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September 12, 2008 | 48 Comments

The limits of acceptable criminal behavior to combat global warming

I want to ask a favor of my regular readers and of those who occasionally come here to seek an alternate view. You can help me spread the word.

Yesterday, we discussed the sad plight of Dr X, a once eminent scientist who appeared in a British court with the express purpose to justify criminal behavior. His argument was that the crime committed was necessary to bring attention to, and to modify the consequences of, harmful global warming.

Let’s not talk about whether Dr X had the right to speak as he did (I would argue that he did; even if he represented his employer; others, obviously, take the opposite view). Let’s also not talk about whether Dr X’s climatological theory is sound (I would say parts are, parts aren’t; others religiously say all right or all wrong).

What I want to do is to build a list of what criminal behavior that supporters of Dr X would say is justifiable or acceptable with regard to anthropogenic global warming. The list of non-criminal behavior is obviously long and varied and not of interest here. This list will only include acts that are expressly forbidden by law (misdemeanors or felonies or their equivalents in other countries).

I do not want to be facetious nor do I want people who are not supporters of Dr X writing and saying “I think they would accept Y.” Let’s only use this list to keep track of criminal activities that are legitimately believed to be allowable or justifiable. Please send in real quotes and verifiable links. Let’s also keep this fair—no euphemisms.

So far, this is what we have:

Acceptable Crime Supporters
Vandalizing property belonging to energy companies.    Dr Hansen of NASA

Obviously, we can find lots of people on various message boards who would justify any behavior, so let’s try and keep this list only for people or organizations of authority (we can be somewhat loose by what that means).

Gav, Tam, what do you say?

September 11, 2008 | 23 Comments

On male pattern baldness and global warming

Global warming doesn’t cause baldness in men. At least, I haven’t seen anybody claiming this. Yet.

No, I’m talking about the little-known theory of intelligence and hair length. For a long time, really since biblical times and the legend of Sampson, scientists thought that with hair came power. A full head of hair was associated with sophistication, creativity, and brilliance. Look at Einstein, scientists used to say, full of hair and clever ideas.

Leading scientists of our own time know about this theory, of course, and carefully tend to their tresses in an attempt to maintain their intellectual prowess. Think of Stephen Pinker or that guy who wrote Blink.

However, it turned out that the theory was only mostly true. It was discovered in 1982 that men who possessed a variant of the gene arylacetamide deacetylase-like 5 would lose hair as they aged and that, surprisingly, hair loss was directly associated with intelligence because of quantum physics. As pattern baldness developed in these men, their heads would, naturally, become less protected from a specific kind of cosmic radiation.

This radiation, no longer blocked from getting inside the head, seeps in and impacts synaptic junctions, breaking them down. The effect is cumulative: the more radiation you are exposed to, the dumber you get. Men with this gene literally lose their hair and their minds.

A case study is the following scientist. To preserve his anonymity we will call him “Dr. X.”

Bald Dr X

You can see that he has lost most of his protective covering. This man, when he had his hair was an eminence in his field and one mean physicist. However, with the parting of his hair, came the inevitable.

For example, one of his colleagues relates the story that he went looking for Dr X after a seminar but he couldn’t be found anywhere. The colleague admits that it was his turn to watch after Dr X and that Dr X would occasionally wander off if not supervised, but he was as shocked as everybody else when, several days later, Dr X turned up in an English courtroom! Even more bizarre was that Dr X was there to support six Greenpeace members who vandalized a building of a private company they didn’t like (many Greenpeace members are also bald).

The story doesn’t end there, unfortunately. In the courtroom, Dr X was able, by painting a bleak and apocalyptic scenario, convince the jury that the criminals, while guilty, should go free. Sadly, the jurors did not know about the relationship between hair and intelligence were frightened by Dr X’s tale of woe. They thought it better to give him what he wanted lest they upset him unduly.

This saga becomes personal because it turns out that my friend Anthony Watts knows Dr X and has publicly called for Dr X to be fired. If you know Watts, you know he is a perfectionist and wants everybody to perform at top level, so his plea is understandable.

But I think firing is too harsh. After all, what has happened to Dr X is not his fault; he is not responsible for his actions. Certainly, his colleagues should pay closer attention to where Dr X goes and what he tells outsiders, but he has done a good and long service and so should be taken care of because of this. Besides, Anthony, while you still have your hair, you might also possess arylacetamide deacetylase-like 5, so look out!

Oh yes. Those men who have another variant of the gene—about 1% of the population—might also experience male pattern baldness, but in their cases the cosmic radiation actually strengthens their brains. I think this is happening to me, but just in case, I always wear a hat.

Update: A person whom I respect chided me, as he probably should have, and asked why I was being so hard on certain people.

My friend deserves an answer. This is what I told him

Most probably [I am too harsh because of] a character flaw or some other weakness in my personality.

In this case, maybe not. Dr X testified for the defense in a criminal trial. A trial of admitted criminals, that is. He did not testify that the accused were not at the scene of the crime, or that witnesses were mistaken in their identify, or that the six were out of their minds. He instead excused their crime because the earth might get too hot.

Since Dr X believes these six should be allowed to get away with their crime, it is only natural to ask what other crimes would he excuse. Defacing private property? Destroying public or private property? Physical intimidation? Violence?

My view is that Dr X, who is aware of his celebrity status, acted inappropriately. If he wanted to use the trial as a means to promote his views without actually taking part in the proceedings, then I would not have objected—I have nowhere said that people should not express their opinion on this or any topic. But his views on global warming are absolutely irrelevant to whether the six were guilty or innocent.

Dr X opened himself to ridicule by overstepping his bounds. I have never said, and do not say, that Dr X’s theories are mistaken or outside the bounds of possibility. I do say, and often say, that he is too certain of himself, as are many other experts and scientists. Naturally, these scientists do not think themselves too certain. Ordinarily, this would not be especially harmful, but in the case of global warming, well, people are beginning not to be able to see straight.

But if I hurt Dr X’s feelings, then I apologize.

September 9, 2008 | 24 Comments

Some more reasons why I should be in charge

I want to mourn, too

The man who can rightly be called the Father of Statistics, Ronald Aylmer Fisher, while an incredibly bright man, showed that all of us are imperfect when he repeatedly touted a ridiculously dull idea. Eugenics. He figured that you could breed the idiocy out of people by selectively culling the less desirable. Since Fisher also has strong claim on the title Father of Modern Genetics, others—all with advanced degrees and high education—agreed with him. We now recognize that his musing was stupid. But we can sympathize with him, can we not? For example, Fisher might have had in mind people like those in the video below, sent to us by the folks at The Chilling Effect.

Star Trek Food

Have you ever seen Star Trek, the original series I mean? Every now and then Kirk would hunger (not for flesh) and he would eat—little bright cubes of what could only be called nutrition. Food would be far too strong a word. The cubes looked like packages of solidified, neon-colored Jello. No doubt Fleet Academy scientists worked very hard at creating the optimal balanced diet to preserve health and vigor. They even gave you the choice of Soylent Green, or Soylent Orange…….no, wait, that’s another movie where scientists created nutrition for the rest of us.

Even out of television and movies, the scientists and physicians are at it. They are, even now, constantly looking out for our health. Elizabeth M. Whelan, over at the New York Post, yesterday wrote an article describing a plea from two New York City Busybody Physicians that the government regulate food consumption. The plea came in the form of a peer-reviewed paper in the Journal of American Medical Association. The zealous authors Lynn Silver, MD, MPH ,and Mary T. Bassett, MD, MPH (to instill awe, note the letters after their names) open their manifesto with

[T]he most rapidly growing food-related threat to health today is not microbes, but overconsumption of calories, sugar, salt, and unhealthy fat.

According to Whelan (who runs the site

Specifically, the doctors call on government to take immediate emergency action to force the food industry to make “healthier” food, including placing hefty taxes on fare they deem unhealthy – thus contributing to the already soaring price of food.

They reject government guidelines and education as “relatively weak interventions” and argue that “stronger actions are needed immediately to reduce obesity, hypertension, heart disease and other chronic ills.”

…They strictly divide “healthy” from “unhealthy” foods and suggest we follow Britain’s lead by placing green symbols on healthy food and red ones on the “bad” stuff….They argue that “the ubiquity of food [has become] treacherous” and that food should be regulated like alcohol and cigarettes, “putting reasonable limits on where and how [food] can be sold . . . amending zoning [to] limit the number or density of locations selling unhealthy foods in restaurants, vending machines and other outlets.” (emphasis on “treacherous” mine)

I really don’t know what Whelan is carping about. Scientists have MDs and PhDs, they have more education than you do, their peers regularly review each other’s work so they make no mistakes, they are smarter than you and they know more than you possibly could. This is all the reason we need, is it not, for them to exercise authority over us? Since I am one of these eminences, I can see no good reason why I should not be placed in charge immediately.

September 8, 2008 | 47 Comments

Demonstration of how smoothing causes inflated certainty (and egos?)

I’ve had a number of requests to show how smoothing inflates certainty, so I’ve created a couple of easy simulations that you can try in the privacy of your own home. The computer code is below, which I’ll explain later.

The idea is simple.

  1. I am going to simulate two time series, each of 64 “years.” The two series have absolutely nothing to do with one another, they are just made up, wholly fictional numbers. Any association between these two series would be a coincidence (which we can quantify; more later).
  2. I am then going to smooth these series using off-the-shelf smoothers. I am going to use two kinds:
    1. A k-year running mean; the bigger k is, the more smoothing there is’
    2. A simple low-pass filter with k coefficients; again the bigger k is, the more smoothing there is.
  3. I am going to let k = 2 for the first simulation, k = 3 for second, and so on, until k = 12. This will show that increasing smoothing dramatically increases confidence.
  4. I am going to repeat the entire simulation 500 times for each k (and for each smoother) and look at the results of all of them (if we did just one, it probably wouldn’t be interesting).

Neither of the smoothers I use are in any way complicated. Fancier smoothers would just make the data smoother anyway, so we’ll start with the simplest. Make sense? Then let’s go!

Here, just so you can see what is happening, are the first two series, x0 and x1, plotted together (just one simulation out of the 500). On top of each is the 12-year running mean. You can see the smoother really does smooth the bumps out of the data, right? The last panel of the plot are the two smoothed series, now called s0 and s1, next to each other. They are shorter because you have to sacrifice some years when smoothing.

smoother 1 series

The thing to notice is that the two smoothed series eerily look like they are related! The red line looks like it trails after the black one. Could the black line be some physical process that is driving the red line? No! Remember, these numbers are utterly unrelated. Any relationship we see is in our heads, or was caused by us through poor statistics methodology, and not in the data. How can we quantify this? Through this picture:

smoother 1 p-values

This shows boxplots of the classical p-values in a test of correlation between the two smoothed series. Notice the log-10 y-axis. A dotted line has been drawn to show the magic value of 0.05. P-values less than this wondrous number are said to be publishable, and fame and fortune await you if you can get one of these. Boxplots show the range of the data: the solid line in the middle of the box says 50% of the 500 simulations gave p-values less than this number, and 50% gave p-values higher. The upper and lower part of the box designate that 25% of the 500 simulations have p-values greater than (upper) and 25% less than (lower) this number. The outermost top line says 5% of the p-values were greater than this; while the bottommost line indicates that 5% of the p-values were less than this. Think about this before you read on. The colors of the boxplots have been chosen to please Don Cherry.

Now, since we did the test 500 times, we’d expect that we should get about 5% of the p-values less than the magic number of 0.05. That means that the bottommost line of the boxplots should be somewhere near the horizontal line. If any part of the boxplot sticks below above the dotted line, then the conclusion you make based on the p-value is too certain.

Are we too certain here? Yes! Right from the start, at the smallest lags, and hence with almost no smoothing, we are already way too sure of ourselves. By the time we reach a 10-year lag—a commonly used choice in actual data—we are finding spurious “statistically significant” results 50% of the time! The p-values are awful small, too, which many people incorrectly use as a measure of the “strength” of the significance. Well, we can leave that error for another day. The bottom line, however, is clear: smooth, and you are way too sure of yourself.

Now for the low-pass filter. We start with a data plot and then overlay the smoothed data on top. Then we show the two series (just 1 out of the 500, of course) on top of each other. They look like they could be related too, don’t they? Don’t lie. They surely do.

smoother 2 series

And to prove it, here’s the boxplots again. About the same results as for the running mean.

smoother 2 p-values

What can we conclude from this?

The obvious.

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