Polls and Sampling Errors in the Presidental Debate Results

My biggest pet peeve is press coverage of statistics. As someone who is mathematically literate, I’m constantly infuriated by it. Basic statistics isn’t that hard, but people can’t be bothered to actually learn a tiny bit in order to understand the meaning of the things they’re covering.

My twitter feed has been exploding with a particularly egregious example of this. After monday night’s presidential debate, there’s been a ton of polling about who “won” the debate. One conservative radio host named Bill Mitchell has been on a rampage about those polls. Here’s a sample of his tweets:

Let’s start with a quick refresher about statistics, why we use them, and how they work.

Statistical analysis has a very simple point. We’re interested in understanding the properties of a large population of things. For whatever reason, we can’t measure the properties of every object in that population.

The exact reason can vary. In political polling, we can’t ask every single person in the country who they’re going to vote for. (Even if we could, we simply don’t know who’s actually going to show up and vote!) For a very different example, my first exposure to statistics was through my father, who worked in semiconductor manufacturing. They’d produce a run of 10,000 chips for use in Satellites. They needed to know when, on average, a chip would fail from exposure to radiation. If they measured that in every chip, they’d end up with nothing to sell.)

Anyway: you can’t measure every element of the population, but you still want to take measurements. So what you do is randomly select a collection of representative elements from the population, and you measure those. Then you can say that with a certain probability, the result of analyzing that representative subset will match the result that you’d get if you measured the entire population.

How close can you get? If you’ve really selected a random sample of the population, then the answer depends on the size of the sample. We measure that using something called the “margin of error”. “Margin of error” is actually a terrible name for it, and that’s the root cause of one of the most common problems in reporting about statistics. The margin of error is a probability measurement that says “there is an N% probability that the value for the full population lies within the margin of error of the measured value of the sample.”.

Right away, there’s a huge problem with that. What is that variable doing in there? The margin of error measures the probability that the full population value is within a confidence interval around the measured sample value. If you don’t say what the confidence interval is, the margin of error is worthless. Most of the time – but not all of the time – we’re talking about a 95% confidence interval.

But there are several subtler issues with the margin of error, both due to the name.

  1. The “true” value for the full population is not guaranteed to be within the margin of error of the sampled value. It’s just a probability. There is no hard bound on the size of the error: just a high probability of it being within the margin..
  2. The margin of error only includes errors due to sample size. It does not incorporate any other factor – and there are many! – that may have affected the result.
  3. The margin of error is deeply dependent on the way that the underlying sample was taken. It’s only meaningful for a random sample. That randomness is critically important: all of sampled statistics is built around the idea that you’ve got a randomly selected subset of your target population.

Let’s get back to our friend the radio host, and his first tweet, because he’s doing a great job of illustrating some of these errors.

The quality of a sampled statistic is entirely dependent on how well the sample matches the population. The sample is critical. It doesn’t matter how big the sample size is if it’s not random. A non-random sample cannot be treated as a representative sample.

So: an internet poll, where a group of people has to deliberately choose to exert the effort to participate cannot be a valid sample for statistical purposes. It’s not random.

It’s true that the set of people who show up to vote isn’t a random sample. But that’s fine: the purpose of an election isn’t to try to divine what the full population thinks. It’s to count what the people who chose to vote think. It’s deliberately measuring a full population: the population of people who chose to vote.

But if you’re trying to statistically measure something about the population of people who will go and vote, you need to take a randomly selected sample of people who will go to vote. The set of voters is the full population; you need to select a representative sample of that population.

Internet polls do not do that. At best, they measure a different population of people. (At worst, with ballot stuffing, they measure absolutely nothing, but we’ll give them this much benefit of the doubt.) So you can’t take much of anything about the sample population and use it to reason about the full population.

And you can’t say anything about the margin of error, either. Because the margin of error is only meaningful for a representative sample. You cannot compute a meaningful margin of error for a non-representative sample, because there is no way of knowing how that sampled population compares to the true full target population.

And that brings us to the second tweet. A properly sampled random population of 500 people can produce a high quality result with a roughly 5% margin of error and a 95% confidence interval. (I’m doing a back-of-the-envelope calculation here, so that’s not precise.) That means that if the population were randomly sampled, we could say there is in 19 out of 20 polls of that size, the full population value would be within +/- 4% of value measured by the poll. For a non-randomly selected sample of 10 million people, the margin of error cannot be measured, because it’s meaningless. The random sample of 500 people tells us a reasonable estimate based on data; the non-random sample of 10 million people tells us nothing.

And with that, on to the third tweet!

In a poll like this, the margin of error only tells us one thing: what’s the probability that the sampled population will respond to the poll in the same way that the full population would?

There are many, many things that can affect a poll beyond the sample size. Even with a truly random and representative sample, there are many things that can affect the outcome. For a couple of examples:

How, exactly, is the question phrased? For example, if you ask people “Should police shoot first and ask questions later?”, you’ll get a very different answer from “Should police shoot dangerous criminal suspects if they feel threatened?” – but both of those questions are trying to measure very similar things. But the phrasing of the questions dramatically affects the outcome.

What context is the question asked in? Is this the only question asked? Or is it asked after some other set of questions? The preceding questions can bias the answers. If you ask a bunch of questions about how each candidate did with respect to particular issues before you ask who won, those preceding questions will bias the answers.

When you’re looking at a collection of polls that asked different questions in different ways, you expect a significant variation between them. That doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with any of them. They can all be correct even though their results vary by much more than their margins of error, because the margin of error has nothing to do with how you compare their results: they used different samples, and measured different things.

The problem with the reporting is the same things I mentioned up above. The press treats the margin of error as an absolute bound on the error in the computed sample statistics (which it isn’t); and the press pretends that all of the polls are measuring exactly the same thing, when they’re actually measuring different (but similar) things. They don’t tell us what the polls are really measuring; they don’t tell us what the sampling methodology was; and they don’t tell us the confidence interval.

Which leads to exactly the kind of errors that Mr. Mitchell made.

And one bonus. Mr. Mitchell repeatedly rants about how many polls show a “bias” by “over-sampling< democratic party supporters. This is a classic mistake by people who don't understand statistics. As I keep repeating, for a sample to be meaningful, it must be random. You can report on all sorts of measurements of the sample, but you cannot change it.

If you’re randomly selecting phone numbers and polling the respondents, you cannot screen the responders based on their self-reported party affiliation. If you do, you are biasing your sample. Mr. Mitchell may not like the results, but that doesn’t make them invalid. People report what they report.

In the last presidential election, we saw exactly this notion in the idea of “unskewing” polls, where a group of conservative folks decided that the polls were all biased in favor of the democrats for exactly the reasons cited by Mr. Mitchell. They recomputed the poll results based on shifting the samples to represent what they believed to be the “correct” breakdown of party affiliation in the voting population. The results? The actual election results closely tracked the supposedly “skewed” polls, and the unskewers came off looking like idiots.

We also saw exactly this phenomenon going on in the Republican primaries this year. Randomly sampled polls consistently showed Donald Trump crushing his opponents. But the political press could not believe that Donald Trump would actually win – and so they kept finding ways to claim that the poll samples were off: things like they were off because they used land-lines which oversampled older people, and if you corrected for that sampling error, Trump wasn’t actually winning. Nope: the randomly sampled polls were correct, and Donald Trump is the republican nominee.

If you want to use statistics, you must work with random samples. If you don’t, you’re going to screw up the results, and make yourself look stupid.

Why we need formality in mathematics

The comment thread from my last Cantor crankery post has continued in a way that demonstrates a common issue when dealing with bad math, so I thought it was worth taking the discussion and promoting it to a proper top-level post.

The defender of the Cantor crankery tried to show what he alleged to be the problem with Cantor, by presenting a simple proof:

If we have a unit line, then this line will have an infinite number of points in it. Some of these points will be an irrational distance away from the origin and some will be a rational distance away from the origin.

Premise 1.

To have more irrational points on this line than rational points (plus 1), it is necessary to have at least two irrational points on the line so that there exists no rational point between them.

Premise 2.

It is not possible to have two irrational points on a line so that no rational point exists between them.


It is not possible to have more irrational points on a line than rational points (plus 1).

This contradicts Cantor’s conclusion, so Cantor must have made a mistake in his reasoning.

(I’ve done a bit of formatting of this to make it look cleaner, but I have not changed any of the content.)

This is not a valid proof. It looks nice on the surface – it intuitively feels right. But it’s not. Why?

Because math isn’t intuition. Math is a formal system. When we’re talking about Cantor’s diagonalization, we’re working in the formal system of set theory. In most modern math, we’re specifically working in the formal system of Zermelo-Fraenkel (ZF) set theory. And that “proof” relies on two premises, which are not correct in ZF set theory. I pointed this out in verbose detail, to which the commenter responded:

I can understand your desire for a proof to be in ZFC, Peano arithmetic and FOPL, it is a good methodology but not the only one, and I am certain that it is not a perfect one. You are not doing yourself any favors if you let any methodology trump understanding. For me it is far more important to understand a proof, than to just know it “works” under some methodology that simply manipulates symbols.

This is the point I really wanted to get to here. It’s a form of complaint that I’ve seen over and over again – not just in the Cantor crankery, but in nearly all of the math posts.

There’s a common belief among crackpots of various sorts that scientists and mathematicians use symbols and formalisms just because we like them, or because we want to obscure things and make simple things seem complicated, so that we’ll look smart.

That’s just not the case. We use formalisms and notation because they are absolutely essential. We can’t do math without the formalisms; we could do it without the notation, but the notation makes things clearer than natural language prose.

The reason for all of that is because we want to be correct.

If we’re working with a definition that contains any vagueness – even the most subtle unintentional kind (or, actually, especially the most subtle unintentional kind!) – then we can easily produce nonsense. There’s a simple “proof” that we’ve discussed before that shows that 0 is equal to 1. It looks correct when you read it. But it contains a subtle error. If we weren’t being careful and formal, that kind of mistake can easily creep in – and once you allow one, single, innocuous looking error into a proof, the entire proof falls apart. The reason for all the formalism and all the notation is to give us a way to unambiguously, precisely state exactly what we mean. The reason that we insist of detailed logical step-by-step proofs is because that’s the only way to make sure that we aren’t introducing errors.

We can’t rely on intuition, because our intuition is frequently not correct. That’s why we use logic. We can’t rely on informal statements, because informal statements lack precision: they can mean many different things, some of which are true, and some of which are not.

In the case of Cantor’s diagonalization, when we’re being carefully precise, we’re not talking about the size of things: we’re talking about the cardinality of sets. That’s an important distinction, because “size” can mean many different things. Cardinality means one, very precise thing.

Similarly, we’re talking about the cardinality of the set of real numbers compared to the cardinality of the set of natural numbers. When I say that, I’m not just hand-waving the real numbers: the real numbers means something very specific: it’s the unique complete totally ordered field (R, +, *, <) up to isomorphism. To understand that, we’re implicitly referencing the formal definition of a field (with all of its sub-definitions) and the formal definitions of the addition, multiplication, and ordering operations.

I’m not just saying that to be pedantic. I’m saying that because we need to know exactly what we’re talking about. It’s very easy to put together an informal definition of the real numbers that’s different from the proper mathematical set of real numbers. For example, you can define a number system consisting of the set of all numbers that can be generated by a finite, non-terminating computer program. Intuitively, it might seem like that’s just another way of describing the real numbers – but it describes a very different set.

Beyond just definitions, we insist on using formal symbolic logic for a similar reason. If we can reduce the argument to symbolic reasoning, then we’ve abstracted away anything that could bias or deceive us. The symbolic logic makes every statement absolutely precise, and every reasoning step pure, precise, and unbiased.

So what’s wrong with the “proof” above? It’s got two premises. Let’s just look at the first one: “To have more irrational points on this line than rational points (plus 1), it is necessary to have at least two irrational points on the line so that there exists no rational point between them.”.

If this statement is true, then Cantor’s proof must be wrong. But is this statement true? The commenter’s argument is that it’s obviously intuitively true.

If we weren’t doing math, that might be OK. But this is math. We can’t just rely on our intuition, because we know that our intuition is often wrong. So we need to ask: can you prove that that’s true?

And how do you prove something like that? Well, you start with the basic rules of your proof system. In a discussion of a set theory proof, that means ZF set theory and first order predicate logic. Then you add in the definitions you need to talk about the objects you’re interested in: so Peano arithmetic, rational numbers, real number theory, and the definition of irrational numbers in real number theory. That gives you a formal system that you can use to talk about the sets of real numbers, rational numbers, and natural numbers.

The problem for our commenter is that you can’t prove that premise using ZF logic, FOPL, and real number theory. It’s not true. It’s based on a faulty understanding of the behavior of infinite sets. It’s taking an assumption that comes from our intuition, which seems reasonable, but which isn’t actually true within the formal system o mathematics.

In particular, it’s trying to say that in set theory, the cardinality of the set of real numbers is equal to the cardinality of the set of natural numbers – but doing so by saying “Ah, Why are you worrying about that set theory nonsense? Sure, it would be nice to prove this statement about set theory using set theory, but you’re just being picky on insisting that.”

Once you really see it in these terms, it’s an absurd statement. It’s equivalent to something as ridiculous as saying that you don’t need to modify verbs by conjugating them when you speak english, because in Chinese, the spoken words don’t change for conjugation.

Noodles with Dried Shrimp and Scallion Oil

During July, my kids go away to camp. So my wife and I have the opportunity to try new restaurants without having to drag the munchkins around. This year, we tried out a new chinese place in Manhattan, called Hao noodle house. One of the dishes we had was a simple noodle dish: noodles lightly dressed with soy sauce and scallion oil, and then topped with a scattering of scallion and dried shrimp.

Dried shrimp are, in my opinion, a very undervalued and underused ingredient. They’re very traditional in a lot of real Chinese cooking, and they give things a really nice taste. They’ve also got an interesting, pleasant chewy texture. So when there was a dried shrimp dish on the menu, I wanted it. (The restaurant also had dan dan noodles, which are a favorite of my wife, but she was kind, and let me indulge.)

The dish was absolutely phenomenal. So naturally I wanted to figure out how to make it at home. I finally got around to doing it tonight, and I got really lucky: everything worked out perfectly, and it turned out almost exactly like the restaurant. My wife picked the noodles at the chinese grocery that looked closest, and they were exactly right. I guessed at the ingredients from the flavors, and somehow managed to get them spot on on the first try.

That kind of thing almost never happens! It always takes a few tries to nail down a recipe. But this one just turned out the first try!

So what’s the dish like? It’s very Chinese, and very different from what most Americans would expect. If you’ve had a mazeman ramen before, I’d say that’s the closest thing to it. It’s a light, warm, lightly dressed noodle dish. The sauce is very strong if you taste it on its own, but when it’s dressed onto hot noodles, it mellows quite a bit. The dried shrimp are briney and shrimpey, but not overly fishy. All I can say is, try it!

There are two parts to the sauce: a soy mixture, and a scallion oil. The scallion oil should be made a day in advance, and allowed to stand overnight. So we’ll start with that.

  • one large bunch scallions
  • 1 1/2 cups canola oil
  • two slices crushed ginger
  • generous pinch salt
  1. Coarsely chop the scallions – whites and greens.
  2. Put the scallions, ginger, and salt into a food processor, and pulse until they’re well chopped.
  3. Add the oil, and let the processor run on high for about a minute. You should end up with a thick pasty pale green goo.
  4. Put it in the refrigerator, and let it sit overnight.
  5. The next day, push through a sieve, to separate the oil from the scallion pulp. Discard the scallions. You should be left with an amazing smelling translucent green oil.

Next, the noodles and sauce.

  • Noodles. We used a kind of noodle called guan miao noodle. If you can’t find that,
    then white/wheat soba or ramen would be a good substitute.
  • 1/2 cup soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 cup chicken stock
  • 2 slices ginger
  • one clove garlic
  • 2 tablespoons dried shrimp
  1. Cover the dried shrimp with cold water in a bowl, and let sit for 1/2 hour.
  2. Put the dried shrimp, soy sauce, sugar, chicken stock, ginger, and garlic into a saucepan, and simmer on low heat for five minutes. Then remove the garlic and ginger.
  3. For each portion, take about 2 tablespoons of the soy, and two tablespoons of the scallion oil, and whisk together to form something like a vinaigrette.
  4. Cook the noodles according to the package. (For the guan miao noodles, they boiled in unsalted water for 3 minutes.)
  5. Toss with the soy/oil mixture.
  6. Serve the dressed noodles into bowls, and put a few of the simmered dried shrimp on top.
  7. Drizzle another teaspoon each of the scallion oil and soy sauce over each serving.
  8. Scatter a few fresh scallions on top.

And eat!

Cantor Crankery is Boring

Sometimes, I think that I’m being punished.

I’ve written about Cantor crankery so many times. In fact, it’s one of the largest categories in this blog’s index! I’m pretty sure that I’ve covered pretty much every anti-Cantor argument out there. And yet, not a week goes by when another idiot doesn’t pester me with their “new” refutation of Cantor. The “new” argument is always, without exception, a variation on one of the same old boring ones.

But I haven’t written any Cantor stuff in quite a while, and yet another one landed in my mailbox this morning. So, what the heck. Let’s go down the rabbit-hole once again.

We’ll start with a quick refresher.

The argument that the cranks hate is called Cantor’s diagonalization. Cantor’s diagonalization as argument that according to the axioms of set theory, the cardinality (size) of the set of real numbers is strictly larger than the cardinality of the set of natural numbers.

The argument is based on the set theoretic definition of cardinality. In set theory, two sets are the same size if and only if there exists a one-to-one mapping between the two sets. If you try to create a mapping between set A and set B, and in every possible mapping, every A is mapped onto a unique B, but there are leftover Bs that no element of A maps to, then the cardinality of B is larger than the cardinality of A.

When you’re talking about finite sets, this is really easy to follow. If I is the set {1, 2, 3}, and B is the set {4, 5, 6, 7}, then it’s pretty obvious that there’s no one to one mapping from A to B: there are more elements in B than there are in A. You can easily show this by enumerating every possible mapping of elements of A onto elements of B, and then showing that in every one, there’s an element of B that isn’t mapped to by an element of A.

With infinite sets, it gets complicated. Intuitively, you’d think that the set of even natural numbers is smaller than the set of all natural numbers: after all, the set of evens is a strict subset of the naturals. But your intuition is wrong: there’s a very easy one to one mapping from the naturals to the evens: {n → 2n }. So the set of even natural numbers is the same size as the set of all natural numbers.

To show that one infinite set has a larger cardinality than another infinite set, you need to do something slightly tricky. You need to show that no matter what mapping you choose between the two sets, some elements of the larger one will be left out.

In the classic Cantor argument, what he does is show you how, given any purported mapping between the natural numbers and the real numbers, to find a real number which is not included in the mapping. So no matter what mapping you choose, Cantor will show you how to find real numbers that aren’t in the mapping. That means that every possible mapping between the naturals and the reals will omit members of the reals – which means that the set of real numbers has a larger cardinality than the set of naturals.

Cantor’s argument has stood since it was first presented in 1891, despite the best efforts of people to refute it. It is an uncomfortable argument. It violates our intuitions in a deep way. Infinity is infinity. There’s nothing bigger than infinity. What does it even mean to be bigger than infinity? That’s a non-sequiter, isn’t it?

What it means to be bigger than infinity is exactly what I described above. It means that if you have a two infinitely large sets of objects, and there’s no possible way to map from one to the other without missing elements, then one is bigger than the other.

There are legitimate ways to dispute Cantor. The simplest one is to reject set theory. The diagonalization is an implication of the basic axioms of set theory. If you reject set theory as a basis, and start from some other foundational axioms, you can construct a version of mathematics where Cantor’s proof doesn’t work. But if you do that, you lose a lot of other things.

You can also argue that “cardinality” is a bad abstraction. That is, that the definition of cardinality as size is meaningless. Again, you lose a lot of other things.

If you accept the axioms of set theory, and you don’t dispute the definition of cardinality, then you’re pretty much stuck.

Ok, background out of the way. Let’s look at today’s crackpot. (I’ve reformatted his text somewhat; he sent this to me as plain-text email, which looks awful in my wordpress display theme, so I’ve rendered it into formatted HTML. Any errors introduced are, of course, my fault, and I’ll correct them if and when they’re pointed out to me.)

We have been told that it is not possible to put the natural numbers into a one to one with the real numbers. Well, this is not true. And the argument, to show this, is so simple that I am absolutely surprised that this argument does not appear on the internet.

We accept that the set of real numbers is unlistable, so to place them into a one to one with the natural numbers we will need to make the natural numbers unlistable as well. We can do this by mirroring them to the real numbers.

Given any real number (between 0 and 1) it is possible to extract a natural number of any length that you want from that real number.

Ex: From π-3 we can extract the natural numbers 1, 14, 141, 1415, 14159 etc…

We can form a set that associates the extracted number with the real number that it was extracted from.

Ex: 1 → 0.14159265…

Then we can take another real number (in any arbitrary order) and extract a natural number from it that is not in our set.

Ex: 1 → 0.14159266… since 1 is already in our set we must extract the next natural number 14.

Since 14 is not in our set we can add the pair 14 → 0.1415926l6… to our set.

We can do the same thing with some other real number 0.14159267… since 1 and 14 is already in our set we will need to extract a 3 digit natural number, 141, and place it in our set. And so on.

So our set would look something like this…

A) 1 → 0.14159265…
B) 14 → 0.14159266…
C) 141 → 0.14159267…
D) 1410 → 0.141
E) 14101 → 0.141013456789…
F) 5 → 0.567895…
G) 55 → 0.5567891…
H) 555 → 0.555067891…

Since the real numbers are infinite in length (some terminate in an infinite string of zero’s) then we can always extract a natural number that is not in the set of pairs since all the natural numbers in the set of pairs are finite in length. Even if we mutate the diagonal of the real numbers, we will get a real number not on the list of real numbers, but we can still find a natural number, that is not on the list as well, to correspond with that real number.

Therefore it is not possible for the set of real numbers to have a larger cardinality than the set of natural numbers!

This is a somewhat clever variation on a standard argument.

Over and over and over again, we see arguments based on finite prefixes of real numbers. The problem with them is that they’re based on finite prefixes. The set of all finite prefixes of the real numbers is that there’s an obvious correspondence between the natural numbers and the finite prefixes – but that still doesn’t mean that there are no real numbers that aren’t in the list.

In this argument, every finite prefix of π corresponds to a natural number. But π itself does not. In fact, every real number that actually requires an infinite number of digits has no corresponding natural number.

This piece of it is, essentially, the same thing as John Gabriel’s crankery.

But there’s a subtler and deeper problem. This “refutation” of Cantor contains the conclusion as an implicit premise. That is, it’s actually using the assumption that there’s a one-to-one mapping between the naturals and the reals to prove the conclusion that there’s a one-to-one mapping between the naturals and the reals.

If you look at his procedure for generating the mapping, it requires an enumeration of the real numbers. You need to take successive reals, and for each one in the sequence, you produce a mapping from a natural number to that real. If you can’t enumerate the real numbers as a list, the procedure doesn’t work.

If you can produce a sequence of the real numbers, then you don’t need this procedure: you’ve already got your mapping. 0 to the first real, 1 to the second real, 2 to the third read, 3 to the fourth real, and so on.

So, once again: sorry Charlie: your argument doesn’t work. There’s no Fields medal for you today.

One final note. Like so many other bits of bad math, this is a classic example of what happens when you try to do math with prose. There’s a reason that mathematicians have developed formal notations, formal language, detailed logical inference, and meticulous citation. It’s because in prose, it’s easy to be sloppy. You can accidentally introduce an implicit premise without meaning to. If you need to carefully state every premise, and cite evidence of its truth, it’s a whole lot harder to make this kind of mistake.

That’s the real problem with this whole argument. It’s built on the fact that the premise “you can enumerate the real numbers” is built in. If you wrote it in careful formal mathematics, you wouldn’t be able to get away with that.

UD Creationists and Proof

A reader sent me a link to a comment on one of my least favorite major creationist websites, Uncommon Descent (No link, I refuse to link to UD). It’s dumb enough that it really deserves a good mocking.

Barry Arrington, June 10, 2016 at 2:45 pm

“That 2 + 3 = 5 is true by definition can be verified in a purely mechanical, absolutely certain way.”

This may be counter intuitive to you dave, but your statement is false. There is no way to verify that statement. It is either accepted as self-evidently true, or not. Think about it. What more basic steps of reasoning would you employ to verify the equation? That’s right; there are none. You can say the same thing in different ways such as || + ||| = ||||| or “a set with a cardinality of two added to a set with cardinality of three results in a set with a cardinality of five.” But they all amount to the same statement.

That is another feature of a self-evident truth. It does not depend upon (indeed cannot be) “verified” (as you say) by a process of “precept upon precept” reasoning. As WJM has been trying to tell you, a self-evident truth is, by definition, a truth that is accepted because rejection would be upon pain of patent absurdity.

2+3=5 cannot be verified. It is accepted as self-evidently true because any denial would come at the price of affirming an absurdity.

It’s absolutely possible to verify the statement “2 + 3 = 5”. It’s also absolutely possible to prove that statement. In fact, both of those are more than possible: they’re downright easy, provided you accept the standard definitions of arithmetic. And frankly, only a total idiot who has absolutely no concept of what verification or proof mean would ever claim otherwise.

We’ll start with verification. What does that mean?

Verification is the process of testing a hypothesis to determine if it correctly predicts the outcome. Here’s how you verify that 2+3=5:

  1. Get two pennies, and put them in a pile.
  2. Get three pennies, and put them in a pile.
  3. Put the pile of 2 pennies on top of the pile of 3 pennies.
  4. Count the resulting pile of pennies.
  5. If there are 5 pennies, then you have verified that 2+3=5.

Verification isn’t perfect. It’s the result of a single test that confirms what you expect. But verification is repeatable: you can repeat that experiment as many times as you want, and you’ll always get the same result: the resulting pile will always have 5 pennies.

Proof is something different. Proof is a process of using a formal system to demonstrate that within that formal system, a given statement necessarily follows from a set of premises. If the formal system has a valid model, and you accept the premises, then the proof shows that the conclusion must be true.

In formal terms, a proof operates within a formal system called a logic. The logic consists of:

  1. A collection of rules (called syntax rules or formation rules) that define how to construct a valid statement are in the logical language.
  2. )

  3. A collection of rules (called inference rules) that define how to use true statements to determine other true statements.
  4. A collection of foundational true statements called axioms.

Note that “validity”, as mentioned in the syntax rules, is a very different thing from “truth”. Validity means that the statement has the correct structural form. A statement can be valid, and yet be completely meaningless. “The moon is made of green cheese” is a valid sentence, which can easily be rendered in valid logical form, but it’s not true. The classic example of a meaningless statement is “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously”, which is syntactically valid, but utterly meaningless.

Most of the time, when we’re talking about logic and proofs, we’re using a system of logic called first order predicate logic, and a foundational system of axioms called ZFC set theory. Built on those, we define numbers using a collection of definitions called Peano arithmetic.

In Peano arithmetic, we define the natural numbers (that is, the set of non-negative integers) by defining 0 (the cardinality of the empty set), and then defining the other natural numbers using the successor function. In this system, the number zero can be written as z; one is s(z) (the successor of z); two is the successor of 1: s(1) = s(s(z)). And so on.

Using Peano arithmetic, addition is defined recursively:

  1. For any number x, x + 0 = x.
  2. For any number numbers x and y: s(x)+y=x+s(y).

So, using peano arithmetic, here’s how we can prove that 2+3=5:

  1. In Peano arithemetic form, 2+3 means s(s(z)) + s(s(s(z))).
  2. From rule 2 of addition, we can infer that s(s(z)) + s(s(s(z))) is the same as s(z) + s(s(s(s(z)))). (In numerical syntax, 2+3 is the same as 1+4.)
  3. Using rule 2 of addition again, we can infer that s(z) + s(s(s(s(z)))) = z + s(s(s(s(s(z))))) (1+4=0+5); and so, by transitivity, that 2+3=0+5.
  4. Using rule 1 of addition, we can then infer that 0+5=5; and so, by transitivity, 2+3=5.

You can get around this by pointing out that it’s certainly not a proof from first principles. But I’d argue that if you’re talking about the statement “2+3=5” in the terms of the quoted discussion, that you’re clearly already living in the world of FOPL with some axioms that support peano arithmetic: if you weren’t, then the statement “2+3=5” wouldn’t have any meaning at all. For you to be able to argue that it’s true but unprovable, you must be living in a world in which arithmetic works, and that means that the statement is both verifiable and provable.

If you want to play games and argue about axioms, then I’ll point at the Principia Mathematica. The Principia was an ultimately misguided effort to put mathematics on a perfect, sound foundation. It started with a minimal form of predicate logic and a tiny set of inarguably true axioms, and attempted to derive all of mathematics from nothing but those absolute, unquestionable first principles. It took them a ton of work, but using that foundation, you can derive all of number theory – and that’s what they did. It took them 378 pages of dense logic, but they ultimately build a rock-solid model of the natural numbers, and used that to demonstrate the validity of Peano arithmetic, and then in turn used that to prove, once and for all, that 1+1=2. Using the same proof technique, you can show from first principles, that 2+3=5.

But in a world in which we don’t play semantic games, and we accept the basic principle of Peano arithmetic as a given, it’s a simple proof. It’s a simple proof that can be found in almost any textbook on foundational mathematics or logic. But note how Arrington responds to it: by playing word-games, rephrasing the question in a couple of different ways to show off how much he knows, while completely avoiding the point.

What does it take to conclude that you can’t verify or prove something like 2+3=5? Profound, utter ignorance. Anyone who’s spent any time learning math should know better.

But over at Uncommon Descent? They don’t think they need to actually learn stuff. They don’t need to refer to ungodly things like textbook. They’ve got their God, and that’s all they need to know.

To be clear, I’m not anti-religion. I’m a religious Jew. Uncommon Descent and their rubbish don’t annoy me because I have a grudge against theism. I have a grudge against ignorance. And UD is a huge promoter of arrogant, dishonest ignorance.

Living with Social Anxiety

I’ve been thinking about writing this for a long time. Probably a few years by now. I think it’s probably about time to out myself.

I’ve mentioned in the past that I’ve dealt with mental illness. But I’ve never gone in depth about it. There are a lot of reasons for that, but the biggest one is just that it’s really frightening to reveal that kind of personal information.

I’ve had trouble with two related things. I’ve written before about the fact that I’m being treated for depression. What I haven’t talked about is the fact that I’ve got very severe social anxiety.

To me, the depression isn’t such a big deal. I’m not saying that depression isn’t serious. I’m not even saying that in my case, my depression wasn’t/isn’t serious. But for me, depression is easily treated. I’m one of the lucky people who respond really well to medication.

Back when I first realized that something was wrong, and I realized that what I was feeling (or, more accurately, what I was not feeling) was depression, I went to see a doctor. On my first visit with him, he wrote me a prescription for Zoloft. Two weeks later, I started feeling better; between 5 and 6 weeks after starting to take the medication, I was pretty much recovered from that episode of depression.

I wouldn’t say that I’ve ever totally recovered. There’s always a lingering residue of depression, which I’m constantly struggling against. It doesn’t go away, but it’s manageable. As long as I’m aware of it, it doesn’t have a huge impact on my life.

On the other hand, social anxiety. For me, that’s a really big deal. That’s the thing that shapes (and warps) my entire life. And as hard as it is to talk about something like depression, talking about SA is much harder.

As bad as people react to depression, the reaction to social anxiety is worse. Depression is commonly viewed as more weakness than illness. But social anxiety is treated as a joke.

It’s no joke. For those of us who deal with it, it’s a huge source of pain. It’s had a huge effect on my life. But I’ve always been afraid to talk about it. The thing is, I think that things like this are important to talk about. Our society has a huge stigma against mental illness. I really believe that needs to change. And the only way that it will change is when we stop treating it as something to be ashamed of, or something that needs to stay hidden. And that means that I’ve got to be willing to talk about it.

Social anxiety is part of who I am, and I can’t escape that. But I can talk about what it is. And I can, publicly, say to kids who are in the same situation that I was in 30 years ago: Yes, being like this sucks. But despite in, you can live a good life. You can find friends who’ll care about you, find a partner who’ll love you, build a successful career, and thrive. Even if your SA never goes away, even if there’s always some pain because of it, it doesn’t have to rule your life. You can still be happy.

The first thing I need to do is to explain just what SA is. But I need to be very clear here: like anything else that involves peoples’ inner perceptions, I can only talk about what it’s like for me. Different people experience things differently, so what it’s like for me might be totally different from what it’s like for someone else. I don’t mean to in any way cast any shade on anyone else: their feelings and perceptions may be different from mine, but they’re just as valid. This is just my experience.

So. What is social anxiety?

It’s very difficult to explain. The best I can do is to say that it’s the absolute knowledge that I’m freak, combined with a terror of what will happen when anyone finds out. I know, on a deep physical level that if people figure out who/what I am, that they’ll hate me – and worse, that they’ll actively turn on me, attack me, harm me.

It’s not true. I know perfectly well that it’s not true. I can feel like this even with my closest friends – people who I know will always support me, who would never do anything to hurt me. But deep down, on a level below conscious thought, I know it. It doesn’t matter that intellectually I’m aware that it’s not true, because my physical reaction in social situations is based on what my subconscious knows.

So every time I walk into a room full of people, every time I walk into a store, every time I pick up the phone, every time I walk over to a coworker to ask a question, that’s what I’m feeling. That fear, that need to escape, that certainty that I’m going to mess up, and that when I do, I’m going to be ostracized or worse.

What makes it worse is the fact that the way I behave because of the social anxiety increases the odds that other people will think I’m strange – and when people see me that way, it increases the stress that I feel. When you’re putting a substantial part of your effort and concentration into squashing down the feeling of panic, you’re not paying full attention to the people you’re interacting with. At best, you come off as distant, inattentive, and rude. At worst, you’re seen reacting in odd ways, because you’ve missed some important social cue.

It’s not a small thing. Humans are social creatures. We need contact with other people. We can’t live without it. But my interactions are always colored by this fear. I have to fight against it every day, in everything I do. It colors every interaction I have with every person I encounter. It’s there, all the time.

When people talk about social anxiety, they mostly talk about it as being something like excessive shyness. I hope that this descriptions helps make it clear that that’s not what it’s really about.

Where’d this craziness come from?

For me, it’s really a kind of PTSD, or so a doctor who specializes in SA told me. I feel really guilty saying that, because to me, PTSD is something serious, and I have a hard time putting myself into the same basket as people who’ve gone through real trauma. But in medical terms, that’s what’s happening.

I’ve written about my past a little bit before. I had a rough childhood. Most of the time when you hear that, you think of family trouble, which couldn’t be farther from the truth for me. I had a really wonderful family. My parents and my siblings were/are great. But in school, I was the victim of abuse. I was a very small kid. I’m fairly tall now (around 5’11”) when I started high school, I wasn’t quite 5 feet tall. At the beginning of my junior year, I was still just 5’1″. So, I was short, skinny, hyperactive geeky kid. That’s pretty much the formula for getting picked on.

But I didn’t just get picked on. I got beaten up an a regular basis. I don’t say that lightly. I’m not talking about small stuff. The small abuses would have been bad enough, but that’s not what happened to me. This was serious physical abuse. To give one example, in gym class one day during my senior year, I had someone tackle me to the ground; then grab my little finger, say “I wonder what it would feel like if I broke this?”, and then snap it.

That was, pretty much, my life every day from 5th grade until I graduated high school. Everything I did became a reason to abuse me. If I answered a teachers question in class? That was a reason to beat me: I’m making them look bad. If I didn’t answer a question in class, that was a reason to beat me: I should be satisfying the teacher so that they don’t have to.

It wasn’t limited to school. My house was vandalized. The gas lines on our grill were cut. A swastika was burned into the street in front of my house. We had so many mailboxes destroyed that we literally build a detachable mount for the mailbox, and brought it in to the house every night. Then in retribution for depriving the assholes of the privilege of smashing our mailbox, they set the wooden mailbox post on fire.

Hearing this, you’d probably ask “Where was the principal/administration when all of this was going on?”. The answer? They didn’t really give a damn. The principal was an ex-nun, who believed that you shouldn’t punish children. If one children hits another, you shouldn’t tell them that hitting is wrong. You should sit them down and talk to them about “safe hands”, and what you need to do for your hands to be safe.

After the finger-breaking incident, my parents really freaked out, and went in to see the principal and assistant principal. Their reaction was to be furious at my parents. The AP literally shouted at my father, saying “What do you want, a god-damned armed guard to follow your kid around?”. (To which, I think, the response should have been “Fuck yeah. If you’re doing such a shit job protecting your students that the only way to stop them from having their bones broken for fun is to hire armed guards to follow them around, then you should damn well do that.”) Unfortunately, my parents didn’t believe in lawsuits; they wouldn’t sue the school, and they just didn’t have the money to move me to a private school. So I got to suffer.

(Even now, I would dearly love to find that principal… I’d really like to explain to her exactly what a god-damned idiot she is, and how ashamed she should be of the horrible job she did. A principal’s number one job is making sure that the school is a safe place for children to learn. She failed, horribly, at that – and, as far as I could tell, never felt the slightest bit of guilt over all of the things she allowed to happen in her school.)

So now, it’s literally 30 years since I got out of high school. But it’s very hard to get past the things that were pounded into you during your childhood. The eight years of daily abuse – from the time I was 10 years old until I turned 18 – basically rewired my personality.

The effects of that are what made me the way I am.

How does social anxiety really affect my daily life?

Socially, it’s almost crippling. I don’t have much of a social life. I’ve got a small group of very close friends who I don’t get to see nearly enough of, and I have a very hard time meeting new people. Even with people that I’ve known for a long time, I’m just not comfortable. Sometimes I really need social contact, but most of the time, I’d rather be alone in some quiet place, where I don’t need to worry about what other people think. I’d really like to be able to socialize more – in particular, there are a lot of people that I’ve met through this blog that I think of as friends, who I’d love to meet in person, but I never do. Even when I have the change, I usually manage to muck it up. (Because I always believe that people are looking for some reason to reject me, I see rejection in places where it doesn’t exist.)

Professionally, it’s been up and down. It definitely has held me back somewhat. In any job where you need to promote yourself, someone with SA is in deep trouble.

At one point, I even lost a job because of it. I didn’t get fired, but that’s only because I quit when it became obvious that that’s what was coming, and there was no point sticking around waiting for it. My manager at the time found out I was getting treated for SA. From the moment he found out, he stopped trusting anything I said about anything. To make matters worse, at the time, he was in trouble for a project that was literally 2 years overdue, and he needed a scapegoat. The “crazy” guy was the obvious target.

As an example of what I mean: one of the times he accused me of incompetence involved actors, which is a programming model that I used in my PhD dissertation. Actors are a model of concurrent computation in which everything is asynchronous. There are no visible locks – just a collection of active objects which can asynchronously send and receive messages. (I wrote a post about actors, with my own implementation of a really silly actor-based programming language here.)

We were working on a scheduling problem for our system. Our team had a meeting to discuss how to implement a particular component of that. After a lot of discussion, we agreed that we should implement it as an actor system. So I wrote a lightweight actors framework on top of our thread library, and implement the whole thing in actors. My coworkers reviewed the code, and accepted it with a lot of enthusiasm. My manager scheduled a private meeting where he accused my mental illness of impairing my judgement, because what kind of idiot would write something like that to be totally asynchronous?

So I left that company. Fortunately, skilled software engineers are in high demand in the NYC area, so finding a new job wasn’t a problem. I’ve had several different jobs since then. SA really hasn’t been a huge problem at any of them, thank goodness. It’s always a bit of a problem because my natural tendency is to try to disappear into the background, so it’s easy for people to not notice the work I’m doing. But I’ve mostly learned how to overcome that. It’s not easy, but I’ve managed.

When job-hunting, after that terrible experience, I learned to be careful to learn a bit about what the work culture of a company is like before I go to work there. I’ve tried to work something into conversations with people at the company after I have an offer, but before I accept it. It gives me a chance to see how they react to it. If I don’t like their reaction, if it seems like there’s a good chance that it’ll cause trouble, I’ll just take a different job someplace where it won’t be a problem. Like I said before, it’s a good time to be a software engineer in NYC – I can afford to turn down offers from companies that I don’t like.

So, yeah. I’m kind of crazy. Writing this is both difficult and terrifying. Posting it is going to be even worse. But I think it’s important to get stuff like this out there.

Despite all of this, I’ve wound up in a good place. I’m married to a lovely woman. I’ve got two smart, happy kids. I’ve got a great job, working with people that I really, genuinely like and enjoy working with, and they seem to like me back. It’s been a long, hard road to get here, but I’m pretty happy where I am.

This has gotten to be quite long, and I’ve been working on it on and off for a couple of months. I think that I’ve got to just let go, and post it as is. Feel free to ask questions about anything that I can clarify, and feel free to share your own stories in the comments. If you want to post something anonymously, feel free to email it to me (markcc@gmail.com), and I’ll post it for you so that theres nothing on the blog that could identify you.

Also note that I’m going to tightly moderate replies to this post. I’m not interested in having my blog turn into a place where jerks can abuse people sharing painful personal stories.

Elon Musk’s Techno-Religion

A couple of people have written to me asking me to say something about Elon Musk’s simulation argument.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find a verbatim quote from Musk about his argument, and I’ve seen a couple of slightly different arguments presented as being what Musk said. So I’m not really going to focus so much on Musk, but instead, just going to try to take the basic simulation argument, and talk about what’s wrong with it from a mathematical perspective.

The argument isn’t really all that new. I’ve found a couple of sources that attribute it to a paper published in 2003. That 2003 paper may have been the first academic publication, and it might have been the first to present the argument in formal terms, but I definitely remember discussing this in one of my philophy classes in college in the late 1980s.

Here’s the argument:

  1. Any advanced technological civilization is going to develop massive computational capabilities.
  2. With immense computational capabilities, they’ll run very detailed simulations of their own ancestors in order to understand where they came from.
  3. Once it is possible to run simulations, they will run many of them to explore how different parameters will affect the simulated universe.
  4. That means that advanced technological civilization will run many simulations of universes where their ancestors evolved.
  5. Therefore the number of simulated universes with intelligent life will be dramatically larger than the number of original non-simulated civilizations.

If you follow that reasoning, then the odds are, for any given form of intelligent life, it’s more likely that they are living in a simulation than in an actual non-simulated universe.

As an argument, it’s pretty much the kind of crap you’d expect from a bunch of half drunk college kids in a middle-of-the-night bullshit session.

Let’s look at a couple of simple problems with it.

The biggest one is a question of size and storage. The heart of this argument is the assumption that for an advanced civilization, nearly infinite computational capability will effectively become free. If you actually try to look at that assumption in detail, it’s not reasonable.

The problem is, we live in a quantum universe. That is, we live in a universe made up of discrete entities. You can take an object, and cut it in half only a finite number of times, before you get to something that can’t be cut into smaller parts. It doesn’t matter how advanced your technology gets; it’s got to be made of the basic particles – and that means that there’s a limit to how small it can get.

Again, it doesn’t matter how advanced your computers get; it’s going to take more than one particle in the real universe to simulate the behavior of a particle. To simulate a universe, you’d need a computer bigger than the universe you want to simulate. There’s really no way around that: you need to maintain state information about every particle in the universe. You need to store information about everything in the universe, and you need to also have some amount of hardware to actually do the simulation with the state information. So even with the most advanced technology that you can possible imagine, you can’t possible to better than one particle in the real universe containing all of the state information about a particle in the simulated universe. If you did, then you’d be guaranteeing that your simulated universe wasn’t realistic, because its particles would have less state than particles in the real universe.

This means that to simulate something in full detail, you effectively need something bigger than the thing you’re simulating.

That might sound silly: we do lots of things with tiny computers. I’ve got an iPad in my computer bag with a couple of hundred books on it: it’s much smaller than the books it simulates, right?

The “in full detail” is the catch. When my iPad simulates a book, it’s not capturing all the detail. It doesn’t simulate the individual pages, much less the individual molecules that make up those pages, the individual atoms that make up those molecules, etc.

But when you’re talking about perfectly simulating a system well enough to make it possible for an intelligent being to be self-aware, you need that kind of detail. We know, from our own observations of ourselves, that the way our cells operates is dependent on incredibly fine-grained sub-molecular interactions. To make our bodies work correctly, you need to simulate things on that level.

You can’t simulate the full detail of a universe bigger that the computer that simulates it. Because the computer is made of the same things as the universe that it’s simulating.

There’s a lot of handwaving you can do about what things you can omit from your model. But at the end of the day, you’re looking at an incredibly massive problem, and you’re stuck with the simple fact that you’re talking, at least, about building a computer that can simulate an entire planet and its environs. And you’re trying to do it in a universe just like the one you’re simulating.

But OK, we don’t actually need to simulate the whole universe, right? I mean, you’re really interested in developing a single species like yourself, so you only care about one planet.

But to make that planet behave absolutely correctly, you need to be able to correctly simulate everything observable from that planet. Its solar system, you need to simulate pretty precisely. The galaxy around it needs less precision, but it still needs a lot of work. Even getting very far away, you’ve got an awful lot of stuff to simulate, because your simulated intelligences, from their little planet, are going to be able to observe an awful lot.

To simulate a planet and its environment with enough precision to get life and intelligence and civilization, and to do it at a reasonable speed, you pretty much need to have a computer bigger than the planet. You can cheat a little bit, and maybe abstract parts of the planet; but you’ve got to do pretty good simulations of lots of stuff outside the planet.

It’s possible, but it’s not particularly useful. Because you need to run that simulation. And since it’s made up of the same particles as the things it’s simulating, it can’t move faster than the universe it simulates. To get useful results, you’d need to build it to be massively parallel. And that means that your computer needs to be even larger – something like a million times bigger.

If technology were to get good enough, you could, in theory, do that. But it’s not going to be something you do a lot of: no matter how advanced technology gets, building a computer that can simulate an entire planet and its people in full detail is going to be a truly massive undertaking. You’re not going to run large numbers of simulations.

You can certainly wave you hands and say that the “real” people live in a universe without the kind of quantum limit that we live with. But if you do, you’re throwing other assumptions out the window. You’re not talking about ancestor simulation any more. And you’re pretending that you can make predictions based on our technology about the technology of people living in a universe with dramatically different properties.

This just doesn’t make any sense. It’s really just techno-religion. It’s based on the belief that technology is going to continue to develop computational capability without limit. That the fundamental structure of the universe won’t limit technology and computation. Essentially, it’s saying that technology is omnipotent. Technology is God, and just as in any other religion, it’s adherents believe that you can’t place any limits on it.


The beauty of math; the humor of stupidity.

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