William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

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Books Most People Lie About Reading

Detroit and Singapore?

The Federalist has a list of eleven books, which it calls ten, they say most people lie about reading. Here’s the list.

  1. Atlas Shrugged Never read, never plan on reading.
  2. On the Origin of Species I admit it: never read.
  3. Les Miserables Read, but as a youth, which means I skipped along.
  4. A Tale of Two Cities Read: thank you Sister Dorothy.
  5. 1984 Oh my yes.
  6. Democracy in America Only volume one, parts of two.
  7. The Wealth of Nations Read first 100 pages like everybody else; where all the quotes arise.
  8. Moby Dick Read: you should too.
  9. The Art of War Read.
  10. The Prince Read.
  11. Ulysses Nope, and only feel slightly guilty.

Those of you who read David Lodge’s academic trilogy (Changing Places, Small World, Nice Work) will recall his cocktail party “game” in which professors of literature admit to not reading this or that famous work. One character, after one too many sips of wine, says Hamlet (read it). This leads to his immediate and permanent downfall. But that was thirty, forty years ago. It may now be a mini boast not to have read it (you elitist, you sexist).

Anyway, it seems to me that the Federalist’s list is flawed. I can’t ever recall anybody asking or lying about Les Miserables. Maybe when the movie came out (I didn’t see)? I’m sure people lie about Moby Dick, but nowadays fewer people have to since it’s decreasingly assigned (a white whale, you racist). English majors lie about Ulysses, but nobody else. And I doubt many moderns have even heard of A Tale of Two Cities. Check me on this. Ask people you meet (particularly students) to name three novels by Charles Dickens and give them no hints.

Twenty-some years ago the most-lied about book was A Brief History of Time (read it), but only in the sense that it was named so by people happily admitting they haven’t read it. The Federalist links to a similar list on Huffington Post which includes The Satanic Verses, a book which I find people boast of having not read. Also Infinite Jest which my number one son loaned me and which I could read no more than five pages. Ugh.

Now that our culture is splintering, it’s not clear if there is a list to which all could agree. I certainly haven’t read any books because the author had this or that prescribed demographic characteristic, nor would I think of lying that I had. Indeed, my sentiments are the opposite. But members of university “English” departments would be tempted. Their lists change with the political season.

I’d say the Bible should make the list, only there’s a growing crowd proud of having eschewed it (so much for understanding their culture, but ideology is ideology). Mark Twain should be on the list; either Tom Sawyer (read) or Huckleberry Finn (read). How about F. Scott Fitzgerald? Hemingway? Steinbeck? Catcher in the Rye (didn’t read)?

Henry Adams would’ve made it fifty years ago. Now he’s an unknown. Gibbon? Boswell? Maybe it’s because it’s early, but I’m have a difficult time thinking of non-fiction works which are considered mandatory reading by the majority. People are running from history as fast as they can…and into the arms of Equality! Equality! Equality demands the non-existence of anything smacking of elitism and natural achievement. To paraphrase The One, “You didn’t read that.”

So is it even possible to create a list? Your suggestions?

Pity the Poor Children

We’re listening to Bach, not BTO like our grandparents.

Pity the poor children of today. When they enter their teenage years, how will they stake their claim at rebellion?

Skipping class and smoking with the other burnouts behind the portable (sanctioned by the administration, of course) is already passé. Having a lazy Sunday morning watching Shirley Temple movies and eating dry cereal while the rest family troops off to church is a form of rebellion from a gentler time.

Engaging in risky sexual behavior used to be a near-guarantee to upsetting the parental unit, but hey, it’s healthy and good for the self-esteem, and help yourself to the bowl on condoms on the way out.

How can the teens of tomorrow stick it to the man, when the man will likely be right by their side, ensuring not only that pot is legal but also that it meets purity standards? How can attention-getting gambits, such as flirtation with homosexuality (does anyone remember LUGs?) or transgenderness, be successful when the man is right there with a marriage license or a health policy to make it all possible?

How can they even think that getting a tattoo will get a rise out of mother, when a passing glance at any carnival midway in the Midwest reveals more ink than ever sailed the Seven Seas? These fair-goers are Middle America. They are the new Archie and Edith Bunker, with tats up to here, and piercings down to there.

What on earth will shock these parents? Live in what is quaintly called “sin”? Have a baby without marrying said baby’s father? Father a baby without having the intention of marrying said baby’s mother? Engage in petty crime (or even terrible, horrible crime) only be let go by an understanding judge? Parties (with alcohol) are held with full parental sponsorship… and not just when ma and pa are out of town. Even screwing up in school isn’t what it used to be, now that colleges are bound to offer remedial classes.

What avenues of rebellion will be left open? Leave your suggestions below. Pity the teens of tomorrow.


Note that this article is not from your usual source.

Hilarious “Proofs” Of God’s Non-Existence & Existence

Just don’t ask me to define entelecheia.

Via Nate Winchester, Julian Ahlquist’s collection of Proofs of God’s Non-Existence, which were in “response to a similar list Hundreds of Proofs of God’s Existence by ‘Godless Geeks'”

There’s no quoting all of these—there are nearly 1,400 in total—but it’s tempting. Each is meant to contain a fallacy, (I haven’t read all 1,400), some blatant and others subtle. If you’re still an atheist, chances are pretty good you’ve embraced at least one of these from Ahlquist’s list. Just as if you’re a theist you’ve probably embraced one of the fallacies put out by the Godless Geeks.

This is our great weakness: to hold tight to any bit of evidence which confirms that which we wish or hope is true. Doesn’t make the thing false, but it weakens us.

Both efforts are magnificent resources for teaching logic. Some of these arguments are difficult, like this one from the Godless Geeks:

(1) This is a proof of God’s existence.
(2) If the reader finishes reading this proof, the existence of God will be proven to him/her.
(3) If the existence of God is proven, then God exists.
(4) Therefore, God exists.

This argument is unsound because it is self-referential, but you can see how it can fool by including premise (3), which is a tautology and therefore adds no information. This is a principle—that tautologous premises are information-free—which is a struggle for many to remember, particularly in probability where it is often misapplied (e.g., “It will rain tomorrow or it won’t” which is a tautology is used to fallaciously infer the probability of rain tomorrow is 1/2).

Here’s a common one from Alquist (ellipsis original).

(1) Religion can’t explain everything.
(2) Science can … or will, someday.
(3) Therefore, God does not exist.

Science cannot even explain itself, let alone “everything”, therefore this argument is unsound—but cherished, usually in longer forms where the fallacy creeps in subtly. For example, swap “evolution” for “science” and “behavior” for “everything”.

Another Godless Geek, which fails in its satiric intent:

(1) We feel certain things to be right or wrong.
(2) The reason we feel wrong about certain things is because of our intuition, a.k.a. our conscience.
(3) I’ll just ignore the resemblance of intuition with our thoughts, emotions, and animal instinct, or our childhood indoctrination by our culture.
(4) Intuition and conscience are so special! They must be given by God!
(5) Therefore, God exists.

(1) is obviously true, as is (2), except for equating in all instances intuition and conscience. But the implication of (3) is empty or false: because intuition or emotion is sometimes wrong does not prove they always wrong, and because your childhood taught a belief does not make the belief false. (4), taken as shorthand for a classic theistic argument, is true: our most fundamental beliefs are special and seen to be true without proof. The argument still fails, however, depending on how (4) is read. If (4) is used as a separate proof, then the #498 becomes circular.

Here’s another popular one from Ahlquist:

(1) God is like a flying spaghetti monster.
(2) Honestly, a flying spaghetti monster.
(3) Isn’t that ridiculous?
(4) Therefore, God does not exist.

This reminds me of that great play Dinner With Atheists.

As goofy as this argument is, it’s awfully convincing to many. Just saying “flying spaghetti monster” will get you a wink or a nod from the easily impressed atheist. The we-reject-the-same-gods-as-you-plus-one-more is actually a good effort by atheists, but this argument adds a god to the list of gods for the express purpose of rejecting that god, which is silly.

Another Ahlquist:

(1) God is like an invisible, incoporeal [sic], floating dragon who spits heatless fire in my garage.
(2) You can’t disprove that such a creature exists.
(3) However, claims that cannot be tested and are immune to disproof are “veridically worthless.”
(4) That’s just a convoluted way of me trying to tell you not believe in God for absolutely no reason because we can’t come up with any reasons to justify our position in any way.
(5) Therefore, God does not exist.

Here, a sort of rogue empiricism, which also rejects all of mathematics, since no mathematical truth can be tested.

Anyway, fun lists. Assign chunks of them to your students.

Update Link fixed.

Brain-Scan Lie Detectors Don’t Work

Tell the truth: you don’t think these things work, right?

Did you think they would?

I’ve told this story many times, but, hey, why not once more? I had a string of letters after my super-duper top secret clearance when I was in the Air Force, standard for crypto guys. To reduce the chance of spies in our midst the AF hopefully employed an outside contractor which ran lie-detector spy screenings.

This was back in the medieval torture days. Constricting straps around the chest and arms, wires leading everywhere, beeping machines, hot lights, absolute stillness required. First the “calibration”. The guy who stands behind you asks you to think of the number seven, after which he says he’ll ask you if you’re thinking of the numbers one through ten and that you’re to say “No” to each, even seven.

So you do. After which he shows you a squiggle that looks exactly like every other squiggle and says, “See? That’s where you ‘lied’ and said you didn’t think of seven.” If you’re smart, you agree. Why cause trouble?

The questions come and eventually stop. After which, invariably, the guys says, “Sergeant Briggs. Looks like we have a little trouble with one of the questions. Think you can help me out with that?” Any but a fool says, “Huh? I don’t know.” Play dumb. Maybe the guy fishes around a bit, but if you sit happy and stupid, he lets you go.

Now I have seen pathological liars go through this process and pass (Shawn, remember JK?). Every one of the big-name spies you’ve heard about, and all the small ones you haven’t, also passed. Conclusion: lie detectors don’t work.

But that was the old stuff. Now they’re doing brain scans, which is as sciencey and science gets, right? The whitecoats figure all they have to do is to peer at the right spot in the brain, the spot where lies originate, ask you a question, and then wait to see if the spot “lights up.” If so, you’re lying, n’est-ce pas?

Or maybe not the lie area of the brain, but how about the guilt lobe? Liars always feel guilty telling lies, don’t they? Seems fMRIs ought to be able to sniff out guilty versus non-guilty brains. Maybe the color on the screens of the brain-scanning machines goes green, or it could be chartreuse.

Lying is simple. It’s the telling of something believed to be false. It is the will willfully acting at variance to the truth. Or, no. How can it be willed action? Since lying has to begin in the brain, as the philosophy of materialism asserts, and there is no will only the illusion of the same, leaving aside the question of “who” is doing the “illusioning,” we should, at least in principle, be able to section the little grey cells until we can spot a fabrication under the microscope.

Anyway, the Pacific Standard (tag-line “The Science of Society”) reports on yet another new study which says brain-scan lie detectors don’t work because “perpetrators” can “suppress crime memories.” The press release is more sedate “people can intentionally and voluntarily suppress unwanted memories.”

Which we did not need science to tell us. That people can forget has been known long before anybody invented a computer. Why, not only can people suppress unwanted memories, they can forget all sorts of things. Just ask the Blonde Bombshell if Yours Truly can remember to take the dishes out the washer. But if you were to ask me, I’d say, sure I did it. At least, I think I did. I seem to recall it.

Can’t go much by the study, which is another in a long string of highly artificial situation experiments. This had people simulate crimes and pretend not to remember them, which some could do. At least according to the brain-scan sniffers, which couldn’t find the suppressed memories of pretend crimes.

In real crimes if there wasn’t indisputable corroborative proof, there would be a person’s word against some colored pictures, which folks like me could show are easy to misinterpret. Some people would believe the pictures but have doubts, others wouldn’t believe. We’re in the same spot we’ve been in forever. Some people crack under questioning, some don’t. Some lie, some don’t.

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