William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Page 395 of 671

Nothing Is More Important Than College Football

Thank God Penn State was able to play Saturday! Your author was in desperate need of free entertainment and there is nothing quite so satisfying as watching twenty-year-old student-as-customer athletes, in the words of Andrew Dickson White, “agitate a bag of wind.”

And what a game! 107,903 people crowded into Beaver Stadium to watch a group of twenty-two kids slug it out on the gridiron. The AP found a Penn State fan who was ecstatic:Penn State

“It’s therapy,” Dave Young, a lifelong Penn State fan, said before the game. “I love Penn State football, always will love Penn State football. Tough week, cried in my office a couple times when I had moments to myself.

“But now it’s time to release and watch the football game and enjoy it.”

You said it, Dave. Release it is. Whenever I even consider that the mighty Penn State may have had to miss a game—a football game!—I shiver and, yes, I weep, too. But let us fall on our knees and thank the dear Lord that this calamity did not occur and that Nike, Adidas, and the other sponsors who provided wind breakers and socks to the coaches of the two teams—for a substantial consideration—still had ample opportunity to showcase their products.

That hundred-thousand-plus number of attendees is important. As George Will (who also provided Cornell’s A.D. White quote) reminds us, it is the number of fans that television networks use to gauge the success of a school. The more fans, the more the networks want to sign the team—I mean school. And then the more moola that flows into the team’s—I mean school’s—coffers.

Sure, most of the money that is taken in has to be sent right back out in the form of multi-million dollar paychecks to the head coaches, and hundreds of thousands, even millions more, for the salaries of assistant coaches. More great wads of cash go to assistants to the assistants, to Deans to watch over it all, to groundskeepers and peanut vendors.

And then there’s the money for field, stadium, athletic buildings, and equipment maintenance. Oh, right, and the monies, paltry really, towards the scholarships (paid in lieu of salaries) of the amateur players themselves so that they can take majors in such rigorous fields like Sports Management, Business, and Communications. The broken bones and torn hamstrings are well worth the trouble these kids put themselves through, considering the greater glory of the Alma Mater and the increase in knowledge in Sports Management.

The band gets a few bucks slid their way, as do the cheerleaders, those lovely creatures the TV cameras always manage to find time for. In fact, it’s good to mention cheerleaders because I have long suggested my own school make greater use of these skirted athletes.

The school can cash in on them just as they do the football squad. I suggest wealthy alumni be allowed to schedule private viewings with the cheerleaders of their choice. Lock donor and athlete in a room and let the donor really put the cheerleader through her paces. Talk about an increase in school spirit! The school and the girl would split the tips.

And these sessions could be filmed, just as the games are, and sold to certain cable affiliates. We’re talking real money here and that is what is most important, which is in complete agreement with those who argue for the status quo in football.

Now, I know this is a sensitive time to bring up football, given the horrible events that occurred in the Penn State locker rooms. A lot of folks just can’t get it out of their minds that, for example, assistant coach Mike McQueary came across child rapist Jerry Sandusky buggering a ten-year-old in the shower and that he failed to call the police and instead called coach Joe Paterno, who then told school administrators who themselves thought it was best to keep quiet about the matter, except to tell the local District Attorney who has suddenly gone missing (with his computer which contained sensitive evidence). What many commentators fail to remember is that Penn State had a big game coming up the next week. Starting some big “do” at that moment could have hurt the team’s chances at a national championship—a national championship for goodness sake!

Some even argue, given what happened, that less of an emphasis should be paid to sports and more to academics. But this is just wrong, because it forgets how important entertainment is to our great nation. Take football away from college and what do you have? Nothing but classrooms, libraries, and students with their noses buried in books. And who wants that?

Bad News For Conservatives? Or Bad News For Rational Thought?

Let’s examine Marcus Arvan’s peer-reviewed paper, “Bad News for Conservatives? Moral Judgments and the Dark Triad Personality Traits: A Correlational Study”, published in the 25 July 2011 issue of Neuroethics. Marcus Arvan

Through the generosity of the “Yale Experiment Month initiative, a program financially sponsored by the American Philosophical Association for the purpose of encouraging experimental research by philosophers”, Avran went on-line and found “302 male, 257 female, 2 transgendered” persons to take part in a survey.

People self-reported, on a 1-7 scale, their fiscal and social conservatism or liberalism. (Arvan self-reported himself as a philosopher.) His subjects self-reported their age, sex, and several other variables that never appeared in Arvan’s analysis (why?). He also asked questions that sought—reminder: to seek does not imply to find—opinion on contentious political topics. He had the idea that conservatives would be more “‘hard-hearted’ or callous'” than liberals. Statistics and small p-values would vindicate him.

How did he come by this hypothesis? “Commonsense,” Arvan tells us, “suggests that there is a relationship between personality traits and moral value judgments.” He noted that “Adolf Hitler”—who he helpfully reminds us was a “mass murderer”—had the “notable personality trait” of “counteractive narcism,” [sic] which is “a type that is stimulated by real or imagined insult or injury” and that the briefly mustachioed dictator entertained the “notable moral judgment” of anti-Semitism. Arvan forgot that Hitler was a non-smoking, vegetarian, teetotaler. Perhaps these (more liberal than conservative) personality traits drove him to the Final Solution?

A typical Arvan question: “Homosexual behavior is: morally wrong, morally bad but not forbidden, morally neutral (neither good nor bad), morally good but not required, morally required.” Now, there are many arguments about the propriety of homosexual behavior, but to suggest it is “morally required” is not common. It is not clear whether this response is understandable to the audience Arvan polled. It is, at the least, ambiguous; at worst, nonsensical. He also had the same question and responses for gay marriage. “Morally wrong” is clear here, as is “morally right”, but “morally required” is not.

The wording on his economics questions is worse. Example:

A government ought to tax its citizens in order to ensure that all citizens enjoy basic life necessities (example: Social Security, which provides old-age/retirement benefits, and temporary assistance for needy families, such as food stamps etc.).

Who but a cold-hearted brute would withhold “basic life necessities” from his neighbor? Arvan’s word choice reveals his obvious bias: it ignores the conservative argument—whether you agree with it or not is irrelevant—that low or no taxes are better guarantors of “basic life necessities” than is government control. A person’s sympathies with his brother is confounded with his judgment of what makes sound tax policy.

And then there is his amateur psychological quiz. Answer (1 through 5 here) high on the question “I am a thrill seeker” and, according to Arvan’s view, you might be a psychopath. Say that you “like to get acquainted with important people” and Arvan says you’re a narcissist. Or agree that “It’s not wise to tell your secrets” and you are Machiavellian. Answer positively on all three and you descend into the “Dark Triad.”

Says Arvan. Not directly, of course, but by calling these questions part of an “instrument” with “face validity” and by quoting others in the “growing body of literature” he rubs a patina of legitimacy on his survey. Finding correlations between arbitrarily labeled questions all the rage and guarantee the road to publication. Over confidence in their results abounds. Why?

It might be true, for example, that all psychopaths would agree that “People who mess with me always regret it” but it is far from obvious, and probably false, that all psychopaths would openly admit it on a public survey. It is also unclear how many non-psychopaths would also agree with this and other similar questions.

Finally comes Arvan’s statistics, which is nothing more than Pearson straight-line correlation between answers on the personality and political and moral questions. Because of the discrete form of the responses, he should not have used this measure: doing so can inflate correlation. Most of his correlations were (in absolute value) in the 0 to 0.4 range, most were near 0. But they all had small p-values, which is unfortunately all you need to publish. Suspiciously, he never reports what percent of respondents were conservative, liberal, or religious, nor does he give any demographic breakdown (besides noting “gender”).

To the results! He found, for example, that psychopaths are more likely to agree that “A government ought to detain suspected terrorists as long as necessary without trial to prevent terrorist attacks”, but only to the tune of a dismal 0.2 correlation. He calls this finding a confirmation of “conservative judgment”, which means he doesn’t follow current politics closely, as calls for eliminating habeas corpus are now more likely to originate from the White House than the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal.

His says his conclusions are “bad news for conservatives.” Time and again Arvan implies that conservatives are Machiavellian, Narcissistic, and psychopathic—“‘morally worrisome’ traits” in his words. Yet he gushes that his conclusions are “provocative” and “significant” and that luckily they raise “many questions worthy of further research.” After putting a good word in for ad hominem arguments, he states he has raised “provocative moral questions worthy of further philosophical research.”

A psychologically more interesting question that they ones “raised” by Avran are how these sorts of papers ever see the light of day. If anybody wants to fund such as study, then I am your man.

Arvan’s work has also been picked up in the press.

Global Warming, Asinine Science Roundup

Still in Taipei and a bit swamped. Here are some links that will be of interest; mostly provided by Willie Soon, Marc Morano, and readers just like you!

  • Trenberth’s Null Hypothesis. Trenberth claims the “burden of proof should lie with research which seeks to disprove the human role.” He says, “Humans are changing our climate. There is no doubt whatsoever.” Given simple and obvious premises, this is true. I repeat: Trenberth’s claim is true and obviously true.

    But given that it does not then follow that the sky will fall. The burden of proof still necessarily lies with Trenberth to show how much warming, and what will happen as a consequence. To insist otherwise is to make a colossal logical blunder.

    It is perhaps not Trenberth’s fault that he stepped in it. Most people misunderstand the term “null hypothesis.” I have no love for it and wish it would join the ranks of phlogiston and Randian objectivism of failed concepts.

    Thanks to Larry Fields for the link.

  • Chris Mooney, the impressionable and excitable young author has written a new book (with a title nearly identical with his old one): The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Don’t Believe in Science (or Many Other Inconvenient Truths).

    Presumably this book will explore why, via brain defects, people believe vaccinations cause autism, “frankenfoods” cause lunacy, how science is just one system of knowing, etc., etc. But since these are beliefs almost always found on the left, it’s doubtful.

    Instead, the foolish Mooney embraces New Eugenics, i.e. neuroscience, which seeks to prove why the brains of conservatives pale in comparison to liberals like Mooney. There is no ranker pseudoscience in operation today than “brain scans” and statistics which “prove” that those who voted for George Bush are fundamentally different, neurologically speaking, than those who gushed over the Big O.

    We’ve looked at a number of these (peer reviewed!) papers on which Mooney presumably relies. Without exception, every one of them stank. Not just smelled, but were putrescent. They are so bad that they call out for a scientific explanation of how so many credentialed scientists could have misled themselves so badly.

    The most asinine of these was the work which claimed that mere exposure to the American flag, of size 72 x 45 pixels, turned people into Republicans. One imagines Mooney reading this work and breaking into a delicious sweat.

    The second worst paper in this line was the one provided by Harvard (leftist?) scientists which claimed that merely glancing at a flag on the Fourth of July was enough to turn one into a—can you guess?—raving Republican.

    Wait a second: I have it. The new non-null hypothesis is that exposure to papers which claim that exposure to the American flag turns innocents into Republicans turns the weak into raving, slavering Progressives. Poor things! Small p-values to come in due course.

    When there’s more time, I’ll investigate this in more depth. Meanwhile, a homework assignment. Send me as many links/papers as you can on this topic of brain differences and politics. We’ll have some fun. If somebody has a spare copy of Mooney’s book, I’d like to borrow it.

  • The Nation was displeased with Heartland Institute’s Sixth International Conference on Climate Change. I didn’t go, so I’ll rely on you all to correct any misperceptions.

    The writer was sufficiently impressed by audience behavior while a scientist talked, “several members of the mostly elderly audience seem to doze off while the temperature graphs are projected.” The writer has evidently never attended a conference before. Sleep is a primary activity at most talks. The talks that people attend, that is. This as far as I got in the article, because I felt the same effects reading this as did the audience members watching the Powerpoints.

  • Willie sent me a couple of papers which purport to show that traffic jams cause autism. Or something. I’m thinking of sending these on to Chris Mooney to see if he can find a way to blame Republicans for the traffic jams.

A Sermon You Won’t Forget: The Exorcist at 40

The ExorcistThe Exorcist: 40th Anniversary Edition

by William Peter Blatty


If you’re only familiar with the (original, 1973 version of the) movie, it might surprise you that The Exorcist is not a horror story. It a tale with horrible events, but like those that beset Job, these distressing events have a deeper purpose than inflicting fear.

The story begins in dread and ends with death. But since all life ends in bodily death, this should not be frightening. The true horror is experienced not by little Regan, who by the end of the book has recovered and suffers no memory of what happened to her, but by Regan’s mother, actress and atheist Chris MacNeil. As the book opens she awakens shaken from a nightmare in which she experiences the worst thing possible. This isn’t death or punishment of the body. It is her eventual non-existence, the utter annihilation of what Chris MacNeil was. “God, it can’t be,” she thought, “But it is.”

It is the question—eventual non-existence versus life everlasting—and faith, everywhere faith–the priest Karras’s emaciated faith, Chris MacNeil’s nascent faith, the sure and absolute faith of the priest Merrin—that animates the story and drives it forward. Blatty asks the reader no less than he asks of himself. He does not tell you a demon takes over Regan. It is up to you to believe through faith in the actual possession of Regan. For believing in that means believing in God: you can’t have one without the other.

Missing from the movie but present in the book is the reality of non-spiritual psychic and paranormal phenomena. When a drawer of a bureau is opened at a distance, untouched by hands, Blatty allows Karras to posit a force that originates from Regan’s brain, an entirely physical and mundane force. When the voice inside Regan understands and answers questions put in fluent Latin, Karras first imagines this is definite proof of possession since there is no way Regan could understand that language. But then Karras realizes that Regan could have been reading his mind, seeing the answers he had formed to his own questions and then merely parroting them.

Psychokinesis is real, as is telepathy, in this universe. Both are matters of science here, in the same way that EEG tracings and schizophrenia are. This was a natural supposition for Blatty to make given the time in which he wrote (1971). Psychic phenomena were (at least somewhat) seriously considered then. Leading journals spoke of it. Research was conducted and sponsored by sober agencies.

As Dickens tells us at the beginning of A Christmas Carol these facts must be distinctly understood, or “nothing wonderful” can come of the story Blatty relates. Every astonishing event is given a naturalistic explanation; that is, the possibility of one. Did Regan’s head spin completely around, or did fatigue and dim lighting cause her mother to imagine it? Writing that wells up on Regan’s skin is explained in the terms of case histories of other mentally ill patients where it has been seen before. The cold in Regan’s room: auto-suggestion. The strange voices: mimicry is not unusual in hysteria. Neither is unusual strength or precocity. Talking English in reverse? Mozart did that, too. Karras repeats to himself: The exorcist will simply be careful that none of the patient’s manifestations are left unaccounted for.

When the detective Kinderman approaches Karras for the first time he asks Karras for help in identifying likely culprits to a string of church desecrations. Kinderman asks if a “witch coven” might be operating. Karras gives a smart ass answer. Kinderman retorts, half jokingly, “That’s defensive. You’re afraid you’ll look gullible, maybe: a superstitious priest in front of Kinderman the rationalist, the Age of Reason made flesh and now walking beside you!”

When Karras finally meets Regan, or the demon or demons within her, Karras asks for a sign, of definitive proof that the demon is real. The demon/Regan replies:

“No, nothing would prove anything at all to you, Karras. That is why I love all reasonable men. How splendid! How splendid indeed! In the meantime, we shall try to keep your properly beguiled. After all, now, we would not wish to lose you.”

When Karras figures Regan, not a demon, could be reading his mind for answers to questions put to her in Latin, he felt “an instant dismay as his certainty crumbled; felt tantalized and frustrated now by the nagging doubt that had been planted in his brain.” The demon/Regan is well pleased and repeats that he loves “all reasonable men.”

Some time later, Karras splashes on Regan water in a vial which he announces is holy water. Regan or the demon writhes in agony. This seems to be the proof Karras is after: a real demon would not have reacted violently to tap water. But Blatty is aware that this subterfuge works in both directions. On his subsequent visit, the demon/Regan says to Karras, “I’m surprised. I would think that embarrassment over the holy water might have discouraged you from ever returning.”

The demon/Regan teases Karras, giving him just enough to keep him on the knife’s edge of deciding whether the possession is real or is the result of profound mental illness. After one session, the demon/Regan says, “Ah, well, that’s sufficient excitement for now.” The brilliance of the ploy is obvious: produce sure signs and Karras’s faith would be too strong, so strong that perhaps the demon could be overpowered. But to withhold all signs would convince Karras that Regan is merely ill and should be institutionalized.

Karras found his answer, the answer, by the book’s end, as did Chris MacNeil. But Blatty gives last word to Father Merrin: “For I think belief in God is not a matter of reason at all; I think it finally is a matter of love.”

Interview with Blatty on why the second draft, this edition, is necessary. The second version of the film is also better than the original.

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