reactions to situations of threat and conflict” than liberals. Leaving aside the soaring ambiguity in measuring political attitude and the even greater hand waving in defining “situations of threat and conflict”, the statement is still false. It was only found that slightly more “conservatives” than “liberals” answered some questions one way rather than another.

You must have it by now. The error is Irresponsible Exaggeration, which leads inevitably to Gross Over-Certainty. It is a crude mistake, common among the untrained and ill educated (reporters, etc.), and should be rare among scientists, but it increasingly isn’t, as our examples prove (here are many more).

It is now (near?) impossible to read any public report of research without this error—let us call it the Statistical Exaggeration Fallacy. Reports are lazy, harried, or not intelligent enough to realize they are making the mistake. But it’s surprising that it is never corrected by scientists.

Now as proved here, the purpose of statistics is not to say anything about what happened in a particular experiment, but what that experiment might mean in the future. The future must necessarily be less certain than the past, where the experiment lives (proved here). And not only that, it is a consequence of the crude statistical methods used by researchers, but their results are even less certain than implied even without the Statistical Exaggeration Fallacy (are all Republicans “conservatives”?).

I mean, relying on p-values already guarantees over-certainty, which is multiplied in the presence of the SEF. And by the presence of over-extended definitions, like calling Republicans “conservatives”, and conflating the answers on some questionnaire with some deep-seated and real psychological tendency.

Your help needed

What I’d like you to do, sisters and brothers, when you have the time, is to note in the comments whenever you see an instance of the Statistical Exaggeration Fallacy. It is well to have a large, contemporaneous collection of these to prove my claim of its non-rarity.

Of its harmful effect, well, if it is not obvious to you, it will be after you read the examples.


1A curiosity of this journal. They put the Results and Discussion before the boring, who-really-needs-to-read-it Methods section, which appears at the bottom.

The Decline & Fall Of Radical Catholicism; Or, What The Synod Will Have Wrought

And to think that some people disbelieve in the satanic.

And to think that some people disbelieve in the satanic.

Update Comments restored. WordPress is acting strange.

The first part of the title isn’t mine, but belongs to James Hitchcock who wrote a book of the same name, published in 1971 in the wake of Vatican II. Hitchcock was then a self-labeling progressive1 looking back on the predictions made by competing groups during the great Council.

The book reads like it will be written in 2016.

With Synod I: The Blessing Of Remarriage & Homosexuality playing everywhere now (Synod II opens in October 2015) in the secular press to enraptured audiences2, I thought it well we should revisit how the last efforts to “radically” modify the Church were viewed. The lens Hitchcock used was American made, of course.

Progressives before Vatican II were, Hitchcock tells us, dissatisfied. To which the natural reaction is: aren’t they always? Isn’t profound irrational unthinking unrelievable dissatisfaction the definition of a progressive? What the progressive then wanted was change, mainly in the form of leveling. He wanted “renewal”.

He wanted a modernization of the liturgy, to get rid of the beauty, rigor, and awful uniformity and allow use of the vernacular. And puppets. He wanted a putting away of stultifying Thomism. He wanted to align the Church with the political left: perhaps not to the point of Marxism, but aimed in that direction. He “advocated loosening up the curricula of Catholic colleges to allow secular philosophies to be taught non-polemically” (p. 18).

He praised ecumenism, admiring theologians like Baptist Harvey Cox who suggested “monasteries be turned into retreat and conference centers” and Protestant theologian Arthur Crabtree (who then worked at a Catholic university) who asked “in an ecumenical journal whether the pope is Antichrist”, and liberal rabbi Everett Gendler who insisted that Christians must “abandon belief” in Jesus as a “supernatural purger of sin” (all p. 21).

About the liturgy, now often populated by music that would make even the Beatles blush, and by clowns and giant puppets (what the hell is it with progressives and giant puppets?):

In typical hysterical fashion conservative critics charged that if the Church made the least concession, let down the least barricade, the reformers would prove insatiable. Nothing would be treated with respect and sacred awe but would be shunted around at the whim of the liturgist. Conservatives also raised the faith question: If the liberals actually believed in the efficacy of the sacraments, why did they feel a need to reform them? (p. 17)

Conservatives warned “the liberals did not really derive their social principles from Catholic tradition but were actually breathing in the secular humanist air, which they attempted to give a superficial odor” (p. 18). They “charged that reform was really the ‘Protestantizing’ of the Church” (p. 22).

Hitchcock then makes a startling admission (p. 24):

There are many curiosities in the history of the Church in the post-conciliar years, and not the least is the fact that so few progressives have noticed the extent to which the reactionaries’ predictions prior to the Council have been proven correct and that their own expectations have been contradicted. They continue to treat the conservatives as ignorant, prejudiced, and out of touch with reality.

The progressive predicted reform (p. 24):

would lead to a massive resurgence of the flagging Catholic spirit…Liturgy and theology, having been brought to life and made relevant, would be constant sources of inspiration to the faithful. The religious orders, reformed to bring them into line with modernity, would find themselves overwhelmed with candidates who were generous and enthusiastic. The Church would find the number of converts increasingly dramatically…

Yet Hitchcock admits, “In virtually every case the precise opposite of these predictions has come to pass.” Sound familiar?

Although it has recently had a resurgence, in 1971 Hitchcock could say, “Thomism has disappeared almost without a trace, and there is now scarcely a single traditional doctrine of the Church which is not seriously questioned by some prominent theologians, not excluding the ‘existence’ of God” (p. 19). In many places the “Eucharist is regarded as at best a symbolic act…there is no mystical reality present.” (p. 22).

Progressives looked at the Council’s results and wept but “In fact, Vatican II exceeded the hopes of the liberals” as noted by the presence of, say, giant puppet masses. “There is no question, then, that Vatican II initiated almost every reform which American progressives, prior to 1965, generally desired” (p. 26).

In other words, Progressives got what they wanted (except for the “few persons [who] mentioned tentatively the question of remarriage after divorce”), but they felt like failures. Why the contradiction? My guess is that for the progressive no change short of constant revolution is enough. But Hitchcock perhaps more wisely says (p. 30):

By the end of the 1960s, however, many such progressives were forced to realize that their dislike of Scholasticism, their hankering after liturgical reform, their visits to choice monasteries, were really attempts to overcome a gnawing crisis of faith which they either did not recognize, lacking adequate self-knowledge, or did not want to recognized. However uncharitable, their conservative critics were simply right in postulating weakness of fundamental belief as being at the root of many liberals’ dissatisfaction.

Hitchcock says that conservatives “foresaw more clearly than the progressives the realities of change.” Further (pp. 30-31):

The progressives blithely assumed a period of swift, painless reform, in which desirable changes could be accomplished while undesirable ones were restrained. The conservatives realized that no large intricate society like the Catholic Church can be changed without considerable dislocation and outright loss, and they realized also that state programs for reform are never realized as they are set forth and that change tends to generate change, so that those who begin as moderate reformers sometime end as revolutionaries…

Here’s the kicker, as relevant then as now: “In retrospect it is possible to see the preoccupation of the progressives with changes of various kinds as a way of avoiding the ultimate question of their own faith.”

That’s just Chapter 1 folks, an overview. If this is popular, we can look into the book further.

Update Kinda sorta related. Newman “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant” mugs.


James Hitchcock, 1971. The Decline & Fall Of Radical Catholicism. Herder and Herder, New York.

1Consider that 1971’s progressive is 2014’s conservative; a conservative or reactionary then is a reactionary now.

2There must be a Nicholas Cage pun lurking in there somewhere.

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