William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Video: How To Think About Statistics, Figures, And New Ideas

Hard link to the video.

It is a delight to change the subject from the dismal used-to-be science of global warming—it would be a blessing if I never had to write of it again—to something more useful.

Now many don’t know it, but the Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen was a very learned man. He not only did these television broadcasts and a series of popular books, but he also have several scholarly works, including a volume on the philosophy of science which is highly recommended.

This short video (from 1955) is as good an introduction to statistics are you’re likely to find. Particularly in that it cautions, or rather hints over and again, that there are far better things to worship than research results. And don’t’cha just love that bit about the 12.3%? I know I do. And the good bis. even has things to say about conflicts of interest (reminder: the government, the scariest thing out there on these shores, funds most research).

At the 10:48 mark, if you don’t know. In 1936, the Literary Digest polled 10 million folks, of whom some 2.4 million replied, about who they’d vote for in the upcoming presidential election. The poll gave a guess of 370 electoral votes for Landon and 161 for Roosevelt. Oops. And don’t forget that all polls are scientific, and all are valid—for the types of people sampled (here and here).

Some juicy quotes to which we can all assent:

  • “…never take graphs and statistics too seriously.”
  • “That was the problem Kinsey had. Did everybody tell Kinsey the truth? Not on your life.”
  • “Now here’s one statistic which you can take from me that is absolutely reliable, and it’s worth remembering: 50% of all of the married people in the United States are women.”
  • “There are styles in thinking just as there are styles in clothes.”
  • “If you marry the mood or the spirit of the age, you will be a widow in the next one.”
  • “And to think well, remember that you cannot takes the methods and conclusions of one science and apply them indiscriminately to another science.”
  • “To think well, one has to have principles that are independent of space and time, by which one can live.”

Regarding that 50% of married are women statistic, you might now think it untrue and not so reliable. But it is in fact still, and ever will be, true. A number different than 50% claim to be married, but that is nothing. Sanitariums are chock-full of folks who think they are Napoleon, but the real number is none. “It is the easiest thing in the world to tumble into some mood today.”

Besides the false belief that essence can be defined at will, we have scientism.

20 Comments

  1. Briggs, this is an early morning post for you. Thanks for the insights of a great (and under-rated) Catholic thinker. St. John Paul II also had the right idea about science; speaking on evolution to the Pontifical Academy of Science he said:
    “What is the significance of a theory such as this one? To open this question is to enter into the field of epistemology. A theory is a meta-scientific elaboration, which is distinct from, but in harmony with, the results of observation. With the help of such a theory a group of data and independent facts can be related to one another and interpreted in one comprehensive explanation. The theory proves its validity by the measure to which it can be verified. It is constantly being tested against the facts; when it can no longer explain these facts, it shows its limits and its lack of usefulness, and it must be revised.”
    and further on
    “As a result, the theories of evolution which, because of the philosophies which inspire them, regard the spirit either as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a simple epiphenomenon of that matter, are incompatible with the truth about man. They are therefore unable to serve as the basis for the dignity of the human person. ”
    So we can regard the facts of science as given and the theories/interpretations which are used to explain them as provisional, if they disagree with the teachings of the Church.
    I hope the current Pope will learn from his predecessor.

  2. “Now here’s one statistic which you can take from me that is absolutely reliable, and it’s worth remembering: 50% of all of the married people in the United States are women.”

    Not anymore.

  3. Briggs

    February 28, 2015 at 7:39 am

    Hans,

    Pay closer attention. “But it is in fact still, and ever will be, true.”

  4. Hans, presumably lesbians marry in the same numbers as gay men. So the 50% remains the same.

  5. So the bigamists of the mormon sect never counted, I suppose? Semantics. By one definition and set of premises, the statistic is true. But it’s not axiomatic.

  6. I’m surprised that in the era of MOOCs that the televised lecture for the general public isn’t making a comeback. I don’t mean slickly produced “educational” shows that are quick cut with thousands of images with a disembodied narrator (who has to compete with soaring music), and I don’t mean those televised college lectures (usually pretty poor in content and production value, and boring to boot) that are aired at odd hours for a particularly tiny segment of the population. I mean shows similar to this one, with an engaging educated presence who is genuinely teaching in an intimate way—without awesome videos or celebrity narrators.

  7. That was excellent: instructive and very entertaining. I had never seen him speak before. He was quite a performer. I now see where Father Finn, the priest who married my wife and I, developed his style of giving a sermon: loud, emphatic, and confident with a touch of humor. In addition, how many TV presenters today could write legibly and spell correctly? He must have learned his penmanship from the nuns!
    His point on sample sizes (and the associated error) deserves further elaboration.

  8. Excellent. Thank you.

  9. I like:

    (kinda hones in on previous posts)

    Cigarette X
    blows better smoke rings than
    Cigarette Y

    Who paid for this study?

    Wait for it…
    Independent laboratories isn’t in it for their health

    My mother was Catholic and my father wasn’t

    But he watched Bishop Sheen RELIGIOUSLY

  10. if you don’t know. In 1936, the Literary Digest polled 10 million folks, of whom some 2.4 million replied,

    So the sample size was 2.4M and not 10M as Sheen stated. Tsk. The 10M is irrelevant. Brignell calls it a “Trojan Number”. Lots of studies report sampling large populations in the abstract but the actual paper reports it is a study of far fewer.

  11. Loved the JMJ.
    Reminded me of my old days in primary school.

  12. AGW was never about science but about religion. That’s why the AGW zealots attack unbelievers so viciously. AGW is the new Lysenkoism.
    http://blog.sfgate.com/djsaunders/2015/02/24/top-climate-scientist-says-global-warming-is-his-religion/

  13. The Literary Digest poll was faulty because it was solicited, and not a random sample. If we polled those who follow Briggs’ blog on presidential candidates, the same biased results would occur.

  14. Interesting lecture with many truths. Still waiting for the moods of Darwin and Einstein to be prostrate, fallen and forgotten, though. 😉

  15. Bob K.: “As a result, the theories of evolution which, because of the philosophies which inspire them, regard the spirit either as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a simple epiphenomenon of that matter, are incompatible with the truth about man. They are therefore unable to serve as the basis for the dignity of the human person. ”

    This is faulty logic. It assumes the existence of spirit that arises from something non-materialistic to “prove” that materialism is insufficient. It proves nothing. Materialists will say “you assume that there is such a thing as the spirit, I say that there is not. ”

    One must have faith to take that leap (and, in fact, I do). I am able to reconcile these seemingly conflicting viewpoints as I have both a strong materialistic bent and a strong faith. But John Paul II’s quoted statement begs the question.

  16. Very entertaining.

    The most illuminating aspect for me, though, is the title, “How to think”. Apparently in 1955 it was still considered a noble goal for all to improve their reasoning skills, particularly in the analysis of the arguments of others. The search for truth.

    Today . . . not so much.

    In the absence of such sermons, people fall into the lazy approach: only read what validates what we already believe, and only present arguments consisting of pre-digested mush of indeterminable origin. Truth? No, all that matters is what’s personally relevant or politically expedient.

  17. In homage to the dead I’m tempted to say “fascinating”, but of course Spock isn’t anywhere near as dead as the Bishop – and I’m still annoyed by people like the equally imaginary Dr. Cooper (on big bang theory) who confuse the actor with the character.

    The bis was, of course, wrong about sampling theory but, that aside, I’m going to make my kid (now in grade 7) watch this thing at least once.

  18. Thanks! Fun to watch, gifted teacher.

  19. Bishop Sheen was a great man, an authentic thinker our age of intellectual conformity could really use. I met him as a boy, at a celebration of some Catholic contest winners, and was both charmed and impressed. Though another great man, Francis Cardinal Spellman, was at the same event, pride of place that night belonged to Bishop Sheen, whose remarks were both passionate and mesmerizing.

  20. “How to Think”. Today we are told we must know “How to Feel” and that our feelings are paramount. Linear thinking is said to be wrong.

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