Two Quick Thoughts on Juan Williams

 

Andrew Klavan says that everyone who says they’ve never had an anxious thought about flying Muslims is a liar; Jeffrey Goldberg insists that he never personally has a Bad Thought because he does the math:

There are roughly 1.3 billion Muslims in the world. Of these 1.3 billion Muslims, it is my belief that only several thousand, or at most, several tens of thousands, are directly involved in Islamist terrorism. Therefore, the chance that a Muslim in any given airport is a terrorist is very small. I also don’t believe that al-Qaeda and like-minded groups and individuals are targeting air travel, because they did that already (this is one of the reasons I think the TSA represents a misapplication of government resources).

Goldberg’s right, of course. I applaud his admirable rationality on the issue. But I’d just point out that this makes him kind of a freak, because most people are at least a little bit irrational about flying generally, if not outright phobic. That’s an observation that no one seems to be considering in this debate, although it’s germane to the charge that everyone who has the Bad Thought must be a bigot.

Professional pilots aside, almost everyone has a sort of uneasy feeling about being in a big metal cylindrical tube that hurtles through the air at 700 miles an hour and very occasionally plunges into the ground in a fiery inferno. We all know the statistics, most of us sort of grasp the idea of the Bernoulli effect and have heard all that reassuring stuff about the multiple backup systems and all those terrific training hours the pilots put in working the simulator, but really, most of us still feel safer in a car, even if logically we know that’s absurd. Goldberg is obviously just one of those superbly rational human beings who never lets his emotions run the show; I’ve met them, they exist, but for most of us–be honest–we’re fine in that 747 until there’s a weird noise or a big unexpected turbulence thwump, and then, DANGER! DANGER! REPTILE BRAIN ALERT!–there goes all chance of an in-flight nap; bring on the double vodka.

So yes, most of us do look superstitiously for all sorts of little signs that this flight is going to be just fine–pilot looks sober–check; pilot looks old enough to have done this before–check; they seem to have done a pretty good job cleaning the seat pocket, that probably means they’re careful with engine maintenance–check. And in that context, “No one looks like a terrorist on this flight–check!” is a pretty normal thought to have as you proceed through your pre-flight totally irrational safety checklist. I also like to make sure they really de-ice the wings well, because I still remember that 1982 Potomac crash.

Okay, so, having that thought doesn’t make you a bigot, it just makes you a normal anxious passenger. And that reminds me of a funny story. After I left the Rico Party in San Francisco I flew out of SFO, where I was seated next to a dangerous terrorist suspect–at least, that’s what my reptilian brain said. Little guy, dark-skinned, subcontinental in appearance, wearing some kind of terrorist-gear, like a white robe or something, and poring over some kind of religious text. Huh, I said to myself, You shouldn’t have a bad, bigoted thought, but he sure does look like a terrorist. You’d better not think that, though, because that’s bigoted and bad.

I took my seat next to him, then I noticed something that in just one glance told me I could strike him off the list of Bad Signs. Beneath the seat in front of him was a bag that said, “South India Trade Company.” South India–that probably meant he was from Bangalore, and since Bangalore has a huge high-tech industry, that meant he was probably just coming back from a high-tech business meeting. And he was probably a Hindu, because most people from Bangalore would be.

I just wanted to confirm, though, so that I could take my nap in perfect peace. “So,” I said to him, “That book–it’s Kannada, isn’t it?” Kannada being the language spoken in Bangalore.

He nearly dropped sideways with shock. “Yes! It’s Kannada! How did you know!” We had a long talk about the time I was in Bangalore, and how much it must have changed since then, and his job, and the book he was reading –Vedic scriptures–and I could see in his face how glad he was that I didn’t think he was a terrorist, because it must just really suck to have everyone think you’re a terrorist every time you get on a flight, and suck all the more if you’re a Hindu; after all, it must be galling to be under suspicion as a Muslim when in fact you too are worrying about being killed by a Muslim.

No moral here, just a nice story. He seemed like a lovely Bangalorean. Hope everything went well for him, especially with his visit to his family–he seemed a little fretful about that, about whether he was bringing back the right presents for his mother-in-law and his wife and his kids.

There are 36 comments.

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  1. Tommy De Seno Contributor

    Goldberg = statistic fail. His numbers hold up for random places on earth. Have him run his numbers again with weight given to the likelihood of an airplane as a target.

    • #1
    • October 22, 2010, at 11:53 AM PDT
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  2. flownover Inactive

    I agree and try to reach out when possible because you can feel their discomfort, in fact that’s probably the best radar for a number of things.

    I have a much bigger problem with the airlines in some parts of the world and the degree of training of the maintenance staff. Royal Jordanian looks like everything is stuck in the 1970s, Ethiopian Air the same, all oldfashioned Cardin stewardess outfits, avocado and burnt orange interiors, it’s weird. And usually in Muslim countries. How’s Turkish Air ? Do you think these folks have diagnostic tools like computers or is everything stuck in the 70s ?

    Sorry about that divergence , but when the guy sitting next to you with a one way ticket is sweating alot, fingering his beads, and jerks when he ask him where he’s going….be cool if he says something about paradise. Then ask him if he personally knows Jesus Christ, Savior and would he ask him a question for you.

    • #2
    • October 22, 2010, at 11:54 AM PDT
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  3. Tripedis Canis Member

    Further items for the checklist:

    + Thunderstorms along route?

    + Peak of solar cycle?

    + Seismic activity near active volcanoes along route?

    + Dyslexic pilot entering inertial navigation settings?

    Me, I hate landings. Last time, it was just ahead of a line of thunderstorms.

    Rationality is a treatment of the symptoms; it is not a cure.

    • #3
    • October 22, 2010, at 11:54 AM PDT
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  4. flownover Inactive
    Tripedis Canis: On further consideration, a flight full of turbulence and general unpleasantness may be a positive, as it would help you determine the religious leanings of your fellow passengers. I know my audible Hail Mary’s would leave no one in doubt about me. · Oct 22 at 12:04pm

    Yeah I heard a guy like you on a bump and grind into KCI once. Then I saw his ipod and realized he was listening to Tech 9.

    • #4
    • October 23, 2010, at 1:14 AM PDT
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  5. Profile Photo Member

    Great post, lovely story.

    • #5
    • October 23, 2010, at 1:39 AM PDT
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  6. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Look, this isn’t a simple question of probability. It’s a question of risk analysis, and when it comes to risk analysis, preferring a lower relative risk even of something that’s fairly unlikely in the first place is not obviously wrong.

    Let’s say the likelihood of getting pancreatic cancer is very low. And let’s say studies showed that eating food X quadrupled your risk of pancreatic cancer. Well, a very low probability quadrupled is still a low probability, but is it wrong to avoid that food? Not necessarily. It depends on how risk-averse you are.

    So…

    Are people of a certain appearance more likely to be Muslim?

    Unfortunately, yes.

    Are Muslims more likely than non-Muslims to be terrorists?

    Yes. (Perhaps 1200 times more likely?)

    Are planes a tempting terrorist target (even if terrorizing planes has “been done before”)?

    Yes.

    What are the consequences of a terrorist attack in a plane?

    Large and bad.

    Altogether, the relative risk of boarding a plane with someone of a certain appearance is larger than that of boarding a plane without someone of that appearance, even if the absolute probability of something bad happening is low.

    (1/2)

    • #6
    • October 23, 2010, at 1:47 AM PDT
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  7. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    What’s “irrational”, as you point out, Claire, is that people tend to be far more risk-averse about airplane travel than they are about other things, in a way that’s totally out of proportion. But given that people are so risk-averse about flying, their desire to have a lower relative risk is perfectly sensible.

    As for me, I like flying. Not the hassle at either end of the flight, but the flying itself — being suspended in midair, hurtling forward at phenomenal speeds. I find it thrilling. So I don’t worry much about who’s on the plane with me.

    Actually, my biggest worry is getting through airline security, because my husband and I are more likely than average to have something weird in our carry-on baggage.

    Take a metronome, for example. My nightmare is that I carry it on, and it gets jostled enough to be set off. Then from my carry-on, the other passengers hear this disturbing sound:

    tick

    tick

    tick…

    (2/2)

    • #7
    • October 23, 2010, at 1:59 AM PDT
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  8. Great Ghost of Gödel Inactive
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: Jeffrey Goldberg insists that he never personally has a Bad Thought because he does the math:

    There are roughly 1.3 billion Muslims in the world. Of these 1.3 billion Muslims, it is my belief that only several thousand, or at most, several tens of thousands, are directly involved in Islamist terrorism. Therefore, the chance that a Muslim in any given airport is a terrorist is very small.

    Rats. Tommy beat me to it. This is only a good probability analysis if a) Muslims are uniformly distributed throughout the world and b) you don’t have good prior probabilities of Muslims on airplanes being terrorists. Regrettably for non-terrorist Muslims ,Sikhs, and Jeffrey Goldberg, neither of these assumptions holds.

    I’ve pointed to it elsewhere, but it bears repeating, particularly in this context: it’s pretty foolhardy to discuss probability without first having mastered http://www.amazon.com/Probability-Theory-Logic-Science-Vol/dp/0521592712/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1287781685&sr=8-1. Warning: there’s math. Lots and lots and lots of math.

    • #8
    • October 23, 2010, at 2:08 AM PDT
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  9. Diane Ellis Contributor

    The last week of August, 2011, my dad took one of my brothers and me to visit Boston. On our flight home out of Logan, we were in a flight piloted by John Ogonowski (my dad commented on his Polish name when he introduced himself in a welcome announcement), who lost his life piloting Flight 11 on 9/11.

    On our flight, there were a few (three I think) Middle Eastern men dressed in business attire sitting near us. They looked so tense and suspicious that they attracted my dad’s attention, who pointed them out to me. We felt uncomfortable the whole flight, and were relieved when we touched down in San Francisco.

    Less than two weeks later, 9/11 happened. When we heard that the pilot of Flight 11 had been our pilot, we decided that there was a chance that those strangely behaving Middle Eastern men on our flight were the hijackers, who were scoping out routes.

    That said, I can’t help but scan every flight I’m on for suspicious looking Middle Eastern men. It’s not because I’m a bigot — it’s because they have a history of hijacking planes.

    • #9
    • October 23, 2010, at 2:28 AM PDT
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  10. Patrick in Albuquerque Inactive

    There are folks who, when boarding, scan the rest of the passengers for those who might require some roughing up during the flight AND for those who might assist in the roughing up. It’s no big thing.

    • #10
    • October 23, 2010, at 2:45 AM PDT
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  11. Ursula Hennessey Contributor
    herb briggs: Claire:

    I think it’s a testament to the character of most Hindus and Sikhs (especially) that we seldom if ever hear them complaining about being mistaken for Muslims when traveling internationally. You literally cannot get less Muslim than being a Sikh. The men wear the turbans and the long beards, and many people, maybe most Americans, jump to the conslusion that they’re Muslims, I have many Indian friends, the closest of them Sikhs, and have been told privately that they do get tired of being stared at and watched. But it would never occur to them to complain openly. That’s character. · Oct 22 at 12:42pm

    I completely agree, Herb. When I was in college (late 80s/early 90s), a dear friend was a Sikh. It was something she talked about, this confusion of others, on occasion, with me. That was one of the first really eye-opening moments for me that I needed to get my non-Christian religions sorted out. It was pathetic that I was sort of lumping all headwear together, all flowing robes, all beards together. I’m no expert, but at least I know that I’m no expert!

    • #11
    • October 23, 2010, at 3:01 AM PDT
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  12. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Paul Snively

    Rats. Tommy beat me to it. This is only a good probability analysis if a) Muslims are uniformly distributed throughout the world and b) you don’t have good prior probabilities of Muslims on airplanes being terrorists. Regrettably for non-terrorist Muslims ,Sikhs, and Jeffrey Goldberg, neither of these assumptions holds.

    Yes, Goldberg’s math is flawed. However, it wouldn’t surprise me if, even with the math corrected, the probability is still low. (I bet some actuary with Israeli intelligence knows exactly how low.) But the cost should the worst happen is high. Sky high. Goldberg forgot that, too.

    I’ve pointed to it elsewhere, but it bears repeating, particularly in this context: it’s pretty foolhardy to discuss probability without first having mastered http://www.amazon.com/Probability-Theory-Logic-Science-Vol/dp/0521592712/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1287781685&sr=8-1. Warning: there’s math. Lots and lots and lots of math.

    Intriguing book. Somewhat expensive, though. It’s going on my wish-list. My undergraduate probability course was unsatisfactory for a number of reasons, and I’d like to remedy that.

    • #12
    • October 23, 2010, at 3:02 AM PDT
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  13. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed. Post author

    My argument leads to another criticism of Goldberg’s argument, now that I think about it. The reason terrorists would focus on planes, even if it’s a bit more challenging now, is because they’re terrorists, i.e., they are trying to inspire terror, and the fact that most people are instinctively (if irrationally) horrified by airplanes means you get considerably more bang for the buck–literally–by making a plane fall out of the sky than you do by killing the same number of people on the ground.

    • #13
    • October 23, 2010, at 3:15 AM PDT
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  14. Liver Pate Inactive

    It was pathetic that I was sort of lumping all headwear together, all flowing robes, all beards together

    Dear Ms. Hennessey:

    “On behalf of National Public Radio I’m required to inform you that such opinions are not in keeping with our editorial policy and we are retroactively refunding your taxpayer contributions to our station from the mid 1980’s when these reprehensible, medically deductible thoughts first entered your consciousness. We are currently scanning some 40 years of taxpayer records and will be processing more refunds for those American citizens, living and dead, who’ve reported instances of these medically treatable but incurable thoughts that have so impoverished our fine nation since NPR came into existence in 1776.

    In sincere appreciation for your continued compliance and silence, in exchange for signing a 276 page confidentiality agreement and agreeing to a court order preventing you from entering any NPR building in the continental United States, we’d like to enclose a complimentary gift set of This I Believe, with guest appearances by Al Sharpton, George Soros and Hugo Chavez.”

    • #14
    • October 23, 2010, at 3:24 AM PDT
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  15. Great Ghost of Gödel Inactive
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake

    Paul Snively

    Yes, Goldberg’s math is flawed. However, it wouldn’t surprise me if, even with the math corrected, the probability is still low. (I bet some actuary with Israeli intelligence knows exactly how low.) But the cost should the worst happen is high. Sky high. Goldberg forgot that, too…

    Intriguing book. Somewhat expensive, though. It’s going on my wish-list. My undergraduate probability course was unsatisfactory for a number of reasons, and I’d like to remedy that. · Oct 22 at 3:02pm

    You’re right that the right science to apply here is Decision Theory. Fortunately, that’s covered in Jaynes, too. :-) It’s definitely an expensive book. Unfortunately, it also has no worthwhile substitutes. Reading it was very much akin to a religious experience for me–I’d had an intuition about probability and logic for decades that no other coverage of the material addressed at all, but Jaynes convinced me wasn’t crazy, and http://ba.stat.cmu.edu/journal/2009/vol04/issue03/dupre.pdf dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s on.

    • #15
    • October 23, 2010, at 4:03 AM PDT
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  16. Liver Pate Inactive
    Paul Snively

    You’re right that the right science to apply here is Decision Theory. Fortunately, that’s covered in Jaynes, too. :-) It’s definitely an expensive book. Unfortunately, it also has no worthwhile substitutes. Reading it was very much akin to a religious experience for me–I’d had an intuition about probability and logic for decades that no other coverage of the material addressed at all, but Jaynes convinced me wasn’t crazy, and http://ba.stat.cmu.edu/journal/2009/vol04/issue03/dupre.pdf dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s on. · Oct 22 at 4:03pm

    Are you referring to Bayesian Decision Theory?

    • #16
    • October 23, 2010, at 4:11 AM PDT
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  17. Charles Mark Member

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/michaeltomasky/2010/oct/21/us-politics-fox-news-juan-williams If I had a vote this appalling poison would have me waiting at the door when the polling booths open on 2nd November. The clarion call for free speech , usually attributed to Voltaire but apparently contributed by one Evelyn Beatrice Hall must now be amended as follows:

    “I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it….(except on Fox)”.

    Post-partisan era indeed!

    • #17
    • October 23, 2010, at 4:17 AM PDT
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  18. Liver Pate Inactive
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: I have some uneasiness about Turkish Air’s Muslim problem, but not for the reasons you’d probably expect. I fly them anyway, though–they don’t crash that often, or not so often as to make it seem statistically more dangerous than any other airline. And they have good in-flight meals. · Oct 22 at 12:02pm

    Has anyone flown on Olympic Airways lately? I found the customer service underwhelming.

    • #18
    • October 23, 2010, at 4:45 AM PDT
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  19. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Pseudodionysius

    Paul Snively

    You’re right that the right science to apply here is Decision Theory. Fortunately, that’s covered in Jaynes, too. :-) It’s definitely an expensive book. Unfortunately, it also has no worthwhile substitutes. Reading it was very much akin to a religious experience for me–I’d had an intuition about probability and logic for decades that no other coverage of the material addressed at all, but Jaynes convinced me wasn’t crazy, and http://ba.stat.cmu.edu/journal/2009/vol04/issue03/dupre.pdf dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s on. · Oct 22 at 4:03pm

    Are you referring to Bayesian Decision Theory? · Oct 22 at 4:11pm

    Mr (or Dr) Snively (gotta love the name) knows far better than I. But I would guess that if he just recommended a book described by reviewers as “hardcore Bayesian”, then yes, it would be Bayesian Decision Theory.

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    • October 23, 2010, at 4:51 AM PDT
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  20. Chris O. Member

    Regarding Juan Williams, it was mentioned on the podcast that every time it seems outrage is dying down, something else comes along to stir the pot again. This seems like yet another event that has a lot of people talking about rolling back government, specifically it’s funding of PBS and NPR in this case.

    It appears that NPR was just waiting for an excuse. Mr. Williams’s comments in their entirety are pretty well-explained. Mara Liasson seems to be next on the chopping block.

    Great story, Claire, and high marks for engaging that guy.

    • #20
    • October 23, 2010, at 7:16 AM PDT
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  21. Katie O Member

    Thanks so much for this post Claire. This, Andrew’s piece, and all the great comments have been helpful to me. As a fairly new conservative, I am still fighting the inner lure to all things PC. I am so glad to have found Ricochet!

    • #21
    • October 23, 2010, at 7:40 AM PDT
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  22. Francis Rushford Inactive

    I think Goldberg creates a hypothetical that denies the success of using planes. The TSA can stop a sloppy effort, but not one well thought through. Especially, one carried out by Middle Eastern Looking People who can cry out prejudice for being stopped and or even secondarily searched.

    If a terrorist will walk into a market and blow himself up, why not on a plane. Ingested explosive like a drug ballon swallower and three or five others working as a team on a flight. Fairly straight forward and effective.

    Also, a terrorist flies a route where there are children flying during the holidays. He says to the Captain, you will have to open the cockpit door, or he will start killing the children. As for weapons, one assembled from individual carbon fiber material parts where none of the pieces looks like a weapon would be easy.

    The reason none of this has happened is because the focus has been in Iraq and Afghanistan. The D teams in the U.S. are trying idiotic plots and they are not well trained. Once the troops leave, then the A Teams will be back in the USA to kill people.

    • #22
    • October 23, 2010, at 11:01 AM PDT
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  23. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed. Post author

    I have some uneasiness about Turkish Air’s Muslim problem, but not for the reasons you’d probably expect. I fly them anyway, though–they don’t crash that often, or not so often as to make it seem statistically more dangerous than any other airline. And they have good in-flight meals.

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    • October 23, 2010, at 12:02 PM PDT
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  24. Tripedis Canis Member

    On further consideration, a flight full of turbulence and general unpleasantness may be a positive, as it would help you determine the religious leanings of your fellow passengers. I know my audible Hail Mary’s would leave no one in doubt about me.

    • #24
    • October 23, 2010, at 12:04 PM PDT
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  25. Sisyphus Member

    The “bigotry” transcends religious affiliations in some interesting ways. In the DC area, the Muslim families I have encountered avoid the mosques here because of their aggressive infiltration by radical elements and politics. They prefer to attend generic religious services and stay off the radar of organized American Islam.

    • #25
    • October 23, 2010, at 12:22 PM PDT
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  26. Eiros Member

    Claire:

    I think it’s a testament to the character of most Hindus and Sikhs (especially) that we seldom if ever hear them complaining about being mistaken for Muslims when traveling internationally. You literally cannot get less Muslim than being a Sikh. The men wear the turbans and the long beards, and many people, maybe most Americans, jump to the conslusion that they’re Muslims, I have many Indian friends, the closest of them Sikhs, and have been told privately that they do get tired of being stared at and watched. But it would never occur to them to complain openly. That’s character.

    • #26
    • October 23, 2010, at 12:42 PM PDT
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  27. Aaron Miller Member

    True enough, except for:

    Jeffrey Goldberg:

    I also don’t believe that al-Qaeda and like-minded groups and individuals are targeting air travel, because they did that already

    2003 – shoe bomber

    2009 – underwear bomber

    They’re still targeting planes… and giving Fruit of the Loom a bad name.

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    • October 23, 2010, at 12:56 PM PDT
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  28. Schwaibold Member

    Several years ago, I happened upon a Muslim co-worker (Palestinian, no less) studying a textbook at his desk. I asked him about the book, assuming it was job related – our tech firm employer reimbursed tuition for job-related classed and training.

    He told me it was a class he was taking. I asked about the subject, and he held up a and textbook on surface water modeling. I asked him, out of curiosity, why he was taking that class? Did it have something to do with a customer contract, or some new software? He told me no, he was working towards a certification in city planning. Career change? He just shrugged and said maybe.

    I had been working with him for a couple years. He was a nice guy. But his answers bothered me – he left his wife and children at home to take night classes, for a certificate he wasn’t sure he was going to need? If his religion/hometown were different, I would have thought it was weird, but I probably would have forgotten it. Obviously, I haven’t.

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    • October 24, 2010, at 5:55 AM PDT
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  29. Great Ghost of Gödel Inactive
    Pseudodionysius

    Paul Snively

    You’re right that the right science to apply here is Decision Theory.

    Are you referring to Bayesian Decision Theory? · Oct 22 at 4:11pm

    Specifically in its “probability as extended logic” manifestation, yes.

    • #29
    • October 24, 2010, at 6:36 AM PDT
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  30. Great Ghost of Gödel Inactive
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake Mr (or Dr) Snively (gotta love the name) knows far better than I. · Oct 22 at 4:51pm

    No doctorate; I’m far too lazy for that. Mr. Snively is a retired elementary-school principal in Indiana. I’m Paul. :-)

    The intuition, in case anyone’s curious, is that when Bayes’ Theorem takes a conditional probability to 1.0 it’s equivalent to modus ponens in logic. It turns out that no only is that true, there’s a more general formulation, Cox’s Theorem, that provides the complete integration of logic and probability, although it wasn’t actually expressed axiomatically until the Dupré and Tipler paper I linked to earlier.

    And I’m glad that you and Claire find my name amusing. :-)

    • #30
    • October 24, 2010, at 6:47 AM PDT
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