William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

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Statistics Of Drinking, Emailing, Pupil Size

Today, three studies from loyal readers.

Drinking Creatively

First up, the New York Post’s Kyle Smith with an anecdote:

Father O’Brien was driving home after lunch when a policeman pulled him over. “What have you been drinking?” asked the cop. “Only water,” replied the priest. “Then what’s that next to you?” said the policeman, pointing to the half-empty bottle of pinot noir in the passenger seat. “Good Lord!” said Father O’Brien. “He’s done it again!”

This broaches the worthy topic of civilized lunches. Seems that researchers set up a statistical study which got volunteers drunk and asked them to play

a game in which they were given a group of words, such as peach, arm and tar, and asked to come up with another word that could be used in combination with any of the above, such as pit.

Tipplers delivered more correct answers and delivered them more quickly. Drinkers solved nine problems on average, versus six for the sober group, and came up with answers in an average of 11.5 seconds as against 15.2 for the teetotalers.

Well, this is good enough for me. Statistics proves drinking at lunch is good for you. There must be a p-value joke in there somewhere, but it’s early and my glass of breakfast Chablis did not appear.

Control Your Pupils!

You might not be surprised to learn that ivory-tower researchers, who are not known to imbibe at their midday meals, find different ways to stimulate themselves. One of these is in measuring the “profound sex and sexual orientation differences in sexual response…based on measures of genital arousal.” Profound. This is a strategy which, interestingly enough, has “potential limitations” such as—are you ready?—“volunteer bias” (pause and reflect, dear reader, pause and reflect) plus the unacceptable circumstance that there are “differential measures for the sexes.”

Academics have now solved this discrepancy! Instead of wiring up the naughty regions of volunteers, researchers looked them right in the eye. Yes, a pair of Cornellians “assessed the pupil dilation of 325 men and women of various sexual orientations to male and female erotic stimuli.” Peer-reviewed result? “[S]elf-reported sexual orientation corresponded with pupil dilation.”

In research funded by the—drum rollAmerican Institutes of Bisexuality, academics discovered “Among men, substantial dilation to both sexes was most common in bisexual-identified men.” Oh, the work was also funded by you, in the form of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Federal Formula Funds. Which “Formula” we are never told. And don’t you think it’s just the USA: these tricks were first tried in the Great White North in the “1950s and 1970s.”

Another hard-core finding: “sexual attraction patterns of women are less affected by a partner’s sex and more by cultural, social, and situational variables.” Yes, truly, size matters: wallet size, that is.

How did they get their volunteers? The old-fashioned way: “from a web forum where men sought both men and women for sexual reasons.” What could go wrong? Once at the “facility”, volunteers “were seated in a dimly lit room facing a monitor.” Dimly.

Then came the data manipulation and statistical modeling, which produced one or two, but only one or two, p-values of the acceptable range. Must be a joke lingering there, too.

Email Me

More peer-reviewed research (pdf) tells us that “Depression is a serious mental health problem affecting a large population of college students.” To prove it, researchers asked some college kids how depressed they were and then measured their “average packets per flow, peer-to-peer (octets, packets and duration), chat octets, mail (packets and duration), ftp duration, and remote file octets.”

Lo! There was a positive statistical correlation, with publishable p-value, between some of these measures and the depression score.

Sure, were the Pearson r values between 0.06 and 0.28? They were, they were. And did “remote file octets” (perhaps accompanied with pupil dilation) have the best correlation with depression? It did, it did. Though the correlation between gloom and “average packets per flow” was nearly nil. That’s why they switched to the Spearman’s rho for this measure, where a successful p-value was finally found. There’s more than one path to a publishable p-value!

One conclusion: “Frequent email checking may relate with high levels of anxiety, which in-turn correlates with depressive symptoms.” Which in turn leads to the dismay of statisticians who read studies like these. Depression for everybody!

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Thanks to Al Perrella for the first two tipples, and to Nate West for the last.

Bias Against Conservatives In Academia: Shocking New Study

Gander at this picture:

We are shocked to discover more leftists than rightists in academia

This shows self-reported political affiliation of a group of academic social and personality psychologists (this included some graduate students and post docs). The graph is difficult to read on-screen, so download the original, from the peer-reviewed paper “Political Diversity in Social and Personality Psychology” forthcoming in Perspectives on Psychological Science by Yoel Inbar and Joris Lammers.

Our authors asked, about Economics, Foreign Policy, and Social “issues,” this: “The following questions are about your OWN political attitudes. Please note: liberal is intended to mean ‘left/progressive’ and conservative is intended to mean ‘right/traditionalist.'”

Imagine our delight at finding more self-labeled moderates and conservatives than expected under Economics. Not every academic wants to take from them which have and then empower a government bureaucracy to dole back out a portion to support academic salaries. Celebrate this. And smile that the number of conservatives and moderates in Foreign Policy is not vanishingly small.

Matching the freshness of the headline “Pope Catholic”, however, is the finding of the near absence of conservatives, and even moderates!, on Social questions. In many Departments across the land, when traditional mores are mentioned we hear only the sound of one man clapping. Or no man. Especially if that man claps too vigorously.

For, can you imagine it?, academics preach tolerance and freedom, but they do not often practice it. The word you’re thinking of isn’t hypocrite, because the professor who professes “Tolerance!” has a theory which defines that word to mean something other than indicated in its dictionary entry.

Anyway, Inbar & Lammers also asked participants to self-report answers on these questions (they asked for participants’ own opinions and then for participants to judge the opinions of their departmental colleagues):

1. If you were reviewing a research grant application that seemed to you to take a politically conservative perspective, do you think this would negatively influence your decision on the grant application?

2. If you were reviewing a paper that seemed to you to take a politically conservative perspective, do you think this would negatively influence your decision on the paper?

3. If you were organizing a symposium, do you think you would be reluctant to invite a colleague who is generally known to be politically quite conservative?

4. If two job candidates (with equal qualifications) were to apply for an opening in your department, and you knew that one was politically quite conservative, do you think you would be inclined to vote for the more liberal one?

The proper answer to each, for those holding to academic freedom, open debate, intellectual honesty, and the like, is ‘No.’ We should expect, then, for the percentage saying no to be near 0, both for themselves and for their judgment of their colleagues.

But before we come to those numbers, recall that this survey is self-reported, and that human beings lie on self-reported surveys (to the questioner and to themselves), especially on topics which are contentious. Plus, the participants are sociologists and psychologists who use surveys continuously and know well how difficult it is to hide the intentions of the survey. Thus, we might expect, given our wide experience on the reporting of contentious questions, Inbar & Lammers’s results to underestimate the true propensities.

Let’s put the main finding in the words of our authors:

The more liberal respondents are, the more willing they are to discriminate.

Another Who Knew?: “We also found that women were more liberal than men in all domains” (this was in both of two datasets they used). This is academic women, dear reader, a population differing in many respects from civilian women.

For the four questions above, here are the percentages of those who answered being at least somewhat likely (I adapted this table from an Inside Higher Ed story, to align the answers with the same order of the questions):

Question Self Colleagues
1. Grant application 23.8% 36.9%
2. Paper review 18.6% 34.2%
3. Invite conservative speaker 14.0% 29.6%
4. Vote for liberal over conservative 37.5% 44.1%

About a one-fifth of academics admit they would hold a conservative’s views against him in the areas of grant applications, peer review, or in organizing symposia. This proportion doubles for voting for what an academic thinks his colleagues would do, and is therefore probably closer to the real percentage. Our authors put it this way:

The more conservative respondents were, the more they experienced a hostile climate, were reluctant to express their views to colleagues, and feared that they might be the victims of discrimination based on their political views. These fears are quite realistic: a sizeable [sic] portion of our respondents indicated at least some willingness to discriminate against conservatives professionally…

[W]e find that the more liberal participants are, the more likely they are to react negatively to work Political diversity taking a conservative perspective.

Obviously, quite obviously, these are “on average” results, with expected wide variability from institution to institution. Not much conservative discrimination, indeed probably its opposite, is expected at, say, Calvin College, where all professors must swear to the Nicene Creed. But lots and lots of discrimination is expected, and found, at places like Harvard—and there are many more Harvards than Calvins—where even a hint that one deviates (!) from the progressive line can send one packing. Buh bye, Larry.

Inbar and Lammers gave space for participants to write comments:

One participant described how a colleague was denied tenure because of his political beliefs. Another wrote that if the department “could figure out who was a conservative they would be sure not to hire them”. Various participants described how colleagues silenced them during political discussions because they had voted Republican. One participant wrote that “it causes me great stress to not be able to have an environment where open dialogue is acceptable. Although most colleagues talk about tolerance, and some are, there are a few vociferous voices that make for a closed environment.”

Even worse, one wrote “that (s)he once doubted that implicit measures really measure implicit racism, but felt too intimidated to openly ask that question.” In other words, don’t buck the consensus. If everybody uses a measure, it must therefore be right.

I gave this warning to junior faculty and graduate students a month or so back. I repeat it again today. As my old father says, Never pass up an opportunity to keep your mouth shut. If you don’t, you’ll end up with too much time on your hands, forced to take to something as low as blogging.

Reasoning To Belief: Feser’s The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism — Part IV


Read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part Interlude, Part IV, Part V, Part VI. Part Last.

It’s God All The Way Down

Talk about causality without foreshadowing a tie to God is coming and, if they can maintain an interest in the subject, people are receptive and willing to debate the argument on its merits. But hint that God is at the bottom of it all, as He will be here, and scholarly repose morphs into a sharp and anxious wariness. People tear into the argument with the zeal of Bill Clinton lecturing us about is. This is fine if the criticisms which arise from the increased scrutiny are valid, but usually they are not. In their suspicion that no good can come from tying causality to God, people are apt to convince themselves of objections which have long been refuted.

So I repeat the warning which I gave as we commenced this review: unless you are a specialist, it is unlikely the counter-arguments which occur to you are valid; further, it is highly probable that they are common and have well known rebuttals. This warning is not proof that the argument to come is valid, of course. It is instead a reminder that space is limited; I can only present a sketch while Feser offers chapters (in TLS and Aquinas). Dip into these volumes if you are convinced of a fallacy.

History, as it has been said, is one damn thing after another. Events which are one damn thing after another often form part of a causal series. Moe slaps Larry which causes him to slap Curly which induces him to slap Moe, etc. (start at 30 seconds). My great grandfather William produced a son William, my grandfather, who in turn produced my father William, who had a hand in me (William), and then I had a go with my number one son, William. This is where this time series stands at the moment.

Both of these are examples of causal series per accidens, first one thing, then another, etc. The object to notice is that my great grandfather, after he had done the work which resulted in my grandfather, no longer had to be present when my grandfather helped produce my father, and so on. And my grandfather need not have been alive when my father made me, etc. And this is so for all series per accidens: whatever set the chain in motion need not be present for the continuance of the chain.

This is not the only kind of causal series. There is another called per se, or essentially ordered causal series. This is the juicy kind, which when understood proves that God exists, and so forms Aquinas’s First Way.

Suppose you are incensed that the owners of Chick-fil-A have political opinions which dare to differ from your own. And so you buy up a bagful of chicken sandwiches and head over to the Family Research Council offices with gun in hand with the intent of teaching Chick-fil-A a lesson. You take out the gun and pull the trigger. Out flies the bullet, wending its way toward and eventually lodging itself into the arm of a security guard. So far we have a series ordered per accidens: you fire, the guard is eventually hit.

But consider the moment you squeeze the trigger. The movements of the hammer and of your finger happen simultaneously. The pressure of your finger is in turn simultaneous with the nerve impulses sending the squeeze signal to your muscles. The contraction of the muscles is simultaneous with the individual molecules in the muscles changing from one state to another, which in turn in simultaneous with the changing of the atoms in the molecules, which in turn is simultaneous with the changing of the forces operating to change the various sub-atomic particles, which in turn in simultaneous with whatever it is that operates on those forces which cause the change, and so on. But not “and so on” forever. This simultaneous, here-and-now series must come to an end: it cannot extend infinitely, otherwise nothing would ever get moving.

Now recall our earlier lesson: nothing that is a potential can be a cause, only something actual can be a cause. As Feser says in the article quoted below, “No mere potency can actualize a potency: only something actual can do so.” All those changes in the trigger-per se series are changes into potentials caused by something actual below them, and this series has to end in a first mover.

Now, a first mover in such a series must itself be unmoved or unchanging; for if it was moving or changing—that is, going from potential to actual—then there would have to be something outside it actualizing its potential, in which case it wouldn’t be the first mover. Not only must be be unmoved, though, it must be unmovable. For notice that, especially toward the “lower” levels of the series we were considering—the nervous system’s being actualized by its molecular structure, which is in turn actualized by its atomic structure, etc.—what we have is the potential existence of one level actualized by the existence of another, which is in turn actualized by another, and so forth…[T]he only way to stop this regress and arrive at a first member of the series is with a being whose existence does not need to be actualized by anything else. The series can only stop…with a being that is pure actuality. [Feser uses the example of a hand holding a stick moving a stone.]

And that being is, as Aquinas said, what we call God. Now I know that this example is too telegraphic to be convincing, or lastingly convincing. But let’s be clear what this argument is not saying. There isn’t one word here about the origins of the universe. For Aquinas, the universe could have begun at a single point in time, or existed forever, or even existed as a multiverse. Consequently, any physical discovery about branes or M-theory or cycles in big bangs, or whatever, have no bearing. This is not an argument about what caused things to be, or what set things moving as in a series per accidens, but about what causes any change whatsoever here and now.

To emphasize: the Unmoved Mover is an argument about what happens now, right now, this second, this very instant, about what is the first cause of every change. Anything that becomes actual is subject to a per se causal series, which must always terminate in a first cause, which is Pure Actuality. Feser continues:

[There cannot be] more than one being who is Pure Actuality [because] in order for there to be two (or more) purely actual beings, there would have to be some way of distinguishing them, some feature that one of them had that the other lacked…For to lack a feature is just to have an unrealized potentiality, and a purely actual being, by definition, as no unrealized potentialities…

A being of Pure Actuality, lacking any potentiality whatsoever, would also have to be immaterial, since to be a material thing entails being changeable…The Unmoved Mover is in any event that to which every motion or change in the material universe…traces back.

Besides monotheism, other traits of God can thusly also be deduced: like Omnipotence, Omniscience, Goodness, and so forth. Feser lays these out well, but in his discussion “privation,” which explains how God who has every perfection, relates to causing the absence of perfection, he stops short. It would surely be a privation to you if you were have your arm bitten off by a shark, but it would be a privation to the shark to miss his lunch. So there appears to be an order or hierarchy of privations (or perhaps this is only apparent due to my poor reading).

He also says little on the implications of the Unmoved Mover to us as rational creatures. Intrigued readers will be left with questions. Since God causes everything, at base, that seems to imply that God is with you as you err, even helping you pull the trigger, as it were. Is this God doing evil? Well, it was your will to do evil, not His. But since you’re dragging Him along in the per se trigger series, no wonder He’s not so happy about sin. Good grief! Can any of that be right?

True, Feser was not attempting to give us a complete theological treatise, but since his purpose was to show the errors of New Atheism, he might have expected to cause a few conversions, that some of his audience would want to know What’s Next?, where to go to resolve the tougher questions. Perhaps then in his second edition, he can provide a reading guide. It’s unlikely many will jump right to the Summa Theologica or Summa Contra Gentiles. A list of intermediate works would thus be of extreme utility.

Feser gives us two more of Aquinas’s Five Ways (in Aquinas, which he highly recommends, we get the whole package), each as compelling, but we’ll skip these and move on to his discussion of the soul.

Technical addendum

Here is a quotation from Feser’s article “Existential Inertia and the Five Ways” published in American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly. This version of the proof won’t be to everybody’s taste; but as somebody trained in mathematics and physics, I find its shape familiar and the chain of reasoning particularly compelling. Perhaps you will as well.

  1. That the actualization of potency is a real feature of the world follows from the occurrence of the events we know via sensory experience.
  2. The occurrence of any event E presupposes the operation of a substance.
  3. The existence of any natural substance S at any given moment presupposes the concurrent actualization of a potency.
  4. No mere potency can actualize a potency: only something actual can do so.
  5. So any actualizer A of S‘s current existence must itself be actual.
  6. A‘s own existence at the moment it actualizes S itself presupposes either (a) the concurrent acutalization of a further potency or (b) A‘s being purely actual.
  7. If A‘s existence at the moment it actualizes S presupposes the concurrent actualization of a further potency, then there exists a regress of concurrent actualizers that is either infinite or terminates in a purely actual actualizer.
  8. But such a regress of concurrent actualizers would constitute a causal series ordered per se, and such a series cannot regress infinitely.
  9. So either A itself is purely actual or there is a purely actual actualizer which terminates the regress of concurrent actualizers.
  10. So the occurrence of E and thus the existence of S at any given moment presupposes the existence of a purely actual actualizer.

Read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part Interlude, Part IV, Part V, Part VI. Part Last.

The Tyranny of Artistic Modernism: Ugly Buildings, Ugly Paintings, Ugly Words, Ugly Life

Title before the colon taken from by Mark Anthony Signorelli and Nikos A. Salingaros’s piece at New English Review. No real post today, just quotes from an article which is mandatory reading.

We who live in the Western world at the present time continue to suffer under the reign of a great tyranny — the tyranny of artistic modernism. The modernist aesthetic, which dominates our age, takes a variety of forms in the respective arts — in architecture, a lack of scale and ornamentation combined with the overwhelming deployment of materials like glass, steel, and brutalist concrete; in the plastic arts, a rejection of natural forms mixed with an unmistakable tendency towards the repulsive or meretricious; in literature, non-linear narrative, esoteric imagery, and an almost perfect lack of poetic form and diction.

Yet common now to the practice of all these arts are certain primal impulses which may be said to form the core of the modernist aesthetic — a hostility and defiance towards all traditional standards of excellence, discovered over millennia of craftsmanship and reflection; a notion of the artist’s freedom as absolute, and entirely divorced from the ends of his art; and, as Roger Scruton has so clearly demonstrated, a refusal to apply the category of beauty to either the creation or the estimation of artwork.

the dominant impetus behind the advent of modernism was the rejection of tradition.

We see, for example, that contemporary prize-winning architects slavishly copy the same industrial aesthetic originally approved by the Bauhaus, whose members were working for the German industry to sell the industrial products of that time: steel, plate glass, and concrete.

Those buildings perform terribly in all climates and are dysfunctional for most human activities inside and in their immediate external vicinity, yet so-called “starchitects” continue to emulate the rules embodied in those failed examples.

Amen, amen, amen.

[m]odern art attempts to “nauseate” or “brutalize” an audience…

{W]ill I respect and celebrate the life-affirming aspects of human nature (as traditional artists do), or will I reject and condemn human nature, and celebrate its most destructive traits (as modernists and their derivatives do)?

The constant pursuit of beauty in classical art evinces the similarly profound conviction that the human soul is a thing capable of edification, of being drawn more constantly and more thoroughly towards harmony, and that the making of art is unrivaled in its capacity to further such edification.

The level of stylistic violence implicit in modernist architecture is extraordinary: overhangs without obvious supports, leaning buildings, extremely sharp edges sticking out to threaten us, glass floors over heights leading to vertigo, tilted interior walls also leading to vertigo and nausea.

[A] violence against the tactile environment, often falsely excused as being “honest” rather than a sadistic architectural expression.

And behind it all is nothing but despair, betrayed by the total absence of beauty, which signifies these artists’ complete inability to imagine any reality transcending the calamitous ugliness of the modern world.

But enough! We have only reached the half-way point to this most depressing, and entirely accurate, damnation of modernism. Go and read.

Update Just one more!

This is how the farce of modernism ends, with the anti-bourgeois rebel revealed to be a money-grubbing little fraud.

A Peculiar Prevalence Of P Values Just Below .05

Today’s title is lifted directly from the paper of E. J. Masicampo & Daniel R. Lalande, published in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology. The paper is here, and is free to download. The abstract says it all:

In null hypothesis significance testing (NHST), p values are judged relative to an arbitrary threshold for significance (.05). The present work examined whether that standard influences the distribution of p values reported in the psychology literature. We examined a large subset of papers from three highly regarded journals. Distributions of p were found to be similar across the different journals. Moreover, p values were much more common immediately below .05 than would be expected based on the number of p values occurring in other ranges. This prevalence of p values just below the arbitrary criterion for significance was observed in all three journals. We discuss potential sources of this pattern, including publication bias and researcher degrees of freedom.

File our reaction under “Captain Renault, Shocked.” Regular readers will know that the cult of the p-value practically guarantees Masicampo & Lalande’s result (Pp<0.0001). We will not be surprised if this finding is duplicated in other journals.

Here’s what happened: Our stalwart pair thumbed through back issues of several psychology journals and tabulated the appearance of 3,627 p-values, then plotted them:

A significant bump in p-values (Pp<0.0001)

Perhaps hard to see in this snapshot, there are unexpected bumps in the distribution of p-values at the magic value, the value below which life is grand, the number above which consists of weeping and gnashing of teeth. Understand that these are the p-values that are scattered throughout papers and not just “the” p-values which “prove” that the authors’ preconceptions are “true,” i.e. the p-valus of the main hypotheses.

Masicampo and Lalande rightly conclude:

This anomaly is consistent with the proposal that researchers, reviewers, and editors may place undue emphasis on statistical significance to determine the value of scientific results. Biases linked to achieving statistical significance appear to have a measurable impact on the research publication process.

The only thing wrong with the first sentence is the word “may”, which can be deleted; the deletion of the second sentence is “appear.”

Why p-values? Why are they so beloved? Why, given their known flaws and their ease of abuse, are they tolerated? Well, they are a form of freedom. P-values make the decision for you: thinking is not necessary. A number less than the magic threshold is seen as conclusive, end of story. Plug your data into automatic software and out pops the answer, ready for publishing.

But this reliance “exposes an overemphasis on statistical significance, which statisticians have long argued is hurtful to the field (Cohen, 1994; Schmidt, 1996) due in part because p values fail to convey such useful information as effect size and likelihood of replication (Clark, 1963; Cumming, 2008; Killeen, 2005; Kline, 2009; Rozeboom, 1960).”

I left those references in so you can see that it is not just Yours Truly who despairs over the use of p-values. One of these references is “Cohen, J. (1994). The earth is round (p<.05). American Psychologist, 49, 997–1003.” This is a well-known paper, written by a non-statistician, which I encourage you to see out and read.

The real finding is the subtle confirmation bias that seeps into peer-reviewed papers. The, conscious or not shading of results in the direction the of authors’ hope. Everybody thinks confirmation bias happens to the other guy. Nobody can see his own fingers slip.

Everybody also assumes that the other fellows publishing papers are “basically honest.” And they are, basically. More or less.

Update Reader Koene Van Dijk notes the paper is no longer available free, but gives us the email address of the authors: masicaej@wfu.edu or lalande.danielr@gmail.com.

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Thanks to the many readers who sent this one in, including Dean Dardno, Bob Ludwick, Gary Boden; plus @medskep at Twitter from whom I first learnt of this paper.

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