William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Page 145 of 572

Sam Harris’s Moral Landscape Challenge: Win Big Money!

Can you guess his secret?

Brother Luís Dias informs us that arch-atheist Sam Harris has thrown down the silken gauntlet. Pfffssshh! Or maybe it’s pfffthclunk? Because this one’s stuffed full of hope—to the tune of twenty large.

I neither joke nor jest: “hope” is the right word. For his glove is only potentially a Christmas stocking. More likely he’ll give away only a tenth the promised amount.

To explain. Harris is having a contest, inviting refutations of the central thesis to his The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. He says that if anybody can convince him, he’ll publicly recant his error and fork over the twenty gees. But in a fit of magnanimity, even if he doesn’t allow himself to see his mistakes, he’ll still sign a check for two thousand and publish the winning essay on his website.

The only dueling tool you’re allowed is one-thousand spare English words. Never mind it took Harris over fifty times that many. Which he used to entangle himself in a dense thicket of fallacy. So be of good cheer: a blade is a quicker and cleaner kill than a bludgeon. (Look at those metaphors fly!)

Here’s what you have to disprove:

Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds—and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe. Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, fully constrained by the laws of Nature (whatever these turn out to be in the end). Therefore, there must be right and wrong answers to questions of morality and values that potentially fall within the purview of science. On this view, some people and cultures will be right (to a greater or lesser degree), and some will be wrong, with respect to what they deem important in life.

Anybody else notice that he started with an unjustified—and false—premise? Utilitarianism is one of philosophy’s walking dead. It was slain long ago, yet the damn thing doesn’t have the good sense—or taste—to fall down. Skip it. For now.

Harris provides himself a FAQ, of which the most interesting question is this:

2. Can you give some guidance as to what you would consider a proper demolition of your thesis?

If you show that my “worst possible misery for everyone” argument fails, or that other branches of science are self-justifying in a way that a science of morality could never be, or that my analogy to a landscape of multiple peaks and valleys is fundamentally flawed, or that the fact/value distinction holds in a way that I haven’t yet understood—you stand a very good chance of torpedoing my argument and changing my mind.

Notice he says only a “good chance”. Harris isn’t his own judge. He tapped fellow ardent atheist Russell Blackford who will judge the submissions and “evaluate” Harris’s response. Best of Irish Luck, Rusty. Hope you don’t need sleep. (Prediction: since this contest is on the internet, more judges will be recruited.)

Smart money says Harris won’t acknowledge his errors. He’ll have to pony up the two thousand (only one of which is from him; the other half of both prizes came from a secret admirer), but unless a miracle occurs best guess is he remains status quo ante contest. So let’s pray for that miracle. They happen.

I tease Harris, but at least a thou. of his own? Boy! Plus—salute the man!—he’s got the guts to do this in public. Even if he leaves on his blinders, there’s all those souls who will read the exchange and find happiness. Man, I’m so stoked about the whole thing that I vow to buy Harris a massive glass of Château Thames Embankment if ever we should meet (all I can afford; he can swap it for beer). I say this even though his statistics are rotten.

Who besides me is entering?

Here are his Official Rules. Submissions will be accepted here the week of February 2-9, 2014.

Postscript I’m not going to post my winning (or winnable) essay here until February 10th.


20% Of Scientists To Jump Ship Because Of Sequestration

Tell us your woes.

According to Huffington Post, 20% of the country’s scientists will jump on the nearest cargo ship and head for points unknown because the government slowed its rate of increase in spending. So distraught are the whitecoats over the increase in the NIH budget—a small increase was reported to be a “drying up of resources”—that they’re ready to leave everything behind and begin anew in some foreign land.

Pity them!

The huffy reporter got his facts from a survey put out by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology entitled Unlimited Potential, Vanishing Opportunity, the conclusion of which is:

We strongly urge the federal government to overturn sequestration and return to a strong, sustained investment in scientific research.

They reached that scientific conclusion by asking about 3,700 researchers, “Would you like more money?” Kidding!

They queried scientists from “many” fields; actually, over 90% were biologists of one kind or another, the majority of which lived on soft money. “Soft money” means “writing grants” for a living. And that largely means petitioning various Government agencies for two kinds of funds: (1) salary and supplies for the scientists, (2) “overhead” for the deans and administrators.

Overhead? That’s the (roughly) twenty to sixty percent of the grant total tacked on at the end and which greases the wheels of the system. Some of the overhead pays the light bills and so forth, but some of it is shunted into “projects” thought important by administrators. The money to pay the fifth Office of Diversity Control has to come from somewhere, after all. Skip it.

Why the concern? According to the ASBMB itself (p. 6), “While the actual budgets of most research funding agencies have increased slightly…” there’s actually been some kind of decrease. If you squint. They didn’t like this, and they didn’t think others would, either. So off they went on their survey hunt.

A lot of their scientists said they spent more time writing grants and that the grants they eventually won are thinner than before (Qs 6-10). Though anecdotal, this is probably true. But what the ASBMB neglects to say is that the number of scientists competing for the trough increased, especially in matters biological. PhDs are churned out as if from an assembly line; postdocs wander hopefully from institute to institute. Some scientists even turn to writing blogs and private consulting. Only so many can feed off a finite number of governmental teats.

Then came the soul searching. Consider this puzzler: “[Question] 12. If funding was abundant, do you believe there are new frontiers in scientific research that we would be exploring that we are not now? What are they?” They parlayed the answers to that into the conclusion that funding must be ever increased for “American scientists to continue to make the discoveries that improve our lives.” The press liked that one.

Question “14. Growth in the federal investments in scientific research is necessary to maintain a vibrant and productive American research enterprise.” Is it only curmudgeonly independents who would disagree with this?

My favorite: “13. Minimal growth in the federal budgets for science research over the last several years has damaged the American research enterprise.” Notice that the growth that everybody experienced is built into the question.

They didn’t ask this question, “How much growth is enough?” Why? Because it’s a trick. Enough is never enough.

But the question generating the most buzz was 10: What about all this, eh? 3% said they lost a job, but 45% said they knew the friend of a friend who’s brother knew a guy who lost his job. More kidding! The 45% said they personally knew somebody who was canned. Maybe so. But did these folks find another government-funded job? Or did they have to stoop to working for a corporation?

More gloom: 36% said they knew somebody who will lose their job. How do they know this and is it true? Never mind.

The biggest headlines (here and here) came from the 18% (not 20%) who agreed “I am considering continuing my research career in another country.” Since this is a family blog, I can’t use the phrase that naturally comes to mind, though I can give you a hint: its initials are B and S.

If these guys are going to go, then adieu, adiós, sayonara, so long, etc. But how many actually will wake up from their daydream and snatch up their passports? Close to none. And the handful that flee will be replaced faster (yes) than they can quit.

What a goofy survey.


The 0.3% “Consensus”—Guest Post by Christopher Monckton of Brenchley

Vaguely related image of clouds, which are part of our climate.

A major peer-reviewed paper by four senior researchers has exposed grave errors in an earlier paper in a new and unknown journal that had claimed a 97.1% scientific consensus that Man had caused at least half the 0.7 Co global warming since 1950.

A tweet in President Obama’s name had assumed that the earlier, flawed paper, by John Cook and others, showed 97% endorsement of the notion that climate change is dangerous:

Ninety-seven percent of scientists agree: #climate change is real, man-made and dangerous. [Emphasis added]

The new paper by the leading climatologist Dr David Legates and his colleagues, published in the respected Science and Education journal, now in its 21st year of publication, reveals that Cook had not considered whether scientists and their published papers had said climate change was “dangerous”.

The consensus Cook considered was the standard definition: that Man had caused most post-1950 warming. Even on this weaker definition the true consensus among published scientific papers is now demonstrated to be not 97.1%, as Cook had claimed, but only 0.3%.

Only 41 out of the 11,944 published climate papers Cook examined explicitly stated that Man caused most of the warming since 1950. Cook himself had flagged just 64 papers as explicitly supporting that consensus, but 23 of the 64 had not in fact supported it.

This shock result comes scant weeks before the United Nations’ climate panel, the IPCC, issues its fifth five-yearly climate assessment, claiming “95% confidence” in the imagined—and, as the new paper shows, imaginary—consensus.

Climate Consensus and ‘Misinformation': a Rejoinder to ‘Agnotology, Scientific Consensus, and the Teaching and Learning of Climate Change’ decisively rejects suggestions by Cook and others that those who say few scientists explicitly support the supposedly near-unanimous climate consensus are misinforming and misleading the public.

Dr Legates said: “It is astonishing that any journal could have published a paper claiming a 97% climate consensus when on the authors’ own analysis the true consensus was well below 1%.

“It is still more astonishing that the IPCC should claim 95% certainty about the climate consensus when so small a fraction of published papers explicitly endorse the consensus as the IPCC defines it.”

Dr Willie Soon, a distinguished solar physicist, quoted the late scientist-author Michael Crichton, who had said: “If it’s science, it isn’t consensus; if it’s consensus, it isn’t science.” He added: “There has been no global warming for almost 17 years. None of the ‘consensus’ computer models predicted that.”

Dr William Briggs, “Statistician to the Stars”, said: “In any survey such as Cook’s, it is essential to define the survey question very clearly. Yet Cook used three distinct definitions of climate consensus interchangeably. Also, he arbitrarily excluded about 8000 of the 12,000 papers in his sample on the unacceptable ground that they had expressed no opinion on the climate consensus. These artifices let him reach the unjustifiable conclusion that there was a 97.1% consensus when there was not.

“In fact, Cook’s paper provides the clearest available statistical evidence that there is scarcely any explicit support among scientists for the consensus that the IPCC, politicians, bureaucrats, academics and the media have so long and so falsely proclaimed. That was not the outcome Cook had hoped for, and it was not the outcome he had stated in his paper, but it was the outcome he had really found.”

Christopher Monckton of Brenchley, an expert reviewer for the IPCC’s imminent Fifth Assessment Report, who found the errors in Cook’s data, said: “It may be that more than 0.3% of climate scientists think Man caused at least half the warming since 1950. But only 0.3% of almost 12,000 published papers say so explicitly. Cook had not considered how many papers merely implied that. No doubt many scientists consider it possible, as we do, that Man caused some warming, but not most warming.

“It is unscientific to assume that most scientists believe what they have neither said nor written.”

Further information from Dr. David Legates: +1 302 831 4920, legates@udel.edu


Briggs now.

Newer readers might like to browse my classic collection of climate posts, where I show the statistical evidence for rampant global warming is not sufficient to conclude the end is nigh.

For those without a scorecard, the ordering of papers went like this:

—Cook, J., Nuccitelli, D., Green, S. A., Richardson, M., Winkler, B., Painting, R., et al. (2013). Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature. Environmental Research Letters, 8, 024024.

—Legates, D. R., Soon, W., & Briggs, W. M. (2013). Learning and teaching climate science: The perils of consensus knowledge using agnotology. Science & Education, 22, 2007–2017.

—Bedford, D., & Cook, J. (2013). Agnotology, scientific consensus, and the teaching and learning of climate change: A response to Legates, Soon and Briggs. Science & Education, 22, 2019–2030.

—Us (2013). Climate Consensus and ‘Misinformation': A Rejoinder to Agnotology, Scientific Consensus, and the Teaching and Learning of Climate Change. Science & Education, DOI 10.1007/s11191-013-9647-9.

The abstract of the latter (I added carriage returns for readability):

Agnotology is the study of how ignorance arises via circulation of misinformation calculated to mislead. Legates et al. (Sci Educ 22:2007–2017, 2013) had questioned the applicability of agnotology to politically-charged debates. In their reply, Bedford and Cook (Sci Educ 22:2019–2030, 2013), seeking to apply agnotology to climate science, asserted that fossil-fuel interests had promoted doubt about a climate consensus.

Their definition of climate ‘misinformation’ was contingent upon the post-modernist assumptions that scientific truth is discernible by measuring a consensus among experts, and that a near unanimous consensus exists. However, inspection of a claim by Cook et al. (Environ Res Lett 8:024024, 2013) of 97.1 % consensus, heavily relied upon by Bedford and Cook, shows just 0.3 % endorsement of the standard definition of consensus: that most warming since 1950 is anthropogenic.

Agnotology, then, is a two-edged sword since either side in a debate may claim that general ignorance arises from misinformation allegedly circulated by the other. Significant questions about anthropogenic influences on climate remain. Therefore, Legates et al. appropriately asserted that partisan presentations of controversies stifle debate and have no place in education.

Lastly, a full disclosure. Despite being willing, and even eager to, Yours Truly has never accepted—nor even been offered!—any consideration of any kind from anybody for his work on climatology. Except, after graduate school, one small honorarium for a speech I also delivered to the American Meteorology Society (showing hurricanes are not about to overrun us). Indeed, the AMS is still after me for page charges for a paper I wrote on the side when I was a grad student. Contrast this with the hundreds of thousands to millions “consensus” scientists receive for their work. And then recall the genetic fallacy.


Monday Mail

Incest can be swell.


I’m several hundred emails behind. This weekend, always the slowest of the year, allowed me to catch up some. I appreciate very much all the missives and apologize if everybody doesn’t get a timely reply. My backlog of story ideas—which I am thrilled you all send in—goes back to 2011. All great, meaty ideas. Keep ‘em comin’!

To help catch up, I’m going all British style for a few running Mondays, with brief quips and links.

Note: unless you tell me not to, I assume it’s okay to say who sent what.

Krauss comes out for brotherly & sisterly love

“Nothing” specialist Larry Krauss (@LKrauss1), über-skeptic, recently said “It is not clear for me that incest is wrong.” It’s also not clear to him that something is not nothing. He stubbornly will not acknowledge that the “laws” of physics, quantum mechanical fields, and the “multi-verse” is not nothing. My bet is he knows of his critics but is too vain to admit to error.

Incest, says he, is an “empirical taboo”, meaning “most cultures” shun it because incestual matings result in politicians and other genetic defectives. Yet that only pushes the problem back a level. Why is having defectives wrong? And why is whatever reason you have for that right or wrong? No: you always end up flapping in the breeze; unless, that is, you can build morality on a solid foundation. “Nothing” holds nothing up. Being Itself can support everything.

Watch the video. He’s okay with a brother and sister going at it, as long as they use contraception and as long as they “love” each other and that their behavior “doesn’t affect anything else.”

Incest clip sent in by Anonymous.

Iowa Democrats Thank Not God

Iowa Democrats thanked “God” for abortions.

We give thanks, oh Lord, for the doctors, both current and future, who provide quality abortion care…

Today we pray for the families who have chosen. May they know the blessing of choice…

We pray for women who have been made afraid by their paternalistic religion.

I think these ladies are on their way to Switzerland.

Found this myself.

Bill Watterson Abides

Cartoon, via Mark Shea.

Nut Nudges

Cass Sunstein, yet another of Obama’s retired “czars” and now “Harvard” professor, thinks people don’t “fear” global warming enough.

Sunstein thinks that even though global warming has not yet struck, it will. With a vengeance! It will be Sharknado City all over the place. If only we could get people to believe! We must overcome common sense and the plain evidence of a steady thermometer and assure them that if only we increase the size, scope, and power of government, all will be well.

It’s not clear, but it looks like Sunstein wants to create a government agency which will hide agents behind bushes dressed like global warming. Whenever citizens pass by, they’d jump out and frighten the begeebers out of them. And thus, in their induced nervousness, vote for the Establishment in greater numbers.

All above me, but then, as I said, Sunstein is at “Harvard”, which makes what he says gospel.

Sent in by Willie Soon.

Guns reduce crime?

Take the headline “Harvard gun study concludes gun bans don’t reduce the murder rate.” I haven’t looked at his, and probably won’t, except to note that everywhere this appeared it had a headline which mentioned the place of origin of the authors.

Is it a case of “It’s Harvard, gosh” or “I thought all the profs at Harvard were unthinking, reflexive lefties, all of whom despise guns and freedom, so this new gun stuff must be true”? Or it is the standard appeal to authority fallacy? You tell me.

Sent by Al Perrella.

SSM is too political

Not as in exceedingly, but as in “It is, too!” Proof? The organization to be least affected and indeed likely to suffer a lack of clients, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, felt it had to issue an “official endorsement.

Abolish gender!

A substantial and growing proportion of the professoriate ready to chuck out science and embrace lunacy in the goal of not hurting feelings. Take Dr Russell Luyt, a specialist in gender and identity at Anglia Ruskin University, who said

Gender is another social category, like race or social class. It remains something we consider important in differentiating between people.

My feeling is that gender is a social construct, something that we have imagined into being. It’s not real but it has a real importance in terms of how we act and feel and behave.

One interesting question is why even ask it in the first place and what makes it an important category for birth certificates?

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