William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

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The Decline & Fall Of Radical Catholicism; Or, What The Synod Will Have Wrought

And to think that some people disbelieve in the satanic.

And to think that some people disbelieve in the satanic.

Update Comments restored. WordPress is acting strange.

The first part of the title isn’t mine, but belongs to James Hitchcock who wrote a book of the same name, published in 1971 in the wake of Vatican II. Hitchcock was then a self-labeling progressive1 looking back on the predictions made by competing groups during the great Council.

The book reads like it will be written in 2016.

With Synod I: The Blessing Of Remarriage & Homosexuality playing everywhere now (Synod II opens in October 2015) in the secular press to enraptured audiences2, I thought it well we should revisit how the last efforts to “radically” modify the Church were viewed. The lens Hitchcock used was American made, of course.

Progressives before Vatican II were, Hitchcock tells us, dissatisfied. To which the natural reaction is: aren’t they always? Isn’t profound irrational unthinking unrelievable dissatisfaction the definition of a progressive? What the progressive then wanted was change, mainly in the form of leveling. He wanted “renewal”.

He wanted a modernization of the liturgy, to get rid of the beauty, rigor, and awful uniformity and allow use of the vernacular. And puppets. He wanted a putting away of stultifying Thomism. He wanted to align the Church with the political left: perhaps not to the point of Marxism, but aimed in that direction. He “advocated loosening up the curricula of Catholic colleges to allow secular philosophies to be taught non-polemically” (p. 18).

He praised ecumenism, admiring theologians like Baptist Harvey Cox who suggested “monasteries be turned into retreat and conference centers” and Protestant theologian Arthur Crabtree (who then worked at a Catholic university) who asked “in an ecumenical journal whether the pope is Antichrist”, and liberal rabbi Everett Gendler who insisted that Christians must “abandon belief” in Jesus as a “supernatural purger of sin” (all p. 21).

About the liturgy, now often populated by music that would make even the Beatles blush, and by clowns and giant puppets (what the hell is it with progressives and giant puppets?):

In typical hysterical fashion conservative critics charged that if the Church made the least concession, let down the least barricade, the reformers would prove insatiable. Nothing would be treated with respect and sacred awe but would be shunted around at the whim of the liturgist. Conservatives also raised the faith question: If the liberals actually believed in the efficacy of the sacraments, why did they feel a need to reform them? (p. 17)

Conservatives warned “the liberals did not really derive their social principles from Catholic tradition but were actually breathing in the secular humanist air, which they attempted to give a superficial odor” (p. 18). They “charged that reform was really the ‘Protestantizing’ of the Church” (p. 22).

Hitchcock then makes a startling admission (p. 24):

There are many curiosities in the history of the Church in the post-conciliar years, and not the least is the fact that so few progressives have noticed the extent to which the reactionaries’ predictions prior to the Council have been proven correct and that their own expectations have been contradicted. They continue to treat the conservatives as ignorant, prejudiced, and out of touch with reality.

The progressive predicted reform (p. 24):

would lead to a massive resurgence of the flagging Catholic spirit…Liturgy and theology, having been brought to life and made relevant, would be constant sources of inspiration to the faithful. The religious orders, reformed to bring them into line with modernity, would find themselves overwhelmed with candidates who were generous and enthusiastic. The Church would find the number of converts increasingly dramatically…

Yet Hitchcock admits, “In virtually every case the precise opposite of these predictions has come to pass.” Sound familiar?

Although it has recently had a resurgence, in 1971 Hitchcock could say, “Thomism has disappeared almost without a trace, and there is now scarcely a single traditional doctrine of the Church which is not seriously questioned by some prominent theologians, not excluding the ‘existence’ of God” (p. 19). In many places the “Eucharist is regarded as at best a symbolic act…there is no mystical reality present.” (p. 22).

Progressives looked at the Council’s results and wept but “In fact, Vatican II exceeded the hopes of the liberals” as noted by the presence of, say, giant puppet masses. “There is no question, then, that Vatican II initiated almost every reform which American progressives, prior to 1965, generally desired” (p. 26).

In other words, Progressives got what they wanted (except for the “few persons [who] mentioned tentatively the question of remarriage after divorce”), but they felt like failures. Why the contradiction? My guess is that for the progressive no change short of constant revolution is enough. But Hitchcock perhaps more wisely says (p. 30):

By the end of the 1960s, however, many such progressives were forced to realize that their dislike of Scholasticism, their hankering after liturgical reform, their visits to choice monasteries, were really attempts to overcome a gnawing crisis of faith which they either did not recognize, lacking adequate self-knowledge, or did not want to recognized. However uncharitable, their conservative critics were simply right in postulating weakness of fundamental belief as being at the root of many liberals’ dissatisfaction.

Hitchcock says that conservatives “foresaw more clearly than the progressives the realities of change.” Further (pp. 30-31):

The progressives blithely assumed a period of swift, painless reform, in which desirable changes could be accomplished while undesirable ones were restrained. The conservatives realized that no large intricate society like the Catholic Church can be changed without considerable dislocation and outright loss, and they realized also that state programs for reform are never realized as they are set forth and that change tends to generate change, so that those who begin as moderate reformers sometime end as revolutionaries…

Here’s the kicker, as relevant then as now: “In retrospect it is possible to see the preoccupation of the progressives with changes of various kinds as a way of avoiding the ultimate question of their own faith.”

That’s just Chapter 1 folks, an overview. If this is popular, we can look into the book further.

Update Kinda sorta related. Newman “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant” mugs.


James Hitchcock, 1971. The Decline & Fall Of Radical Catholicism. Herder and Herder, New York.

1Consider that 1971’s progressive is 2014’s conservative; a conservative or reactionary then is a reactionary now.

2There must be a Nicholas Cage pun lurking in there somewhere.

The Coming Cancer Panic


Maybe it won’t be cancer. Maybe it will be irumodic syndrome or Clarke’s disease. Or maybe it will be something else. But probably it will be cancer.

If I had to guess, I’d say specifically pancreatic cancer will soon rise to media-panicable levels. Studies will be conducted. Wee p-values will be produced. Work for lawyers will be discovered. The government will spring into action. San Francisco will find new things to ban.

Because why? Because it will be observed that pancreatic cancer rates are rising to hitherto unknown levels. This increase will be a true increase. Rates really will rise. It will not be a statistical aberration. The increased angst will therefore seem justified.

Who will be to blame? Cardiologists, mostly. That’s right, your friendly heart doctor in going to assist in unleashing a wave of painful deaths! Pulmonary specialists of various stripes will also share in the ignominy.

Because why? Because once cardiologists figure out how to stop people from dying of heart disease (and incidentally stroke and some other things), and since heart disease is by most counts the number one killer of human beings, and because you must die of something, then necessarily something else will be the number one killer.

In other words, saving people from mortal myocardial infarctions must necessarily cause them to die of something else. And whatever this something else is—and like I said, I’m guessing cancer—must naturally increase in its lethality rate. And since our media, legal, and government is designed for panicked response, look out!

There are two main reasons I’m guessing cancer. First is that great strides are being made in cardiology at every level, and that lethal cancers are much harder to treat than other diseases, and pancreatic cancer is next to impossible to treat. You can keep going with a chunk of your liver missing, and you can still digest your Corn Flakes without a stomach, but no pancreas and it’s So Long, Sarah.

Reason deux depends on how you count and where. The CDC says cancer is already the number two killer in the USA, pretty close behind heart disease. Coming in at number three but lagging way behind are various chronic lower respiratory diseases. So, reduce heart disease and cancer becomes number one by being next in line. Cancer rates will surely rise in the US of A.

The WHO breaks down (and I don’t vouch for how they did this; my point is only for illustration) causes of death by country income group. They say
lower respiratory diseases (not counting malaria) lead the way in the poorest countries, which rings true, followed fairly closely by HIV/AIDS. So, since lower respiratory diseases are (now) much easier to cure than HIV/AIDS, we’ll see in poor countries a rise in HIV/AIDS deaths.

More proof that cancer rates will rise can also be had by the WHO data. In the poorest countries, cancer doesn’t even make it onto the list of top 10 causes. But that’s because it’s hard to die of cancer when you’re dying faster from protein energy malnutrition (that’s also a cautionary note to you vegetarians out there).

Still no cancer in the top 10 in lower-middle income countries, but heart disease is number one. Malnutrition disappears but cirrhosis joins the august company. Thus does adding a few dollars to your wallet increase the risk of drinking yourself to death.

Cancer (liver and stomach) finally nabs the bottom two slots in upper-middle income countries; finally, once we group all the high income countries together (of which the USA is one) lung, colon, and breast cancers are three of the top 10. And so are Alzheimer’s and other dementias.

Well, everybody knew these facts, which are in any case not surprising. But everybody will forget these facts once we start noticing the increase of whatever it is that will kill people in absence of heart disease. It will be as if some new bad thing is happening that is causing the outbreak, when the opposite is true: that something good happened in cardiology.

The causes and circumstances of this new number killer were always there—they are here now—but they just didn’t have a chance to operate so we don’t notice what they are. But once these are given their day in the sun, we will notice them and they will seem new and newsworthy and litigatable and politician-righteousness-guaranteeing and every other thing damn thing wrong with our culture.

But when it happens, remember that you heard it here first!

Don’t Say “Hiatus.”


Don’t say “pause”, either. Update: Nor (see this post) “natural variability”.

What a mistake it is to use these words! There is no possible meaning of them which is sensible in the context of the (operationally defined) global temperature series.

Look, sisters and brothers, if we (as in climate scientists) knew what the temperature was going to be, we would have been able to skillfully forecast it. We were not able to skillfully forecast it, so we did not know what the temperature was going to be.

To speak of a “hiatus” or “pause” logically implies we knew the “hiatus” or “pause” was going to be there, that it was expected, that we knew in advance its causes. We did not know. If we did know, we would have predicted it. Which we didn’t.

To say there is a “hiatus” is to say that, eventually, we know not when, the temperature will continue its inexorable rise. What evidence is there for this belief?

It cannot be in the models we currently possess, because these models did not foresee what actually happened. The incontrovertible evidence is that these models are wrong. That they should not, in their current state, be trusted. That whatever they say is subject to extreme reasonable rational doubt. That decisions should not be made based upon their predictions (except the decision to produce better models).

To say there is a “pause” is to say that the models were right after all, even though Reality differed from the models. To say there is a “hiatus” is to say Theory is better than Reality. This is to commit the Deadly Sin of Reification.

There is no hiatus, there is no pause. At least, we can’t say so now—or maybe we will never be able to say so. We might someday look back and see that we now were living in a hiatus. Then again, we might look back and say, “I miss when it was warmer.”

There is no hiatus. There is only what the temperature actually did. Way back when, it wiggled to a fro, it went up a little more than down, but for these eighteen or so years, it stayed about the same. Why it did these things is an entirely separate different matter than saying what it did.

To say there was a “pause” is to say we know why the temperature did what it did. But again, if we knew, we would have known the “pause” was coming, which we didn’t.

Anybody who says “hiatus” or “pause” non-ironically or non-derisively is reifying theory, promoting it above reality. This is nuts, scientifically speaking.

“But look here, Briggs. Isn’t it true that man is injecting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and doesn’t carbon dioxide absorb radiation?”

Yes, it’s true.

“Is that all you’re going to say?”

That’s all you asked.

“Don’t play cutesy, fella. You’re just as aware of the implied question as I am. Adding carbon dioxide warms the planet, yes or no?”

I don’t know. And neither do you, and neither does anybody else. If you instead say we do know, then you have to explain why this knowledge led to such awful models.

It is true that man injects carbon dioxide, all right, and even other gases. And he also changes the land, say, by growing crops. But every species influences the climate to some extent. This is trivially true.

Now if we held everything constant—via some crude approximations—and only considered the increase of CO2, then temperatures should rise. Since they didn’t uniformly do so, it’s clear that this “hold everything constant” ploy is an awful rendering of reality.

Since our predictions failed, it must be that some thing or things we didn’t and don’t well consider should be considered. Maybe the extra CO2 is causing a boom in plant or plankton growth or whatever, species which then interact with variable X and then X interacts with Y, which modifies Z, and which, after a few more Latin letters, pushes the temperature to lower levels.

Hey. You can’t rule this out. The opposite is true: you must accept it, or accept some other alternative to the status quo, if you value truth.

God help the environmentalists if it turns out CO2 is actually a net benefit!

Meanwhile, don’t say “hiatus” or “pause.”

That Conservatives Smell Different Than Progressives Study Stinks

Some brave conservatives about to tour an American university campus?

Some brave conservatives about to tour an American university campus?

Several readers asked me to examine the peer-reviewed study “Assortative Mating on Ideology Could Operate Through Olfactory Cues” by Rose McDermott, Dustin Tingley, and Peter K. Hatemi appearing in the American Journal of Political Science.

It’s showing up everywhere. Like the Powerline blog, also in Pacific Standard, and The Week, and of course The Washington Post.

The paper opens with a proposition which is surely false, though it is asserted by many authorities, “Similarity between spouses is common across domains, but in humans, long-term mates correlate more highly (between 0.60 and 0.75) on social and political attitudes than almost any other trait, with the exception of religion”. I would have guessed race, followed closely by geographical and age. But skip it.

“Olfactory mechanisms have proven important in mate seeking and reproduction in both humans and animals because smell may signal mate immunocompetence, social compatibility, or other characteristics associated with mate quality and optimal reproduction.” Cue hippy joke #1.

While you’re at it, cue the amygdala, too, a pea-sized pair of brain “organs” which, as near as I can tell, account for every single human behavior that can be studied by academics. Our authors call to it here, too.

Here’s the question: “Why and how might smell signals be linked to political ideology?” Well, smell helps “maximize prospects for disease avoidance, cheater detection, defense against out-groups, and social cohesion”. Cue hippy joke #2.

Hey, did you know that “greater disgust sensitivity, which is intimately interconnected with the neural substrates of smell, predicts more conservative positions, particularly around issues involving morality and sexual reproduction”? If this is true—and it is peer reviewed—it must imply that conservatives excel at sniffing out the cheesy arguments of their unwashed opponents.

Whatever it is is in the genes, too. “Suggestively, Hatemi et al. (2011) identified several genomic regions that account for variation in ideological orientation, one of which contained a large number of olfactory receptors.” That “suggestively” actually means, “Oooh, we hope it’s true!”

Tying it all together:

If social attitudes are linked to odor, as the literature suggests, then one mechanism that odor preferences transfer from parents to children may operate through their mother’s choice of mate. In this way, social processes may drive some of the pathways by which individuals come to prefer those whose ideological “smell” matches their own.

The Just-So stories having ended, we proceed to the experiment itself, in which “participants rated the attractiveness of the body odor of unknown strong liberals and strong conservatives”. Ten lefties and 11 righties “provided body odor samples” (“menstruating or pregnant women were excluded”). One other sample was excluded: I couldn’t discover whether it was a leftie or rightie.

Affiliation was decided by a questionnaire (7 point scale), and so was smell (5 point). On an 11-point scale, dear reader, rate your belief in the validity of these “instruments”.

Anyway, the noses went to work. Data was collected. People were thanked. Now it is here is where you would expect a simple summary, maybe some pictures, showing the distribution of smelliness broken down by the evaluators’ and targets’ political affiliations. Did the raw data reveal that leftie evaluators prefer the smell of target lefties? And did conservative evaluators dislike the smell of leftie targets?

Alas, we shall never know. For why use actual data when you can have a statistical model instead? Actually three models. Regression of course (one logistic, two Gaussian). As if the uncertainty in a 5-point smelliness scale is well approximated by a normal distribution. And what’s with shoehorning in strange terms like “absolute value of the difference between the target’s and evaluator’s ideology, multiplied by negative 1″ and “Avg. Target Attract” and “Avg. Eval. Attract”?

No wee p-values for the logistic model, but why worry when the results are “consistent with our theoretical expectations.” Sadly, consistent with is now our highest standard of evidence. Skip it.

Oh, wait, now I get it. The “absolute value of the difference between the target’s and evaluator’s ideology, multiplied by negative 1″ is what had the wee p-values, and an effect size of about 0.02. That’s for a change on a smelly scale of 1 to 5. And don’t forget the maximum political difference can only be 6, so that the maximum effect can only be 0.12. At best: if the model is good.

That’s it. That’s the study. That wee, which is to say, trivial effect confirmed by a wee p-value, all wrapped up in an inappropriate model. But the authors still say “individuals find the smell of those who are more ideologically similar to themselves more attractive than those endorsing opposing ideologies”.

The authors added a few hundred more words in an attempt to escape the obvious. They never make it. But the press believed they did.

Statistics Good, Bad & Ugly

Lee van Cleef doesn't like your models.

Lee van Cleef doesn’t like your models.

In an attempt to catch up on my 300-some emails (yes, the total has grown considerably; probably because of recent publicity), here are some articles sent in by readers that bear attention.

Wee p-value surge

From our friend John Cook, the paper (pdf) “A surge of p-values between 0.040 and 0.049 in recent decades (but negative results are increasing rapidly too)”.

Whatever the theory is, the result is that P-values are magical thinking.


Reader Al Perrella sends in “Why Psychologists’ Food Fight Matters: Important findings haven’t been replicated, and science may have to change its ways.

More wee p-values, but in disguise. The real reason for the “replication” or “reproducibility crisis” is revealed here, in The True Meaning Of Statistical Models.

Only when users of statistical models think of them, as physicists think of theirs, in a predictive sense, and thus become verifiable, will the crisis dissipate.


Perrella also sent “Placebos work — even without deception”. How does knowing you’re receiving a placebo and either getting better or not differ from not getting a known-placebo?

The headline is busted in the usual way. It makes it sound like known-placebos always work, even though in the quoted experiment it is clearly seen that they don’t.

People who beat each other have better health

Reader I. Fox writes, “Recently, BDSM practitioners have put out studies that say they have better mental health than those overall, and that, like homosexuality, is a perfectly normal behaviour. This document, written by a queer child psychiatrist (conflict of interest is noted) with the usual emotional arguments.”

The paper (pdf) is “Psychology & BDSM: Pathology or Individual Difference?” by Margaret Nichols, which opens “As a clinical psychologist, I am a member of a profession that many believe has replaced religion in its power to influence social opinion and behavior.”

And off she goes trying to influence. She calls her pals, “the kinky community.” Her “work” naturally excited the minds of those who contribute to Live Science: Bondage Benefits: BDSM Practitioners Healthier Than ‘Vanilla’ People. “[S]ome psychiatrists see the inclusion of BDSM and other kinks in the manual as stigmatizing”.

Heaven forfend perversion should be “stigmatizing.” Equality will be our death.

Don’t think so? Fox also sent this: Trans-Uterus, in which men pretending to be women are given uteruses (uterii?) and who then pretend they might get pregnant.

Which is fine. Hey, who am I to judge? But it’s not fine when you insist I pretend too. That’s tyranny.

Book recommendation

Reader Chris writes,

I’ve been reading Standard Deviations by Gary Smith, and think of your blog every time I turn a page. It’s a popular work for sure, and not very heavy on philosophy. I’m not sure if prof. Smith is a logical probabilist, or what, however he touches on so, so many topics you’ve covered over the years. Regression to the mean, the “law of averages”, Texas sharp-shooter, correlation/causation, file-drawer effect and over-certainty in general.

Among the many studies he thoroughly debunks are the “abortion leads to crime reduction”, “successful businesses become mediocre and that’s what keeps our economy running”, and “EMFs from power-lines cause cancer in children”.

You could probably finish it in a day or two. I wanted to send the recommendation your way in case you’re ever lonely and feeling quixotic about fighting this uphill battle against statistical over-certainty.

I haven’t seen it yet, but looks like it could be good.

Antibiotics linked to child obesity

The beauty of the phrase “linked to” is that it means anything you want it do. Thanks to reader Alan Watt for alerting us to the article “Children who receive a lot of antibiotics before age 2 are slightly more likely than others to become obese, a new study shows.

Slightly. Add in the model uncertainty and that due to concentrating on wee p-values and parameters and not observables and make a guess what will happen.

Highway Help!

Reader Jason asks us:

My wife, child, and myself are considering a move to a property that is approximately 860 feet from HWY 5 in San Juan Capistrano. My wife is pregnant and we have been reading about the harmful effects of living too close to a major highway.

My question is if you would consider this distance from the highway exceptionally unsafe?

Only if you play in the traffic.


More Bayes in the news, sent in by reader John B.

Harry Potter

Our friend Ye Olde Statistician alerts us to the breathless statistical study, “D​id Harry Potter Influence The Political Views of Millennials?

The right answer: probably not, but who knows?

Survey says

YOS also shows us the absurdity of surveys: “An item on the Beeb alerted me to the fact that the Danes have — yet again — scored highest in some international measurement of happiness levels.

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