William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Category: Politics (page 33 of 69)

The empirical and philosophical arguments used by politicians and “activists”.

What Is A “Climate Change Skeptic”? Assist With Definition

As requested by Richard Drake and J Ferguson, who began a conversation on a similar topic last week, this new post asks what is the best “opinion poll-ready definition of climate skeptic.”

As in, “Excuse me madam,” assuming we’re still allowed to use that form of address, “Would you classify yourself as a climate skeptic, where by ‘climate skeptic’ I mean X?” Our job is to fill in the “X.”

This isn’t an easy question. I know of nobody who denies that the Earth’s climate has changed. I also do not know any trained scientist, or any non-trained but educated civilian, who denies the evidence that mankind has influenced the climate. Every species influences the climate. Every non-living thing, too.

The main question is how much? Implicit in that is “Why?” Orthogonal queries—to the main question and to each other—are, “What are the consequences?” and, “What can or should we do about them?” My experience is that these questions are often conflated, or that people let the answer from one skew their judgment of the others. Thus, whatever question we arrive at should make plain that other questions are immaterial.

The way I posed the main question implies the answer should be “Yes” or “No.” It needn’t. It could be put entirely quantitatively, as in, “What degrees C will the Earth’s average temperature be in 2015 and 2020?” The answer could also be an interval in which the responder is, say, 90% sure his answer will fall. I like this one because, as I say always, this is the best test of any theory.

The next objective is to decide who gets to answer. An internet poll is of no use. The opinion of the uneducated is of use, but only politically. It can only tangentially answer the question of how convinced the electorate is.

Should we ask economists, sociologists, engineers, and so forth? After all, the IPCC touts these kinds of folks as “climate” scientists. Once more, the use of asking them is only political, because few of these people will have primary knowledge of the subject.

So, ask only those trained in assessing climate data (modelers, dynamicists, forecasters, etc.)? Great idea. First find me a list of these people. Then verify that the folks on the list deserve to be there. Just defining “deserve” ought to be a useful exercise. At the least, it would put to rest claims of “The consensus”—which, incidentally, seems to have faded from discourse. As has “The science.”

Please, I beg you, be dull in your discussions. Attempts at hilarity will not be helpful here.

To summarize, we have two goals:

  1. What question best answers the term “climate skeptic”?
  2. Who should answer this question?

Update 17 January Comments for all posts are closed after one week to avoid a deluge of spam. I’m just back and will try and summarize this post in a new one soon.

New York’s Induced Terminations Of Pregnancy

New York City’s Health Department (motto: It’s for your own good!) released its annual birth and death statistics, and the internet is aflutter, particularly over the numbers on abortion. “Raw” statistics show that 2 out of every 5 pregnancies end with procedures which kill these females’ unwanted fetuses.

I use this language, incidentally, because it is the least euphemistic. Perhaps it is not the pleasantest way—softening truths is the very point of euphemism—but it is the plainest. Let’s not discuss here whether it is moral for a female to kill her fetus (or whether she should have that job hired out). Humans have been killing off fetuses, infants, toddlers, teens, adults, and the aged for all of history. Let’s just not ask whether any of these recipients of homicide had it coming: we will not come to a satisfactory answer. Let’s instead look just at the numbers.

Most people will skip over the Health Department’s technical appendix. A mistake. That appendix explains why the numbers in the report are not really the right numbers, of how difficult it is to count accurately, about the flawed procedures in collection, about how, even, that some numbers are the output of statistical models. This means that whatever use we make of the (approximate) numbers will come attached with a goodly amount of uncertainty; further, an uncertainty that is difficult or impossible to quantify. This goes double if we input the Health Department’s numbers into statistical models of our own, which only can increase uncertainty. Be wary of anybody’s firm conclusions.

The most obvious kind of error is non-reporting. “Spontaneous Terminations of Pregnancy” is tallied; but this number is only from those pregnancies reported to the Health Department. Of those women whose pregnancies end in, say, miscarriage before these women visit a physician, we know nothing. The “Borough of Residence” is given for pregnancies, but don’t know how many people lied, say. We keep these uncertainties in mind when we read that, in 2009, there were 225,667 (tracked) pregnancies, of which about 5% where spontaneously terminated, and of which about 40% (2 out of 5) terminated non-spontaneously (I’ll let this euphemism pass).

Nearly 4 out of 5 pregnancies are terminated non-spontaneously when the mothers (or mothers-not-to-be) were under 15 years old. This falls steadily to about 1 in 4 when the mothers-not-to-be are 35-39. Notice that age buckets in the picture are not constant; and that the “jump” for ages greater or equal to 40 is an artifact of very large bucket. Measurement error will certainly shift these points higher or lower, but the direction of the trend is probably accurate. We cannot, of course, say why from these data alone.

Percent pregnancies ending in abortion

Abortion has been used for male sex selection (e.g. China). Is there evidence of this in New York City? Not so much. The under 15 age bucket only saw 112 live births, so not too much can be made of the low percentage of male babies in this group. And the 15-17 group only saw 2,308 births. There is still a bucket effect for the 40 and older group; but it’s difficult to say which direction the overestimate occurs. Overall, 51.3% babies were boys, a typical figure. We cannot say anything about any particular abortion, but on average, there is not good evidence that male sex selection is occurring.

Percent male births

Marital status (difficult to measure, or so the appendix says) is correlated with abortions. The percent of births to married mothers increases steadily as moms age.

Percent Married births

New York City makes it next to impossible to discover the correlation of race on abortion. Forms have to be filled out for each abortion, but they do “not contain the woman’s name or identifying information.” They must contain more information than this, because there are breakdowns by age, and one partial statistic by race, the city just don’t report them. Abortions for ages 15-19, and only these ages, are given by race. Asians 72%; Blacks, 72%; Whites, 64%; Hispanics, 52%.

Except to note that the total number of abortions in the city have decreased slightly through time (as have all births), and that it’s possible to break some numbers down by borough, there’s not much more of interest we can say (about just the numbers).

What Will They Protest Now? Guest Post by G. Willikers

‘G. Willikers’ is an old friend of mine and another long-time higher education insider. I tend to think old G is right, and that those schools who have banned ROTC because of Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell will not extend a welcome hand to the military not that it has been banished. There will be plenty of “We support our Troops” speeches, though; “support” being yet another word that has no relation with its plain English meaning.

Well, it is the end of the semester, and things get a little busy, and so it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that so far, only three presidents of Ivy League schools (Yale, Harvard, and Columbia) have expressed excitement and enthusiasm about getting the good old ROTC back on campus where it belongs. This, of course, is a reaction to Congress passing, and Obama signing, the repeal of the Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell Clinton-era policy that allowed gays and lesbians to serve, but only if they kept their true identity and orientation under their hat.

The whole military-policy-on-gays line was a straw man for the universities. Everyone likes a bad guy, and everyone likes to be the good guy. DADT was perfect for the universities. They could take the moral high ground and cast someone else as the bad guy. Even better, universities could publicly punish the bad guy for their backward ways by not allowing them on campus—and feel good while doing so. The only kink in this brilliant strategy was that the military, as a whole, did not seem particularly perturbed to be the bad guy, and they didn’t feel the need to whip up protests and bang on the gates to get in. Why should they? There are plenty of universities with thriving ROTC programs.

Reports such as from the New York Times step away from DADT and claim that for some universities dropping ROTC was a matter of “academic standards.” The implication is that Midwestern U. isn’t obligated to carry the lamp of learning as high as the Ivies. Except for classes on physical fitness and weapons, much of the ROTC curriculum is interchangeable with a sound business curriculum: cultural awareness, ethical decision-making, communication, and leadership.

If faculty were truly concerned with academic rigor, the university context offers avenues for faculty involvement and oversight. However, few faculty members have the interest (never mind the experience and technical knowledge) to oversee courses on adaptive tactical leadership (3 credits) or basic course physical fitness (1 credit), so better to drop the whole thing altogether. What is clever about the academic-standards charge is that can be easily resurrected as a reason not to engage with the ROTC.

Prediction: The ROTC will never be a full partner in Ivy campus life. There will be some forthcoming, and beautifully worded, invitations. It is doubtful that the military will enter in an alliance that can be shattered by dismissive and prideful faculty and politically motivated administrators. At best, the repeal of DADT signals a truce between the Ivies and the ROTC. But that doesn’t mean they are going to be friends.

Cornell’s Cancun Climate Conference Crew

“A delegation of Cornell researchers will join the fight against climate change Monday in the annual United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun, Mexico.” So begins an article in the Cornell Daily Sun, the university’s student-run paper.

To repeat: this is a student-run paper and every allowance must be made for the immaturity, inexperience, and typical tendency toward enthusiasms of its writers. One does not expect nuance, or even complete correctness, in its coverage of major political events. This granted, this article encapsulates everything that is wrong with the public debate over global warming.

Or “Global Climate Change” as Schindler, the writer, put it. The event is of such moment to deserve full capitals, as if it were a personage. One cannot “fight” a common noun, but the perpetually concerned can do battle with a proper one.

Who’s going? Not I. I am only semi-attached to this august institution, so perhaps it is natural and right that my invitation has gone missing. However, no other person directly associated with matters atmospheric made the cut. Maybe they weren’t asked; or maybe they were, but had clearer heads.

We do know that the “Cornell Center for Sustainable Future — the Atkinson Center — has been working on coordinating the delegation.” You’ve got to hand it to activists: they picked the right word in sustainable. Who could be against sustainability? The amorphous nature of its definition is a tremendous advantageous in debate. Fling the word at an opponent, and he is immediately set back on his heels, too busy fending off suspicions that his motivations are purely pecuniary.

Anyway, on the sustainable Cornell bus will be “Eight undergraduates and ten graduate students” and three bosses. These are Antonio Bento, professor of Applied Economics and Management, Johannes Lehmann, professor of Soil Sciences, and Sean Sweeney, director of Cornell’s Global Labor Institute.

Bento and team “will present a theoretical and computational model of a cap-and-trade model”, which—do I need to say this?—is based on output from climate models. A model of a model of a model. Put another way: an approximation of a surmise of a guess. What could go wrong?

Sweeney—who I say truly is the man you want on your side in a negotiation—“will give a presentation on labor unions’ role in fighting climate change.” He said, “The labor unions are divided politically. There are those who see climate protection as a threat — the carbon-intensive industry.” A fascinating battle shaping up there. Will Sweeney be the one to break it to Teamsters members that their livelihood is harmful to the environment?

With lots of money to be had, it was only natural that organizations of every stripe, including unions, would want to nose around the trough. “About 200 labor organizations will attend the COP 16 and they will also have their own conference.” Mark that: their own conference, not the official one. Just being near all that cash is its own reward.

Lehmann, in a departure from the norm, will offer the meeting some research, “on how to avoid carbon dioxide losses from soils that would contribute to global warming, and how to increase organic carbon in soils that will be a sink for atmospheric carbon dioxide.” Could be interesting, that.

But if you begin to muse on soil physics, you’ll have missed the meat, which is that Lehmann, the only scientist in the group, is being shunted off onto a “side event”, which is “meant to inform the delegates.” Lehmann said, “The presentations by scientists are attended by negotiators that will hopefully be better informed through the material. Often, negotiators are directly interacting with presenters to deepen their knowledge.”

Do you see? This is the “Aha!” moment, dear readers. If you didn’t have it, reread that quotation, and pause at the word “Often.” The revelation is not even that the word is not “Always”. The key is that this meeting is being run by politicians who, if they care too, which oftentimes they do not, have to go out of their way to meet with actual scientists at what is, after all, purportedly a meeting about science.

Since physics has been relegated to “side events”, it must mean that the politicos have already made up their minds. But about what? I differ in many from thinking that these land sharks have grasped the fundamentals and uncertainties of thermodynamics and are convinced “It’s worse than we thought.” Instead, they are going for the same reason the unions are: power and money.

Tolkien Wants A King, Cheating With Statistics

Cheating With Statistics

Reader Matt Lewis points us to Planet Moron, to an article which tears apart a statistical argument used by the Washington Post, an argument which sought to prove the that majority of cop killings committed were committed with guns legally purchased.

The Post used one of the better known ways to cheat with statistics to claim the exact opposite of what was true—which is that about 70% of cops are killed with illegally obtained guns. The Post‘s sleight-of-hand, statistically speaking, is equivalent to the linking rings: simple enough to fool the causal onlooker, but utterly transparent to the careful observer.

I don’t want to steal Planet Moron’s punchline, for it is deftly delivered: go to their site to see how. But they caught the Post with their pants down and have administered to them a well deserved spanking. However, I’ll happily pass on their aphorism. “Statistics: It’s Like Making Stuff Up, Only With Charts.”

Tolkien Wants A King

David Hart in First Things, after having read of J.R.R. Tolkien’s support for anarchist monarchies in a letter that Tolkien wrote to his son:

These occasional bloodless bloodbaths [elections] are deeply satisfying at some emotional level, whatever one’s party affiliations, because they remind us of what a rare luxury it is to have the right and the power periodically to evict politicians from office.

But, as is always the case here below in the regio dissimilitudinis, the pleasure is accompanied by an inevitable quantum of pain. The sweetest wine quaffed from the cup of bliss comes mingled with a bitter draft of sorrow (alas, alack). Tragically—tragically—we can remove one politician only by replacing him or her with another. And then, of course, our choices are excruciatingly circumscribed, since the whole process is dominated by two large and self-interested political conglomerates that are far better at gaining power than at exercising it wisely.

He also says that “If one were to devise a political system from scratch, knowing something of history and a great deal about human nature, the sort of person that one would chiefly want, if possible, to exclude from power would be the sort of person who most desires it, and who is most willing to make a great effort to acquire it.”

It’s hard to disagree. But it is difficult to find sympathy with Tolkien’s (vaguely expressed) monarchy as a substitute for democracy. Consider: most people have it pretty good nowadays. Very little starvation, violence is rare, disease is occasional and not rife, technology has eased the burdens of all of us. It can be argued that this happy state has been brought about by the blessings of democracy.

It can be argued; but not, I think, successfully. This country, and many like it, began as aristocracies (untitled, in our case) which offered only limited participation in governance. As that participation increased, as, that is, more questions were put to more people, societies became, and are becoming, fractured and factional. When government was an aristocracy it was men that people looked up to, and those men at least attempted to resemble what was expected of them. If someone from the lower class wanted to participate he could, but only by first becoming himself an aristocrat. This process might take a generation or more, but it was not impossible.

Our leadership is now closer to the democratic ideal, where everybody can participate. Or seem to. But because those who used to be aristocrats have had to appeal to everybody and not just other aristocrats, and because the masses have different standards than the aristocracy, and because the masses are always more numerous, the means of winning support of the masses has caused the aristocracy to transform into something more resembling an oligarchy whose only firm ideals are two: money and power. Just look to California to see what happens when the power to decide every small question is put into the hands of all.

People no longer admire men, but an entity, a capital ‘G’ Government, an otherworldly thing from which, magically, all benefits flow. And our leaders no longer talk about people, but The capital ‘P’ People, a mythical set of like-minded folk whose only goal is to support the politician.

This is the key to understanding what is happening. Both sides have divorced themselves from reality and speak of what does not and cannot exist. It will be fascinating to see what flows from this.

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