William M. Briggs on Embracing Uncertainty and Stats as a False God – Thorinquiry

William M. Briggs on Embracing Uncertainty and Stats as a False God – Thorinquiry

Thanks to EMM for the donation!

I was interviewed by Duncan Thorin Shields (he goes by Thorin) last week. He asked the best questions I think I’ve ever been asked.

He starts off wondering if people have an innate intuitive sense of truth. The answer is yes, to various extent. Just as some are tall, and some not as blessed, not everybody can grasp every truth, or “see” every axiom. This fits in with the Class discussion, for those who have been following it.

Of course, our reigning ideology is that all are equal except for circumstance, so that everybody can know everything, which leads to the kind of madness we often discuss.

Thorin then gives an excellent example of the effects of evidence on belief. In this case on whether some guy cheated at some game (Thorin is a sports reporter). In stats terms, this is the probability a theory/model/law/event is true given evidence.

This lead me to recollect psychic research (once huge) and people lke Uri Geller. Can we say with definitiveness that they are cheating, even if we do not catch them cheating, because we can duplicate their supposedly psychic abilities using mundane means? For instance, Geller claims he can telekinetically bend spoons. I can also bend spoons making it appear I am using psychic powers. Is this proof Geller cheated?

I call this the Alternate Explanation Fallacy. That because you can come up with an alternate explanation to one claimed to cause some event, that claimed cause must be false. This fallacy is often used to dismiss miracles.

Obviously, you can always come up with alternate explanations for any contingent event. So the mere presence of an alternate explanation is useless. In other words, you have to catch Geller cheating.

Next: Thorin had good ideas on the difference between told what to think versus told how to think. I’m with him. Being told how to think works only with a vanishing minority of people, who still have to have a basis from which to work, which means even they have to be told what to think, at least to some extent. For nearly everybody else, the only way to is tell them what to think.

Which is, of course, what our Experts do. Tell people what to think. Only they tell them the wrong things to think. So people never learn how to think.

From there we moved to tracking “statistics”, and to the idea “the data told me”. Which is always wrong, or wrongheaded. The only reason data is collected is because you told the collection what the answer was in advance, if you follow me. After all, you have to decide, in advance, what to collect, and, more importantly, what not to collect. Which is most things. That is, you’re always leaving infinity on the table. We’ll get to this in the Class, too.

The religious impulse we all have was the next topic. And on belief and the leap of faith required for certain proposition. I point out that all rational thought is founded or grounded on faith. There’s no escaping faith. You at least have to have faith that your ability to reason is leading to truth. It must be faith because you can’t prove it. We started this in Class, too.

Thorin reminds us that you have to hear something a million and one times, the first million being insufficient, until you grasp it. Hence the repetition on the blog. Which, believe me, I’d rather not do. Do you know how happy I was when Trump was first elected, not because of anything else but that, I thought, I’d never have to write about global warming, a.k.a. “climate change”, again? I do not love writing yet-another article exposing scientists’ wee p-values. But since you still hear “P-values have some uses”, I must.

Then comes AI. Which is yet another moral panic. I explain my theory of the electric abacus. Computers are identical to abacuses, except one does its work at my command and direction in wooden beads and one in electric impulses. The brain-as-computer metaphor has wrecked many minds.

That’s only the start! Don’t miss discussion of Christopher Hitchens’s masterful use of the Bluff & Bluster Fallacy. A most interesting discussion.

You’ll enjoy this. Thorin speaks longer than I do, which you will welcome. My voice sounds muffled. Obviously something I did wrong. Don’t know what.

Subscribe or donate to support this site and its wholly independent host using credit card click here. Or use the paid subscription at Substack. Cash App: $WilliamMBriggs. For Zelle, use my email: matt@wmbriggs.com, and please include yours so I know who to thank.


  1. Carlos Julio Casanova Guerra

    What happens with the dismissing of miracles is not exactly that, not an alternative explanation. It’s more a particular case of the reductionist fallacy: the reductionist finds a true link in the chain of causation and dismisses any other level of causation. My fingers push the table; they say a force moved the table; I say, no I just proposed an inlustrative example, it was my intellect, it was my decision, it was my muscles and bones; they refuse to accept these other levels of explanation that are obviously true. What they say is true, the problem is what they don’t accept. In a miracle, evidently, God uses second causes, they see those, then they refuse to accept they behaved extraordinarily because of another level of causation

  2. Carlos Julio Casanova Guerra

    No, there’s no need to have faith in reason, becase reason is based on the natural and absolute evidence of first principles (Metaphysics, IV, and Saint Thomas comments)

  3. Briggs


    It’s still faith , because you have to believe your senses have conveyed information correctly, etc. We’ll do more later.

  4. Milton Hathaway

    “the mere presence of an alternate explanation is useless”

    This brought to mind the latest reincarnation of the UFO (UAP?) craze. Mick West has done some very detailed investigations illustrating that things like the sun reflecting off Starlink satellites below the horizon can convincingly explain some of the videos. Doing these types of investigations looks to be very time consuming; it would be safe to say that there will always be orders of magnitude more videos without explanations. So it must be off-world aliens, by sheer preponderance of the evidence, right?

    For me, for some things, not only is the presence of an alternate explanation not only not useless, it’s everything.

    (I don’t include miracles here, though, since I have always believed that miracles are purposely Designed and Executed in such a way to allow the faithless to remain faithless without forcing cognitive dissonance. In other words, faith is a gift, and miracles without plausible alternate explanations would be a deprivation of that gift. And yes, I believe that some who witnessed first-hand the miracles performed by Jesus were deprived in that sense – their opportunity for “blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed” faith was sacrificed for a bigger cause.)

  5. Hagfish Bagpipe

    That was a fun discussion. Never heard of Thorin, loved his scottish brogue. He has a good mind that makes interesting connections, loves to talk, and would make a great dinner guest. Listened while sawing thin mahogany strips into thinner mahogany strips, by hand — exacting work, perfect for listening to two guys making their own exacting divisions.

  6. Cary D Cotterman

    How to think begins simply with thinking, instead of just hearing and obeying. Every time we think for ourselves, our bullshit radar gains strength.

  7. C-Marie

    I Love to think. Wish all children were taught to think. My Dad started me on St. Thomas Aquinas at five years old. He was a newish convert to Catholicism of maybe four years and loved to share what he was learning. He actually got baptized because I was going to be baptized. He told us, his kids, that he had been a pagan all of his life, so this was an adventure for him. Two of his favorite things to say to me were, ” Think, Claudia, think! And the other was, “Don’t interrupt! ” as I would get too excited when I understood something. He would ask me questions way beyond my understanding and then he woud say, “Let’s see what St. Thomas Aquinas has to say.” He was so fun so often!!

    God bless, C-Marie

  8. cdquarles

    One definition of faith is “Certain knowledge of something you can’t know any other way”, such as mathematical axioms. Faith is a decision based upon induction. Science can’t operate without faith. Yes, faith is also a gift. Just like life is, in its own way. Something contingent, or conditional, such as the physical universe we are a part of, can’t exist without some being that is *not* contingent making it so. That’s true by logical necessity. How do I know it? By faith informed by induction.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *