William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Category: Culture (page 1 of 171)

The best that has been thought and written and why these ideals are difficult to meet.

Dan Farber, Berkeley Lawyer, Confused Climate Clinger

According to the public figure's Facebook page, this is a self portrait.

According to the public figure’s Facebook page, this is a self portrait.

For the art of the sophist is the semblance of wisdom without the reality, and the sophist is one who makes money from an apparent but unreal wisdom. —Aristotle

Dan Farber calls himself a “public figure“, and I believe him.

Unfortunately, it’s not a distinguished category, and, given his performance (outlined below), the appellation invites unfortunate comparisons.

Rosie “9-11″ O’Donnell is a public figure, and so was Bozo the Clown (though the latter was beloved). And who could forget the People’s own scientist, comrade Trofim Lysenko?

But when I first read Farber’s “From germ theory to global warming, science denialism is beyond parody”, given the extreme violence he committed to calm reason and his mutilation of informed argument, the semblance which sprang to mind was public figure Jeffrey Dahmer.

Don’t think I’m picking on this heretofore unknown Dan Farber, God bless him. He is merely a symptom and not the disease. Delineating symptoms is an important part of understanding illness, however, so think of this article as a physician’s case report, all the while keeping in mind we’re dealing with a larger phenomenon than the mental corruption of one man.

Farber, like many, is a Climate Clinger. A man who, at least according to his public record, has no background in the science of fluid flow—would he, off the cuff, even know the atmosphere is a fluid? Did you?—yet who feels he knows enough to lecture his betters on (say) the modeling of radiative transfer using statistically derived inputs from satellites. How does instrument drift affect the input uncertainty?

Unburdened (it seems) with this knowledge, Farber apparently believes, and probably desires, the solution to global warming, but who (it’s a good bet) possess no real knowledge of the subject, beyond which he gleans from the media and other not-too-technical sources.

It’s surreal. It’s as if the bien pensant have been given their “talking points”, which they are able to parrot without having done the hard work of thinking, and who are so eager to please their masters that whoever is able to wound their enemies with the most vicious, facts-be-damned insult is to be awarded the highest position in that bright future which is to come.

Consider Farber’s feeble attempt to tie climate scientists who doubt the theory of apocalyptic global warming to those who deny the germ theory of illness.

If you’re inclined to doubt science, why not start with the germ theory of disease? After all, isn’t it implausible that illness, death, and even mass epidemics are caused by tiny invisible organisms that invade our bodies?

And what’s the evidence for that, really? Just the findings of scientists who can get big grants from NIH to study these so-called bacteria — not to mention studies financed by Big Pharm which makes a lot of money with supposed cures — and the views of doctors whose professional status and incomes are pumped up by their use of chemical antibiotics to treat diseases. And don’t forget about the massive government spending for sanitation and water treatment to eliminate “germs,” and the extensive regulation of the food industry, Big Government in action!

Sigh. This proves Farber has only read lightly, or has only retained little, of science history. That vapors, miasmas, and bad humors were the cause of disease was the consensus of the early nineteenth century. Why, 97% of scientists, and maybe even more, toed that line, and not only dared anybody to cross it, but they slew those who did.

Consider Ignaz Semmelweis who pleaded with his colleagues—with The Consensus—to at least listen to his arguments. Semmelweis’s reward? He was fired and hounded to an early grave.

The continued criticism and lash out finally broke him down. By 1865, he was suffering from depression, forgetfulness and other neural complaints and was eventually committed to an asylum. He only lasted there for two weeks and died on August 13, 1865 at the age of 47.

“When I look back upon the past, I can only dispel the sadness which falls upon me by gazing into that happy future when the infection will be banished…The conviction that such a time must inevitably sooner or later arrive will cheer my dying hour.”

Farber must have been possessed of a vague intuition that his intimation was ignorant, for he also said, “it turns out, there actually are germ denialists who accept that germs exist but don’t think they’re the real cause of disease. Rejection of the germ theory is found across the political spectrum…”.

That’s true, but misleading; because the stereotypical modern germ “denier” is a forty-four year-old first-time mother who aggressively pushes her stroller (affixed with faded “Obama-Biden 2012″ sticker) around Park Slope, Brooklyn, actively looking for reasons to be aggrieved. Curiously, this woman will also wholeheartedly “believe” in global warming.

So much for the disease. The cure? Since the malady feeds on (perceived or real) approbation, cut off its supply. With, say, articles like this.


Readers might have noticed the unusual number of qualifiers (“seems”, “probably”). Farber is a lawyer, and these folks when wounded have been known to abandon truth and to start barking about the law. It’s a good strategy, because it distracts their opponents while allowing them to avoid admitting they were wrong.

The Global Warming Non-Expert Expert

Psychiatrists testing a cat's reaction to the news that Global Warming will cause an increase in mice.

Psychiatrists testing a cat’s reaction to the news that Global Warming will cause an increase in mice.

Reporteritis is the disease, or rather psychiatric condition, common among journalists, brought on by exposure to important people and events. The exposure causes the journalist to feel that he too is as important and as knowledgeable as the people on whom he is reporting.

It is a terrible, wracking malady, awful to see. Meet the Press’s ex David Gregory is perhaps the most prominent sufferer and awareness-raising poster boy for the disease. (The poor fellow has been observed at restaurants haranguing staff “Do you know who I am?” He may have reached the fatal stages.)

Journalists, opinion-page editors, and reporters are only the public face of the condition. It strikes, perhaps even more mercilessly, the bien pensant, too. The closer a person believes he is, or desires to be, part of the “in” crowd, the more susceptible he is. (When it infests non-reporters, the disease is called the same name.)

Take global warming as an example. For decades, climatologists have told us that temperature would be high, yet temperatures were always low. This discrepancy infallibly (as in infallibly) indicates that the climatologists have done something, we know not what, wrong.

Now a climatologist dedicated to the belief that temperatures are rising will, it is true, seek to evade the evidence of actual observations, by inventing for himself all sorts of besides-the-point explanations, such as the warming he promised is on “hiatus”. He will refuse to see that he originally promised a lack of “hiatus”, and was therefore at fault.

But this is excuse-finding, the standard reaction of people who cannot admit error, a common human failing. Most climatologists will eventually come to see their error (as long as their careers do not hinge on perpetuating that error).

No, what is of interest are the civilians who latch onto global warming with even stronger conviction than climatologists. First a clarification: Global Warming is ambiguous, and easy to equivocate. To a physicist it means warming caused by mankind, a strictly scientific matter. But to most others, it means why the government should take over.

So that when a non-climatologist hears “global warming” and expresses warm interest or visceral hatred for it, it is not the banal science of cloud-model parameterizations he has in mind, but how the government will benignly and beneficently, or brutishly and blindly, intrude on citizens’ lives. The science to these people is largely besides the point, and is anyway too difficult to master.

Still there is no disease. That only comes when the equivocation occurs, when people think they know as much science as climatologists because they desire or despise government excess. Thus there are a minority of folks who loathe massive state control who claim global warming is a “hoax”. Yet these folks, small in number and without power, forget that hoaxes are not easy to perpetuate and that sincere self-deception is far better explanation of scientific error than organized malfeasance.

The real trouble comes from those in power. Take psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton who wrote an article for the far-left New York Times entitled “The Climate Swerve”. Now, nowhere in his resume does Lifton show any background in physics, and though like anybody he might have picked some up along the way, he has nowhere indicated that he has a systematic understanding of the subject.

Yet his ignorance does not stop him from writing, “Of great importance is the growing recognition that the danger encompasses the entire earth and its inhabitants. We are all vulnerable.” And “Oil and coal company executives focus on the maximum use of their product in order to serve the interests of shareholders, rather than the humane, universal ethics we require to protect the earth.” And much more along the same lines.

The reason I say Lifton, who is not intellectually challenged, might suffer from reporteritis is that he feels he is part of climate science merely because he has written about it. The equivocation is there. But he must be as aware of the trivial criterion of scientific success and failure as anybody. That climate models have failed consistently can only mean they are faulty, and therefore their implied threat of doom is improbable at best.

Still, there is sits, his glasses slumped on his nose and he lectures us sadly on why aren’t “doing something.”

Since the disease is contagious, Lifton is only one of many, those who “believe” in global warming, not because they understand the science, but because they desire its “solution.”

Latest Threat To Global Warming? In Vitro Fertilization

Certified carbon-free footprint.

Certified carbon-free footprint.

Stop me if you’re heard this one before. An academic, educated well beyond her capabilities, having a lot of free time on her hands, and frightened past the point of rational thinking by the terrifying promises of the horrors which await us once global warming strikes (soon, soon), figures out a way to solve the “crisis”. Her solution is—wait for it—to put the government in charge of making babies!

Ha ha ha! What a good joke!

(Where have we seen this before?)

The commedienne is Cristina Richie from the Theology Department (yes) at Boston College. Her peer-reviewed leg-pulling is entitled “What would an environmentally sustainable reproductive technology industry look like?” in the Journal of Medical Ethics.

Richie’s line is that “all of medicine and healthcare should be evaluated in terms of ecological sustainability”, especially the “assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs) industry”. What’s an ART? An in vitro fertilisation factory.

ARTs deserve “special ethical attention” not because they are wasteful of human life (many embryos don’t make the cut and are never heard from again), but because they not “only absorb the ‘typical’ medical resources like buildings, medical instruments and intellectual capital, they are unique in that they alone create carbon legacies in addition to having a carbon footprint.” She doesn’t mind the killing, it’s done using electricity that bothers her.

“People who use ARTs are deliberately seeking a carbon legacy (emphasis mine).”

Carbon legacy? She means junior-sized human beings. Babies aren’t people, but carbon-generation machines. Utilitarianism pushed to its logical extreme is always funny, no?

Richie only cares about the factory-made babies, not the kind ordinary moms and dads make (are we still allowed to say “moms and dads” or is that something-or-other-phobic?). Though she does scold that “naturally made children” have an “undeniable impact” on the “environment.”

Babies made through ARTs are “a burden on the already over-taxed ecosystem to support new beings who might not have existed without medical intervention.” Yet how “over-taxed” can it be if Boston College can give Richie a cushy living, free of normal responsibility?

Ever wonder how to sound like an academic? How about this sentence? “Since the 1980s, the field of environmental bio-ethics has made the connection among pollution, carbon emissions and human health.”

Ever wonder how academics can lecture people outside their competencies? How about this sentence? “The impact of climate change on world citizens has continued to receive interest in the medical industry, urging consumption reduction to better the lives of those who currently suffer under conditions of food scarcity, respiratory disease and drought as a result of CO2 emissions.”

Has no one told her that CO2 has not caused any of these things? That, even if the IPCC is right, the apocalypse is still in the future and not yet? And, judging by how strongly her ego is tied to her theory, should we tell her? Breaking the bad news that all is not lost might not go well.

Skip it. Let’s get to Richie’s “solutions.” First, “[t]here is nothing that a potential parent could do, short of moving to another country, to offset the carbon of a biological child.” (She thinks Americans are especially egregious climate sinners.)

Second, banning. “While a moratorium on all fertility clinics would be the most ecologically sound decision in this purview, it is unlikely that established fertility procedures or treatments would be effectively ‘banned’ until global CO2 emissions stabilise.”

Third, “carbon capping.” Richie isn’t an economist, and writes like one who has no familiarity with the subject, which is why she suggests something like the “Kyoto Protocol and make an entire country accountable for carbon emissions, thus forcing each and every sector to examine their consumptive practices.”

Lest you think Richie has nothing solid to offer, she says this, which is true. “ARTs use scarce communal resources such as intellectual research, government funding for development and medical buildings. Natural procreation qua procreation does not. That is, a woman wishing to become pregnant through ARTs has to go to a clinic, visit a doctor and use the carbon-intensive resources of the medical industry.” She forgot to mention IVF can be highly wasteful of human life.

She’s also right when she says, “many fertile people who could become pregnant without any extra resources use ARTs”.

So while the enemy of my enemy might be my friend, and since I’m not fond of IVF you think I might support Richie, it can’t be done for the reasons she offers. For as the man said, the “greatest treason” is “to do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

Government To Issue Baby Licenses

Not the kind of baby license he has in mind.

Not the kind of baby license he has in mind. (Image source.)

Regular readers will recall that I am a (self-appointed) bioethicist, a post I take on not because I need the work, but because the professionals are making such a hash of it.

Take professional “futurist” Zoltan Istvan’s recent article in Wired, “It’s time to consider restricting human breeding” who poses the question nobody was asking, “In this transhumanist future, should everyone still be allowed to have unlimited children whenever they want?”

He meant it rhetorically, naturally, where all bien pensant would know to answer No. (But then even the best of us cannot have children whenever we want.)

His question has a proviso, relying on “transhumanism”, sometimes abbreviated “H+”. The easy answer is that this is the state of human beings envisioned by those who have watched too much bad science fiction on television. Think Six Million Dollar Man grafted onto an iPad—or maybe its the other way around.

The longer and more tedious definition is exactly the same, except the parts that make up Steve Austin’s limbs have been successfully miniaturized and mass produced and genetically engineered. “Defectives” would not be allowed out of the wome to mix with their betters.

The fallacy underlying transhumanism is not that our body parts won’t be replaced by Apple Corp (or whomever, and for a large fee), which smart money practically guarantees, but that once this happens we become something other than human, something superior, once we reach a “singularity” or pass some “tipping point” or whatever. In other words, transhumanism is yet one more in a long and ever-increasing list of Utopian schemes, and yet more proof that abandoning a classic education leads to a fundamental ignorance of the reality of man’s unchangeable nature.

Transhumanists are far from the first to think of that happy State which awaits us once we work out the technology. In Brave New World, transhumans were born in a factory via “Bokanovsky’s Process”, bred like mushrooms. Istvan thinks this a swell idea—and that the State should be in charge of it.

Enter fallacy number two, appropriately called the Transformation Fallacy. It’s when a common person possessing all the faults, weaknesses, and sins of a common mortal is transformed into a purely altruistic loving caring faultless man of superior-intellect merely by being appointed to a government post. It’s become rare not to see this fallacy. Istvan is a slave to it.

“I cautiously,” Istvan says, inventing a new and opposite meaning for cautiously, “endorse the idea of licensing parents, a process that would be little different than getting a driver’s licence.” State issued, of course. To support this he says,

The philosophical conundrum of controlling human procreation rests mostly on whether all human beings are actually responsible enough to be good parents and can provide properly for their offspring. Clearly, untold numbers of children — for example, those millions that are slaves in the illegal human trafficking industry — are born to unfit parents.

Untold? Millions? Parents who won’t sell their children into slavery stand a higher chance of being licensed. Also, parents “who pass a series of basic tests qualify and get the green light to get pregnant and raise children.” Who will write, score, administrate, and enforce the outcome of these tests? Those who have been changed via the transformation fallacy.

Istvan isn’t alone. He quotes other transhumanists, like Hank Pellissier “founder of the Brighter Brains Institute” (!), Paul “Prognostication Bombed” Ehrlich, an “advocate for government intervention to control human population”, and “bioethics pioneer” (!) Joseph Fletcher whom he quotes as saying “many births are accidental”. Accidental? Accidental? As in, “Honey, I didn’t realize that when we had sex you might have got pregnant“?

Skip it. If you haven’t been convinced that parenting licences are required, Istvan has this up his sleeve: “After all, we don’t allow people to drive cars on crack cocaine.” Devastating, no? Licensing parents would drive down crime rates, too. He says.

How to keep unlicensed people from the unaccidental consequences of doin’ what come naturally? Implanted birth control microchips which “can deliver hormones into the body via an on-off switch on your mobile phone”. We can call it the Lack of Responsibility App.

He closes his article with these words: “As a liberty-loving person, I have always eschewed giving up any freedoms.” Does he, though. For the next words are “However…”

This is the same speech you get from all progressives and statists. “I hate to do it, but it’s for your own good.”

Update See also this.

Gibbon (And O’Brian) On Too Many Lawyers


This is Gibbon, quoted in Patrick O’Brian’s The Reverse of the Medal by the character Dr Stephen Maturin, who then speaks:

‘”It is dangerous to entrust the conduct of nations to men who have learned from their profession to consider reason as the instrument of dispute, and to interpret the laws according to the dictates of private interest; and the mischief has been felt, even in countries where the practice of the bar may deserve to be considered as a liberal occupation.”

‘He thought—and he was a very intelligent man, of prodigious reading—that the fall of the Empire was caused at least in part by the prevalence of lawyers. Men who are accustomed over a long series of years to supposing that whatever can somehow be squared with the law is right—or it not right then allowable—are not useful members of society; and when they reach positions of power in the state they are noxious. They are people for whom ethics can be summed up by the collected statues.’

Gibbon would have agreed that “lawyers” include regulators and modern-day bureaucrats (many of whom are trained lawyers). The Authoritarian (these days read: progressive, leftist) believes that the law and morality are one, an ancient and diseased fallacy as ineradicable and as harmful as rats. This is why she seeks to enlarge the law to encompass all manner of activity, and of thought. Their well known slogan is “Whatever is not mandatory is forbidden!”

Help me. What group is it that constantly, loudly, nervously, and boorishly insists, at every opportunity, of their collective rationality and reason?

Skip it. Nobody needs another lesson on the left’s zeal for shackling, but what is less known is how progressive policy drives excesses on the right. Men who understand that the law is everything, and who know no other morals, will push that law to its extreme. This causes a natural reaction and encourages a greater tightening of the bonds. The process is iterative and ends only when the knots become so burdensome that life is strangled.

The law does not forbid a man from maximizing short-term profit by firing large swaths of employees who only yesterday he called “family.” It is natural to pity the dispossessed and to despise the (family) man, but the inclination to force the State (with the help of lawyers) to punish the man causes more harm than good.

The man is punished, but he feels aggrieved more than shamed, and thus seeks (with the help of lawyers) to further test the limits of the law, which causes more excess. And so on.

Through it all the State is seen as Arbiter, the Supreme Entity. This belief is encouraged by both sides. But people forget the State is made of people, especially those people who falsely believe in the equality of law and morality. Like lawyers.

Solution? A fundamental change in how we view the world. How do we bring it about? Don’t know. Blog posts? Your ideas?

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