William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

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Holocaust Survivor Compares Climate Skeptics To Hitler Deniers

Micha Tomkiewicz is a physicist who tells us he was a child in the Warsaw Ghetto and Bergen-Belsen during World War II when the Nazis (and Soviets) were gleefully murdering millions. He said that the Holocaust “killed most of my family and deprived me of my childhood.”

His is one more awful story from a century filled will awful stories of what happens when people assume Utopia can be had by all-powerful central government. His story and the story of his fellow survivors becomes far worse when we consider that there are some who deny the Holocaust occurred, that there are exist people who actively impugn evidence that is plain to the simplest idiot.

We hear these denials, but all of us know that these statements aren’t denials at all. It is clear that the people who deny that millions upon millions of Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, and others who were slaughtered by state power think it a fine thing that these souls died. Holocaust deniers, as everybody knows, don’t deny and instead have a secret (and sometimes an open) desire that the killing should begin anew.

Tomkiewicz knows what we know. He understands what the term denier means; he knows it is a code-word for evil.

But even knowing all this, and living the life he as lived, he cannot stop himself from using this word to describe people who do not fret as much as he does about climate change. He is so consumed with his passion that he was able to write this:

In 1933, very few people believed that Hitler would seriously try to accomplish what he preached and almost no one could imagine the consequences of his deadly reign. Although there was evidence available — Hitler was clear about what he wanted to do in Mein Kampf — why did people not pay attention? These “deniers” might as well have been called skeptics in their day.

This is well worth spending a moment to unpack. He begins with a truth: it is true that in 1933 “very few people believed that Hitler” would become the menace he was to become. Tomkiewicz follows this true by claiming the truth was false and that there was enough evidence for all, or at least a majority, to have predicted with certainty that Hitler would eventually come in third as Leader With The Highest Body Count (Mao still holds the title, followed closely by Stalin; thank you socialism!). With loving hindsight, Tomkiewicz condemns the world for being filled with “deniers.”

Which makes it strange that he next says,

But what I am suggesting is that even though it’s hard to see a genocide — any genocide — coming. The future is hard to predict, but we can see this one coming. This genocide is of our own making, and it will effect everyone, not just one group or country.

It is hard to tell that climate change will be a genocide, but it is also easy to tell. Just as he claims it was hard to see that the Holocaust was coming but also easy to see. Just as he paradoxically claims that skeptics, whom he calls “deniers”, cannot see as sharply as he can. He says that skeptics pine for “unattainable certainty” about the coming “climate change genocide.” But he also claims to possess this certainty, or enough of it so that he can demand the government “do something.”

To call a skeptic a “denier” is rank abuse, because as we have seen the word is a stand-in for vile intent. To compare “climate genocide” “deniers” with those who—what exactly? Supported Hitler? Enabled the man? Remember Tomkiewicz implied “deniers” in 1933 were responsible for Hitler—ah, the whole thing is asinine.

A far less serious crime to logic is his begging of the question. Skeptics claim, via arguments and evidence, to be less certain about climate change than Tomkiewicz. Tomkiewicz claims to be more than sure; he says he is certain. But he also implies that because he, Tomkiewicz, is sure then everybody should be, when the point at issue is how certain anybody should be. To attempt to bypass this debate by casting foolish aspersions and distasteful comparisons is a sign of weakness.

Update See this and this.

Dutch Doctors’ Strange New House Calls

Dr Overlijden of Levenseindekliniek
Dutch doctors

A new contest is in order, if it doesn’t already exist. Each year we should recognize and award the person or group who invents the best new Orwellian Phrase. This is a word or words which appear to say one thing but which are in reality their own antonym.

I bruited this idea with a colleague, who was enthusiastic and suggested for a prize the same which Winston received at the closing of 1984. I was sympathetic but thought this lacked charity. But he pointed out that this was the point: the prize is not one which one would wish to win.

Except perhaps by the folks who are responsible for my entry for 2012. These are the Dutch doctors behind Nederlandse Vereniging Voor Een VrijWillig Leveseinde, an organization which will dispatch a van to your very own house filled with doctors itching to kill you. Oh, yes. Leveseinde, you see, means “life’s end” and the docs of NVVE want to be the ones who take you on that journey.

The phrase I enter is NVVE’s “Life’s End Clinic” or Levenseindekliniek. It would not be much of an entry, I admit, except for the addition of “clinic,” an act which abuses that word in a savage manner. Incidentally, this “clinic” (which is not yet fully operational) is a place for those who would rather not have the van park in front of their home and thus frighten the neighbors.

I envision it as the kind of building into which Edward G. Robinson strolled near the end of Soylent Green. Which means we now we have to wonder about Holland’s food supply chain.

NNVE’s front page proudly announces that “there were over 200 applications from people with a euthanasia request at this clinic. There are reportedly twice as many women as men” (“waren er meer dan 200 aanmeldingen van mensen met een euthanasiewens bij deze kliniek. Er meldden zich twee maal zo veel vrouwen aan als mannen.”). For some reason this brings to mind the phrase “Minorities and women strongly encouraged to apply” which appears at the bottom of every academic job announcement.

The leftward news site MSNBC called the Vans of Death “mobile euthanasia units”, which isn’t Orwellian but is at least sufficiently bureaucratic. “Old Jones was heard groaning last night. Dispatch the M.E.U.!”

The reporter claims all sorts of safeguards are in place. The death supplicant must cry not once, not twice, but thrice or more, “Kill me!” Various folks are interviewed. Documents are signed. And then a doctor—a person once thought to be have sworn a duty to preserve life—slips in a needle which kills you. Well, to be fair, it only puts you to sleep. Once your eyes are closed, that’s when the knife comes out and the Dutch “doctor” slits your throat.

Kidding! Actually, knives are far too messy so “a second injection follows, which will stop [your] breathing and heart beat.” A very long-winded way to say that the doctor actively kills you, that he commits homicide, that he purposely deprives you of your life, that the doctor has stepped just this side of being a murderer. That he gives a whole new meaning to “house call.”

MSNBC reports “The teams”—squads of white-coated killers—”would be allowed one procedure a week because of the emotional toll that each visit takes.”

I’m not sure what to think of that. Does it imply that these killers—for this is what they are—have retained some small scrap of humanity? It must be small because it only takes seven short days for their consciences to quiet enough so that they can kill again. Or is the one-scalp-a-week bag limit imposed so that the “teams” don’t begin to love their jobs too well? And don’t you claim that this isn’t possible, for all history tells us that it is not difficult to find individuals who enjoy killing.

Something has to qualify these people. Perhaps a desire to kill those who claim that they want to be killed will be a prerequisite for aspirants who wish to enter the growing specialty of euthanasia. As this field develops, we can imagine classes in Emergency Euthanasia covering topics like what to do when the needle is not at hand: see pillows, suffocation; tall buildings and the lower lumbar shove; the Ty Cobb upper lumber cranial contact.

Update I originally ended this piece with the unfortunate “Remind me not to visit the Netherlands anytime soon.” By this, believe it or not, I meant something along the Soylent Green line. I stupidly thought it implicit and did not add this. I hope it is obvious that I do not disparage all peoples of the Netherlands. I beg all your pardons. I blew it. I am sorry.

I do, however, disparage the doctors who ride around in shiny white (I’m assuming the color) vans willfully killing people. The Soylent Green business comes in from asking: what happens to the bodies?

The Probability Of Nonsense In Science: Complexity & Verification

This is a work in progress, and today is a busy day. This is just for fun and for you to play with.

The more complex the field of study, the more likely that any result, finding, or theory in that field is wrong. I am only considering science, i.e. that which explains and is subject to empirical verification. I exclude fields such as ethics, morality, philosophy which are fields that tell us “that empirical verification is a good”, and other statements which are not subject to verification.

There are three broad areas, or groupings, of complexity in science. Not uncoincidentally, this laddering also correlates with the fields’ dependence on statistics for evidence, from most to least. The groups are also, from least to most, though somewhat more loosely, ordered by connections with observation via prediction.

  1. Behavioral: Education, Sociology, Politics, Psychology.
  2. Biological: Economics, Evolutionary Psychology, Psychiatry, Neurology, Medicine (doctoring), Genetics
  3. Physical: Climatology, Meteorology, Chemistry, Physics, Engineering, Mathematics

The demarcations between these areas are not abrupt, nor is the ordering within each group anything more than a crude, but still somewhat useful, guide.

Some explanation is needed. Why is Physics, the mother of all sciences, the field requiring the biggest brains, listed near the end and is therefore one of the least complex fields? Because Physics is not complicated in the sense I mean complex.

Physicists study the fundamental properties of the universe, it’s true, but it’s also so that these basics are not complex. They are amazingly difficult to comprehend, yes, but not convoluted. If under your consideration is just the interaction between two electrons, themselves encased in forces that are as precisely defined as possible, then your world view is narrow, constrained, and quite simple. It might be true, and usually is, that this simplicity is difficult to express and to understand, and that to reach this bare pinnacle requires years dedicated to its singular purpose, but that does not render the process under consideration complex in the sense we use that word here. We are only talking about what electron A and electron B will do in strikingly limited terms.

Too, the physicist has ample opportunity to verify his theories. If, under the circumstances he explicated, electron A goes where he predicted it to go, and electron B behaves as he expected, then the physicist has learned that the theory he entertained is probably right—but only probably. But if the particles go their own way, then the physicist must also venture down a new path and toss out or modify his theory. This deep, lasting, and intimate connection with observation is what keep physics honest.

Engineering tops physics because this field is defined as all sciences exposed completely and continuously to reality. It is less complex in the sense that the rules which govern the field are more worked out in advance, but it is also more complex in that engineering implies building something for human use, and human behavior is the most difficult thing of all to predict. More on that in a moment.

I cheated by putting Mathematics as the field which gives us our most certain beliefs, because math is not a science. Mathematics more properly belongs to philosophy. If you think not, and since science is that which is testable, try empirically verifying that, say, a triangle’s interior angles sum to 180o or that, in reality, (if I may abuse the notation) alpeh0 < aleph1, which is to say one kind of infinity is larger than another kind of infinity. Report back to me when you reach aleph0. Math is used in science and openly, but so are the other areas of philosophy and ethics, etc. It is just that these other branches more typically remain unacknowledged.

Now, a chemist can tell us with great precision what will happen when Na hits H2O, but his, or any other scientist’s, ability to predict what John Smith (43) of Cleveland, OH will have for lunch next week Thursday is no better than any unschooled layman. The conceit of the sociologist is to abandon the question and substitute for it one which he believes he can answer: what will the “average person” will eat for lunch in OH. Enter statistics, through which, perhaps (but only perhaps), the sociologist can build a model which will do slightly better than just guessing. And only do better if the prediction is not too far out into the future. Or where the circumstances do not change, it being more of less a mystery what those circumstances are.

Plus the sociologist probably won’t bother to verify his model: won’t use it to make actual predictions. And neither will most of the educationists, psychologists, and so forth. Of course I do not mean all sociologists etc. nor do I claim the fields are sterile.

It is just that the probability of speaking nonsense is greater the more complex the field and the further that field is from empirical verification. Which is why climatology, which is simpler than meteorology, ranks below that field because climatology is further from empirical verification.


Note: I tried everything I could think of to get the HTML to properly render the Hebrew letter aleph: render it it would, but it would put it in strange places, nowhere near where I put it, and super- or sub-scripted at random.

Sleeping Beauty Probability Problem

Update This has been moved up from its original 29 Feb 2012 date on 23 March 2012 to allow additional comments.

Update This has been moved up from its original 29 Feb 2012 date again on 21 May 2012 to allow additional comments.

sleeping beautyAre you awake? I copied and pasted this direct from Wikipedia (I know, I know):

Sleeping Beauty volunteers to undergo the following experiment and is told all of the following details. On Sunday she is put to sleep. A fair coin is then tossed to determine which experimental procedure is undertaken. If the coin comes up heads, Beauty is awakened and interviewed on Monday, and then the experiment ends. If the coin comes up tails, she is awakened and interviewed on Monday and Tuesday. But when she is put to sleep again on Monday, she is given a dose of an amnesia-inducing drug that ensures she cannot remember her previous awakening. In this case, the experiment ends after she is interviewed on Tuesday.

Any time Sleeping beauty is awakened and interviewed, she is asked, “What is your credence now for the proposition that the coin landed heads?”

I interpret credence as probability. Think about the answer before reading further.


Suppose she is awakened on Monday. She knows it is Monday, she knows that if the coin landed heads she would have been awakened. She also knows that if the coin landed tails she would have been awakened. In other words, regardless of the way the coin landed, she will be awakened on Monday.

Formally, her evidence is C = “A coin with two sides, labeled head and tail, will be flipped and only one side can show”, M = “It is Monday”, and also E = “The details of the experimental protocol.” She is asked to compute (or form):

     Pr( head | C & E & M) = 1/2.

Since knowledge that it is Monday and of the experimental protocol tells her she will be awakened on Monday no matter what happens with the coin, the probability is numerically (but not logically) equivalent to Pr( H | C ), which everybody agrees is 1/2.

Now suppose T = “it is Tuesday.” Here the problem becomes ambiguous (at least, as Wikipedia has it). If the coin originally came up heads she will have been awakened Monday. There are then no words, i.e. no evidence, which tells us what she does Monday night into Tuesday. Perhaps she stays awake all Monday night celebrating Barack Obama’s defeat (we’re imagining this experiment taking place in November). Therefore, when it is Tuesday she will know that she was awakened Monday, because she will have recalled all the events which took place since her awakening; in particular, she will know she was not awakened on Tuesday.

So if queried on Tuesday about the coin she will have a different response than when she was queried on Monday. That is,

     Pr( head | C & E & T & Up all night with memories) = 1,

and this will be the same if she goes to sleep on Monday but remembers being awakened on Monday, because of course she was not administered any drugs. So really all we need is her memory of what happened on Monday; she needn’t stay awake. That is,

     Pr( head | C & E & T & Memories of Monday) = 1.

But if it is Tuesday and she is awakened and she hasn’t any memory of what happened on Monday, then

     Pr( head | C & E & T & No memories of M ) = 0,

because she knows she was awakened on Tuesday and she knows she has no memory of Monday, whereas she would have those memories if the coin was heads. So she knows the coin was tails.

Since all that was too easy, I suspect the problem has been stated poorly. More evidence for this is that the Wikipedia discussion of other authors’ solutions appear to suggest that Sleeping Beauty has no idea what day it is. If that is so, her only knowledge is that she was awakened. Actually, not quite. She still knows that the day(s) she is awakened will be one of two, M or T.

We have already worked out the solutions conditional on her knowing the day. So we need to fit in the uncertainty in the day. She knows (and remember, we’re going on her information)

     Pr( M | C & E ) = Pr( T | C & E ) = 1/2.

Here we don’t need memories, because if it’s M there aren’t any to be had, and if it’s T they’ve been wiped away (this is implicit in our new understanding of E). So what she wants is

     Pr( head | C & E & M ) x Pr( M | C & E) + Pr( head | C & E & T ) x Pr( T | C & E) = 1/4.

Now Pr( head | C & E & M ) = 1/2 since if she assumes it is Monday, she knows by C & E that she will be awakened no matter what, just as above. But, Pr( head | C & E & T ) is different, since if she assumes it is Tuesday she knows that the coin must have been tails, so Pr( head | C & E & T ) = 0.

This is different than the other solutions, which were 1/3 and 1/2, so it’s possible that I have misinterpreted the experiment or that I have made a bone-headed mistake. What do you think?

The Implications Of Moral Insignificance

In her piece “In Praise of Insignificance” in Scientific American, Jennifer Ouellette says,

If one embraces an atheist worldview, it necessarily requires embracing, even celebrating, one’s insignificance. It’s a tall order, I know, when one is accustomed to being the center of attention. The universe existed in all its vastness before I was born, and it will exist and continue to evolve after I am gone. But knowing that doesn’t make me feel bleak or hopeless. I find it strangely comforting.

A cockroach is insignificant even to the extent that squashing it, i.e. depriving it of its life in an expedient and, for the roach anyway, awful manner, cannot be considered wrong. It can even be said to be good or necessary for the “greater good.” What, after all, is the life of one small bug when compared with the wellbeing of even one human being?

But then if that human being has admitted herself to be insignificant, to have willingly placed herself on the same moral and ontological plane as a filthy bug, why is her good to be placed above the roach’s? Don’t just pass this sentence by with a quick nod. Insignificant is a strong word, none stronger. Taken at its definition—which is what we are doing here, to see where it leads us—means meaningless, valueless, of no use, disposable.

Now it might appear to imply that if all accepted that they were insignificant, all would be allowed; that is, any behavior would be acceptable. But this is false; indeed, the opposite is true. No behavior would be allowed or acceptable.

When we examine questions of morality we quite naturally think about what our behavior would do or mean to somebody else; that is, we imagine ourselves acting in some way and then in some person or persons reacting. If we decided that “we are insignificant” then it appears that if I wanted to (say) hit you upside the head with a baseball bat, then that would be fine because your life is insignificant. (Richard Dawkins, for instance, famously admits that rape isn’t “wrong” in this sense.)

That is true in a weak sense, but we stepped over the hard part. The problem is that I have already admitted that I am insignificant too, which entails that I have no justification for my initial act. My pleasure is nothing, even the physical exercise gained in hefting the wood is meaningless. If I realize this, then I cannot justify to myself why I should act. Not just in swinging the bat, but for walking, talking, eating, any activity at all that isn’t automatic (eating is not automatic; it implies you have judged that to feed yourself is good, which admits significance). If I am to be logically consistent, then I must remain entirely impotent and always motionless.

You’ll notice that in these arguments, I sling around the word I, as if I have deduced that I exist, and the same for you. But if I exist, if I am aware of me and that there is a me, then this automatically implies significance (I at least know there is the rational creature me). It remains to be seen what are the limits and implications of this significance, of course, but that there is some significance, that there is an absence of insignificance, necessarily follows.

So it cannot be that we are insignificant nor can we imagine ourselves insignificant (we can say it, but we’re always either lying or deluded), though it is easy, as history has repeatedly proven, to think the other guy insignificant. Ouellette does not really believe she is insignificant, despite her claims. She informs us that she tells her husband daily that she loves him, a very nice thing. But it is only nice if she admits to being significant, which we have seen she must do. Of course, we haven’t proven that because are are significant saying “I love you” to somebody (and meaning it) is nice, though all of us believe it (and it can be proven).

Ouellette’s first argument is right, though: “If one embraces an atheist worldview, it necessarily requires embracing, even celebrating, one’s insignificance.” I mean her argument is right if you strike out the “celebrating” bit, for to celebrate and to enjoy a celebration presupposes significance. A real world running on atheist lines would contain no celebrations, indeed nothing but non-moving bodies, frozen in realization that nothing—as in no thing—they did matters or is justified.

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