William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Page 149 of 408

Gloom, Despair, Email Spoofing, And Kahan’s Science Literacy Paper

Somebody spoofed my Yahoo email address which I use for ordering, registrations and the like. Sent hundreds of emails to my contact list yesterday.

Now I ordinarily run Linux, which you will all agree is superior to all other operating systems. But for the past few days, because of work, I had to log on to a Windows machine. I checked my email on that machine. It was after this that I was spoofed, hacked, or scammed. Whatever you call it, it was a pain in the keister.

This happenstance in time is what we statisticians call a curious coincidence. It could be that Windows, notorious as it is for being leakier than a canoe made of screen doors, allowed some villain to sneak in and steal my password. Or it could be that some clever fellow guessed this password, which I humbly admit was magnificently complicated. Or it could be something else.

That’s probability for you: not enough information to say for certain. And I want to say for certain so I know to whom or to what to direct my cursing.

So I was already in a petulant mood when I got a tweet from Paul Matthews ‏(@etzpcm) asking me to look at the paper “The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risk” by somebody with the name of Danny Kahan, who looks to be a lawyer. At least he sits in a law department.

The paper is a poll, a survey of the kind telemarketers, politicians, and in increasing number, sociologists run. You know what I mean. A bunch of questions asked of hapless citizens, the results fed into a needlessly complicated statistical analysis which produces grand theorizing all “proved” with wee p-values. The kind of thing we review on this blog ad nauseam.

Science literacy. Just what is that? This question? “The government interferes far too much in our everyday lives.” Well, that’s one of their questions. I wonder how the responses would be if they asked this after hearing Nanny Bloomberg’s plan to steal the (liquid) candy from the hands of New York City’s babies.

Nah, by “literacy” (numerical) they mean the ability to answer gotcha questions like this:

In a lake, there is a patch of lilypads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake?

Sure it’s easy (for us superior beings). But admit it, Danny boy. How many of you and your authors got these zingers right without blinking or thinking? Tell the truth. Your mother might read this blog.

Funny thing. They asked only two questions about how the climate works. Imagine that. Science literacy about climate change fully discerned by asking “Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?” and “How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun?” That’s the beauty of theory, friend, which Dan and company provide in great heaps. All kinds of verbiage about the “science comprehension thesis” versus the “cultural cognition thesis”. Golly.

Here’s the main finding:

As respondents’ science-literacy scores increased, concern with climate change decreased (r=−0.05, P=0.05). There was also a negative correlation between numeracy and climate change risk (r=−0.09, P<0.01).

Just look at those publishable p-values! But wait. What’s that? As people’s so-called “science-literacy” increases, their concern about climate change decreases?

Look. The “r” means linear correlation, and here is a number of a size that we scientists “trivial”, “vanishingly small”, or “Are you kidding?” The effect is nearly non-existent. Remember: this correlation is in this sample of survey respondents. Replication would almost certainly show that this effect vanishes like reason at the New York Times editorial office.

Ah geez. Just skip it. The whole study is based on a fallacy. A citizen can not know which goes around which, the Earth or Sun, and still know the truth of the statement “The government should stop telling people how to live their lives.” He can be as wrong as can be about how lasers work (another question asked) and still know the lunacy of this statement: “Government should put limits on the choices individuals can make so they don’t get in the way of what’s good for society.”

This just goes to show you how useless science knowledge is to most folks, but how important political and moral knowledge is. Would the world really be a better place if all were made to swear to the belief that the Earth orbits the sun? Sure it’s a simple fact, but how useful is it to the average man? Except in answering questions on surveys like this, not much.

And so we end with the non sequitur: O science! Where are you! Why have you left us!

There Are Too Many Fat People: What To Do About It. Update: Bloomberg Bans Soda Pop

Update Mike Bloomberg, current owner of New York City’s mayoral title, has graciously allowed (by not yet banning) me to re-publish this article which expresses a sentiment dear to Mayor Bloomberg: that he knows best. In art, in habit, in what to eat. His newest crusade—and it is just that: a righteous jihad against the sins of the body—is to banish pop (also known as soda) if the pop is sold in containers too large to be held comfortably in Mayor Bloomberg’s hand (he is an awfully small man).

I cannot but agree with him. He knows best, not just what is best for himself, but what is ideal for all of us. And the reason he knows what is best is that he is a member of government. And there is no higher power than that.

Update And see this.


Time magazine has it right: “Everybody knows obesity is a massive problem in the U.S.” I know it. And so do you.

Time says we need to be willing to “demonize excess poundage” just as we shame smokers. All the techniques that worked in getting people to quit smoking need to be employed to get people down to their ideal weight. We need a war on the fat.

It isn’t just the fat being fat. What really concerns me is passive obesity. Sure, I’m thin, and damn proud of it. I take care of myself. I eat right, I watch Good Morning America, I exercise. On weeks where there are positive reports of the benefits of red wine, I drink exactly the recommended amount. But on those weeks where articles appear on the harmful effects of alcohol, I abstain. I take vitamins. I follow Michelle Obama’s lead in eating. I am healthy.

Obesity has reached epidemic proportions (source)
Santa is Obese

But there are a lot of fatties out there and it’s getting so it’s impossible not to be around one. People have a right to be fat, but only in their own homes—but maybe not if they have children.

Suppose you’re with a group of healthy thin people at a restaurant recommended by the New York Times. The people at the table will order what is right, what is good for them. This is made easier because, at least in New York City, and thanks to the efforts of Mayor Bloomberg, transfats (and smoking!) have been banned. You can only get them if you’re prepared to break the law, which is what many fat people do.

Anyway, now imagine a fat person joins the group. What happens? Gluttony, that’s what. Passive waves of obesity are given off by the fatty. He over-orders and over-eats. That’s what fat people do. This forces the superior thin people to do the same. They can’t help themselves! Whereas before the thin behaved themselves, when a fat person arrives the thin suddenly find themselves adding an appetizer or opting for dessert. Butter is slathered on rolls. None of this would have happened had the thin dined among themselves alone.

So, just like we did with smokers, the first thing we should do is change restaurant behavior. We can’t ban fat people from gathering publicly. Not at first. That would be considered draconian and would set the program back a decade. Instead, we should create separate areas for fat people, just as we used to do with smoking sections. We’d set up troughs at which the fat can feed, and elegant tables in another area for the thin.

You see the difficulty, of course. Unless the barriers are airtight, the waves of passive obesity will waft over to the thin side. The hope is that the barriers lessens the impact of these waves. But I’m afraid that reliable statistical studies (p < 0.05) show that even brief exposure to fat people increases the risk of obesity.

Obesity is bad for you. Sure, some fat people tend to live a little longer than thin. But they’re living longer as fat people. This is shocking.

I care about these people. Dammit, I really do. My (unclogged by plaque) heart bleeds. I am sincere. This is what counts. Sincerity. I live in Manhattan and I have a PhD from an Ivy League university. In science. Not only does this equip me with the knowledge of right and wrong, it gives me license to dictate to others what is best.

I shouldn’t say this, because it’s delicate. But these fat people, especially those fatties with fat kids, just don’t know what is best for them. I do. I’ve studied the subject. I’ve read scientific papers by earnest people. They agree with me. Something has to be done.

The real problem is that most people just don’t have the intelligence to know what they’re eating. They are mere dupes of corporations who sell them food that is bad for them. They are powerless in the face of advertisements for fudgesicles. They see fat people on TV who are portrayed as jolly and happy. They are slaves to their genes which force them to gorge on blubber and salt and sugar, all of them bad.

What is bad should not be allowed. What should not be allowed should be controlled and regulated by the government. Government intervention is the only way to successfully control obesity. Mere exhortation by personal introspection, by doctors, family members, the clergy, and the guys down at the bowling alley isn’t going to cut it. Let’s face it. We need a program. We need taxes. We need to stop the obese before they eat again.

Astrologers See Obama Victory

Alas, our great nation is in retrograde, with the House of Koalemos (Greek god of stupidity) rising, ever rising. Dark cosmic forces have aligned—perhaps maligned is a better way to put it—and caused ill omens which to the adept implies that the shadow which has enveloped us will linger four more years.

Or so says the news emanating from “a meeting of the world’s top astrologers” (which is like saying a conclave of the world’s top intellectual Marxists, but never mind). What’s “astrology”? Well, this report tells us

Not to be confused with astronomy, the scientific study of the physical universe, astrology uses non-scientific methods to predict how the relative positions of celestial bodies may influence human behavior and future events.

Now that that’s settled, let’s meet Chicago astrologist and corporate lawyer (corporate lawyer?) Nina Gryphon, whose musings on the “Aries ingress” indicate that The One will best Romney.

Chris Brennan, pulling a switch, eschewed the Aries ingress and went straight to the “ingress of Saturn.” Which tells us all we need know of Brennan, but it also informs us that Obama will probably definitely win. That is, Obama’s victory is maybe certain.

Naming a particular celestial retrograde, Brennan says, “Most astrologers are pretty certain that this [retrograding] could cause problems similar to what happened in the 2000 election.” He tightens this with the addition that “something” is “up in the air about the election.” You can’t be more definite than that.

And in the end, the ingress speaks forcefully that Romney’s number is up.

I know you won’t scoff because, the report tells us, “Two of the panelists participated in a similar session four years ago when the panel also gave a unanimous thumbs-up to Obama.” However, another report on the United Astrology Conference said “At the last conference, in May 2008, six panelists unanimously predicted Obama’s win over Sen. John McCain [emphasis mine].”

Since these are media reports, both must be right, so we have a mystery how two can simultaneously be six.

Skip it. It’s the predictions and how to make them that counts. For instance, at the conference master astrologer Susie Cox asks us, “Do you know the Sun Signs? I mean Really know them! I thought I knew them too until I wrote the book, Susie’s Sun Signs, and now realize there is so much more to them.”

And it isn’t just ingresses, sun signs, and retrogrades. It’s also horary resolution charts, transiting lunar nodes, and magical rapport measurements. Boil all these together and you have a powerful predictive concoction which says Obama is in and Romney out.

But do not be disheartened! There is good news to be gleaned from this stream of fell forecasts. Astrologists, when they manage to make unambiguous political predictions are wrong more often than they are right. They are like the stock broker who frequently picks stocks to rise which fall and vice versa. They are reasonably accurate negative barometers.

That means their predictions of an Obama romp implies that it is Romney who is likely to win, that the veil will soon be lifted. So be of good cheer and tell the world. Tell this to everybody wherever they are. Watch the skies. Everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!

Grade Inflation

Via GradeInflation.com via Mark Perry via HotAir comes this telling picture.

Be sure to read the original site. Although Stuart Rojstaczer doesn’t have much data from Community Colleges, he does show that grade inflation has not struck these institutions with equal force.

This trend must continue—not indefinitely, of course: it stops when all earn all As all the time—as long as enrollment increases. The greater the percentage of the population who attends, the more we must see either grade inflation or class simplification or both. Rojstaczer also identifies the “student as customer” grade-inflation driver.

All this is on average, of course. There will still be plenty of isolated schools and courses where students are held to a rigorous standard. See Rojstaczer’s plot on the difference between liberal arts and sciences, for example.

Interesting twists and turns to the curve, no?

More perhaps later. Busy day today.

UpdateFor starters, we’ve dumbed down college.

On The Murder And Death Of Classical Music

It is difficult to discover one word which adequately and non-misleadingly describes what is today called “music” and what used to go by that name a century or more ago. The word should be statistical in the sense that music are the sounds which one encounters more than any other (and not necessarily what one listens to purposely).

For example, the average citizen in these United States is likely to hear rock produced from latter portion of the twentieth century when in grocery stores, houseware shops, and department stores; the same genre but of more recent vintage when in convenience stores or coffee shops, cafes, and the like; and a mysterious headache-inducing pounding emanation by the name of “hip hop” when in bars, or on beaches and other outdoor spaces.

Incidentally, my theory for the latter is that these sounds are generated by algorithm to cause the aforementioned pain, the kind of which can only be relieved by consuming massive amounts of alcohol—sold, of course, at high margins. We must admit that this is more effective than over-salting the free popcorn.

What are we to call this constellation of sound? Modern places it too squarely in time, and leaves our heirs in a jam because they will have to discover a new word to describe what they listen to in the future. Popular doesn’t work, because there will always be a genre which is the most popular (kind of like how there will always be a “leading cause of death”). Perhaps rock suffices if that word is interpreted to mean what is commonly thought of as “rock” plus its many derivatives.

Now what about those sounds from Rachmaninoff, Hayden, Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Tchaikovsky and the like? The word most use is classical. And that’s fine, in its way. But it is defeatist, too. Classical means, in part, “that which belongs to antiquity.” Static museum pieces. Mention classical music and one imagines hearing a piece one has heard many times before, a piece from a limited repertoire. Mozart is not, after all, writing new symphonies.

Sometimes classical is labeled art music, but given what has happened to art over the past century, this is an insult. We could use beautiful since most of it is, especially in comparison to such things as this1. But it is only most, not all. There are, after all, folks like Philip Glass lurking in the margins.

And then there is Nico Muhly, subject of a glowing piece in The Telegraph (he has also been praised by the New York Times). The writer is under the impression that Muhly’s work is “classical.” Presumably this is because he does not use the electric guitars or computer programs which churn out today’s music.

Muhly, a sweet-faced young man whose haircut resembles the kind of expensive “designer” jeans which come with pre-ripped holes and bare spots, instead composes with noise.

I’m constantly recording ambient, unchanging noises. I stayed in a hotel in the Netherlands last month where the elevator shaft had this glorious hum of an open fifth. The air conditioner in my house is this sort of E-flat, the hiss of unconnected electronics, the buzz of a halogen lamp…

His best known composition is entitled “Drones & Piano.” And this is exactly what it is. Droning noises and a piano played with a fitful fist, jamming notes into the air in the way today’s poets scatter words across a page. Which is to say, randomly. Don’t take my word for it. The Telegraph embeds this piece at the bottom of its article. I myself was able to listen to nearly one minute of Part I, “Bedroom Community.”

The paper calls the sounds of this Part “a paranoid, hypnotic piano layered over a warm string hum.”

Viola drones continue into Part II jabbed with staccato jerks and pretty chords. Part III moves forward with brio and speed. Here, the string drones become a bee’s nest and the piano, sounding like a nest of wires, gets more and more tangled before a gentle, quiet coda segues perfectly into Part IV. This track feels like a fresh, dewy dawn.

I listened to the opening strains (yes) of each Part and I’m fairly sure that each repeats; the whole thing sounds like a twenty-second loop endlessly repeating.

Now, the reason this is important is that the paper and Muhly himself calls this stuff “classical.” And proudly. He believes himself to be continuing in the tradition of Hayden, Telemann, and so forth. He says, “The internet is filled with people saying that blah blah classical music is dying blah blah.” (This quotation shows that the mental processes which given Muhly his words also supplies his notes.) Of the doomsayers, “Chances are, they are being paid to say this.”

Nobody is paying me, Mr Muhly, but if classical music lives, you are not providing it life support. But least you have provided us something to listen to which is worse than the Beatles.


1Found by searching “hip hop charts”, clicking the first link, and selecting the third most popular song

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