Archive for Margaret Thatcher

The [errors in the] error of truth [book review]

Posted in Books, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 10, 2021 by xi'an

OUP sent me this book, The error of truth by Steven Osterling, for review. It is a story about the “astonishing” development of quantitative thinking in the past two centuries. Unfortunately, I found it to be one of the worst books I have read on the history of sciences…

To start with the rather obvious part, I find the scholarship behind the book quite shoddy as the author continuously brings in items of historical tidbits to support his overall narrative and sometimes fills gaps on his own. It often feels like the material comes from Wikipedia, despite expressing a critical view of the on-line encyclopedia. The [long] quote below is presumably the most shocking historical blunder, as the terror era marks the climax of the French Revolution, rather than the last fight of the French monarchy. Robespierre was the head of the Jacobins, the most radical revolutionaries at the time, and one of the Assembly members who voted for the execution of Louis XIV, which took place before the Terror. And later started to eliminate his political opponents, until he found himself on the guillotine!

“The monarchy fought back with almost unimaginable savagery. They ordered French troops to carry out a bloody campaign in which many thousands of protesters were killed. Any peasant even remotely suspected of not supporting the government was brutally killed by the soldiers; many were shot at point-blank range. The crackdown’s most intense period was a horrific ten-month Reign of Terror (“la Terreur”) during which the government guillotined untold masses (some estimates are as high as 5,000) of its own citizens as a means to control them. One of the architects of the Reign of Terror was Maximilien Robespierre, a French nobleman and lifelong politician. He explained the government’s slaughter in unbelievable terms, as “justified terror . . . [and] an emanation of virtue” (quoted in Linton 2006). Slowly, however, over the next few years, the people gained control. In the end, many nobles, including King Louis XVI and his wife Marie-Antoinette, were themselves executed by guillotining”

Obviously, this absolute misinterpretation does not matter (very) much for the (hi)story of quantification (and uncertainty assessment), but it demonstrates a lack of expertise of the author. And sap whatever trust one could have in new details he brings to light (life?). As for instance when stating

“Bayes did a lot of his developmental work while tutoring students in local pubs. He was a respected teacher. Taking advantage of his immediate resources (in his circumstance, a billiard table), he taught his theorem to many.”

which does not sound very plausible. I never heard that Bayes had students  or went to pubs or exposed his result to many before its posthumous publication… Or when Voltaire (who died in 1778) is considered as seventeenth-century precursor of the Enlightenment. Or when John Graunt, true member of the Royal Society, is given as a member of the Académie des Sciences. Or when Quetelet is presented as French and as a student of Laplace.

The maths explanations are also puzzling, from the law of large numbers illustrated by six observations, and wrongly expressed (p.54) as

\bar{X}_n+\mu\qquad\text{when}\qquad n\longrightarrow\infty

to  the Saint-Petersbourg paradox being seen as inverse probability, to a botched description of the central limit theorem  (p.59), including the meaningless equation (p.60)

\gamma_n=\frac{2^{2n}}{\pi}\int_0^\pi~\cos^{2n} t\,\text dt

to de Moivre‘s theorem being given as Taylor’s expansion

f(z)=\sum_{n=0}^\infty \frac{f^{(n)}(a)}{n!}(z-a)^2

and as his derivation of the concept of variance, to another botched depiction of the difference between Bayesian and frequentist statistics, incl. the usual horror


to independence being presented as a non-linear relation (p.111), to the conspicuous absence of Pythagoras in the regression chapter, to attributing to Gauss the concept of a probability density (when Simpson, Bayes, Laplace used it as well), to another highly confusing verbal explanation of densities, including a potential confusion between different representations of a distribution (Fig. 9.6) and the existence of distributions other than the Gaussian distribution, to another error in writing the Gaussian pdf (p.157),


to yet another error in the item response probability (p.301), and.. to completely missing the distinction between the map and the territory, i.e., the probabilistic model and the real world (“Truth”), which may be the most important shortcoming of the book.

The style is somewhat heavy, with many repetitions about the greatness of the characters involved in the story, and some degree of license in bringing them within the narrative of the book. The historical determinism of this narrative is indeed strong, with a tendency to link characters more than they were, and to make them greater than life. Which is a usual drawback of such books, along with the profuse apologies for presenting a few mathematical formulas!

The overall presentation further has a Victorian and conservative flavour in its adoration of great names, an almost exclusive centering on Western Europe, a patriarchal tone (“It was common for them to assist their husbands in some way or another”, p.44; Marie Curie “agreed to the marriage, believing it would help her keep her laboratory position”, p.283), a defense of the empowerment allowed by the Industrial Revolution and of the positive sides of colonialism and of the Western expansion of the USA, including the invention of Coca Cola as a landmark in the march to Progress!, to the fall of the (communist) Eastern Block being attributed to Ronald Reagan, Karol Wojtyła, and Margaret Thatcher, to the Bell Curve being written by respected professors with solid scholarship, if controversial, to missing the Ottoman Enlightenment and being particularly disparaging about the Middle East, to dismissing Galton’s eugenism as a later year misguided enthusiasm (and side-stepping the issue of Pearson’s and Fisher’s eugenic views),

Another recurrent if minor problem is the poor recording of dates and years when introducing an event or a new character. And the quotes referring to the current edition or translation instead of the original year as, e.g., Bernoulli (1954). Or even better!, Bayes and Price (1963).

[Disclaimer about potential self-plagiarism: this post or an edited version will eventually appear in my Book Review section in CHANCE.]

Ghost Town [The Specials]

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , on June 20, 2020 by xi'an

Libération [hardcover]

Posted in Books, pictures with tags , , , on November 23, 2016 by xi'an


another right uppercut

Posted in pictures with tags , , , , , , , on November 21, 2016 by xi'an

While at a much lesser scale than the US election result, the outcome of the French Republican primaries of last weekend shows a similar shift to the right of the electorate, who thus favoured the arch-conservative [Thatcherite] François Fillion over the milder center-right Alain Juppé. Some proposals in his program are downright [very much down and very much to the right] scary, among which

  1. cancel the 35 hour legal working week and let companies “negociate” up to a 48 hour working week
  2. apply an increase of 10% of the VAT, this most unfair of taxes, against a decrease of 40 billions € on company taxes
  3. cut 500,000 public sector jobs, increase working hours in the public sector and restrict the status of civil servant to a few ministries
  4. prohibit adoption and medically assisted procreation outside heterosexual and married couples
  5. collaborate with Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin, including ending sanctions against Russia’s annexation of Crimea,
  6. turn the EU into a Europe of Nations (which happens to be the name of the extreme-right group in the European Parliament)
  7. rewrite history school programs to deliver a “story of the French Nation” that plainly replace teaching with State indoctrination
  8. strip French terrorists of French nationality (a proposal that goes against Article 15 of the Declaration of Human Rights)
  9. leave the European Court of Human Rights (as  Theresa May),
  10. and ban burkinis from beaches, an obviously definitive answer to all secularism issues!

Scary enough to make me decide to vote against him at the second primary election next Sunday, as the winner is likely to be the next French president. (The alternative is simply terrifying!)

Brexit as hypothesis testing

Posted in Kids, pictures, Statistics with tags , , , , , on June 26, 2016 by xi'an

last run on Clifton and Durdham Downs, Bristol, Jan. 27, 2012While I have no idea of how the results of the Brexit referendum of last Thursday will be interpreted, I am definitely worried by the possibility (and consequences) of an exit and wonder why those results should inevitably lead to Britain leaving the EU. Indeed, referenda are not legally binding in the UK and Parliament could choose to ignore the majority opinion expressed by this vote. For instance, because of the negative consequences of a withdrawal. Or because the differential is too little to justify such a dramatic change. In this, it relates to hypothesis testing in that only an overwhelming score can lead to the rejection of a natural null hypothesis corresponding to the status quo, rather than the posterior probability being above a mere ½. Which is the decision associated with a 0-1 loss function.  Of course, the analogy can be attacked from many sides, from a denial of democracy (simple majority being determined by a single extra vote) to a lack of randomness in the outcome of the referendum (since everyone in the population is supposed to have voted). But I still see some value in requiring major societal changes to be backed by more than a simple majority. All this musing is presumably wishful thinking since every side seems eager to move further (away from one another), but it would great if it could take place.