William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

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All Forecasts, Predictions, & Prophecies Are Contingent

Yesterday I made the point that Jim Hansen’s latest threat of doom was a conditional one. I also said that there was nothing wrong with this. And there isn’t. Nothing wrong with the structure of a contingent—which is to say conditional—prediction. I hinted, in a way, that better predictions were not so conditional. This is true in a sense which I did not include in my essay, because in fact, all predictions are contingent. And so is everything else.

To clarify, but briefly.

Any prediction is a statement that, given some set of information or evidence or revelation or knowledge, that “Y will happen” or that “There is a P% probability Y will happen.” You cannot just step onto to the street and announce, “The end is nigh” without there being some shared, or assumed shared, conditional set of knowledge which your listeners hold.

It also goes without saying that your audience must understand what “end” and “nigh” mean. If your prediction fails, there are more way to escape responsibility by disputing what you really meant by “end” than there are Democrats in San Francisco.

The knowledge of word (or mathematical or whatever) definitions are thus also part of the conditional knowledge which is at least tacitly assumed or sometimes explicitly given. For example, Hansen said (I’m paraphrasing) “If Canada sells it oil and the USA doesn’t do something, the Four Horseman begin their ride.” The conditionality is explicit in part, and stated boldly—in part.

The parts that are missing are where the trouble arises. Firstly, Hansen does not make it clear what “USA doing something” means. What exactly is “something”? This kind of seemingly precise vagueness is the trade secret of five-dollar psychics who pass off cold readings as genuine paranormal knowledge. Hansen’s prediction is in the form of, “I see a U. Maybe with an S or an A. Does that mean anything to you?” He lets his listeners fill in the meaning, which invariably is done in the most charitable way.

Secondly, Hansen’s unleashing of the apocalypse (this is his word) is blurry. He mentions food prices rising to “unprecedented” levels. What does that mean exactly? He also says that we’ll see more bad weather. Well, given inflation and the assumption that we’ve seen bad weather in the past, neither of these events can be said to be rare. Lack of specificity plagues his predictions of plague.

Now I suggested yesterday, in poor, even rotten, language that Hansen should have issued his prognostication in unconditional form. Since this is a logical impossibility, I was as wrong as can be. What I meant, but was too lazy or stupid to clarify, is that he should make his conditions explicit, testable, verifiable, measurable, real.

As should anybody who makes a prediction. This includes people who try to pass off failed predictions as “scenarios.” A scenario is a prediction like any other, but usually issued as a cluster. “If A happens, then Y_A will happen”, “If B happens, then Y_B will happen”, and so on. Well, in the end, if it clear what time horizon is meant, we look to see which of Y_A, Y_B, … actually occurred. Suppose Y_R did. We then look to see if R happened, too. If so, then we have a good prediction. If instead B happened, the forecast is a bust.

In other words, you cannot issue any statement without there being something to back it up. This is the conditionality. Regular readers met this earlier when we spoke of statements of knowledge and of probability. There are no unconditional statements of either, except in one sense, to be explained in a moment.

Above I gave a conditional statement of probability “There is a P% probability Y will happen” but left off the conditions though said they were always there. That means the true statement is really “Given X, there is a P% probability Y will happen.” If you doubt this, I challenge you to discover even one instance of a probability which is not conditional, which does not require a set of evidence or knowledge for its definition. (JH, this one’s for you.)

And the same with knowledge. As we’ve used a hundred times, we know it is true that “Socrates is mortal” only because we accepted the conditions that “All men are mortal. And Socrates is a man.” And because we knew that arguments like this lead to true conclusions. (We also knew what the words meant.)

But how did we know about arguments like this? Well, we just knew. There are some basic, or base truths, which we just know are true. I have earlier said that even these are conditional, and this is so. We say we know that “If x = y then y = x” is true conditional on our intuition.

Our friend Luis objected to the use of the word “intuition.” I can see his point. Let us instead say that all men have these basic truths written in their hearts.

Boy Sues Government To Stop Global Warming. James Hansen Comes Out Of Hiding

I had thought the furor was over, that those who held ultramontane views about climatologists like James “Lock me up!” Hansen (see below the fold) had given up and gone home, the state of the world being so pleasantly clement and so on. But no. Many remain screwed up into tight little balls of pure fret.

Take poor Alec Loorz, who is nigh eighteen years upon this globe and who, so the Atlantic informs, became a climate activist at age 12 after watching An Inconvenient Truth twice in one evening. Now, I once performed a similar feat when I was that age with Star Wars but as much as I then lusted after a light sabre, I did not delude myself into thinking I was a Jedi Knight. Full disclosure: I still pine for a light sabre.

Poor Loorz is thoroughly American. Not only did he become an “activist,” he turned to that most modern of paths, the Way of the Lawsuit. So dedicated an adept is he that he managed to wangle four other “juvenile plaintiffs” to sue the “federal government in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.”

Incidentally, I say “poor Loorz” because I hate to pick on a kid and because, so the magazine says, poor Loorz has been “diagnosed with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder” and it is not clear how much this malady drives his activism.

The five children “are demanding that the U.S. government start reducing national emissions of carbon dioxide by at least six percent per year beginning in 2013.” You will be interested in the name of the suit: Alec L. et. al vs. Lisa P. Jackson, et. al. The later named individual is the power-grubbing head of the EPA. It must have come as a pleasant shock to her to be sued to do what she most earnestly wants.

Skip all the legal mumbo jumbo and focus on what is tangible: the reduction of CO2 by six percent each year. Supposing the lawsuit wins (it won’t), we would have to find a way to measure precisely how much CO2 is emitted before we can know if the decrease from one year to the next is six percent. This being strictly impossible, we would have to resort to bureaucratic definitions of “emit” and “reduce” and of even what “CO2” means.

This tool, if in the hand of a progressive government, would dwarf the fear factor of the IRS by three orders of magnitude. Think of the indulgences given to “minority owned” and “union staffed” businesses (as in Obamacare). Think of a weaselly EPA “investigator” sniffing around your home with his “greenhouse gas” detector, issuing non-disputable citations for “leakage.”

Somebody needs to tell poor Loorz that the Way of the Lawsuit is a one-way path to hell.

But poor Loorz is not entirely culpable. We can put some of the blame of folks like James Hansen, who peeked out of his cell yesterday to issue yet another conditional threat which promised (again) that end is near.

A “conditional” threat is one which says, “If we don’t do X, then the end shall come.” X can be anything the activist earnestly desires, such as X = “reduce CO2 emissions by six percent,” or X = “enable the EPA to tax businesses on emissions,” and on and on. You’re hearing a conditional threat whenever you hear of “tipping points.”

One reason to be suspicious of environmentalist threats is that they are almost always in conditional form, and the X is always reduced to monetary or bureaucratic terms. Conditional threats can be valid, of course, but any physical theory worth its weight should be able to make unconditional predictions.

Hansen’s newest conditional threat is projected at Canada. “If Canada [uses its oil sands], and we do nothing, it will be game over for the climate.” Game over! Oh, Hansen also says the future he envisions is “apocalyptic.”

We can say with high confidence that the recent heat waves in Texas and Russia, and the one in Europe in 2003, which killed tens of thousands, were not natural events — they were caused by human-induced climate change.

That’s high confidence, brother. That extreme cold weather in Alaska and other parts of the globe this past winter? Also global warming. Say, medium confidence.

Anyway, Canada will indeed use its lucrative and much needed oil sands. And the US of A will do…what exactly? Well, either we take those oils for our own use or we let China buy them. Both of these scenarios see the USA “doing” something. Do these somethings thus negate the conditional apocalyptic prediction?

Come on, Hansen, old boy. Let’s give us a real forecast. Cease these vagaries and put some dates and hard numbers on the doom you see so clearly.

Many Lie About Their Support Of Gay Marriage: Study

Thanks to New York Times’s (yes) Russ Douthat who alerted us to the paper “Findings from a Decade of Polling on Ballot Measures Regarding the Legal Status of Same­ Sex Couples” by Patrick Egan (NYU).

Statisticians have long known that people when answering political questions lie like a rug, like their pants are on fire, like they are in a mighty hurry to be somewhere else. Not always of course, but especially over “controversial” topics. For example, I am a (part time) academic, a milieu where it is customary and expected to voice support “for” progressive causes. I cannot recall a single soul among my local associates who said at the time they were going to vote for George Bush.

I often use the tale that when Bush was battling Kerry, New York City polls had Kerry besting Bush by a multiple of three to five. The actually result was far smaller. You don’t tell the truth because you don’t know who could be listening. Just like on campus you musn’t let it be discovered that you are against gay “marriage” or that you are a climate skeptic (as to that, see “part time” above).

So when the pollster calls, people lie. The real question is: how much? Egan thinks he has an answer for gay “marriage.” This is:

  1. “The share of voters in pre‐election surveys saying they will vote to ban same‐sex marriage is typically seven percentage points lower than the actual vote on election day.”
  2. “survey estimates of the proportion of voters intending to vote against same‐sex marriage bans tend to be relatively accurate predictors of the ultimate share of ‘no’ votes.”

I find Egan’s wording confusing (he changes for and against in the sentences), so I’ve re-written his conclusion:

  1. Votes to ban same-sex marriage are on average seven percentage points higher than polls indicated. So that if polls found (say) 45% will vote to ban SSM the actual vote will be 52% (on average).
  2. Votes for SSM, i.e. votes to ban the SSM bans, match poll estimates on average. So that if polls found 55% against an SSM ban the actual vote will be 55% (on average).

These numbers aren’t far off actual polls and votes. Problem is, they don’t add up, and won’t unless in real cases there are large numbers of undecideds. So is must be that there is lying on both sides, with more coming from those who say they favor SSM. Egan says there is no “immediate evidence” in his data that people are lying to pollsters. But there’s plenty of experiential evidence. Certainly the scenarios I mentioned above are well known. And you yourself will know if you dare to voice opposition to SSM.

This is Egan’s Fig. 2. Each dot is a separate poll, taken over various states. This seems to me pretty good immediate evidence that many people, if they weren’t lying to pollsters, underwent an Obama-like evolution once they stepped behind the curtain. Or it could be that people all told the truth (in a way) but that supporters of SSM much more often stayed home on election day.


Egan has another intriguing result (his Fig. 3). Each of various states had the percent of gay and lesbian population estimated. Surely that is fraught with error, but never mind that. He then plots the average gap between poll-projected support and the actual vote to ban SSM. Regardless of the gays and lesbian estimate, this gap averages about 4%.

This, and a similar result found for automated versus human-contact polls, is the evidence Egan uses to say that people don’t lie to pollsters because of the subject matter. But I don’t buy it. Who trusts the computer which calls your house? Who trusts a pollster? Many people just don’t like being put on the record. Right, Mr Obama?

I like this kind of research and hope we can see many more papers who examine the outcome of actual elections versus polls. This will allow us to put real, not abstract mathematical, plus or minus bounds when giving out a poll result. When you hear a poll if you listen carefully you catch something like, “The margin of error is plus of minus four percent.” But that number is a theoretical calculation based on at least the assumption that everybody is telling the truth.

Because people lie, we need real margins of error discovered from real data. This would be an excellent masters of dissertation topic.

Also see this article from the Washington Post; via HotAir.

What The North Carolina Gay Marriage Vote Means To You If You Were Against It

North Carolina voted 61 to 39 to amend its constitution to read that marriage is solely a union between a man and a woman. This was, as far as democratic elections go, a “landslide.” Even NPR called the result “overwhelming.”

According to a theory of government to which many claim they subscribe, this vote has decided what is right. That is, saying marriage is one man-one woman is now something which all from North Carolina must accept (if this theory is true). The day before the election they might have thought that marriage was between any group of humans who cared to call their grouping a “marriage”, but after the vote they surely must accept that they were wrong.

Yet somehow this is not so. There are many in that state who claim the result has not decided what is right. They agree that they will have to abide by the implications of the vote, but they say that the moral question was decided incorrectly. The Huffington Post reports that citizen Linda Toanone said, “”We think everybody should have the same rights as everyone else. If you’re gay, lesbian, straight — whatever.” The “evolving” Obama campaign said it was “disappointed.”

I only wish to make one point, a very small one, and only to those who were in the 39% or their supporters, to those people who say the vote “got it wrong.” If you say the vote is wrong you are admitting that there is some principle higher than democracy which decides what is right and wrong. You are saying that a true moral matter can, even must, be discerned in ways which are not appeals to the “People.” You are saying Rousseau and Mill were wrong.

Once you realize this, that there really are true and false moral questions that are true or false regardless of what anybody believes, you have made perhaps the most important step you can make, philosophically speaking. Although I am on the opposite side of you with this vote, I welcome you to the ranks of those of us who say that universals exist. It is now only a matter to discover what these universals are.

As to that, and to show that some of the “higher” principles which you might hold don’t work in this case, here is the case for and against so-called gay marriage:

The brief argument against is this: marriage, except in rare instances and very narrow circumstances (e.g. one man from many in a culture who holds a harem, concubines for the king), has everywhere and always been between a man and a woman; it is biologically natural, i.e. natural law says one man-one woman; and there are plenty of well known religious justifications we needn’t bother explicating. And notice I’m not giving any of the negatives, of which there are many.

Bad arguments for are these: (1) “Jesus never said it was wrong.” Neither did He say raping a child and cyanide poisoning were wrong. (2) Two consenting adults. Why two people in a union and not three, four, more? All history says two, but all history also says one man-one woman, and you can’t take just the part of history you like and ignore what you dislike. (3) Two people have a “right.” Any two? Like a man of 70 and a boy of 9? If you’re willing to draw a line here, you admit that lines can be drawn, which is the point of this article.

Better arguments for are these: (1) “Equality.” Not that this is a good argument, but this tune when sung rings pleasantly in the ears of us Moderns. The default reaction is to support that which is claimed to lead to equality. But here it begs the question, which is “Why should so-called gay marriage be allowed?” or “Is it moral?” It cannot be a matter of equality if we discover that so-called gay marriage is immoral or wrong. Chanting “Equality!” means you have already pre-decided the argument.

(2) Marriage is a contract. But all history and experience says it is not. It is a much deeper union. It is only so that the state steps in after the union and regulates certain matters arising from this union, but only matters relevant to the state’s purse and not those relating to the union itself. Note that many elevate these temporal financial considerations over marriage itself. The state historically has banned some unions (cousins, siblings, and on on).

(3) Some people are born gay. Regardless whether this is true, accept that it is for argument’s sake. This is still another question-beggar. Just because one has “no choice” in being gay does not mean that gays can marry; that, after all, is what we are trying to decide. The argument is worse still when we consider this (weak) analogy (others will suggest themselves to you). Some people are born who never grow higher than five feet. These people do not have a “right” to be placed on an NBA team because tall people can join these teams.

(4) The only argument which remains is the (perpetual) “I should have it because I want it.” More background is here: I, II, III, IV.

Incidentally, that many argue in favor of so-called gay marriage is a powerful argument against evolutionary psychological explanations of the behavior of human beings. What would Richard Dawkins think?!

Remember in the comments that we are ladies and gentlemen.

Heartland Institute Accomplishes Act To Self Once Thought Physically Impossible

Heartland BillboardAt the risk of losing the argument before it begins, let me ask you two questions. Number One: What do Adolph Hitler, Mao Tse-tung, serial killer and eater Jeffrey Dahmer, and Barack Obama all have in common? No, really. Think about it.

Answer: they all believe in gravity. They all hold (or held) the view that what goes up must come down.

Number Two: Do you, in the company of these men, also believe in gravity? No, really.

The two fallacies are blatant. Just because a man unworthy of emulation holds a truth is no reason for you not to believe that truth. All truths should be believed regardless who believes or disbelieves them. And to put Mr Obama in list implies he is just like the other vile men—although, to be fair, Mr Obama’s views on state control are said to be “evolving.”

The two fallacies would still be present if “gravity” were swapped with “bigfoot” or “equality.” A bad person holding a falsity is not an additional reason to disbelieve the falsity, though it is a good argument to further dislike the bad person. All falsities should be disbelieved regardless who disbelieves or believes in them. Plus, in Mr Obama’s defense, many good people believe wrong things; cf. atheism or diversity.

Another point, which flows from these: it is rational for you to distrust anybody who advances fallacious arguments of this (or any) type.

These logical facts being obvious, it is a mystery why Heartland Institute would choose to run the billboard pictured above (image from Boing Boing).

I fear Heartland, which had public opinion in its favor after being scammed by academic environmentalist Peter Gleick, will lose whatever goodwill it had gained. They not only ran the billboard using the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, but they aslso cycled the images of “Charles Manson, a mass murderer; and Fidel Castro, a tyrant.” The career paths are tacked on in case you have forgotten who these men are. Heartland said future billboards might have included “Osama bin Laden and James J. Lee (who took hostages inside the headquarters of the Discovery Channel in 2010).”

They did not include Barack Obama, but they used, in their non-apology (“We do not apologize for running the ad…”), in the same sentence with Kaczynski, Al Gore’s name, the inference being clear. And then they said this:

The people who still believe in man-made global warming are mostly on the radical fringe of society. This is why the most prominent advocates of global warming aren’t scientists. They are murderers, tyrants, and madmen.

Alas, this is false, unfair, unsympathetic, and, worst of all, ungentlemanly. I gather this statement is what is known in modern political terminology as “doubling down.” This is when you make an error but do not admit it. Instead, you bluster and puff out your chest and dare people to cross the second line you drew in the sand, while secretly hoping they do not.

Once more: “We do not apologize for running the ad, and we will continue to experiment with ways to communicate the ‘realist’ message on the climate.” But this phantasmagorical billboard can scarcely be called “realist.” And it worsens the situation when they claim “what these murderers and madmen have said differs very little from what spokespersons for the United Nations, journalists for the ‘mainstream’ media, and liberal politicians say about global warming.” This is an open acknowledgement that they do not understand the fallacy they committed—and unfortunately still cling to.

Pretending they are a befuddled citizen, they ask their selves, “Are you saying anyone who believes in global warming is a mass murderer, tyrant, or terrorist?” And their answer, “Of course not.” But my dear Heartland, while you might not being saying it you have very clearly implied it. And this will certainly be the impression of nearly everybody who hears of your deed.

Yes, it’s true that the “other side” routinely calls skeptical scientists “Nazis or declare they are imposing on our children a mass death sentence”, but two wrongs, etc.

My suggestion to you is to do the manly thing. Apologize—at the least!—for being distasteful. If you do not, you will lose the public argument.

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