William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

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Publishing & Equality Are Killing Science


Equality kills everything it touches, eventually. So much is well known. It is also realized by regular readers that requiring academics to publish or perish causes them to perish intellectually. The happy news is that the latter of these facts is at last being acknowledged by others.

Daniel Sarewitz writes in NatureThe pressure to publish pushes down quality“. Not realizing the corrosive effects of Equality, and indeed embracing that awful theory, as you shall see, Sarewitz says

The number of publications continues to grow exponentially; it was already approaching two million per year by 2012…

But what if more is bad? In 1963, the physicist and historian of science Derek de Solla Price looked at growth trends in the research enterprise and saw the threat of”scientific doomsday”. The number of scientists and publications had been growing exponentially for 250 years, and Price realized that the trend was unsustainable. Within a couple of generations, he said, it would lead to a world in which “we should have two scientists for every man, woman, child, and dog in the population”. Price was also an elitist who believed that quality could not be maintained amid such growth. He showed that scientific eminence was concentrated in a very small percentage of researchers, and that the number of leading scientists would therefore grow much more slowly than the number of merely good ones, and that would yield “an even greater preponderance of manpower able to write scientific papers, but not able to write distinguished ones”.

So who we should really be hearing from is Price. Alas, that fine gentleman is no longer with us. Sarewitz calls Price an “elitist”, and that is fair enough, but it is a distasteful word to equalitarians, hence we might prefer “realist” to emphasize Equality is anti-realistic. Anyway, here is the what happens.

Equality caused the increase in colleges, which caused the increase in students and the professors teaching those students. The requirement that academics publish, married with Equality, caused the massive increase in publishing. Since Equality, though yearned for and believed, is false in fact, the average quality of those publications necessarily decreased.

And this might have been fine, because although the average necessarily decreased, the quality at the top might have stayed constant. If you have one man who can jump 8 feet, then the average of jumping ability for this sample of one man is 8 feet. But if you add yourself to the sample, and you can only jump 2 feet, then the average necessarily decreases to 5 feet, though the top man can still jump 8 feet.

But Equality and the mania for publishing is worse than that. Their combined effect burdens our high jumper by (metaphorically) forcing him to wear heavy weights, much as with Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron. Back to Sarewitz:

Mainstream scientific leaders increasingly accept that large bodies of published research are unreliable. But what seems to have escaped general notice is a destructive feedback between the production of poor-quality science, the responsibility to cite previous work and the compulsion to publish.

…the web makes it much more efficient to identify relevant published studies, but it also makes it that much easier to troll for supporting papers, whether or not they are any good. No wonder citation rates are going up.

That problem is likely to be worse in policy-relevant fields such as nutrition, education, epidemiology and economics, in which the science is often uncertain and the societal stakes can be high. The never-ending debates about the health effects of dietary salt, or how to structure foreign aid, or measure ecosystem services, are typical of areas in which copious peer-reviewed support can be found for whatever position one wants to take — a condition that then justifies calls for still more research.

Sarewitz wants scientists to publish less, and so do I. But I don’t think it will happen. Who wants to be the first to reduce his paper count? Surely not an Assistant Professor hoping for tenure, or an Associate hoping for promotion, or a Full hoping or a chair—and all hoping for grants.

Systems like this don’t reform, or only reform very rarely. Usually they just collapse. That’s my guess for science.

I have more on this topic in the last Chapter of Uncertainty: The Soul of Modeling, Probability & Statistics.

Bonus! As of this morning, the #1 New Release in Statistics!

Stream: University Of Cincinnati To Require Diversity Oath


Today’s post is at the Stream: University of Cincinnati Will Require Diversity Oath of Professors, Staff:

I once applied to a protesting Christian university for a position in its math department. The university required of its faculty several oaths, one of which being the Nicene Creed, a declaration to which I happily accede. But another would have required me to repudiate my Catholic faith, which I would not do. Thus, although I was well liked by the institution, and might have been offered a position, my refusal to swear to something I believed false was a permanent bar of employment.

Instead of being upset, I honored the university for its refusal to negotiate on its firmest principles. I disagreed with those principles, and am certain sure they are in error, but its actions in refusing comprise on a tenet and in its insistence on maintaining its identity was manly.

In the same way, we should honor the University of Cincinnati, which will require of its new faculty and staff to swear an oath to Diversity…

Diversity is our weakness. It is a satanic (some readers may wish to capitalize the word) religion more bizarre than anything L Ron Hubbard ever thought up. Diversity is manic, corrosive, unChristian, divisive, weakening, and most of all intolerant. Diversity requires strict unyeilding uniformity of its adherents.

At the least, Diversity is the giving of special considerations to members of officially designated victim groups whether or not individuals in those groups have suffered in any way for being members of these groups. This claim is backed by the University of Cincinnati itself, which includes a glossay of victimology in its Diversity Report which recommended the oath. For instance, the glossary defines empowerment: “When target [i.e. victim] group members refuse to accept the dominant ideology and their subordinate status and take actions to redistribute social power more equitably.”…

This theory provides a testable prediction. Look for, in the next year or two, a faculty of staff member of UC to be fired or disciplined for not being committed to Diversity strongly enough. (Those who are never hired we’ll never learn about.)

On your oath, go there to read the rest.

The editor at the Stream felt the first three paragraphs, which I include here, would be too confusing for the casual reader. I restore them here because I’m sure regular readers will understand.

Uncertainty: Foreword by Steven Goldberg


Steve Goldberg was president of the sociology department at City College of New York (CCNY) from 1988 until his retirement (back when they knew how to do sociology). He is the author of a number of books, notably Why Men Rule: A Theory of Male Dominance, When Wish Replaces Thought: Why So Much of What You Believe Is False, and Fads and Fallacies in the Social Sciences, all of which are must-haves.

Quid est veritas. “What is truth?” Even if detached from its religious roots, perhaps especially if detached from its religious roots, this is the most serious question a human being can ask. For if we do not have a comprehensible conception of what truth is, then we lack the foundation on which all statements must rest. While it is not the case that we presently speak only cacophony and write only nonsense, if our conceptions of certainty and uncertainty are murky, we then proceed with a disturbing absence of attachment of practice to justification.

And yet, for decades, indeed centuries, the accepted conception of truth has been one of skepticism, a denial that truth exists in more than a probabilistic manner. In this book William M. Briggs challenges this accepted wisdom with powerful arguments explained most cogently. With airtight, deep logic, he exposes weaknesses of probability, statistics, causality, modeling, deciding, communicating, and uncertainty—the whole kit and caboodle, “everything to do with evidence”.

This is no small claim and I approached Briggs’s work with some skepticism of my own. After all, our conceptions of probability, statistics, and the rest have seemed to work pretty well. Then I read Briggs’s book.

Much of the first part of this book, indeed the gist before Briggs gets to work on his positive insights, is refutation of our accepted concepts of probability statistics, evidence, chance. randomness, regression analysis, parameters, hypothesis testing, and a host of other concepts insufficiently questioned until now.

All this sets the stage for Briggs’s central point: All truths are known because of the conditions assumed. All probability, like all truth, is conditional. All truths that are known are known because of the conditions assumed.

Briggs brings to his work the widest range of relevant competencies. He has applied his extensive training and research to a wide range of analyses including cryptology, weather forecasting, prediction (and, perhaps most tellingly, the basic failure of prediction), and more generally, philosophy of science and epistemology.

Briggs’s central point is that truth exists, but in a world currently plagued by an over-certainty, which “is already at pandemic levels.” It is the failure to understand that all probability is conditional on evidence and resides in the mind, not in objects—probability has no ontological existence—that makes this pandemic possible.

In practice, and in all of science, conditional truths are far more relevant than are necessary truths. While thought could not proceed without necessary truths (P is P and not P is not-P), it is probability and conditional truth that is the launch pad for Briggs;s great many original thoughts and the arena that surrounds and binds them.

Uncertainty presupposes, and demonstrates, the existence of truth. Uncertainty must be about something. You cannot be uncertain about nothing. The something implied by uncertainty means that truth exists. Without truth there can be no probability. Since there is probability, there must be truth.

Despite this, probability, and more generally our conception of truth—indeed our conception of anything—must inevitably be anchored in a metaphysical ground. Our understanding of essence and our incomplete and often faulty knowledge of it make this inevitable

Probability is the central issue in this book. Beginning with the traditional definition of logic—the relationship between propositions, and with the separation of the logical from the empirical—Briggs emphasizes and exploits the fact that probability, too, concerns the relationship between propositions. “The rest,” he writes, “is mere detail.”

Probability is epistemologically conditional It can be epistemologically true, but it does not exist in ontological reality, but in the epistemology of the mind. Unlike the moon, or the stars, or human beings, probability does not have an existence in reality.

Mathematical proofs depend on premises and chains of premises; proofs found to be incorrect are nearly always found so not on the basis of miscalculation, but of the failure to take into account a necessary constraint. (It is interesting that proofs shown to be incorrect are virtually always demonstrated to be incorrect for this reason and not because their conclusions are incorrect. The conclusions are virtually always shown to be correct by a later proof.)

This book is full of subtle surprises. For example, it is almost universally assumed that deductive proofs are certain, while inductive arguments are uncertain. “But because we know indubitable propositions more surely than any other, induction produces greater certainty than deduction.”

As central as are Briggs’s methodological insights, equally crucial are their implications for decision making. Thus, for example, his suggestion that we eliminate hypothesis testing, which serves merely to affirm biases, would go far to improve the decisions resting on probability.

What I have written here is but a glance at the foundation on which Briggs’s edifice rests. The deepest satisfaction to the reader of Uncertainty resides in following Briggs’s thought and logic and the explanation they generate. Anyone who does so will find that this is a marvelous, marvelous book.

New York City, January 2016. Steven Goldberg, Professor Emeritus of Sociology, City College, City University of New York

This Foreword is permanently linked on Uncertainty’s homepage.

Summary Against Modern Thought: Angels—or Aliens—Did Not Make The World

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.

Angels, aliens, science, or the “vacuum” cannot create form, and form is necessary to make matter.

Chapter 43 That the distinction among things does not result from some secondary agent introducing forms into matter (alternate translation)

1 CERTAIN modern heretics say that God created the matter of all things visible, but that this was diversified with various forms by an angel. The falseness of this opinion is evident. For the heavenly bodies, wherein no contrariety; is to be found, cannot have been formed from any matter: since whatever is made from pre-existing matter, must needs be made from a contrary. Wherefore it is impossible that any angel should have formed the heavenly bodies from matter previously created by God.

Notes What’s this? The great saint used the H-word? Don’t tell anybody or there’ll be an Internet flap. Interesting, though, that this heresy is found in modern form, e.g. Gaia.

2 Moreover. The heavenly bodies either have no matter in common with the lower bodies, or they only have primary matter in common with them: for the heaven neither is composed of elements, nor is of an elemental nature: which is proved by its movement which differs from that of all the elements. And primary matter could not by itself precede all formed bodies, since it is nothing but pure potentiality, and all actual being is from some form. Therefore it is impossible that an angel should have formed all visible bodies from matter previously created by God.

Notes Don’t forget that angels aren’t made of stuff like we partly are. You will find no angelic dipstick, which is why science is blind to metaphysics. Also recall that prime matter must be married to form to create a material thing. Hence prime matter is “pure potentiality”. Forms, however, can and do and must exist in the mind of God (keep this in your mind in paragraph 4). Matter must have form to exist: everything you see has a form.

3 Again. Everything that is made, is made to be, since making is the way to being. To each thing caused, therefore, it is becoming to be made as it is becoming to be. Now being is not becoming to form alone, nor to matter alone, but to the composite: for matter is merely in potentiality, while form is whereby a thing is, since it is act. Hence it follows that the composite, properly speaking, is. Therefore it belongs to it alone to be made, and not to matter without form. Therefore there is not one agent that creates matter only, and another that induces the form.

4 Again. The first induction of forms into matter cannot be from an agent acting by movement only, for all movement towards a form is from a determinate form towards a determinate form: because matter cannot be without all form, wherefore some form is presupposed in matter. But every agent intending a merely material form must needs be an agent by movement: for since material forms are not subsistent of themselves, and their being is to be in matter, they cannot be brought into being except either by the production of the whole composite, or by the transmutation of matter to this or that form. Therefore it is impossible that the first induction of forms into matter be from someone creating the form only, but it must be from Him Who is the Creator of the whole composite.

5 Further. Movement towards a form comes naturally after local movement: for it is the act of that which is more imperfect, as the Philosopher proves. Now in the natural order things that come afterwards are caused by those which come before. Wherefore movement towards a form is caused by local movement. But the first local movement is the movement of the heaven. Therefore all movement towards a form takes place through the means of the heavenly movement. Hence those things that cannot be made through the means of the heavenly movement, cannot be made by an agent that cannot act except by movement: and such must be the agent that cannot act except by inducing form into matter, as we have proved. Now many sensible forms cannot be produced by the heavenly movement except by means of certain presupposed determinate principles: thus certain animals are not made except from seed. Therefore the original production of these forms, for producing which the heavenly movement is not sufficient without the pre-existence of those forms in the species, must needs proceed from the Creator alone.

6 Again. Just as local movement of part and whole are the same, like that of the whole earth and of one clod, so the change of generation is the same in the part and in the whole. Now the parts of those things that are subject to generation and corruption are generated by acquiring actual forms from forms in matter, and not from forms existing outside matter, since the generator must be like the thing generated, as the Philosopher proves in 7 Metaph. Neither therefore can the total acquisition of forms by matter be effected by any separate substance, such as an angel: but this must be done either by means of a corporeal agent, or by a creative agent, acting without movement.

Notes Betcha didn’t think you’d see the word clod in this book. Recall next that the First Cause is God, as provide in Book 1, Chapter 13.

7 Further. Even as being is first among effects, so does it correspond to the first cause as its proper effect. Now being is by form and not by matter. Therefore the first causation of forms is to be ascribed especially to the first cause.

8 Moreover. Since every agent produces its like, the effect obtains its form from that to which it is likened by the form it acquired: even as the material house acquires its form from the art, which is the likeness of the house in the mind. Now all things are like God Who is pure act, inasmuch as they have forms whereby they become actual: and inasmuch as they desire forms, they are said to desire the divine likeness. Therefore it is absurd to say that the formation of things belongs to another than God the Creator of all.

Notes The line we are “made in God’s image” is starting to make more sense now.

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