William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Page 148 of 409

“Say, That’s A Nice Hat”; Or, I Get Touched

I should have known better. Me. Mr Street Smarts. A man who has actually vacationed in Detroit. On purpose. A guy who has walked all over New York City, trudged up and down Ellis street in San Francisco without flinching, and ventured through Whisper Alley amidst throngs of drunken Marines.

Yet none of that mattered yesterday.

Now I get a lot of compliments on my hat, a white Panama (pictured above and purchased here). On Saturday for instance I was stopped twice and told how pretty. My theory is that it isn’t so much the hat that is remarkable, and even less so the wearer, but that people like to see an adult wear an adult hat while suitably suited. It is so rare a sight, particularly in some areas of this grand country, that it is worth celebrating even if the spectacle is carried out by a fellow like yours truly.

So it wasn’t a surprise to hear a voice yesterday (Sunday) call out, “That’s a nice hat.” There were other words, too, but I didn’t catch them. The man who spoke, however, stopped and turned. Which out of a misguided sense of politeness made me do the same.

“Hey, you don’t remember me, do you. I saw you coming and even complimented your hat. But you don’t remember me.”

It was at this point, early on, that I made the fundamental mistake. I spoke. “No, sorry I don’t.”

“We met years ago. I’m the brother of one of the women you work with. You remember. Black woman you work with.”

“Deborah?” I volunteered (not her real name). The first name to pop into my mind. And I didn’t think to question why he, a black man, had to tell me his sister was also black. Nor why he made me guess.

“Yeah! Deborah. We met years ago.” He proffered his hand. Which I shook. “When’s the last time you saw Deborah?”

“Oh, must be years ago.”

“Then you haven’t heard. She had a stroke, man. Paralyzed below the waist. Has to use a walker to get around.”

It was at this point that, for any intelligent person, Klaxons would have been going off. But I remained sweetly oblivious. How the hell could she be paralyzed from the waist down and use a walker? “Oh no! Can she still teach?”

“Oh, yeah, she can still teach.” He also, in the course of this interview, reminded me several times of how I had ignored him, how he had liked my hat, and that I should have remembered him.

He was good. He already had me at this point, but he didn’t go right for the kill. He wanted to secure the hook a little deeper first. So he talked of this and that. Got me to say a few things. Then he began.

“I bought this car. That’s why I’m in this neighborhood. I’m parked over there. I just bought this thing. But the gas gauge is broken. I thought I had a full tank of gas. I thought I had great gas mileage. But it’s out of gas.”

This was another chance for me to make a break. I knew then it was a touch, but I had lingered so long I couldn’t figure a way to make a decent exit. Which is absurd, because once I knew it was to be a touch, I could have said and done anything in good conscience.

“I had to search forever to find a gas station. But there’s none in this neighborhood.”

I stupidly was still playing along and pointed, “Except for one up…” An answer he nearly simultaneously mimicked. As if he knew where the station was.

Then came the tale of a deposit on a gas can and lack of cash. I said he was good and he was. He didn’t ask for the money but waited patiently for me to volunteer it. I did. Five bucks and some change. Just to end the thing and escape. As I forked it over he asked if I could get more, go to a cash machine or something. And then I told the truth. “I don’t have my wallet on me.”

Ever the pro, he did not try to rush off. He tried to get my contact information so that he could “return” the money. I insisted he just keep it—I didn’t want him having my name, which I had only then realized he never knew, never used, and never asked for.

As he left I marveled how very like a storefront psychic he was. All the information about Deborah, including her name, the gas station, teaching, he had got from me. He just parroted it back and wove it into a plausible story. If I weren’t paying attention, when I later recalled the conversation I might have convinced myself that he really was Deborah’s brother. But then maybe I would have felt like I had done a good deed, instead of realizing what a big dope I was.

We Are All Eugenicists Now: New Test Identifies 3,500 Genetic “Faults” In Fetuses — Update

See the crucial update below. I was assured, several times, that my second son was to be my first daughter. The doctors who told me this had performed certain tests, you see, and these unambiguous, quite scientific tests revealed the absence of that which makes a girl into a boy.

Now this was just more than a score of years ago, a time when medical science was little removed from bleeding and letting diseases run their course without the application of massive amounts of money. But this is hindsight. At the time—in the moment—all of us had high confidence that the tests were accurate. Just as we think the tests that exist now are accurate.

There is in statistics a hoary old mind-twister which we use to tease first-year students. It runs like this. You have just been tested for a disease and been told the test was “positive”, which means the test says you’re in for it. The question is: given this information, and some evidence about the disease and test, what is the probability you actually do have the malady?

We teachers delight when students say “100%”, “99%”, and other high numbers. This makes us happy because these answers are as wrong as can be—and because we love to shock our pupils. The real answer is usually near 10%, or even less. Why? Because tests are imperfect and most diseases are rare.

It isn’t just the rarity of the disease that causes this result. It’s the imperfection of the tests. Even the best ones aren’t that good; certainly not when used in isolation and without the benefit of further tests and other diagnostic markers. Every doctor knows this.

But patients, and students of probability, do not. When they hear a test say that “Things are this-and-such” they believe that things really are this-and-such.

It was reported this week that science, the answer of all things, had invented a new battery of tests which would scan a fetus for, count ‘em, 3,500 genetic “faults.” We are told that some of these “faults” “include Down’s syndrome and cystic fibrosis.”

Pause here, Mr or Mrs Relativist. The word fault is objective; it implies a universal, or at least a universally agreed to, standard. A fault is that which we all agree is a defect, a thing undesired and undesirable. It is that which is to be weeded out. Culled. Or erased.

We would, I hope, react with abhorrence if a scientist had claimed to have developed a test which would identify those—living, walking, breathing—individuals who were deemed genetically imperfect. Which is to say, impure. Because even if the act of identifying those of us who are less than (racial) perfection is not tied to any program to eradicate these impurities from the gene pool, the suspicion that efforts along these lines could at any moment organize is surely historically warranted.

But if it is instead announced that new and improved methods have been invented for genetic weeding of the womb, well, pop the champagne corks! The glorious forefronts of science and all that. Nobody says it, but in these stories the implication is always that killing the genetically faulty before they make their entrance is good for all of us. We would not want to be burdened with that which is less than perfect. Incidentally, good, ladies and gentlemen, is another one of those objective, universal standards.

Previous genetic tests could identify, at best, a few dozen imperfections. Last week’s news pushes that number much higher; and presumably this figure will grow by an order of magnitude in a decade. This means that the fault-lines are ever widening. The inescapable conclusions is that our idea of genetic perfection is growing narrower, ever narrower.

Circle back to the beginning and recall that medical tests are imperfect. England’s Lord Robert Winston remembered. He warned that the new tests would raise “many ethical questions.”

This is British understatement for the truth that many non-mothers-to-be relying on these tests will kill off perfectly healthy fetuses which they believe to be defective. To be, that is, genetic inferiors. In that group of women willing to kill their fetuses and who trust testing, the rate of killing-in-error will be high, because the chance of an error can only increase with the number of items tested.

This, dear reader, is a mathematical truth. The more tests there are, the greater the chance of an error. It is also true that newer tests are more prone to mistake, meaning that as the number of tests increase the chance of an error in killing increases much faster than you would think. Until, that is, it becomes almost certain.

But then, it always was certain.

Update In the same article which quote Lord Winston, we also hear from Professor John Harris, director of the Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation at the University of Manchester, who has this to say

No potential being has a right to become an actual being — abortion is not a “wrong” to the individual because the individual in question will never have existed.

We would be negligent and reckless if we paid no attention to the health care of future generations and future people. The ability to protect future generations from terrible conditions that will blight their lives seems to me to be an absolute moral responsibility and a duty that we should not shirk.

This is full-blown eugenics; no other way to spin it. “Protecting” human beings from faults by killing them is an argument only an academic could love. And could say and get away with.

I’ll agree with the good professor about one point, at least partially. “No potential being has a right to become an actual being.” Many eggs and most male gametes, which potentially could have been combined to form a human being, haven’t a “right” to be so combined; thus there is no right to exist in this sense.

But the bad professor is quite wrong—he is committing a silly fallacy—by moving from this to saying abortion isn’t “wrong” (notice the scare quotes) because, he is tacitly arguing, the fetus is not an individual. But that, dear ones, is the very point at question: whether the fetus is a human being. It is certainly an actual being of some kind: it is not a potential being. It is a human being, too, at the earliest stages of its life. If you say not, then what exactly is it? At what point and just how—exactly, please—does it become a human being?

The real injustice of it is that even though Prof. Harris argue so badly, he is still collecting a paycheck. For arguing so badly. Yeesh.

Update Worth noting.

Worst Invention Of All Time?

Your help is urgently needed to decide what is the worst invention of all time.

Any man-made item, and only man-made items, are eligible. Rocks, for instance, no matter to what purpose they are put, are therefore disqualified. So is language as a category, which isn’t man-made per se, even though more harm has been done by words than by any other thing. Individual languages, however, are surely in the running. Esperanto, with its built-in Utopianism would make any list. Kingsley Amis would nominate French. In The King’s English, he gave this account of its origin:

[ROMAN] LEGIONARY (in vile Latin, [in order to communicate]): I want water. Bring me water. Aquam.


L. Aquam! Say aquam, you bloody fool. Go on—aquam.

Y. O? (To be spelt eau when they go to the writing stage centuries later.)

L. Bring it to the high cliff. The high cliff. Altum.

Y. Ugh?

L. Altum! Say altum, you bumpkin. Go on—altum.

Y. O? (To be spelt haut when, etc.)

You may say weaponry if you like. Any device whose purpose is to kill, maim, or wound is certainly no kind of fun—especially, say, if you end up on the business end of an ax. On the other hand, wielding and even the mere possession of these things has produced large amounts of good, peace, and security. At best the result is mixed.

“Government” doesn’t count, because wherever two or more gather, governance spontaneously and inexorably springs into existence. Government to people is as natural as peristalsis.

Some wag will suggest books, or printing, reasoning that these creations are just as bad as language, or worse, since they can suffer from fire damage. But then we only have to remind ourselves that books bring to life men such as G.K. Chesterton. On the other hand, we must endure works such as this.

So charge up the little gray cells and submit your entry.

Here is my entry, sure to take the prize:


These excrescences are surely Satanic. As a means to induce insanity they are orders of magnitude more effective than State of the Union addresses. They are singularly useless, except in a negative sense. They are touchier than a Spanish Don. More finicky than a lady who lunches. More temperamental than a Chicago mayor.

Who anywhere when he—for the thirteenth time that day—hears a car alarm believes that a car is being stolen? Who rushes to call the cops. If you are a supporter of car alarms—that is, if you use one—tell me this statistic: How many cars of those that were stolen had car alarms? Stumped? I’ll tell you: Except perhaps for the rare and romantic filching of a Model T or a Pierce-Arrow that was once sat in by Theodore Roosevelt, every damn one of them.

This being so, it being proven that car alarms are not in place for their stated function, there must be an alternate explanation for their being. I can think of none except Forces of Darkness. Designed by Hell itself as a way to create a constant dull pain, and, even worse, anticipation of pain (if you don’t hear one now, you know you soon will). This makes us despair, which then drives us into activities we would not otherwise contemplate, like attending folk music concerts or eating only “vegan” foods.

Incidentally, car alarms are a relative of “back-beepers”, and born of the same instinct; i.e., those useless, annoying sounds which emit from ass-end of working vehicles as they are put in reverse, beep-beep-beeping even if the vehicles are not actively moving. Some garbage trucks in New York City appear to be equipped with these turned permanently on.

Bernie Madoff To Join Peter Gleick’s Pacific Institute: Work-Release Program

Perhaps we should file this under Nobody Saw This Coming. Here is a (second) press release issued in the dead of night from the Pacific Institute.

Tip o’ the hat to Anthony Watts, who alerted us all to the first press release.


The Pacific Institute is pleased to welcome Dr. Peter Gleick back to his position as president of the Institute, and a joyous greeting to Bernie Madoff who will now be keeping the Institute’s books as part of a unique work-release program

An independent review conducted by outside counsel on behalf of the Institute has supported what Dr. Gleick has stated publicly regarding his, uh, interaction with the Heartland Institute. Which is to say, Dr. Gleick admitted to cheating, lying, conning, conniving, scamming, manipulating, and misrepresenting himself in a manner most sleazy in what has become known as Heartlandgate. We forgive him his trespasses.

Just as we forgive Bernie Madoff, the infamous Ponzi-scheming shady operator and convicted felon who absconded with millions from dozens of innocent victims, and who has agreed to join the Pacific Institute as part of a unique work-release program.

Mr. Madoff said from his cell at the Federal Correctional Institution Butner Medium that, “I can’t wait to get my hands on the Pacific Institute’s donor list.”

“Dr. Gleick’s and Mr. Madoff’s situation illustrate what America is all about,” said Pacific Institute board member Gigi Coe. “Doing something uniquely egregious and hoping people forget about it.” Coe added that she thought Gleick and Madoff had learned their lesson and would not scam anybody again soon.

Gleick apologized publicly for his nefarious actions, which are not condoned by the Pacific Institute and run counter to the Institute’s policies and standard of ethics over its 25-year history. “We’re willing to look past all that,” said board member Dr. Robert Stephens.

The Board of Directors accepts Dr. Gleick’s apology for his lapse in judgment. “We are sincerely sorry that Peter got caught,” said board member and Berkeley Professor Michael J. Watts. We look forward to Gleick’s continuing in the Pacific Institute’s ongoing and vital mission to advance environmental protection, economic development, social equity, and fund raising; but especially the fund raising.

“That’s the area where we hope to utilize Mr. Madoff’s unique talents,” said board member Margaret Gordon. “Mr. Madoff, like Dr. Gleick, has apologized for misusing his gifts. We hope to bend all that misplaced energy into bulking up our bottom line.”

“I am desperately glad to be back and thank everyone for continuing their important work at the Pacific Institute during my absence,” said Dr. Gleick in a statement. “I am returning with a renewed focus and dedication to the ideology and fund raising that remain at the core of the Pacific Institute’s mission.”

Asked if she thought Mr. Madoff’s past crimes and Dr. Gleick’s shenanigans would damage the reputation of the Institute, board member, Nancy Pelosi supporter, and Stanford Professor Dr. Anne H. Ehrlich said, “Are you serious?”

How Paranormal Research Differs From Normal Research

Cornell’s Daryl Bem case is instructive. He’s an academic who has published several notable peer-reviewed articles which claim that (several different versions of) ESP is real. Trouble is, despite the prominence of the journals, and the peer review, almost none of his peers believe his results.

They publish his papers anyway because the papers meet the statistical criterion of success, which is to say the papers contain wee p-values, which are p-values less than the magic number. Bem always finds, at least in the papers he submits for publication, publishable p-values. In his latest work he touts, “all but one of the experiments yielded statistically significant results.” This is code for “p-values less than the magic number.”

This sets up a conflict in the mind of the researcher. Small p-values are thought to be the proof definitive. Yet it is clearly absurd, or at least extraordinarily unlikely, that people can read minds through time and over vast distance, or that they can, by grimacing and grunting, bend spoons using only the power of thought.

The obvious answer—ignore the small p-values and substitute for them a stronger form of evidence—never occurs to the skeptical researcher. Well, it couldn’t really because the researcher has never been taught any other form of statistics. At that is the fault of people like me.

But what the researcher can do, and does, is to question Bem’s experimental protocols. He picks these protocols apart. He shows how other, non-paranormal explanations are just as, or even more, likely to have caused the results. He shows where “sensory leakage” could have crept in and masked itself as extrasensory perception.

In short, disbelieving Bem’s theory behind his statistics, the skeptical researcher picks Bem’s experiments apart. Or skeptics just ignore the statistics knowing that some other explanation besides the paranormal must exist. And all this is good.

Put it another way. The researcher reading Bem’s papers acts as a scientist should, asking himself, “What else could have caused these results?” There must be an end to this question, of course, for it is always possible that an infinite number of things could have caused a certain set of results. But there will, given the evidence available, be a finite list of plausible causes which should receive scrutiny—and which are preferable explanations over ESP.

Now wouldn’t it be nice if researchers in these “softer” fields did this routinely? Not just for extraordinary claims like Bem’s, but for all claims, especially those preposterous claims (we’re sick of these examples, I know) like exposure to the American flag turns one into a Republican, exposure to 4th of July parade turns one into a Republican, or that fMRIs can tell the difference between Christian and non-Christian brains.

These absurd hypotheses never receive the scrutiny Bem endures not because the claims are any more likely, but because they are more likely to match the political and emotional biases of researchers. About the fMRI they might think: Christians are different from us, aren’t they? They at least believe different things. Therefore, their brains must be wired differently, such that the poor souls were forced into believing what they do. Besides, just look at those small p-values! The results must be true.

So today a toast to alternate explanations. May they always be sought.

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