William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Page 148 of 414

Would Finding E.T. Destroy Religion? Experts

Leave it to Live Science to ask Would Finding Aliens Shatter Religious Beliefs? Answer hint: maybe yes, maybe no. Experts say so.

The discovery of life beyond Earth would shake up our view of humanity’s place in the universe, but it probably wouldn’t seriously threaten organized religion, experts say.

Ah, experts. Presumably, given the subject matter, these experts have studied other inter-, and quite possibly intra-, galactic species, watched them develop through crude animism, to monotheism, to their first NPR station, to final stage enlightened atheism, and then waited until those species noticed that there were other species who were not their species. They then gauged how the still-religious aliens in the species that discovered there were other sentient species reacted to the discovery that there were other sentient species. The experts cataloged these reactions and then moved onto the next alien species that had not yet discovered there were other alien species. Do you follow?

Even if you don’t, it’s difficult to imagine what an “expert” in this kind of case is. Doug Vakoch, director of Interstellar Message Composition at the SETI, sure doesn’t seem like one. But he’s the first “researcher” in the story quoted. He said, “I think there are reasons that we might initially think there are going to be some problems. My own hunch is they’re probably not going to be as severe as we might initially think.” Problems? Like Mormons rioting in the street? Hindus queuing up at McDonald’s? Jews clamming on Jones Beach on Saturdays?

The writer of the story, Mike Wall, reveals his biases when he opines

Religious faith remains strong in much of the world despite scientific advances showing that Earth is not the center of the universe, and that our planet’s organisms were not created in their present form but rather evolved over billions of years. So it’s likely that religion would also weather any storms caused by the detection of E.T., researchers say.

The implicit theory is that once a theist is given knowledge that the Earth is not privileged and that newts were once newtosauruses (or whatever), he should wise up and buy a Richard Dawkins t-shirt (to announce to all how much he has grown).

What Wall, and many American non-theists are unaware of, is that the vast majority of theists—most Muslims, most Buddhists, most Christians, etc., etc.—are well in advance of secularists in accepting empirical observations. And they can even show how no empirical observation can be disproof of their religious beliefs.

So it is a wonderment that Wall writes “Nicolaus Copernicus made perhaps the first powerful case for it in 1543, when his seminal work ‘On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres’ showed that Earth revolves around the sun, rather than the other way around.” Wall might have learned this from astronomer Seth Shostak, who sagely said, “We haven’t been the center of the universe for a while now — four centuries.”

Both Shostak and Wall appear not to have known that Copernicus was a devout Catholic priest (there is also evidence that he might have only took minor orders), that he received a doctorate in Canon Law, and that his theory of the heavens in no way “challenged” his faith. The “experts” also failed to understand that while the Earth was indeed seen as a kind of center in Western life, it was the same kind of center as the hole in the middle of your commode. Instead of a privileged place, Earth was seen as something much lower.

The nearest thing Wall could find to a true expert—and I do not jest—was science-fiction author Robert Sawyer, a man used to thinking of how people would react to the “problematic” news that other sentient beings exist. He said, “If you ask most people whether there is alien life, most people say yes.”

They do, indeed. Even to the extent of believing that they are among us, snatching and probing with merry abandon. And this is for good reason, at least in those countries with movie screens. Alien life surrounds us on screen and in print. I myself have been in a dark room with strangers, many of them surely Christians, and watched as a spaceship full of alien slaves crash land in Los Angeles (that was before all movies had to be made in New York). I can report that absolutely none of those strangers ran amok and recanted their religion.

The real question is how would scientists react were they to discover a different metaphysics. Let he that readth understand.

Statistics Mailbag

Because of my new gig and then my two-week sojourn at Cornell I am way behind in acknowledging all the emails and blog tips I have received. Nearly all stories here originate as a link from readers, and for these I am very grateful. Thank you to all who send these in and apologies for not writing back to everybody personally.

Since I have no hope of writing a separate post on all these juicy tips, here today, in no order, are some of the older ones which deserve a wide audience. I might revisit some of these later and expand on them.

General Bad Statistics

Your Brain Scan Looks Different on Mac and PC

A team…took data from 30 brain scans and analyzed them using a package called FreeSurfer…to measure the size of different parts of the brain.

They ran the software on PCs, and also on Macs running different versions of Mac OS, each time using the software to measure the size and thickness of various structures of the brain…Across most sections there was at least a 2-5 percent variation in the answers.[other] answers diverged by as much as 15 percent.

Counties that enjoyed better weather on tax day had more people sign up to become Tea Party organizers. And the paper.

What’s more, the Tea Party experiment shows that the activism catalyzed by those sunny days translates into real political influence. Politicians whose districts were sunny on tax day voted in a more reliably conservative fashion throughout 2009 and 2010. Indeed, the absence of rain in a congressional district on April 15, 2009, made its representative 8.7 percentage points more likely to vote against the Affordable Care Act. Had the weather at those early rallies been sunnier, it’s possible that Obama’s signature legislation wouldn’t have passed.

Why Women Choose Bad Boys

Women choose bad boys because their hormones make them…

Doggy daydreams: brain scans reveal Fido’s thoughts

Now we can really begin to understand what dogs are thinking. We hope this opens a whole new door into canine cognition, social cognition of other species.

Climatological Bad Statistics

Climate Change Denial in the Classroom (pdf)

models suggest…

Climate sensitivity to the lower stratospheric ozone variations Looks like another smoothing before regression “study.” A naughty no-no and guarantor of over-certainty.

Doctored Data, Not U.S. Temperatures, Set a Record This Year

To most people, the hottest temperatures ever “recorded” would imply that quality controlled thermometers registered higher readings during the past year than had ever occurred before. If you believe that this is what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) means by hottest temperatures ever “recorded,” then you are wrong.


Email from John Cook to which we can reply Amen, brother.


I’ve started reading The Discarded Image by C. S. Lewis. Here’s a quote from it that sounded to me like something that might appear on your blog:

“In our age I think it would be fair to say that the ease with which a scientific theory assumes the dignity and rigidity of fact varies inversely with the individual’s scientific education.”

– John

People Who Believe In Heaven Commit More Crimes

This picture decreases rape rates
Heaven and hell

Some people who really ought to know better—but don’t—reported on the peer-reviewed paper “Divergent Effects of Beliefs in Heaven and Hell on National Crime Rates” by Azim F. Shariff and Mijke Rhemtulla and have concluded two contradictory findings.

  1. Belief in Heaven raises the crime rate
  2. Belief in Hell lowers the crime rate

The authors put it thusly: “Supernatural benevolence…may actually be associated with less prosocial behavior.” They say their findings “raise important questions about the potential impact of religious beliefs on global crime.”

Even so once an august news agency as CBS (which gave us today’s headline) reports “Believing if you are on a ‘highway to hell’ could impact whether or not if you commit a crime.” This matches the breathless coverage in many other places, proving once more that statistics should not be practiced without a license. Here’s what happened.

Our stalwart statistician want-to-bes took data from 1981-1984, a time long ago, a time when the Berlin Wall still held back the throngs of Westerners seeking to join the East German socialist paradise, and then they took more data from 1990-1993, and then again from 1994-199, and then still more from 1994-1999, and, would you know it?, still more from 1999-20004, and finally, not satisfied with all that, more data from 2005-2007.

The “data” consisted of answers from the World Values Surveys and European Value Surveys (different surveys, as in different). Citizens in 67 countries were asked questions on religious beliefs and other matters, such as their very own personal “Big Five Inventory of personality differences.” Only it wasn’t 67 countries. Sometimes it was 56 countries, others times 48, and yet other times 46, and then 51, 48, 47, 43, and even a lowly 39. Obviously—and the authors must agree, since they remain mute on this subject—nothing could have changed in these beliefs, not in nature or proportion, from 1981 to 2007.

They asked citizens Do you believe, yes or no, in “Heaven,” “Hell,” and “God.” They asked how many times do you attend religious services. They computed murder rates, robbery rates, and rape rates (in France in honor of film artist Roman Polanski, this was presumably modified to rape-rape rates). They even looked at car theft rates and human trafficking rates. No word on whether these measured rates matched the same years as the demographic data (I’d guess not).

And then they, yes, computed a “weighted average” for each of all these variables—even the variables “conscientiousness, agreeableness and neuroticism”—for each country.

And then? Then the real magic. All of these strange “variables were entered into a series of linear regression equations, with each crime regressed on beliefs in heaven and hell as well as all covariates.”

You know what’s coming next, dear reader. You know the thrills that await. For you, loyal visitor, know better than others the excitement that comes with tables filled with numbers with asterisks. For those asterisks lead to footnotes, and in those footnotes are found the joy of the small p-value, and in wee p-values are found promotions, glory, and honor.

To test the theories attested to above, regression models were used. Now the regression coefficient (see below if you don’t understand these metaphysical creations) between belief in Heaven and assault rate is 1.7, a number given not just one, not a mere two, but three whole asterisks! But don’t claim triumph yet, because the regression coefficient between belief in Hell and assault rate is -1.7, which also has three asterisks.

Steady on, dear one. Because if my math is right, this means the model coefficient adjustment for somebody who believes in both Heaven and Hell (which are most people who believe in either) is 1.7 – 1.7 = 0. Never mind, never mind. It’s the wee p-values that count. At least as far as publishing articles goes.

Yet there’s something screwy in my analysis, because let’s recall. This isn’t an individual’s belief in Heaven or Hell: it’s a nation’s (sort-of) weighted average of belief versus a nation’s (sort-of) weighted average crime rate. Yet this doesn’t stop our authors from writing: “Belief in hell predicted lower [overall] crime rates [coefficient -1.9, p < .001], whereas belief in heaven predicted higher crime rates [coefficient 1.9, p < .001].”

Which is still a wash if, as if very likely, the weighted (sort-of) average of Heaven believers equals the weighted (sort-of) average of Hell believers inside a country. The reason I’m probably right about this is found in their Table 1: all the positive coefficients of Heaven belief are matched by more or less equal negatives coefficients for Hell belief. Even worse for our authors’ theory, nearly all of these coefficients are similarly sized, and this is so even after “adjusting” for covariates like “Urbanicity” and “Life expectancy.”

Am I right? Gallup in 2004 reports that about 80% of Americans believe in Heaven and 70% in Hell. (The USA wasn’t in this data, of course.) And this site shows that belief in Heaven and Hell is, as we thought, nearly the same in a wide variety of countries. Significantly, it is nowhere wildly disparate.

Now a regression is a model of the central parameter of a normal distribution (ND), a distribution which is used to quantify uncertainty in some thing, like crime rate. We can write their unadjusted model like this (stick with me):

     central parameter ND for crime rate = b0 + b1Heaven + b2Hell

where we substitute in a nation’s (sort-of) weighted average of Heaven and Hell belief. If b1 = b2, as the estimates do in this paper, and if Heaven and Hell percentages are equal, as they are in most places, then the equations simplifies to

     central parameter ND for crime rate = b0

where b0 is just some number which is of no interest to anybody.

You cannot just examine b1 alone or b2 alone: you must look at both simultaneously. The entire study is thus a wash, nearly certainly a figment of (unconscious) data manipulation. Ignoring all the other ways the study goes wrong (mixing years wantonly, etc.), what would prove me mistaken is if the (sort-of) weighted averages beliefs in Heaven and Hell were not about the same, but were everywhere (or in most places) different. That is not likely, as we have seen.

And that’s just the misinterpreted statistics. Don’t get me started on discussions like this one given by the authors in defense of their theory:

Divine punishment, on the other hand, has emerged as a cultural tool to overcome a number of those limitations. Unlike humans, divine punishers can be omniscient, omnipotent, infallible, and untouchable-and therefore able to effectively deter transgressors who may for whatever reason be undeterred by earthly policing systems.

Good grief!


Thanks to Mike Flynn who suggested this (depressing) topic.

Help Heidelberg From Closing!

Today is last day to log on to Heidelberg Restaurant and vote for them to receive a Small Business Grant. The Second Avenue subway construction is killing them. This is the last German restaurant left in Yorkville (86th and 2nd).

They need 250 clicks/votes by the end of the day. I just found out about this today or I would have asked earlier.

Even if you don’t think you’ll ever visit, I’d appreciate your help. I get nothing for this plea, no, not even a free beer.

Clickable link: here it is .

Pictures to come…

Thanks, Speed. Hard to type from phone!


After logging on via Facebook, type “heidelberg restaurant” in box. Then click “vote.”

The Great Roberts Ruse—Or Ruin?

The best take on that fateful Thursday came from Ed Morrissey, who quipped:

Now here is the truth: either Roberts is canny or he is a coward. Either he is a sly, patriotic Machiavellian or a frightened, loyalist turncoat. There is no third possibility.

Forget everything you read from any leftist chattering about “compromise,” “integrity,” “bipartisanship,” and “foregoing ideology.” These are code words which signal unconditional surrender to, and not compromise with, the progressive view.

Consider: just hours before Roberts revealed his enigma, we had Democratic Congresspeoples and lefty pundits thrusting towards microphones with dire warnings, “We better not see a 5-4 ruling driven by politics!” Uncoded, this meant, “They had better not vote against us, or else” and nothing more. For after witnessing the very 5-4 ruling they forecast would tear the Union asunder, they immediately suffered complete amnesia and were full of praise for Roberts’s Ruse.

If a ruse it was. The real question is into whose back did the Chief Justice slip his dagger? Charles Krauthammer, no slouch at fingering phonies, is certain sure Progressivism is now one of the walking dead. He called the Ruse “one of the great constitutional finesses of all time.” Krauthammer figured Roberts figured that—who exactly?—”we” did not want yet another “5 to 4 decision split along ideological lines that might be perceived as partisan and political.” The decision to re-write Obamacare as a tax to save lefties dentist bills that would have come from gnashing their teeth over an overturn, while simultaneously squashing the attempt to expand the Commerce Clause, “draws the line against the inexorable decades-old expansion of congressional power.”

George Will agrees. “Roberts got the court to embrace emphatic language rejecting the Commerce Clause rationale for penalizing the inactivity of not buying insurance”. Will imagines Roberts behind the Court’s arras watching New York Times’ reporters jigging on the Court steps while rubbing his hands together and saying quietly, “Heh, heh, heh.” If only Roberts had a moustache!

“This victory”—yes, victory—”will help revive a venerable tradition of America’s political culture, that of viewing congressional actions with a skeptical constitutional squint, searching for congruence with the Constitution’s architecture of enumerated powers.”

In favor of this favorable interpretation we have Roberts himself. He did win the right to write the majority opinion, because Roberts knew (we all did) that four of the Justices would have voted to uphold any law short of a Constitutional amendment declaring Obama President for life. He knew that three of the justices saw Obamacare for what it was and were poised to strike it down. He, like progressives chanting “compromise”, apparently forgot that not one Republican voted for the law.

But never mind that. The words which convinced Krauthammer and others of the Ruse were words like these:

This case concerns two powers…which must be read carefully to avoid creating a general federal authority akin to the police power…Every day individuals do not do an infinite number of things. Allowing Congress to justify federal regulation by pointing to the effect of inaction on commerce would bring countless decisions an individual could potentially make within the scope of federal regulation, and…empower Congress to make those decisions for him.

Under the Government’s logic, that authorizes Congress to use commerce power to compel citizens to act as Government would have them act…the Government’s logic would justify a mandatory purchase to solve almost any problem…The Framers gave Congress the power to regulate commerce, not to compel it…The Commerce Clause is not a general license to regulate an individual from cradle to grave…

These are strong, manly words, and sworn to not just by Roberts but by Sotomayor, Breyer, and Kagan, lefties all. (Ginsberg signed too, but then petulantly disavowed herself.) It surely appears as if the PBS crowd had just received a dramatic dressing down. Krauthammer and others thus believe that progressives, happy with the immediate benefit of taking over one-sixth (or whatever) of the economy, are also now chastened and will not attempt such boldness in the future.

John Yoo says bollocks to that. In today’s Wall Street Journal, he says that progressives had their fingers in their ears saying “Yeah, yeah, yeah” while receiving their lecture. No lessons learned here. Yoo likens Roberts to Republican Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes who whimpered whenever then president FDR threw a tantrum. Against his conscience, but afeared of being disparaged in the press and concerned about the legacy of the Court, Hughes hewed to the New Deal line and legitimized that first great increase in government power. And now Roberts, sharing Hughes’s timid temperament, has done the same and “sacrificed fidelity to the Constitution’s original meaning in order to repel an attack on the court.”

And it’s even worse:

Given the advancing age of several of the justices, an Obama second term may see the appointment of up to three new Supreme Court members. A new, solidified liberal majority will easily discard Sebelius’s limits on the Commerce Clause and expand the taxing power even further.

Let us pray that Yoo, smart as he is, is wrong and that Krauthammer, just as sharp as Yoo but less gloomy, is right.

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