William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

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Space’s 10 Mistakes People Make When Arguing Science

Picture cropped from the article.

Picture cropped from the article.

Reader Ken pointed us to Space.com’s click-me-click-me! article “The 10 Mistakes People Make When Arguing Science”. Since everybody loves numbered lists, I’ll duplicate their efforts here, using their mistakes. Isn’t it curious most are probabilistical (yes, probabilistical)?

1. Wait! That’s Just One Study!

In some cases, one study is enough. In some, none is plenty. Gort the caveman is out in the rain and sees a bolt of yellow light blast a stand of trees. Tree catches fire and a deer which had been standing nearby keels over. Gort reasons, “Nasty business those bolts, what? what?” He then advises Qweeloc, another member of the tribe, to keep clear. Gort needn’t know how or why the bolt bangs to understand that its deadliness. And all Qweeloc has to do is trust Gort.

A lightning bolt is a physical thing, and physical things are are easy to understand. Consider: Gort brought the skin of the dead deer home to Fuh, his darling mate, thinking she would be well pleased. She wasn’t and complained about the smell. This perplexed Gort extremely. He reasoned, “Sometimes my gifts please her, and sometimes they don’t. I can’t figure out what works.” And that’s because human behavior is hideously difficult to predict.

Update Since Gort only has a sample of 1, he’d never get a wee p-value, thus he could never prove that lightning kills, and his paper would be rejected.

2. Significant Doesn’t Mean Important

But human behavior is shockingly to easy to mistakenly claim to have been understood. If Gort would have treated this latest gift as a part of a “random” experiment for which he calculated a p-value, he could have claimed “statistical significance”. He then would have been able to publish a peer-reviewed drum song in Caves and Hovels and secured his success as a researcher.

“My results are statistically significant!” sounds juicy and sounds like truth. It isn’t. Significance means finding a wee p-value and nothing else. This is why your better sort of statisticians says Die P-Value, Die Die Die.

3. And Effect Size Doesn’t Mean Useful

Knowing that having a second weekly doughnut “doubles the risk” of splenetic fever is frightening. Until you realize that the risk goes from 1 to 2 in 10 million. As I wrote:

Not a trick question: what’s the difference between a risk of one in ten million and one of two in ten million? The official answer is “Not much.” Though I would also have accepted “Almost none”, “Close enough to be the same,” and “Who would care?”

Effect sizes communicate risk in terms of parameters, little mathematical bits inside models which are of no interest to anybody who wants to know the risk of a real thing. The risk of real things is necessarily smaller than the risk in the reported effect sizes. Effect sizes are a sure way to produce over-confidence. Selling fear is a risky—but profitable business.

4. Are You Judging the Extremes by the Majority?

A scientist stuffs a rat living in an artificial environment full of chemical X and watches it develop cancer. The researcher then suggests humans “exposed to” X will, too. A reporter will then write a headline, “X Causes Cancer! When Will The Government Do Something?”

The government then does something. But the government also ignores hormesis, which describes the benefit low doses of X provide. Worried about your kid developing asthma? Some say, “Send him outside to play in the mud and dust and dirt.” Outside, incidentally, is that vast uncovered place far from “devices.”

5. Did You Maybe Even Want to Find that Effect?

Every working scientist knows about confirmation bias. Just as every working scientist knows it only happens to the other guy.

“Still—it is possible…for a historian or a scientist or, indeed, for any thinking man to present evidences, from a proper employment of sources, that are contrary to his prejudices, or to his politics, or indeed to inclinations of his mind. Whenever this happens, it manifest itself in his decision to present (which usually means: not to exclude) evidences not supporting his ideas or theses.” So says John Lukacs in his At the End of an Age. He calls the class of behavior of scientists like this, not objectivity, but honesty.

How much of it do we have in science today?

6. Were you Tricked by Sciencey Snake Oil?

The science is settled! It’s a Consensus! And what says Science better than Consensus?

Read: The Consensus Fallacy. Or, even better, read The Consensus In Philosophy.

7. Qualities aren’t Quantities and Quantities aren’t Qualities

How much do you feel, on a scale of -3.4 to 117 2/3, that bulleted lists make you happy? Be precise. I intend to collect the answers of this instrument and write a scientific paper on how I feel about your feelings.

Improper and absurd quantification is a plague on science. See this growing list of Asinine Uses of Statistics.

8. Models by Definition are Not Perfect Representations of Reality

Don’t tell physicists who are on the hunt for the multiverse this. It will make them sad. And that could be a hate crime.

See this video on the love of theory. And remember what that fairly often sober statistician said, “The love of theory is the root of all evil.” Also see Theory confirmation and disconfirmation.

9. Context Matters

Thinking that it doesn’t is one of the great causes of over-certainty. Scientific statements are usually (mostly? always?) probabilistic, and all probability is conditional, which is another way to say context matters. Read There Is No Such Thing As Unconditional Probability or the Monty Hall Problem

10. And Just Because It’s Peer-Reviewed Doesn’t Make It Right

Peer review is, at this point in our watered down world of science, nearly useless. If you don’t believe this, look at the asinine list or at these peer-reviwed studies.


On Remaining Quiet In Time Of War

Defend us in battle.

Defend us in battle.

Those who are unwilling to hold this is true will be subject to those who will. Those who cannot defend their beliefs must accept the rule of those who do. Those who remain quiet in the face of adversity must remain mute when their adversary triumphs.

A religion unwilling to say it is the only way to truth must wither. And anyone calling for dialogue wants you to change your belief.

Dogma has a bad reputation, but only the word itself, not the notion. We’re all after the truth.
Now some “feel” they have the truth, but others think it. And it’s those suffering from “feelings” who are most likely to have missed the mark. Feelings are too susceptible to whim and manipulation and to unregulated passions to be relied upon.

But what about two parties who each claim to think the truth? Both can’t be absolutely right, though both might be absolutely wrong, or both might grasp portions of the truth. Compromise in only the latter case is possible, and only in those areas which both parties acknowledge are uncertain. No agreement will be found in any matter which one party claims is dogma.

Truth exists and we can know it. One divided by one equals one no matter what. Yet I once knew a lady (regular readers will recall) who insisted one divided by one was zero “because when you divide one by itself, nothing is left.” Only one of us could be right. No compromise was possible. “Dialogue” would be absurd.

What to do about the lack of compromise in this or any argument is an entirely separate matter from what the truth is. The consequences of this lady’s mistake were trivial and there was no clear benefit for me (or for anybody) to marshal forces to defeat this incorrect belief. Her mistake was harmless and she was unlikely to gain supporters. And even if she was, it wouldn’t come to much. Math is of little consequence to most.

Yet some mistaken beliefs cause grief, both to their holders and to others. In those cases there is conflict, and in the keenest differences, there is war.

War does not have to be material; it can be, and most often is, spiritual. We have been, are, and will continue to be in a spiritual war. Such is the fate of mankind. If you disagree with this, you and I are in conflict, hence you confirm the claim. There is no escape. There are only sides and you must choose.

Our present war, currently spiritual but threatening to become material, is sex. Sin exists. Not crime: sin. Fornication is wrong, a sin. Some think it right; most others feel it is. I’d bet the word is now so foreign to most of you that it seems something dredged up from ancient history, a strange custom now happily abandoned, much like the wearing of corsets.

Divorce is wrong, a sin. One man, one woman make a marriage, and for life. A society which abandons that principle must eventually fail. How harsh that sounds! How cruel! How judgmental! But its harshness signals the truth that those who hold divorce is immoral are at war with those who think (and feel) it is not.

One man cannot marry another, nor can one woman wed a second. Nor can one man marry his dog, nor can a woman wed herself. Everybody forgets, despite constant and raucous reminders, that marriage is not only a spiritual union between a man and wife for life, but also between that couple and society. This is why the war has been so vehement.

If marriage were only an impermanent contract between any group of people (why insist on just two?), then few would care what anybody did. But because marriage is between a couple and society, those who claim to be married must insist that all others agree these unions are valid.

A man pretending to be a woman is not a woman, but is only a man pretending to be a woman. There is no such thing as a “sex change” operation, nor can anybody begin, let alone conclude, a “transition” to a different sex. Further, both of these circumlocutions are horrible abuses of the English language.

Our society is at war. One side, sensing victory, gleefully calls for the use of force against its enemy, while the leadership of the other is in full retreat, leaving the foot soldiers to fend for themselves. Despair would therefore be indicated, except that the foot soldiers have Truth on their side. And they won’t shut up.


I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.


Summary Against Modern Thought: God’s Understanding Is His Essence

This may be proved in three ways. The first...

This may be proved in three ways. The first…

See the first post in this series for an explanation and guide of our tour of Summa Contra Gentiles. All posts are under the category SAMT.

Previous post.

We’re entering an arcane patch, a thicket of argument to prove a technical point about God’s intelligence. I’ll skip around some of this material, but not all of it. We need it to get to the punchline, which is coming in 15 chapters, that God is Truth. From Truth we move to Good and Evil. So this thicket is well worth punching through, though I admit that some attentions will flag.

Chapter 46 That God Understands by Nothing Else but His Essence (alternate link)

[1] FROM what has been proved above it is made evident that the divine intellect understands by no other intelligible species but the divine essence.

Notes Think of “intelligible species” as the how of how God thinks. What Aquinas is doing is showing, or rather illuminating, a point he already proved, that God is simple (in the meaning of that technical term) way back starting in Chapter 18.

[2] For the intelligible species is the formal principle of the intellectual operation; even as the form of every agent is the principle of that agent’s proper operation. Now the intellectual operation of God is His essence, as we have shown.[1] Wherefore something else would be the principle and cause of the divine essence, if the divine intellect understood by some intelligible species other than His essence: and this is in contradiction with what has been shown above.[2]

Notes And this is the main point. A car operates by being in the form of a car, yes? And God operates by His form, His essence. A weak analogy would be to say that if God had a brain by which His intelligible species operated, He would have parts, which we have already proved He cannot. And we’d also have to explain how this “Brain of God” moved God’s intelligence around separate from His will. Sort of like how materialists have to prove the “Brain of Man” moves your intellect about separate from your will. The next two arguments illuminate this.

[3] Again. The intellect is made actually intelligent by the intelligible species: just as sense is made actually sentient by the sensible species. Hence the intelligible species is compared to the intellect as act to potentiality. And consequently if the divine intellect were to understand by a species other than itself, it would be in potentiality with respect to something: and this is impossible, as we have proved above.[3]

[4] Moreover. An intelligible species that is accessory to the essence of the intellect in which it is, has an accidental being: for which reason our knowledge is reckoned among the accidents. Now in God there can be no accident, as proved above.[4] Therefore there is no species in His intellect besides the divine essence…

Notes In [3] there is the proof, if you like, that animals are sentient, which means having the capability of sensing. This is only worth pointing out because of the modern understanding that all sentient creatures, including humans, are alike. This is so, but humans are not just sentient, but are also rational, possessing an intellect, and animals do not.

The second point is the ever-necessary distinction between act and potential. Only something in act, or that has actuality, can move a potential to act, i.e. can cause something to happen. In God there is no potentiality, in us there is. The second translation of [4] (linked above) puts it in better modern English, “an intelligible species in the intellect that is other than the intellect’s essence has an accidental being, which is why our knowledge is numbered among the accidents.” Some (I don’t think we can say all) of the knowledge we have is not essential to our being, but all of God’s knowledge is His essence.

[6] Moreover. God’s act of intelligence is His essence, as we have proved.[5] Therefore if He understood by a species that is not His essence, it would be by something other than His essence. But this is impossible.[6] Therefore He does not understand by a species that is not His essence.

Notes And that, I think, is enough for today. Review the terms act and potential, or actuality and potentiality, and form and accident. (All the posts in this category are found in the link at the top.) Next week it gets harder.


[1] Ch. xlv.
[2] Ch. xiii.
[3] Ch. xvi.
[4] Ch. xxiii.
[5] Ch. xlv.
[6] Ch. xxii.


The Miracles-Don’t-Exist-So-Miracles-Don’t-Exist Argument

Say something nice: the Miracles-Don’t-Exist-So-Miracles-Don’t-Exist argument is conditionally true. If miracles are impossible, miracles, it follows logically, don’t happen. No escaping the iron cladedness of that (you heard me: iron cladedness).

Not only that. If miracles are impossible, it must be that every report of a miracle is some kind of mistake. Error in reporting, perhaps, mistaken observation. Hallucination. Ignorance. Downright fraud. Exaggeration of facts into myth. Lying. Scams. Point is, whatever or however a miracle is reported or is seen in this scheme, something very badly has gone wrong.

And then, human thought sinking into the abyss is hardly unexpected. Have you ever read a history book? Or watched television? Even at the highest levels the outlook is bleak. I need only mention what’s happening on college campuses these days as definitive proof of how low thinking can go. A university is now the worst place you can be to learn anything useful about mankind—except how the insane can rake in large salaries.

But help me. Isn’t the Miracles-Don’t-Exist-So-Miracles-Don’t-Exist argument, oh, I don’t know, dogmatic? Adopts a perfunctory and brutal attitude, wouldn’t you say? It’s Science as impatient father. “Daddy, why don’t miracles happen?” “Because I said so. Where’s your mother?”

Of course, you rarely hear the Miracles-Don’t-Exist-So-Miracles-Don’t-Exist argument—fallacy, rather—stated in so bold a fashion as its name indicates. Usually it’s tarted up in the fashion Richard Dawkins’s simulacrum in the video does it. (Incidentally, if you have to ask why Donall and Conall are calling Dawkins “Patrick”, watch more videos by the same creator.)

Faux Dawkins says miracle stories are cheap fiction substituting for Science, and that once Science arrived, miracles were no longer necessary. This is a fancy restatement of the MDESMDE (pronounced I have decided, made-smade). So is insisting the universe (multiuniverse, whatever) is entirely physical, driven only by materialistic forces. Saying all is only physical presupposes there is no spiritual element and thus miracles are impossible.

Another restatement: God doesn’t exist, so don’t look for miracles. Another (Hume’s): We can’t trust any report of a miracle because it’s more likely that any report of a miracle is due to error, lying, etc. than a miracle was miraculous. To this very day, Hume’s restatement of the fallacy is beloved by your better class of atheists everywhere.

By now you can come up with your own variants. In fact, that’s your homework. Find instances of the Miracles-Don’t-Exist-So-Miracles-Don’t-Exist fallacy in the wild and report back here with documentation in hand.

It can’t go without saying—hence my saying it—that any miraculous claim, like any claim which is logically (and physically!) possible, must be investigated. And when and if the miracle is proven to have occurred, it must be believed. If it is proven to not have occurred, it must not be believed. If proof is not definitive, believing or disbelieving depends on factors too multitudinous to explain here. Outright rejection, however, is not warranted. Outright rejection invokes the MDESMDE.

Why any miracle happened when where and how it did is a separate question than if it happened. Some commit the fallacy of rejecting miracles because they dislike the why. That’s nuts. But nobody except Utopians ever claimed men aren’t crazy—or can be made not crazy. Perfection of mankind is the goal of Progress, which is why those would would progress must necessarily despise history and tradition. But skip it.

Do any people say miracles can’t happen because they disliked the reason they happened? Well, Dawkins does. His video twin says something very like the real Dawkins often claims. Faux Dawkins commits the fallacy right before the best laugh line: “Did you honestly just argue that God doesn’t exist because he’s mean?”

He did. And that, too, is a popular argument. It’s most common form (that I’ve heard) is God doesn’t exist because He wouldn’t have had the Amalekites put to the sword; and since He did put the Amalekites to the sword, He doesn’t exist and therefore neither do miracles. Conall would suggest getting riotously drunk after hearing this.

The miracle of Jesus’s resurrection? Glad you asked. Well, Peter Kreeft is glad you asked. Go and see his “Evidence for the Resurrection of Christ” for details. Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ is also a good introduction.

HT to Father Z, where I first learned of the new video.

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