Useful Statistics: How to Not get Tricked by Numbers

If you were wondering where I was during the past two or three months, wonder no more!

My new title “Useful Statistics: How to Not get Tricked by Numbers” is now available on Both Amazon Kindle and CreateSpace!

This is an introductory book to statistics especially targeting crap that we see on social media. my favorite caption is “From tumblrite feminists to presidential candidates no one is safe from criticism!”.

Createspace link: https://www.createspace.com/5988397

Amazon Kindle link: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B01AILMCBK

 

Cover ready

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Choice and the Problem of Ignorance

The following is directly quoted from  “AIDS, Witchcraft, and the Problem of Power in Post-Apartheid South Africa” written by “Adam Ashforth”. All rights are reserved for the author, and the original link to the paper can be found HERE. The paper was written in 2001, and what it contains may not be accurate today, though it is significant and relevant.

In a scene replayed tens of thousands of times in recent years in South Africa, a relative appeared at the Khanyile family’s door in the shack settlement of Snake Park on the outskirts of Soweto to inform them of a funeral. A cousin in a town not far off had passed away. A young man in his late twenties or early thirties, the deceased had been sick for some time. In their message announcing the funeral, the dead cousin’s parents specified nothing about the illness, other than to say he’d been sick for some time. The relative visiting the Khanyiles, however, whispered the cause: “isidliso.”

Khanyile and his family took note. They know about this isidliso, otherwise called “Black poison,” an evil work of the people they call witches. Along with whatever treatments the deceased relative would have secured from medical practitioners in his town, they knew without being told that he had been taken to traditional healers to combat the witchcraft manifest in the form of isidliso. All of Khanyile’s family concurred with this diagnosis except one. Moleboheng, twenty seven and skeptical, thought the cousin’s story was “nonsense.”1

“He died of AIDS, obviously,” Moleboheng told her mother after the cousin left. (She is far too polite and sensible to say this in front of the relative, for then the relative would report to others that her family were starting vicious rumors.) Mama Khanyile conceded the possibility of AIDS, although that didn’t necessarily rule out isidliso. Her view was that the AIDS, if indeed it was AIDS, must have been sent by someone. Someone had wanted to see the young man dead and had used witchcraft to send this AIDS or isidliso to kill him. Moleboheng still insisted that was nonsense, as she does whenever her mother starts on witchcraft. In this, as in most things pertaining to witchcraft, the daughter and her family agree to disagree. She knows that within African society at large her way of looking at things is in a distinct minority.

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I am using this in my new project to ask an important moral question: Are we free to choose in the light of our stupidity? Do we think that people (like the people in the paper above) should be forced to abandon their beliefs? What about the anti-vaccination movement in US and UK?

What Shows Science is Objective?

Recently I had a scholarly invitation to a history of economic thoughts conference. One of the presenters was talking about different theories of how industrial revolution had happened. I came to think that he was more likely addressing “Where” they come from, therefore after he was done, I him if he thought where theories come from was important. He said no (which is the right answer), but then another presenter who was listening, a famous one actually, came into conversation. She also thought that the origin of theories were not important, but during the course of the conversation, she mentioned that she believed all philosophers of science were wrong until Thomas Kuhn and his notion of “Science just as another language”.

She, like Kuhn, believed that there is no objectivity in science, and it is only through “conversation” that scientists came to agree with something.* In other words, truth value of scientific statements is subjected to language and human psychology. Well, how can we disprove this? Here are three reasons off the top of my head that I hope can easily demonstrate that science is in fact our most objective knowledge. Off the top of my head (or anyone’s head for that matter), since I presented these to another professor in a casual chat while mentioning this notion of subjectivism.

1) This one is of course trivial, but effective: What we have made based on our scientific understanding of the world works. and that shows science is a good description of what reality of the world is, and it is always improving.

Now, a philosopher (or logician) that knows about history of science would immediately point out that this notion is logically problematic. After all, a lot of technology was based on things that were incorrect to begin with, or things that we didn’t know.

True as it may be, there is one thing that can save that notion. That is what was not put forward: I was careful in framing my sentence in the beginning, It was not said that science was “true” because of the technology based on it, it was said that science was “a good description” of reality.

The Newtonian paradigm of physical understanding was wrong, but it was not a total waste of a “description”. Since it did work. And it’s funny that when Einstein finally changed that paradigm, what technologies were changed and invented. I think just the GPS system should be enough, something that Newton probably could never think of. The essential point is, our knowledge is growing, step by step closer to ever better understanding of reality.

2) This next notion has a close relation with the third one, though they are separate. That is the existence of pluralism, both in philosophy and practice of different types of knowledge, particularly dominant religions, versus almost none existence of any kind of pluralism within scientific community and scientists.

The mere none existence of pluralism in that sense seems to defeat the notion of incommensurability put forward by Kuhn: If theories were indeed incommensurable, we should have had scientists who were pluralists in scientific understanding. But it is not so: Scientists in practice remain completely none pluralistic. They either agree with each other’s position (theories) or they don’t. We do not have scientists who are prepared to accept two or more opposite theories at the same time.

3) The third point is  none existence of different scientific branches. From time to time, scientists come to disagree with each other on theories (or paradigms). For Popper these were problems, and for Kuhn they were crisis. No matter: Even Kuhn accepts that different paradigms die away (e.g. Newtonian paradigm).

But look at religions (or other types of knowledge like arts), different branches come to exist, and almost never die. I have used the likes of this picture before, but using it again seems very relevant (this time it is cults of Islam):

 

If one is looking for a none objective knowledge, one should not look far: How religions behave shows what they are. And how science behaves can only show that it is the only human knowledge that has the most objectivity.

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* This is not word by word what she said. In fact for the purpose of this post I stretched it a bit. But I believe this is the essence of what she thought about scientific method, though she did not mentioned it word by word.

 

Scientific Faith? You are Surely Joking! (1)

The main issue of talking to “some” believers is their utter dishonesty and ignorance. Of course, this comes in many different ways and shapes: Sometimes they try to abuse a professional language, sometimes they lie, and sometimes they try to confiscate irrelevant things for their own position, including science and scientific method.

Recently I keep hearing the old claim that “we all accept things based on faith, including scientists”. You ask where? Let’s take the case of this audio-video, in which “Dr.” John Warwick Montgomery apparently tries to criticize Sam Harris’s comment on faith.*

Of course, there are numerous reasons why this is flawed. In fact, it is so flawed that one wonders where to begin?!

Let’s start with the very first sentence: “No evidence for factual things reaches a hundred percent.” And then he goes on giving an example about “crossing the street”. It is interesting that “He” should dare calling Harris a bad epistemologist, while he is attacking Harris exactly based on bad epistemology.

Assuming that we ignore we don’t know what this guy means by “factual things”, and assuming he means “factual belief”, if theories of natural science are “factual things”, then the evidence for them based on methodology of science “should” be 100%. If not, then they are falsified theories and should be put aside.**

There are other domains of knowledge, like social sciences, art, history, philosophy etc, which contain these “factual things”. None of them are as robust as natural science, but some of them are close, like social sciences, or our ordinary lives for that matter. If we have reasons, beyond reasonable doubt, that something has happened or is going to happen, it would be moronic to say we have “faith” in it. The only thing we have is reasonable acceptance, which is a fancy name for common sense.

This brings us to the second glorious (gloriously stupid of course) statement of Dr. Montgomery: “Faith is jumping the gap from evidence to certainty”. Well, then we have “faith”, which means trusting your common sense when crossing the street, and we have “faith”, which means believing in Pixies, Fairies, Santa, Loch Ness monster, Genie of the lamp, All the God(s) and Russel’s teapot (theists nightmare). You’re telling me there is no difference here?!

We have common sense that tells us we should ignore unreasonable doubts. After all, we cannot live if we do not do so: Imagine someone that never passes the street because despite all the precautions, there “might” be an accident.

If that does not show the difference, there are two other things that will: First, is the mere existence of religious pluralism should be a clue to its fraudulent nature. The evidential truth in religion as a knowledge does not pass beyond individual subjectivism. But science is almost completely different: There is no sign of pluralism within scientific community, which shows its objective nature.

Second, the history of science and history of religion clearly show that as time passed by, religion branches into many different denominations, while science remains mostly as one “paradigm”. Even if there are two rival theories (or paradigms) at a time, one would eventually die away, as scientific experiments go on.

from WikipediaSource: Wikipedia

And one final thing, until now, there has been no justified evidence for the truth of any major religious claim. Which means religion keeps pending outside the known knowledge of reality, along with pixies, fairies and leprechauns.

Is there no end to hypocrasy of religious apologists?

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* It’s interesting that he does not dare debating Harris, or others whom he supposably criticizes without them being there.

** There have been a lot of relatvie discussions in philosophy of science about this that I do not mention here, none of them have recognized religious belief to be factual and evidentially accurate though. But I will talk about one related question later in another post: “Is there anything that scientists believe, without it being evidentially justified?”

 

Death

It would be a lie, for probably anyone, if one says one is not afraid of death; and it does not matter if they are religious or not. In fact, followers of Abraham may not realize it, but their religion does not create comfort for them, it creates even more despair. Not only the fear of the unknown side of the inevitable demise does not diminish by their faith, but one more fear is added to it: The fear of eternal damnation.

This reminds me of a teacher that we had, he was a fundamentalist since he was teaching “Islamic thought” nonsense to us. He used to say: “I am going to hell anyways”. Of course, he didn’t mean it. He was trying to be humble, but this triggers my point: No religious person can even remotely be sure that they would go to heaven.

It has always been amusing for me to see people have the ultimate phobia of the end. Being afraid of the unknown is one thing, but not wanting to face the inevitable is irrational. Of course, this does not mean that we should not try to live longer, or we should commit suicide; but it means that when it is time to go, well, it is time to go…

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I wonder If this fear is the reason why “afterlife” was invented? Watch as Sam Harris explains about the science of mind and the ultimate question about afterlife, that religious people, of any sort, have to be able to explain:

 

My Thoughts on Falsifiability: Meaning, Truth and the Consequences of Belief

Some of you may know Tim Martin of The Floating Lantern. He is an Atheist and I usually follow his interesting posts. In here, he posted about falsifiability and the speech that The Thinking Atheist gave about none falsifiability of religious claims. Tim in his post here has rightfully pointed out that religious claims are none falsifiable:

He has written: “In each case down the line, the requirements are relaxed for what state of affairs would lead to the conclusion that God is good. By the time you get to the third scenario, you’re confronted with the fact that an innocent boy is dead, and God still gets credit for being good. At this point you have to admit that the statement has no requirements on its being true at all. It’s simply true no matter what happens- and so, what does it even mean to say that God is good? Apparently it means that the world will go on as it does. Your children might get shot in the street. Or they might not.”

True, but I thought the following part should be added to that, in order to answer where we would like to go with this?

As many of you may have heard, falsifiability is the criterion of scientific knowledge. No, not exactly; But for the sake of the argument, and since it seems irrelevant to this discussion, for now I put aside it’s problems (logical, philosophical and historical). I may talk about them in another post.

If something is not falsifiable, it neither means that it is meaningless, nor it means that it is necessarily untrue; it means that we cannot determine whether it is true or not, with a scientific method.

Now, why none falsifiable things are not meaningless? The reason is, criterions of meaning could be proven to have philosophical and logical problems, problems so intense that make them practically meaningless! Yes, many of them have proven to be self refuting, including the famous Verification Principle of logical positivism, the dead school of philosophy of science.

The main thing is, Popper realized that his principle of falsification (didn’t I say? Yes, he was the first to promote it against Logical Positivism), cannot and should not have the same problem. You see, aside from being self-refuting, many thing are not falsifiable: Music, literature, art and maybe even social sciences (to some extent). How could we suggest that they are meaningless?! I personally not only enjoy music a lot, but also know many meaningless words that only find meaning in the context of their literature. I wonder how many people know what “Upsilamba” means, Or have even heard it?

Of course not every none falsifiable is meaningless, therefore, Popper wrote:

“Note that I suggest falsifiability as a criterion of demarcation, but not of meaning. Note, moreover, that I have already (section 4) sharply criticized the use of the idea of meaning as a criterion of demarcation, and that I attack the dogma of meaning again, even more sharply, in section 9. It is therefore a sheer myth (though any number of refutations of my theory have been based upon this myth) that I ever proposed falsifiability as a criterion of meaning. Falsifiability separates two kinds of perfectly meaningful statements: the falsifiable and the non-falsifiable. It draws a line inside meaningful language, not around it.” (You can see the book in pdf here, the point is made on page 18 as a note at the end of the page)

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Ok, how about the truth? As I pointed out, falsifiability criterion of knowledge is suppose to show us what cannot be determined by scientific method to be false. Logically speaking, we cannot derive the conclusion of falsehood simply out of not being able to determine the truth. It would be a logical fallacy, appealing to ignorance, which by the way religious people like a lot (including creationists).

Therefore, whatever none falsifiable is not necessarily untrue.

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What can we say from religion being none falsifiable? The following: It’s not scientific. Ok, but what makes it different from literature, or art?

It is interesting, that we understand, it seems to a great deal, that our understanding of art or literature is “ours”. We know that other people are entitled to their own realization of what is good music, and what is readable literature. But how is it, that we do not realize this for religion? (The answer might be in the gathering of the crowds, we feel maybe a sense of belonging, a sense of safety within that mass of people. But this is for another post)

Aside from that, religion makes claims that no art ever does. They make the claim that they know the key to life and death itself. They claim they are moral compasses, and so, they have a program for a meaningful life. What they do, is they make people forget how idealistic they are. They make people believe in them, and believe in them as absolute truth that no one can or should challenge. And so, people are not be able to see the consequences of those beliefs.

And that’s a huge thing: Beliefs have consequences. Music is not a belief, nor is art. Literature in its artistic form is not a belief either. But religion is “made” of beliefs, and the consequences of those are not just in one’s head, but in reality of the world. And what heinous consequences they are…

The upside is, none falsifiable claims have rivals just like themselves: Which Gods do you think are true? Here are just a few: Ra, Isis, Osiris, Set (Egyptian); Odin, Thor, Baldur, Loki (Scandinavian); Zeus, Hera, Prometheus (Creator of humankind in Greek mythology), Uranus, Gaia, (and many more, Greek gods), Allah; Jehovah and so on…

And just by raising the matter of probability, what are the chances that one God is the rightful God, assuming there is one?!

Common Mistake: Science Proves

This is not an actual common mistake, meaning that the term is not “wrong” in its own terminology, but it leads to people thinking science actually “proves” things. The terminology is not wrong when the one using it knows that all science has, everything that it gives us, are theories and no more. In that case we know that it is not equivalent to actual “proving”, but rather a highly reliable theory, or at its highest strength a scientific fact (which are the most established theories that science has to offer).

Why science does not prove? The reason is related to scientific method of its discoveries. No method based on scientific tests exists that can give us absolute certainty about a scientific theory or statement.

This is usually called Hume’s problem, he clearly showed that logically we cannot derive a general statement from a limited number of observations, no matter how big that number is. History of science also shows the same pattern, things that we had tested and thought were true turned out to be not true at all. I personally like to use “shows” instead of proves.

That brings me to my other point: There are statements that turn out to be ridiculous by the measure of the people saying them. The following typical conversation happened in my head:

  • Evolution is just a theory, it has not been proven yet!
  • Oh really? would you care to explain what part of science isn’t “just a theory”? And  in that case “The earth is a globe” is also just a theory. But wait, you believe in that, don’t you?
  • No! I’m am a member of flat earth society!

I don’t think that I can guess how that conversation would end!