William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

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The Pontifical Academy’s Sustainablity Conference Podcast


Arrgh. I’m trying out a new podcasting plugin. It puts the podcasts into something-which-isn’t-a-post and which is impossible to find. So here is a regular post which links to the podcast. I won’t be using this plugin any more after today, but it’s too late to fix it for today. I’ll put up the real podcast here once I find a better plugin.


I was interviewed last Thursday for Marita Noon’s regular podcast “America’s Voice for Energy“. Few have yet heard the interview because there were some technical difficulties posting it. These were fixed Monday, and the broadcast is now available for one and all.

Noon interviewed some of the folks who were with the Heartland contingent at the Pontifical Academy’s curious sustainability conference. She also talked with me (I wasn’t in Rome).

Now Noon called the event the “Pope’s conference”, which it wasn’t. Rather, I don’t think it was. The PAS has a history of mixing green politics with actual science and it appears—I say appears—that this was their own doing. Everybody is anxiously expecting the Holy Father’s encyclical which, rumor has it, will cover, inter alia, the environment. Many want to share in its glory, including the PAS.

I wonder how close the guesses about the encyclical’s content will be to reality? Ought to be interesting. Regular readers will know that I haven’t said a word about what’s in a document I haven’t yet read.

Anyway, in the podcast, Cal Beisner, of the Cornwall Alliance For the Stewardship of Creation, is first up and tells us why Jeffery “Abortion Abortion” Sachs is not to be heeded.

Our friend Marc Morano batted second (starting at 15:13). Marc was muscled out of the conference by the PAS’s Open Dialog Police. Among other topics, Marc points out the cynicism of folks like Al Gore who facetiously say they’ll covert to Catholicism because Pope Francis is solid on climate “justice.”

The real ranting and raving and raillery—Yours Truly—comes at 30:45. I start by giving a textbook example of tongue tied. And I go downhill from there. I do give a shout-out to the National Association of Scholar’s sustainability report, which is worth reading.

It was Noon’s questions that gave me the idea of defining sustainability, incidentally, which I did in that piece for Crisis.

The last interviewee is Heartland’s Sterling Burnett (at 45:45) who gives an overview of Heartland’s counter conference.

Incidentally, another Catholic “environmental” conference is taking place as I type this. Caritas, an official umbrella charity group, is meeting in Rome.

During the five-day Caritas gathering that opens Tuesday, leaders of Catholic charitable organizations from around the world will focus on growing inequalities as well as the impact of climate change…

Beyond RodrĂ­guez and Gutiérrez, other keynote speakers during the five-day Caritas Internationalis will be Ghana’s Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, who helped write a draft of Francis’ environment encyclical; South African Prof. Beverley Haddad, an expert in the intersection of religion and the HIV epidemic; and famed American economist Jeffrey Sachs, a United Nations special advisor.

Jeffrey “Abortion Abortion” Sachs sure does show up a lot at Catholic conferences, eh?

Now what’s interesting (in this same article) we have Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga “blasting” folks who are critical of the Church’s newfound green love. The Cardinal said, “The ideology surrounding environmental issues is too tied to a capitalism that doesn’t want to stop ruining the environment because they don’t want to give up their profits.” Hmm. Not many of those profits are coming my way, so this doesn’t explain why I’m against folks like Sachs.

Also see this: Environmentalists are thrilled that Francis is lending his moral authority to provide an ethical foundation for action to stem climate change.


What Does “Sustainability” Really Mean?

Who is happier to be in this picture?

Who is happier to be in this picture?

I had originally titled today’s article as “The Theology of Sustainability“, which has a certain ring to it. But I admit the title chosen by the Crisis editors probably results in more curiosity, and thus more clicks.

That’s what you’ll have to do if you want to read about what sustainability really means. Click.

Besides vague environmental pieties, I could not discover any rigorous definition of the word. So I had to figure one out, and did so. And then worked out how sustainability, as touted by progressives, the UN, politicians, and even the Pontifical Academy for Science, fit, if at all, into a Catholic theological scheme.

It doesn’t. Environmentalists don’t like people, and God does. To see why this is so, head on over to Crisis (from where I swiped today’s picture).

Update A link I discovered too late and apropos to not being able to “afford” children:

Italian women would “like to have more [children], but the conditions just aren’t good enough,”laments one new mother as CBS News reports, official figures show that in 2014 there were fewer babies born in Italy than at any time since 1861. “Nowadays people don’t want to raise their child in poverty,” but Pope Francis had a different opinion, as The Guardian reported, “a society with a greedy generation, that doesn’t want to surround itself with children, that considers them above all worrisome, a weight, a risk, is a depressed society.”


Hypothesis Testing Relies On The Fallacy Of False Dichotomy

We have no choice: it's either bacon or ham

We have no choice: it’s either bacon or ham

Classical hypothesis testing is founded on the fallacy of the false dichotomy. The false dichotomy says of two hypotheses that if one hypothesis is false, the other must be true. Thus a sociologist will say, “I’ve decided my null is false, therefore the contrary of the null must be true.” This statement is close, but it isn’t the fallacy, because classical theory supports his pronouncement, but only because so-called nulls are stated in such impossible terms that nulls for nearly all problems are necessarily false, thus the contrary’s of nulls are necessarily true. The sociologist is stating something like a tautology, which adds nothing to anybody’s stock of knowledge. It would be a tautology were it not for his decision that null is false, a decision which is not based upon probability.

To achieve the fallacy, and achieve it effortlessly, we have to employ (what we can call) the fallacy of misplaced causation. Our sociologist will form a null which says, “Men and women are no different with respect to this measurement.” After he rejects this impossibility, as he should, he will say, “Men and women are different” with the implication being this difference is caused by whatever theoretical mechanism he has in mind, perhaps “sexism” or something trendy. In other words, to him, the null means the cause is not operative and the alternate means that it is. This is clearly a false dichotomy. And one which is embraced, as I said, by entire fields, and by nearly all civilians who consume statistical results.

Now most statistical models involve continuity in their objects of interest and parameters. A parameterized model is Y ~ D(X, theta)—the uncertainty in the proposition Y is quantified by model D with premises X and theta—where the theta in particular is continuous (and usually a vector). The “null” will be something like thetaj = 0, where one of the constituents of theta is set equal to a constant, usually 0, which is said to be “no effect” and which everybody interprets as “no cause.” Yet given continuity (and whatever other premises go into D) the probability thetaj = 0 is 0, which means nulls are always false. Technicalities in measure theory are added about “sets of measure 0″ which make no difference here. The point is, on the evidence accepted by the modeler, the nulls can’t be true, thus the alternates, that thetaj do not equal 0, are always true. Meaning the alternative of “the cause I thought of did this” is embraced.

If the alternates are always true, why aren’t they always acknowledged? Because decision has been conflated with probability. P-values, which have nothing to do with any question anybody in real life ever asks, enter the picture. A wee p-value allows the modeler to decide the alternate is true, while an unpublishable one makes him decide the null is true. Of course, classical theory strictly forbids “accepting”, which is to say deciding, a null is true. The tortured Popperian language is “fails to reject”. But the theory is like those old “SPEED LIMIT 55 MPH” signs on freeways. Everybody ignores them. Classical theory forbids stating the probability a hypothesis is true or false, a bizarre restriction. That restriction is the cause of the troubles.

Invariably, hunger for certainty of causes drives most statistical error. The false dichotomy used by researchers is a rank, awful mistake to commit in the sense that it is easily avoided. But it isn’t avoided. It is welcomed. And the reason it is welcomed is that this fallacy is a guaranteed generator of research, papers, grants, and so on.

Suppose a standard, out-of-the-box regression model is used to “explain” a “happiness score”, with explanatory variable sex. There will be a parameter in this model tied to sex with a null that the parameter equals 0. Let this be believed. It will then be announced, quite falsely, that “there is no difference between men and women related to this happiness score”, or, worse, “men and women are equally happy.” The latter error compounds the statistical mistake with the preposterous belief that some score can perfectly measure happiness—when all that happened was that a group of people filled out some arbitrary survey. And unless the survey, for instance, were of only one one man and one woman, and the possible faux-quantified scores few, then it is extremely unlikely that men and women in the sample scored equally.

Again, statistics can say nothing about why men and women would score differently or the same. Yet hypothesis testing always loosely implies causes were discovered or dismissed. We should be limited to statements like, “Given the natures of the survey and of the folks questioned, the probability another man scores higher than another woman is 55%” (or whatever number). That 55% may be ignorable or again it may be of great interest. It depends on the uses to which the model are put, and these are different for different people.

Further, statements like these do not as strongly imply that it was some fundamental difference between the sexes that caused the answer. It keeps us honest. Though, given my past experience with statistics, it is likely many will still fixate on the possibility of cause. Why isn’t sex a cause here? Well, it may have been some difference besides sex in the two groups was the cause or causes. Say the men were all surveyed coming out of a bar and the women a mall. Who knows? We don’t. Not if all we are told are the results.

It is the same story if the null is “rejected”. No cause is certain or implied. Yet everyone takes the rejection as proof positive that causation has been dismissed. And this is true, in its way. Some thing or things still caused the observed scores. It’s only that the cause might not have been related to sex.

If the null were accepted we might still say “Given the natures of the survey and of the folks questioned, the probability another man scores higher than another woman is 55%”. And it could be, after gathering a larger sample, we reject the null but that the difference probability is now 51%. The hypothesis test moves from lesser to greater certainty, while the realistic probability moves from greater to lesser. I have often seen this in, particularly in regressions. Variables which were statistically “significant” according to hypothesis tests barely cause the realistic probability needle to nudge, whereas “non-significant” variables can make it swing wildly. That is because hypothesis testing often misleads. This is also well known, for instance in medicine under the name “clinical” versus statistical “significance.”

It may be—and this is a situation not in the least unusual—that the series of “happiness” questions are ad hoc and subject to much dispute, and that the people filling out the survey are a bunch of bored college kids hoping to boost their grades. Then if the result is “Given the natures of the survey and of the folks questioned, the probability another man scores higher than another woman is 50.03%”, the researcher would have to say, “I couldn’t tell much about the difference between men and women in this situation.” This is an admission of failure.

The researcher was hoping—we have to admit it—to find a difference. He did, but it is almost surely trivial. How much better for his career would it be if instead he could say, “Men and women were different, p < 0.001″? A wee p provided freedom to speculate about what caused this difference. It is a good question to you, dear reader, whether the realistic approach as advocated here will be preferred by researchers.

Update Forgot to mention this is a reworked introduction to a section on hypothesis testing in my book. My deadline for finishing it is fast approaching (mid June).


Summary Against Modern Thought: More On God’s Omniscience

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.

The reading looks thick this week, but it really isn’t. Don’t forget to review first. Use the SAMT Category links at the bottom of the page. Since we’re discussing what God knows and how, we also discover what and how we know things. This leads to unexpected insights. We’re also now half way through Book 1!

Chapter 53 Solution of the foregoing doubt (alternate translation)

[1] THE foregoing doubt may be easily solved if we examine carefully how things understood are in the understanding.

[2] And in order that, as far as possible, we may proceed from our intellect to the knowledge of the divine intellect, it must be observed that the external objects which we understand do not exist in our intellect according to their own nature, but it is necessary that our intellect contain their species whereby it becomes intellect in act. And being in act by this species as by its proper form, it understands the object itself.

And yet the act of understanding is not an act passing into the intellect, as heating passes into the object heated, but it remains in the one who understands: although it bears a relation to the object understood, for the very reason that the aforesaid species, which is the formal principle of intellectual operation, is the image of that object…

Notes When you think of a dog, you don’t create a dog inside your head. And when you look at one and recognize it for what it is, you don’t take anything from it. You form the essence of the beast (its species in this technical language) in your intellect. It’s not just seeing and acknowledging that-object, like an animal does, but recognizing this-species-is-dog-and-dogs-are-like-this. Kant was wrong. We can and do know things as they are in themselves—further, this knowledge is not a material thing. Meaning, as we say very often, we are not our brains (or not just our brains).

Chapter 54 How the divine essence, though one and simple, is a proper likeness of all things intelligible (alternate translation)

[2]…As the Philosopher says (8 Metaph.)[1] forms of things, and their definitions which signify them, are like numbers. For in numbers, if one unit be added or subtracted the species of the number is changed; as appears in the numbers 3 and 4. Now it is the same with definitions: for the addition or subtraction of one difference changes the species: thus a sensible substance minus rational and plus rational differs specifically.

[3] Now in things which include many, it is not the same with the intellect as with nature. For the nature of a thing does not allow of the separation of those things that are required essentially for that thing: thus the nature of an animal will not remain if the soul be taken away from the body.

On the other hand the intellect is sometimes able to take separately those things which are essentially united, when one is not included in the notion of the other. Wherefore in the number 3 it can consider the number 2 alone, and in a rational animal it can consider that which is only sensible.

Hence the intellect is able to consider that which includes several things as the proper notion of several, by apprehending one of them without the others. For it can consider 10 as the proper notion of 9, by subtracting one unit, and in like manner as the proper notion of each lesser number included therein. Again, in man, it can consider the proper type of an irrational animal as such, and of each of its species, unless they imply the addition of a positive difference. For this reason a certain philosopher, Clement by name, said that the things of higher rank are the types of those of lesser rank…[2]

Notes Rationality is what separates man from beast. And don’t forget the “soul” of an animal is its form. Take away the form of a beast and all you’re left with is a pile of organic chemicals and water. But we can—and just did—mentally dissect the matter of the beast from its soul. Our intellect can take things apart, which is probably now obvious.

[5] Since, however, the proper notion of one thing is distinct from the proper notion of another, and since distinction is the principle of plurality; we must consider a certain distinction and plurality of understood notions in the divine intellect, in so far as that which is in the divine intellect is the proper notion of diverse things.

Wherefore, since this is according as God understands the proper relation of similarity which each creature bears to Him, it follows that the types of things in the divine intellect are not many nor different, except in so far as God knows that things can be like Him in many and divers ways. In this sense Augustine[4] says that God makes man after one type and a horse after another, and that the types of things are manifold in the divine mind. Wherein also the opinion of Plato holds good, in that he held the existence of ideas according to which all that exists in material things would be formed.[5]

Notes Think of it this way. The forms that make things into what they are, are not material, but must exist somewhere, else no thing could be formed (an apt pun). And all the forms that exist do so in the mind of God. Some (but not all) also exist in ours.

Next week: God knows everything in the same instant. We’re about two weeks away from showing God is Truth.

[1] D. 7. iii. 8.
[2] Cf. Dion., Div. Nom. v.
[3] Ch. xxxi.
[4] QQ. lxxxiii., qu. 46.
[5] Cf. ch. li.: Nor again . . . p. 112.

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