William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Page 150 of 541

Regression To The Mean (And Performance Curses) Simply Explained

I complete this foursome

I complete this foursome

I’ve just read about The Second Term Curse which supposedly besets (of course) second-term presidents.

There is also the infamous Sports Illustrated Curse, which is said to befall athletes soon after they appear on the cover of that magazine. Other examples abound.

Roughly, ceteris paribus, on average, all other things equal, these “curses” more or less work like this:

Everything that isn’t a stick in the mud, or the product of a bureaucracy (or a bureaucrat), or isn’t otherwise ossified exhibits, for a given behavior, a range. Batters coming to the plate have hot and cold streaks. Actors have scintillating and dull performances. Golfers hit over and under par. Presidents please then displease the citizenry.

Now most of the time performance, for this or that person, is middling. Professional golfers don’t shoot birdies constantly and consistently, nor do they hit boogies: they hit par—which is why they call it par. For me, I don’t shoot two or three over par each time, nor do I hit nine or ten; my usual tally hovers around five or six over. I mean per hole.

But suppose I were invited to join this summer’s Internet Philosophers Open, held each July in beautiful downtown Gaylord, Michigan. Further suppose that I, strengthened by the love and support of my dear readers (and a sufficient dose of the water of life), shoot par and therefore win.

Instant celebrity would result. My picture and bio would appear on tens of blogs, I wouldn’t have to pick up the tab on the nineteenth, and I’d probably even get an interview request from the local paper. The Mayor would shake my hand. Discussions about t-shirts imprinted with my image would be had. I’d be the talk of the interwebs for hours.

This publicity would not go unnoticed and thus I’d surely be asked to participate in the Fall Bloggers Classic, which is October in Cleveland (weather permitting). Once there, it’s much more likely I’d “revert” to my average performance and finish +297 ( = 18 * 3 * 5.5 ).

Think of the headlines! “Shame and Ignominy on Full Display”, “Briggs Muffs It”, “Tournament Organizing Committee Under Investigation”, etc., etc. The psychic pain of my fall would be so intense I’d probably take to listening to NPR—and imagining that I enjoyed it.

Theories by the dozen would be propounded about why, after showing so much promise, I failed so badly. Some would place the blame on atmospheric conditions. Others would compare the quality of Polish sausages between the two locales. Many would pore over my writings between the two tournaments searching for clues about my mental state.

Some, none, or even all (in part) of these theories might be right—something caused me crumble—but the smart money before the Fall Classic would have bet on a dismal performance, simply because that was the best evidence and the most likely outcome.

But if people don’t recognize this, and only remember the see-sawing of performances between the two tournaments, they might put the changes down to a curse.

This all works in reverse, too. If you witness an atypically dismal performance, chances are good the next will be better. They have “regressed” (in reverse) to their “mean.” Or if you see somebody displaying their everyday ability, that’s most likely how you’ll see them the next time.

Sam Harris Asks, “Can Science Answer Moral Questions?” No, Sam, It Cannot

I was having a back-and-forth on Twitter with Craig Mazin ‏(@clmazin) about Sam Harris’s claim that morality is a scientific and not a metaphysical question. As evidence, Mazin pointed me to Harris’s TED talk, which I dissected.

Sam’s Happy Talk

Now, since it’s important to begin by saying something nice, I note that Harris wore a suit, for which I praise him; alas, sans cravat. The moderator wore ugly jeans (forgive the grammatical tautology) and a sloppy t-shirt.

Harris’s thesis is that, “The separation between science and human values is an illusion. And actually quite a dangerous one at this point in human history.” His introduction (with [my handy lettering]):

[A]Values are a certain kind of fact. [B]They are facts about the well-being of conscious creatures. [C]Why is it that we don’t have ethical obligations towards rocks?…Because we don’t think rocks can suffer. And if we’re more concerned about our fellow primates than we are about insects…it’s because we think they’re exposed to a greater range of potential happiness and suffering. Now the crucial thing to notice here is that this is a factual claim. This is something we could be right or wrong about. [D] If we misconstrued the relationship between biological complexity and the possibilities about experience, why then we could be wrong about the inner life of insects. There’s no notion, no version, of human morality and human values that I’ve ever come across that is not at some point reducible to a concern about conscious experience and its possible changes.

[A] Values in this sense can be a “certain kind” of fact, namely particular observations. Examples: “Jones holds that same-sex ‘marriage’ is moral” or “The residents of North Carolina do not.” But head counts (votes) do not make or prove a value ethically or morally right or wrong. The mere observation that people are generally “for” or “against” some value is never a proof that that value is morally right or wrong. And even if it was, the proposition “Votes [observations] decides what is morally right or wrong” is not scientific and subject to empirical verification. No escaping metaphysics here (or anywhere, considering any argument uses logic, which is not scientific but metaphysical).

[B] False: they are observations (in his sense), which may be against the wellbeing of conscious creatures, as with people who purposely inflict pain or harm (and not just negatively: think of self-defense, war, and capital punishment).

[C] It is observed people that don’t care about rocks (except for Pet Rocks, of course, and New Age crystal mongers) and do care about macaques, which is another “factual claim.” But this is just an observation, which is not a proof etc.

[D] It could be mosquitoes just want our love. But to claim all morality should begin with a “concern about conscious experience” is not scientific, but metaphysical.

Harris then lists marks of a “failed state”: things like mothers not being able to feed their children, strangers who can’t peacefully collaborate, presence of wanton murder. And then he lists, as his example of contrasting idyllic conditions, his talk (yes). All very well, but more observation. Not even a hint of a proof that metaphysics can be eliminated. He here and elsewhere seeks audience support by listing moral goods and evils which are indisputable, and by that act hoping nobody notices he hasn’t proved that mere agreement is not proof these values are the values which are best. Perhaps this is done with calculation (see below), or maybe he just doesn’t know what he’s doing.

In talking about values, we are taking about facts…[E] If we’re talking about human wellbeing, we are of necessity talking about the human brain…So what I’m arguing is that values reduce to facts, the facts about the conscious experience of conscious beings and we can therefore we can visualize a space of possible changes in the experience of these beings…[F] Perhaps there are states of human wellbeing that we rarely access, that few people access…perhaps there are other states we can’t access because the way our minds are structured but that other people can access.

[E] No, human wellbeing is not “of necessity about the human brain”, coincidentally Harris’s day-job focus, except that, say, if you lose your foot you need your brain to help shout “Ouch!” But never mind.

[F] Here comes the scientific Buddhism. Secret, hidden doors exist in your brain which can be unlocked if we could only find the key! Send $19.99 (plus S&H) and I’ll show you how to fetch one of these keys. Even if this science fiction were true—I’ve reached level 92, thank you very much—it does not prove the judgments of Enlightened Ones is more moral, it presupposes it, a metaphysical proposition.

For his next non sequitur, he mentions corporal punishment and claims the rationale for it is solely religious. “Is it a good idea generally speaking to subject children to pain and violence and public humiliation as a way of encouraging healthy moral development and good behavior?” Perhaps the main fallacy is better labeled special pleading. You be the judge. The error in fact (only religious people spank) is just sloppy research.

He finally asks if there can be an objective definition of wellbeing. He compares by analogy that changing notions of health does not make health vacuous. And then he gives examples of moral wrongs, such as the mistreat of (mainly Muslim) women, and of the common open displays of lascivious pictures (concupiscence). He wondered whether a balance might be reached (this earned audience cheers).

It was at this point in the video that my Spidey sense twinged (start at 11:30). He puzzled over whether it was A-OK for a man to kill his daughter after she had been raped in order to save his (and her) honor. Most of us say no, though our mere agreement is not a proof we’re right. But look how Harris milks it! He says it once, twice, thrice, and then brings out the onion. How big his heart is! Good thing the tear almost fell, because it distracted everybody from realizing that he left his question sitting alone in the corner, unanswered.

He next claimed those who agree with him about the existence of moral absolutes are “religious demagogues” (and to prove his childish bona fides, as an example he shows a picture of emeritus Pope Benedict). “The demagogues are right about one thing: we need a universal conception of human values.” In so admitting what is true, that there are moral absolutes, he has not proved these absolutes are scientific. So his talk is a failure, even though we agree on many of the absolutes themselves. He then lapsed into standard foolish mistakes about religion that we needn’t bother with, they not being to the main point.

Since he still had time to fill, he contrasted the Dalai Lama and Ted Bundy and their notable differences of opinion in practical morals, making the valid point that academics mired in relativism can’t say which man is right, which wrong. He develops this by comparing his opinion on string theory with those of a physicist (“I’m the Ted Bundy of string theory”, a good joke). “How have we convinced ourselves that in the moral sphere there is no such thing as moral expertise? Or moral talent? Or moral genius? How have we convinced ourselves that every opinion has to count?…There are right and wrong answers.”

Amen, brother, there are. But they cannot be proved scientifically.

The Unbelievers: The Movie. Richard Dawkins & Lawrence Krauss On Tour

I hope those were diet pops.

I hope those were diet pops.

A camera followed two village atheists on their wanderings, spliced together some of their less tedious talks, sprinkled in a few celebrity cameos, such as one by noted scientist Woody “Obama for Dictator” Allen, and voilà a movie was made.

The Unbelievers follows evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss across the globe as they speak publicly to sold-out halls, advancing a thoughtful dialogue about the importance of science and reason in the modern world.

Incidentally, since this is a movie, it’s appropriate to comment on costume, here presented in the form of advice. Larry, it’s okay to go bald. It’s natural and scientific. People take you more seriously the more rational your hair style. And, oh my, tennis shoes?

Anyway, in the beginning of the trailer, Krauss asks Dawkins, “Richard, what’s more important in some sense. If you had a choice, which is to explain science or destroy religion?” Poor Dawkins was taken aback by this conundrum, so alas, we don’t learn his answer.

But we can guess because later Dawkins says, “Religion is not wonderful, it’s not beautiful, it gets it the way.” If he meant by this that “Some religion is not wonderful…” then his proposition is true and disputed by nobody. But if he meant, “All religion is not beautiful…” then his proposition is not just false, it is ludicrous and bespeaks of a mind (using a word of which he is fond) pig-ignorant of human history.

Dawkins, the world’s most famous atheist, and Krauss, director of the esteemed Origins Project, are dedicated to furthering the (r)evolutionary idea that science, above all else, should inform man’s understanding of the universe. [link added]

The proposition that only science should (or can) inform our understanding of the universe is itself not scientific. That man should want to understand the universe is not a scientific proposition (while the extent he does could be). That man should want to explain how things work so that he can better survive contains a moral judgment (that man should survive) which is not scientific. That man should know science to decrease pain contains a moral judgment which is not scientific. That science is better than religion for ordering a society contains moral judgments (about how to measure the well ordering of culture) which are not a scientific. The language of science, i.e. mathematics, is not scientific. Et cetera.

Besides the tedious self-congratulation common among proselytizing atheists (note the daring “(r)” in front of “evolutionary”), the movie is thus based on a fallacy, and a simple one—simple in the sense that it takes little thought to reveal, and where knowledge of it was free for the asking had the two gentlemen only asked. As to that:

Refusing to engage with those who advance divisive and extreme fundamentalist positions Dawkins and Krauss show how sometimes sensitive and provocative ideas can be discussed respectfully and with intellectual rigour.

It is well to ignore raving quibblers because responding to them wastes everybody’s time. But that’s not what the pair do. They instead cock a deaf ear to their best critics. Richard Dawkins famously won’t debate William Lane Craig, saying that because Craig is a Christian and gives God two thumbs up, even Old Testament Angry God (new cell phone app?), that therefore Craig is beneath contempt. Need the fallacy be pointed out? As a service to humanity: to say you won’t debate a man over a proposition because the man believes the proposition and you do not is not a proof the proposition is false.

Neither have Krauss or Dawkins answered the rational, deep, close arguments in, inter alia, Edward Feser’s The Last Superstition or the various reviews of their books written by their scholarly enemies (see especially Hart’s gorgeous Atheist Delusions). Instead, they spend their time answering anti-evolution rubes who write to say, “My uncle is not a monkey!” Dawkins feels he’s done a good day’s work by telling these folks, “You’re anti-science!”

Krauss thinks people are “threatened” by science. They are not, of course. They are threatened by scientism, which is very different. Scientism is dangerous because the people espousing it are not aware, or cannot acknowledge, the moral beliefs they hold are not (and cannot be) scientific. To insist they are is risks grave error and the slavish (and occasionally deadly) following of theory instead of truth.

All involved in this flick brag they follow “a purely rational approach.” Maybe that’s so, but the implication that all their religious opponents do not is false. Even a simple glance through, say, Summa Theologica proves this. That Aquinas and his followers might be wrong is a trivial truth. But it is also a truth that they might be right.

The Horrors And Hurt Feelings Of Profiling

This is for sale at outdoor vending machines in Japan.

Ver are your papers!

“Um. Hang on. I’m sure I have them on me. Wait. Here,” said the man, handing them over.

The clerk examined them closely. He arched his eyebrow. “Your papers,” he said, pausing slightly, “are not in order.” A sly grin spread across his face.

The man’s eyes darted back and forth. He turned his body as if to go and reflexively reached out to retrieve his papers, but the clerk held them close. “No, that can’t be right. Are you sure? They must be,” he said, his desperation turning the last few words into a bare whisper. “Check again,” he pleaded.

The clerk did not look at them again, but said, “Yes. They are fine.”

The relief on the man’s face was evident.

“So that was a large Miller Lite?” asked the clerk.

The man nodded, accepted his beer, and walked away.


The transformation of the Wall Street Journal into the New York Times, only with more charts, is nearly complete, as evidenced by today’s front page story, “White Hair, Wrinkles Aren’t Valid ID At These Drinking Establishments.”

The subtitle of this injustice-of-the-day-article, a staple of the Times and now the WSJ, goes to prove the contention that there is no worse crime than to hurt somebody’s feelings: “Universal Carding, Flattering to Some, Aims to Halt Profiling.”

Yes, not asking to see the ID of a man “90 years old in a wheelchair”, a man whom any even half-sane ex-terrorist-bomber-murderer professor at Columbia could tell was older than 21, is profiling. The piece doesn’t say, but we all have been trained well and know that profiling happens because of racism.

The point of asking to see the ID of everybody, even obviously older people—one foolishly proud bartender boasted of asking to see the ID of a 96-year-old—“is to eliminate the guesswork and social goofs that often seem to go with making sure youngsters don’t drink.”

And there it is, the standby, “What about the children!” Heaven forfend the occasional 20-year-old is sold a six-pack at the 7-11. This nation’s attitude to alcohol is best described as, and here I use the technical term, insane. Better to ask all for an ID lest a swarm of lawyers swoop down and sue. It won’t be long—mark my words—before records are kept on who’s buying what. “I see Mr Briggs that last week you bought a fifth of Old Overholt, yet here you are for more.”

The trick to avoid being non-profiled is to say when asked to shown ID “I don’t have one” or “I didn’t bring one with me.” It only works at smaller establishments where the mercenary interest of the owner usually trumps his political correctness. It hardly ever flies at chain stores where the poor clerks at the checkout are just “following orders.”

There’s a Japanese grocery story chain I frequent when in Silicon Valley which insists on IDs for everybody. I learned this after trying to buy a bottle of Orion (brewed in Okinawa, where I once lived). The clerk asked me for an ID, which I stupidly showed her. But since I am a New York resident, my out-of-state drivers license flummoxed her. A senior clerk was called over to ponder this most complex situation. Finally, it was decided to take my ID to the back where a manager gave the OK. All this for one bottle of brew.

I learned my lesson and don’t buy booze from them anymore. But another time I was in the store with a colleague who was still naive. He was asked for his ID and showed it. Since he’s Californian, it was all right. Then the clerk asked for my ID, too. I told her I wasn’t buying the beer: I wasn’t buying anything. She said it was “store policy” to see the ID of everybody who is together.

No way was I going to show her anything. I asked her what do you do when a mom and child come in? Refuse to sell her alcohol? No reply. I then told her it was against my “policy” to produce an ID when I wasn’t buying anything. Nothing. Logic clearly wasn’t working and so I finally told her to pretend I wasn’t with my friend, which I proved by walking out of the store. My colleague got his beer, but just barely.

There is some hope. Tennessee and Indiana mandated universal IDs. “But then some crabby old folks got on the phone and gave the politicians an earful” and the laws were repealed. What’s sad is that the poor writer doesn’t know the difference between “crabby old folks” and “irate commonsensical people.”

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