William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

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Probability Is Logic: Philosophy of Probability & Statistics Video Series

I’m starting—and even continuing, if there is interest—a new video series on the philosophy of probability and statistics.

Look at those retro production values! I boast of them following Julia Child who advised to say when anybody asked as pointed question about a meal, “It’s supposed to be like that.”

Probability is a matter of logic. It does not exist; it is not a physical, real thing. It measures how true one thing is with respect to another, which is to say, how true one proposition is given a set of premises or data. When premises change, so does the probability. This is demonstrated using divination stones, bwa bwei.


Note to computer geeks. I don’t have a camera, so I recorded this video with a Logitech webcam on my Kubuntu machine (the minimal Dell laptop). I tried ffmpeg, cheese, but settled on VLC for recording. I had endless difficulties with the audio being out of sync with the video, a very common problem. Except for the tip to install everything related to gstreamer, searching for solutions did not help. Everything failed.

Finally I recognized that the audio was jumping each time the computer dimmed its screen, which it did automatically at stated intervals. So I switched off of the power management and found joy.

I used kdelive to edit the video, and to the best of my ability compensated for the fluctuating white balance and other imperfections. Many flaws remain, as is obvious. Including the frightening mien of the presenter. But life is imperfect.

On Intelligence & Religiosity

A girl with a flying spaghetti monster on her head. Wow, must she be smart!

Take a pencil and paper—do this—and write down the most intelligent people who have ever lived. Most brilliant in any field of endeavor, now. Who were the best of us? Make it at least twenty entries. Don’t peek below until you’ve finished.

Done? First thing is to count how many in your tally have died in the last, say, fifty to one-hundred years. Anything more than about ten-percent proves you are a product of a stunted educational system and that your opinions about what follows aren’t worth diddly. You folks, wounded as you are, just sit back and listen.

Those who you found yourselves counting women or non-whites, please click here and have a nice day.

Now that that’s settled, time for the test. How many of your luminaries believed in God? That’s right: most, probably all. What can we glean from this? First, that you could have multiplied this list many times and have come to the same conclusion. Second, that many, many of those far above us believed in a metaphysics shockingly disjoint from the one au courant.

Far from being humbled by these observations, modern skeptics might claim, “Culture! These fellows existed in times where it was considered acceptable and normal to be believers. Thus they believed; why, they even used their intelligence to justify their believing.”

That so? Well, today many of the bright claim to be non-believers, and if the skeptic is right about people being at least partly a reflection of their culture, then non-believers are so because of culture. It’s cool to be a non-believer, even mandatory in the sense that metaphysical talk is unwelcome at social gatherings, especially in academia. What’s more fun to join a campus group of “free thinkers” to giggle about flying spaghetti monsters and coming to agreement about how much smarter the group is than those foolish and stupid believers?

Enter the peer-reviewed paper “The Relation Between Intelligence and Religiosity: A Meta-Analysis and Some Proposed Explanations” by Miron Zuckerman, Jordan Silberman, and Judith A. Hall in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review.

This was a “meta-analysis”, i.e. a disreputable conglomeration of other studies which hopes to prove what the individual studies could not. This meta-analysis “showed a significant negative association between intelligence and religiosity.” They mean “significant” in the wee p-value sense and not in any real consequence. And by “association” they mean linear correlation, the weakest and least generalizable of all statistical measures.

The individual studies cobbled into one were extremely heterogeneous, too, using a wide range of “intelligence” measures: GPA, syllogism tests, “Immediate free recall” exams, Peabody picture tests, and on and on. How did the authors compensate for these differences? Answer: they did not. This is proof enough the meta-analysis is of little to no worth. But academics are no easily discouraged, and onwards they plowed to measure religiosity. Which, again, was measured in a huge variety of ways and left uncorrected and uncontrolled in the meta-analysis. Thus there is no reason whatsoever to look at any of the numerical results, as they have no meaning.

It is still interesting to exmaine the explanations the authors put to these numbers, as these tell us a great deal about the culture which drives disbelief, particularly the modern trend in which non-believers boast (endlessly) of their brilliance. Many atheists, proving their tone-deafness, even call themselves “brights”.

The authors of the paper claim “intelligent people are less likely to conform and, thus, are more likely to resist religious dogma”. The first clause is false. Intelligent people are people and, as we’ve already agreed, are as likely as other people to conform to the culture about them. On campus, this culture is atheistic and anti-religious.

The second “finding”—which you’ll notice cannot be derived from the data the authors use, but must be assumed—“intelligent people tend to adopt an analytic (as opposed to intuitive) thinking style, which has been shown to undermine religious beliefs.” This implies religious people do not adopt analytic thinking “styles”, which is false; and it is also false that thinking analytically undermines religious beliefs. We proved this with the lists we all wrote.

Their last speculation: “several functions of religiosity, including compensatory control, self-regulation, self-enhancement, and secure attachment, are also conferred by intelligence.” This is plain nonsense. Intelligence by itself does nothing, as should be obvious even to an academic. It’s the uses to which intelligence is put that matters.

The real finding? Academics never recognize their own biases.

Update I had thought it obvious, but…the lesson to be had in writing the names of our betters was humility. It was (I thought) not a definitive proof that the smartest, brightest, most intelligent, and most capable people of all time were believers that therefore God exists. But it should make us moderns (you would have supposed) far less cocky.


Thanks to Twitter user Intrepid Wanders ‏@intrepidwanders who told me of this study.

Researchers Invent Exciting New Disease: Poverty Blindness

Test yourself today!

Test yourself today!

There must soon come a day at The Onion, the satirical newspaper, when the editors will gather in bewilderment and say to each other, “Fellas, there’s no use. The real headlines are more preposterous than any we can write. Time to close up shop, sit back, and watch civilization crumble from a safe distance.”

If the new peer-reviewed paper by William Ventres and Geoff Gusoff entitled “Poverty Blindness: Exploring the Diagnosis and Treatment of an Epidemic Condition“, published in that notable organ the Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, is any indication that day is coming soon, soon.

Now these gentlemen, as near as I can tell, appear to be great, big-hearted guys. I mean this. They are from El Salvador, a country which knows genuine, heart-breaking poverty, not the kind we have here where many of “the poor” have houses, cars, cell phones, enormous televisions, and much else. No, Ventres and Gusoff are concerned, as they should be, as we should all be, as we must be, about grinding, life-threatening, despair-inducing, lifetime poverty.

It is true and sickening that poverty, as they say, is “one of the central dramas of human history.” But is it also so that “Poverty is pervasive yet little noticed due to the marginalization of those who endure it”? This is doubtful; no, false. “The poor” are constantly in the public eye. (What’s missing are poor people.) But not in El Salvador, a place where evasion of the truly poor “is virtually impossible.”

Since this is so—since everybody sees poor people—but poverty is still present, there must be a reason for its continuance. Why? Because one of the central myths of the Enlightenment is that once somebody’s “awareness” of some problem is “raised”, i.e. once they are educated, the problem is supposed to evaporate as if by magic. If not, if the problem persists, it can only be because evil forces block the magic.

In this case, the evil is disease: “Poverty Blindness”. It, and the “closely related condition of Poverty Acuity Disorder (PAD)”. “People with Poverty Acuity Disorder see that poverty exists, but are unable to focus on its presence.”

Now “Absolute [Poverty Blindness] is rare”. Unfortunately “PAD in its various gradations exists in epidemic proportions.” What is a cause of PB? Money: “with significant monetary wealth are most often affected by PB, and the incidence of PB declines as accumulated net worth declines.”

What’s most worrisome is that this disease attacks not only individuals, but “Institutions and entire collective entities”, too. That finding alone is worthy of a Nobel prize, because no other known disease infects any but people one by one.

Poverty Blindness causes “lack of compassion”, leading to symptoms which include “lacking generosity, displaying distrust, being disobliged to help, exhibiting unethical behavior, and using common exculpatory mechanisms (including outright falsehoods).”

Is it catching? Yes. “Hereditary PB” exists, as does “Structural PB” (when entire societies are infected). And get ready for this. There is such a thing as “Academic PB“! And it come in two types.

Type I afflicts primarily scholars who work only with statistics disembodied from the people they purport to represent. Type II exists when financially well-endowed institutions of higher education, despite hosting poverty eradication initiatives among students, have overall cultures that ignore poverty.

This must be the reason so many statistical studies go off the rails!

There are other forms, but the worst and most intransigent manifestation is Malignant PB, which has two forms. “Gated MPB”, where the suffering isolate themselves, and “Savagely Capitalistic MPB” which applies to all those corporations whcih aren’t making really cool toys.

Our authors are developing a clinical test of PB, but they note that PB is associated with the maladies of “classism, racism, sexism…, and elitism.” Be on the lookout.

Treatment? Shock. No, really. “Exposure to catastrophic unforeseen events may be therapeutic.” If you suspect your patient suffers from PB, ship him off to Syria or decamp him to the side of an active volcano. Unfortunately, “the effects of these moments, however, rapidly fade from consciousness; such events are frequently considered temporary oddities of nature irrelevant to day-to-day life.”

That means the only true cure is—wait for it, wait for it—revolution. “Revolutionary efforts to restructure society…rapidly and unexpectedly bring poverty into one’s field of vision.”

What else can one say but ¡Viva la Revolución!

Scientists Discover Men Enjoy Looking At Women’s Breasts.

The Mandarin word for bear if not given the proper tone sounds just like breast. Be careful at the zoo saying What a pretty bear!

Regular readers will recall there are two main kinds of bad statistics. First is when the technique has been done wrong or is misapplied. Errors of this kind comprise only half of all mistakes. The second, and more subtly nefarious, and just as pervasive, is where researchers announce they have used “science” to “discover” that which everybody already knew was true.

Nefarious because it strengthens or inculcates the bizarre and horrible fallacy that true knowledge can only come from science. That is, bad statistics of the second kind boosts scientism and makes scidolators of us all.

Our latest entry is Sarah Gervais, Arianne Holland, and the (given he has two female co-authors, presumably slavering) Michael D. Dodd in their peer-reviewed paper “My Eyes Are Up Here: The Nature of the Objectifying Gaze Toward Women” in the aptly named journal Sex Roles.

Here is the blockbuster opening sentence of the Abstract. Pay attention:

Although objectification theory suggests that women frequently experience the objectifying gaze with many adverse consequences, there is scant research examining the nature and causes of the objectifying gaze for perceivers.

Everything that can go wrong already has, which must set a mark or goal for other researchers to follow. Objectification theory? As the modern aphorism in the right-hand sidebar to this webpage indicates, “The love of theory is the root of all evil.” Only an academic could be puzzled enough that men look at women lovingly and in lust to create a theory of such behavior.

And then comes the “adverse consequences.” Like marriage? The joy, the bliss, the beautiful heartbreak from raising families? I can confess to you, my dear readers, that I first gave a serious eye to the female to whom I eventually plighted my troth. Of course there are also brutes and cads and construction-worker fashion critics, the men who, when they digress, should be instructed by gentlemen. But don’t forget those who gaze in rapturous silence. The mating process is imperfect. Human beings outside the academy understand this.

Our trio, relying on theory which comes before observations, pretend to believe two things which are blatantly false. First, that nobody knows men actually look at women in practice and that “data” is needed to confirm the theory. And second, that a theory is needed to explain this.

There is little point to surveying the “study” they did, but in brief, they used Photoshop to doctor the pictures of women to represent “cultural ideals of feminine attractiveness to varying degrees”. Now one wonders from where did they derive these cultural ideals except through the observations which they say have not yet happened? Never mind. Here are the body types:

high ideal (i.e., hourglass-shaped women with large breasts and small waist-to-hip ratios), average ideal (with average breasts and average waist-to-hip ratios), and low ideal (i.e., with small breasts and large waist-to-hip ratios).

Lo! Men preferred the hourglasses. A wee p-value confirmed this “finding”, or “discover”, if you prefer. That was the “main hypothesis.” Hypothesis forsooth!

And there were secondary “findings.” They “found that participants focused on women’s chests and waists more and faces less when they were appearance-focused (vs. personality-focused).” In other words, men gave the bodies of the pictures on the computer screen the once over before taking a gander at the faces. Who could have guessed? Well, everybody.

The researchers also were shocked—shocked!—to learn that women acted the same as men and that women were (to coin a word) judgmental. Golly.

But enough. Because we are now at the last sentence of the abstract, where all the errors above are compounded and multiplied. “Implications for objectification and person perception theories are discussed.” Person perception theories? This at least explains what academics do with their plentiful free time. They make up stuff to study.

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