William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

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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.

Another Academic Says Climate Skeptics Criminals Against Humanity And Other Name Calling

Donald BrownIn a talk at some “sustainability” something-or-other seminar—one this is sure: we’re not going to soon run out of climate conclaves—academic Donald Brown told his audience (25 min. mark) that the people who are not as afraid as he that the world will soon end are committing crimes against humanity. If Brown is right, this put yours truly well into the company of such noted transgressors as Mao, Stalin, Pot and other socialist dictators.

Or maybe Brown hadn’t meant that level of heinousness and instead envisioned lesser culprits, such as the guy who invented the car alarm or whoever it was that thought up the Sony Walkman (which has morphed into our ubiquitous present-day thinking suppression devices).

Anyway, here’s what happened.

Marc Morano at Climate Depot placed Brown’s image and his email in earlier articles on that site in posts which outlined Brown’s views on this and that climate topic. Brown thought that showing his publicly available email and head shot—which are not hidden and are trivially easy to find at Penn State—represented “intimidation.”

This, so Brown claims, led to him receiving emails some of which were scatological and others which threatened death. I unfortunately believe him. There are a lot of knuckleheads out there and the (pseudo) anonymity of the internet fills some with a pathetic false bravery. I wish these foolish souls would think better.

Of course, Morano himself hauls in plenty of scathing missives daily, as do others who run blogs expressing doubt that we should let government “solve” climate change.

Your truly hasn’t received any death threats, but I get plenty of things like this one from yesterday, “I know you are an extreme political right winger, but now you’ve become a ringleader of a hate group.” Ringleader—I presume my interlocutor did not mean in the Tolkienian sense—is a promotion of sorts, up from Lone Wolf. But I’ve still got a ways to go before I reach Mastermind.

Brown, who was dressed a priest (without the collar), early in his talk said that skepticism about climate change should be “encouraged.” But he wants it separated from “disinformation,” which he defines as that which departs from the “consensus.” Brown’s position is thus like that of the dictatorship which claims voting is every citizen’s right, but which produces ballots on which there is only one candidate.

He says that those who speak against the consensus are engaged in an organized “campaign” funded by oil companies and “right wing” groups. This might be true, but none of those funds have managed to trickle down my way. But now that I’m a Ringleader, perhaps I can expect a raise in pay?

Somehow Brown forgot to mention that the funding to spread the “climate catastrophe” message dwarfs, by at least one, possibly two, maybe even three, orders of magnitude any monies skeptics receive. Nearly every government dumps tens and tens and more tens of millions each year on the “problem,” a good chunk of which ends up in the pockets of people like Donald Brown. And then there’s the money sucked in and pumped out by Greenpeace, the Environmental Defense Fund, Sierra-blah-blah-blah. Skeptics run on alms, consensus members and their hangers on are clothed in gold.

The whole of his talk is to convince that a conspiracy exists to gull the public. In a separate work he hints of dark rooms and speaks of a “climate change disinformation campaign.” He claims skeptics “are guilty of exacerbating risks to our collective well-being and of undermining society.”

He claims the “moral outrage” caused by skeptics “should motivate a movement at least as ferocious as the Occupy Wallstreet movement.” And in his talk he says that climate skeptics are guilty of a “new crime against humanity. [Skepticism] is really evil stuff. It is nasty.”

Donald Brown is not the first to croak out this tune. He accepts the “consensus” as a given, as unquestionable in its outline, its warnings certain. But he is not simply filled with wonder that others doubt his faith, which would be natural. He is instead outraged. He wants action. He walks up to the line, over which is to ask that government silence his enemies, and hovers there. He would cross that line if he could be sure of support from enough of his colleagues.

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.

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