Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, July 26, 2021

On expertise: A redundant but redundancy worthy post

PZ Myers has something to say which is kind of like something I keep saying. He warms up with a lot of context and stuff but here's the essential point:


"Best to evaluate each thing on its merits…look into the pros and cons and form an opinion of your own."

That’s a familiar mantra of the disingenuous internet skeptic, and it could also be the motto of the conservative pundit, from Ben Shapiro to Jesse Watters — you know, the same crowd that says “Facts, not feelings” while simultaneously telling you to trust the authority of unqualified jackasses. I might even have used similar words at times, telling people who are waffling over an idea to go look up the sources. It’s an appealing sentiment that assumes the listener has an open mind, the tools to examine an idea closely, and honestly wants to arrive at the truth.

It’s also a dangerous sentiment.

That’s not how you teach or learn. Smart people — the experts, you know — spent years of careful, disciplined study to build up a body of ideas that are supported by evidence and experiments. They distill their work down into short, intellectually demanding papers that yes, you can criticize, but only if you put as much work into it as the investigators did. It takes hard work to be an expert or authority. Yet somehow we also try to believe that someone should be able to reach a conclusion because we heard a short summary on the television by a talking airhead. “Evaluate” does not mean feed a casual statement into the grinding mass of prior opinions whirring away in your head so you can process the words into justifications for your biases, that is, “form an opinion”.

It takes years of study to become an epidemiologist (or climatologist, or biologist, or whatever complex field of study finds itself in the forefront of the latest crisis), and yet we’re supposed to believe everyone can resolve the conflicting chaos of superficialities they get from their TV into a deep and serious understanding of an issue? People don’t work that way.

Exactly, Tucker Carlson doesn't have a "viewpoint" or opinions that should be evaluated in the marketplace of ideas. He's a bullshit artist who spews lies and is completely ignorant of the subjects he spews about. The truth is not determined by your political allegiance or your policy preferences: it is what it is. Conservatives reject the science of anthropogenic climate change because accepting the truth means acknowledging that the Free Market™ doesn't maximize human welfare. (Actually it doesn't exist and can't exist, even in principle, but that's for another day.) People who somehow see it as an infringement  on their "liberty" to be required to wear a mask, socially distance, and get vaccinated, find that it produces a lot less cognitive dissonance if they pretend the scientific truths about Covid-19 are actually a hoax.

Of course their concept of liberty is warped anyway. They aren't complaining about speed limits, or driver's licenses, or even the many requirements for vaccination that already exist for schoolchildren. If you hit me with your car or make it unsafe for me to be in a public place because you are selfish and irresponsible your issue obviously isn't about liberty, because you are more than happy to infringe mine. Your issue is that you want to be an irresponsible idiot.

And BTW, the existence of insane death cults in other countries doesn't somehow make it okay that we have one here.


Sunday, July 25, 2021

Sunday Sermonette: A holy man of God

So were in the basic Judges Groundhog Day situation: the Israelites have displeased God, so he's sold them -- or in this case apparently given them away -- to another people, in this case the Philistines. And now, to repeat the story for the 7th or 8th time, God needs a champion to massacre the oppressors and free the Israelites. In the case of Samson, however, it does get a bit more complicated. Remember that Samson is a Nazirite, dedicated to the service of God, who appears to have some surprising moral standards for his servants. Spiritually enlightened this guy is not.

14 Samson went down to Timnah and saw there a young Philistine woman. When he returned, he said to his father and mother, “I have seen a Philistine woman in Timnah; now get her for me as my wife.”

His father and mother replied, “Isn’t there an acceptable woman among your relatives or among all our people? Must you go to the uncircumcised Philistines to get a wife?”

But Samson said to his father, “Get her for me. She’s the right one for me.” (His parents did not know that this was from the Lord, who was seeking an occasion to confront the Philistines; for at that time they were ruling over Israel.)

Normally God starts a plague or strikes people dead or whatever when they miscegenate, but in this case it's all part of a plot to get Samson good and mad so he'll murder some Philistines. 

Samson went down to Timnah together with his father and mother. As they approached the vineyards of Timnah, suddenly a young lion came roaring toward him. The Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon him so that he tore the lion apart with his bare hands as he might have torn a young goat. But he told neither his father nor his mother what he had done. Then he went down and talked with the woman, and he liked her.

Some time later, when he went back to marry her, he turned aside to look at the lion’s carcass, and in it he saw a swarm of bees and some honey. He scooped out the honey with his hands and ate as he went along. When he rejoined his parents, he gave them some, and they too ate it. But he did not tell them that he had taken the honey from the lion’s carcass.

10 Now his father went down to see the woman. And there Samson held a feast, as was customary for young men. 11 When the people saw him, they chose thirty men to be his companions.

12 “Let me tell you a riddle,” Samson said to them. “If you can give me the answer within the seven days of the feast, I will give you thirty linen garments and thirty sets of clothes. 13 If you can’t tell me the answer, you must give me thirty linen garments and thirty sets of clothes.”

“Tell us your riddle,” they said. “Let’s hear it.”

14 He replied,

“Out of the eater, something to eat;
    out of the strong, something sweet.”

Why did they accept this deal? 

For three days they could not give the answer.

15 On the fourth[a] day, they said to Samson’s wife, “Coax your husband into explaining the riddle for us, or we will burn you and your father’s household to death. Did you invite us here to steal our property?”

16 Then Samson’s wife threw herself on him, sobbing, “You hate me! You don’t really love me. You’ve given my people a riddle, but you haven’t told me the answer.”

“I haven’t even explained it to my father or mother,” he replied, “so why should I explain it to you?” 17 She cried the whole seven days of the feast. So on the seventh day he finally told her, because she continued to press him. She in turn explained the riddle to her people.

18 Before sunset on the seventh day the men of the town said to him,

“What is sweeter than honey?
    What is stronger than a lion?”

Samson said to them,

“If you had not plowed with my heifer,
    you would not have solved my riddle.”

"Plowed with my heifer" is widely considered to be a sexual innuendo, although it doesn't seem to be justified --- they actually threatened to murder her and her entire family. In any case, it doesn't seem nice to call his wife a cow.

19 Then the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon him. He went down to Ashkelon, struck down thirty of their men, stripped them of everything and gave their clothes to those who had explained the riddle. Burning with anger, he returned to his father’s home.

Right, so the Spirit of the Lord came upon him, inspiring him to murder 30 innocent men for their clothing. God works in mysterious ways.

20 And Samson’s wife was given to one of his companions who had attended him at the feast.


  1. Judges 14:15 Some Septuagint manuscripts and Syriac; Hebrew seventh

Friday, July 23, 2021

On the bias of science: more on methods

As I have said, there are many different methods used by scientists. What I will focus on today is so-called Gaussian statistics and a number called the p-value. This has been discussed enough in scholarly literature of late that many non-scientists probably have a general idea that there is controversy associated with it and think they at least understand the gist of it. 

Just in case you don't really understand it, let me try to explain it as simply as I can. If you flip a coin multiple times, the most likely result will be an equal number of heads and tails. The second most likely will be one more heads or one more tails, and so on, with the least likely being all heads or all tails. If you make a bar graph it will look something like this:

Binomial distribution - Wikipedia

You'll notice they've superimposed a smooth curve, which is called the normal distribution, and that's what you get with an infinite number of coin flips. (The "tails" on each end actually extend asymptotically but you can't show that in a finite graph.) It turns out that a lot of phenomena in the real world that aren't binary, but continuous, such as people's height, look something like this. But that's not so important. What's really important is that regardless of whether some quantity is normally distributed, if you take a whole lot of random samples the means of those samples will be normally distributed. One of the properties of the normal curve is called the standard deviation; this is a measure of how spread out the values are. About 2/3 of the values will be within 1 SD and 95% within 2 SD of the mean.

So let's say you want to compare samples A and B and and figure out if they are different from each other on some property C. You calculate the mean difference between A and B on the quantity C and you can also estimate the SD of that mean from the SD of A and B. (It's easy to look up the formulas for all this if you like but it isn't necessary.) That means that you can estimate the probability of seeing whatever mean difference there is between the samples if, in the total population, there isn't really any difference between A and B, in other words you just happened to see a difference because of random chance. That's called the p-value.

It could be anything, from 0 to 1. So how do we decide if there really is a difference? Somewhere in the past (I could look up the name but who cares), somebody arbitrarily decided that it has to be .05 or less in order to draw a conclusion. This is completely arbitrary. There is no perceptible basis for it whatever. However, the whole world went along and we live with the consequences.

One consequence is that if the p-value is .06 or more you're supposed to conclude that there is no difference between A and B. This is obviously not a valid conclusion but that's what you're required to write in your paper. However, since negative findings are less likely to be published, investigators really want to get to that magical <.05. There are various ways to do this. For example, you can decide that you shouldn't count "outliers," extreme values, because they must be erroneous or there must be something weird about them. Or you can look after the fact for sub-groups within A and B for which the p-value is <.05 and draw conclusions about them. 

I have actually seen published papers (and I have reviewed papers in which I had to point out that this is fallacious) that conclude that because the p-value is .06 for one subgroup, and .04 for another, the difference exists for one but not the other. This is a profound and obvious error of inference, but it makes its way into the peer reviewed literature. In other words, a whole lot of people with Ph.D.s and academic appointments don't understand this supposedly elementary concept.


Another problem is that before we get to calculating the p-value, there are various reasons why you are likely to erroneously find what you are looking for. For example, somebody has to measure the quantity of interest, and if they know or an guess which group the subject is in they will have an unconscious (hopefully) tendency to bias the measurement. You can adjust the eligibility requirements for your study to include people who are more likely to show a difference. You can stop collecting data once you see what you want to see. And there's more.

For this reason, some people advocate that a conclusion should only be drawn if the p-value is considerably less than .05, such as .01. Other people want to do away with it entirely, and only report the confidence interval. What is the 95% (2SD) interval for the observed difference? While we argue about theses matters, however, progress toward understanding the world is muddled and slowed down. It doesn't mean we aren't getting anywhere, but it means it's harder than it ought to be.

More to come.



Thursday, July 22, 2021

On the bias of science: a digression

This series has elicited a couple of what I consider idiotic and unpublishable comments to the effect that I have just proved why people don't trust science. This is a basic problem in science communication to the general public that is much discussed. Here's my two cents.

The problem is that scientists are generally reluctant to make highly definitive statements. Science is a continuously progressive endeavor and it's not uncommon for what we thought we knew yesterday to turn out to be not quite right today. Many conclusions are probabilistic - we're 90% or 95% sure of something. Sometimes an association holds under the circumstances we've tested so far, but we can't be sure it holds under other circumstances. Sometimes conclusions are expressed in terms of a confidence interval -- we're 95% sure that the true value lies between x and y. Scientists will even be oddly shy about assertions they are 100% sure are correct. For example, they'll tend to say things like "There is no convincing evidence for the effectiveness of homeopathy," when they know damn well that homeopathy is not just fake, but completely insane.

People generally hear this as unconvincing. They think it gives them license to believe something else. In the first place, I wish that scientists would be more direct in how they phrase conclusions when addressing the general public. In the abstract, you could say that we don't know anything for sure, maybe we're all living in a computer simulation or the world is an illusion. But if you accept the basic premise of intersubjective reality, there are some things we damn well know. These include evolution, anthropogenic climate change, tobacco causes cancer and heart disease, and the benefits far outweigh the risk of authorized vaccines for Covid-19. There is uncertainty about some of  the details and exact numbers. We can't precisely predict all the effects of climate change; or precisely say what the numerical chances are of some side effect of a vaccine and who might be most at risk, vs. the precise reduction in your risk of severe illness, again perhaps depending on some personal characteristics.

But the general conclusions in these cases are absolutely definitive. If you are willing to believe that the course of the sun across the sky is an illusion created by the earth rotating, you should believe this. There have been widely disseminated conclusions that have turned out to be not quite right, such as the relationship between consuming various kinds of fats and heart disease risk, or the risks of hormone replacement therapy. But what scientific authorities are telling you today is the best available understanding, and your best bet is to believe it. It may get even tighter and more definitive in the future -- that's most likely -- or it might turn out to be a little off. But you should bet the odds.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Wenesday Bible Study: The worst person in the world

With Judges 13 begins the story of Samson. The name is very familiar to Christians and in fact Samson commonly appears in Bible stories for children. People have the vague idea that he had superhuman strength as long as he didn't cut his hair, and that his girlfriend Delilah betrayed him by having his hair cut, and he was screwed until it grew back. That's about all people know, I'll venture. We'll see the real story in the coming days, and it ain't pretty.

In this chapter, the story of his birth, Christians will likely find a great deal that is familiar. In fact, there might be something of a copyright violation here. I insert commentary at various places.

Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord, so the Lord delivered them into the hands of the Philistines for forty years.

 Groundhog day.

A certain man of Zorah, named Manoah, from the clan of the Danites, had a wife who was childless, unable to give birth. The angel of the Lord appeared to her and said, “You are barren and childless, but you are going to become pregnant and give birth to a son. Now see to it that you drink no wine or other fermented drink and that you do not eat anything unclean. You will become pregnant and have a son whose head is never to be touched by a razor because the boy is to be a Nazirite, dedicated to God from the womb. He will take the lead in delivering Israel from the hands of the Philistines.”

Recall that "Nazirites" are introduced in Numbers 6. They are somehow dedicated to Yahweh although the precise meaning of being a Nazirite and what they are supposed to do is not explained. One restriction is that they are not allowed to touch dead bodies. Believe me, Samson is going to violate thta one!

Then the woman went to her husband and told him, “A man of God came to me. He looked like an angel of God, very awesome. I didn’t ask him where he came from, and he didn’t tell me his name. But he said to me, ‘You will become pregnant and have a son. Now then, drink no wine or other fermented drink and do not eat anything unclean, because the boy will be a Nazirite of God from the womb until the day of his death.’”

Then Manoah prayed to the Lord: “Pardon your servant, Lord. I beg you to let the man of God you sent to us come again to teach us how to bring up the boy who is to be born.”

God heard Manoah, and the angel of God came again to the woman while she was out in the field; but her husband Manoah was not with her. 10 The woman hurried to tell her husband, “He’s here! The man who appeared to me the other day!”

11 Manoah got up and followed his wife. When he came to the man, he said, “Are you the man who talked to my wife?”

“I am,” he said.

12 So Manoah asked him, “When your words are fulfilled, what is to be the rule that governs the boy’s life and work?”

13 The angel of the Lord answered, “Your wife must do all that I have told her. 14 She must not eat anything that comes from the grapevine, nor drink any wine or other fermented drink nor eat anything unclean. She must do everything I have commanded her.”

15 Manoah said to the angel of the Lord, “We would like you to stay until we prepare a young goat for you.”

16 The angel of the Lord replied, “Even though you detain me, I will not eat any of your food. But if you prepare a burnt offering, offer it to the Lord.” (Manoah did not realize that it was the angel of the Lord.)

17 Then Manoah inquired of the angel of the Lord, “What is your name, so that we may honor you when your word comes true?”

18 He replied, “Why do you ask my name? It is beyond understanding.[a] 19 Then Manoah took a young goat, together with the grain offering, and sacrificed it on a rock to the Lord. And the Lord did an amazing thing while Manoah and his wife watched: 20 As the flame blazed up from the altar toward heaven, the angel of the Lord ascended in the flame. Seeing this, Manoah and his wife fell with their faces to the ground. 21 When the angel of the Lord did not show himself again to Manoah and his wife, Manoah realized that it was the angel of the Lord.

As I noted before, the tabernacle and the priesthood have disappeared. Do-it-yourself sacrifice is now okay, although according to the Torah it is absolutely abomination. These people should have been struck dead, instead God accepts the sacrifice.

22 “We are doomed to die!” he said to his wife. “We have seen God!”

23 But his wife answered, “If the Lord had meant to kill us, he would not have accepted a burnt offering and grain offering from our hands, nor shown us all these things or now told us this.”

24 The woman gave birth to a boy and named him Samson. He grew and the Lord blessed him, 25 and the Spirit of the Lord began to stir him while he was in Mahaneh Dan, between Zorah and Eshtaol.


  1. Judges 13:18 Or is wonderful

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

On the bias of science: Methods

This part is really complicated, and I don't think I can do it minimal justice in one post. Let me first say that there is no such thing as "the scientific method." That we continually encounter that phrase, perpetrated by people with an air of authority, is quite depressing. Again, there is no such thing. The phrase is meaningless.

Scientists use a vast array of different methods. For convenience, we can sort them into buckets, but there is diversity inside the buckets and a given study may mix and match as well. One broad division is between observational and experimental studies, but the line of demarcation isn't sharp. There are so-called quasi-experiments and purely observational findings may emerge from experimental studies. Another broad division you'll encounter is between induction and deduction. To oversimplify it a bit, induction means looking around and seeing that certain phenomena are "out there." Bees hang out around flowers all the time. If I follow them home, their hives are full of honey. That's induction. Now I can make a guess -- form a hypothesis -- maybe they use something they get from the flowers to make the honey. That's a deduction, but I need to test it. There are various ways I might go about that, which might or might not involve experimentation, actually. I'll let you think about how you might do it.

A very common kind of question, in many fields of science, is whether a group of entities that are largely similar but differ in characteristic A also tend to differ in characteristic B. We are likely to be interested in this because we want to know the cause of B. Maybe A causes B. Or maybe something else -- C -- causes both A and B. Or maybe it's just happenstance, some sort of historical accident. This sort of problem is the most interesting kind to most scientists. It is theory building and testing. 

The word theory is widely misunderstood. In the vernacular, people use it as a synonym for a hypothesis, or a guess. While scientists in everyday life may sometimes talk loosely and use the word in that way, that is not the formal meaning in science. A theory is a structure of causal relations that explains some complex phenomenon. It may be hypothetical, or it may be considered reliably confirmed. Einstein's theory of gravity, that it is caused by the warping of space-time by massive objects (with considerable additional complexity and quantification) is considered to be securely established. So is evolution. It is wrong to say these are "only a theory." They are theories that are considered, by consensus of scientists in the relevant fields, to be correct.

But again, there are many different ways of testing theories and their components, which may be experimental or observational. What matters for our purposes is that there is something of a hierarchy of prestige among investigative methods, and among categories of questions. There are also some conventions and assumptions about the appropriate ways of reporting on and interpreting observations. These tend to push scientists in certain directions which may affect the kinds of inquiries they undertake, and what they choose to believe and say about the results. I'll try to explain that next time.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Sadly, I am forced to conclude . . .

 . . .  there is no cure for stupid. At least not if you don't want  to be helped.

On the bias of science: part the whatever

Okay, having cleared away the underbrush (I hope) we come to the main points I have been wanting to make. A lot of scientific research does have fairly immediate political, social or economic implications. Relevant fields are (the interrelated) epidemiology in its various forms including clinical and  social, environmental toxicology, health services research, nutrition research, and the semi-scientific discipline of public opinion research. There are probably others I should have thought of but it's early in the morning.

Scientific papers are conventionally organized as Background (or Introduction); Methods; Results; Discussion. Some journals have slightly more specific requirements within this broad framework, but it's pretty much universal. 

The Background section defines the broad area of interest, reviews previous relevant research, and makes a case for why the specific question asked in this study is important. This is the first point where a kind of bias enters, i.e. right at the beginning: what questions to ask. One determinant is what questions are likely to get funding. However, funded research often results in additional so-called "secondary analyses." Once you have data, you can query it in various ways. Also, not all studies have specific funding. There are program or center grants that allow a research group to pursue studies on their own initiative within a general area of interest, endowments that support similar kinds of efforts, and even studies that can be done without any funding as such because faculty have some time of their own. So the other consideration is what editors and peer reviewers are likely to find interesting and how you can get your paper into a "high impact" journal. 

And that is the real key. University faculty are rated on two metrics, basically: funding (especially in clinical and public health research, not so important for some other fields where external funding is not as big of a deal); and peer reviewed publication. Quantity matters, but publishing in higher impact journals matters at least as much. A "high impact" journal is one that gets a lot of citations. So this is about a kind of mob psychology: scientists do studies that they think other scientists will find interesting and impressive.

Notice, however, who we didn't ask: you. What is most important to people who live with, or are affected by a particular problem is not in the equation. In fact, a problem that matters a lot to many people may not get much attention at all; or it may inspire studies about aspects that aren't so important to people or don't support possible solutions. Individual scientists build programs of research that are typically quite narrow, in which each of their findings leads to a related set of questions and so they go down a tunnel. They also favor certain methods of kinds of questions. They may be part of a larger community that is traveling down the same tunnel and using similar sets of tools. They cite each other's papers, maybe the praise each other, maybe they criticize each other, maybe they have lifelong feuds. But they're all in the same bubble. Doesn't mean their work is wrong, just means it might not matter very much to anybody else.

Next I'll talk about methods.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Sunday Sermonette: Thuffering Thuccotash

Judges 12 describes what might be called the first civil war among the Israelites, though I'm not sure that's really accurate since they don''t have a central government and the religio-cultural unity created by the tabernacle and the pilgrimages seems to have vanished. Anyway, just to clarify the geography, the territory of Ephraim -- or I should say the putative territory, this is all fiction -- was in what is today central Israel on the west side of the Jordan. Jepthah and his army are based in Gilead, on the east side, in what is today Jordan. So what happens here is that the Ephraimites cross the river and end up getting trapped. 

Jepthah, having just arbitrarily murdered his daughter at God's command -- read that again if you like, that's what the Good Book says -- commands the mass murder of prisoners of war, fellow Israelites, then he dies. Then some other guys come along. Then they die. The last one followed the popular custom of having sons and in this particular case also grandsons on donkeys. They each had exactly one donkey. This is important, for some reason. 

12 The Ephraimite forces were called out, and they crossed over to Zaphon. They said to Jephthah, “Why did you go to fight the Ammonites without calling us to go with you? We’re going to burn down your house over your head.”

Jephthah answered, “I and my people were engaged in a great struggle with the Ammonites, and although I called, you didn’t save me out of their hands. When I saw that you wouldn’t help, I took my life in my hands and crossed over to fight the Ammonites, and the Lord gave me the victory over them. Now why have you come up today to fight me?”

Jephthah then called together the men of Gilead and fought against Ephraim. The Gileadites struck them down because the Ephraimites had said, “You Gileadites are renegades from Ephraim and Manasseh.”

The meaning of this taunt is not entirely clear, but Ephraim and Manasseh were the sons of Joseph, and of course the territory of Gilead is on the other side of the river from most of Israel.

The Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan leading to Ephraim, and whenever a survivor of Ephraim said, “Let me cross over,” the men of Gilead asked him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” If he replied, “No,” they said, “All right, say ‘Shibboleth.’” If he said, “Sibboleth,” because he could not pronounce the word correctly, they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed at that time.

Jephthah led[a] Israel six years. Then Jephthah the Gileadite died and was buried in a town in Gilead.

Ibzan, Elon and Abdon

After him, Ibzan of Bethlehem led Israel. He had thirty sons and thirty daughters. He gave his daughters away in marriage to those outside his clan, and for his sons he brought in thirty young women as wives from outside his clan. Ibzan led Israel seven years. 10 Then Ibzan died and was buried in Bethlehem.

11 After him, Elon the Zebulunite led Israel ten years. 12 Then Elon died and was buried in Aijalon in the land of Zebulun.

13 After him, Abdon son of Hillel, from Pirathon, led Israel. 14 He had forty sons and thirty grandsons, who rode on seventy donkeys. He led Israel eight years. 15 Then Abdon son of Hillel died and was buried at Pirathon in Ephraim, in the hill country of the Amalekites.


  1. Judges 12:7 Traditionally judged; also in verses 8-14

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Psychopathy and mass murder

 I'm interrupting the series on the philosophy and practice of science for something really, really important. Here is Claire Berlinski on the anti-vax campaign:


A small handful of activists have used the Internet to persuade a very significant proportion of the public the world around—roughly one in every five people2—that contrary to overwhelming evidence, vaccines are not the safest, most effective and most consequential invention in medical history, but rather a sinister and dangerous menace that should be eschewed. It is an achievement on a par with persuading people to mix their drinking water with their sewage.

It should not be possible to convince so many people to believe something that is at once so unfounded in any evidence and so contrary to the most fundamental of human drives: staying alive. What does it mean that it’s possible? It strongly suggests that so long as social media is configured the way it is, anything is possible. The Internet, as it’s now structured, may be used to persuade at least one in five people that up is down, black is white, and if you leap off the top of a skyscraper, you’ll fly.

For open societies in particular, this is a massive vulnerability. It is trivially easy for hostile states and sociopaths to exploit this, and they do exploit it. They’ll continue to exploit it this way until one of two things happens: We find a more rational way to organize the Internet, or we’re destroyed by it.

She links to a study that finds that twelve people are responsible for 73% of the vaccine-related disinformation on Facebook, with Joseph Mercola  Robert F. Kennedy Jr. being 1 and 2. The other 10 names are less familiar but she links to the PDF if you want to read the full report. It's conceivable that for some reason some of these people actually believe their own bullshit, at least on some level, but their main motivation is money, and whatever ego gratification they get from having a cult following. RFK Jr. is one of the world's most despicable people. His father and uncles were famous, influential and widely admired and apparently he assumed that was his due by birth. Lacking any actual talent, however, he saw this anti-vax scam as his path to riches and glory. That a byproduct is mass murder evidently doesn't bother him.

What is most disturbing, however, is not that these con artists are able to persuade people of a monstrous falsehood -- nothing new about that alas, viz. Lydia Pinkham. However, that Republican politicians including the governors of states have adopted this murderous cult is horrific. The Republican party is a massively insane death cult. It must be extinguished.

Yep, there are idiots and flaming assholes in other countries as well. Duly noted.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

On the bias of science: part whatever

Okay, I hope I've swept away enough of the underbrush to get to the tall trees. The basic summary is that it can matter who's paying for research, and certainly if a corporate sponsor stands to benefit from a particular outcome a study is more likely to get that outcome. I should have mentioned that this is supported by head-to-head comparisons: evaluations of the same therapeutic modality tend to be more positive when sponsored by the manufacturer than by government. However, the way government funding works, government-sponsored investigators are independent and there is no discernible "government agenda" for research outcomes, although obviously there is an agenda for research questions.

But. Decisions about government funding are made by members of the same community of scientists who receive said funding; and priorities about what questions to ask, what theoretical frameworks and methods to use, and what results are considered plausible, are made within communities that tend to have a shared set of beliefs, interests, and epistemological philosophy. I say communities, plural, because there are many different scientific disciplines and while they have fuzzy boundaries and some broad commonalities there are also distinctive qualities of the various sectors. It's complicated.


People who study human evolution, cosmic history, superconductors, terrestrial climate, and the pathology of fibromyalgia are not usually collaborating a whole lot, nor are they sharing data or methods. (Human evolution and climate science do make contact, but don't evidently influence each other.) The issues are largely different in different fields.


Let's start with what is the simplest in some ways, and maybe the most complicated in others: basic physics and chemistry. I'll include cosmology because it's largely inseparable from physics. (Chemistry is about manifestations of physics, but it deals with emergent phenomena that cannot yet be fully predicted from known physics.) This is a realm in which any possible social implications of findings are largely unknowable at the time the are made. 


Einstein's theory of the equivalence of mass and energy absolutely for sure wound up having immense implications for humanity, but he had not idea of it at the time nor did anyone who evaluated his theories. His theory of gravity really didn't have any practical implications for almost a century, although now it is essential for accurate functioning of the global positioning system. The quantum theory he developed along with others including Niels Bohr also didn't have any practical implications until the development of micro-electronics. Whether Newton was actually inspired by seeing an apple fall we don't know, but Einstein found Newton's theories unsatisfying in part because they described gravity, but couldn't explain it. He was really inspired by thought experiments to pursue his own theories.

At the time, not many people could understand them and a lot of physicists just thought they were malarkey. But they were susceptible to observational and experimental proof, which kept confirming them, so eventually the physics community had to accept them. Combined with ongoing advances in telescopic observation, experimental exploration of the atomic and subatomic realm, and experiments with electromagnetic radiation, they became essential to a revolution in our understanding of the cosmos and our place in it.

The only people who had a stake in all this beyond, perhaps, other physicists who hoped that they would prove the greater genius -- and or course none did -- were preachers. It was bad enough that scientists had displaced the earth from the center of the universe, but the immensity, age and history of the cosmos that emerged in the 20th Century blew the Bible to dust, along with all other religious accounts of creation and cosmic history. So why are there still preachers? Why do people still revere the Bible? I can't entirely account for that, but I can tell you that is not a problem for physicists. 

I said that the problem of bias in this field is straightforward. There isn't much of one other than some scientists who, like preachers, are reluctant to give up old ideas. Accordingly, the culture of physics has converged on demanding a very high standard of proof for novel discoveries. But there is definitely a problem in that the overwhelming majority of humanity cannot really understand this stuff, let alone evaluate the evidence for it. For many of them, the preacher offers more comfort.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Wednesday Bible Study: Have you noticed anything missing?

Before I get to today's story (which is a doozy) I need to point something out. What was the single most important obsession of the Torah from the second part of Exodus through Deuteronomy? Right: it was the Tabernacle, the ark of the covenant, the altar, and the associated sacrifices and pilgrimages. Chapter after chapter detailed the rites, the required offerings, the duties and privileges of the priesthood. The Tabernacle was where Yahweh appeared to speak to the people, the pilgrimage festivals defined the rhythm of the year, the Tabernacle was where the people gathered to hear God's word and prepare for war. When the Israelites crossed the Jordan in Joshua, the details of the priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant were central to the tale. The soldiers carried the Ark around the cities they conquered. It isn't entirely clear but it appears that after the conquest the Ark wound up in Gilgal, presumably along with the altar and the rest of the Tabernacle. It was because this was too far away that Manasseh set up a secondary altar in Gilead. Then poof! That's the last we heard of it.

As the various Judges come and go, none of them is said to have presented himself (or Deborah's self) to the priests, or to have gone to the Tabernacle to sacrifice. There is no mention of the pilgrimages. When people do sacrifice, they do it wherever they are -- which is supposed to be an abomination, only the priests can sacrifice at the altar in the Tabernacle. But the Tabernacle, along with the priesthood, has disappeared. 

We will see this again at the conclusion of today's very disturbing story. This story of Jephthah is little known and rarely mentioned, presumably out of embarrassment. God's command that Abraham sacrifice Isaac is a big deal, and the subject of endless theological exegesis. But of course God spares Isaac in the end. The incident here seems utterly pointless. Which is why you probably never heard of it. Remember that one of the justifications for the conquest of Canaan was that the cult of Baal sacrificed children, which is an abomination.

11 Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior. His father was Gilead; his mother was a prostitute. Gilead’s wife also bore him sons, and when they were grown up, they drove Jephthah away. “You are not going to get any inheritance in our family,” they said, “because you are the son of another woman.”

Gilead is the name of the Israelite territory east of the Jordan, now all of a sudden it's also a man's name. Presumably the idea is that the guy uses the name Gilead because he's the leader of the territory, at least that's my guess, but it isn't explained.

So Jephthah fled from his brothers and settled in the land of Tob, where a gang of scoundrels gathered around him and followed him.

Some time later, when the Ammonites were fighting against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to get Jephthah from the land of Tob. “Come,” they said, “be our commander, so we can fight the Ammonites.”

Why do they suddenly think of Jepthah? Maybe they figure his gang of scoundrels is badass? Who knows?

Jephthah said to them, “Didn’t you hate me and drive me from my father’s house? Why do you come to me now, when you’re in trouble?”

The elders of Gilead said to him, “Nevertheless, we are turning to you now; come with us to fight the Ammonites, and you will be head over all of us who live in Gilead.”

Jephthah answered, “Suppose you take me back to fight the Ammonites and the Lord gives them to me—will I really be your head?”

10 The elders of Gilead replied, “The Lord is our witness; we will certainly do as you say.” 11 So Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and commander over them. And he repeated all his words before the Lord in Mizpah.

12 Then Jephthah sent messengers to the Ammonite king with the question: “What do you have against me that you have attacked my country?”

13 The king of the Ammonites answered Jephthah’s messengers, “When Israel came up out of Egypt, they took away my land from the Arnon to the Jabbok, all the way to the Jordan. Now give it back peaceably.”

14 Jephthah sent back messengers to the Ammonite king, 15 saying:

“This is what Jephthah says: Israel did not take the land of Moab or the land of the Ammonites. 16 But when they came up out of Egypt, Israel went through the wilderness to the Red Sea[a] and on to Kadesh. 17 Then Israel sent messengers to the king of Edom, saying, ‘Give us permission to go through your country,’ but the king of Edom would not listen. They sent also to the king of Moab, and he refused. So Israel stayed at Kadesh.

18 “Next they traveled through the wilderness, skirted the lands of Edom and Moab, passed along the eastern side of the country of Moab, and camped on the other side of the Arnon. They did not enter the territory of Moab, for the Arnon was its border.

19 “Then Israel sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, who ruled in Heshbon, and said to him, ‘Let us pass through your country to our own place.’ 20 Sihon, however, did not trust Israel[b] to pass through his territory. He mustered all his troops and encamped at Jahaz and fought with Israel.

21 “Then the Lord, the God of Israel, gave Sihon and his whole army into Israel’s hands, and they defeated them. Israel took over all the land of the Amorites who lived in that country, 22 capturing all of it from the Arnon to the Jabbok and from the desert to the Jordan.

23 “Now since the Lord, the God of Israel, has driven the Amorites out before his people Israel, what right have you to take it over? 24 Will you not take what your god Chemosh gives you? Likewise, whatever the Lord our God has given us, we will possess. 25 Are you any better than Balak son of Zippor, king of Moab? Did he ever quarrel with Israel or fight with them? 26 For three hundred years Israel occupied Heshbon, Aroer, the surrounding settlements and all the towns along the Arnon. Why didn’t you retake them during that time? 27 I have not wronged you, but you are doing me wrong by waging war against me. Let the Lord, the Judge, decide the dispute this day between the Israelites and the Ammonites.”

28 The king of Ammon, however, paid no attention to the message Jephthah sent him.

29 Then the Spirit of the Lord came on Jephthah. He crossed Gilead and Manasseh, passed through Mizpah of Gilead, and from there he advanced against the Ammonites. 30 And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, 31 whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.”

This seems a very stupid promise. Who does he expect to come out of the door of his house when he gets home?  Maybe he's hoping to get rid of his wife? Or he figures it will be his dog, no big deal? I mean, come one man.

32 Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the Lord gave them into his hands. 33 He devastated twenty towns from Aroer to the vicinity of Minnith, as far as Abel Keramim. Thus Israel subdued Ammon.

34 When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of timbrels! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. 35 When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, “Oh no, my daughter! You have brought me down and I am devastated. I have made a vow to the Lord that I cannot break.”

36 “My father,” she replied, “you have given your word to the Lord. Do to me just as you promised, now that the Lord has avenged you of your enemies, the Ammonites. 37 But grant me this one request,” she said. “Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry.”

38 “You may go,” he said. And he let her go for two months. She and her friends went into the hills and wept because she would never marry. 39 After the two months, she returned to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin.

Right, he killed his daughter and burned her body on an altar. Because he'd promised God that's what he'd do. Which is just fine with God. Again, where is the priesthood?

From this comes the Israelite tradition 40 that each year the young women of Israel go out for four days to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.


  1. Judges 11:16 Or the Sea of Reeds
  2. Judges 11:20 Or however, would not make an agreement for Israel

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

The bias of science, part the next

Before I get to the subject of this post I should ask, if you don't think government-funded research should be conducted by university-based scientists, and you don't think it should be done by government itself, who do you think should do it? Maybe award research grants at random? 

This is  generally applied, not basic research. Although at one time some corporations supported basic research enterprises -- notably Bell Labs -- that's largely a thing of the past. You can't patent basic knowledge so you can't really profit from it, and profit is all that matters nowadays. In most industries, that's okay as far as it goes. There aren't any incentives to fake your results because if it doesn't work, it doesn't work, and you can't sell it. I say as far as it goes because they aren't investing in a better planet, they're investing in higher profits, and we all know that saleable and profitable technologies don't necessarily end up being net positive social goods, to say the least. But that's another discussion.

One industry that does have an incentive fake it, however, is the pharmaceutical industry. The effects of pharmaceuticals are not obvious, go or no/go. The silicon chip either processes the data properly or it doesn't. The jet engine either makes the plane fly or it blows up. But medications aren't like that at all.

The way you get a drug approved by the FDA, meaning a patent, exclusive marketing rights, and maybe billions of dollars, is by convincing FDA regulators through randomized controlled trials (RCTs). The idea seems straightforward at first glance. You round up a bunch of people with Creeping Crud, assign half of them at random to get Thanatos, and half to get a placebo or an already approved competing drug, and after a specified interval you measure the average amount of crud on the intervention and control people. Less crud with Thanatos, it must work!

Sadly, no. Or not at all that easy./ For one thing, the average difference probably masks huge variability. Some people probably do worse than average on Thanatos, while some people on placebo clear up entirely. Another problem is that the people eligible for trial are not at all typical. They may have to meet requirements such as age range, no co-occurring conditions,  ability to speak English, not pregnant or likely to become pregnant . .. When we take it out into the real world we don't know what might happen. Also they are strictly monitored to ensure that they "adhere to the regimen" which also doesn't happen in the real world. And it isn't necessarily the case that less measurable crud means better quality of life. There may be adverse effects that go undetected because the follow-up is too short, or the investigators don't bother to look for them. 

Also, what you are assessing is statistical significance of the difference. What is the likelihood you would see a difference of this size, just by coincidence, if Thanatos has no real effect? There's usually an arbitrary threshold of 5%, and it's easy to play with the numbers if you need to push it down a little. And a statistically significant difference isn't necessarily a clinically significant difference -- it may be too small to matter to people. 

Also, too, in the past if you didn't like the result you could just hide it in a drawer and do another study and maybe another until you got one that came out with the precious p value. They used to do that all the time, although the FDA has now made it harder. I could write a textbook on all the ways to game RCTs  -- and there are plenty more I haven't mentioned -- but you can study up on it if you're interested.The bottom line is that pharmaceutical companies have no soul and they all cheat as much as they can get away with. So we're probably taking a lot of drugs that are not a good deal for us. 

But that's the easy part. Next time I'll get more philosophical.

Monday, July 12, 2021


I wasn't feeling well yesterday so I couch potatoed for much of the afternoon. Not being a huge golf fan,* I couldn't find much to look at but cable news. Lucky me, it turns out that the most momentous event of the century, and possibly in all of human history, happened yesterday, and I got to hear 157 people yammer on about it for hours.

I don't know where to being deconstructing all the bullshit. This was, obviously, technologically inconsequential. Alan Shepard completed the first sub-orbital flight by an American 60 years ago. Unlike Richard Branson, Shepard actually did go into what is officially considered outer space. Branson only traveled to a height of about 60 miles, which is up there, but no, it isn't a flight into space. Since Shepard's flight, of course, people have been to the moon and back, and now they're living in low earth orbit and we're sending robots throughout the solar system. A system that gets you 60 miles up and then comes right back down is utterly useless for any purpose other than impressing idiots.

CNN actually brought on a bozo who claimed that this was an important historical milestone because eventually, the sun will expand and the earth will become uninhabitable, so humanity will have to expand beyond the earth. This was the first step that we needed to take. Yes, that is a legitimate problem -- a billion years from now. I think we can wait a while before we start panicking. And again, flying up 60 miles and coming right back down isn't going to help.

All that happened is that a billionaire pulled off a meaningless stunt. And oh yeah, burned a lot of fossil fuel in the process. That MSNBC and CNN could talk about nothing else for 5 hours is pathetic. No, this was not a historically important event, or even a slightly important event, or even an event that anybody should give two shits about.

Also, too: Lettuce B. Kleer: the economic value of humans in space is zero. Actually less than zero, because there is nothing that humans can do in space that robots can't do better and much, much cheaper. The government is pouring billions of dollars into contracts with these private corporations -- how do you think the R&D is financed -- all for the sake of theater.

Let me add: Apparently some people can't get the point. I actually don't think that asteroid mining is ever going to be economically viable. Asteroids consist mostly of the most common elements of the earth's crust -- silicon, iron, carbon, nickel. Some contain substantial amounts of platinum series metals, which are valuable, but the expense of going millions of miles into space and bringing it back seems prohibitive. Anyway, if I'm wrong about that, there is nothing humans can do in space that robots can't do better and cheaper, a lot cheaper, including asteroid mining. (Actually humans are having less and less to do with mining here on earth.) And there's no reason why human supervisors need to be anywhere nearby, they can be supervised from earth, maybe with the help of a relay satellite. Speed of light, right?

Sunday, July 11, 2021

On the bias of science: Part three

Okay, we have established that universities, as a class, do not have any agenda or preference for that the outcome of scientific investigations will be. The exceptions, obviously, are institutions like Liberty University, Bob Jones, and Oral Roberts, that deny evolution and cosmology a priori. But at colleges and universities that are not run by religious fanatics, faculty investigators are independent and they pursue their own lines of research, conduct investigations of their design, and interpret the results as they understand them. We have also established that the government does not have any agenda or preference for what the outcome of the research it funds may be. Well, of course people who conduct biomedical research are hoping they'll find the cure for cancer or Alzheimer's or whatever, but if they don't, they don't. 

Can they try to fake it? Sure, not everyone is ethically scrupulous, and there have been plenty of examples of scientific fraud. People want fame, tenure, promotions, and sometimes they think they need a big discovery to get it. There are basically two reasons why frauds usually don't survive for long, however, at least not in areas that are consequential. (Obviously a finding that nobody much cares about won't attract a lot of attention. We'll get to that.) By the way, just so we're clear, fraud is not all that common.

The scientific publication process is the first screen. It isn't actually very effective at detecting sophisticated fraud, but you do need to get past it. First, a journal editor will read your submission and decide if the work appears to be methodologically sound, and of sufficient interest to the journal's readers to merit consideration. If it's a go, the paper is sent out to peer reviewers, usually three, who are volunteer scientists with relevant expertise. They normally won't be able to tell if you just made up your numbers, but they can assure that the methodology is thoroughly described and appropriate, and the results are plausible. If the numbers don't add up, you're gonzo. 

Say you did make up the numbers, but you were able to get them to add up and seem plausible, and the paper gets past peer review and is published. If the results are important to the field, and suggest new directions of research that build on them, other scientists will try to do so, and if it doesn't work they'll find out soon enough. 

But frauds that don't get in the middle of other people's programs of research may not be noticed for a long time. On the other hand, they don't do much harm. There are various ways that fraudsters get caught eventually, though no doubt some never do. But again, they have little consequence for the broad enterprise of science. If you're interested in learning more about this, you might want to check out Retraction Watch.

However, the more important or at least systemic problems don't have to do with fraud, per se. I'll get to that next time.

Sunday Sermontte: GROUNDHOG DAY . . .

 Ground hog day, Groundhog day, Groundhog day . . .


Chapter 10 is just more of the same. First we get the names of a couple of random judges, about which we are told a couple of random factoids. (The thirty sons on thirty donkeys is of obvious theological importance.) Then, as usual, the Israelites turn away from Yaweh and they need saving, so this chapter is a setup for the next hero, whose story will play out in the coming chapters.



10 After the time of Abimelek, a man of Issachar named Tola son of Puah, the son of Dodo, rose to save Israel. He lived in Shamir, in the hill country of Ephraim. He led[a] Israel twenty-three years; then he died, and was buried in Shamir.


He was followed by Jair of Gilead, who led Israel twenty-two years. He had thirty sons, who rode thirty donkeys. They controlled thirty towns in Gilead, which to this day are called Havvoth Jair.[b] When Jair died, he was buried in Kamon.


Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord. They served the Baals and the Ashtoreths, and the gods of Aram, the gods of Sidon, the gods of Moab, the gods of the Ammonites and the gods of the Philistines. And because the Israelites forsook the Lord and no longer served him, he became angry with them. He sold them into the hands of the Philistines and the Ammonites, who that year shattered and crushed them. For eighteen years they oppressed all the Israelites on the east side of the Jordan in Gilead, the land of the Amorites. The Ammonites also crossed the Jordan to fight against Judah, Benjamin and Ephraim; Israel was in great distress. 10 Then the Israelites cried out to the Lord, “We have sinned against you, forsaking our God and serving the Baals.”

11 The Lord replied, “When the Egyptians, the Amorites, the Ammonites, the Philistines, 12 the Sidonians, the Amalekites and the Maonites[c] oppressed you and you cried to me for help, did I not save you from their hands? 13 But you have forsaken me and served other gods, so I will no longer save you. 14 Go and cry out to the gods you have chosen. Let them save you when you are in trouble!”

15 But the Israelites said to the Lord, “We have sinned. Do with us whatever you think best, but please rescue us now.” 16 Then they got rid of the foreign gods among them and served the Lord. And he could bear Israel’s misery no longer.

17 When the Ammonites were called to arms and camped in Gilead, the Israelites assembled and camped at Mizpah. 18 The leaders of the people of Gilead said to each other, “Whoever will take the lead in attacking the Ammonites will be head over all who live in Gilead.”


  1. Judges 10:2 Traditionally judged; also in verse 3
  2. Judges 10:4 Or called the settlements of Jair
  3. Judges 10:12 Hebrew; some Septuagint manuscripts Midianites


Friday, July 09, 2021

On the bias of science: part two

A favorite game of right wing cranks -- and we've seen them try it here -- is to read abstracts of government-funded research projects, distort their meaning, and make fun of them. This goes back to Senator William Proxmire and his "golden fleece" awards, and third party presidential candidate Ross Perot in the 1980s. Apparently the idea of studying fruit flies or gas emissions from cows strikes people as silly. Of course the investigators aren't given a chance to explain why it isn't silly after all. (FYI fruit flies are a common lab model used in genetics experiments. Gas emissions from cows make a substantial contribution to atmospheric CO2 and climate change. That isn't actually funny.)

Anyway, a knowledgeable and fair-minded person would not be expected to agree with every federal grant decision. How could they? The federal grant making process is competitive and there's usually little to choose between the proposals that get funded and the ones that come close. People may have different priorities, favor different methods, have differing tolerance for risk and reward, all sorts of reasons why they might make different choices. But the important thing for people to know is that for the most part, decisions about what research to fund are not made by government employees.

Congress establishes some broad priorities in the legislation authorizing the federal science agencies. Your elected representatives decide how much funding each of the National Institutes of  Health receives. NIH is very popular so Republicans vote to fund it, in fact they rejected The Former Guy's attempts to cut the NIH budget. NIH, the National Science Foundation, and Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality all work in a broadly similar way, although the details vary. Agency staff, who are scientists qualified in the areas they oversee and are not political appointees, prepare funding announcements, which are mostly fairly broad descriptions of areas of interest. Some of these stay open for years, others for a briefer time, and there are some one-time announcements which are usually more focused. However, investigators can submit an application for any research they want through what are called "parent" announcements. The more focused announcements are not limiting, just encouraging.

The staff then assign proposal to peer review committees, which consist of scientists with relevant expertise, almost entirely university based. They do not work for the government and they do not receive instructions from the government about how to score the proposal, except for broad criteria, such as innovation, significance, approach and qualifications of the applicants. Generally three people are assigned to read each proposal in full, and score it according to these criteria. The higher scoring proposals are discussed with the entire group, and get scores from everyone. Then of course the proposals that ultimately score highest may be funded.

Note that "government" does not make these decisions. No bureaucrat and no politician gets to decide or even to hint at which proposals ought to be funded. No-one is allowed to discuss any of the proposals with any of the review committee members. That said, are there biases involved in this whole process, or the conduct, evaluation and publication of the ensuing research? There may well be, which I will discuss next. But it is not in furtherance of any sort of nefarious government agenda, not is it likely to result in funding for research which is actually frivolous, even  if you don't understand it. We can have differences of opinion, but those are the facts.

Thursday, July 08, 2021

On the bias of science: Part One

It seems that many people have some fundamental misconceptions about the nature of the scientific enterprise. It is obviously an institution with some flaws -- it's a human endeavor and humans are flawed. One of its strengths however, is a proclivity for self-examination. Most errors get corrected reasonably soon, and the culture, norms and policies of scientific institutions have tended to change for the better over time. (Past results are no guarantee of future performance.)

Here are some facts that I know because I am inside it. I am on the faculty of a school of public health, which is associated with a medical school; our university also has a biology department and various specialty institutes in biology and medicine. We also have physics, chemistry and mathematics departments, psychology, computer science, you name it -- it's a big, old, university. I can assure you, 100%, that neither our university, nor universities as a class, have any "agenda" for what the outcome of scientific investigation is supposed to be in any of these fields. The investigators are all independent, they obtain research grants through the university in their own names and they develop and carry out their own programs of research. Nobody, from the president to the provost to the dean to the department chair, tries to tell them what to study or what conclusions to reach. 

And why would they? These disciplines don't work that way. You carry out the study and the data speaks for itself. It is what it is. Now, you can get fake results past peer review, and it happens, but you'll be found out eventually when the results don't replicate or the implications don't pan out. Fraudsters, once caught, are reviled by their colleagues, they lose their jobs, and their claims are rejected. Nobody, as far as I know, has any straightforward political interest in the outcome of investigations in basic science except for people who have a strong stake in denying the truth -- evolution, climate change, environmental toxicology. The university does not promote any particular outcomes in these fields, the findings are what they are. The truth is out there.

However, it is possible for more subtle biases to creep in, particularly in  the case of applied research, of which the most prominent example is development and evaluation of novel therapeutics. (Traditionally most of these have been called "drugs," but I'd like to get away from that, it's confusing. The word has a different meaning, for one thing; and a lot of the newer ones are different and more complicated than the chemical agents that were important in the 20th Century.)

Most biomedical research at universities is funded by the federal government. A small percentage is funded by foundations, and some university based investigators get funding from industry. The latter is regarded as problematic and there are rules about it, though their effectiveness can be questioned. And of course a lot of research is carried out by the manufacturers themselves. 


Next time, I'll discuss these arrangements in more detail and the problems they can pose.

Wednesday, July 07, 2021

Wednesday Bible Study: A complicated parable

Judges 9 is one of the longest chapters in the Bible. Were I the responsible medieval monk, I might have cut it in half, but it does tell a single story, the biography of Abimelek. (More often spelled Abimelech but this is the NIV spelling.) A point that strikes me about this, which I haven't seen noted in commentary, is that up until this moment secular leadership has not been hereditary. This is the book of Judges, not Kings. Yet when Abimelek claims hereditary leadership, the people go along with it, even though he has murdered all but one of his brothers. (Remember that Jerub-Baal and Gideon arethe same person.) And, in fact, the parable in the middle of the tale is usually taken to be a rejection of the whole idea of hereditary kingship, and most of the action concerns rebellion. What this is doing here is therefore a bit unclear because the Israelites do eventually establish a kingship. Keep in mind, however, that this entire story unfolds while they are apostate from the cult of Yahweh. I have a couple of comments along the way.

Abimelek son of Jerub-Baal went to his mother’s brothers in Shechem and said to them and to all his mother’s clan, “Ask all the citizens of Shechem, ‘Which is better for you: to have all seventy of Jerub-Baal’s sons rule over you, or just one man?’ Remember, I am your flesh and blood.”

When the brothers repeated all this to the citizens of Shechem, they were inclined to follow Abimelek, for they said, “He is related to us.” They gave him seventy shekels[a] of silver from the temple of Baal-Berith, and Abimelek used it to hire reckless scoundrels, who became his followers. He went to his father’s home in Ophrah and on one stone murdered his seventy brothers, the sons of Jerub-Baal. But Jotham, the youngest son of Jerub-Baal, escaped by hiding. Then all the citizens of Shechem and Beth Millo gathered beside the great tree at the pillar in Shechem to crown Abimelek king.

There is an arithmetic problem here. Gideon/Jerub-Baal had 70 sons. If Abimelek murdered all 70, he would have had to kill himself, along with Jotham. So the most he could have murdered is actually 68. But I suppose that this was not a highly numerate culture so they would just round off numbers that big An obvious question is why, once Abimelek had murdered the first one or two, the rest of them didn't catch on to what was happening and either band together to stop him or flee. I can't imagine that 70 Shekels could have hired all that many reckless scoundrels. 

When Jotham was told about this, he climbed up on the top of Mount Gerizim and shouted to them, “Listen to me, citizens of Shechem, so that God may listen to you. One day the trees went out to anoint a king for themselves. They said to the olive tree, ‘Be our king.’

“But the olive tree answered, ‘Should I give up my oil, by which both gods and humans are honored, to hold sway over the trees?’

10 “Next, the trees said to the fig tree, ‘Come and be our king.’

11 “But the fig tree replied, ‘Should I give up my fruit, so good and sweet, to hold sway over the trees?’

12 “Then the trees said to the vine, ‘Come and be our king.’

13 “But the vine answered, ‘Should I give up my wine, which cheers both gods and humans, to hold sway over the trees?’

14 “Finally all the trees said to the thornbush, ‘Come and be our king.’

15 “The thornbush said to the trees, ‘If you really want to anoint me king over you, come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, then let fire come out of the thornbush and consume the cedars of Lebanon!’

16 “Have you acted honorably and in good faith by making Abimelek king? Have you been fair to Jerub-Baal and his family? Have you treated him as he deserves? 17 Remember that my father fought for you and risked his life to rescue you from the hand of Midian. 18 But today you have revolted against my father’s family. You have murdered his seventy sons on a single stone and have made Abimelek, the son of his female slave, king over the citizens of Shechem because he is related to you. 19 So have you acted honorably and in good faith toward Jerub-Baal and his family today? If you have, may Abimelek be your joy, and may you be his, too! 20 But if you have not, let fire come out from Abimelek and consume you, the citizens of Shechem and Beth Millo, and let fire come out from you, the citizens of Shechem and Beth Millo, and consume Abimelek!”

The usual interpretation of this parable is that the olive tree represents Othniel, the fig tree Deborah, and the vine Gideon. Abimelek is of course the thorn bush. Jotham also disparages Abimelek,as the son of a slave, although no-one else has seemed bothered by this up until now.

21 Then Jotham fled, escaping to Beer, and he lived there because he was afraid of his brother Abimelek.

22 After Abimelek had governed Israel three years, 23 God stirred up animosity between Abimelek and the citizens of Shechem so that they acted treacherously against Abimelek. 24 God did this in order that the crime against Jerub-Baal’s seventy sons, the shedding of their blood, might be avenged on their brother Abimelek and on the citizens of Shechem, who had helped him murder his brothers. 25 In opposition to him these citizens of Shechem set men on the hilltops to ambush and rob everyone who passed by, and this was reported to Abimelek.

So God inspires the rebellion, although remember these people no longer worship him. One might ask if God is so offended by Abimelek's actions, why did he let all this happen in the first place? The details of the fighting which follow aren't very important. There's a rebellion, Abimelek succeeds in suppressing it until a woman drops a millstone on his head.

26 Now Gaal son of Ebed moved with his clan into Shechem, and its citizens put their confidence in him. 27 After they had gone out into the fields and gathered the grapes and trodden them, they held a festival in the temple of their god. While they were eating and drinking, they cursed Abimelek. 28 Then Gaal son of Ebed said, “Who is Abimelek, and why should we Shechemites be subject to him? Isn’t he Jerub-Baal’s son, and isn’t Zebul his deputy? Serve the family of Hamor, Shechem’s father! Why should we serve Abimelek? 29 If only this people were under my command! Then I would get rid of him. I would say to Abimelek, ‘Call out your whole army!’”[b]

30 When Zebul the governor of the city heard what Gaal son of Ebed said, he was very angry. 31 Under cover he sent messengers to Abimelek, saying, “Gaal son of Ebed and his clan have come to Shechem and are stirring up the city against you. 32 Now then, during the night you and your men should come and lie in wait in the fields. 33 In the morning at sunrise, advance against the city. When Gaal and his men come out against you, seize the opportunity to attack them.”

34 So Abimelek and all his troops set out by night and took up concealed positions near Shechem in four companies. 35 Now Gaal son of Ebed had gone out and was standing at the entrance of the city gate just as Abimelek and his troops came out from their hiding place.

36 When Gaal saw them, he said to Zebul, “Look, people are coming down from the tops of the mountains!”

Zebul replied, “You mistake the shadows of the mountains for men.”

37 But Gaal spoke up again: “Look, people are coming down from the central hill,[c] and a company is coming from the direction of the diviners’ tree.”

38 Then Zebul said to him, “Where is your big talk now, you who said, ‘Who is Abimelek that we should be subject to him?’ Aren’t these the men you ridiculed? Go out and fight them!”

39 So Gaal led out[d] the citizens of Shechem and fought Abimelek. 40 Abimelek chased him all the way to the entrance of the gate, and many were killed as they fled. 41 Then Abimelek stayed in Arumah, and Zebul drove Gaal and his clan out of Shechem.

42 The next day the people of Shechem went out to the fields, and this was reported to Abimelek. 43 So he took his men, divided them into three companies and set an ambush in the fields. When he saw the people coming out of the city, he rose to attack them. 44 Abimelek and the companies with him rushed forward to a position at the entrance of the city gate. Then two companies attacked those in the fields and struck them down. 45 All that day Abimelek pressed his attack against the city until he had captured it and killed its people. Then he destroyed the city and scattered salt over it.

46 On hearing this, the citizens in the tower of Shechem went into the stronghold of the temple of El-Berith. 47 When Abimelek heard that they had assembled there, 48 he and all his men went up Mount Zalmon. He took an ax and cut off some branches, which he lifted to his shoulders. He ordered the men with him, “Quick! Do what you have seen me do!” 49 So all the men cut branches and followed Abimelek. They piled them against the stronghold and set it on fire with the people still inside. So all the people in the tower of Shechem, about a thousand men and women, also died.

50 Next Abimelek went to Thebez and besieged it and captured it. 51 Inside the city, however, was a strong tower, to which all the men and women—all the people of the city—had fled. They had locked themselves in and climbed up on the tower roof. 52 Abimelek went to the tower and attacked it. But as he approached the entrance to the tower to set it on fire, 53 a woman dropped an upper millstone on his head and cracked his skull.

54 Hurriedly he called to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword and kill me, so that they can’t say, ‘A woman killed him.’” So his servant ran him through, and he died. 55 When the Israelites saw that Abimelek was dead, they went home.

56 Thus God repaid the wickedness that Abimelek had done to his father by murdering his seventy brothers. 57 God also made the people of Shechem pay for all their wickedness. The curse of Jotham son of Jerub-Baal came on them.


  1. Judges 9:4 That is, about 1 3/4 pounds or about 800 grams
  2. Judges 9:29 Septuagint; Hebrew him.” Then he said to Abimelek, “Call out your whole army!”
  3. Judges 9:37 The Hebrew for this phrase means the navel of the earth.
  4. Judges 9:39 Or Gaal went out in the sight o