William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

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Why You Don’t Want Free Health Care: Supreme Court Hears Arguments On Obamacare

Our reading today is from the Constitution, first Act, eighth Section, third Clause:

[The Congress shall have Power] To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian tribes;

This is the so-called Commerce Clause. It is from this verse which is found the new power to compel ordinary citizens to purchase health “insurance” from companies selected by the government. If private citizens do not choose to enter into a contract with (semi) private companies, the federal government will use its powers to punish these citizens.

In Obamacare, the coercion is called the “individual mandate,” as in mandatory under fear and actuality of punishment.

Perhaps you are sympathetic with the view that the government should provide “free” health care to its citizens. You feel so strongly about this—think of the poor!—that you do not care how the government funds this “free” care. So what if people are made to give their money to private companies? The needs of the people for health care outweigh rich folks’ rights to dispense with their money how they see fit. And anyway, Congress surely has the power to raise a tax for this purpose and the individual mandate is nothing but a new tax.

The individual mandate is not a tax, however. Congress certainly could have created a tax to fund health care when it passed Obamacare, but it chose not to, almost certainly because Obamacare would not have passed with a tax as its base. Do not forget that not one single Republican, and not every Democrat, voted for Obamacare. This Act, this most contentious Act, just squeaked by: and only after the Congress promised at the last moment that federal funds would not be used to provide abortions; a promise that was quickly broken.

But never mind that. The mandate is not a tax. Taxes are monies which are taken from citizens and sent to the government. The mandate instead forces citizens to give their money to (semi) private corporations or to pay a penalty—not a tax—to the government. It is true that these beneficiaries will be selected and regulated by the government. But this means the Act thus codifies and makes permanent crony capitalism, a state of affairs which used to be anathema to the left, but embraced warmly in this case.

If you accept that Congress can compel citizens to give money to other citizens lest they pay a penalty, you are setting a precedent with far-reaching consequences. For this allows the federal government to regulate all behavior. Perhaps you are one of the intellectual elite who see that as no bad thing. After all, the truest and brightest will be called to government and there they will decide What Is Best.

Maybe so. But mores and attitudes have a habit of shifting. How long before a new Republican led government is empowered? Don’t forget that we had two terms of George Bush not that long ago. And suppose, Dear Lefty, that Rick Santorum ascends the heights and dons the mantle. Suppose even your worst nightmare comes true and his vice president is—one gasps—Sarah Palin.

What might this pair feel must be born by citizens? They will know they have the power to ask Congress to coerce commerce of any kind. They may say to themselves something like this: Well, abortion is legal, but nobody should be allowed to have one without education of what abortion means, what it can do, and so forth. Since abortion is a right for all, education on this subject must be for all. Every citizen must therefore pay certain organizations—churches, probably, and their affiliates—to provide this education. Or they must pay a penalty.

That okay with you? You may retort that “They wouldn’t do this” or “They will never be elected”, but that sounds more like whistling past the graveyard than sure conviction. Maybe Santorum and Palin won’t grasp power, but it is surely only a matter of time before some right-wing government takes the reins. If the Supreme Court holds with Obamacare, with the individual mandate, then this right-wing government will have the power to coerce whatever commerce it favors. And you will have no choice but to pay.

All history—I use the word all in the sense of all—shows that once a government is awarded a power, they use that power, and with ever-increasing frequency and ever-widening reach. To argue that Congress will stop with a health care mandate is thus irrational, below wishful thinking.

If you truly desire “free” health care for all, then you should petition Congress to institute a tax. Be sure to ask that the tax is large enough, though. Costs under Obamacare are already mushrooming, with no end in sight.

Bayes Theorem Proves Jesus Existed And Didn’t Exist

Richard CarrierIn his shockingly neglected, A Treatise on Probability John Maynard Keynes put his finger on the difficulty people have with probability, particularly Bayes’s Theorem:

No other formula in the alchemy of logic has exerted more astonishing powers. For it has established the existence of God from the premiss of total ignorance; and it has measured with numerical precision the probability the sun will rise to-morrow.

Probability carries with it “a smack of astrology, of alchemy.” Comte, Keynes reminds us, regarded the application of the mathematical calculus of probability as “purement chimérique et, par conséquent, tout à fait vicieuse.”

That last word, dear reader, is vicious; a word which was laughed off in the mad rush towards the utopia of Quantification an era which Comte, incidentally, and despite his intentions, helped usher in. We are, at this moment, mere moments away before a number must by law be attached to every judgment of uncertainty. We are already there in all “scientific” uses of statistics where a thriving Pythagorean cult, complete with arcane initiations and occult formulae, worships the number 1 in 20.

So you won’t be surprised when I tell you there is not one, but two books which argue that a fixed, firm number may be put on the proposition God Exists. The first by Stephen Unwin is called The Probability of God: A Simple Calculation That Proves the Ultimate Truth, in which he uses Bayes’s theorem to demonstrate, with probability one minus epsilon, (the Christian) God exists.

This is countered by Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus by the very concerned Richard Carrier (pictured above), whose uses Bayes’s theorem to prove, with probability one minus epsilon, that the Christian God does not exist because Jesus himself never did.

There we have it: probability proving two diametrically opposite conclusions. Alchemy indeed.

Carrier of course has the harder task, and he attacks it with all the gusto of a man uncovering the secret machinations behind the Kennedy assassination. Updated [correction applied; see the comments] He defines a mythicist as one who believes the historical Jesus was a myth.

He doesn’t just deny the divine Jesus, but asserts that the man called Jesus never existed. That Jesus was entirely a creation of a first century conspiracy to create a new religion; made up whole cloth, to coin a phrase. I won’t bother to parse any of Carrier’s writing, as it is excruciatingly painful to do so. But if you are interested, here is a link to a several-thousand-word essay in which Carrier “takes apart” a minor blog post written by a historian who claims Jesus lived.

An Amazon.com reviewer of Unwin’s work, which I have read and which is mercifully brief (and in large font with small pages), asks just the right question: “can you imagine anyone arguing that the existence of evil in the world, given that God exists, is 23% as opposed to 24%, for instance?” Indeed. Too bad this kind of question is not asked in science.

The reviewer has also recognized that probability questions have an order. That is, the probability that evil exists given God does is different from the probability that God exists given evil does. This crucial distinction Unwin minds attentively. Judging by his obsessiveness over niggling detail, Carrier probably gets it right, too.

The real question is: how can probability prove a thing and its opposite simultaneously? The answer is simple: the same way logic can prove a thing and its opposite. This does not prove that logic should be lumped with pseudoscience however. You can’t blame the tool for its misuse.

All arguments of certainty and uncertainty are conditional. For example, is the proposition “Jesus was divine” true? Well, that depends on the evidence. If you say, “Given Jesus lived, died, and was resurrected as related in the Gospels” then the proposition has probability one, i.e. it is true. But if you say, “Given Jesus was a myth, created as a conspiracy to flummox the Romans and garner tithes” then the proposition has probability zero, i.e. it is false.

Given still other evidence, the probability the proposition is true may lie between these two extremes. In no case, however, is probability or logic broken. It does explain why focusing on probability is wrong, though. These authors would do themselves better service on explicating the evidence and eschewing unnecessary quantification.

Update 22 Aug 2014. Welcome Strange Notioners! See this blog next week for a criticism of Carrier’s methods. Meanwhile, look to the Classic Posts page for lots more about probability.


Thanks to Ye Olde Statistician for suggesting this topic.

Experts Say People Aren’t Smart Enough

Public Policy Polling’s Tom Jensen said recently, “The first lesson you learn as a pollster is that people are stupid.” Jensen represents a common attitude among media denizens that ordinary citizens are mostly an ignorant lot.

And this feeling is seemingly backed up by research, such as that put forth by Cornell’s David Dunning and NYU’s Justin Kruger. They find “that incompetent people are inherently unable to judge the competence of other people, or the quality of those people’s ideas.”

To some extent this is not controversial. Most people say they are “above average” in everything from sports to stock picking. If somebody has no experience in a particular area, this person will often be unable to judge what is accepted as quality work in this area. Suppose a citizen is asked to judge the formatting of a grant submission. The further he is from university life (for example), the less he will be able to say much that is interesting and useful about the process.

Also, D & K’s statement is not universally true. I do not know how to fly a jet airplane, but I can tell you that if one crashes it is not a good thing. Of course, Dunning and Kruger actually claim something more subtle:

For example, if people lack expertise on tax reform, it is very difficult for them to identify the candidates who are actual experts. They simply lack the mental tools needed to make meaningful judgments.

Taking up this theme was actor John Cleese who in a video discussing Dunning’s work said (beginning at 3:30):

The problem with people like this is that they are so stupid is that they have no idea how stupid they are…There’s a wonderful bit of research by a guy called David Dunning at Cornell…who’s pointed out that in order to know how good you are at something requires exactly the same skills as it does to be good at that thing in the first place. Which means…that if you’re absolutely no good at something at all then you lack exactly the skills that you need to know that you’re absolutely no good at it.

And this is false. Absolutely, positively false. It is so blatantly false that even those of moderate intelligence should be able to see it.

I do not know how to run the Large Hadron Collider; that is, I know that I do not know how to run it. I am not being facetious when I say that I do not know how to prepare my taxes, which are especially complicated because of the difficulties I have in getting people to pay their bills; my ignorance of the operation of filling out these forms is what led me to employ an accountant.

These are just two of very many things which I happen to know that I am not good at. And, it should (but doesn’t) go without saying that you will know of many things at which you are not good. Perhaps this is brain surgery or rocket science or writing legislation. Whatever it is, you might not rise to the level of intelligence required to understand these things, but you will certainly have the brain power to know that you are not good at these things.

Now it is true that there are some people who believe they are intelligent enough to be good at all these things and more, but who are actually ignorant. But we mustn’t confuse barroom bluster with actual claims of ability. Actual and genuine megalomaniacs are rare.

The other end of the spectrum are those who claim not to know about certain things but who secretly or in private believe they actually do know, or hold with the idea that they might not know, but they could if they put their minds to it. Again, these people are a minority.

Orthogonal to these three groups are Cleese, Jensen, and so forth. These are people who think they know everything they need to on just about all subjects, but who make statements like Cleese did and who do not trust the average citizen to be intelligent enough to know his own interests.

Here is another easy truth: It is a different skill to be good at a thing than to be good at judging who (else) is good at it. It is not clear that being good at the thing makes one a good judge of the thing. Hence movie and drama critics are often not directors or playwrights, and vice versa. Successful CEOs of engineering firms are often not engineers, and vice versa. Et cetera. And citizens are equipped, at most times and places, well able to judge who their political representatives are.

It is this truth that has escaped Cleese, Dunning, and the many others who would usher in a Brave New World for the good of those who, the elites believe, cannot judge their own affairs. Since this easy truth has escaped them, we are right to question their intelligence. It is surely less robust than these folks claim. This being the case, perhaps it is best if somebody is sent to look after them.

The Ultimate Failing

Ignore all this and focus on an even more fundamental, outrageous fallacy that lurks in Cleese-Dunning arguments, which I’ll leave as a homework question. Start with the premise that only somebody intelligent enough to do a thing can judge that thing. See where that leads you. Report back here.

Global Warming Feedback Confirmed!

Fat equationsJust some gentle teasing today.

Every climate scientist knows that it’s the feedback that counts, that the few squirts of carbon dioxide contributed to the atmosphere are powerless in isolation. What makes the situation dreadful is that, some suppose, the CO2 molecules gang up on themselves to strong-arm the “assistance” of other greenhouse gases. This makes for a bad brew.

Problem is, this dire feedback is nothing more than supposition. Or was. There is now proof that feedback exists! Two disparate groups of scientists have found, if not the holy grail of climate science, then at least a map to its hiding place.

This is science, folks: peer-reviewed truth. Don’t forget that if it’s in print, and the people behind the research are earnest and sincere, and that if the money that funded the work came from the government and not some corporation (Apple corporation is an exception), and that if the findings are in line with your political philosophy, then the results must be so.

This is the feedback:

  • Global warming makes people fat, and fat people make the globe warmer!

A vicious, inescapable treadmill to hell! The globe itself is conspiring to make people fatter, and what do you think these fatties do? They make the globe hotter because of all the food they eat. Which in turns makes the obese swell, which again turns the screws on the heat engine, and so on ad infinitum.

Danish researcher Lars-Georg Hersoug gave us one half of the circle. He found that lately “skinny people showed proportionately as much weight gain as those who were already overweight.” And so did eight different species of laboratory animals Hersoug happened to have milling about.

Hersoug racked his brain but could not discover why all these creatures should be gaining weight at the same rates. Until he hit upon the happy idea of using statistics:

Hersoug notes that atmospheric levels of the gas have risen during the same period and that in the United States, obesity has increased most rapidly on the East Coast, where CO2 concentrations are highest.

This is, of course, sufficient proof, but Hersoug is a diligent man and sought an airtight case. What happened next will be the stuff of scientific legend:

Hersoug…conducted…an experiement [sic] in which six young men were placed in special climate rooms for seven hours. They were then given the opportunity to eat as much as they wanted, and those who had been exposed to increased CO2 levels ate six percent more than those who had not.

His theory? (For there is always a theory, which is much to be preferred to data.)

Hersoug believes that hormones in the brain are affected by CO2 and may in turn alter our appetite and metabolism. He also suggests that CO2 in beer may be to blame for beer bellies and recommends spending more time outdoors, eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, and engaging in vigorous exercise to pump excess CO2 out of the bloodstream.

Now what about the other half of the circle? Enter researchers Phil Edwards and Ian Roberts who say “When it comes to food consumption, moving about in a heavy body is like driving around in a gas guzzler.”

This wasn’t just a cutesy quip. For everybody already knew that fat people eat more than thin people, and thus fat people are responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions. What makes the research of Edwards and Roberts unique is that they are the first to figure the increased fuel it takes to cart all that blubber around. CO2 comes from fuel, folks. Hard to argue with the physics, here.

E & R wish everybody could be just like the Vietnamese, a race of slim, low-BMI people. There is a culture that is good for the planet, boy. The only real surprise in this research is that they did not directly ask that high-BMI populations be drugged to make them tinier, like academic philosophers at the Future of Humanity Institute boldly called for. To be fair, E & R’s work came before that famous bioethics paper.

It is true, though Edwards and Roberts don’t use the word, that gluttony is on the rise (or on the swell). We do not choose to label over-indulgence with this most “judgmental” word. We instead hint that the sin against the planet is worse than the sin against the self, and that by hurting the planet you are thus hurting others, albeit indirectly; sort of like second-hand gluttony. This strikes me as a poor line of attack.

But never mind. Feedback has been found. The science is settled.


Thanks to reader Bob Ludwick for suggesting this topic.

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