Skip to content

Category: Statistics

The general theory, methods, and philosophy of the Science of Guessing What Is.

December 11, 2018 | 19 Comments

Strong AI From Ping Pong Balls

If you can’t see the tweet above, click here.

Practitioners of Strong AI believe that if we string enough of these ping-pong (or marble) machines together, rationality will emerge. By rationality, I mean intellect and will.

No, seriously. They do. This is not a jest!

Of course, the little ball movers have to be in a particular order, and be supplied with energy. The balls don’t get loaded into the hopper by themselves. But, in principle, since a contraption like this can be built, it is then a computer, which can (they say) be programmed to develop rationality. Strong AI.

Why they say this and why it won’t work is covered in three articles, starting with this one (the other two are linked within). So I won’t repeat any of it here.

That’s how they are wrong. But why might they be wrong, or on the wrong track? That’s what I’m curious about here.

There is nothing mysterious about little balls sliding down ramps. And so it doesn’t seem like a mysterious power like rationality can develop from a huge ball-sliding machine. But electricity, particularly in its quantum aspects, is strange and wondrous. It is even magical, which prompts, we might guess, the magical thinking that curve-fitting algorithms can think because they can carry on operations fast via shifting electrons (or whatever).

We can’t see electrons (etc.) tunneling and doing their things, which makes it easier to suppose that they can get away with creating intellects. Hey, they might be up to anything down there! We can see dumb little balls sliding down stupid inclined planes. They can’t possibly do anything extra.

This is, as should be clear, a psychological argument. It presupposes the philosophical one provided in the links, that no AI algorithm is ever going to reach rationality. That being so, we have to ask why people think it will.

One reason is progress. We’re cleverer now than a century ago at making gadgets. So, it is argued, we’ll eventually be clever enough to build a rational being. Out of some substance, it follows. A substance which is usually thought to be formed from silicon and wire. But it could easily (in our thought experiment) be made from ramps and balls, and pulleys, and maybe a wheel rotating in a stream.

Yet it seems absurd that a created rational being can be constructed from ping pong balls. Since it should be able to do this if the goals of strong AI are possible, then we have to ask ourselves why it seems absurd. It’s because we can’t think of a way sliding ping pong balls can make rationality out their movement. In this, we are correct.

But since these slippery balls are a computer, it must follow that we cannot extract rationality out of any computer.

December 10, 2018 | 21 Comments

Ladies & Gentlemen, We Are Losing

There are many stories, but this one is as good as any other.

Long-time school teacher Peter Vlaming was fired for saying these words: “Don’t let her run into the wall.”

Problem is, the lunatic parents of the poor little girl Vlaming sought to protect are telling the world the little girl is a little boy. The lunatic “parents said it was unhealthy for their child to remain in Vlaming’s class.”



Now what should have happened was that the male neighbors—not the government, not the authorities—of the lunatic father of the little girl, should have, when they heard the father wanted to begin pretending his daughter was his son, took him for a little walk. And when they picked him up from the bottom of the steps he accidentally slipped down, they should have explained to him that Reality trumps feelings. The father could then have brought this wisdom to his idiot wife. And all would have been well.

But no. Feelings trump Reality. Feelings are what count.

It is feelings that will doom us.

The lady boss of the school where Vlaming created an “unhealthy” environment recommended to the school board to suspend Vlaming. She got her way.

That is the real story. (If you instead believe it is right and just this man Vlaming was canned for calling a girl “she”, I do not care to hear from you, especially if you say we must respect the feelings of the girl. It does the girl no good at all to go along with her parent’s fantasy.)

There are lunatics and idiots ever with us. And cowards. That is not important. What is important is that now the cowards in charge of us fear the lunatics and idiots. They do not fear those who hold with Reality. And the reason our cowardly leaders fear the lunatics and idiots is that the lunatics and idiots have stronger feelings than the Realists. And feelings are what counts.

The majority in Vlaming’s case, represented by his many students, walked out of school to protest Valming’s removal of income. Here is what the cowardly woman who fired Vlaming said

“Given the peaceful nature of the event, students will not be disciplined for this instance of leaving lunch or class,” she said.

“We understand that some students are unhappy with the decision made by the School Board last evening and felt it important to let them express their viewpoint concerning this matter.”

Let them have feelings. But she must have considered that the feelings of the larger mob that would come for her now that the matter is public would have been stronger. In this judgment (if she made it) she was surely right.

A reader to Dreher’s original story wrote in:

My brother is a leftist atheist who teaches biology at an elite liberal arts college. He told me that he has stopped using pronouns with ALL his students. He said that it is impossible to have a rational debate with them about gender ideology. He told me that this is all about power and control, and the students’ demands keep on escalating. He is distressed that a whole cluster of female students in the physics department suddenly declared themselves trans, and immediately the tone of the department changed from “celebrating women in physics!” to “celebrating transgender people in physics!”

[A] whole cluster of female students in the physics department suddenly declared themselves trans.

Feelings, nothing more than feelings.
Feelings, wo, wo, wo, feelings

You will recall it was the students—the young, ignorant, and passionate—in the Cultural Revolution that were the most murderous and bloody minded. So it will be with us.

Few will stand up against these students. Nobody who has anything to lose will say “Reality!” Nobody in any authority will say “That girl is not a boy.” No public persona will say, “The parents of this girl should be spanked.” Even Vlaming’s supporters did not do this, and instead dithered on about “rights” and—you guessed it!—feelings.

Oh, maybe I shouldn’t complain. It’s just one man with a family tossed on his ear because he chose Reality over the Lie. He should have gone along and embraced the lie. And protected his family.

At least, until the mob discovered something else disqualifying in his earlier life.

It will only get worse. We are losing.

November 29, 2018 | 17 Comments

What Lousy Philosophy Tells Us About Belief In Global Warming

One reason people doubt global-warming-of-doom is because of lousy philosophers like N. Ángel Pinillos (note the New York Times-sophisticated inclusion of the accent). He wrote a piece entitled (in some places) “What philosophy tells us about climate change skeptics.

Let’s read this essay and see how awful thinking can be and still make it into the “paper of record.”

It starts well, but ends badly.

No matter how smart or educated you are, what you don’t know far surpasses anything you may know. Socrates taught us the virtue of recognizing our limitations. Wisdom, he said, requires possessing a type of humility manifested in an awareness of one’s own ignorance.

A limitation of Á Pinillos’s is ignorance of climate science.

According to NASA, at least 97 percent of actively publishing climate scientists think that “climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely caused by human activities.” Americans overwhelmingly agree that the federal government needs to take significant action. In a recent poll [of citizen’s who can’t say why the sky is blue, let alone delineate the intricacies of climatology]…

Now you’d think Á P. before he gave a lecture of knowledge about global warming would take the trouble to look simple things up. But no. Instead he obviously relied on the media (yes, really), and on the opinion of people who haven’t a clue about, say, parcel theory.

The canard about “97 percent” is particularly stupid. First, 100% of scientists agree that man influences the climate. How could we not? But that in itself, as Á does not understand, does not call for any specific action. And 97%? Did Á even read “Climate Consensus and ‘Misinformation’: A Rejoinder to Agnotology, Scientific Consensus, and the Teaching and Learning of Climate Change“, which shows that the consensus over doom is more like 1%? No, sir, he did not.

Did Á even know to look for this paper? No, sir, he did not. He knows so little about the subject, he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.

He knows less about probability. Which is even more embarrassing, because nobody was expecting him to discuss the limitations of high-altitude cloud parameterizations. But we did think a professional philosopher would know the difference between decisions, knowledge, and probability. He doesn’t.

Suppose you observe a shopper at the convenience store buying a lottery ticket. You are aware that the probability that he will lose the lottery is astronomically high, typically above 99.99 percent, but it’s hard to get yourself to sincerely say you know this person will lose the lottery.

Look here, Á, if the shopper knew he would lose, he wouldn’t buy the damn ticket. We don’t know the shopper is going to lose. We only know it’s likely. Which means we also know he might win.

We can only know what is true. But we can believe anything. Right, Á?

If I had to bet whether the shopper would win, I’d have to think about the consequences about what would happen if I win or lose the bet, and the probability I calculate the shopper has the winning numbers. Probability is thus not decision. And my bet the shopper would lose is not knowledge he would. It’s a guess: a prediction.

Á does not grasp these distinctions, which are basic. He makes the same blunders in an example about his grading homework. I leave casting light on these as my own homework exercise for you, dear reader.

According to social psychology, climate change deniers tend to espouse conservative views, which suggests that party ideology is partly responsible for these attitudes. I think that we should also think about the philosophical nature of skeptical reactions, an apolitical phenomenon.

The standard response by climate skeptics is a lot like our reaction to skeptical pressure cases. Climate skeptics understand that 97 percent of scientists disagree with them, but they focus on the very tiny fraction of holdouts. As in the lottery case, this focus might be enough to sustain their skepticism.

Only a nincompoop uses the term “climate change denier”. Nobody denies the climate changes (I except lunatics). Knowing man influences the climate does not indicate any particular action, nor does it even imply that any such change is necessarily bad. Plus, climate skeptics (many of them) do not understand that 97% nonsense.

Á skates over the obvious fact that when some hear “climate change” they hear “I’m from the government and I’m here to help”. Which is precisely why “conservatives” doubt the (many already failed) predictions of global warming. And is precisely why progressives have no doubt that without drastic and constant government action, we are doomed.

Finally, Á explicitly brings up probability. “Instead of saying that you don’t know some claim, try to estimate the probability that it is true.” Here (as he continues) he makes another classic mistake: that of assuming things “have” probabilities. They do not. A “conservative” and progressive will come to different probabilities of the same thing because they are conditioning on different information.

It’s that information that we must concentrate on. To paraphrase Á’s last sentence, an appreciation of the distinction between probability, knowledge, and decision, the many, many, many failures of global cooling then global warming predictions, and how poor academic philosophers can get their name in the papers can help elevate public discourse on these important topics, including the future of our sanity.

P.S. I ignored the ridiculousness about psychology as if it were philosophy, but clever students may like to submit those errors below.

November 28, 2018 | 5 Comments

Biostatisticians: They Asked Us To Lie!

The paper is “Researcher Requests for Inappropriate Analysis and Reporting: A U.S. Survey of Consulting Biostatisticians” by Min Qi Wang, Alice F. Yan, and Ralph V. Katz in Annals of Internal Medicine.

As one headline put it “1 In 4 Statisticians Say They Were Asked To Commit Scientific Fraud.”

That’s the wrong headline, though. It should read “Out of the three of four who chose to answer, one out of four biostatisticians admitted being asked to commit fraud.”

How many biostatisticians committed fraud they do not say. Smart money says at least one. Perhaps there is a way to get a p-value on that?

Anyway, our authors went on line and dangled one hundred bucks minus one in front of some ASA members, got over 500 takers (out of 4,000 asked), of which just under 400 answered the questions. We’ll never know what happened to the statisticians who vanished or to those who never bothered. Perhaps some found the questions too painful? We’ll have to agree that their missing answers don’t count—which is, after all, the standard trick. We might title the maneuver Wish Replaces Data.

Skip that.

Concentrate instead on (of those who answered) the top or “most severe” complaint. Which we’ll highlight.

Falsify the statistical significance (such as the P value) to support a desired result

Golly. But of those that answered—a circumlocution I will now drop, but it’s there; it’s always there—only a few say they were asked to do this. That the item was rated so severe is proof enough that p-values are magic. Or are seen as magic by most. Our refrain hasn’t changed: it’s time for the to go.

If I read the table right, it looks like the most common actual fraud request was “Stress only the significant findings, but underreport nonsignificant ones”, which just over half said happened to them. This has certainly happened to me. Often.

It’s usually subtle. “I notice the graphs cross for large x,” ran one recent request, and indicating increasing uncertainty in some measures for large x, “So can we stop the plot at x=y to show only the significant parts?”

Now this isn’t fraud, per se, and the people that asked are fine folks. They wanted to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative, that’s all. Scientists, our younger readers may be shocked to hear, are like every other human being.

Or maybe that fits under “Do not show plot because it did not show as strong an effect as you had hoped”, which also happened to about half.

Next was “Report results before data have been cleaned and validated”; also about half. What happens here is usually more subtle. This could be laziness or anxiousness and nothing more.

Many of the other requests for fraud have to do with p-values. “Request to not properly adjust for multiple testing when ‘a priori, originally planned secondary outcomes” are shifted to an ‘a posteriori primary outcome status'”. “Conduct too many post hoc tests, but purposefully do not adjust [alpha] levels to make results look more impressive than they really are.”

That whole swath of cheating can be eliminated, or its worst effects limited, by switching to predictive methods. Put out a model in a form that can be checked by anybody, and it will be checked. Plus, you have to work (massage, tweak, manipulate) about four to eight times harder to make the results look good. I mean, anybody can get a wee p-value, but it takes a real man to get a strong predictive result.

The only other thing of real interest is the “discovery” that fraud “requests were reported most often by younger biostatisticians.”

The implies that either the fraudsters looked at the younger biostatisticians and thought them vulnerable, or the older biostatisticians more often gave in (and did not admit coercion).

How sad to think that scientists are not as they are portrayed in the movies!