William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

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The Epidemiologist Fallacy Strikes Again. EPA, CARB, And Air Pollution

We’re regulating you for your own good (not ours)

Here is an email I received from Jim Enstrom of the Scientific Integrity Institute (modified to embed the links; incidentally, CARB is the California Air Resources Board, a source of direction and envy for the EPA. CARB has never met a regulation it didn’t like—or couldn’t find “scientific” justification for):

IMPORTANT REQUEST: Recently posted is the June 27, 2013 AJRCCM Online Article in Press on “Spatial Analysis of Air Pollution and Mortality in California” by Jerrett, et al. [Journal link]. This paper deliberately misrepresents the complete findings in the 2011 Jerrett Report, which are discussed in your October 30, 2011 Blog “A Case of Failed Peer Review: Dust and Death”. The results in the paper are particularly misrepresented for all cause mortality and the paper makes NO reference to the Jerrett Report itself. You MUST write another Blog about the dishonesty of the forthcoming Jerrett paper, which is the only document that will be cited by EPA and CARB in the future. Please call me if you want to discuss specific details.

Thanks very much for your help.

Jerrett and his fellow authors published an immense work (under CARB contract) which suffered fatally from the epidemiologist fallacy. This is when an epidemiologist says, “X causes Y” but who never—not once—measures X. He instead measures what he believes, but rarely tries proving, is a proxy to X.

And in those singular instances he does quantify the relationship of the proxy, he never carries the uncertainty of the this relationship through to his understanding of X causing Y.

Result? Rampant over-certainty, unnecessary action, strangling useless regulation. Maybe even panic in the streets. O statistics what have thy wrought!

Here’s a cute example, the title of which is explanation enough: Higher concentrations of convenience stores in the vicinity of middle schools could increase the risk of teenage students abusing alcohol, according to a National Taiwan University (NTU) study.

Jerrett et alia said that small particles in the atmosphere—no! ozone—no! nitrogen dioxide—caused early deaths. X caused Y. Problem is, they never measured, not even once, the actual exposure of any individual to dust, O3, or NO2. X went missing.

In essence, they looked back into public records and found addresses of people who may or may not still live in California and discovered how far these people lived from a highway. The (statistical) distance from the highway was said to equal the amount of exposure to pollutants. That’s the proxy. Deaths and other maladies they got from (error prone) hospital records and the like.

Most of the study was a bust, in that the proxies were not correlated with the many maladies (including death) the authors tracked. But through a bravura performance, they eventually found one model which when squeezed sufficiently produced a p-value less than the magic number.

Ladies and gentleman, all it takes for scientific success and glory is to be born with a wee p-value. I mean, born with the ability to find them.

There are three relevant posts about the Jerrett report:

  1. Criticism of Jerrett et al. CARB PM2.5 And Mortality Report. This is long and technical, but all the hard core criticisms are here. The (pro bono) paper I wrote with these criticisms (attached) was submitted to CARB for formal review.
  2. A Case Of Failed Peer Review: Dust And Death. The paper I wrote was actually reviewed at a formal CARB meeting! I was pleased. Especially when they concluded (roughly), “Since the errors made by Jerrett are made by the many researchers CARB relies upon, we’ll accept Jerrett’s findings.”
  3. CARB Misinterprets Statistics, Calls For Elimination Of Dust. CARB went ahead and told the public that it knew what it was doing.

Well, one only has so much patience. I glanced through Jerrett’s new paper and see it is much like the old. My heart at that point gave out. I’ll leave it for readers to apply the criticisms I made of the original to this pale imitation.


What’s Happening Between Russia And The Church?

One fish running hot, straight, and normal

One fish running hot, straight, and normal

No, really. I’m asking. I don’t know but would like to. Something’s brewing, or perhaps has already brewed. Consider these points:

Item Patriarch Kirill “warned Western governments on Sunday against legalization of same-sex marriages what he called a sign of approaching end of the world…recent initiatives in a range of countries to legalize same-sex marriages ‘is a dangerous and apocalyptic symptom’ that should not spread over to Russia”. Source.

Item World leaders should unite to end anti-Christian persecution, Vladimir Putin says. “Putin praised the growth of cooperation between the Orthodox Churches and the Russian state, saying, ‘We act as genuine partners and colleagues to solve the most pressing domestic and international tasks, to implement joint initiatives for the benefit of our country and people.'”

“He added that it was the Church that was ultimately responsible for the development and rise of ‘culture and education’ in Russia over the last 1,000 years. ‘The adoption of Christianity became a turning point in the fate of our fatherland, made it an inseparable part of the Christian civilization and helped it turn into one of the largest world powers,’.”

Item Putin signs ‘gay propaganda’ ban and law criminalizing insult of religious feelings “Putin has signed two controversial laws strengthening the penalties for ‘propagating homosexuality among minors’ and for insulting people’s religious feelings in public….[and] has signed the so-called ‘gay propaganda’ bill after the upper house, the Federation Council, approved it on June 26 and the lower house, the State Duma, on June 11.”

Item Top Russian gay activist may face lawsuit for ‘obscene’ tweets to MPs. “Thirty-four-year-old Alekseyev is one of the best-known leaders of the Russian LGBT community. He runs the gayrussia.ru web portal and represents Russia in the InterPride association, which specializes in gay pride events.” Could face fine “up to 40,000 rubles (US$1,200) or up to one year of community service.”

Item Duma approves criminalization of insulting religious feelings. “The current bill is promoted by a large part of the Russian political establishment and strongly backed by the Russian Orthodox Church whose leader has publicly accused some unnamed forces of staging attacks on faith and religion in the country.”

Item 1,025 years of Christianity: Ukraine hosts Orthodox celebrations while questioning its future. “‘This day marks the unity of our peoples,’ Russian President Vladimir Putin told Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich.”

Item In Putin’s Russia, little separation between church and state. “The Russian Orthodox Church is enjoying its newfound prestige with the Russian government.”

There are dozens more like these. Most curious is Russia bucking Western culture’s trend toward government-enforced re-definitions of marriage. All enlightened peoples, save those in Russia, are submitting, many of them eagerly. (But we rarely hear about Africa and so on.)

Incidentally number one: did you see there’s two famous guys in England who are suing to force churches to perform same-sex gmarriage ceremonies? England also has close legal ties to its church. Smart money is on these guys winning.

Incidentally number two: I’ve had people here in the USA tell me, confidentially, in whispered tones, that they’re not with the program. But they don’t want the grief which comes from airing contrary opinions. They figure it’s better to ignore the whole thing.

Naturally, our press is against Russia, but only up to a point. (Journalists are nothing if not easily intimidated.) Seems to a far-off observer like myself that Putin’s manly theology is genuine. But it’s granted it might be a political ploy. Or it could be both.

But if it’s genuine on the party of its citizens, why? Why the big and growing difference? Is it just the effects of the leadership and people are used to keeping quiet in the ex-soviet paradise? Or are people genuinely reflective about these matters? I’m curious.



Rise In Violence Linked To Poor Statistics. Or Climate Change

I particularly admire the sciencey shading.

I particularly admire the sciencey shading.

Welcome Der Spiegel readers. See also this post.

The computer revolution has been as bloody, wrenching, and disruptive as any other conflict. But unlike in territorial wars where there are actual body counts, the wounds caused by the proliferation of easy and cheap computing are chiefly psychic. (The most common injury is morbid over-certainty.)

Problem with computers is that they are irredeemably stupid. The computer doesn’t know anything: it can only do what it is told. And if it is told to take this set of numbers and that set of numbers and to mix them in a certain way, it will do it, creating pretty pictures of the result. And as computers get better, it can do these blind operations faster and produce prettier pictures.

That’s where the trouble starts. People start believing in the pictures because they’re so pretty and quantitative. The result is—and I’m sorry for this joke—not a pretty picture.

It is here Yours Truly must accept some of the blame. I and my brother (and sister!) statisticians gleefully create these algorithms the computers chew upon. We do this for fun, for the sheer sake of climbing the mountain because it is there. This wouldn’t be so bad except that we release these algorithms into the wild, where we naively hope they will do no harm.

Forgive us! Because instead they have wreaked havoc on the minds of men (and women!).

Perhaps no clearer example of the devastation can be had than by the Science paper “Quantifying the Influence of Climate on Human Conflict” by Solomon Hsiang, Marshall Burke, and Edward Miguel, all of whom appear to be economists, the Lord bless them. Here is their abstract (those who are squeamish are advised to look away):

…Drawing from archaeology, criminology, economics, geography, history, political science, and psychology, we assemble and analyze the 60 most rigorous quantitative studies…We find strong causal evidence linking climatic events to human conflict across a range of spatial and temporal scales and across all major regions of the world. The magnitude of climate’s influence is substantial: for each 1 standard deviation (1σ) change in climate toward warmer temperatures or more extreme rainfall, median estimates indicate that the frequency of interpersonal violence rises 4% and the frequency of intergroup conflict rises 14%. Because locations throughout the inhabited world are expected to warm 2 to 4σ by 2050, amplified rates of human conflict could represent a large and critical impact of anthropogenic climate change.

Well, you can see it for yourself. Poor men. It’s almost as if they believed what they were writing!

They mixed data from sources as disparate as the MSNBC and Fox News, they compared apples to roller blading, they contrasted black with semiotics. Data from last Tuesday was said to be equal in veracity to that culled from 8000 BC. They dumped into a computer a bunch of numbers lots of people found from all over the place, measuring God knows what, and produced lots of sharp graphics and one big quantitative result that hot, rainy weather is bad for you.

Which is exactly why everybody is moving from Michigan to South Carolina (at least 2σ difference in mean temperature): to get to where the action is and join a gang.

The authors mixed violent personal crime in the USA in one model, with inter-group riots in India in a second model, with redistributive inter-group conflict in Brazil in a third, to global civil conflict onset in a fourth, to civil war incidence in Africa in number five, to rape in the USA in number six, to political leader exit (oh! the violence!) worldwide in seven, to domestic violence in Australia in eight, and then added these to models nine, ten, etc., etc., etc. Sixty—60—in total!

Sometimes temperature at the local level was the “independent” variable, or causative agent, and sometimes it was “jurisdictional” temperature. Still other instances: daily max county (not city) temps, stadium temps (yes: football areas), state rainfall losses, pixel (yes, pixel) temps, municipality rainfall by divisions, pixel standardized precipitation loss, and, naturally, pacific ocean temperature. Oh, and ENSO and the North Atlantic Oscillation, and floods and storm numbers, and (who could leave this out?) the Nile river overflowing.

Whatever weather or climate variable “worked” was the one they used to predict whatever kind of “violence” could be quantified. The whole thing was then duct-taped together and lathered with colorful Bondo to conceal the gaping holes in commonsense. But at least they produced wee p-values (def: less than the magic number, which is what makes it science).

The most charitable way to describe the result is complete and utter nonsense. I do not want to exaggerate, but this paper is not even a mess. My God! the work, the hours the authors must have toiled. The supplementary material alone is thirty-eight pages!

At least journalists, the dears, believed them.


We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, Researchers

Blockbuster science headline of last week was “Neuroscientists plant false memories in the brain.” The whetted some intellects—if intellects can be whetted—and caused others to tizzy. Philip Dick turned out right yet again!

But whatever happened at MIT, the place which put memories into rats, an event which caused the headline, “implanting” false memories isn’t novel. The non-male to whom I am oriented constantly—but gently, oh so gently—reminds me of my false memories. How these got into my data bank is difficult to say, yet somehow sensible recollections of events which never happened are sluicing between my ears, and every time I attempt to vocalize one of them an audible alarm sounds from across the room.

Remember the “Satanic Panic” of the 1990s? And the hundreds of “therapists” who convinced equal numbers of women that they had been “abused” around that same time? Elizabeth Loftus did a terrific job showing that it is trivial to create traumatic “memories”.

Now a memory, if it is stored in the brain, is stored there somehow biochemically, adjusted neurons or whatever. A memory may be distinctive, a single localization, a cluster of neurons if you will, or it may be diffuse, spread out across the brain. It may be both for all we know. Lots of conjectures on which view is right.

A memory may go in faulty, but that’s more of an error than a false memory. For instance, you may think you’re on Elm street when it’s really Maple. Chalk up another false memory. Once a memory is in place it is liable to change or corruption. Events aren’t stored cinematically, only gists: and how this is done is also subject to debate. Untoward things can happen to the brain, like infections or trauma.

And then the path to a memory isn’t the same as the memory. Names for me are difficult to access. Often I can look at a face and tell you all about the man: his age, birthplace, job, habits, and so forth. Just don’t ask me his name. Or I can use a theorem, famous, everyday, commonplace; I can even prove it to you. Just don’t ask me to tell you what its called. I will “rack” my brain trying to come up with names or labels. They usually come, showing the memories are there, but it takes time, showing that getting to them is a different process.

One thing is sure. Brow beat somebody long enough, or plead with them to “remember” “event” by suggestive clues and they’ll eventually “recall” what didn’t happen.

The MIT “implantation” wasn’t the same thing and isn’t really a false memory at all. What happened was this. Researchers put some mice into a chamber (A) and let them roam at will. This “implanted” memories, just as you implant memories by walking down Elm (or Maple?) street. Next day they put the mice into chamber B and, at a specific spot in the chamber, they zapped them: zzzzzt!

Same time as the almost-electrocution came a light pulse which was said to “trigger” the memory of being in Chamber A (never mind how). Okay so far?

Third days sees the mice back in chamber A “where they now froze in fear”. Now you might think that this is just a case of mice becoming skittish and worn after being over-manipulated and nearly fried. But no, say researchers. Or, actually, “amygdala” said researchers, the go-to explanation of all things neural (something about “elevated” levels of this or that). The amygdala assured them that false memories of zapping in chamber A were implanted.

But it seems to me a commenter who calls himself “rplevy” was closer to the mark with his simpler explanation:

They didn’t plant false memories, they triggered an existing traumatic memory, and in so doing created a new *true* memory of reliving a traumatic experience in a novel environment. So then when re-entering the space where the traumatic memory was triggered, the mouse had a second-order trigger due to the trauma of being triggered there.

Steve Ramirez was part of the team and he said, “Now that we can reactivate and change the contents of memories in the brain, we can begin asking questions that were once the realm of philosophy.” That memories could be activated (who will be the first to quote Proust?) or changed was never in dispute, and science is of very little help in answering questions of philosophy. So don’t plan on opening your Total Recall franchise just yet.

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