William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

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Richard Muller Gives Permission To Be Climate Skeptic, Shows Why

Update See my review of the BEST methodology here.

Physicist Richard Muller has a piece in today’s Wall Street Journal that should be read by everyone (The Case Against Global-Warming Skepticism).

Richard MullerMuller concedes—in public—what many skeptics have claimed for years: that our temperature record is poor, especially over the oceans, that it is limited, filled with errors and biases, and when used as a basis for judgment, leads to over-certainty.

The temperature-station quality is largely awful. The most important stations in the U.S. are included in the Department of Energy’s Historical Climatology Network. A careful survey of these stations by a team led by meteorologist Anthony Watts showed that 70% of these stations have such poor siting that, by the U.S. government’s own measure, they result in temperature uncertainties of between two and five degrees Celsius or more. We do not know how much worse are the stations in the developing world.

Using data from all these poor stations, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates an average global 0.64oC temperature rise in the past 50 years, “most” of which the IPCC says is due to humans. Yet the margin of error for the stations is at least three times larger than the estimated warming. [link mine]

Even more delightfully, Muller admits that it has not been growing stormier (sorry, Big Al):

The number of named hurricanes has been on the rise for years, but that’s in part a result of better detection technologies (satellites and buoys) that find storms in remote regions. The number of hurricanes hitting the U.S., even more intense Category 4 and 5 storms, has been gradually decreasing since 1850. The number of detected tornadoes has been increasing, possibly because radar technology has improved, but the number that touch down and cause damage has been decreasing. Meanwhile, the short-term variability in U.S. surface temperatures has been decreasing since 1800, suggesting a more stable climate.

Nevertheless, the Berkeley project he led—which brought together physicists and (finally!) statisticians—were able to perform a complete re-analysis of all the temperature data, this time taking the main statistical statistical criticisms into account. Let’s leave aside whether these analyses were complete, rigorous, or recommended. Assume that they were. The findings?

We discovered that about one-third of the world’s temperature stations have recorded cooling temperatures, and about two-thirds have recorded warming. The two-to-one ratio reflects global warming. The changes at the locations that showed warming were typically between 1-2oC, much greater than the IPCC’s average of 0.64oC.

His conclusion is that “Global warming is real.” He hopes that “Perhaps our results will help cool this portion of the climate debate.”

But this blog, and all of the scientists who are critics, have agreed with this conclusion since this beginning. There simply is no debate on this question. There are no tempers to cool.

There has been, and still is, a vigorous disputation on the size of the warming and our confidence on this magnitude of warming. And Muller forgets that there has been a much more contentious argumentation about why the temperature has increased (in some places and cooled in others).

Just one thing about the first point of contention. If you look, say, at the year 1945 and compare it to the year 2010, you find warming of a certain size. But if you begin at 1940, just five years earlier, you find much less warming. Temperature increases (or decreases) are always relative to something (this is a point of logic, not physics). The choice of the comparator is arbitrary and subjective. Because of this, it is possible, and it has oft occurred, that someone wanting to stress the size of the increase will choose a comparator that best makes his case. Muller doesn’t state in his editorial what his comparator is; or why he has chosen just one.

However, we can afford to be as generous as Muller when he invited skepticism and allow that his statistical results are far more certain than any prior analysis. This merely brings us to the big question. As to that, Muller admits:

How much of the warming is due to humans and what will be the likely effects? We made no independent assessment of that.

From that he insists, “you should not be a skeptic, at least not any longer.” Somebody has to remind Mr Muller that skeptics aren’t skeptical of that some warming (and some cooling) has occurred. We are skeptics about our ability to explain this warming (and cooling), and to predict skillfully future warming (and cooling).

The fallacy—and it is a fallacy Mr Muller commits—is to suppose that because many climatologists have offered one theory for the observed warming (and cooling), and that, at least for the moment, they cannot think of one better, that therefore their theory is true. Thus, I remain skeptical.

Update Analysis of DJ Keenan’s BEST analysis coming tomorrow.

Your Belief In God Is Causing Your Denial Of AGW

Update Simon Donner has a blog post on this paper, which links back here. Since all comments are closed after 8 days (to battle spam), I’m moving this post to today so that more people have an opportunity to comment.

The title of this paper should have been, “They Won’t Believe Us Because They Believe In God.”

In his upcoming, peer-reviewed Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society paper “Making the climate a part of the human world” University of British Columbia geographer Simon Donner argues that religion is the cause of global warming denial.

Donner says that there is an “overwhelming consensus in the scientific community about the human influence on the climate system.” So his mind boggled that “Doubts about the scientific evidence for anthropogenic climate change persist among the general public.”

He knows how smart he is, and he knows the vast brain power that lies behind the creation of general circulation models. A lot of—but not all—intelligent folks are telling the Great Unwashed the consequences of these models. Yet people don’t listen.

It does not make sense that the rabble should not heed their betters—worse, that these poor folks should directly challenge scientists!

It can only be, he attests, a deep-rooted belief in the “divine control of weather and climate” that causes the ordinary to reject the arguments of the extraordinary.

Donner acknowledges that other factors beside religion may cause the sheep to stray: there are organized efforts (read Big Oil) to promote skepticism, political pressures, and just plain stupidity (couched as “cognitive biases”).

God of ThunderBut he ultimately blames those darned “hunter gatherers” and their lingering cultural belief that “the gods manage the weather.” In the battle for hearts and minds, climatologists always lose to the God of Thunder.

His evidence is built with faux-sophisticated, amateurish theology, for example in sentences like, “The weather god, who reigned supreme in early polytheistic belief systems, often emerged as the sole deity in later monotheistic religions; for example, the god ‘Yahweh’ of the Old Testament has been traced to a weather god from a particular region of ancient Palestine .”

In a table, the Book of Job is quoted, where Donner was surely delighted to find the words “clouds” and “lightning bolts.” Thank Yahweh for concordances!—tools which can be used by anybody to mine the depths of the mind of the Lord.

Donner’s suspicious that insurance companies used to blame “Acts of God” for disasters. Donner must therefore be pleased how far we’ve come when any maloccurrence is an act of (a rich) Man: even the 2004 Indonesian tsunami was blamed on human agents (specifically, George Bush).

Strangely, Donner sacrifices his main argument by admitting that in “secular communities, a broad sense that forces beyond humans control the climate may partly explain” denialism (emphasis mine). He also negates his point by allowing that some religious groups “present climate change in apocalyptic frames.”

He is guilty of theory overreach when he ascribes religious motives to non-religious “‘radical’ environmental groups.” And then there’s his other counter-to-his-own-theory argument that “religious groups have expressed concern about the effects of human activity on the climate….based on the Biblical concept of stewardship.” What makes these folks, whose minds are saturated with religious thought yet who do not deny, different than those who do?

Anyway, what’s the Solution? Why, education; what else? Fill the heads of the addled religious with cute, global-warming-is-true stories, because folks learn more “easily or more rapidly from personal or cultural experience than from numerical or statistical evidence, which require greater interpretative skills and effort.”

What Donner wants, though he does not use these words, is to Raise Awareness. There are sillier slogans of the modern world, but not many. Only those approaching zealotry are convinced that persuasion follows trivially from mere exposure to slogans, such as those provided at “interactive dialogues or forums.”

Yet once more our author sabotages himself when he suggests

humility on the part of the scientists and educators. Climate scientists, for whom any inherent doubts about the possible extent of human influence on the climate were overcome by years of training in physics and chemistry of the climate system, need to accept that there are rational cultural, religious and historical reasons that the public may fail to believe that anthropogenic climate change is real, let alone that it warrants a policy response.

Donner’s main problem is to fail to acknowledge the complexity behind “belief” or “denial” in man-made global warming. Admitting that mankind influences climate is far different than agreeing that the effects of a changed climate are known with high certainty, that these effects will be universally deleterious, and that only the solutions offered by the left to “save the planet” are viable.

When a citizen is asked if he “believes” in AGW, it’s safer to say no, since it’s not clear what the question means, and since he won’t be certain the person who’s asking him isn’t using the question as an excuse to latch onto his wallet.


Thanks to Willie Soon for suggesting this topic and for the title.

Louisiana Bans Cash For Used Goods

After graduating from Southwest Paralegal College—a for-profit Lafayette-based school which has since vanished into the aether; suspiciously, even the Wayback Machine1 has no information on this august seat of higher education (its robots.txt blocked crawling)—Rickey Hardy, turned to washing houses.2 He was promoted from that position by voters in 2007 to represent, as a Democrat, Louisiana’s District 44. Rickey Hardy

And when there, surely operating under the purest of motivates, Representative Hardy turned his legal mind to the question of cash transactions, “relative to the purchase of junk or used or secondhand property.”

He was agin them.

Not against the transactions themselves, you understand, but staunchly opposed to using cash for them. Why? Well, it appears that Representative Hardy has discovered—imagine his surprise—-that some criminals use cash to exchange used goods.

This being true, and relying on the street-legal doctrine of guilt by association, everybody who uses cash is therefore suspected of larcenous behavior. Solution: ban cash and banish crime!

Let’s look at House bill 195 more closely. A “Secondhand dealer ” is defined as any person

engaged in business of buying, selling, or trading in or otherwise acquiring or disposing of junk or used or secondhand property, including but not limited to jewelry, silverware…aluminum other than in the form of cans…furniture, pictures, objects of art, clothing…

It helps to be clear: “For the purposes of this [law], ‘junk’ shall include any property or material commonly known as ‘junk.'”

Further, any person or business that sells junk, which includes but is not limited to those items aforementioned, “shall either keep a register and file reports or electronically maintain data and be capable or readily providing reports.”

Legal tenderThe reports must contain the name and address of both the buyer and the seller, a full written description of the item bought or sold, signed statements about the transaction, “The motor vehicle license number of the vehicle or conveyance on which such material is delivered”, and a few other items. These records must be kept for three years.

Lest you thought your author was joking when he mentioned the extra-legal doctrine of guilt by association, the lack of records by a merchant “shall be prima facie evidence that the person receiving such material…received it knowing it to be stolen.” Guilty!

Penalty? A fine “not less than one thousand dollars or imprisoned for not less than thirty days nor more than six months, or both.” Serious business, as you can see.

I know what you’re thinking: the law doesn’t overreach badly because pawn- and hock-shop dealers are notorious for dealing in stolen property. Maybe so, but this law excludes such businesses from its gaze, arguing that they are covered by other laws.

This law instead covers people like Danny Guidry, who owns the Pioneer Trading Post in Lafayette. Guidry says, “We don’t want this cash transaction to be taken away from us. It’s an everyday transaction.” He also laments “We’re gonna lose a lot of business.”

Why? Enter the inescapable Law of Unintended Consequences (evidently a subject not covered at Hardy’s alma mater). Eliminate cash from used book dealers, tchotchke hawkers, Salvation Army and other thrift outlets, garage sales, library sales, antique stores, flea and perhaps farmers’ markets, and such forth, and you force the cost of business to rise dramatically.

Any debit or credit card tacks on 3 to 6% (thanks, American express! Hardy calls these, “an electronic”: video). Not everybody has one of those creatures, either, a fact which escaped the tenacious Rep. Hardy. Sidle up to the Goodwill to buy a fifty cent paperback and, lest you risk at least six months in jail, use a credit card to pay, and Goodwill actually loses money on the transaction (the card companies have minimums). Too, if people are forced to use cash for minor purchases, many just won’t make them.

And how are people like Guidry supposed to record the name and number—plus license plate!—of every customer who comes to his store? The ordinary mind boggles.

The minds of the 34 State Senators who voted “Yes” on the bill did not boggle. Four Senators (all Democrats), doubtless taking Barack Obama’s lead, voted “Present”. Only one man said no: Neil Riser, a Republican. To prove that thoughtlessness has no ideology, several other Republicans voted yes. And even a handful of Democrats in the House said nay. And the Governor, a Republican, signed it.

Let’s not make too much of this silliness, because the odds of this law standing without substantial modification are slim. But that it was passed at all should cause us grave concern. It is unilateral, unthinking, pompous, overly paternal actions like this that motivate the Tea Party. There are too many laws, too much oversight by government—it is intruding in places where it has no business.


1There are a hundred sites where the school is listed, but none that I could discover had any information about the place except its one-time address. Perhaps some reader can do better than I.

2A job which I in no way disparage. I do wonder how many of his customers paid cash.

Legal Standards Of Proof And Probability

Different courts and legal systems use diverse phrases about evidentiary standards of proof1. Few to none are precise in the sense that they offer a fixed probability number for this proof. For example, there is no certain rule that proof “beyond a reasonable doubt” means that proof must have probability greater than, say, 0.95. As to this trend towards vagueness, I say amen.

Onus probandiThis fact is consonant with objective, or logical probability, where precise numerical values are not always known. For example, given the evidence, “Most male statisticians are remarkably virile and WMB is a male statistician” then the probability that WMB is remarkably virile is greater than 0.5. We cannot be more exact given this evidence: the probability is not, for example, 0.732; the best we can do is the interval greater than 0.5 to, but not reaching, 1.

In British and American courts and those similar, the highest standard of proof is “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Importantly, this is not “beyond any doubt.” There is some evidence that some jurors commit this misinterpretation.

The reason the substitution cannot be made is simple: questions of guilt are contingent and the probability of any contingent event, given any non-tautological evidence, is less than 1. It can be as close to 1 as you like, but it can never reach it. This is a philosophical truth.

Therefore, there will always be, for any event, evidence, which if accepted, will imply a probability of guilt less than 1 (this is what “contingent” means). Since this is so, the standard “beyond any doubt” can never—as in never—be reached.

“Beyond reasonable doubt” acknowledges both the contingency of the event and the fallibility of knowledge. We can assume, given the history of the courts and the behavior of juries, that the probability implied by this is quite high. But just how high is not, cannot, and (I say) should not be specified.

The next most stringent category is “clear and convincing evidence,” which is used in some criminal trials and often in civil cases. The probability implied by this standard is meant to be less than beyond reasonable doubt,” but how much less is never (and should never be) stated.

Concentrate instead on the next lower rung, which is “preponderance of the evidence,” which some interpret as “as likely as not.” The later, by the English alone, allows us to fix a number for this probability, which is 0.5. If, given the evidence, it is adjudged the probability of the event is “as likely as not”, this means the probability is greater than 0.5. Substitute the words “more probable than not” and the same conclusion is reached.

This is a very low standard of evidence. It is on par, quite literally, with a coin flip. This is so low a standard that you would not credit any lower exists. But one does.

It is “some credible evidence”, which unlike the previous standards, inverts (the temptation is to say “perverts”) the standard. This standard is used and is advocated by, inter alia, the National Association of Social Workers.

They say, “If an investigation determines that some credible evidence of abuse or maltreatment exists, the report is indicated (i.e., substantiated) and the family is offered appropriate services.” You have to enjoy the use of the euphemism offered.

Let’s see why this is backwards. John Doe is on trial for murder. Evidence for his guilt and innocence is presented. Considering the whole of this evidence, each juror forms an opinion of the probability of Doe’s guilt. The order is important and natural: given the evidence, what is the probability of guilt?

This same order is found for “clear and convincing evidence” and “preponderance of the evidence.” It can also be used for the “some credible evidence” standard, but here it can be inverted too easily.

Suppose (as Rumpole would say) a member of the caring profession arrives at the home of John and Jane Doe and their daughter Jill. The social worker notices on a wall a dent in the plaster, which if examined in just the right light might be head-shaped. The social worker says to herself, “Given that John is an abuser, what is the chance of finding a head-shaped dent in the wall, of the kind formed by smashing a child’s head into it?”

If John Doe is guilty, the probability of finding this evidence is at least greater than 0. It is therefore credible evidence. Mr Doe is then “offered” services which he must accept.

The order is backwards: guilt is assumed, then the probability the evidence is calculated. It is far too easy to find an argument for the credibility of nearly any piece of evidence, which is why the “some credible evidence” standard is so minor a burden.

The example is fanciful and somewhat absurd. But not too absurd. Anybody recall the Satanic Panic of late last century (a.k.a. Satanic Ritual Abuse)? The “some credible evidence” standard was wielded as a blunt instrument to “prove” that Johns and Janes Doe were eating babies, made as offerings to the Evil One. A sad tale of broken families, innocents convicted, and ruined reputations and fortunes.


1This post is sketch, to be filled in later. By no means is it complete or even mostly complete.

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