Coda: Oh no, Tebow

Wah wah
Wah wah – image from Wikipedia (2)

It is rare that life presents an opportunity to look back at old posts and say, “I told you so.” Back when Tim Tebow was a household name and “Tebow-mania” gripped the sporting nation, I took a look at his statistics, including how he measured against the great quarterback in whose ranks he was being placed, and as a measure of the success of the Denver Broncos, for whom he played at the time. The stats don’t lie. Mr. Tebow was terrible. He was drama but no substance. People remembered the hits – stunning passes that seemed to complete magically, touchdowns followed by an egotistical public display of his faith – and forgot the misses (e.g. the Broncos’s 50% lose rate that same season, or the passes he didn’t complete – his passing stats did not measure up to the greats, even in their first seasons).

Today, the sports news world is alive with the fact that the NY Jets have dropped Tebow. The most critical reports of Mr. Tebow have referred to him as the “worst mistake” ever made by the Jets [1]. It’s been a bad day for Mr. Tebow. But, the reality is that the numbers don’t lie. It wasn’t about how he was used or how he was played. When he played, he was pretty bad. And he was certainly no Joe Montana.



The Parallel Universes of Science and Anti-Science

A real skyscraper, and its distorted reflection created by the windows of a nearby skyscraper.
The real skyscraper on the left is built with the laws of Nature, determined by careful experimentation and critical thinking over hundreds of years. If one were to instead use the rules of design apparent in the distorted mirror reflection of the real skyscraper, the distorted twin could not stand in the real world. Photo from Ref. 1.

Finding Parallel Worlds

In the series “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” a well-crafted transporter modification is capable of hurling the crew of the station into a “mirror universe.” Everyone who exists in the known universe also exists in the mirror universe, but there they are not the same people. Major Kira Nerys, a member of the Bajoran Militia who fights for Bajoran freedom in the known universe, is instead Intendant Kira Nerys who serves the enslaving Alliance in the mirror universe.

Science fiction writers dream of parallel universes, and wonder at what it would be like for mirror people  to meet one another. If they are truly mirrored, and are biological copies of one another, what differences would then be found by considering the exclusive sums of their unique experiences?

I have often dreamed of parallel universes, both in my science fiction-fueled fantasies but also in the real language of quantum physics. What if the universe I know is just one of many possible universes, separated only by the spectrum of quantum probabilities inherent in every interaction between my subatomic constituents? These thoughts interest me, but ultimately only insofar as they can be tested and have real consequences outside of science fiction.

Distorted Mirror Universes

I have learned, however, over the past decade of the existence of real multiple parallel universes. They are not quantum dreams, but rather political and social realities that are attempting to redefine the very meaning of “reality” so as to save something that they, in their universe, define as “value” and “culture.”

One need not look far to find these parallel worlds. You don’t need a transporter accident or a Large Hadron Collider to find and observe them. Sometimes you need only go so far as an accredited university, like Liberty University or Life University; sometimes, you need only pick up a book or turn on the radio, so as to read or hear the words of people like David Barton; sometimes you need only subscribe to a blog from organizations like The Heartland Institute or The Discovery Institute.

These places and people define a parallel universe, one that mirrors, with distortion, the real laws of nature. In these distorted mirror universes, they use scientific or academic language, but no actual science or academics. These universes often are set up as equal but opposite to the real world; their proponents claim they are just as good or better than the real world, and that living in them is just as good or better than living in the real world. To the builders and shapers of these parallel universes, their reality is just as valid as the reality of the natural world. So . . . why wouldn’t you want to go live in that universe instead of the real one?

It’s all about USEFULNESS

While it is true that the belief in a single reality governed by a single set of consistent laws is, in fact, a belief (that is, I cannot prove to you that there is only one reality with a single set of consistent laws), that belief is distinct from all other beliefs because of a single property: USEFULNESS. The belief that my reality is the same as your reality allows you and I to agree that what happens in my view also happens in your view. We can agree on things (at least, fundamentally). We can agree that apples fall from trees, that ice melts at zero degrees Celsius under conditions of standard temperature and pressure, and that when I punch you in the arm it hurts you in a way that is similar to that experienced by me if you were to punch my arm. Being able to accept the belief that there is one reality with one set of governing laws allows you and I to make progress – that is, to develop a single and transferable library of knowledge that can be expanded and always consistently applied to create new knowledge.

If we cannot agree on such things – if we believe the world is purely subjective or a product of one’s own will or imagination – then the above cannot be true. Apples might rise in your universe but fall in mine. When ice melts, it does so for you at a different temperature on the Celsius scale at standard temperature and pressure. When you punch me in the arm, you believe that it doesn’t have the same biological consequences as when I punch you in the arm. There can be no laws of physics. There can be no chemistry. There can be no biology (or empathy . . . which then leads down the road to sociopathy . . . ). In a world where subjectivism rules, chaos follows. There can be no progress. There can be no single body of transferable knowledge, since all experiences will be different even given the same initial conditions.

Science and the scientific method are built on the assumption of objectivism – that there is a single objective reality upon which we can all agree, in so far as we can study the natural world and determine the its rules. You and I, under identical conditions, will observe and report identical things (within the tolerances of measurement uncertainty, of course). Without that assumption, science falls apart. Science is the means by which the single, transferable library of knowledge is generated.

Please note that, at no time in the above discussion, has using science required that there be nothing “supernatural.” One is only required to follow an fundamentally objectivist belief system to then successfully use science. At heart, you don’t have to be an atheist, or a deist, or a religious fundamentalist, or any other “-ist” except “objectivist.” No other “-isms” except “objectivism” are required – no “materialism,” no “socialism,” no “conservatism,” no “liberalism.” You can be those things, and still practice science as long as you are following objectivism. The supernatural is allowed – but science cannot explain it, because by definition anything outside the natural world cannot be measured or quantified and falls beyond the scope of the scientific method.

The photograph at the top of this post was chosen on purpose, because it illustrates in a single image exactly the argument I will advance here. The skyscraper on the left is the real deal – it was built with materials from the natural world, using principles based on the laws of physics and chemistry; its environmental regulation systems are designed based on the principle that biological organisms like people require a certain range of humidity and temperature in order to work and live comfortably. That building was only possible because, at heart, those who developed the laws upon which it is constructed made the assumption that there is a single reality.

If objectivism were a useless assumption then it would bear no fruit  and would itself be USELESS. Because objectivism is USEFUL – it allows the laws of mechanics, thermodynamics, and electromagnetism to be determined, all of which are needed to make a skyscraper –  it generates progress.

The skyscraper on the right is a distorted reflection of the real deal. If you used the distorted rules of design and form and mechanism apparent in the view on the right, and tried to make that happen in the real world, chances are that the skyscraper so built would collapse or decay very quickly. In other words, if one takes a distorted view of reality, teaches it to others, and then applies it in the real world (where it is not USEFUL), then chances are good that it will fail and become USELESS, being cast aside for more USEFUL ideas.

The notion of USEFULNESS is at the heart of science. It’s why science is so successful as a way of knowing. Tastes may change in art, music, social convention, and politics, but so far as we know the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology are unchanging and timeless. They apply just as well a million years ago as they do today. Try applying U.S. political assumptions in Russia; try convincing Leonardo Da Vinci that Jackson Pollack had it all right; try getting J. S. Bach and Black Flag to agree on the definition of “profound music.” Science is useful because it provides a regular structure on which to create and innovate. The laws of mechanics explain how to understand and generate sound; on that, music for all tastes can be created. The laws of chemistry and quantum physics define how to create color and texture in paints; on top of that, beautiful schematics of the human form or frenetic explosions of shape and color can be built. The laws of biology define the way in which adaptation and reproduction influences survival and how the environment challenges adaptation and reproduction; on top of that, vast social systems can be built.

The Making of the  Distorted Mirror

When scientists fight against the forces of anti-science, they do it in the spirit of “correcting the record.” In a world where objectivism rules, this would work; reasonable minds would be forced, in the end, to agree that one party is right (their description is consistent with objective reality) and the other is wrong (their description runs counter to what is known of objective reality).

However, fighting the forces of anti-science this way misses the point of what those forces are doing.  The forces of anti-science are not conducting their battle in the real world, in the objective reality; they are conducting a battle using the rules of a world THEY created. They are fighting a battle in their world, where the notion of a single objective reality does not apply. Recognizing this fact is the key to making a first step is truly battling the forces of anti-science.

A scientist might, for instance, argue based on the laws of physics that building a skyscraper like the one in the reflection above is ludicrous; any reasonable person can see that it won’t stand, that it’s a threat to the lives of the people who would go to work in it. But that argument misses the point; the point is that the anti-engineers who have proposed building the skyscraper on the right have done so according to the following propositions:

  • There are at least two objective realities (in the language of the forces of anti-science, “two opposing views”); their rules work just fine in their reality, our rules work just fine in ours, and intelligent people can decide for themselves which reality is the correct one. You get your facts, I get mine. No one has a monopoly on the truth.
  • It is enough to think about these things to come to a decision; logic and reason are sufficient forms of evidence, without the need for observational and physical evidence.

Once you understand that these are the rules of the anti-science game, you can begin to develop strategies to deal with it.

Let’s explore these propositions a bit further, to see how they lead to a distorted view of the world. These propositions have little to nothing to do with real science, of course; they have to do with values and cultures. These propositions allow the construction of a mirror universe comfortable to values and cultures, without regard to facts about the natural world. They allow dogma and misunderstanding to become the founding principles of the mirror universe.

By dogma, I mean statements like, “X is true because it must be so” (or, ” . . . because I want it to be so”). By misunderstanding of the laws of the real world, I means statements like, “The law of Natural Selection cannot be true because it leads to atheism,” which is a misunderstanding of the actual implications of the law of Natural Selection. The second type of statement goes hand-in-hand with the first. For instance, consider this typical set of dogma and misunderstanding that is used to construct things like Intelligent Design and Creationism:

  1. God must exist. [dogma]
  2. The Law of Natural Selection eliminates completely the need for God to exist. [misunderstanding]
  3. Therefore, the Law of Natural Selection must be wrong. [hypothesis]

Note that no evidence is required to formulate the hypothesis made at the end. The hypothesis is based on an assertion of dogma and a complete misunderstanding of a law of nature. Disconfirming evidence – evidence that rejects the hypothesis – will then be ignored and confirming evidence (supporting the hypothesis) will be trumpeted. That is pseudoscience. One obtains a distorted version of reality wherein the Law of Natural Selection is cast aside and replaced with something else, such as Intelligent Design.

Creating the mirror universe based on the above line of argument is a way of establishing a place where other hypotheses, which feel comfortable, can be preserved. For instance, consider a related hypothesis formed as follows:

  1. God is the only source of ethical behavior. [dogma]
  2. The Law of Natural Selection eliminates the need for God to exist. [misunderstanding]
  3. Therefore, the Law of Natural Selection leads to unethical behavior. [hypothesis]

If one’s view is that the absolute above cannot be violated, then it would be more comfortable to live in a universe where the subsequent hypothesis is true.

Here is another one:

  1. Ancient humans led better lives than modern humans. [dogma]
  2. Ancient humans used to collect plants in the swamp and consume them for medicine. [misunderstanding]
  3. Therefore, swamp plants collected by ancient humans are better medicine than mainstream medicine. [hypothesis]

This is a popular left-wing distorted mirror universe. Ancient humans DID NOT, by any measure, lead better lives than modern humans. Ancient medicine was a crapshoot, because nobody understood the cause of disease until the 1800s. Those plants that were consistently found to be useful, far beyond placebo, then became “mainstream medicine” – that is, medicine that works. Everything else is just plants that we eat, digest, and poop. However, people spend billions of dollars every year on “alternative” medicine – expensive plants that have no actual proven medical benefits outside of quack claims by people like Dr. Oz.  Basically, billions of dollars are spent making expensive poop.

The forces of anti-science are not about making progress, or being useful (in the sense of advancing the species through a growing body of reusable and timeless knowledge), but about preserving a world view that is comfortable to many people. But, that world view may be based on at least distortions, if not outright misunderstandings, of things like physics, chemistry, and biology (not to mention math and statistics). The reason it persists is not because it works, but because it feels good.

Examples of Distorted Mirror Universes

Here are some examples of mirror universes that you can go experience, if you so choose.

  1. Creationists offer their own tours of the Grand Canyon. They are prohibited from directly using the language of religion to explain the creation of the canyon, so they instead use fancy words that sound like science but actually are references to the creation of the canyon by the Noah Flood. It’s very hard to know that they are not talking about real geology, but their own geology they have created to fit the events in the Bible. More information is in Ref. 2.
  2. Basically any book by David Barton. Barton distorts historical documents, or invents fake historical events and documents, to conform to his dogma that the U.S. is a fundamentally Christian nation. He’s continually debunked by actual historians, but that’s not the point. The point is that those who devoutly listen to his “Wallbuilders” radio program are doing it so that they can live in the comfortable parallel universe where the U.S. is a Christian nation that can ignore the beliefs of all other people and can even expel people for holding the wrong beliefs.
  3. An event hosted by the Discovery Institute. They have flashy movies, handsome spokesmen who smile, and they use sciency words. They present biology as a debate between to equally correct but opposing groups of people, those who adhere to the “dogma” of the Law of Natural Selection and those who adhere to Abrahamic religious principles. They won’t mention outright that their arguments are based on religion, but they invent a controversy where none actually exists in science and then push that controversy on public and private schools.

What to do?

This is a hard question. Once you realize that there are parallel universes where objective reality holds no sway, you must abandon the tactic of only ever arguing as if you all live in the same objective reality. That won’t work for all people.

What might work? Our goal can only ever be to welcome people back to reality. Here is some advice:

  1. Never talk down to people.  Let them explain why they think their universe is the correct one. Let them know that you value their beliefs and that you want to understand their beliefs.
  2. Don’t let the conversation become one-sided. A conversation is, by definition, two-way. Don’t let them dominate by only ever talking about their views, and you should avoid the same. If it’s not a conversation – if, instead, it’s a conversion – then both people will walk away feeling more mistrustful of each other.
  3. Your best selling point on objective reality is to sell the benefits of living there. You have many. Medicine, technology, safety, health, longevity, freedom . . . the list goes on. There is bound to be something that appeals to them.

We all begin in objective reality. Our many experiences transport us from that reality to others, where we may remain for a time or forever. There is nothing wrong with some of those universes; in fact, living in some of them for a time may give us a deeper and more useful and practical insight into the natural world. But there are those parallel worlds, the distorted mirror universes, where thire established belief systems can cause real damage in the natural world. There are distorted mirror universes whose inhabitants seeks to overturn real science and real learning and replace them with something darker and less useful (or entirely useless). They do it in the name of saving values or culture; their end will be to destroy progress (as I defined it above), to bar the doors of the library of human knowledge and direct people elsewhere.

The only way to serve objective reality is to welcome more people back into it. You will never shatter the distorted mirror universes – their laws are impervious to evidence – but you can increase your population in the real world and hope for the best.


[1] Photo by vpickering.


Remembering the hits, forgetting the misses

Tim Tebow Demotivational Poster
OK, call me snarky. But the numbers don't lie: there is nothing remarkable about Tebow. This is a good lesson in remembering the hits and forgetting the misses. Graphic from Ref. 6.

[Author’s Note: After writing and posting this, the Broncos went on to face the New England Patriots in their final playoff game (the 18th of the Broncos’ season). The Broncos lost SPECTACULARLY, 10-45. This makes their record of wins/losses now to be 9/9, exactly 50% . . . the coin flip would have been just as good in determining the outcome of the Broncos’ season as the actual season. ]

Let me say that I have nothing against Tim Tebow. He seems like a fine young man. He’s certainly very religious; although, ironically, he behaves in a way strongly inconsistent with the teachings of the very person to whom he proclaims a public faith: Jesus. Recall that, according to the Bible, Jesus taught:

And when thou pray, thou shall not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou pray, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret . . . [Matthew 6:6 & 7]

The public reaction to Tim Tebow, however, is the pseudoscience gift that keeps on giving. As I discussed in my last post about him [1], he was hailed in the sports press with mixed reviews (both as a terrible quarterback and as an exciting quarterback). He  had captured media stardom with a combination of excessive public religiosity and “sudden comebacks” (more on that below). But overall his performance was statistically uninteresting. As I noted, the Broncos’ rate of winning 1, 2, 3, or 4 games in a row as “comebacks” followed a roughly exponentially decreasing trend (the rate of winning 2 in a row by comeback is half that of 1 in a row; the rate of 3 in a row is about half that of 2 in a row; etc.). Based on that trend, the Broncos were right on track for 4 comebacks in a row, whether or not Tebow was the QB.

Now that the Broncos have completed a lot more of the current season, we can really look at Tebow and see how he ranks up against the “greatest” quarterbacks in NFL history. Let’s see what we find.

First, we need some “great” quarterbacks. I want ones from the last 30 years, so that they are playing in the most modern context of American Football. Here is the opinion of Jason Whitlock at Fox Sports [2]:

  1. John Elway (Denver Broncos)
  2. Joe Montana (San Francisco 49’ers)
  3. Johnny Unitas (Baltimore Colts)
  4. Dan Marino (Miami Dolphins)

Based on my own knowledge of Football history, I wouldn’t disagree with these. Conveniently, Tebow and Elway play for the same team. I will ignore Unitas because of how long ago he played the game.

I am primarily interested in their QB stats in the first 2 years of play, to see whether Tebow is really an anomaly compared to the greats. What are the good stats? One men’s magazine article claims the most important QB statistics are:

The single most important statistic for judging quarterbacks is yards-per-attempt (YPA). This illustrates a player’s efficiency. Even though they are highly correlated, it is also important to look at completion percentage as well. This is more indicative of consistency and is not as related to the ability of receivers to run after the catch. Along with YPA and completion percentage, quarterbacks are successful if they do not turn the ball over. Again, everything is relative, so we must account for the total number of pass attempts. Interceptions per 500 pass attempts is a stat that is easy to compare. After those items, mobility is very valuable. [3]

Here are some stats [4].

Yards Per Attempt (YPA) in first two years

The first number is their first year of play, the second number is the second year of play. The errors are obtained by propagating the Poisson uncertainties on the Yards Gained by Passing and the Number of Attempted Passes.

  1. Elway: (6.4 +/- 0.4) and (6.8 +/- 0.4)
  2. Montana: (4.2 +/- 1.0) and (6.6 +/- 0.4)
  3. Marino: (7.5 +/- 0.5) and (9.0 +/- 0.4)
  4. Tebow: (8.0 +/- 0.9) and (6.4 +/- 0.4)

The numbers are very revealing. The error-weighted average of the “best QB” YPAs is (7.17 +/- 0.03), while Tebow has a YPA of (8.0 +/- 0.9) in year 1 and (6.4 +/- 0.4) in year 2. Unlike the great QBs, Tebow’s performance decreases in his second year (albeit with a large uncertainty on the YPA in his first year due to the few passes he got to throw in his first season). In Tebow’s second season, his is well below the average of the greats.

Interception Percentage (Interceptions per attempt to pass) in first two years

The first number is their first year of play, the second number is the second year of play. The errors are binomial.

  1. Elway: (5.4 +/- 3.6)% and (3.9 +/- 3.8)%
  2. Montana: (0.0 +/- 0.0)% and (3.3 +/- 3.0)%
  3. Marino: (2.0 +/- 2.4)% and (3.0 +/- 4.1)%
  4. Tebow: (3.7 +/- 1.7)% and (2.2 +/- 2.4)%

In general, great QBs have interception rates consistent with zero within the binomial errors. Tebow exhibits the most significant interception rate (in his first year). Compared to other great QBs, his rate is higher than 2/3 of the other three and in his second year is lower than all three. This is one place where Tebow superficially looks good, but when you take into account uncertainties it’s tough to really distinguish anything here.

Pass Completion Rate (Percentage)  in first two years 

The uncertainties are binomial. The first number is their first year of play, the second number is their second year of play.

  1. Elway: (47.5 +/- 6.5)% and (56.3 +/- 4.5)%
  2. Montana: (56.5 +/- 18.3)% and (64.5 +/- 4.5)%
  3. Marino: (58.5 +/- 4.9)% and (64.2 +/- 3.1)%
  4. Tebow: (50.0% +/- 11.0%) and (46.5 +/- 6.5)%

The great quarterbacks tended to complete passes at a rate better then 50/50; that is, better than flipping a coin and deciding whether the pass is completed based on complete chance. Elway is the exception, although he improved considerably in his second year. Two of the top 4 greatest quarterbacks achieved completion rates well above 50% by their second year (about 64% for Montana and Marino).  In all cases, the great quarterbacks IMPROVED their pass completion rate by their second year.

Tebow bucks the “trend of the greats” in a couple of ways. His performance WORSENS in his second year (albeit consistent with a flat performance within uncertainties) and it’s never better than flipping a coin. In fact, by his second year you could have flipped a coin every time he made a pass and have completed more passes by calling “HEADS!” than by letting Tebow’s pass actually decide whether completion occurs.


Is Tim Tebow a remarkable QB? Not really, according to empirical data. In two of the three major statistical categories, Tebow is not at or above the greatest recent quarterbacks; in the third, his ranking is indeterminate. His pass completion rate is no better than a coin flip, and in fact was WORSE this year. His interception percentage may be a bit smaller than others, but the uncertainties are large on all numbers presented. His Yards per pass attempt are unremarkable compared to the great quarterbacks. In two of the three stats categories, his performance worsened in his second year whereas the great quarterbacks improved.

Looking at the Denver Broncos total record, they played 17 games. Of those, they won 9 and lost 8. Their rate of winning games was slightly better than the rate of getting heads or tails in a coin flip. Certainly, considering just 17 such coin flips their performance is completely consistent the rates of heads and tails over many successive groups of 17 trials. They had one “streak” of 4 comebacks mid-season, which was then followed by 4 successive losses (which nobody seemed to call a “loss streak” initiated by Jesus’ displeasure with Tim Tebow). In fact, everything about the Broncos’ performance in 2011 is consistent with a sequence of coin flips, including “apparent streaks” of both wins and losses. This is all consistent with random numbers.

So I don’t see what all the fuss is about. Tim Tebow’s throwing arm is about as interesting as flipping a coin. If the fuss is about his religiosity, then the numbers suggest prayer isn’t helping him. But then, controlled studies of prayer also tell us that this practice confers no measurable benefits [5]. So, pretty much, this guy is uninteresting in both a secular and a religious sense.

I suspect that Tebow’s popularity is due more to the problems that we, as humans, have with data. We remember the hits (the Denver Broncos won 4 games in a row, by comeback, with Tebow as QB) and forget the misses (the Denver Broncos lost 4 games in a row, with Tebow as QB). That is why it is always important to evaluate a situation not based on personal biases (e.g. liking Tebow because he prays in the end zone) but on empirical evidence. The evidence says he’s not a great QB. Maybe, with more practice, Tebow will improve. I hope so, since he seems like a nice guy. But a nice guy is not necessarily a great QB.








Sanctimonium Santorum, once thought extinct, reappears

Many years ago, I commented on the seeming extinction of the species Sanctimonium Santorum [1]. Like many species that were previously believed to be extinct, there has been a sudden and unexpected reappearance of this odd species. However, as I commented then,

In government, there are limited resources. There are only 100 Senate seats in the United States. From each state, there are only 2. Two candidates who vie for control of those seats are naturally in competition, and the forces both within and without the candidates’ spheres of control shape who will win the seat. It’s sociological natural selection. Often, many species of candidate appear for the scant seats, and only one can succeed. Many of the species wither and die; others seek the Presidency.

So it seems that this species, thought dead, has chosen to seek the Presidency. Here are some of my old observations of Senator Santorum:

Here’s a goodie from Senator Santorum in 2006, regarding the moral code of scientists who want to study the behavior of human stem cells. Enjoy.