William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Page 4 of 665

Scientism Of The First Kind: Science Shows Laptops Distract Students

Here’s the headline. (It’s NPR, so don’t expect much.) “Attention Students: Put Your Laptops Away”. And here’s the relevant sad bit:

For one thing, research shows that laptops and tablets have a tendency to be distracting — it’s so easy to click over to Facebook in that dull lecture. And a study has shown that the fact that you have to be slower when you take notes by hand is what makes it more useful in the long run.

Research shows. Research shows. Research shows. Research shows that two of the most dismal words in the English language are “research shows.”

Only scientism of the first kind accounts for the necessity to undertake a study to discover whether laptops can distract students.

Scientism of the first kind, as pithily described in the tweet linked at top (or here), is the idea that only facts certified by scientists, or by experiment, or that have been studied in some official way, are worthy of attention and that all other knowledge is suspicious, dangerous, or false.

Commonsense and routine observation can’t be trusted because they might—might—lead to error. So even though all experience shows laptops, and other “devices”, are distracting at some times to some students in some situations, laptops might not be distracting in some future group at some time in some place. Or something.

This is confused because it’s not clear what the objection is to the commonplace observation that laptops distract. Perhaps it’s that knowing, via plain observation, laptops distract does not quantify the phenomenon. We can’t put a number on the precise number of students in some future class who will be distracted. Hunger for needless quantification is another symptom of scientism.

Heck, we don’t even know if all races, sexes, sexual desires, class types, times of day, income statuses, and on and on and on are equally distractable. There may be disparities! Can you imagine the horror if white men were to be discovered, via a formal study, to be less distracted than, say, female transsexuals?

I’m teasing, but my joke has a good chance of being true (I refuse to check).

Obviously, one reason for scientism is the relentless desire for academics to publish something, anything, that resembles scholarship. Since there are so many academics, publications rise like a tsunami. A peer in need of a paper will see the journal article “Laptops distract (p < magic number)” and will realize that, while this is a fine study, it hasn’t been conducted in introductory sociology courses at universities of the type he coincidentally works at. And is there a difference between tablets and laptops? Let’s test!

So he’ll repeat the study, and add to the world’s knowledge by an infinitesimal amount. Given that he’ll use statistics, he’ll, like everybody, forget that correlation isn’t causation, and use the certified-by-hypothesis-tests correlations to “prove” various theories about why laptops distract.

Suddenly, then, there are two papers on this most important subject. There are many more than two academics, however, and they all need papers (their hunger for them is insatiable), and so a few more will enter the burgeoning new sub-sub-sub-field of laptop distraction studies. Soon, one will speak of the “literature” of laptop distractions.

The whole thing will take the patina of science. It all looks so formal! At that point, none would dare write a news story in a respected outlet without seeking a quote from an authority, a quote which will begin with the words “Research shows…”

Too gloomy an outlook? NPR continues:

In the study published in Psychological Science, Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California, Los Angeles sought to test how note-taking by hand or by computer affects learning.

“When people type their notes, they have this tendency to try to take verbatim notes and write down as much of the lecture as they can,” Mueller tells NPR’s Rachel Martin. “The students who were taking longhand notes in our studies were forced to be more selective — because you can’t write as fast as you can type. And that extra processing of the material that they were doing benefited them.”

Look at all those words to say what everybody already knew! Note the serious tone. The story continues:

Mueller and Oppenheimer cited that note-taking can be categorized two ways: generative and nongenerative. Generative note-taking pertains to ‘summarizing, paraphrasing, concept mapping,’ while nongenerative note-taking involves copying something verbatim.

We finally reach theory, the most essential part of any scientific work, because it is theory that leads to the four most-cherished words in any paper: “More research is needed.”

New & Improved Way To Support Your Favorite Blog!


Uncontrolled gleeful trembling is the most common symptom upon learning the Big News that there is a New & Improved! way to support the blog! You know this method must be good because of the exclamation points!

Gone are the old clunky forms and necessity of using Paypal. In is the simplest possible tool. Just fill in your email and credit card number and voila, you’re done.

A peek at what the form looks like is at the top of this post. Click here to go to the (encrypted!) Donations page, or use the menu bar under the header image to see it in the flesh.

There are two ways to help: Donations (enter any amount you wish) and Subscriptions (charged monthly; again, enter any large amount which pleases you).

I’m deprecating Paypal. Subscribers who use it may continue to do so for as long as they wish, but new subscribers should use credit cards. I’ll be emailing Paypal users to let them know they need change nothing, or they may switch to the new way.

Like I say on the Donations page, it costs about $35 a month to run the site, which includes serving and DNS fees, SSL certificate, software charges and the like. Your support will go directly to this…

…and also to me. Don’t forget Yours Truly is, except for two weeks a year, is completely totally positively entirely unconditionally independent. Which is a polite, euphemistic way to say we’re on our own, dear reader; it’s just you and me.

What you get

Daily posts on topics from marbles to music, from homeopathy to holidays, from fallacies to forecasts, from probabilities to progress.

Yes, and many, many more, with a special focus on the exposure of silly scientism with surrounds us.

The Classic Posts page is worth a browse, if only to note how woefully out-of-date and disorganized it is. (I have to get on this soon.)

Podcasts are back, now on a weekly schedule (every Wednesday). These are available at YouTube (audio only), and here by MP3, which you can subscribe to using your favorite service.

My book is ever-nearer publication, and once it is out, since I cannot be trusted to stand in front of a group of students, because I would tell them hypothesis tests should never, ever be used, that p-values are magic and useless as evidence, that scientists, especially in complex fields, are far more self-certain than they have any right to be, that questionnaires designed to quantify the depths of thought are either silly or harmful, that probability is in our heads and not in things, and many other similar undesired realities, I will instead teach here.

I mean, I’m exploring (and have been for some time) how to do an online class based on the book. Since I now have a microphone, albeit one that makes my voice sound like a Canadian goose with a clothes pin on its nose, I can put up lectures. And don’t even bother telling me it’s “Canada goose.”

Pre-recorded speeches have their place, but they always suffer in comparison with live lectures in front of real audiences (students). Every time I give the “same” lecture it is different, because the group steers the course of the words. This obvious fact is why on-line “degrees” (note they never say education) will always pale next to classroom instruction.

Nevertheless, we’ll work with what we wot, what?

Speaking of lectures

I give ’em. Yes, and talks, seminars, full-bore classes and short courses, too, all priced unreasonably and all cheerfully delivered. The range of topics is the same found here. I have hats for all seasons and am a seasoned traveler.

But I would also love to come into your company (assuming you have one) to show you, if you use statistics in any way, including machine “learning” algorithms and the like, why you are too sure of your results.

This message, true as it is, is never welcomed. How odd.


God bless you all for sending them in, alerting me of scientism, bad science, diversity run amok, and the rest. I am about two years behind in these. Keep sending them, however. I’m working on it.


We decided today on the subtitle of the book, which will at least make searching for it easier. Uncertainty: The Soul of Modeling, Probability, & Statistics.

Summary Against Modern Thought: God Is Unable To Make Square Circles

This may be proved in three ways. The first...

This may be proved in three ways. The first…

See the first post in this series for an explanation and guide of our tour of Summa Contra Gentiles. All posts are under the category SAMT.

Previous post.

This is long, but, oh my, is it worth it. I beg you will stick with it; just get over the first couple of paragraphs and you will be well rewarded. God can’t change the past, God can’t make square circles, God can’t make something simultaneously exist and not exist. Just look at all the things God can’t do!

Chapter 25 How the Almighty is said to be unable to do certain things (alternate translation)

[1] FROM the foregoing we may gather that though God is almighty, He is nevertheless said to be unable to do certain things.

[2] For it was shown above that in God there is active potentiality: while it had already been proved in the First Book that there is no passive potentiality in Him: whereas we are said to be able in respect of either potentiality. Wherefore God is unable to do those things the possibility of which belongs to passive potentiality. What suchlike things are must be the subject of our inquiry.

Notes Review, active potentiality vs. passive potentiality. Roughly, God can do something vs. nothing can be done to God. Recalling God is Being Itself, the distinction is amplified in the next arguments.

[3] In the first place, then, active potentiality is directed to action, while passive potentiality is directed to being. Consequently potentiality to being is in those things only which have matter subject to contrariety. Since therefore passive potentiality is not in God, He is unable as regards anything that appertains to His being. Therefore God cannot be a body, and so forth.

[4] Again. The act of this passive potentiality is movement. Wherefore God, to Whom passive potentiality is unbecoming, cannot be changed. It may be further concluded that He cannot be changed in respect of each kind of movement: for instance that He cannot be increased, nor diminished, nor altered, nor generated, nor corrupted…

[6] Further. Every failing is in respect of some privation. But the subject of privation is the potentiality of matter. Therefore He can nowise fail…

[10] Again. Since the object and effect of an active potentiality is something made, and since no potentiality is operative, if the ratio of object be lacking,–thus the sight sees not if the actually visible be lacking:–it follows that God is unable to do whatever is contrary to the ratio of being as being, or of made being as made. What these things are, we must inquire.

Notes Ratio of object and being? The alternate translation helps: “The object and effect of an active power is a being made, and no power is operative if the nature of its object is lacking; sight is inoperative in the absence of the actually visible [you can’t see in the dark]. It must therefore be said that God is unable to do whatever is contrary to the nature of being as being, or of made being as made.” Mentally swap nature for ratio to assist in reading.

[11] In the first place that which destroys the ratio of being is contrary to the ratio of being. Now the ratio of being is destroyed by the opposite of being: as the ratio of man is destroyed by the opposite of man or of his parts. Now the opposite of being is not-being. Consequently God is unable to do this, so as to make the one and same thing to be and not to be at the same time; which is for contradictories to be simultaneous.

Notes The principle of metaphysical non-contradiction, anybody?

[12] Again. Contradiction is included in contraries and privative opposites: for to be white and black is to be white and not white, and to be seeing and blind is to be seeing and not seeing. Hence it amounts to the same that God is unable to make opposites to be simultaneously in the same subject and in the same respect.

[13] Moreover. The removal of an essential principle of a thing implies the removal of the thing itself. If, then, God cannot make a thing at the same time to be and not to be, neither can He make a thing to lack any of its essential principles while the thing itself remains: for instance that a man have no soul.

Notes Soul? This.

[14] Further. Since the principles of certain sciences, for instance of logic, geometry, and arithmetic, are taken only from the formal principles of things, on which the essence of those things depends, it follows that God cannot make the contraries of these principles: for instance, that genus be not predicable of species, or that lines drawn from centre to circumference be not equal, or that the three angles of a rectilinear triangle be not equal to two right angles.

Notes Trumpet this to all who say theology isn’t concerned with math and science.

[15] Hence it is also evident that God cannot make the past not to have been. Because this also includes a contradiction, since it is equally necessary for a thing to be while it is, and to have been while it was.

[16] There are also some things which are incompatible with the ratio of thing made, as made. These also God cannot do, since whatever God makes, must be something made. Hence it is evident that God cannot make God. For it belongs to the ratio of thing made that its being depends on another cause. And this is contrary to the ratio of that which we call God, as is evident from the foregoing

Notes We long ago proved that nothing created God; God’s existence is necessary. Here’s what follows.

[17] For the same reason God cannot make a thing equal to Himself. Because a thing whose being depends not on another, is greater in being and other excellencies than that which depends on another, which belongs to the ratio of a thing made.

Notes Hence Satan is not God’s “opposite,” as some have it. God is not yin and yang.

[18] Likewise God cannot make a thing to be preserved in being without Himself. For the preservation of a thing in being depends on its cause. Wherefore if the cause be removed, the effect must needs be removed. Consequently, if there could be a thing that is not preserved in being by God, it would not be His effect.

Notes As the man said, God doesn’t have to do anything to keep the universe in existence; He must stop doing something for that to happen.

[19] Again. Since He is an agent by will, He cannot do those things which He cannot will. Now we may realize what He cannot will if we consider how it is possible for necessity to be in the divine will: since what is of necessity is impossible not to be, and what is impossible to be, necessarily is not.

[20] It is therefore evident that God cannot make Himself not to be, or not to be good or happy: because He necessarily wills Himself to be, and to be good and happy, as we proved in the First Book.

[21] Again, it was shown above that God cannot will anything evil. Therefore it is evident that God cannot sin.

[22] Likewise it was proved above that God’s will cannot be changeable: and consequently it cannot make that which is willed by Him, not to be fulfilled. It must however be observed that He is said to be unable to do this in a different sense from that in which He is said to be unable to do the things mentioned before. Because God is simply unable either to will or to make the foregoing.

Whereas God can do or will these, if we consider His power or will absolutely, but not if we presuppose Him to will the opposite: for the divine will, in respect of creatures, has no necessity, except on a supposition, as we proved in the First Book. Hence all these statements, God cannot do the contrary of what He has decreed to do, and any like sayings are to be understood in the composite sense: for thus they imply a supposition of the divine will with regard to the opposite. But if they be understood in the divided sense, they are false, because they refer to God’s power and will absolutely.

[23] And as God acts by will, so also does He act by intellect and knowledge, as we have proved. Hence He cannot do what He has foreseen that He will not do, or omit to do what He has foreseen that He will do, for the same reason that He cannot do what He wills not to do, or omit to do what He wills. Also, each assertion is conceded and denied in the same sense, namely that He be said to be unable to do these things, not indeed absolutely, but on a certain condition or supposition.

Notes This means the end will come someday. Get ready. And see Wednesday’s podcast.

Future Of AM Radio


There is this prominent blinking wart sticking out of wall, right by the door. It is hideous. The wires that jut in and out of it are a menace.

And it sprays electromagnetic noise like a firehose shoots water.

Get an AM radio within 10 feet of Verizon’s Fios carbuncle and the noise that comes out of the speakers sounds like the “music” played in hip clothing stores.

It isn’t only the cable box, but the damn phone broadcasts electronic noise, too, as do the television even when it’s off, the computers, the microwave, and every other “device” which runs on electricity. Finding a spot where the AM radio can both pick up a signal and not be overwhelmed by noise is becoming next to impossible.

In other news, AM radio is dying. Why?

For one, all that EM racket which is overpowering radio signals. For another, have you tried to buy a radio recently? I mean a radio. Not a “device” which does a dozen things, but a radio. A machine that plays only AM/FM (or possibly shortwave) broadcasts, and doesn’t have slot into which you can plug your cell phone, or that doesn’t have a CD player (do they even make these anymore?), or etc.

Radio Shack is gone, but even they stopped selling many models years before they closed. Major stores sometimes sell clock radios, but these often only play FM. The toys on bedside tables in hotels often have no radio capability, or they have only iffy FM.

Cell phones, some of which play FM, can’t do AM, of course, because of the antenna demands of AM (they need to be big or long or both). And who wants to carry a phone and a radio? (Though I’ve seen plenty of folks with two phones.)

Cars are the last best place to listen to AM, because the engineers responsible for the radios know how to reduce noise.

Programming must account for the other major reason AM is dying. Much programming is geared to people listening in cars, which means listeners who aren’t paying full attention and don’t listen for long. That leads to programming which isn’t especially interesting or which is repetitive.

1010 WINS: “Gives us 22 minutes and we’ll give you the world!” At all-news stations, three times an hour the same stories are rebroadcast, all day long, along with helpful information about which roads to avoid. Helpful to drivers. For those sitting home, it’s not necessary. How many all-news stations are necessary in any one area? Not many, you’d think, but you’d be wrong judging by the number that actually exist.

Sports broadcasts are fresh and evergreen, but sports talk is numbing. It’s far, far worse than even NPR (whose banal tones leak out over FM). You haven’t learned the meaning of the term numbingly repetitive until you’ve listened to “analysts” and “callers” discuss sports.

Political talk is an interesting case. Shows are usually three hours. Three. Is there really three hours worth of new politics to discuss each day? I’ll answer that for you: no. No there is not. Yet three hours of Rush is followed by three hours of Hannity who is followed by three hours of Savage who is followed by three hours of Levin who is followed by et cetera, et cetera.

The lack of new content is partially why half (more?) of every hour is commercials. And those commercials are necessary to prop up the behemoths who bought up all the stations at premium and who are now all near bankruptcy.

It isn’t all politics. Nights and weekends have “Discuss your Financial Prostate Health” shows. And most of these, like the political shows, sound the same. Where is the “diversity”?

It can’t be that syndicating itself is at fault. Think about Sunday nights at seven, which is when most of the nation tuned in Jack Benny, the most popular show of all time.

Benny’s show, like the bulk of programs in radio’s heyday, was thirty minutes. There was also variety back then. Quiz shows, drama, whodunnits, music, comedy, and on and on.

Why can’t AM now have shorter, more varied, more entertaining shows? Shows that are broadcast and later available on-line? Even NPR has a quiz show! Why not AM?

This works. And it’s being done, for example in England. The Archers is a serial that has been airing for decades, and it’s still going strong. As are many other programs.

Radio should have independent producers selling to syndicates, like on television. None of this will happen the way the money is now structured, naturally.

Much more to say on this. Stay, as they say, tuned.

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