William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Page 149 of 546

More On Flying

SFO to JFK. A Russian couple, both double-plus sized, the man at the aisle the woman the window. Me in the middle. I offered many times to let them sit together. No interest. They weren’t displeased with each other, judging by the matériel passed between them (and over me). They just didn’t want to move seats. They were both nice people.

The guy grabbed a magazine and flipped it open randomly. Full page line drawing of the kind of thing an OB-GYN would find familiar. Lots of precise anatomical detail, lovingly depicted. Because of my wide and diverse life experiences I knew just what I was seeing. I wondered if the people seated behind the man knew too.

Turns out the man was an OB-GYN. The article he was perusing, in a professional journal, was demonstrating all the different ways one might do an episiotomy. Where to place the fingers, best viewing angle, recommended knots, that sort of thing. I’m no expert, of course, but I thought the cross-patterned stitch was the most artistic.

This was Jet Blue and they unfortunately have televisions in the seat backs. It’s unfortunate because people seated at the windows find the televisions so fascinating that they almost always close the shades. Here we are, soaring through clear skies over what has to be the most beautiful mountain range in the world, blind to it. And wouldn’t it have been nice to see the lights of New York City (we came in at night)?

On the flight before last all but five windows were shuttered. The plane was illuminated to an artificial murk. Depressing.


Manhattan Methane Mystery: Or, A Curious Way To Argue For Green Energy

Today’s guest post is in the form of an extended email by Gerald E. Quindry, Ph.D., P.E. who noticed something peculiar about some official findings on methane measurements.

Dr Briggs,

In many of your posts, you have commented on the use, and abuse, of statistics in publications. Here is an example on which you may wish to comment. The documents I discuss below describe an investigation into the quantity of methane released from natural gas pipelines on the island of Manhattan. Both the preliminary and extended reports can be accessed from the Internet at: PDF link.

I came across these reports while searching for better, inexpensive method to monitor methane gas concentrations in air. I am an environmental engineer, and I have designed methane mitigation and monitoring systems for buildings constructed in areas where methane gas intrusion is a potential problem in building design. It may surprise you to learn that construction in a considerable portion of my home area of Southern California faces this issue. If you’ve ever been a tourist in Los Angeles, and visited the La Brea Tar Pits, the gas bubbles you see in the pits are…methane!

What first set off my “BS meter” was the following, from Page 20 of the “Extended” report:

These data were as follows:
Methane Concentrations in Ground-Level Air
Upwind 1.92 ppm ±0.003 ppm (99.9999% Confidence Interval)
Downwind 2.165 ppm ±0.021 ppm (99.9999% Confidence Interval)

I can’t recall ever before seeing chemical data presented with a “six nines” confidence interval; certainly never from data containing the kind of spatial and temporal variability that would be present in these data. I leave it to you, the “Statistician to the Stars” to explain how the numbers can be misinterpreted.

My real heartburn with the studies was the subsequent use of these data. These concentration values were used to calculate the change in methane levels in the air as it moved across Manhattan. Subsequently, that change was used to estimate the amount of methane released from the natural gas distribution piping underlying the City. (Natural gas is 85-95 percent methane.)

But a number can be both very precise, but very inaccurate, at the same time?

There are many potential sources of error in the analysis performed by the study. For example, there are many other sources of methane in the city, and no accounting of these other sources was made. Automobile exhaust contains methane from incomplete combustion of fuel. Sewers emit methane from the anaerobic bacteria that flourish there. Landfills and trash piles emit methane. Humans and animals emit methane. I also am doubtful that the analytical method used in the study was specific only to methane.

Many other volatile chemicals are released into the atmosphere, at restaurants, gas stations, dry cleaners, and the like. Paint contains volatile organic chemicals that are released while the paint dries. It is unclear that the data collected during the study would not be contaminated by passing near a release point for one of these air contaminants. Finally, (and this gets even deeper into the report methodology) it is my opinion that their treatment of boundary conditions and vertical mixing introduces huge potential errors in estimating the quantity of methane released to the atmosphere.

In summary, driving around the City, taking thousands of measurements of gas concentrations at the surface of the congested city streets, and then doing the calculations presented in the paper seems to be a poor choice in an attempt to quantify methane leaks from buried pipes.

The question then arises, why do the study? In my opinion, it is simply a side-battle in the climate change propaganda war.

Natural gas production in the United States is rising dramatically, due to advancements in the technology for drilling and extraction. The resulting oversupply of gas has dramatically reduced the price. That, in turn, has made it much more difficult for alternative energy projects to be economically viable without large, continuing, and reliable government subsidies. That has generated the need to discredit natural gas from its status as an economic, clean, and reliable energy source.

To accomplish this, the reports are publicized in a press release, “Natural Gas Emissions Measured in Manhattan Showing No Advantage to Natural Gas: Two Reports” (PDF) which is then picked up by the press and discussed on activist web sites, such as “New Study Exposes How Natural Gas Isn’t the Clean Fossil Fuel It’s Hyped up to Be” and “No smell of gas – but is that really OK?

In my opinion, this shouting from the extremes, practiced by both sides in the debate, is no way to develop the sound energy and environmental policy that we desperately need.

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Back to Briggs


Skipping the bizarre frequentist interpretation of confidence intervals and instead thinking like Bayesians, the “Upwind 1.92 ppm ±0.003 ppm (99.9999% Confidence Interval)” means that there is only a one in a million chance of seeing an upwind methane value outside the bounds 1.897 to 1.923 ppm for air coming into Manhattan. That’s strange because on p. 4 of the original report “Open country” values of 1.787 and 2.484 ppm were found.

They needed that narrow interval for their theory, though, which shows how much methane was supposedly added to air as it passed over Manhattan. If the interval on the incoming air was large, as it apparently should be, they could not claim leaky pipes added “8.6 billion cubic feet per year” (with no plus or minus) of methane.

Strangely, the confidence they claim on p. 4 is even higher: “highly reliable, 99.9999% confidence intervals ± <1% (0.021 ppm).” That’s sure some kind of confidence, boy.

And yes, a number can be both very precise, but very inaccurate, at the same time. You could have a gauge which prints readouts to arbitrary precision but which isn’t calibrated (the gauge reads “6.48572” but the actual value is “42”).

But skip all that. The most important part of Quindry’s criticisms are the other sources of over-confidence which the report does not address (such as the car exhaust, etc.).

Scientists Suddenly Discover Men Don’t Understand Women

Dr Brown demonstrates a portable fMRI device.

Dr Brown demonstrates a portable fMRI device.


Men are traditionally thought to have more problems in understanding women compared to understanding other men, though evidence supporting this assumption remains sparse.

So opens the peer-reviewed paper “Why Don’t Men Understand Women? Altered Neural Networks for Reading the Language of Male and Female Eyes” in PLOS One by Boris Schiffer and others.

Schiffer’s proposition is false, and glaringly so. There is abundant, indeed overwhelming evidence that men can’t figure women out but that those strange creatures largely have us brutes pegged. But then this paper was peer-reviewed and peer-reviewed papers only contain propositions which are ardently believed to be true, so what’s going on?

All is well if we understand that Schiffer’s use of “sparse” does not take its plain-English meaning of “thin or lacking”. Instead it means, “unpublished” as in “evidence supporting this obviously true statement remains unpublished.”

We must then forgive Schiffer and his co-authors because scientists are so desperate to publish that they will write about anything, even the obvious as if it weren’t.

So how did Schiffer and pals “discover” that men think differently than women? Maybe hooked them up to a brain-scanning machine and looked for which little gray cells glowed? And then examined the glowing regions for wee p-values which would pass peer review? Well, that’s it.

They grabbed 22 men off the street, asked them a bunch of questions—they said “administered” “instruments”1, but that’s how scientists talk—and then wired them to a machine with a lot of dials and knobs. They showed the men 36 pairs of eyes and then made them “decide which of the two presented words (e.g., distrustful or terrified) best described the emotional/mental state of the person whose eyes were presented.”

The guys also had to guess if the pictures were boy-eyes or girl-eyes (the “sex discrimination task”). What made it science was that, at the start of each round of pictures, they showed the words “‘Emotion’ or ‘Gender'” for precisely “seven seconds” (and not eight seconds). Time to answer was measured.

During the eye-watching, the fMRI machine took pictures of the fellows’ brains. The machines statistically manipulated the hell out of these images (“Bilinear interpolation”, “normalization”, “smoothed with an isotropic Gaussian kernel”, “boxcar function convolved with the hemodynamic response function”, “High-pass filtering with a cutoff frequency of 120 sec”). This alone gave employment to over a dozen people of your author’s bent.

Anyway, this manipulation obviously (it was prayed) had zero influence on the results. At least, any uncertainty in the manipulation was ignored, as is standard practice. Why rock the boat?

Then the real statistical models happened (“repeated measures analysis of variance”, “General Linear Model”, “ANOVAs”, p-values). The central finding is that “men exhibited significantly greater problems recognizing emotion than gender”.

Sorry, make that they had greater problems recognizing words related to emotion. They were able to pick off which eyes were female slightly better. Who could have guessed?

I know what’s on your mind. What of the amygdala? How can any proper paper on neurology fail to mention this most tiny feature of the brain which is said to cause just about everything we say or do? Breath easy: the amygdala is there. Indeed, “right amygdala activation modulated recognition accuracy.” So there.

And not only that, “The finding of heightened right amygdala responses during recognition of male compared to female stimuli might indicate a highly automated and stimulus-driven effect that occurred regardless of different conditions or instructions.” Or it might indicate men like looking at women more than they like looking at men and more than they like figuring which word pair maps to which eyes? Nah.

Besides a few other things, Schiffer also reported that men can tell which male eyes are angry better than they can tell which female eyes are angry (these may have been confused with “cute”). This may be because males spend more of their lives, particularly their formative years, with other males. But that’s the easy way out. A better explanation invokes evolutionary theory. IDing angry eyes

may have been a factor contributing to survival in ancient times. As men were more involved in hunting and territory fights, it would have been important for them to be able to predict and foresee the intentions and actions of their male rivals.


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1An “instrument” is a questionnaire or survey that somebody else used before you.

Thanks to Al and Ann Perrella for alerting us to this subject.

Applied Ethics: Peter Kreeft’s Summa Philosophica Part VIII

Read Part VI.

Remember, we’re doing summaries of summaries here; only bare sketches are possible. Buy his book for more detail.

Question VIII is Applied Ethics. Time to get dirty!

Article 1: Whether there is a moral obligation to worship God?

Yes. Yet the Qur’an teaches “there must be no compulsion in matter of religion”, plus not everybody knows or believes God exists.

And what about those folks not exposed to religion? St Paul says that knowledge of God is “clearly perceived in the things that have been made.” Paul “does not argue that [pagans] were wicked because they did not know the truth but that they did not know the truth because they were wicked: ‘who by their wickedness suppress the truth.’…And St. John also diagnoses evil as the cause of ignorance rather than ignorance as the cause of evil…This obligation [to worship God] is known by nature, and binds.”

Obligation is not the same as compulsion. Moral obligation itself does not work by compulsion but by free conscience, as the Qur’anic quotation says. Enforcing a moral obligation by public and civil sanctions does add compulsion, and this is an argument for the separation of church and state, contrary to what Muslims practice, but it is not an argument for a denial of the moral obligation itself to worship God.

Article 2: Whether it is immoral to worship idols?

Certainly; and this includes the Mighty Dollar, you “consumer” you.

If God is the infinitely perfect Creator, then this…excludes the worship of any finite creature whatsoever, including abstract causes, ideas, or ideals, as well as concrete things and people, whether others or oneself—or one’s pleasure, wealth, health, honor, comfort, intelligence, freedom, or virtue.

Article 3: Whether leisure is as necessary for man as work?

Yes, so go home. Kreeft reminds, “Higher civilizations appeared only among those peoples who cultivated leisure.” David Stove (yes, another plug) often said the only path to learning is quiet and leisure. So remove the thinking suppression device from your skull, switch off the IQ-lowering box, and take a walk to no place in particular. Maybe even read a book. Make it a real one because if it’s connected to the internet or on a computer you will invariably be distracted.

Article 4: Whether family and ancestors must be revered?

Of course! Such a question would not have seemed necessary, say forty years ago, since the answer was blindingly obvious. Now we don’t see as well.

[H]onor to family and ancestors is morally obligatory because it is a debt of justice. In fact the debt of justice owed to one’s parents and ancestors cannot possibly be adequately repaid, for our parents transmitted to us human life itself…and our ancestors invented almost all the good things, physical and spiritual, that we inherit by entering the world they civilized.

Part of reverence is respect for tradition. Chesterton:

Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.

Article 5: Whether private property is a natural right?

Yes.

[S]tealing another’s private property would not be wrong by nature if the possession of private property was not a right.

Also, “the original version of the American Declaration of Independence spoke of three nature, ‘inalienable’ rights: life, liberty and property (which was changed to ‘the pursuit of happiness’ for rhetorical purposes).”

Article 6: Whether it is ever right to kill?

Yes, especially for dinner.

The use of lethal force when necessary to protect innocent human life does not claim the authority to remove the natural right to life, but responds to the fact that the attacker has already done so…

The Hebrew word misleadingly translated “kill” means not all forcible taking of human life, but only murder. In fact, though private vengeance was outlawed, the right of capital punishment was instituted, by the same Authority that have this commandment.

There are many worried what will happen to the culture if the state refuses its duty to punish capital crime.

Article 7: Whether it is ever right to lie?

No, not really. But what about lying to the murderer about where his victim is hiding? Or to the government who is after your neighbor for a thought crime? Or to your wife (if we’re still allowed to use that word) when she asks about the possibility of excess poundage?

Lying breaks trust, “which is obviously a great evil.” What is a lie? “[T]he deliberate contradiction between what one knows or believes and what one says to one who has a right to know the truth.” Note carefully the last condition. Also know that there “is no universal right to know the truth about everything, even if tyrants, the paparazzi, and the media may assume they have such a right.”

Lying is bearing false witness; but not all speakers are in the position of giving witness, for a witness swears to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”

Telling the murderer an untruth is not lying, nor is refusing to rat out your neighbor, and everybody knows “Am I too fat” always means “Do you still love me?” “[D]eliberately deceiving those who have no right to know is not lying.”

St Thomas agrees with St Augustine that one may “prudently conceal the truth by some dissimulation” in certain situations. Like if your wife really wants to know about her pants size.

Article 8: Whether sex is sacred and not to be adulterated?

Yes. The commonest objection is that before the sexual “revolution”—a state of internal war with bitter fighting and gruesome casualties—“when sex was seen as a sacred taboo, mankind lived in fear and superstition about sex.” We are now “liberated” and even schools should and “must” teach (by example) kiddies porn is good.

Yet isn’t it curious that every culture except the modern West’s have approached sex and death (its natural pairing) “with awe and reverence, surrounded them with taboos, proprieties, ceremonies, and laws, and taken great care not to adulterate them.” Now “the sacredness of sex can be deduced from two premises: the sacredness of each individual person and the fact that sex is his origin.” To call sex “sacred is not to deny its ‘secular’ status in reason and nature.”

The casualties of the sexual revolution? Glad you asked: “divorce, and the dead victims of backup birth control, or abortion.” Children born in wedlock. Now marriage and the family. Soon civilization.

Article 9: Whether lust is evil?

Yes. On the other hand, “Condemning lust causes fear, guilt, a low self-image, and a lack of self-esteem, and these are evils. Therefore it is the condemnation of lust, rather than lust itself, that is evil.” Oh! Don’t hurt anybody’s feelings, you brute!

Lust treats people as objects, as ends to your personal means. The ends do not justify the means.

Lust is disordered because it is selfish. It is selfish because instead of loving the other as such, for his or her own sake, it loves the experience of sexual pleasure in oneself…The commonest opposite and enemy of love is not hate but use.

Is lust “natural”? Depends on what you mean by “natural”. If it’s “behavior that is observed” then lust is natural, but then so is murder and theft. If instead it’s “behavior that complies with a man’s essence” then it is not natural and is a perversion.

Article 10: Whether greed is evil?

Yes, Ayn, it is.

Recall Marley’s lament—and warning:

‘Business!’ cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. ‘Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!’

Greed is selfishness, as is lust. Yet some see greed, masked by the sometime euphemism “profit motive”, is good and that it “stimulates” the economy. But this does not prove that greed is good, “but that the world economy is bad because it is dependent on something bad, viz. on disordered human desires not on genuine human needs.” Plus this little tidbit:

“Richer” does not entail “happier.” Suicide, the most obvious index of happiness, is found much more among the rich than among the poor.

And so is institutionalized lust, abortion, divorce, etc.

Read Part IX.


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