William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

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Damn Straight News: Manly Men More Likely To Be Conservative

The manly, conservative NFL player Evan Mathis demonstrates his dissatisfaction with big government.

The manly, conservative NFL player Evan Mathis demonstrates his dissatisfaction with big government.

As will come as absolutely no surprise to regular readers, but will be a traumatic revelation to the public at large, it has finally been acknowledged in the peer-reviewed literature that the more a man resembles John Wayne, that the larger the number of people who say as he passes, “Wasn’t that Chuck Norris!?”, that the more women who against their wills and better judgments swoon in this man’s presence, the more likely he is to embrace conservative principles.

This research was in the field of evolutionary psychology, it was peer-reviewed, and the proof entirely statistical, so you know it has to be true. So say Michael Bang! Petersen, Daniel Sznycer, and a couple of others in the infallible journal Psychological Science (emphasis added; Petersen’s middle name really is Bang).

I can confirm the results. Your own author—who is a soaring six-feet two-inches, two hundred pounds of hardened sinew and pure corded steely muscle, a man who can crack a walnut by blinking and whose five-o’clock shadow appears before the toast grows cold—is among the manliest of the male sex and, as the research suggested, conservative as hell.

You can confirm it, too. Just look what non-conservatives have on offer: Chris Matthews, the pudgy effeminate who admitted to going tingly after peeking at Barack Obama’s pants crease (or whatever), the cadaverous Alan Colmes who has to be duct-tapped to his studio chair lest a strong breeze blow him off set. Jimmy Carter. Pretty boy George Clooney. The meekly, mousy, mugging Jon Stewart. Harry Reid? Please.

And then, besides me, who else do we find on the right? Clint Eastwood, baby. Ronald Reagan and Charlton Heston, two dead guys who are still manlier than half the Senate. Bret Baier at Fox; what was he, a linebacker? Arnold Schwarzenegger is a registered Republican. The Geo. Bushes were fighter pilots. And just you take a poll in any major league locker room asking whether the mountainous occupants prefer more or less government.

According to the Daily Mail summary, docile, flat-chested males are “more likely to support the welfare state and wealth redistribution”. You bet they are. That can’t take on the larger challenges, so they plead to be given. And that’s fine, because two trademarks of conservatism are generosity and bigheartedness. We’re pleased to oblige.

That’s not me speaking, that’s science. Yes, this is the way we evolved on the African veldt. And therefore there’s nothing to do be done about it. The awesomeness differential is built into nature. Some of us will be big and mighty, others will listen to NPR and never learn what hockey is. This is the Way Things Are. This is tough luck for a lot of you, which might explain why those who can’t bench press their own weights are always going on about fairness.

Listen sugars: if you still believe in fairness at your age, your mother failed in her job. We all have our crosses to bear; it’s just that some of us are quieter about it than others. Which reveals another conservative principle: fortitude. That also spells manliness, which is now no surprise.

The paper is more nuanced than the summary given here, sometimes to the point of absurdity. But that’s because academics can’t resist lathering thick coatings of theory on everything they touch (some jargon about “asymmetric war of attrition” “theory”).

And they only distinguished conservativeness by attitude towards redistribution. That’s always a mistake because manly men (a.k.a. conservatives) are happy to give generously and with love to those truly in need. Yet both charitable duty and confiscatory taxation are called “redistribution.” Conservatives don’t want to give their money to pusillanimous politicians and bloodsucking bureaucrats who’d only use the proceeds to lavish gifts upon themselves and fund the breeding of more of their own kind.

I know a lot of progressives read this site. Never you fret, weaker brothers. We conservatives are here to protect you. The manliness of one conservative (the paper proves this) is more than enough for a passel of progressives. You come right over here and stand behind us and we’ll save you from those who would take by force what is rightfully yours.


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Thanks yet again to Al Perrella and K.A. Rodgers who alerted us to this topic.


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Coal-Fired Power Plants Fuel Suicide—Or Maybe Sanguinity

Smokestack Seppuku

Whatever you do, don’t look at that smokestack! Do, and next thing you know you’ll be drawing a knife across your throat. Suicide!

Or so says the press and John G. Spangler, M.D., M.P.H., a professor of family medicine at Wake Forest Baptist. The good doctor used a statistical model to “prove” that if you live in a North Carolina county which has a coal-fired power plant, the chance you will kill yourself—from disgust, despair, or moral desuetude we never learn—increases significantly over a county which has none.

Yes, and if you live in a county which has two such power plants, look out! Death lurks on every erg. That you should find yourself surrounded by three such institutions does not bear thinking. Yet we must and will.

Peer-Review Strikes Again

Spangler’s peer-reviewed findings appeared in the Journal of Mood Disorders with title “Association of Suicide Rates and Coal-Fired Electricity Plants by County in North Carolina.”

Bucking the trend in enlightened morals, Spangler starts his paper by claiming “Suicide is a tragedy”. He also admitted that environmental pollution is not “commonly thought of as relating to suicide.” (And for good reason, as we shall see.)

“It is hypothesized that suicide is related to having a coal-fired plant in a county, acting as a substitute measure of air pollution.” How do these ordinarily life-giving buildings (try living in North Carolina without air conditioning) encourage dark forces? Possibly by causing “abnormal cognition, neurological development or degeneration” and lowering “overall life satisfaction” you see.

Statistics To The Rescue

Here is what Spangler did. He gathered county-level suicide rates and various demographics, such as percent whites, median income and the like, and counted the number of coal-fired power plants. He also took genuine air-quality measurements of metals and other pollutants, which was wise. He then “regressed”, i.e. used an unnecessarily complicated statistical model, the suicide rate and the other variables together.

None of the variables except percent whites, median age, and number of coal-fired power plants were “significant.” Spangler claimed that for every increase of one plant the suicide rate increases by about 2 per 100,000. This led Spangler and the press to conclude, as summarized for instance in Scientific American, “that county suicide rates correlated very predictably with the number of coal-fired electricity plants within said county.”

The flaw should already be obvious, and glaringly so, to those who know statistics. For those who don’t, stick around.

Even accepting the (hidden as yet) fallacy, there were some oddities about Spangler’s work that jumped out. He claimed that in North Carolina “sixteen [counties] had one plant; three had 2 plants (Gaston County, Halifax County, and Robeson County); and one had 3 plants (Person County)” This is 20 counties with 16 + 6 + 3 = 25 plants, which means 80 counties did not have any coal-fired power plants (NC has 100 counties).

Let’s Try This Ourselves

Spangler did not list the sixteen counties with just one plant. However, Sourcewatch a most progressive organization, has a list which appears complete, and from these we can infer the missing counties. See the tables below for details.

The suicide rates per country were also not in Spangler’s paper, but the CDC: 2003-2010 Final Data has them.

Here is a plot of number of coal-fired power plants by the the county-level suicide rate.

Smokestack suicides

Smokestack suicides

The median suicide rate for counties empty of coal-based electricity was 12.9, which was the identical rate in counties which had one plant. For those three—and only three—counties which had two plants, the median was 11.3. In the one county which had three plants, the rate was 10.6.

The green line is the “regression” of these two variables, which seems to indicate that increasing the number of plants decreases suicide rates, the exact opposite conclusion of Spangler’s. Seems that adding coal plants is good for you!

Statistics Are Scary For Good Reason

How can this be? Easy. For one, Spangler’s data could be slightly different because suicide rates change from year to year (my rates are aggregated from 2003-2010, and Spangler says his are from 2001-2005). But if that’s true, and because the number of coal plants in each county hadn’t changed, it means the data is too variable to draw any conclusions. It’s also suspicious Spangler doesn’t have a plot like this in his paper.

For another, regression does funny things to data, making lines which should go down, mysteriously go up. Especially when you toss an enormous number of variables at it hoping something will stick. And the more variables you throw, the more likely something will stick, even absurd things. Note that none of the actual environmental variables Spangler used showed up. These are the variables which could actually influence health, and yet all were unimportant.

The model itself is silly: there are only three counties with two plants, and one with three, yet Spangler (and I above) drew a regression line over this wee sample. But the mathematics doesn’t know this, so it will give a result. My green line is just as absurd as Spanger’s: there just isn’t enough data about increasing the number of plants to say anything cogent.

The Fallacy Revealed

And then there’s the fallacy hinted at above. It occurs when people infer individual-level conclusions from aggregate data. Something, or many various things, caused the differences in suicides between counties, but it does not follow that because a correlation was found in a statistical model that the variable identified had any causative effect.

If that were so, then moving to a county which had a higher proportion of whites or older folks would increase your suicide risk. That is obviously ridiculous, but if we follow the press reports and Spangler’s breathless intimations, that is the conclusion we would reach.

We should be especially suspicious here because no pollutants were noted, nor were any of the other demographic variables, like income and education. The county-level is just too crude a scale to be useful. The many journalists who picked up this story should have recognized this, as should have Spangler: a simple plot (like the one here) would have showed him his task was futile.


Appendix

Tables of the data in Spangler’s paper, given in case my counts differ from his. The suicide rates for counties with no plants were taken from the CDC. Semora is an unincorporated town located partly in Caswell county and partly in Person county, which I assigned to Person so that it had 3 plants as indicated by Spangler.

Counties with one plant.
County (City) Rank Suicide rate
Haywood (Canton) #11 18.2
Rowan (Salisbury) #24 15.9
Brunswick (Southport) #38 14.2
Catawba (Terrell) #40 14.0
Rockingham (Eden) #39 14.0
New Hanover (Willmington) #45 13.1
Cleveland (Mooresboro) #47 13.0
Buncombe (Arden) #48 12.9
Wayne (Goldsboro) #51 12.8
Edgecombe (Battleboro) #52 12.3
Lenoir (Kinston) #58 11.5
Forsyth (Belews Creek) #64 11.1
Orange (Chapel Hill) #67 10.7
Chatham (Moncure) #77 9.8
Bladen (Elizabethtown) #82 9.0
Washington (Plymouth) #96 7.7
Counties with two plants.
County (Cities) Rank Suicide rate
Gaston (Mount Holly, Belmont) #30 15.3
Halifax (Weldon, Roanoke Rapids) #61 11.3
Robeson (Lumberton x 2) #66 11.0
County with three plants.
County (Cities) Rank Suicide rate
Person (Roxboro x 2, Semora) #69 10.6

The remaining 80 counties had suicide rates from 26.0 to 4.4.


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Angelina Jolie’s Decisions Shouldn’t Necessarily Be Yours

Celebrities don’t always know what is best for YOU

Men ordinarily don’t like writing about women’s breasts, but I had so many emails asking me why Angelina Jolie decided to part with hers that I felt we had better take a look.

Where better to start than with her own words? In the New York Times (D—though they are so far in cahoots with that party we could easily write ‘DD’) in a piece called “My Medical Choice“, after informing us that her mother died from cancer, she said:

[T]he truth is I carry a “faulty” gene, BRCA1, which sharply increases my risk of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer.

My doctors estimated that I had an 87 percent risk of breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer, although the risk is different in the case of each woman.

Only a fraction of breast cancers result from an inherited gene mutation. Those with a defect in BRCA1 have a 65 percent risk of getting it, on average.

Once I knew that this was my reality, I decided to be proactive and to minimize the risk as much I could. I made a decision to have a preventive double mastectomy. I started with the breasts, as my risk of breast cancer is higher than my risk of ovarian cancer, and the surgery is more complex.

If a woman has this variant of the BRCA gene, observations suggest she has a higher risk of breast or ovarian cancer than woman who do not. Jolie informs us that this risk is 65%. But then she tells us that her risk is 87%. Not 86% or 88%, but 87%, a number which is suspiciously precise.

Jolie’s medical history (“her reality”) is different than the “average” woman’s, and generally those with cancer in the family line also have higher risk. And she may possess other traits which led her doctor to tell her she had an “87% chance” of breast cancer. This number is scarcely believable in its precision and hints some mathematical model was employed. Stating numbers with unfounded exactness leads to over-confidence, and that makes for weaker decisions.

These numbers are also lifetime risk; that is, the chance of developing these cancers by the time a lady dies. They are not, for instance, the chance the woman will develop cancer (say) next year: that chance would be much lower.

Lifetime risks are very tricky to interpret (and vary by disease). The day-by-day, or year-by-year, risk is not constant, but increases through time, gradually at first and then more rapidly later. Think of the difference in risk (still assuming the female with this variant of the BRCA) between a 13-year-old and a 70-year-old; obviously, the latter has much higher risk. Jolie is 38, an age which is not considered to be especially dangerous (for “average” women).

Everybody dies. Therefore, Jolie will die of something. Might be cancer, might be a worn-out heart, or by apoplexy brought on by reading the NYT. Jolie will not now die from breast cancer (almost certainly), though she might exit via ovarian cancer—or maybe by some other cancer (colon, skin, pancreatic, etc.). Her liver might fail or she may stroke out. Anyway, she will die, though she may (only may) live longer and then dye from something else. All she has done, then, was to remove one of these many, many choices of death.

And then even if she developed breast cancer, it was not certain she would have died from it. Breast cancer is in many cases curable; sometimes by mastectomy. In other words, she could have sweat it out and then gone to the docs when and if she ever developed symptoms. She could have kept her attributes for a longer time, or even until death. But the cancer, assuming she got it, also could have killed her (instead of something else).

Point is: the decision to undergo this most painful and prolonged sequence of procedures is not as simple as noticing you have this variant of BRCA and traipsing down to the two-holed guillotine. The surgery itself has risks: doctors make mistakes, infections sneak in, though rarely. A young woman’s looks—a thing of utmost importance to women—have been forever lessened, though the replacement fakes are looking better all the time. Gone too is the possibility of breast feeding. This is not, and should not be, an easy choice.

It was an easy forecast to say that the legion of women who follow the lives of celebrities, after hearing the news yesterday, would mount their horses and ride immediately to their doctors and ask whether they should have their breasts removed, too. Jolie’s very public announcement was the hyper-equivalent of the pharmaceutical ad which ends “Ask your doctor is sassaffrassium is right for you.” It always is, particularly if the doctor does not enjoy being harangued.

The New York Post (R) reported:

City oncologists yesterday were flooded with calls about genetic screening and the kind of preventative double mastectomy Angelina Jolie revealed she underwent after testing positive for a gene mutation that indicates a likelihood of breast and ovarian cancer.

“This morning, I got two phone calls from women who had tested positive for the BRCA mutation in the past but had not decided to go forward with the surgery yet,” said Dr. Deborah Axelrod, 55, a top breast-cancer expert at NYU’s Langone Medical Center

“They said they wanted to now because they had read the Angelina Jolie article,” said Axelrod…

Ladies, before you head to the hospital, recall the existence of false positives. These are instances where a goof has been made or when a test is not precise. The screening for the BRCA1 variant is imperfect, and so too are screenings for breast cancer itself. You could be told you have the BRCA1 when you do not, and that you have breast cancer when you do not. See this Decision Calculator for more details. (Incidentally, only about 5-10% of breast cancers have this variant; slightly higher in women with ovarian cancer).

Too often, the possibility that “I might die from breast cancer” overwhelms all other knowledge, particularly is all that is talked about is the surgery and the good that can come from it. But there is a chance bad can come from surgery, most egregiously in cases where nothing was really wrong. And there is also good that can come from doing nothing save having frequent checkups. Do not rush to judgment.

We only hit the highlights here; many details were ignored because of space. For example, we didn’t get to cover Jolie’s “holistic doctors”, a term which is might be overheard on Duck Dynasty. More another time.



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On Arguing

The traditional way of settling disputes between spouses is now frowned upon.

The traditional way of settling disputes between spouses is now frowned upon.

We often have a series of exchanges with friends or others, seeking to convince them of some proposition which we believe is true, and which may even be true. But these friends think the proposition false, and which may even be false.

To say a proposition is false is to say its negation is true, so that another way to state this dilemma is that both sides believe they are arguing for the sake of truth.

One of two things can happen. The first, one side capitulates and comes to believe what he thought was true is indeed false, a happy ending. The second, and far more common situation, is that an impasse is reached. This is the truest test of personality.

I once had an argument with a full-grown, well educated, degree-holding woman about the numerical result of dividing any real number by one. I stated that the result is always the original number. She agreed, except in the case of 1 divided by 1, the result of which, she vehemently insisted, was 0. Why? Well, “You divide one into one and you have nothing left.” And nothing is zero.

No mathematical trick, example, demonstration, or appeal could shake this woman’s conviction. She patiently listened, at first anyway, to whatever I had to say, but always returned to the certain sure “fact” that if you divide one into one you have nothing left. She eventually gave up on me, dismissing my bizarre opinion as the result of an eccentric mind addled by overexposure to arcane books.

We parted on friendly terms. We had contact a few times afterwards where it became clear she was not going to write any op-eds about my recalcitrance, nor was she going to organize any protest, nor indeed was she going to plead for the government to restrain my speech so that I might not spread my error to the young. She decided to let me be, doubtless reasoning to herself that not everybody can know everything, that some inaccuracy is inevitable.

Some disagreements must necessarily lead to a parting of the ways. Murderer Kermit Gosnell and his counsel disagreed with the State of Pennsylvania over several propositions, and still disagree. Now the State will use force, not to impel Gosnell to believe what he does not, but to restrain and punish him for his actions. The distinction is important. Gosnell is not facing grief because of his belief, but his behavior.

Convincing adults that what they believe is false is always hard labor and often impossible. Many people, particularly those in positions of power, cannot abide dissension, so they use their power to squelch opposition. They create speech codes, restrict the press, implement “fairness” doctrines, or mute opponents physically. This happens on a smaller scale in homes or offices run by bullies.

It’s not the action of others which grates, but it’s that they won’t see reason. Why can’t he just understand! What is wrong with him! Some people are tenacious and will not let a point drop until his opponent lies about agreeing, or his opponent runs away to avoid harassment. Others are so passionate that they will not countenance the company of those with fail to march in step with them. Friendships are ruined over political disagreements neither party has much chance of influencing.

These days it seems the civilized standby “Let’s agree to disagree” is used less frequently, replaced by estrangements. The absence of the polite “out” is a predictor of tumultuous times. Camps are being drawn, sides taken. These things happen.

And now it strikes me that there is one more possibility than the two sides ultimately agreeing or disagreeing. Many years ago, I had to break up a bedtime fight between my two sons because one claimed, “Davy Crockett is too King of the wild frontier!” while the second took the opposite position. A détente was reached when I convinced them that if they didn’t shut up and go to sleep it wouldn’t matter what Davy Crockett was. Thus a proposition can be seen as uninteresting, too.



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