William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

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Belloc On The Limited Intelligence Of Scientists

And always keep a-hold of Nurse.

From Hilaire Belloc’s Richelieu, J.B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia & Londen, 1929, p. 23, in the context of disproving the social theory of historical events, i.e. the one which claims individuals are not influential, yet somehow groupings of them are.

The conquests of physical science were due to minute and extensive observation conducted by vast numbers of men, and therefore, for the most part, by the unintelligent. Science attracted some few men of high culture and some even (much fewer) of strong reasoning power: but in themselves mere observation and comparison, the framing of hypotheses and the testing of them by experiment need no intellectual qualities above the lowest and therefore an obvious occupation for those who despise or do not grasp the use of the reason. It has even been maintained that the ceaseless practice of exact measurement dulls the brain. At any rate, the business of modern physical science was not attached to, and became more and more divorced from, philosophy—and therefore from theory which is philosophy’s guide.

But this, for the most part unintelligent, mass of observation, has led to astounding results….As a consequence, its prestige has risen prodigiously; its methods, conclusions, and much more, the moral atmosphere in which it works has affected every other art, and every other study; notably did it affect the spirit of history in the later nineteenth century.

Was this offhand comment fair then? Fair still now? Seems pretty accurate to me, and I speak of one of the fold.

Of course, the egos of scientists have done anything but shrink since these words were penned. Except for activists and politicians, no man is more ready to self congratulate himself over his profession than a scientist. Yet it takes some brains to do the routine tasks of these artisans. But maybe less than has been claimed. And, after all—and this is Belloc’s main point—facility with integration does not give one more insight into what defines the good life than do the abilities possessed by, say, carpenters.

Be sure you understand what is being criticized here. People not knowledge. Science is often spoken of by its practitioners as a thing, a real entity, and a poor one, too; one whose honor is always in dire and desperate need of defending; a damsel in acute distress, beset upon continuously by the forces of unreason. These perpetually nervous guardians are certain sure that if the percentage of the population who cannot on demand name the weight of a neutrino slips below a fixed level, then the mullahs and priests will take over and enforce blind dogma.

As if the weight of the neutrino is not dogma. And never mind that it was the theological bent of priests and Abrahamic religious which gave birth to Science, which in many cases, to this very day, was advanced by those sporting dog collars and cloaks.

Plus it’s true that in our culture kiddies grow up with the myths and legends of scientists. While everybody knows Einstein, how many can name, for instance, Aristotle? Or Bach?

Anyway: scientists. Sparkling geniuses all, or regular, somewhat tedious, folk?



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Our Brains Are Not Us: Review of Brainwashed

Scrub your mind clean

Scrub your mind clean

My nomination for Worst Use of Inference in a Scientific Paper (2009) is “The neural correlates of religious and nonreligious belief” by brain scientist cum philosopher Sam Harris and colleagues. It is a circus of manipulation, hire-wire extrapolations, a midway of rigged scientific-sounding games, and a glittering sideshow lined with colorful lights.

The lights were from a functional magnetic imaging device, or fMRI, an instrument which Sally Satel (psychiatrist) and Scott Lilienfeld (psychologist) in their terrific Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience compare to an automated phrenological machine, a contrivance which when placed in proximity to the skull is purported to reveal all secrets, desires, motivations; even to expose lies and to prove that we are nothing but wet meat machines, mere automatons.

In his three-ring work, atheist Harris puzzled over why anybody would be something as strange as a Christian. Until he hit on the idea that they didn’t have a choice. Their brains made them. The brains of believers and non-believers must be different! He set out to prove this, and by failing to distinguish between kinds of Christians and unbelievers, biased use of stimuli, and by treating believers unbelievers differently within the experiment, his fMRI “confirmed” what he hoped would be true. This delighted the press, which is always seeking to serve up sexy-sounding science which aligns with its conceits.

And there is nothing sexier than brains. Besides the granddaddy neuroscience, reporters are drawing upon the newborn bustling press-releasing fields of neuroeconomics, neuroethics, neuropolitics, neuromarketing, neurolaw, neurophilosophy, and neurotheology; and there’s surely more neurothises and neurothats on the way.

We have learned plenty that is true about the brain, but with the increasing availability and falling prices of gee-whiz instruments and the stampede of researchers into all things brain, we have also “discovered” much that is false. Satel and Lilienfeld caution that “Neuroimaging is a young science, barely out of its infancy” where “the half-life of facts can be especially brief.” Yet experiments are tripping out of labs, all caution forgotten in the desire to be there first.

A good reason for circumspection is that brain research is usually conducted on the WEIRD; or Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic, the label Joseph Henrich and colleagues in a 2010 Nature article gave to the college students who form the bulk of experimental subjects (in many fields). Henrich warned that American college kids aren’t representative of the world’s population and that conclusions gleaned from studies will be accordingly over-certain.

Studies also rely on those colorful brain scans which are not, as many think, “photographs of the brain in action in real time. Scientists can’t just look ‘in’ the brain and see what it does. Those beautiful color-dappled images are actual representations of particular areas in the brain that are working the hardest—as measured by oxygen consumption—when a subject performs a task such as reading a passage or reacting to stimuli” or when they go off script and wonder why they volunteered to be squeezed into a claustrophobia-inducing tube and told to lie as “still as a corpse” for over an hour.

This distinction is important because there is no (non-circular) way to check if a person is thinking what he is told, thus it’s only a possibility that the heavy oxygen-using regions are directed toward the specified experimental tasks. The best that can be said is the areas which glow brightly are correlated with the emotional states said to be under investigation—never minding that emotions are difficult to define, extraordinarily complex things. Is the “hate” center of the brain found in one experiment that same “hate” found in another experiment?

And then even the non-glowing regions of the brain seethe with activity. Satel and Lilienfeld quip, “The only truly silent brain is a dead brain.” They recount the now infamous experiment in which Craig Bennett and pals loaded a dead salmon (sushi grade) into an fMRI machine and asked it a series of personal questions. Yes. Behold, “a tiny area in the salmon’s brain flared to life in response to the task.” How? Because those beguiling glows are not pictures of the brain, they are the output of an immensely complex statistical model, one which is capable of falsely crying “Success!” Even worse, the already-manipulated fMRI outputs are further massaged and modeled, perhaps several times as in Harris’s work, before the experiment ends. The uncertainty present in each level of analysis is never carried forward, with the result that conclusions are stated with unwarranted confidence.

These limitations would never be guessed from the glittering prose which touts fMRIs as marketing tools, lie detectors, and identifiers of “brain disease.” Incidentally, the chapter on the science and politics of addiction as “disease” is worth the price of the book alone.

Now it gets strange. Many researchers are curiously anxious to turn fMRIs into exculpation engines. When somebody done somebody wrong, it’s not because they chose sin, it’s because (say) their amygdalae were on the fritz. The amygdala are the pair of pistachio-sized beads smack in the medial temporal lobes of the brain, and there is nothing evil an amygdala cannot do. They have been blamed for men not understanding women, why the brains of conservatives differ from whatever it is progressives carry in their noggins, racism (naturally), that women can spot snakes faster right before they menstruate, why scarier faces are scarier than non-scary faces, and on and on. Withered amygdalae are a sure sign of lack of control and reduced judgmental powers.

So perhaps it won’t surprise you to learn that I had no choice but to write this review. Maybe my amygdalae are over-sized. I didn’t want to write this—I’d rather be out for a walk—but my brain made me do it. Just as yours is making you read these words. Blame my brain for the bad jokes, too, and yours for not laughing at them. Turns out that we’re nothing but slaves to our our brains, the creatures.

Or so say folks like neurolawyers (my term) David Eagleman and Jerry Coyne, Hard Determinists and the Scrooges of neuroscience. (Recall Ebeneezer speculated that Marley was only a vision produced by “a fragment of an underdone potato.”) Hard determinists claim there is no free will, that there is no I in me, that we are nothing but perambulating bundles of chemicals following predetermined courses of action, that everything is guided by immutable, unwilled laws of physics.

Eagleman and Coyne believe that if only people knew they had no choice in their actions, then they would make better choices and thus society would be improved. Yes. They’re especially keen that criminals don’t get their comeuppance because, Coyne says, it is a “false notion that people can choose to do wrong.” They would keep punishment but jettison “retributive justice” which is “scientifically mistaken” and instead embrace “utilitarian punishment.” Makes a difference if the hangman scowls and says, “Take that you despicable rat!” or smiles and says, “It wasn’t really your fault, but we all have our roles to play” as he pulls the lever.

But hold on. If a crook was forced by rogue neurons to murder then isn’t the judge who sentences him to death obeying the irrefragable dictates of his own brain? Neurolaw accounts depressingly are one-sided: it’s the guilty who aren’t guilty and the not-guilty, society and victims, who are really at fault. Where have we heard this before?

Satel and Lilienfeld aren’t buying it. “The question whether humans can live in a material world and yet be morally responsible is not empirically testable. It is not a scientific problem.” And thus not one which can be solved by neuroscience no matter the precision of brain scans.

But you should buy it: the book I mean.


Update The End of Neuro-Nonsense: Is the age of mindless brain research already over?


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The Epidemiologist Fallacy Strikes Again. EPA, CARB, And Air Pollution

We’re regulating you for your own good (not ours)

Here is an email I received from Jim Enstrom of the Scientific Integrity Institute (modified to embed the links; incidentally, CARB is the California Air Resources Board, a source of direction and envy for the EPA. CARB has never met a regulation it didn’t like—or couldn’t find “scientific” justification for):

IMPORTANT REQUEST: Recently posted is the June 27, 2013 AJRCCM Online Article in Press on “Spatial Analysis of Air Pollution and Mortality in California” by Jerrett, et al. [Journal link]. This paper deliberately misrepresents the complete findings in the 2011 Jerrett Report, which are discussed in your October 30, 2011 Blog “A Case of Failed Peer Review: Dust and Death”. The results in the paper are particularly misrepresented for all cause mortality and the paper makes NO reference to the Jerrett Report itself. You MUST write another Blog about the dishonesty of the forthcoming Jerrett paper, which is the only document that will be cited by EPA and CARB in the future. Please call me if you want to discuss specific details.

Thanks very much for your help.

Jerrett and his fellow authors published an immense work (under CARB contract) which suffered fatally from the epidemiologist fallacy. This is when an epidemiologist says, “X causes Y” but who never—not once—measures X. He instead measures what he believes, but rarely tries proving, is a proxy to X.

And in those singular instances he does quantify the relationship of the proxy, he never carries the uncertainty of the this relationship through to his understanding of X causing Y.

Result? Rampant over-certainty, unnecessary action, strangling useless regulation. Maybe even panic in the streets. O statistics what have thy wrought!

Here’s a cute example, the title of which is explanation enough: Higher concentrations of convenience stores in the vicinity of middle schools could increase the risk of teenage students abusing alcohol, according to a National Taiwan University (NTU) study.

Jerrett et alia said that small particles in the atmosphere—no! ozone—no! nitrogen dioxide—caused early deaths. X caused Y. Problem is, they never measured, not even once, the actual exposure of any individual to dust, O3, or NO2. X went missing.

In essence, they looked back into public records and found addresses of people who may or may not still live in California and discovered how far these people lived from a highway. The (statistical) distance from the highway was said to equal the amount of exposure to pollutants. That’s the proxy. Deaths and other maladies they got from (error prone) hospital records and the like.

Most of the study was a bust, in that the proxies were not correlated with the many maladies (including death) the authors tracked. But through a bravura performance, they eventually found one model which when squeezed sufficiently produced a p-value less than the magic number.

Ladies and gentleman, all it takes for scientific success and glory is to be born with a wee p-value. I mean, born with the ability to find them.

There are three relevant posts about the Jerrett report:

  1. Criticism of Jerrett et al. CARB PM2.5 And Mortality Report. This is long and technical, but all the hard core criticisms are here. The (pro bono) paper I wrote with these criticisms (attached) was submitted to CARB for formal review.
  2. A Case Of Failed Peer Review: Dust And Death. The paper I wrote was actually reviewed at a formal CARB meeting! I was pleased. Especially when they concluded (roughly), “Since the errors made by Jerrett are made by the many researchers CARB relies upon, we’ll accept Jerrett’s findings.”
  3. CARB Misinterprets Statistics, Calls For Elimination Of Dust. CARB went ahead and told the public that it knew what it was doing.

Well, one only has so much patience. I glanced through Jerrett’s new paper and see it is much like the old. My heart at that point gave out. I’ll leave it for readers to apply the criticisms I made of the original to this pale imitation.



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What’s Happening Between Russia And The Church?

One fish running hot, straight, and normal

One fish running hot, straight, and normal

No, really. I’m asking. I don’t know but would like to. Something’s brewing, or perhaps has already brewed. Consider these points:

Item Patriarch Kirill “warned Western governments on Sunday against legalization of same-sex marriages what he called a sign of approaching end of the world…recent initiatives in a range of countries to legalize same-sex marriages ‘is a dangerous and apocalyptic symptom’ that should not spread over to Russia”. Source.

Item World leaders should unite to end anti-Christian persecution, Vladimir Putin says. “Putin praised the growth of cooperation between the Orthodox Churches and the Russian state, saying, ‘We act as genuine partners and colleagues to solve the most pressing domestic and international tasks, to implement joint initiatives for the benefit of our country and people.'”

“He added that it was the Church that was ultimately responsible for the development and rise of ‘culture and education’ in Russia over the last 1,000 years. ‘The adoption of Christianity became a turning point in the fate of our fatherland, made it an inseparable part of the Christian civilization and helped it turn into one of the largest world powers,’.”

Item Putin signs ‘gay propaganda’ ban and law criminalizing insult of religious feelings “Putin has signed two controversial laws strengthening the penalties for ‘propagating homosexuality among minors’ and for insulting people’s religious feelings in public….[and] has signed the so-called ‘gay propaganda’ bill after the upper house, the Federation Council, approved it on June 26 and the lower house, the State Duma, on June 11.”

Item Top Russian gay activist may face lawsuit for ‘obscene’ tweets to MPs. “Thirty-four-year-old Alekseyev is one of the best-known leaders of the Russian LGBT community. He runs the gayrussia.ru web portal and represents Russia in the InterPride association, which specializes in gay pride events.” Could face fine “up to 40,000 rubles (US$1,200) or up to one year of community service.”

Item Duma approves criminalization of insulting religious feelings. “The current bill is promoted by a large part of the Russian political establishment and strongly backed by the Russian Orthodox Church whose leader has publicly accused some unnamed forces of staging attacks on faith and religion in the country.”

Item 1,025 years of Christianity: Ukraine hosts Orthodox celebrations while questioning its future. “‘This day marks the unity of our peoples,’ Russian President Vladimir Putin told Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich.”

Item In Putin’s Russia, little separation between church and state. “The Russian Orthodox Church is enjoying its newfound prestige with the Russian government.”

There are dozens more like these. Most curious is Russia bucking Western culture’s trend toward government-enforced re-definitions of marriage. All enlightened peoples, save those in Russia, are submitting, many of them eagerly. (But we rarely hear about Africa and so on.)

Incidentally number one: did you see there’s two famous guys in England who are suing to force churches to perform same-sex gmarriage ceremonies? England also has close legal ties to its church. Smart money is on these guys winning.

Incidentally number two: I’ve had people here in the USA tell me, confidentially, in whispered tones, that they’re not with the program. But they don’t want the grief which comes from airing contrary opinions. They figure it’s better to ignore the whole thing.

Naturally, our press is against Russia, but only up to a point. (Journalists are nothing if not easily intimidated.) Seems to a far-off observer like myself that Putin’s manly theology is genuine. But it’s granted it might be a political ploy. Or it could be both.

But if it’s genuine on the party of its citizens, why? Why the big and growing difference? Is it just the effects of the leadership and people are used to keeping quiet in the ex-soviet paradise? Or are people genuinely reflective about these matters? I’m curious.

Ideas?



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