William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

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The Unexamined Scientific Life


Busy day at WMBriggs.com-land, so only a slight puzzle.

If you want to be a scientist, it is essential—I speak in earnest—to learn the calculus. Indeed, the importance of this branch of mathematics is impossible to overstate. Without it, you will never have more than an imperfect sketchy fractional crude view of any modern scientific field.

But since calculus takes time to master—it is difficult, vast, and subtle—the years spent learning it can be put to better use doing actual science. Anyway, calculus permeates university and even ordinary life. We’ve all seen calculus equations in newspapers, on Facebook, Twitter, everywhere. You can surely absorb what you need as you go along, just by being part of our modern scientific culture

Consider that the subject is on everbody’s mind, it’s part of the daily discourse, it is “built in”, so to speak, to everything. Why, after five or ten years, by sheer osmosis you’ll have had enough of it knocked into your head that you could write books on the subject. Or, if you were feeling especially ambitious and had a free afternoon, you could always read a popular account penned by some science writer—a book or Wikipedia article which hits the highlights.

Could be a waste of time with Wikipedia, though. You could be out doing science instead. Just get on with it!

Latest Threat To Global Warming? In Vitro Fertilization

Certified carbon-free footprint.

Certified carbon-free footprint.

Stop me if you’re heard this one before. An academic, educated well beyond her capabilities, having a lot of free time on her hands, and frightened past the point of rational thinking by the terrifying promises of the horrors which await us once global warming strikes (soon, soon), figures out a way to solve the “crisis”. Her solution is—wait for it—to put the government in charge of making babies!

Ha ha ha! What a good joke!

(Where have we seen this before?)

The commedienne is Cristina Richie from the Theology Department (yes) at Boston College. Her peer-reviewed leg-pulling is entitled “What would an environmentally sustainable reproductive technology industry look like?” in the Journal of Medical Ethics.

Richie’s line is that “all of medicine and healthcare should be evaluated in terms of ecological sustainability”, especially the “assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs) industry”. What’s an ART? An in vitro fertilisation factory.

ARTs deserve “special ethical attention” not because they are wasteful of human life (many embryos don’t make the cut and are never heard from again), but because they not “only absorb the ‘typical’ medical resources like buildings, medical instruments and intellectual capital, they are unique in that they alone create carbon legacies in addition to having a carbon footprint.” She doesn’t mind the killing, it’s done using electricity that bothers her.

“People who use ARTs are deliberately seeking a carbon legacy (emphasis mine).”

Carbon legacy? She means junior-sized human beings. Babies aren’t people, but carbon-generation machines. Utilitarianism pushed to its logical extreme is always funny, no?

Richie only cares about the factory-made babies, not the kind ordinary moms and dads make (are we still allowed to say “moms and dads” or is that something-or-other-phobic?). Though she does scold that “naturally made children” have an “undeniable impact” on the “environment.”

Babies made through ARTs are “a burden on the already over-taxed ecosystem to support new beings who might not have existed without medical intervention.” Yet how “over-taxed” can it be if Boston College can give Richie a cushy living, free of normal responsibility?

Ever wonder how to sound like an academic? How about this sentence? “Since the 1980s, the field of environmental bio-ethics has made the connection among pollution, carbon emissions and human health.”

Ever wonder how academics can lecture people outside their competencies? How about this sentence? “The impact of climate change on world citizens has continued to receive interest in the medical industry, urging consumption reduction to better the lives of those who currently suffer under conditions of food scarcity, respiratory disease and drought as a result of CO2 emissions.”

Has no one told her that CO2 has not caused any of these things? That, even if the IPCC is right, the apocalypse is still in the future and not yet? And, judging by how strongly her ego is tied to her theory, should we tell her? Breaking the bad news that all is not lost might not go well.

Skip it. Let’s get to Richie’s “solutions.” First, “[t]here is nothing that a potential parent could do, short of moving to another country, to offset the carbon of a biological child.” (She thinks Americans are especially egregious climate sinners.)

Second, banning. “While a moratorium on all fertility clinics would be the most ecologically sound decision in this purview, it is unlikely that established fertility procedures or treatments would be effectively ‘banned’ until global CO2 emissions stabilise.”

Third, “carbon capping.” Richie isn’t an economist, and writes like one who has no familiarity with the subject, which is why she suggests something like the “Kyoto Protocol and make an entire country accountable for carbon emissions, thus forcing each and every sector to examine their consumptive practices.”

Lest you think Richie has nothing solid to offer, she says this, which is true. “ARTs use scarce communal resources such as intellectual research, government funding for development and medical buildings. Natural procreation qua procreation does not. That is, a woman wishing to become pregnant through ARTs has to go to a clinic, visit a doctor and use the carbon-intensive resources of the medical industry.” She forgot to mention IVF can be highly wasteful of human life.

She’s also right when she says, “many fertile people who could become pregnant without any extra resources use ARTs”.

So while the enemy of my enemy might be my friend, and since I’m not fond of IVF you think I might support Richie, it can’t be done for the reasons she offers. For as the man said, the “greatest treason” is “to do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

Government To Issue Baby Licenses

Not the kind of baby license he has in mind.

Not the kind of baby license he has in mind. (Image source.)

Regular readers will recall that I am a (self-appointed) bioethicist, a post I take on not because I need the work, but because the professionals are making such a hash of it.

Take professional “futurist” Zoltan Istvan’s recent article in Wired, “It’s time to consider restricting human breeding” who poses the question nobody was asking, “In this transhumanist future, should everyone still be allowed to have unlimited children whenever they want?”

He meant it rhetorically, naturally, where all bien pensant would know to answer No. (But then even the best of us cannot have children whenever we want.)

His question has a proviso, relying on “transhumanism”, sometimes abbreviated “H+”. The easy answer is that this is the state of human beings envisioned by those who have watched too much bad science fiction on television. Think Six Million Dollar Man grafted onto an iPad—or maybe its the other way around.

The longer and more tedious definition is exactly the same, except the parts that make up Steve Austin’s limbs have been successfully miniaturized and mass produced and genetically engineered. “Defectives” would not be allowed out of the wome to mix with their betters.

The fallacy underlying transhumanism is not that our body parts won’t be replaced by Apple Corp (or whomever, and for a large fee), which smart money practically guarantees, but that once this happens we become something other than human, something superior, once we reach a “singularity” or pass some “tipping point” or whatever. In other words, transhumanism is yet one more in a long and ever-increasing list of Utopian schemes, and yet more proof that abandoning a classic education leads to a fundamental ignorance of the reality of man’s unchangeable nature.

Transhumanists are far from the first to think of that happy State which awaits us once we work out the technology. In Brave New World, transhumans were born in a factory via “Bokanovsky’s Process”, bred like mushrooms. Istvan thinks this a swell idea—and that the State should be in charge of it.

Enter fallacy number two, appropriately called the Transformation Fallacy. It’s when a common person possessing all the faults, weaknesses, and sins of a common mortal is transformed into a purely altruistic loving caring faultless man of superior-intellect merely by being appointed to a government post. It’s become rare not to see this fallacy. Istvan is a slave to it.

“I cautiously,” Istvan says, inventing a new and opposite meaning for cautiously, “endorse the idea of licensing parents, a process that would be little different than getting a driver’s licence.” State issued, of course. To support this he says,

The philosophical conundrum of controlling human procreation rests mostly on whether all human beings are actually responsible enough to be good parents and can provide properly for their offspring. Clearly, untold numbers of children — for example, those millions that are slaves in the illegal human trafficking industry — are born to unfit parents.

Untold? Millions? Parents who won’t sell their children into slavery stand a higher chance of being licensed. Also, parents “who pass a series of basic tests qualify and get the green light to get pregnant and raise children.” Who will write, score, administrate, and enforce the outcome of these tests? Those who have been changed via the transformation fallacy.

Istvan isn’t alone. He quotes other transhumanists, like Hank Pellissier “founder of the Brighter Brains Institute” (!), Paul “Prognostication Bombed” Ehrlich, an “advocate for government intervention to control human population”, and “bioethics pioneer” (!) Joseph Fletcher whom he quotes as saying “many births are accidental”. Accidental? Accidental? As in, “Honey, I didn’t realize that when we had sex you might have got pregnant“?

Skip it. If you haven’t been convinced that parenting licences are required, Istvan has this up his sleeve: “After all, we don’t allow people to drive cars on crack cocaine.” Devastating, no? Licensing parents would drive down crime rates, too. He says.

How to keep unlicensed people from the unaccidental consequences of doin’ what come naturally? Implanted birth control microchips which “can deliver hormones into the body via an on-off switch on your mobile phone”. We can call it the Lack of Responsibility App.

He closes his article with these words: “As a liberty-loving person, I have always eschewed giving up any freedoms.” Does he, though. For the next words are “However…”

This is the same speech you get from all progressives and statists. “I hate to do it, but it’s for your own good.”

Update See also this.

What Should Artists Do About Global Warming Contest

This is art.

This is art.

Picture shows artist Sarah Cameron Sunde, who stood in San Francisco Bay on Friday Aug. 15, 2014, “for a full cycle of tides, a more-than 13-hour process.

A more than 13-hour process!

Why did artist Sarah Cameron Sunde stand in San Francisco Bay “for a full cycle of tides”, which is “more-than 13-hour process”? You already know the answer. To turn the tide against global warming!

Come, wasn’t it brave of artist Sarah Cameron Sunde to stand in San Francisco Bay “for a full cycle of tides”, which is “more-than 13-hour process”? She called her art “36.5: A Durational Performance with the Sea.”

Artist Sarah Cameron Sunde stood in San Francisco Bay “for a full cycle of tides”, a “more-than 13-hour process”, to raise awareness about rising sea levels. Consider my awareness raised! For instance, I’m now aware that if the Pacific ocean keeps rising at the same alarming rate as now, then in three or four short centuries, residents might have to move their beach chairs an inch or two back from the shore, lest they get wet feet.

SF Gate reports artist Sarah Cameron Sunde’s final words: “I’m walking out – I hope I survive”.

She did. Survive, that is. But there was little doubt. Artist Sarah Cameron Sunde also stood around in the water for a day in Bass Harbor, Maine and Akumal, Mexico. She survived those, too. SF Bay is pretty cold, though. Her warming trick? “I pee in the wetsuit,” she said. Charming.

Now I don’t know about you, but this is what I call art. Don’t take my word for it. Writer Jennifer Herman, the paper reports, happened to walk by and noticed Sunde not doing anything, so she, Herman, “was inspired to sit down and write some prose.” Prose!

Great art should be inspirational, and while it’s true little could top artist Sarah Cameron Sunde’s “durational performance”, we still ought to try. We only have one planet! (Not counting the few billion which are slightly too far away to get to using today’s technology.)

Dear readers, what kind of art best conveys the true message of Global Warming?


Readers must describe, in 300 words or so, art which raises awareness of the true message of Global Warming. You have one week from today to do so.

Entries with vivid pictures will, of course, receive higher weight. As will those that are written in professional art talk. Look to any major museum or art installation for examples, or take your cue from artist Sarah Cameron Sunde, who managed to make standing around in the water for a few hours into a heroic sounding deed.

Yours Truly is the sole judge and jury. There will be no appeals. I may engage in favoritism.

The Booty

The winner will receive a Kindle copy of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels by Alex Epstein (due to be released November 13, 2014).

The winner must supply me his or her email one week after I announce his or her name. Look to this webpage for the announcement.

Pass It On

Readers will be doing the entire planet a service by passing this contest around to the widest extent possible. Use the buttons below to push the post to Facebook, Twitter, and other services. Or simply email it.

Come on, gang! We have a planet to save!

Bonus activity

In popular accounts, of course. Do try it. “The science is settled!” becomes “The politics are settled!” Have fun!

Philosophic Issues in Cosmology VI: Anthropic Coincidences—Guest Post by Bob Kurland

Something (which can be observed) rather than nothing (which cannot).

Something (which can be observed) rather than nothing (which cannot).

Bob Kurland is a retired, cranky, old physicist, and convert to Catholicism. He shows that there is no contradiction between what science tells us about the world and our Catholic faith.

Read Part V.

Scientists are slowly waking up to an inconvenient truth – the universe looks suspiciously like a fix. The issue concerns the very laws of nature themselves. For 40 years, physicists and cosmologists have been quietly collecting examples of all too convenient “coincidences” and special features in the underlying laws of the universe that seem to be necessary in order for life, and hence conscious beings, to exist. —Paul Davies.

The argument (the Anthropic Principle) can be used to explain why the conditions happen to be just right for the existence of (intelligent) life on the earth at the present time. For if they were not just right, then we should not have found ourselves to be here now, but somewhere else, at some other appropriate time. —Roger Penrose.

One doesn’t show that something doesn’t require explanation by pointing out that it is a condition of one’s existence. If I ask for an explanation of the fact that the air pressure in the transcontinental jet is close to that at sea level, it is no answer to point out that if it weren’t, I’d be dead. —Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos.

A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super-intellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question. —Fred Hoyle

10,000 dials & monkeys

The presence of organic life in the universe (namely us) requires a series of unlikely happenings and restricted values for physical laws and constants. This “fine-tuning” (as it’s been called) has been likened to a room full of 10,000 dials, each of which has to be set to a precise setting in order to achieve action; 10,000 monkeys are let into the room and each adjusts a dial and, lo, action occurs. The set of coincidences was termed “The Anthropic Principle” by Brandon Carter in 1973, when he introduced it in a conference to oppose the “Copernican Principle”, that man has no special place in the universe.

Anthropic Principle

There is a concise summary of the Anthropic Principle by Robert Koons in his philosophy lectures, giving various interpretations, with arguments for and against each. A good collection of articles with different (and opposing views) of the Anthropic Principle is given in God and Design (ed. Neil Manson). There are many versions of the Anthropic Principle ranging from the Weak Anthropic Principle, WAP, which tautologically observes that if the universe weren’t fit for us to be here we would wouldn’t be here discussing the principle, through the Strong Anthropic Principle, SAP, that the universe has been fine-tuned for intelligent life (us), on up to the Completely Ridiculous Anthropic Principle (by Martin Gardner—you complete the acronym).

Can unlikelihood be quantified?

In assessing the improbable nature of the anthropic coincidences, some authors assign a specific probability to the value of some particular physical constant. Such assignment is not always justified, because probability considerations are ill defined, in the usual sense of evidential probability. For example, theoretical calculations have shown that if the strong nuclear force were 2% higher or 2% lower, then the elements as we know them would not have been formed. This does not mean that the probability of having the strong nuclear force at an anthropic value is 4%. In order to give a probability for this range, the population distribution of the parameters for the strong nuclear force would have to be known. Moreover, there is a difficulty in using probability in an after-the-fact, rather than a predictive sense. The way to use probabilities in assessing the anthropic coincidences is via Bayesian probability techniques, with well-defined prior assumptions, and to use the resulting Bayesian probability as a measure of belief.

Ellis’s interpretation

Ellis, in his presentation of the anthropic coincidences, focuses on the special nature of physical laws that allow for the presence of life, rather than on their improbability:

One of the most profound issues in cosmology is the Anthropic question…why does the Universe has the very special nature required in order that life can exist? The point is that a great deal of “fine tuning” is required in order that life be possible. There are many relationships embedded in physical laws that are not explained by physics, but are required for life to be possible; in particular various fundamental constants are highly constrained in their values if life as we know it is to exist…What requires explanation is why the laws of physics are such as to allow this complex functionality (life) to work..We can conceive of universes where the laws of physics (and so of chemistry) were different than in ours. Almost any change in these laws will prevent life as we know it from functioning.

Ellis posits as a first requirement for the laws of physics “the kind of regularities that can underlie the existence of life”: laws that are not based on symmetry and variational principles are unlikely to produce the kind of complexity that would be required for life. He also sets up general conditions that allow for organic life and cosmological boundary/initial conditions. In this respect he cites the following as necessary:

  • “Quantization that stabilizes matter and allows chemistry to exist through the Pauli exclusion principle;
  • The number D of large spatial dimensions must be just 3 for complexity to exist.
  • The seeds in the early universe for fluctuations (quantum fluctuations) that will later grow into galaxies must be of the right size that structures form without collapsing into black holes…
  • The size of the universe and its age must be large enough…we need a sufficiently old universe for second generation stars to come into existence and then for planets to have a stable life for long enough that evolution could lead to the emergence of intelligent life. Thus the universe must be at about 15 billion years old for life to exist.
  • There must be non-interference with local systems. The concept of locality is fundamental, allowing local systems to function effectively independently of the detailed structure of the rest of the Universe. We need the universe and the galaxies in it to be largely empty, and gravitational waves and tidal forces to be weak enough, so that local systems can function in a largely isolated way.
  • The existence of the arrow of time, and of laws like the second law of thermodynamics, are probably necessary for evolution and for consciousness. This depends on boundary conditions at the beginning and end of the Universe.
  • Presumably the emergence of a classical era out of a quantum state is required. The very early universe would be a domain where quantum physics would dominate leading to complete uncertainty and an inability to predict the consequence of any initial situation; we need this to evolve to a state where classical physics leads to the properties of regularity and predictability that allow order to emerge.
  • The fact that the night sky is dark…is a consequence of the expansion of the universe together with the photon (light particle) to baryon (mass particle) ratio. This feature is a necessary condition for the existence of life: the biosphere on Earth functions by disposing of waste energy to the heat sink of the dark night sky. Thus one way of explaining why the sky is observed to be dark at night is that if this were not so, we would not be here to observe it.
  • Physical conditions on planets must be a in a quasi-equilibrium state for long enough to allow the delicate balances that enable our existence, through the very slow process of evolution, to be fulfilled.” (see the Theology of Water.)

There are a number of other constraints, limited values for forces—gravity, electromagnetic, weak nuclear, strong nuclear—and fundamental constants, including that for particle masses and number of particles that are needed for life to evolve. In summary, Ellis puts the Anthropic Principle as the following:

Life is possible because both the laws of physics and the boundary conditions for the universe have a very special nature. only particular laws of physics, and particular initial conditions in the Universe, allow the existence of intelligent life of the kind we know. No evolutionary process whatever is possible for any kind of life if these laws and conditions do not have this restricted form.

Robert Koons summarizes some general objections to invoking the Anthropic Principle for carbon-based life “well isn’t that special” (as the Church Lady might say):

  1. The problem of “old evidence”;
  2. Laws of nature don’t need to be explained;
  3. We had to be here in any event (see Penrose’s quote above);
  4. Exotic life might exist;
  5. The Copernican Principle–rejection of anthropocentricity is fundamental to science;
  6. We’re only one among many universes (see below).


  1. Objection 1 can be countered by the argument that such evidence is used frequently in science when direct experiments can’t be done. Witness the General Relativity explanation of the advance in the perihelion of Mercury.
  2. Objection 2 would do away with all interpretations of theory, quantum mechanics, and the philosophy of science.
  3. Objection 3 is countered as in Thomas Nagel’s quote above; as information seeking life form we need explanations.
  4. Objection 4 is invalid: we’re talking about conditions for carbon-based life; science-fiction can explore and has explored conditions for exotic life.
  5. Objection 5: the Anthropic Principle was introduced to rebut the Copernican Principle.
  6. Objection 6: the multiverse proposition is not itself proven.

The philosophic/metaphysical context for these Anthropic conditions that Ellis sets forth will be given in the final post. It should be noted that one interpretation of anthropic coincidences is the theory that infinitely many universes with potentially different physical laws and constants exist and so it is not unlikely that in all these one universe with appropriate conditions for life would be present.

The analogy is like that of having a lottery ticket with the numbers 1 1 1 1 1 be the winner. That combination of numbers looks improbable, but since there are a whole host of numbers from 00000 to 99999, it is no less probable than any other number. This brings up the notion of a multiverse, which will be discussed in the next post.

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