William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Page 394 of 672

Romney’s Obama Number

Physicists calculate what is called the “Einstein Number.”1 It is a measure of closeness. If you published a paper with that most celebrated scientist, you have an Einstein Number of 1.

If you have never published a paper with Einstein, but you have co-authored one with somebody who worked directly with Einstein, you have a Number of 2. And so on. Small numbers are a badge of honor.

I suggest politicians seeking advice on science adopt a similar quantity, which we can call the Obama Number. The lower the number the closer the politician is to adopting policies supported by President Obama.

Mitt Romey’s Obama Number was, until recently, 1.

Both men shared the services of John Holdren, the Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Mr. Obama uses Dr. Holdren’s services on a routine basis. Mr. Romney eagerly sought Holdren’s advice when the ex-governor drafted the “toughest in the nation” rules on power plants, a feat of which Mr. Romney openly boasted. These rules, incidentally, caused power production in Massachusetts to drop 18% in four years.

Holdren is a devoted follower of Paul “The End Is Near And This Time I Mean It” Ehrlich. He and Ehrlich once co-authored a paper which promised that if their “population control measures [were] not initiated immediately, and effectively, all the technology man can bring to bear will not fend off the misery to come.”

The misery failed to arrive, but lack of evidence means nothing to a man as deeply committed as John Holdren. He went on to write a textbook that advocated Communist Chinese-style forced abortions for women who have more children than their government-mandated maximum.

It was Holdren who coined the term “global climate disruption” as a replacement for “global warming,” because the latter did not sound frightening enough. Holdren cannot abide climate skeptics and would have them barred from speaking. He said of one moderate (Bjørn Lomberg) that he “needlessly muddled public understanding and wasted immense amounts of the time of capable people who have had to take on the task of rebutting him.”

Holdren also advocated seriously that “global climate disruption” can only be diverted if the U.K. and U.S.A. forced their economies to go into a planned recession. Fewer workers means less carbon dioxide released, you see.

Mr. Romney also dallied with Douglas Foy, a standard bearer for progressive environmentalism, and one-time boss of Massachusetts’ “super-Secretariat” of Commonwealth Development.

Part of Foy’s duties were to assist writing the Climate Protection Plan, part of Mr. Romney “no regrets” climate policy. Mr. Romney argued that if global warming turns out to be real, then increasing now the bureaucracy that regulates business will have seen to be wise.

But if turns out that global warming is not as pernicious as promised, increasing the size of government “will still help our economy, our quality of life and the quality of our environment.”

Mr. Foy was not as tempered in his predictions as Mr. Romney. Foy said that the “world’s dramatically shifting weather patterns are in part attributable to the often-heedless development patterns of the past.” Better, then, to have the government decide what is best—which coincidentally turns out to be what Mr. Foy considers best.

But all that is in the past. Since he began campaigning for the Republican nomination, Romney knew that convince conservatives to rally to his banner he had to fix his deplorable Obama Number.

So he began distancing himself from his past. He issued his “Believe in America” plan, which saw an abrupt about face from his previous believes. He announced, for example, that the current occupants of the White House are “in thrall to the environmentalist lobby and its dogmas”.

His previous green rhetoric has vanished. Where before he spoke of the “battle to improve our environment,” he now cries that the “regulatory bodies under [Obama’s] control have taken measures to limit energy exploration and restrict development in ways that sap economic performance, curtail growth, and kill jobs.”

These efforts have shifted Mr. Romney’s Obama Number to a more respectable territory, but he still has a long way to go.


1Yes, mathematicians more famously compute an Erdös number, but few civilians know who this great man was. The principle is the same.

The Selfish Genes Of Dennett’s Atheists

If you’re not busy this December 2nd and 3rd, and happen to be in the Buffalo area, you might drop in on the Center for Inquiry’s symposium “Daniel Dennett and the Scientific Study of Religion. A Celebration of the Fifth Anniversary of Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.1” The organizers have arranged so that it’s only one slim dollar short of a hundred to stay the night at the Candlewood Suites.

“Religion is child abuse!”
Religion is child abuse

And you should. Because to skip means missing the opening speech by Pascal Boyer: “Why There Is Almost Certainly No Such Thing As Religion.” Boyer is a professor of “Collective Memory” at Washington University in St. Louis. A university with no-such-thing-as Christian roots, incidentally.

But never mind, because more interesting is Boyer’s book, Religion Explained (you can see that he is prone to exaggeration). According to the blurb, Boyer assembles findings from “anthropology, cognitive science, linguistics, and evolutionary biology, Religion Explained shows how this aspect of human consciousness is increasingly admissible to coherent, naturalistic explanation.”

Your genes made you believe, you see. They do so to “maintain particular threads of social integrity”, so that these social institutions can in turn put you in the mood to make more copies of your genes. Clever little buggers, genes.

Luckily, though, we have men like Boyer who are able to break free of the control of the wee beasties and rise above their vile machinations. No religion for him, no sir! It doesn’t even exist. His genes can’t get the better of him. He has found freedom. His gospel (good news) is that your genes don’t have to control you, either.

If you can’t make it until the 3rd, you’ll still be in time for James Thomson’s lecture: “The Song of Serotonin and the Dance of Dopamine: How Ritual Harnesses Neurochemistry and Solidifies Religious Belief.” This suggests that science can somebody provide us with a pill to lessen the effects of serotonin and dopamine, so that they don’t get out of hand and lead to the worship of (obviously) false deities. Or the medicalization of religion continues apace.

Linda LaScola—who has an M.S.W. from, you better believe it, Catholic University—gives us her speech, “Preachers Who are not Believers — Preliminary and Ongoing Findings” based on a paper she and Dennett co-authored in the anything-goes journal Evolutionary Psychology.

It is their contention that many Christian clergy are “ensnared” in their ministries because of, and I quote, their religious “indoctrination.” These poor souls are “caught in a trap, cunningly designed to harness both their best intentions and their basest fears to the task of immobilizing them in their predicament.”

It is a complementary article, however; a peer-reviewed article. Subtle congratulations are offered to the non-believers they found and the “strange and sorrowful state of affairs” in which those folks found themselves.

My dears, all joking aside, I hope that you can see that this is not science. This journal purports to disinterestedly study human behavior and it uses language like this? To claim “sorrowful” is to hold a certain morality, an indisputable set of values.

But, joking to the forefront, I like this trend. I mean, the scientification of belief. It suggests that we conduct a similar study on academic philosophers who assume as true what they most desire to be true and then write confirmatory papers. Why do they do this? Are they are humorless as they appear? Do they suffer dearths of serotonin? Are they dopes sans dopamine?

Is it because they associate only with a snarky, isolated professoriate, a socially cohesive group that is blind to those who live outside its boundaries? They gather together. They sup as one. They have retreats. Just as the religious do, they offer comforting lectures on why what they believe is good and right.

How many of these atheists are secret believers? How many closeted religious will risk social standing or worry they will not gain tenure if they “come out” and say something like, “There is no proof that God doesn’t exist.” What a sorrowful predicament!

The genetic influence of why these people believe as they do should be studied. It is imperative that we discover the evolutionary explanation for their odd, flawed behaviior. We don’t see a lot of these people breed, at least not as prolifically as the religious, so the influence of their selfish genes will be mightily difficult to tease out. But I’m game.


1“Resplendently asinine.” David Bentley Hart’s review of Break the Spell.

UFOs in Taiwan

There are a lot of scoffers out there, UFO wise. We are told by our intellectual betters that flying saucers do not exist, that only ignorant hicks and poor country folk self-deluded themselves into believing they have seen them.

Yet all previous witnesses appear to have been possessed of a form Parkinson’s which affected their camera hands, rendering all proffered photographic proof ambiguous.

Scoff no more! For finally is definitive evidence of visitation of alien intelligences. Sure photographic documentation is here made available for the first time, presented by your reporter on the spot.

Near as I can figure, in the late 1970s, shortly around the time the U.S. Air Force was reporting to the world that Project Bluebook revealed that UFOs were fraudulent or mere mistakes, a fleet of vessels from outer space not only visited Earth, but set down roots for the long haul.

The ships are still here, in Taipei as I write.

As befits an interstellar star jumper, these vessels are large, about the size of a modern sky scraper. Indeed, they use their resemblance to modern architecture in an attempt to blend in. Why? Perhaps they are biding their time awaiting the signal from the approaching fleet to begin the invasion in force. Or maybe they are marooned here and have entered a sort of stasis and will only awaken after mankind progresses to a true Enlightenment.

But never mind why. They are here. Take a look at this one, trying to nestle between two banal buildings.

UFOs in Taipei

This next one was clearly trying to signal to a brother UFO. If you’ve ever seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind you’ll know this is how UFOs speak.

UFOs in Taipei

This is the other ship with which it was communicating. Eerie!

UFOs in Taipei

This next vessel was the most intriguing. Its muscular appears suggest it to be a battleship of some kind. It looks poised. It breaths. It is threatening. Notice, too, it’s communications gear is pointed straight up. This can’t be good.

UFOs in Taipei

Not all the ships that landed here faired well, as this last example proves. Poor thing! It is a hollow shell, infested with alien life forms (us) and barnacled over with, God help us, advertisements. I don’t know if this one lives as the others do or whether it is a mere carcass.

UFOs in Taipei

Finally, I present a terrestrial object, but one which is sighted in Taipei as rarely as any UFO. It is a public trash can on the street. I have been all over this city and have found only about twenty of these. This is because the rules governing the handling of garbage are stricter here than even in San Francisco, and the government will not countenance unaccounted for trash.

UFOs in Taipei

Inuitionist Math & Probability: Riemann Hypothesis Example

The principium tertii exclusi, the principle or law of the excluded middle, what is that? If there is a proposition B then it is either the case that B is true or that B is false. There is no third possibility. Either B = “you, the reader, are an American citizen” or not-B, you are not a citizen. Either B = “you have cancer” or not-B, you do not. Either B = “you are virgin” or not-B, you are not. The possibility of being just a little bit virginal does not exist.

The principle states that this matter of fact is true for all propositions. How do we know the principle holds in all cases? We don’t. We have to accept that it does axiomatically. But what if we rejected the axiom, what then? We enter the realm of intuitionism, a re-thinking of what mathematics is and what it means. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Intuitionism is based on the idea that mathematics is a creation of the mind. The truth of a mathematical statement can only be conceived via a mental construction that proves it to be true, and the communication between mathematicians only serves as a means to create the same mental process in different minds.

The Riemann hypothesis, a non-absurd statement about the distribution of prime numbers, is either true or it is not; at least, that is so if we accept the principium. Regardless whether the principium holds, we can say that the hypothesis is not yet proved. What do we mean by that?

Well, starting from a set of simple axioms about the nature of math and some accepted-as-true rules guiding the manipulation of mathematical objects, all deduced paths—strings of statements, where each farther along on the path is true given the ones that came before—none have so far led to the hypothesis. Stated another way, given all the known streams of argument, none have allowed us to deduce the hypothesis.

Given these paths the probability that the Riemann hypothesis is true is neither 0 nor 1. These paths certainly do not say the probability is 0; i.e. that the RH is false. And neither do they say the probability is 1; i..e that the RH is true. If we accept the principium, then we can say that it is true (there is probability equal to 1) that either the RH is true or that it is false. But isn’t a rather strong statement to make, especially considering we must believe it for all propositions?

Let’s remind ourselves that logic is a matter between propositions, and that the propositions themselves are not part of logic. All knowledge is conditional. You can’t say “It is true that B” without adding the condition on which you base this claim. This is a constructivist position. It isn’t true that B = “George wears a hat” unless we construct evidence that makes this so; such as E = “All Martians wear hats and George is a Martian.” Other E are certainly possible. As are E that make B false, or give it probabilities in between 0 and 1.

We can’t say E is true or false or in between unless we offer a different constructive evidentiary proposition relevant to the question. Whether or not such evidence exists is irrelevant to the question whether B is true given E. We accept E is true. Then B is necessarily true given E. Even though, in this case, we have other evidence that suggests E is in fact false.

When we say, for example, that B = “Fermat’s last theorem is true” we imply that there is a condition E which makes it so—even if we do not know what E is. This is important. The civilian saying “B is true” does not know E; he is relying on the premise that his mathematical betters have said E exists. His argument is that experts have said E is true and that given E therefore B is true. The civilian’s argument is therefore either circular or an appeal to authority. But because there is an E that does indeed let us deduce B, this only proves that there are “forms” of fallacies that give true results (this is another argument which David Stove gave).

This is different when we ask what is the probability that the RH is true. Here, we have a jumble of evidence: the beauty of the hypothesis, that many of the consequences of the RH are themselves useful and wide ranging and that other theorems once unproved (but now proved) shared the similar property that its consequences were useful and wide ranging and so on; not all of this is made articulate. Given this evidence we can say that the probability that the RH is true is high. But we’re hard pressed to deduce a quantification for this probability.

What then is the unconditional (intuitionist) probability that the RH is true? There isn’t one. There is no unconditional validity, invalidity, or probability of any argument, not just this one. If our only evidence is that the principium is true, then we begin our argument with a tautology and prefixing any tautology to any argument does not change the validity, invalidity, or probability of its conclusion. If our only evidence is that the principium is false, then we have nothing and can go nowhere. The RH neither follows nor doesn’t follow from knowledge that the principium is true or false. We have constructed nothing so no probability exists.

Finally, the intuitionist turns the question around and asked what the probability the principium itself is true. Given what evidence? is the question we must ask. Since for any proposition B we do not have constructive evidence that either B or not-B, we cannot claim that the principium is always true.

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