William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Page 5 of 590

What Is Cause Like?

Mine didn't have the white stripe.

Mine didn’t have the white stripe, and was one model year earlier.

Time for the two-week teaching sojourn.

In order to grasp cause, we need a brief, a very brief, introduction to the Aristotelian metaphysics of change. These are ancient views, largely abandoned in moderns, but becoming current one again. Philosophers like Nancy Cartwright, Ed Feser, and others are restoring a full philosophy of causation back to the sciences. This is a précis of Feser’s Scholastic Metaphysics. Full arguments are not given here; interested readers should follow up with the authors mentioned.

Contingent things exist as composites of act and potency, or actuality and potentiality. A lump of clay is potentially a vase. A lump of clay is not potentially a 1965 Barracuda with a 278 (a weepingly beautiful automobile) nor is it potentially a stereo. A vase is in potentia to being a pile of shards. A vase is in actuality a vase, and a lump of clay is in actuality a lump of clay. The reader is in potentia to receiving a salary of fifty-thousand a year, unless he already possess that trait, and is therefore in actuality receiving it. And so on.

Some thing or things must cause every potentiality to be an actuality, must cause every change. A potter, say, is required to turn the potential vase in a lump of clay into a vase, while a child can actualize the shards which are in potentia in that vase. Feser (p.33) : “These potentialities or potencies are real features…even if they are not actualities.” Potentialities exist. The number of numbers between 0 and 1 is potentially infinite, but not actually infinite in practice, a fact which has special consequences in measurement.

Whatever is changed, is changed by another: whatever is in potential, is made actual only by something actual. Whatever cannot be changed, is not changed. (Don’t skip that sentence.) It is not the lump’s potential to be a vase that turns it in into a vase, it is an actual potter. The potter uses his power of making a vase; his hands are the efficient cause. Clearly, the potter has the power to make the vase even when he is not making it (say, when he’s taking his Barracuda out for a spin). Aquinas said “nothing can be reduced from potentiality to actuality, except by something in a state of actuality” (Summa Theologiae I.2.3; quoted in Feser). This is the principle of causality which I take as axiomatic and necessary to do any science. Things do not happen without causes.

Science deals with the contingent: (p. 106) a “contingent thing is such that its existence is distinct from its essence, where its essence is in potency relative to its existence, which actualizes it…To cause a contingent thing is thus to actualize a potency…whatever is contingent has a cause…” which is everything in science. This is not to say that everything has a cause; only that contingent things do.

A child throws a ball and it hits the vase. As the ball hits, the vase buckles; as the ball hits, the vase begins to break. The “event” is the ball-hitting-vase, and it is simultaneous, which is not to say instantaneous. The ball hitting and the vase buckling happen through a short period of time; they are not different events “entirely loose and separate”, to use Hume’s mistaken phrase. It is not because we “happen” to see, or “chance” upon the spectacle of ball-hitting-vase that we know the ball caused the vase to break. It is because we learn, via induction, that balls traveling at sufficient speed have the power to break vases of this certain type. It is the vase’s nature to break when hit by balls like that under these circumstances. We are back to essence. Understanding essence and powers is to understand cause.

Many modern authors put this the wrong way, saying first the ball hits then the vase breaks. This is not so. There are not two separate events, but one joint event, spread through time. This point is crucial. It is difficult to find modern examples where distinctness in events and separateness in time is not assumed. The mistake leads to some curious views indeed. An example is in Roberto Mangabeira Unger and Lee Smolin’s The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time: A Proposal in Natural Philosophy which proposes the “laws” of nature change through time, but which leaves out what these causes are.

Of course, that the ball-hitting-vase is spread through time, however brief, does not mean that all events are. Certain quantum mechanical events are thought to be instantaneous. But that merely confirms the view that we are not witnessing “loose and separate” events, but joint ones.

Knowing the ball was the efficient cause of the vase breaking is not the whole story, though it is enough for most (it was for my mother). There are all sorts of forces involved, including the ball’s momentum, friction, elasticity of both objects, and so forth. These are not necessary to understand to say the ball caused the break. These additional forces can be investigated to form a deeper understanding of the precise mechanisms. Each of these investigations are no different in spirit than the gross (my mother’s) version. The essence and powers of the forces involved are understood to be causes. But there are limits.

Let’s investigate the joint event more closely. The ball and vase are not monoliths, but composed of smaller parts. As the ball pushes into the vase, the molecules of the ball and vase are themselves undergoing change. These changes, which are actualizations of potentials, are caused by something actual, which are the atoms in the molecules. These are also undergoing change, which are again actualizations of potentials, and are also caused by something actual. This might be the interactions of the constituents of the atoms, the electrons, protons, and nuetrons, which are also undergoing change. More actualizations of potentials caused by other somethings which are actual. These may be quarks, which are themselves pushed about by (say) actual strings (or super-strings or God knows what), which themselves, perhaps, are caused to change by something below those. All of this is happening here-and-now, simultaneously, but again not necessarily instantaneously. This is called a per se times series, or a per se series of events in the here-and-now time.

But you can see that this process cannot continue to infinity. It must bottom out, or nothing can ever get moving; no changes could ever be made. There must be some “first cause” or “first mover” or “changer”. This first cause must be entirely actual and have no potential. It is what makes all “bottom” potentialities actual. It is responsible for every contingent event, at base. This is the prime or primary cause, which is ever-present. Science is and must forever be ignorant of this cause. It is a handy explanation of quantum mechanical EPR-like events, or whatever is “beneath” them.

All of the other here-and-now causes—string into quark into protons into etc.—are secondary causes. All have powers and essences, and it is the goal of science to understand these.

There is another type of causal series, this one distinct in time, an accidental series. The classic, and really perfect, example is that a grandfather caused his son to be made and he, your father, caused you to be made. This doesn’t stop with your grandfather, naturally, but continues along a string into the past. Remove one of the knots in the string, i.e. remove one of the causes, and you would not be reading this now.

Unfortunately, in practice, data analysts often compile accidental series as if they were causal. Example: yearly (or monthly or daily) average temperature (or sales figures, etc.). Last year’s average did not and could not cause this year’s average. Results? Misascribed causes and wild over-certainty. I leave discussion of these accidents until later.


What The Republicans Didn’t Learn In Middle School. Guest Post by Mrs X


Editor’s note: This column comes from somebody I spoke to when I was at the Heartland Climate Conference, ICCC-10—1, 2, 3—and who wishes to remain anonymous. It came at a perfect time because I am today heading up to Ithaca to teach for two weeks.

Since the election of John F. Kennedy, the Democrats have been the cool kids, with a couple of exceptions (Jimmy Carter, Hillary Clinton). They are the ones with confidence, and a laid-back attitude. If they were not smoking pot behind the portables, they were smoking it somewhere else. They are popular, and they always have plans for Saturday night beyond a shoe-polishing party with dad.

Republicans, even the ones born to wealth, are earnest strivers. They are the ones who wear pressed pants to school, and are always seen in a collared shirt. They might not get the best grades, but they are the hardest workers.

Since the beginning of time, the cools kids have had a way with the not-so-cool kids. Say one of the nerds has something that a cool kid wants (a piece of gum, a Twinkie, a sharp pencil). The cool kid has three options to separate the wanted item from its rightful owner: charm, steal, or mug.

Using charm is the most preferable method because it leaves the nerdy kid the mistaken sense in that he (or she) has caught the attention of one of the demi-gods and that that piece of gum may be the key to entrance into the inner circle.

Stealing also works, and if done on the sly, the fledgling Republican will never know who actually took the Twinkie, but they have their suspicions (and likely a list).

Outright mugging—that is, full-on theft, where the thief and victim see each other during the transaction, is the least desirable method, but it works in a pinch. The downside is that it leaves the muggee with an enduring distaste for the mugger.

President Obama is the undisputed cool kid. All the newspapers and news outlets tell us so. While the GOP has the majority in the Senate, the casual observer would never know it. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says that Obama has done an “excellent job” of pushing the trade deal. Wait, there‚Äôs more. The speaker also said that working on the trade pact closely with the White House “has been almost an out-of-body experience.” Sounds like the president got a lot more than a stick of gum.

Not-cool presidents want to be cool, too. Since its emergence as a health threat, AIDS has been an acknowledged pet cause of the left. George W. Bush increased AIDS funding dramatically, with impressive results. But, his actions won him no love from the progressive wing, and in fact, they doubled-down against him. A case in point is the Iraq war, which had wide bipartisan support at the outset. It wasn’t long before the president was thanked with the “Bush Lied People Died” campaign. Bush tried to get an in with the cool crowd by supporting one of their key issues, and it didn’t work.

What grown-up politicians should have learned in seventh grade is that the cool kids want to be friends with other cool kids.

Sure, as a not-cool kid, the cool kid may find some use for you. You might get invited to the party, and you might get a note passed to you in class. But you’re not coming to the family dinner, and you’re not going to have late-night phone calls with your new bestie. The sooner the GOP leaders (and certain members of the Supreme Court) learn this, the better.

Poor McConnell is expecting Obama to make good on his promise of a bourbon summit. If past is prologue, he will be waiting a long time.


Heartland Climate Conference #ICCC10: Day 3. True Believers

As has often been said, PowerPoint is sure proof of Satan’s existence. I agree. This is why I eschewed that excruciating, demonic contrivance and instead read a paper. The benefit to you, dear reader, is you can download it and read it at your leisure, or you can watch the video below. I start at around 18 minutes in.

Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream

Proving the contention of my speech—almost as if I had arranged it—an earnest young man from the cult-like Greenpeace repeatedly tried crashing the conference so that he could take photos of participants, doubtless so that they could be circulated among Greenpeace operatives so that they could put faces to their inchoate hate.

The young man was ejected from the hotel and took up position across the street, camera in hand, trying ever so much to look like a spy. When I emerged to head for the train he whipped up the camera with vigorous enthusiasm. Since I am an obliging fellow, I stood at attention and delivered a perfect salute. I was Air Force, you recall, so I was sharp. Look for this on Greenpeace fliers everywhere.

The one question upon which people were split was whether George Orwell or Aldous Huxley was the superior prophet. I side with the Huxley crowd, though I admit the Orwellians have a strong case. As somebody said, “Cooling is warming.”

Yet Orwellian tactics are the easy stuff. Anybody could lie, and people like being lied to, especially when they think they’ll get something for accepting the lie or when the lie, as I say in my talk, confirms their identity.

One gentleman quoted Mark Twain: “It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they’ve been fooled.” Huxley is the long game, the sly and subtle and softening up of a supine citizenry. Huxleyite tactics are accepted for the sake of the children, or because we are convinced they are good for us.

Both systems lead to doom.

Not today, but perhaps later we’ll have a contest about this. I have second copy of Climate Change: The Facts that I’ll give away. The first was signed by the many authors, including Mark Steyn who is not only a scintillating speaker but is a sweetheart of the first order.

That’s it for the 10th Heartland conference. We’re all praying there won’t be the necessity for an 11th.

I’m off to Ithaca tomorrow for two weeks.



Heartland Climate Conference #ICCC10: Day 2. Lousy Models, Wrong Theory

Yours Truly is in this film (released in theaters this fall)

Yours Truly is in this film (released in theaters this fall)

Forgive the brief post. Got back late, got up early, and have to be out early. Don’t want to miss Mark Steyn’s breakfast speech.

See the Twitter hashtag #ICCC10 or watch the speeches live. I’m speaking sometime after 10:50. Maybe 11?

If you can, at least see Will Happer’s talk. He’s a well known, and very well respected, physicist from Princeton. He showed us all that global warming is no different than Alice in Wonderland.

Happer showed the same picture we have all seen. The one where the models are way-up-here and the reality way-down-here, and where the gap between models and reality is growing wider and wider and wider and…

As I never tire of emphasizing, lousy models prove lousy theories. The theories which underlie the climate models must be wrong. Must as in must. Climate models have no predictive skill. They do not even come close to besting persistence (whoso readeth, let him understand:).

Every working scientist knows this and damn well ought to start admitting it. If you care about the truth, it’s time to uphold it. This farce has gone on long enough.

It used to be a fundamental principle of science that when a theory produced bad predictions every scientist except True Believers said so. True Believers? The originators of the theories. Blondlot never admitted his N-rays didn’t exist. Have Fleischmann and Pons allowed themselves to believe cold fusion was an error? Chiropractors are amoung us.

This is why last week I quoted Planck: Science progresses one funereal at a time.

We’re going to have to wait for the few who originated this carbon-dioxide-will-kill-us-all-if-we-don’t-act-soon theory to die off before global warming completely disappears. But the bulk of scientists who know exactly what I’m talking about. Enough already.

So since we know, with as much certainty as we know anything else, that the models stink, and therefore are based on a faulty theory, what’s the right theory? Excellent question. Let’s find out. But the breathless positive feedbacks built-in by assumption to the models surely can’t be right.

I understand why scientists want to avoid telling the simple truth that the models are broken. No one wants to be savaged by the activist press and lying, self-aggrandizing politicians.

But if just a few more would admit basic scientific procedures we can put this false theory behind—and move on to the next scare. Sustainability? Climate Justice?

If you are a civilian and you’re getting your knowledge from the mainstream media or politicians or anywhere but the primary source material, you’re lost. And if you can’t read this primary source material, then you’d be better off ignoring everything you hear in the press. Go to a local university and seek out a physicist and ask him, “Is Briggs right? When predictions are so lousy and growing lousier for nearly two decades, does that mean the theory which is responsible for those predictions must be wrong?”

Do not ask one of the handful of True Believers—the same dozen guys who show up in all the quotes. Ask a working physicist who has never showed up on television. Do not ask a psychologist, or a sociologist, or an economist, or anybody else who could not understand what dynamic modeling is.

Go and ask. I dare you.

All typos free again.

Update Yours Truly is pictured being interviewed by Marc Morano in this hilariously inept coverage. Best shot is of an empty room labeling it a “party.” The bug wit or liar who wrote that failed to discover all those chairs were soon to be filled with the authors of Climate Change: The Facts for a book signing.

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