Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Saturday, July 31, 2021

Soshulism: A Golden Oldie

Remember back in 2009 when the astroturf Tea Partiers were showing up at politicians' town halls to yell and scream about the impending government takeover of Medicare? Yeah, that happened. 

President Obama at a town hall meeting last week described a letter he received from a Medicare recipient:

“I got a letter the other day from a woman. She said, ‘I don’t want government-run health care. I don’t want socialized medicine. And don’t touch my Medicare.’”

At a town hall meeting held by Rep. Robert Inglis (R-SC):

Someone reportedly told Inglis, “Keep your government hands off my Medicare.”

“I had to politely explain that, ‘Actually, sir, your health care is being provided by the government,’” Inglis told the Post. “But he wasn’t having any of it.”

“If you like the post office and the Department of Motor Vehicles and you think they’re run well, just wait till you see Medicare, Medicaid and health care done by the government.”


If I need to explain what's wrong with this concept, you need a glass navel to see. Anyway, comes now Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, a formerly non-crazy person, who tweeted the following:



Friday, July 30, 2021

Economics 101

I am committing extensive wonkery while pointing out the limitations of the ways in which much science is done. But I want to emphasize, as I have before, that despite its problems the scientific enterprise does manage to muddle though over time to more and more accurate understanding of reality.  When a community of experts has a high degree of consensus about an issue, you need a really strong reason to doubt them -- and some random nutjob on the Internet is not an example. The Covid-19 vaccines do not alter your DNA, they do not cause you to produce or shed virus, they do not make you magnetic, they do not contain microchips that allow Bill Gates to track your whereabouts . . .  .  They do protect you against serious illness, long term disability and death, they make you less likely to be infectious, and any adverse effects are either brief and mild, or extremely rare. And you should believe all that despite the criticisms I make about how clinical trials are often done. These particular trials were all done in the open, transparently, they are very large scale and very rigorously conducted. So believe it. Get vaccinated.

However, science has sometimes gone down weird and even very dangerous blind alleys. Phrenology, for example, and scientific racism. Most unfortunately for our present world, another pseudo-science continues to enjoy enormous prestige and is unquestioningly accepted by journalists and policy makers. That is the pseudo-science of economics.

There are honorable exceptions among people who hold faculty positions in economics, but the majority of such people are quacks. Economics is taught to college freshmen as follows:

  • Promulgate a list of assumptions. None of these is actually true, and in fact a vast body of empirical evidence decisively shows that they are false.
  • Play out elaborate fantasies of how the world would work if they were true, using mathematics to describe non-existent relationships among entities that do not exist.
  • Forget that the assumptions are false and go on to explore every more elaborate mathematical fantasies as you progress in your "education."

Economics professors are paid much higher salaries than professors in other departments. They often have endowed chairs and sit on high level government advisory councils, get appointed to powerful offices, and  are talking heads on TV. The reason for this, despite that they spout utter nonsense, is that their ideology is very comforting to wealthy people and justifies the kinds of policies that let them get richer and richer while screwing over everybody else. That's economics 101! (As George W. Bush loved to say.) 


I have systematically deconstructed this pseudo-science in the past, as more and more people who do hold the title of professor of economics are also doing nowadays. That's good news, but it hasn't made much of a dent yet in the cultural authority of this quackery. I interject this cautionary note because it seems to fit with what I am doing now, but I won't explore it in more depth unless by popular demand.


Shorter version: Or, as I remarked to a fellow student as we were waiting to take our qualifying exam in economics, "It's a vast edifice of bullshit erected on a foundation of sand." He agreed.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

On the bias of science: more on methods

Actually I could probably spend the next six months writing a book about this, but this will be my last post on methods, at least for a while, because I want to move on to the remaining sections of the generic research paper. I'm going to focus specifically on research involving psychiatric diagnoses, but much of what I will say applies more broadly to any sort of question in which people's subjective experiences are variables. That's a whole lot of published research in psychology, social science, and medicine.

The culture of science strongly favors quantification, which means counting, and in order to count phenomena, you first need to classify them. So if I'm doing research that concerns, say, depression or anxiety disorder, I need to be able to label people as having those disorders and maybe measure their severity. A big problem in psychiatry -- it's dirty not so secret -- is that nobody knows what causes psychiatric disorders and even whether two people who get the same diagnostic label actually have the same "disease," if that's the word for it. 


Most medical diagnoses correspond to some specific physical findings that can be established, if not with absolute certainty, at least with a known degree of accuracy. We can culture the pathogenic infectious organism, count the leukocytes, see the abnormal cells under the microscope. Psychiatric diagnoses aren't like that. Diagnosticians have to interview people, and they make the diagnosis based on picking from a laundry list of symptoms derived from what the people tell them. Often this has a Chinese menu quality: if you have at least three from column A and two from column B, you get the label. That means, first of all, that two people who are diagnosed with depression may have exactly zero symptoms in common. In fact, they may have exactly opposite symptoms in some cases, such as excessive sleep and inability to sleep. It also means that people who are evaluated by two or more clinicians may get different diagnoses, and that a person's diagnosis may change over time.


For purposes of research, however, proposal and paper reviewers demand that research subjects get a definite classification. This is done by administering relatively short standard questionnaires. For depression, commonly used examples are called the Beck Depression Inventory, the Hamilton Depression Scale, and the CES-D. Some of these are copyrighted and you have to pay a fee to use them. This is called the PHQ-9:


In a research study, the score on this or whatever instrument is being used becomes the definition of depression and depression severity. As you can see, people who get the same high score may have absolutely nothing in common. Three of the items consist of completely opposite experiences, in fact. Poor appetite or overeating, trouble falling asleep or sleeping too much, and lethargy or hyperactivity. But everyone with the same score is treated as having the exact same baseline or outcome. There is no reason to believe this is associated with any actually existing, describable, explicable phenomenon. It's just tautological: I say this is what depression is, so that's what depression is. Ergo, treatments for depression are effective if they are associated with a statistically significant reduction in this score. QED. I will leave you to ponder this.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Wednesday Bible Study: Some part of an ass

The story of Samson just gets more and more ridiculous, grotesque, and morally depraved. He may be a prototype for comic book superheroes -- he has superhuman powers -- but he's actually on the supervillain side of the story. However, it's what God wants.

15 Later on, at the time of wheat harvest, Samson took a young goat and went to visit his wife. He said, “I’m going to my wife’s room.” But her father would not let him go in.

“I was so sure you hated her,” he said, “that I gave her to your companion. Isn’t her younger sister more attractive? Take her instead.”

Samson said to them, “This time I have a right to get even with the Philistines; I will really harm them.” So he went out and caught three hundred foxes and tied them tail to tail in pairs. He then fastened a torch to every pair of tails, lit the torches and let the foxes loose in the standing grain of the Philistines. He burned up the shocks and standing grain, together with the vineyards and olive groves.

Evidently the Canaan SPCA hadn't been founded yet. Note once again that the father gets to decide who boinks his daughters -- nobody asks their opinion.

When the Philistines asked, “Who did this?” they were told, “Samson, the Timnite’s son-in-law, because his wife was given to his companion.”

So the Philistines went up and burned her and her father to death.

I'm afraid I don't get the logic of this. Why did they burn the wife and father? 

Samson said to them, “Since you’ve acted like this, I swear that I won’t stop until I get my revenge on you.” He attacked them viciously and slaughtered many of them. Then he went down and stayed in a cave in the rock of Etam.

The Philistines went up and camped in Judah, spreading out near Lehi. 10 The people of Judah asked, “Why have you come to fight us?”

“We have come to take Samson prisoner,” they answered, “to do to him as he did to us.”

11 Then three thousand men from Judah went down to the cave in the rock of Etam and said to Samson, “Don’t you realize that the Philistines are rulers over us? What have you done to us?”

He answered, “I merely did to them what they did to me.”

Err, no. What they did to you was give your wife to another dude. Actually not even "they," but just your father-in-law. What you did to them was burn all their crops and murder a whole bunch of them. Not really the same thing.

12 They said to him, “We’ve come to tie you up and hand you over to the Philistines.”

Samson said, “Swear to me that you won’t kill me yourselves.”

13 “Agreed,” they answered. “We will only tie you up and hand you over to them. We will not kill you.” So they bound him with two new ropes and led him up from the rock. 14 As he approached Lehi, the Philistines came toward him shouting. The Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon him. The ropes on his arms became like charred flax, and the bindings dropped from his hands. 15 Finding a fresh jawbone of a donkey, he grabbed it and struck down a thousand men.

Uhmm, while he was busy killing one guy with the jawbone of an ass, why didn't the rest of them do something like, I dunno, stab him with spears or cut off his head with a sword or something? Seems kind of implausible.

16 Then Samson said,

“With a donkey’s jawbone
    I have made donkeys of them.[a]
With a donkey’s jawbone
    I have killed a thousand men.”

17 When he finished speaking, he threw away the jawbone; and the place was called Ramath Lehi.[b]

18 Because he was very thirsty, he cried out to the Lord, “You have given your servant this great victory. Must I now die of thirst and fall into the hands of the uncircumcised?” 19 Then God opened up the hollow place in Lehi, and water came out of it. When Samson drank, his strength returned and he revived. So the spring was called En Hakkore,[c] and it is still there in Lehi.

20 Samson led[d] Israel for twenty years in the days of the Philistines.

So Samson is leading Israel, but evidently in spite of all the guys he's killed, the Philistines are still in charge, and apparently they're willing to forgive and forget. Yeah, this story makes total sense.


  1. Judges 15:16 Or made a heap or two; the Hebrew for donkey sounds like the Hebrew for heap.
  2. Judges 15:17 Ramath Lehi means jawbone hill.
  3. Judges 15:19 En Hakkore means caller’s spring.
  4. Judges 15:20 Traditionally judged

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Is this blog political?

Of course. Read the paragraph at the top. Public health is fundamentally political -- well, I'm not sure that's exactly the right word, but it's very much about public policy, which is a primary determinant of public health. Much of what public health researchers do is to assess the impact of policies on health. Furthermore, all categories of public policy affect public health, not just health care policy or environmental regulations. Transportation, land use management, taxation, education, law enforcement -- you name it. We say "health in all policies," and it is our job, as scientists, to elucidate those relationships.


Scientific findings in many fields have policy implications. Obviously, the finding that human activity is changing the climate, and the associated effects, imply that we probably ought to do something about it. Tobacco causes cancer. Sugary drinks cause obesity and diabetes. These are scientific findings that have political implications, as do many others. 

Sure, in deciding on exactly what policies are appropriate, values come in to it. Is it worth it to spend X to achieve Y? People might disagree, and that will be worked out in the political process. But "politicization" of science happens when people deny legitimate scientific findings because they don't conform to preconceived ideology. I'm not "politicizing" science when I say that Republican politicians who deny the safety and effectiveness of the Covid-19 vaccines are liars or dupes, who are killing people. That's just the cold truth. They are politicizing science, specifically by denying it. But opposite world has become the regular, favored rhetorical strategy of the right.

Finally, scientists are citizens. We have the same right as everybody else to advocate for our own beliefs. There is no reason why a scientist can't be politically active, as long as their activism doesn't lead them to distort their scientific conclusions. Science has political implications. Get used to it.

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