William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Page 151 of 605

Belgian “Doctors” To Kill Kids They Think They Can’t Cure

Belgium has discovered a new way to end the tears of children.

Belgium has just made it legal for “doctors” to kill children. Not those who haven’t yet escaped the womb—those kids have been fair game for any quack with a sharp needle and a med school diploma for quite some time. I mean it’s now open season on ambulatory children.

According to one news report, the new law “allows minors to ask [to be killed] on the grounds that their illness is terminal, that they are in great pain and that there is no treatment to alleviate their distress…The Belgian legislation does not set an age limit but states that the patient has to be conscious of their situation and understand the meaning of a request for [a killing].”

Not to minimize the horror of illness, but the reasoning here is faulty. To say an illness is “terminal” is to claim that somebody has made an accurate prediction conditional on a complicated set of premises, predictions which are often phrased like this: “Given that everything continues in the same manner, the child will die in six to eight months.” Since the premises are themselves subject to great uncertainty (how many illnesses continue in the ‘same manner’?), the prediction usually has attached to it greater “plus-or-minuses” than is thought. In other words, forecasts of the demise of patients, especially children, are not always accurate, and doctors, particularly those too ready with the ax, are too confident of their own abilities. Doctors make many mistakes—and in the cases of “mercy” killing, they will be unrecoverable mistakes.

Even if doctors were infallible, it is still unclear whether there is no treatment to alleviate suffering. And this is because the “suffering”, as that term is used legally, is not restricted to pain but includes mental distress.

There is for example the case of “Nathan”, a woman who so wanted to pretend to be a man that she had a simulacrum of a man’s sexual organs grafted onto her body (the euphemism is “gender reassignment” surgery; this was in Belgium). Her body rejected the tissue which caused, or so she said, “unbearable psychological suffering.” Unbearable is that which cannot be born. She therefore was legally able to consult a man ready to kill, one Wim Distelmans, and this person killed “Nathan.” The killer told one newspaper “that the decision was made after six months of struggling with the issue and that it wasn’t easy.” The difficulty of the decision—heaven forfend it is easy—is offered as justification of the killing.

What does it mean to claim a child who is “eligible” for state-sponsored killing is “conscious of their situation” and “understands the meaning of a request” to be killed? It was until recently accepted that children were not entirely conscious of most situations beyond the playground, and therefore could not hope to understand what it meant to ask to be killed. No longer.

An open letter by Belgian “paediatricians” supporting the new law made an argument—which is in the running for Most Ludicrous Argument of the Year—said of children considering their illness, “minors develop very quickly a great maturity, to the point where they are often better able to reflect and express themselves on life than healthy people.” Heretofore, people, especially children, in great distress were generally reckoned not to be clear thinkers. Now it is claimed they reason more clearly than the unburdened.

Since “distress” can be mental, and because a child may put in a request for his own demise, and following the trend of decreasing parental “rights” (or control) over their own children in Enlightened countries, I make the following verifiable prediction. Within five years of the anniversary of this law, the state will have killed at least one child in opposition to its parents’ wishes or without their knowledge. “I’m sorry Mr and Mrs Peeters, we had to kill your son. We judged it best for everyone.” There will probably be court cases in which lawyers for the state argue for custody of the child in order that they might kill it (for its own good).

Scoff if you like, but there is already a certain amount of fishiness attending the legalization of the killing of adults, especially in the murky area of “permissions.” Consider that reports are that in “2012, Belgium recorded 1,432 cases of euthanasia — a 25% increase from 2011.”

Advice: if you ever have cause to vacation in Belgium and you feel yourself or your child “coming down with something”, whatever you do, don’t call a “doctor.”

Entry For The Most Pompous Statement Of Scientism

I know more than you do.

Our friend John Cook came (via The Renaissance Mathematicus) across what is easily one of the most pompous declarations by a scientist we have ever seen.

The words came from Russell Foster at The Times Higher Education while he was musing on what it would be like to be invited to a cocktail party. He began:

The season is once again upon us when we scientists are asked to leave the safe embrace of our laboratories and enter the complex social matrix of unfamiliar relations, friends of friends and obligatory conversations with complete strangers.

Unwashed supplicants approach unknowable, powerful, and wise oracles and ask them to have a drink. Foster could, only just, deign to take part. But then he wondered and he fretted how he could possible explain to these near illiterates what he does for a living. He considered avoiding the subject and saving everybody the mental trauma involved in meeting a superiors minds, but he rejected this as beneath his vast intelligence and now has at the ready this speech:

“Well,” I say, “as a scientist my occupation grapples with the fundamental nature of truth. It is worth reflecting that before the emergence of a robust scientific class in the 19th century, truth was defined by the whim of the ruling class. Indeed, we scientists wrested truth away from the claws of religious dogma and liberated humanity from the leaden hand of ignorance and, in the process, provided the evidenced-based infrastructure required for a truly democratic society — namely individual liberty and equality of opportunity. I suppose I’m just part of that meritocratic force that has defined our civilisation.”

This surpasses politician-level arrogance, exceeds even that found in appointed bureaucrats, and it comes thisclose to matching that from the Morning Star himself. His prose is purpler than the late Senator Ted Kennedy’s nose. And his grasp of intellectual history is feeble.

On the other hand, maybe we can agree with him when he says “we scientists wrested truth away” from the religious. Yes, and stomped it into the ground. In its place they hold aloft the idea that only Science can tell us what is true and what is false. Since that itself is not a scientific statement, and not subject to empirical verification, the ultimate goal of scientists can never be met.

And, incidentally, neither can “equality of opportunity” be found (which is not a scientific concept). Does he not remember those great scientific societies the USSR, Mao’s China, and the like? After his speech, he says he does this:

At this point I pause for both gas exchange and dramatic effect.

I wish he’d keep quiet about his flatulence. He continues:

“Why was it, do you think, that during the 19th century the poorer sectors of society embraced science so avidly?”

Military advantage, mostly. Science has given us efficient and creative tools with which to massacre ourselves.

People were there not only to hear the latest scientific findings about the origins of our species, but also to witness first-hand the liberating affirmation that truth is the product of experimentation and is forged upon evidence.

Let’s remind Foster that no mathematical truth—and mathematics is the language of science—can be the product of experimentation nor forged upon observational evidence. Thought itself could not begin or progress without truths which are not and cannot be known by experimental evidence.

“The words ‘how’ and ‘why’ took on a new and sharper significance 150 years ago, cutting the knots of meek acceptance that bound the individual to the state, allowing humanity to stride unfettered into the modern world…

“So that’s what I do — how about you?” [ellipsis original]

Listen, Rusty, we see how much “freer” from the State we are the more science there is. I think of this every time I look into a CCTV camera or go through a TSA x-ray or scan the newspapers to see what new food the government has scientifically forbidden me to eat.

Foster admits his speech bombed once: “I apparently soured the atmosphere after midnight Mass.” “But,” he says “At least I felt better knowing that I had shared an appreciation of the scientific method. Christmas is a time for giving, and what more precious gift could a scientist give?”

I don’t know. Humility?

Professor Confesses Why She Inflates Grades

I had a student come into my office (where I was a visiting mathematics professor) shaking with emotion. This was a day or two before the final exam. I couldn’t remember her name, because I had only seen her intermittently in class during the semester. She never came to the office before.

Her story was sad and long. She needed a B, she explained, to save some kind of scholarship or status about which I retain no memory. Had to do with money, anyway.

“Let’s look,” I said, and pulled up Blackboard (an awful piece of software; but that is a rant for another day). “Well, you missed a few quizzes,” I said (or words to that effect). “Plus your scores on the exams weren’t so good. Depends how you do tomorrow, but probably around a C-.”

That’s when the tears started. Not sadness. Rage. She was furious. “I never had a math professor give me anything other than an A before,” she warned me.

I wanted to say, “You have one now,” but I chickened out. I went instead for a change of subject. “What classes were those?” Meaning I was curious about their level and content.

“Math classes,” she said.

She then launched into a lecture telling me of all the grades she got in high school and other college classes. All As. I was then informed my classes were too hard and that nobody could do well in them.

My big mistake came in suggesting that she might have worked harder and that now was a little late in the game to try to make things up. She left saying she was going to complain about me. To whom I don’t know.

I’m sure she got at least partial revenge on her teacher evaluation form, rating me low, low.

Now these are frightening things to a professor. We must, the general contention says, keep our “customers” happy. And what better way than to give them the grades they desire? But really, as the semesters wend their laconic way, most of us don’t really think much about these. We all know you can’t make everybody happy.

Allison Schrager, author of “Confession of an Ivy League teaching assistant: Here’s why I inflated grades“, agrees. Teaching evaluations are only a minor annoyance.

The reason she inflated grades? “I just didn’t want to deal with all the complaining.”

Anything less than an A- would result in endless emails, crying during office hours, or calls from parents. One student once cornered me and said: “I hope you’re happy you’ve destroyed my chance at Goldman and ruined my life.”

Typical. Professors battle grade grubbing like Chinese buffets fight off cockroaches. An endless annoyance, increasing in intensity as time goes on. I recall half-joking with a colleague of my plan to offer the students of one troublesome course a C if they promised to not come to class, or they could stay and receive whatever grade they earned. I thought this brilliant, but I was talked out of it.

Schrager recalls to us the work of Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy who tracked grades at a bunch of colleges from 1903 to 2006. Here’s their picture:

Onward and upward!

Onward and upward!

The colored lines are smoothers (averages), which can be ignored. The general trend is clear: over the schools they sampled, grades marched ever upwards. A bump in the late 1940s after the war (ask your freshman if they know which one) and the enormous rise corresponding to the beginning of the decline in earnest of the West in the 1960s. And the final surge to the pinnacle which, at least at some institutions, is now occupied by nearly all students.

Proof? Didn’t we read “Substantiating Fears of Grade Inflation, Dean Says Median Grade at Harvard College Is A-, Most Common Grade Is A“?

I have some sympathy with Schrager’s position. If you’re concerned about your academic career, better to spend one’s time writing grants and papers then in falling into the black hole of time sinks arguing with some overly earnest student why he received an 88 instead of an 89.

But sympathy is not agreement. The biggest reason for grade inflation is not students: it’s professors. They are interested in careerism as Schrager says and not in teaching. Not everywhere, no. But certainly at places like Harvard. Teaching undergraduates at “research” universities is something to be avoided: professors boast of course “relief.”

The attitude creates the vicious cycle where one professor is tempted to “go high” because they others at his institution do. And why be bothered when the grant submission is due—and they are always due.

Exposure to Fast Food Impedes Happiness, Researchers

Savor the moment.

That don’t call it the unhappy meal for nothing.

Or, wait…

What we have here is yet another instance of scientists claiming to have done something they did not do. In this case, they said they measured “exposure” to fast food, and they developed great wads of theory to explain this exposure. Yet never once was exposure measured. This is what I have elsewhere called the epidemiologist fallacy, a combination of the ecological fallacy and the “If we didn’t commit the ecological fallacy, then we couldn’t do anything” fallacy.

In Social Psychological and Personality Science Julian House and two others published “Too Impatient to Smell the Roses: Exposure to Fast Food Impedes Happiness” which asked whether “exposure to the ultimate symbols of an impatience culture—fast food—undermines people’s ability to experience happiness from savoring pleasurable experiences.”

Guess what they said.

Well, this: “eating involves food preparation and communal dinning, making it a collective, ritualistic event where communities bond rather than merely intake nutrition.” Who knew?

In one of their intensive studies, House discovered “that the concentration of fast-food restaurants in individuals’ neighborhoods predicted their tendencies to savor.” Some 280 folks were recruited on-line and paid a buck to fill in a questionnaire—excuse me, a validated instrument. This is a scientific term meaning “questionnaire.”

The specific questionnaire was “the positive emotion portion of the Emotion Regulation Profile-Revised” which measures people’s “tendencies to savor” and also to “dampen…emotional responses to enjoyable experiences”. One question was (I could only find the questions in French), “Vous laissez tous vos sens s’imprégner de l’endroit afin de savourer pleinement cet instant” which, roughly translated, is “You like to soak up the moment.” Now how can a question like that not be scientific?

The participants also entered their home zip codes, from which “the number of establishments listed under the North American Industry Classification System code for fast-food restaurants” was divided “by the number of full-service restaurants” in that zip code. Because, obviously, people have no choice but to go to these establishments in their own zip code districts.

Turns out that the fast-food ratio was statistically associated with answers on the savoring questionnaire, but negatively (a small correlation coefficient). A wee p-value confirmed this statistical relationship.

The authors labeled this result an “intriguing relationship”. They also authoritatively state “The essence of fast food is not what you eat (e.g., tacos, pizza, etc.), but how you eat it.” A chicken wing is equivalent to a garden salad if you eat it with a plastic fork, apparently.

More science from the conclusion: “undermining people’s ability to derive pleasure from everyday joys could exert a significant long-term negative effect on people’s experienced happiness.” Also: “we find that the exposure to fast-food symbols reduced people’s tendency to savor”.

Now that is a strange thing to say considering that the authors did not measure exposure to fast-food “symbols,” or to exposure to fast-food in any form. But, hey, if we required scientists to actually do what they say they do, then nothing would ever get done. Science would slow to a crawl and we wouldn’t have published so many intriguing results and theories.


Thanks to the Carolina Cowboy for alerting us to this study. Note to that gentleman: every email I try to send you bounces back.

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