William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Page 395 of 580

Stephen Hawking vs. God

Everybody knows the following story: At one time, long ago, most or all people believed that when a tree branch fell and caused damage that a god or other spiritual entity caused the branch to fall. This belief was animate, in the sense that the god himself was pictured as pulling the branch or otherwise knocking it off the tree.

Reasons for the god’s behavior were ascribed, usually to sin, and perhaps a ceremony of propitiation was performed to forestall future baleful consequence. But over anything else, it was the fact of the branch falling that was used as evidence for the god’s existence. The branch fell, something caused it to, we can think of no cause, therefore it must be the god.

As time went on and fewer people imagined actually witnessing the god yanking on the tree, but they did not discard the idea that, somehow, that branch fell because the god willed it. Branches falling were still evidence of the god’s existence, but now weaker evidence. Some branches might have fallen on their own, who cares why.

Of course, magical thinking of this kind applied to physical events of all kinds; disasters were called, and not that long ago, “Acts of God.” Once more, these “acts” were a proof of God’s existence, but recently only in a vague sense. The causation really went one way: God to act, and not so much act to God.

Man’s existence, crucially his uniqueness and superiority over all other animals was, and still is, used by few, but a diminishing few, to infer the existence of God. The reasoning goes: because the universe is, God is.

The reason man’s uniqueness decreased in importance as evidence of God’s existence, is because physics itself could explain matters of fact like the biology of man more parsimoniously. That is, when the tree branch fell, we looked to physics or biology explain why. These new explanations worked, in the sense that their accuracy in foretelling future events was high.

Eventually, as far as explanations for any physical phenomena, science was a better theory than one relying on the moods and ineffability of God. Scientists were thus right to boast of their predictive and explanatory power, and they were right to claim their ascendancy over religion.

But then scientists made the same mistake in reasoning earlier people did: they argued that because we have a mathematical equation that describes falling tree branches, we can infer that God does not exist.

It wasn’t just falling tree branches, of course. Scientists became able to explain more of creation, even to the point of inferring that creation itself was a natural phenomenon, fully explicable using a few, minor assumptions.

We now have scientists like Stephen Hawking, in his forthcoming The Grand Design (as reported by the redoubtable Daily Mail), saying things like this: “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing…Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.”

This may be so; in fact, it is likely to be so. But then Hawking goes one step farther and says this: “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touchpaper and set the universe going.”

The key mistake Hawking makes is to forget what he started out saying, or to neglect its importance. He said, “Because there is a law such as gravity…” He did not ask why gravity? Why is there not something else that looks like gravity, but isn’t?

That, of course, isn’t a new question, and is usually answered by saying something like this: “We began in ignorance about tree branches, but eventually figured them out. We now understand gravity and various other forces, and they can explain the instantaneous, unforced creation of the universe. We might not now know why these forces exist, but we’ll surely figured out why they do in time.”

This, at first glance, is not an irrational argument, but it is flawed irreparably. While we might figure out why known forces exist, it will be because their origin is explained by other facts. Some of these facts might themselves be explained by other facts and so forth.

But there will eventually come a base beyond which no further proof is forthcoming. There will be, that is, a set of facts so fundamental that we will only know about them through our intuitions. These a priori truths cannot be seen behind. We will never be able to say why these facts are and why other facts are not.

It will be in that still small place that there will always be room for God. Thus, it will always be the case that the reason for what is is because of God.


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How Steve Jobs Will Destroy Civilization

September 1, 2012

Steve Jobs unveils the Apple TV, a device which allows “consumers” to relieve themselves of the burden of owning movies and television shows.

Previously, if people wanted to possess a movie or a television series, they would be forced buy a video cassette or DVD version, or they would have to suffer the inconvenience of recording these events on a tape or digital video recorder. Once either version was in hand, then, via direct playback or by running the recording, consumers could then watch these programs as many times as desired.

The Apple TV changes everything. In what industry insiders are calling “iTunes for Television,” the Apple TV lets people rent movies and TV shows, and allows them to pay for each time they view a program. Mr Jobs explained, “Why buy when you can rent?”

Never trust a man who hasn’t learned to shave
Steve Jobs

Jeff Blake, President of Sony Pictures, a company which had previously offered a rival service, hailed the Apple innovation. “The movie and television industry applauds Apple’s amazing new technology. Never before have consumers been offered such an excitingly wide range of methods of paying for content. Sony is right there with them.”

Gizomodo’s Kat Hannaford said, “While it’s true Apple has taken over the video delivery market, a lot of people aren’t seeing that they have done so much more. Up until now, consumers were forced to go to ABC, Hulu, or Fox TV’s websites to watch programs. Worse, there was no way for those consumers to contribute a fee. Apple’s genius lay in discovering a way to get that fee.”

A spokesman for Netflix, another company in the pay-per-view space, said that CEO Reed Hastings was unavailable for comment, because he was out shopping for black t-shirts.

June 8, 2012

Jobs announces the Apple Bowdler, an iPad “app” which will electronically—and quite seamlessly—allow all text documents, such as books, stored on the iPad to be remotely improved.

Through the iPad’s Bookshelf, consumers were relieved of the terrible affliction of owning books. Apple’s book-reading license, present on every Bookshelf, freed consumers from the physicality of paper, and gave them the ability to agree to terms Apple set for reading texts. And now those texts can be endlessly refined with the Bowdler app.

David Spark, host of the popular technology show The Spark Minute, described to reporters how this app works. “It’s really simple. Suppose a publisher has an improvement they need to make to a text. In the days before the Bowdler app, there was just no way they could do it.

“Now, all it takes is a ‘genius’ at Apple headquarters to issue a command like ‘times 14.2.84 miniplenty malquoted obama rectify’ and for example the number of casualties noted in the text document History of the Iraq War ascribed to Barack Obama will be reduced to reflect the reality that should have been. It’s just amazing.”

Jobs, clad in traditional black outfit, demonstrated the app at his Keynote address by removing the Nixon presidency from not just every iPad bookshelf, but from all libraries that had subscribed to Apple’s ebook service.

Apple fanboy blogs were ablaze after the event. One blogger wrote how he “Couldn’t stop crying” after witnessing Jobs’ feat. “Apple is so so so amazing. Just so amazing.”

Jeff Bezos, in a tone which some are indicating as hurt feelings, put out a press release, in which he said, “Amazon is always innovating, and has had technology like the Apple Bowdler app in the Kindle device since day one. Users who buy the Kindle even have a non-ownership book-reading license, just like Apple.”

Industry insiders are ascribing the success of the iPad Bookshelf over the Kindle to two reasons: Apple’s perceived “cool factor” among hipsters, and because the iPad unlike the Kindle allows consumers to effortlessly switch from reading books to surfing the web or to play games.

December 7, 2012

The success of the Bowdler app was so great that Apple introduces the sister app, the Lucasator, available for the iPhone, iPad, and naturally integrating with Apple TV. This powerful software, designed in conjunction with Hollywood movie directors, does for video what the Bowdler did for text.

February 28, 2013

Apple unveils its Psyops content regulator app. Working with FDA and other government agencies, Apple has produced what many are calling a “miracle app”, and still others are naming the “Eye in the sky.”

The iDecide app uses the latest scientifically proven methods that automatically chooses content, both in text and video form, that are proven to be optimal for viewer enjoyment and edification.

Jobs said, “Working with the Master Database lets us ensure that all content is bias free. But even better is that the horrendous, and often harmful, stress consumers felt because there were too many choices to make has been removed once and for all time. The iDecide is a major entertainment and public health event.”


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InterAcademy Council Rebukes IPCC: Pachauri To Resign?

You’ll have heard that the InterAcademy Council had a look-see at the inner workings of the IPCC (more on that below). This council, previously unknown to civilization, is, as the IPCC was supposed to be, an independent conglomeration of scientists and other large-brained individuals, spread the world over.

Now, whether the IAC is sufficiently qualified to dress down the IPCC down is debatable. But dress them down they have. In a brutal report, the IAC found that the IPCC leadership was “less agile and responsive than it needs to be” in answering it many criticisms.

The strongest recommendation was that the fellows at the top of the IPCC should only serve for limited terms. Many are interpreting this as suggesting that sex novelist Rajendra Pachauri should bow out tout de suite. But there’s no need to be coy: of course this is what the IAC is suggesting!

However, when Pachauri departs to retire to a life of penning bodice rippers, it will be no kind of political victory for climate doomsday skeptics. Pachauri was originally chosen to be the boss only because of his unquestioning loyalty to the cause and because he possessed a, let us call it, internationality that Americans or Brits do not.

Pachauri’s appointment would have been fine, but he made the mistake of assuming it was based on merit. This delusion caused all the usual symptoms, such as his holding forth idiotically on all sorts of matters of which he had not a clue.

In one recherche episode, Pachauri called another man’s work “voodoo science” because that man’s careful observations on the rate of melting of Himalayan glaciers was not consonant with the rate quoted in the IPCC report. But it turned out that the IPCC’s source for the melting rate was culled from an environmentalist propaganda brochure written by a pal of Pachauri.

So he will resign. But I repeat, this will be no victory because the UN is unlikely to make the same mistake twice. They’ll still appoint a True Believer as boss, but whoever it is will almost certainly be a scientist. The net effect will be a lessening in the comedic output of the IPCC, but that’s about it.

Beyond a shift of nameplates in the bureaucracy , it’s anybody’s guess whether the other IAC recommendations will be adopted. The IAC’s juiciest admonitions are in an appendix. Here’s one after our own hearts:

[The IPCC should] give greater attention to assessing uncertainties and confidence in [key findings]. Avoid trivializing statements just to increase their confidence…Determine the areas in your chapter where a range of views may need to be described…to form a collective view on uncertainty or confidence.

If you’re not used to reading peer reviews, I can tell you that this appendix is hot stuff. Rarely have I seen so strong a rebuke. The IAC felt it necessary to lapse into pedantry. For example, they include a table of “A simple typology of uncertainties” because they believed that the IPCC was unaware of what the word “uncertainty” meant. To illustrate “Unpredictability”, they list, “Projections of human behaviour not easily amenable to prediction (e.g. evolution of political systems). Chaotic components of complex systems.”

For examples of “Structural uncertainty”, they say, “Inadequate models, incomplete or competing conceptual frameworks, lack of agreement on model structure, ambiguous system boundaries or definitions, significant processes or relationships wrongly specified or not considered.”

Finally, “Value uncertainty: Missing, inaccurate or non-representative data, inappropriate spatial or temporal resolution, poorly known or changing model parameters.”

The IAC had to tell the IPCC that their pronouncements should not be spoken in the same tone Moses used when descending Sinai; they reminded the IPCC that “probabilistic approaches are available” and that they should consider reporting “ranges of outcomes and their associated likelihoods”. To make this complete, there’s a sarcastic lesson on rhetoric: “A 10% chance of dying is interpreted more negatively than a 90% chance of surviving.”

Folks, this is elementary! But school wasn’t over. There’s a hilarious table in which various wordings of uncertainties are mapped to numerical measures, e.g. “Very low confidence” maps to “Less than 1 out of 10 chance.” This is so basic it is like reminding a physicist that the speed of light is constant. IPCC members must be furious to be spoken to in this manner!

But the IAC wasn’t finished. The knife was already in and had already cut the vital organs, but they gave it a twist anyway, by stating, “[The IPCC should] be aware of a tendency for a group to converge on an expressed view and become overconfident in it”. About this quip Bertie Wooster would have said, “And they meant it to sting!”


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James Cameron Ducks Global Warming Debate That Never Should Have Been Agreed To

Movie maker James Cameron has called people who don’t believe as strongly as he does that the end is nigh “boneheads”, which, as insults go, isn’t particularly inventive. You would have expected a guy who thought up the Terminator would have devised a slur better than one considered hackneyed on elementary school playgrounds.

But of course, Hollywood directors rarely write their own material, and instead rely on the talent of others. Here’s the full quote (which is now a few months old, but I only heard it on its echo):

I want to call those deniers out into the street at high noon and shoot it out with those boneheads. Anybody that is a global-warming denier at this point in time has got their head so deeply up their ass I’m not sure they could hear me.

Well, Jimmy, I can hear you and I’m willing if you are. Since you are the challenger, and I am the challenged, by tradition I have the right of choice of weapon. Smith and Wesson Model 29. It’s a six-and-a-half inch nickel-barreled .44 mag revolver, a gun obviously appropriate under the circumstance. If you like, we could do holsters, but I’m fine with drawing from the belt.

I suppose, though, that when Cameron made this threat, he was full of the same kind of material typically produced by his industry. So I don’t think any skeptical climate scientist need lose sleep fretting that the next time they open their door they will find a bespurred James Cameron playing with his shiny pistol.

Anyway, point is, Cameron thought it would be a good idea to debate some people about climate change. Have a shoot out off the lip on stage instead of in the street with real weapons, that is. The folks set to debate Jimmy got excited. But at the last moment, Cameron changed his mind and decided to remain hidden in a room on the second floor of the saloon. Somehow, his timidity made the press and blogs and was judged significant.

It is not. James Cameron debating anybody on the physics of climate change would be of the same informational value as if your muffler repair man tried out his forensic skills. It is true that both the muffler man and the cameraman have the same right to debate, but it is also so that both have the same level of expertise.

Suppose Cameron were not a coward and attended his debate. The most likely outcome would have been that he would have been exposed as a know-nothing. But so what? This was already obvious from the prior evidence. For example, this is a man who in public has claimed that carbon dioxide will “cause the destruction of 50 percent of all species on this planet by the end of the century.” Even Greenpeace isn’t that loony.

And does anybody believe that his supporters, after hearing his fantastical, fanatical statements, would have Seen The Light and changed their minds? The question is answered in its asking.

The only reason that this sad episode is worth commenting on is that there are some on the skeptical side—more than a few—who are crowing over the “victory” of Cameron canceling the debate. It is as if his action has proved that the worse fears of global warming are false.

This is ridiculous. And his canceling is no sort of victory at all. It is a defeat.

For the “debate” never should have been agreed to in the first place. That is was shows that some climate skeptics are just as celebrity addled as the Chicken Littles. “Wow! We get to debate a Hollywood director! I wonder if Tom Cruise will show up?”

Even acknowledging the request for a debate is to give the man and his lunatic views a certain legitimacy. Taking him up on his offer of a shootout is one thing, because his threat was personal, and his refusal to back up his words with actions shows Jimmy to be the coward that he is.

But agreeing to argue with him over the proper roll of feedback in cloud parameterizations in GCMs is asinine. If climate skeptics want a real debate, they should ask my pal Gavin. Best him and then you have something to crow about. But beat up Jimmy Cameron and your top claim can only be that you shot a fish in a barrel. It is pathetic.


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