What Scientific Concept Would Improve Everybody’s Cognitive Toolkit? Edge

Long-time reader Randy Brich reminds us all to head over to Edge.org and read the responses to the 2011 World Question given in the title. It will be worth your time to do so.

Before discussing the responses, here is my own in brief: be less certain. Regular readers will understand immediately what I mean.

This is echoed by Howard “Multiple Intelligences” Gardner who quotes a question Karl Popper would have scientists asks themselves: “How Would You Disprove Your Viewpoint?!” (Too bad Popper never put this to himself about falsifiability.) Gardner says, “a sizeable minority are skeptical about global warming — or more precisely, the human contributions to global change — because efforts to counter climate change would tamper with the ‘free market’.” An excellent point: too many skeptics (mainly non-scientist internet denizens) let the consequences, or rather politics, of global warming influence their estimation of the truth of the theory. The two questions are logically independent: knowledge of one gives no information about the other.

But Gardner forgets that a “sizeable” majority buy every instance of “It’s worse than we thought!” for the exact opposite political, or, better said, theological reasons. The over-certainty in this field is like a raging fever that only a thorough dunking in ice water could cool off.

John Allen Paulos (Innumeracy) gets it right by noting that “most numerical assessments are not point estimates. Rather they are rough distributions”. My own field—whose very purpose is to quantify uncertainty probabilistically—lets us down in this respect thanks to p-values and hypothesis testing, two methods which guarantee over-certainty by reducing all decisions to points.

Reading some of these, it occurs that anthropology is that field of study in which a professor looks to other cultures to confirm political prejudices of his own.

W. Daniel Hills requotes Sherlock Holmes, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” This is true. But left unsaid is that most things are not impossible—which is the strictest possible criterion—they are merely unlikely. Holmes was a better statistician than probabilist.

The “multiverse”, i.e. that (necessary?) concoction of modern physics takes a beating by psychologist Nicholas Humphrey, who has figured that “we” will live forever simply because in some universe in the multiverse one copy of us does so. To those physicists who are reading: see what you have done?

“The world is unpredictable” says computer scientist Rudy Rucker. But this is a technical statement and Rucker treats it as such. His answer is worth quoting at length:

To predict an event is to know a shortcut for foreseeing the outcome in advance. A simple counting argument shows there aren’t enough shortcuts to go around. Therefore most processes aren’t predictable. A deeper argument plays on the fact that, if you could predict your actions, you could deliberately violate your predictions which means the predictions were wrong after all.

We often suppose that unpredictability is caused by random inputs from higher spirits or from low-down quantum foam. But chaos theory and computer science tell us that non-random systems produce surprises on their own. The unexpected tornado, the cartoon safe that lands on Uncle George, the winning pull on a slot machine odd things pop out of a computation. The world can simultaneously be deterministic and unpredictable.

In the physical world, the only way to learn tomorrow’s weather in detail is to wait twenty-four hours and see even if nothing is random at all. The universe is computing tomorrow’s weather as rapidly and as efficiently as possible any smaller model is inaccurate, and the smallest error is amplified into large effects.

What Rucker says is true but incomplete. Take weather forecasts for tomorrow, which most agree are damn useful, meaning that we do a reasonable job saying what the weather will be. But Rucker’s weather is not a meteorologist’s. The real weather tomorrow at, say, noon eastern standard time is the state of every sub-atomic particle from at least the first few meters of the Earth’s crust, extending all the way to the sun. The weather of the meteorologist is a suitable average of these states in space and in time.

Rucker is right in saying that the real weather cannot be predicted, but the meteorologist’s weather can be, at least in some approximate sense. The magic occurs in defining just what “the weather”—or “the climate”—is.

Charles Seife (Proofiness) has some odd, and incorrect, views of randomness. But his heart is in the right place, in that he agrees with our dictum: be less certain.

There are many more, but that’s enough today.

The Wine List

Wine is a new to Taiwan. At least, western-style fermented grapes are. Five or six years ago it could be found, but only in a few places, mostly high-end grocery stores. The bottles were mainly from France and Australia, but the labels were strange and would be unknown to the American shopper. The liquid itself was sweet.

But by 2010, wine stores and bars could be found all over Taipei, a mini boom. The bottles were now familiar, and included California vintages. However, each time I walked by one of these establishments, it was empty. Partly this is because wine is expensive, maybe thirty-percent more than New York City prices, and the Taiwanese are notably frugal. Possibly only the bold venture in, because the rooms were small and the hard sell, ubiquitous in Taiwan, is applied with a vengeance. If you leave without buying, Hsiao-jie (Miss) will give you the stink eye supreme.

Even though the culture of the wine is no longer unknown, it is still not entirely familiar. I was taken to dinner at a famous duck restaurant and was encouraged to have a glass of wine. The menu, in English, said, “See our wine list.” In my stiff mouthed Chinese, I asked the waitress to bring it, but I figured she couldn’t understand me because she made no moves and only asked would I like red or white. I repeated that I wanted the list. This time—practice makes perfect—I was able to make myself understood because she shuffled off.

When she returned, she had in hand a leather-bound volume, such as encases wine lists in any Western restaurant. She held it and opened it. On the left, filling the page, was an enormous picture of a bottle of red wine (I’ve forgotten the vintner). On the right was a bottle of white, same manufacturer. This was the entire list.

She was very patient with my stupidity, and again asked if I would like the red or white.

I chose red.

Posted in Fun

The Statistics Of Racial And Gender Gaps

Suppose we have collected data on some measure deemed important to society. Examples are fireman entrance exams, standardized test scores in mathematics, income, IQ, and so forth. Higher measures are considered better. The raw statistics (whether as a whole or by “cuts”; say, age, etc.) indicate that the distribution of, let us call them “scores”, are shifted higher for whites/males than for blacks/women.

This rightwards-shift we can call a “gap.” Now, this being the universe in which we live, something caused this gap to be. This something cannot be “chance.” Chance isn’t a thing and thus cannot be a cause. Neither can “randomness” be a cause, and for the same reason. Instead, some real thing or, more likely, things caused each individual to have the score he did. Thus, the gap between collectives is a necessary outcome of that collective’s individuals, and, speaking exactly, nothing can be said to have caused the gap. Only the scores of the individuals themselves had causes.

It is logically possible that each individual had the same cause for his score. If we want to be fanciful, we can suppose that sunspots (via some mechanism) caused the scores to take the values they did. However, given our experience with these things in our own lives, it is more plausible that each individual’s score was brought about by a different combination of causes, some of which were different and some of which were the same across many or all individuals, but of varying degrees in each.

What can statistics tell us about these causes? Nothing. At least, nothing much and nothing directly.

But that hasn’t stopped people from claiming that the observed gap supports some theory. The two leading theories are that the gap is there because of some innate difference in ability between whites/males and blacks/females, or that the gap is there because of racism/sexism.

Now, innate ability makes sense as a cause: it could be that, all other things equal, whites/males are just better than blacks/females on standardized mathematical tests, say, where by “better” I mean that the probability that any white/male scores higher than any black/female is greater than fifty percent. The “all other things equal” is somewhat problematic, because in that phrase can lie plenty of indirect causes. But consider the analogy that innate ability favors those over six feet being better basketball “dunkers” than those under six feet. Even here we must speak of “all other things equal”, but we have no difficulty seeing that tallness is the major cause of being a better dunker.

But racism/sexism cannot be a direct cause; only actions as a result of these attitudes that can affect the score can be a cause. For example, a person might despise whites/males, but as long as she does not let this emotion influence her actions (along pathways that influence the score), then her racism/sexism is harmless (with respect to the score). The racism/sexism first has to “become active”; for example, by a teacher being more disapproving towards those in the group she disfavors.

We can envision many different ways racism/sexism may become active, each of differing strength, while the number of reasons for innate differences appear smaller (say, certain genetic combinations). Whether or not this is true, the data in front of us say nothing about it.

Again, we have collected data which shows a “gap”. Both theories, innate differences and racism/sexism, say that we should see a gap. Thus, the gap we see confirms both theories—as it would confirm any theory which predicted the gap. For example, the theory of cultural differences also predicts gaps. Even stronger, the data contain no information on which theory is confirmed to a greater degree.

This is important because the matter has long been political. The most common, even de facto, belief is that any gap is prima facie evidence of racism/sexism. Indeed, the burden of proof is on the organization that awards the scores to show that it, the organization, is not racist/sexist. Yet the observed gap could have also been caused by innate or cultural differences (or something else).

It is practically impossible that any organization can prove its innocence. This is because of what we noted above: the number of ways racism/sexism could have influenced an individual are legion. Further, these ways are often undefined, or if defined, they are unquantified. And even if the ways were defined and quantified, it is extraordinarily unlikely that these quantifications can be had for any individual (since racism/sexism operates over a long period of time and in many instances). Even worse, the organization’s inability to exculpate itself will be (incorrectly) taken as further evidence of racism/sexism.

Perhaps worst of all, if it is thought the innate difference theory is false, yet it is at least partly causative, then it will be impossible—not just unlikely, but impossible—to eliminate “racism/sexism”, because there will always be gaps caused by innate differences, and these will be ascribed falsely to racism/sexism.

Even though they are often used for the purpose, statistics cannot say which of many competing theories caused a gap in some socially important measure. At least, not without information that is external to the scores themselves. The best form of external evidence would be a controlled trial, in which all possible avenues of racism/sexism/cultural differences among individuals has been controlled (or eliminated). All experience of human nature argues that such a trial will never happen.

Germany To Ban Noisy Kids?

All of Germany wants them damn kids off their lawns. According to the Times of India, the “German government on Friday said it was working on a bill aimed at battling a growing tide of complaints against noisy children in what is a rapidly ageing society.”

This makes sense; or, better said, this makes senescence. Because there is a strong, well-documented negative correlation between advancing geezerhood and tolerance for noise. Consider: a twenty-year-old is so insensitive to repellent sound that he can fall asleep to the Beatles. By the time he reaches thirty, he can still be soothed to somnolence by listening to celebrity tittle tattle from a late-night talk show.

But once past forty, silence rules at night. And fifty onwards, that cone of quiet extends to waking hours. Once a man is eligible for a senior citizen’s discount, the sounds of screeching children begin to grate. Unless, of course, the cacophony arises from one’s biological grandchildren.

All this is natural enough; even the call by grumpy old Germans that “There outta be a law!” is understandable. What saddens, however, is that instead of being “laughed out of court”, the proposed German law has to be vetted by the “environment ministry.” A spokesman for that agency said, “Noise made by childcare centres, playgrounds and places where ball games are played do not generally constitute a harmful environmental effect”.

A, Lord help us, “harmful environmental effect.” And it’s not that kids can’t constitute a “harmful environmental effect,” but that they “do not generally” do so. After reading this appalling language, we picture an army of government environmental engineers dispatched to playgrounds with dB meters in hand, documenting potentially “harmful environmental effects.” Studies will be written, and meetings convened. Serious discussion will ensue.

How depressing.

Bem, ESP, And Hypothesis Testing

Daryl Bem, Cornell professor of psychology, once again believes he has proven the validity of ESP (extra-sensory perception). Bem is a long-time researcher of the paranormal who once found notoriety by gluing ping-pong ball halves to people’s eyes.

Yes, and on these ping-pong balls, he shined a red light. And in the ears of those so afflicted, he piped a gentle hiss. This was to create the ganzfeld, or “total field”, a state sort of like sensory deprivation in which a person would be maximally open to psychic vibrations (it’s always vibrations).

Bem used statistics, p-values in particular, to prove that the ganzfeld worked. Trouble arose when other workers tried to replicate Bem’s success. None could, and the ganzfeld was abandoned. (I write more about this in my So You Think You’re Psychic?)

Now Bem is back with with a new—peer-reviewed—paper in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Once more Bem is able to display wee p-values in support of his theory that people can see, as through a glass darkly, a short distance into the future. (We can discuss the specifics of this kind of ESP at another date.)

It is true Bem’s p-values are all publishable, but it is not true that p-values are what he thinks they are. But Bem only makes the same mistakes that plague those who rely on frequentist statistical methods. These misperceptions are so rife that even the New York Times has noticed them, using Bem’s paper to discuss “one of the longest-running debates in science.” (Thanks to Bob Ludwick for the link.)

The paper quotes Jim Berger (Duke, one of the men responsible for the Bayesian revolution) as saying, “I was on a mini-crusade about this 20 years ago and realized that I could devote my entire life to it and never make a dent in the problem.” I know exactly how he feels. In my own class, I teach Bayesian and frequentist methods, emphasizing Bayesian. By the time we arrive at frequentist methods, students are already skeptical of frequentism because of the hints I have given about it.

After I lay the theory out, and lay it out fairly, students become especially wary after they learn the precise definitions of p-values, confidence intervals, and so forth. But then comes the show-and-tell portion of the class, where we touch actual data. Before I let them have at it, I give them this favorite speech:

Even though you know the proper definition of a p-value—how it tells you nothing about what you really want to know, how it is silent on whether your hypothesis is true or false, how it is mute on whether your model is appropriate or not—you will not be able to resist it. When you see a publishable (less than the magic number of 0.05) p-value you too, like everybody else, will not be able to help yourselves. You will believe you have proved your theory. You will be unable to ignore the call of the p-value.

Right after this, we launch into regression examples in which the software spits out tables of, inter alia, p-values. By the second or third iteration, students are already pointing at their screens saying, “Why can’t I keep this variable? The p-value is low.” And when they are describe their data they readily slip into the same kind of inappropriate causative language Bem does.

Solution? Eliminate teaching of frequentist statistics to all but specialists, mathematical Masters and PhDs and so forth. Do not expose undergraduates in any field, and graduates in non-mathematical fields, to the ideas of p-values, confidence intervals, or hypothesis testing.

These tools have been in the hands of scientists for nearly a century, and all experience has shown that they are subject to regular, even ritualized abuse. It is far too easy to “prove” what isn’t so using frequentist methods; at the least, the answers this form of statistics gives are not in response to the questions asked by researchers.

As the Times says (and correctly), “a team of statisticians led by Leonard Savage at the University of Michigan showed that the classical approach could overstate the significance of the finding by a factor of 10 or more.”

Switching to Bayesian statistics as the standard won’t eliminate biases and mistakes—no statistical procedure can—but it will reduce a vast amount of over-certainty.

Rousseau And The New York Times

It All Started With Rousseau

‘The General Will is always righteous.’ Moreover, provided the State is ‘well-intentioned’…interpretation of the General Will can safely be left to the leaders since ‘they know well that the General Will always favors the decision most conducive to public interest.’ Hence any individual who finds himself in opposition to the General Will is in error: ‘When the opinion that is contrary to my own prevails, this simply proves that I was mistaken and that what I thought to be the General Will, was not so.’ Indeed, ‘if my particular opinion had carried that day I should have achieved the opposite of what was my will and I should not therefore have been free.’

From Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals, i.e. that class of people who find the sort of reasoning encapsulated in Rosseau’s quotation persuasive.

Incidentally, it was not too long after Rousseau’s theories were put into action that the body count began resembling the score of a pinball game. No doubt those who were so assiduous in the use of the guillotine were led to do so because they were “inflamed” by angry rhetoric from conservatives in England.

New York Times Attacks!

By now all know that the left, chronicled by the Gray-as-dust Lady, immediately proved, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that right-wing hate was responsible for the Tucson shooting. In the Weekly Standard, PJ O’Rourke writes (HT HotAir):

In the matter of self-serving, bitter, calculated cynicism, there wouldn’t seem to be much left to prove against the Times. Judging by what I’ve heard from my fellow conservatives, the issue is decided. The New York Times is a worthless, truthless, vicious institution. But I disagree. I think things are worse than that.

For leftest intellectuals characterized by those who write for the New York Time, there are only two reasons anybody would ever disagree with whatever view (du jour) they hold: stupidity or hate.

As an example of “stupidity”, in a debate with Motor City (as was) Madman Uncle Ted Nugent, actress Roseanne Barr accuses Tea Party members of being dupes of rich, evil—only one modifier is actually necessary—capitalists. By implication—and assumption—the ignorant rank and file are incapable of independent reasoning: they never would have come to the belief that unchecked growth of government will lead to tyranny had they not been coached. This alone is proof that the People (Rousseau’s General Will) need guidance from On High. A world led by Roseanne Barr must be superior than one helmed by, say, Ronald Reagan.

Yet somehow Barr forgot the wealth of George Soros, of Hollywood, of the myriad companies which begged for bailouts and subsequently awarded their employees six-figure bonuses, of herself. Well, after all, money isn’t the root of all evil.

But the love of it is. Those who have and seek it and who disagree with the catechism can only therefore filled with hate, even to the point where they are driven insane. Don’t like abortion? Then you must hate the poor. Against racial quotas? Then you must be a vile racist. The same is true if you disagree with anything President Obama says or does. Nervous about the FCC’s takeover of the internet? Then you must hate…well, something; probably whichever victim group hasn’t had enough press at the time your incoherent ravings about the FCC become known.

Opposed to Big Government (of which the New York Times feels itself a member)? Then you hate the People. You are in error and, as Rousseau has taught us, are against freedom itself. And that cannot be tolerated. Therefore, for you no punishment is severe enough. You will face protest marches, you will receive death threats, you will see yourself burned in effigy. None of these actions are motivated by hate, but are brought about by the same kind of well-meaning, kind-hearted wrath which drives a parent to beat his child with a switch.

Take your punishment like a man and learn to think properly.

Wodehouse Weighs In

As with many things, PG Wodehouse provides the answer: “It occurred to Lord Emsworth, as it has occurred to so many people, that the distribution of money in this world is all wrong” (from Blandings Castle and Elsewhere). This being so, the important thing is to do is very little.

Faith In Climate Catastrophe

A recent article at Real Climate (linked from BoingBoing) informed its faithful that they, the writers and site leaders “Michael Tobis and Scott Mandia with input from Gavin Schmidt, Michael Mann, and Kevin Trenberth”, are none too happy with Larry Bell, a fellow who managed to sneak “Hot Sensations Vs. Cold Facts” into Forbes, a document which questions key beliefs shared by Tobis et alia.

Tobis and pals say that “Bell uses the key technique that denialists use in debates, dubbed by Eugenie Scott the ‘Gish gallop’, named after a master of the style, anti-evolutionist Duane Gish.” Using the word “denialist” signals that the effort to come will never reach above the juvenile. Proof of this is contained in the very sentence, where, via a cheap rhetorical trick, “denialists” are equated with those who would not only deny the Holocaust, but would question evolution itself, the later now the greater crime.

Bell’s minor mistakes are not especially interesting in the large scheme of climate science. And neither are the mistakes made by Tobis. For example, Bell claimed, “The Northwest Passage has certainly opened up before.” Tobis et al. countered, “This is untrue in recorded history. The traversals prior to 2007 were in very specialized boats and often took years. In 2007 and 2010, genuine shipping lanes opened up for the first time. It was possibly open in the mid-Holocene about 6,000 to 8,000 years ago and was certainly open millions of years ago. ”

This kind of non-debate—both sides actually agree with other!—is tedious. So what’s the problem?

Now, it’s no mystery why people Tobis and his mates duke it out with Bell. Bell stepped onto their playground and they tried to kick him out. There is also no conundrum why people like my pal Gavin Schmidt believe as fervently as they do. They work intimately in an area for a long period of time and have convinced themselves that their theories are true. They surround themselves with others who have worked as hard as they have and who believe as they do. They meet as a group and tell each other that what they believe is so. They do not often ask how they can be wrong, because it is so obvious to them that they are right. When we look upon this group of scientists—who are obvious experts and who may well be right in some of what they proclaim—we understand them. We say to ourselves, “This is human nature.”

But what forces account for people like New York Times columnist Paul “Republicans Are Evil” Krugman, an untutored man (climatologically speaking) so convinced that the end is nigh that those that disagree are treasonous? Why do “activists”, similarly ignorant of the Omega equation, flock to places like Copenhagen and Cancun and stage puppet shows? Why do journalists regularly repeat the idiotic phrase “The debate is over”? Why are others compelled to march on this place and that demanding “action”?

Why, that is, are so many people who have no especial training in climatology, who could never hope to derive the equations of motion, even assuming non-compressibility, who, that is, are ignorant of the most basic of physical laws, are so convinced that their worst fears are being realized? These folks are not appealing to the precautionary principle, as dicey as that theory is. Instead they are convinced even immediate action is too late. How did they become so assured?

They could have polled climatologists and found the balance in favor of climate catastrophe, and then operated in a majority-rule fashion. If just one percent more than fifty says doom, why, doom it is! But I know of none who has done this. Instead the (false) claim is that all scientists have said “It is worse than we thought.”

But even if that were true, even if they if the untrained did not acknowledge any alternate views (such as Bell cites), they must have been aware that all history of human thought argues for caution. Yet the debate was declared long over without the need for proof. It must, therefore, be the case that no or little evidence was required for most people to believe so fervently. Or, even better, the belief was already there, just waiting to be set free by any excuse.

This is why the debate almost instantly turned political and why it will remain so.