William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

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Party’s Over, Baby: The Twilight of Abundance Reviewed

Not quite the end of the world.

The Twilight of Abundance: Why Life in the 21st Century Will Be Nasty, Brutish, and Short by David Archibald, visiting Fellow Institute of World Politics.

I am a curmudgeon, which is to say, a realist. Curmudgeons get a rough deal from society. Most think us permanently grimaced gloomy sourpusses whose only pleasures come from yelling at kids to get off our lawns and from contemplating the various awful ways the world will come to its inevitable and well-deserved end.

This is unfair. We are all those things, yes, but we are also healthy, robust souls. The inner peace which is a natural consequence of being right all the time—“I told you so” is ever on our lips—is why we live so long.

David Archibald is one of us, long may he live.

The good times, says he, the times of plenty and unbridled optimism, the times of cheap energy and unlimited economic growth, the times of warm summer afternoons and surplus crops, are over. What can we look forward to? Intemperate, possibly much colder, weather, failed crops, localized starvation, demographic collapse, mechanized theological disputes, increasing tribalization, wars of territorial conquest, societal conflicts, inflation, governmental encroachment—in other words, a return to normalcy. The End of History is not yet.

What can we do about it? Not much.

There is where Archibald excels. In the same manner as John Derbyshire’s classic We Are Doomed, Archibald sees no simple—read “ideological”—solutions, or, indeed, any solutions. He never, not even once, is tempted to say if only. If only everybody believed X, the world would be saved. If only the government acted, the world would be saved. If only if only. The closest he comes is to softly plead for government to get out of the way and let people figure things out for themselves. Which none of us think will happen.

Derbyshire showed us how Western culture will die (suicide), and Archibald outlines how the rest of the world will fare in the areas of climate, food, and political relations.

The frenzy that was Global Warming, which Archibald rightly calls a “millenarian cult”, is on its last legs. The notorious Climategate emails convinced all but bug-eyed zealots that the “peer-reviewed” “science” was largely a political concoction (Archibald provides a nice summary). The reason global warming was so eagerly embraced is because supporters loved the consequences—government should grow to handle the “crisis”—and because of religion—Gaia was pure until the cancer Man infected it, etc., etc.

Climate models have predicted temperatures that would go up, up, and away! Too bad for the models that the actual temperatures went the opposite direction (for almost 20 years now). Normally scientists abandon models which give failed predictions. When they don’t, which they haven’t, we’re right to suspect they’re not doing science.

Belief in manmade global warming depends on acting as if the laws of physics are suspended and we are living in a special time in which the climate is changing apart from the hand on man. In a sense we are actually living in a special time relative to the last 3 million years. The special time we live in is an interglacial period—a temporary respite in that ice age.

Archibald thinks the cool weather is caused by the sun, particularly the sunspot cycle, which has been shown to have a correlation with global temperatures. Periods with high numbers of sunspots are on average warmer: the last peak coincided with an increased temperature in the late 1990s, early 2000s (also the height of global warming panic). Periods with low numbers are on average colder. The correlation has proved regular and historically consequential.

We’re in a low period now, and, sure enough, it’s been a long cold winter. This low period is expected to last (according to reasonably good forecasts) for another one to two decades. And did I mention that another glaciation is on the way because of the earth’s orbital changes? It’ll be some time before it gets here, but the trend is down. Don’t put away the snow shovels.

Update [I goofed and mixed up volcanoes: Laki was in 1783 and caused grief, but the real ones was Tambora.] Then there was the Year Without A Summer, caused in 1816, eruption of Tambora. The dust blocked the summer sunlight and it never did get warm in the Northern hemisphere that year. Volcanoes do what volcanoes do, even in the presence of beneficent governments. The danger is that, if the sunspot-cold weather forecast is right and a volcano pops off, we could be in some pretty deep kimchee. The chance of this happening nobody knows. But even without the volcano, we should see colder weather.

That means smaller crop yields. Not such a big deal for countries like Canada (Archibald is never flustered and recommends they shift to winter wheat), USA, China, Russia, and a few others which provide enough for their citizens. But for a whole swath of nations which buy much of their food, there will be trouble. Here is a list of countries which import about two-thirds or more of their food: Afghanistan, Egypt, Yemen, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Israel, Iraq, Iran. No curmudgeon worthy of his title will need more information than this. Readers who are still progressives will have to buy Archibald’s book to learn the exciting details.

Archibald reminds, “The world’s last major starvation event was the Indian drought of 1967, which killed about 1 million people.” He means the last weather-caused event. China holds the record, with Russia right behind, of killings by government; a good order-of-magnitude guess is 100 million slaughtered in the name of Equality (about these countries, more in a moment). Ireland also had notable troubles due to crop failures, and everyone knows about Africa. The takeaway point is the curmudgeon’s rule-of-thumb: if it happened before, it will happen again, and it’ll probably be worse.

When country A has something country B wants, like food or land, and country B doesn’t want to part with it, country A, if sufficiently emboldened, might try and seize the thing against country B’s wishes. Right, Vladimir? Or it could be that country A simply hates country B, or that country A wants to build up his street cred.

If shortages of energy and food appear, which is a good bet at least at regional levels, then troubles will begin. Add to that Iran’s hatred of Israel, China smarting from what they see as a hundred-some years of taking it in the neck from the world (Opium Wars, foreign support of Chiang Kai-shek, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, etc., etc.), Japan still feeling its oats (one last hurrah before the nurseries close forever?), Pakistan displeased with India and Afghanistan (“In what [in 1971] was called Operation Searchlight, the Pakistani army duly killed 3 million people in what is now Bangladesh”; if it happened before…), and don’t let’s forget Africa and the recommunisation of South America. Venezuelans are already forced to stand in food lines.

Archibald outlines various scenarios for the fun which awaits us, including an eleven-page Tom-Clancy-like account from Wing Commander Peter Mills (Royal Australian Air Force) of how China might unleash its inner dragon. It’s even money whether Iran or Pakistan is the first to use nukes, though it would be foolish to count the Middle Kingdom out.

How much oil is left? Nobody knows. A hint might be that production peaked a few years back. One reason is the old wells, of course, must eventually run low, and even dry. A second is an amok environmental movement which has put a halt to new drilling, has frightened governments into believing coal and natural gas will cause catastrophic global warming, has effectively barred investments in coal-to-liquid and natural gas technologies, and so on.

How about nuclear—boo!—power? Environmentalists can’t even hear that word—nuclear: boo!—without shivering out of their socks. Fukushima didn’t help proponents, either. I happened to be in San Francisco right after the plant popped off and witnessed a run on iodized salt in Chinatown. Blue cans of salt were rolling down Stockton street as people tore into boxes of the stuff. The frenzy was the direct fault of this country’s Surgeon General warning people that radiation—boo!—was on its way and that taking iodized salt was a good precaution. Too bad the statistics show radiation isn’t as harmful as Hollywood thinks, and is probably even beneficial at low levels.

The best route to energy “independence” is a government which gets out of the way of innovation. Good work is being done with thorium reactors, but you rarely hear of it. Instead we get an EPA (which arms its agents) which, while protecting puddles as “wet lands”, touts wind farms (Bye Bye Birdie) and electric cars. We also turn a good portion of our food into “clean” fuel.

A nice touch of Archibald’s is opening each chapter with a quotation from the Revelation of St John. This puts the reader in the right frame of mind—melancholy. This is the curmudgeon’s natural state, and so we find ourselves nodding when he concludes, “The age of abundance is now long over, and a much darker future awaits the unprepared.”

Will we, now suitably warned, thus prepare ourselves?

Of course not.

Update Lest the state sink its icy claws into me, I hereby inform you that Archibald kindly gave me a copy of his book.

Update Archibald an alarmist? Good grief! I would have thought regular readers would have been the first to agree that all is not well in the world.

Their Science Or Ours

Kill kill kill kill kill.

Jim Fedako (who wrote this piece; send him email) is a business analyst and homeschooling father of seven who lives in Lewis Center, OH.

To state the obvious: Briggs is a petty bourgeois pedant and moralista parasitic excrescence. Even a cursory review of his moral effluvia shows him chewing the rags of absolutist ethics and eternal truths, revealing him as nothing more than a vulgar philistine spewing ideas that colonize the masses and ignore the only end that needs no justification: the liberation of mankind.

The reader shouts, “Enough with the Marxist rhetoric!” But those ideas are not exclusively Marxian dialectics. They are, in fact, an admixture of Marxist and progressive nonsense—the writings of Lenin, Trotsky, and John Dewey, the progressive philosopher, academic, and father of modern education in the US.1

In his recent post, “Global Warming Hanger-On Says Ends Justify The Means,” Briggs noted that, “A progressive is an academic who looks upon a fallen world and would fix it by Theory, by preaching that the ends justify the means” (emphasis in the original). How true.

In 1938, just a few years shy of an ice axe to the forehead, Trotsky wrote his polemic, Their Morals or Ours, to differentiate the morals of Stalinism from those of what Trotsky alternatively termed Leninism and Bolshevism. In his pamphlet, Trotsky claimed that the ultimate end—the end that needs no justification—is “the liberation of mankind.” In other words, any intermediate end—any end that serves as a means to another end—is justified if it “leads to increasing the power of man over nature and to the abolition of the power of man over man.”2 True Marxist thought.

Into the fray—the internecine war between Stalinism and Trotskyism—entered John Dewey. Now Dewey had previously ventured into the Marxist morality play when his “Commission of Inquiry into the Charges Made against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Trial” allowed Trotsky to defend his good name after being tried and sentenced to death in absentia by the Stalinists at the Moscow Show Trials in 1936. That the commission provided Trotsky with a western pulpit to justify his beliefs and actions goes a long way in explaining Dewey’s critique of Trotsky’s defense of Bolshevik morality.

In his response, Dewey agrees with Trotsky in the rejection of moral truths and absolutist ethics:

Since Mr. Trotsky also indicates that the only alternative position to the idea that the end justifies the means is some form of absolutistic ethics based on the alleged deliverances of conscience, or a moral sense, or some brand of eternal truths, I wish to say that I write from a standpoint that rejects all such doctrines as definitely as does Mr. Trotsky himself, and that I hold that the end in the sense of consequences provides the only basis for moral ideas and action, and therefore provides the only justification that can be found for means employed.

Yet, he also claims, “The liberation of mankind is an end to be striven for. In any legitimate sense of ‘moral,’ it is a moral end.” That Dewey claims the existence of a self-justifying, absolute truth—the liberation of man—while rejecting the existence of such a truth shows a serious misstep in logic. But such is life in progressive academia.

Dewey’s singular niggle with Trotsky was over the justification of the means to the ultimate end. Trotsky claimed the science of Marx proved class struggle is the justifiable intermediate means. And any action that tilts history in favor of that struggle is itself justified.

Dewey objects. As one under the sway of progressive scientism, he chides Trotsky for not submitting the supposedly historical concept of class struggle to further scientific analysis and testing. It is possible that Marx was wrong. And, according to Dewey, additional analysis and testing may have revealed a more justifiable means.3

Regardless, for progressives such as Dewey, with the ultimate end the ultimate given, the means only needs to be deemed scientific for it to be justified. From this, it can be reasoned that progressives may willingly accept any means justified by science (eugenics anyone?).4

To recapitulate, progressive thought is only different from Marxist thought in the justification of the means given their jointly agreed up ultimate end—the differences resolve to their science or ours. Morals just gets in the way.



1Of course, Dewey would never resort to the base language of Lenin and Trotsky. As a respected man of letters, he left the coarse attacks to those who did not mind dirtying their own hands.

2Rest assured, the concept of man over nature does not imply the domination and spoliation of nature by man. It simply means the removal of scarcity that is a product of capitalism—or so the Marxists say. You could easily incorporate the reduction of capitalist waste and its effect on global climate change into the liberation of man without offending Trotsky—as long as the control of the means of production was held by the masses and their unifying party, the Bolsheviki.

3Left unmentioned is the basis for the ranking of means—impossible in the absence of moral absolutes.

4Eugenics, which arose in the US, was advocated by many progressives. It was simply another manifestation of the liberation of man.

On Nate Silver’s Republicans-Take-The-Senate Prediction

By law, statisticians must look like this.

Yet the first bringer of unwelcome news
Hath but a losing office, and his tongue
Sounds ever after as a sullen bell,
Remember’d tolling a departing friend.

Henry IV, part II

So there was Nate Silver, statistician par excellence, wearing the oak leaf cluster and crown of laurel, holding a purple slide rule, riding his chariot triumphantly through the blogosphere commemorating his famous victory over Uncertainty. He had predicted a high probability Barack Obama would be re-elected to the presidency.1

The Media loved him for his divination and showered him with much praise, honors, and gold.

But riding on the chariot with Silver was one of Uncertainty’s vanquished generals who whispered into Silver’s ear, “All glory is fleeting.”

Boy, was he right. And in spades.

Because Silver has again ventured forth into battle, facing his old enemy, but this time his augury is unwanted: “GOP Is Slight Favorite in Race for Senate Control.”

The same Media who once loved him is now hot on Silver’s tail, fangs bared, pitchforks and torches waving, for the crime of foreseeing unfavorable events. Business Insider says Democrats Are Freaking Out About Nate Silver’s Latest Prediction. The National Journal leads “Democrats to Nate Silver: You’re Wrong“.

Guy Cecil, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, is not happy and insists Silver is wrong. This judgment is itself a prediction, for there is no way for Cecil to know Silver is wrong, but it’s a happy one because it tells Democrat supporters what they wish to hear. But then, even if the GOP does not re-take the Senate, it doesn’t make sense to say that Silver was wrong.

Cecil said, “In fact, in August of 2012 Silver forecast a 61 percent likelihood that Republicans would pick up enough seats to claim the majority,” but the Democrats held. Again Cecil said Silver was wrong.

But Silver wasn’t (and can’t be) wrong because there isn’t any way a (non-extreme) probability forecast can be wrong.

All probability forecasts sound like this: “Given my evidence, the probability of Q is P”. As long as P is less than 1 and greater than 0, there is uncertainty whether Q, the proposition of interest, is true. For Silver, Q = “The GOP retakes the Senate.” His evidence is proprietary and his P isn’t explicitly stated (but note that it can be calculated from the table he gives here; 20 bonus points for the reader who does it).

To be wrong, Silver’s forecast has to say P = 1 and the Democrats must retain control. There is no other way to err. If Silver’s P = 0.99 (and it isn’t), and the Dems keep regulating our lives, then Silver would still not be wrong.

There is a sense, though, that Silver’s prediction, in the light of the cold reality of the Dems holding power, might be seen as less than useful (we are imagining a future in which the GOP loses). This sense highlights the very real difference between a prediction and a decision. We’ve seen what a prediction is. A decision takes a prediction and acts on it. Decisions can be wrong. Non-extreme probability predictions cannot be.

One decision might be to bet that the GOP takes it. If the Democrats win, you lose your bet, and you lose because your decision is wrong. The prediction remains a probability, a true statement of the evidence used to create it.

Not everybody will use Silver’s prediction to bet. Why? Because some people don’t like to bet, or others like to but don’t see much pay off, or because a prediction which is just the other side of a coin flip doesn’t instill enough courage to gamble. But others might love to have a go and will plunk down lots, whether in terms of real money or in reputation points (a pundit might say “The GOP is gonna take it all!”).

Thus a prediction which is useful for one person can be of no use to another. Decisions made on predictions are so varied that there’s no way to know who, if anybody, they might be useful for. (Though there are ways to look at collections of predictions and surmise what might happen if these predictions are used for future decisions of a known sort.)

It’s clear, though, that Cecil doesn’t feel Silver’s latest clairvoyance is useful for him. If people act on Silver’s prediction such that they cease donating to Democrat candidates, thinking these candidates will lose, those candidates deprived of money will be more likely to lose. So Cecil must do what he can do to plant doubts about Silver’s prediction—and about Silver himself—even though Silver is scarcely making a bold guess.

Luckily for Cecil, the Media is ready to shoot the messenger for him.


1Many statisticians of lesser repute, such as Yours Truly, have done much worse.

Evidence Does Not Support Low Consumption Of Total Saturated Fats

Fat is where it’s at.

The full version of the headline is this:

Current evidence does not clearly support cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats.

So says the team led by Rajiv Chowdhury in their “Association of Dietary, Circulating, and Supplement Fatty Acids With Coronary Risk: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis” in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine.

If true, this is mighty bad news for those politicians, bureaucrats, and other busybodies who have made careers nagging citizens to avoid cream, cheese, butter, ghee, suet, tallow, lard, and, of course, red meats (Wikipedia has a list of tasty fats). Examples of such folk includes the government’s newly formed Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. Reason magazine noted that “A look through the transcript of last week’s hearing reveals the word ‘policy’ (or ‘policies’) appears 42 times. The word ‘tax’ appears three times.”

There is nothing the government likes better than telling you what to do1—it’s for your own good. But they do like to sound sciency about their dictates, which is why papers like Chowdhury’s will be disquieting. The paper eats the wind out of the sails of the low-fat and “good”-fat touts. And a sober reminder how delicate and changeable evidence of diet and health really is.

Before we discuss the results, if you don’t already know why you should (roughly) double every confidence interval you see, please first read the notes below.

Chowdhury’s paper is a meta-analysis, which is a way to group studies of a similar nature and say something about them in toto. There are two kinds of meta-analysis. The first groups studies the majority of which individually did not show “statistical significance”, i.e. showed no effect, but which when grouped (somehow) show the hoped-for effect. Because of the misinterpretation of things like confidence intervals, these kinds of meta-analyses should rarely be trusted.

The second kind of meta-analysis, and the kind which Chowdhury did, is to group studies the majority of which did not show significance but when grouped…also show insignificance. Because standard statistical evidence is designed to give positive results so easily, these kinds of meta-analyses can almost always be trusted.

Of course, no meta-analysis is ever perfect: there are too many ways of going wrong; but this one seems fairly solid.

Our authors examined studies which paired cardiac outcomes and various kinds of fats. For example, the group of fatty acid supplementation observational studies gave a joint relative risk for coronary disease from 0.98 to 1.07 (this is the 95% confidence interval; which if it contains 1 is “not significant”). For use in real predictions, to first approximation, double this to get 0.93 to 1.12. In other words, fatty acid supplementation does squat for avoiding heart disease.

Similar results were had for saturated fats (0.91 to 1.10), monounsaturated fats (0.78 to 0.97), long-chain ω-3 polyunsaturated fats (0.90 to 1.06), and even, glory be, trans fatty acids (1.06 to 1.27; but doubled is 0.96 to 1.38). The paper lists several more, but the results are similar to these. (See at the bottom of this page some minor numerical corrections admitted by Chowdhury, none of which change the conclusions.)

To repeat the juiciest findings (emphasis mine):

Our findings do not support cardiovascular guidelines that promote high consumption of long-chain ω-3 and ω-6 and polyunsaturated fatty acids and suggest reduced consumption of total saturated fatty acids.

They also say, “Nutritional guidelines on fatty acids and cardiovascular guidelines may require reappraisal to reflect the current evidence.”

But will they be reappraised? Doubtful. It would be too much like admitting a mistake.


1From Reason: “The Washington Free Beacon’s Elizabeth Harrington reported last week that NIH had spent nearly $3,000,000 in recent years to fund studies looking into the possibility of using text messages and web tools to treat obesity.”


On confidence intervals: (1) They don’t mean what frequentists say they mean, but always in practice take the definition of Bayesian credible intervals. A credible interval speaks of the guess of a probability model parameter, “There is a 95% chance the true value of the parameter lies in this interval, given all the data we have and assuming the model is true.”

(2) The Bayesian credible interval does not mean what it says. Instead, everybody always takes the interval to speak of reality (about real risk, say) and not a model parameter. Because of this, as a rough rule of thumb, always multiply the stated interval by about (at least) 2. See this or this article for insight.

Thanks to @Mangan150 where I first learned of this study.

Update About the paper’s data corrections.

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