William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

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Mandatory National Standards For Salt Content Coming To A Government Near You

What’s better: (A) voluntarily reducing your salt intake, or (B) having the government mandate that you do so? Naturally, if you don’t opt for A, you get B, which we can call the Bloomberg option.

Why reduce salt? Well, there’s a chance—a small one, but non-zero—of exacerbating your high blood pressure, assuming you have that condition, and because of the possibility of exacerbation, you might live a slightly shorter life. Sure, this possibly shorter life you lead will be full of flavor, and the time you spend here will be more savory, but no citizen should choose quality over quantity when it comes to life. Right?

Linda Cobiac spends her days fretting about the amount of salt Australians ingest. She is so worried that she wrote the peer-reviewed paper “Cost-effectiveness of interventions to reduce dietary salt intake” in the eminent journal Heart. She and her co-authors conclude that “maybe there is an ethical justification for government to step in and legislate” the amount of salt citizens can buy in their food.

How did they come to this—nowadays, non-remarkable—conclusion? Why, with a computer model. Specifically:

We consider strategies ranging from those that aim to change individual dietary behaviour, to the current programme of incentives for voluntary changes by food manufacturers, to a more paternalistic approach with government legislation of more moderate salt levels in processed foods.

Shouldn’t that have read, in our more sensitive age, maternalistic approach? But never mind.

They began with a bag of assumptions, such as that as more salt is eaten, less life is lived. They then plugged more salt eaten into their model and were able to show that as more salt is eaten, less life is lived. They also assumed that government mandates to reduce salt will reduce salt most effectively; and they found, after modeling, government mandates reduce salt most effectively. This style of modeling will sound familiar to climatologists.

To quantify less life, they used the scientific-sounding DALY, which is to say disability-adjusted life years, a measure concocted and beloved by bureaucrats. I can think of no scale more easily abused, or more easy to abuse, than this curious number created in the laboratories of the World Health Organization.

DALY is bad; that is, high DALYs are worse than low ones. DALY is a sum of the years of life lost due to a person having an affliction and the number of years the person has lived with the malady.

This means that a 30-year old with chronic bursitis who dies at 80 has a DALY of 50, assuming that the man would have lived as long had he not had the bursitis. Another way to have a DALY of 50 is stroking out at 30. Of course, this also assumes that the man with the stroke would have certainly lived to 80—and not 81 or 79 etc.—had he not had the stroke.

When I used the word assumes in the above paragraph, I mean it in the same technical sense as our authors meant: that is, as a wild-ass, non-verifiable guess. Population DALYs are often used as replacements for individual DALYs, in the charming hope that averaging across many will reduce errors in the assumptions.

Who gets to decide what afflictions count toward the DALY? Bureaucrats. They always start with scary maladies like cancer, but they soon start tacking on less frightening illnesses like hypertension or post traumatic stress syndrome.

The consequence is that if you add on every little departure from “ideal” health, then soon a population’s average DALY will tend toward some fixed number because everybody has to die of something and everybody gets sick. Then, every time a government introduces a new program to decrease population DALY, they will fail, because DALY cannot go down. Which means more funds will be needed perpetually in the “war against high DALYs”. It becomes just like the “war against poverty” some politicians wage when they bellyache that half of all people earn less than the median income.

The real magic comes when DALY is married to money. All you have to do is to say each DALY is worth $X. Thus you can, like our authors did, say reducing salt not only saves lives, but it also saves money, which is more important. And certainly more tangible. Proposing laws to reduce spending are more palatable than laws proscribing salt.

This isn’t just Australia, friends. The authors say:

In an important step, the US Institute of Medicine, in their recent report on strategies to reduce sodium intake in the USA, recommended that voluntary strategies be considered only as an interim measure, with a primary recommendation to set mandatory national standards for salt content in both processed foods and foods prepared outside the home.

The key word is mandatory.

(And people thought this article was a joke.)


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Happy Anniversary: Clip Show

It’s been one year to the day when I decided to offer a daily column. Below are the ones that did not turn out too badly.

Funny Fun

Wolf Blitzer interviews Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill

MacAskill Take al-Megrahi, who was clearly suffering. Prostate cancer! The evils of which are all too common. Progressive jurists like myself know—it is a basic human understanding, actually—that prison is not a place of suffering, and suffer al-Megrahi would have done had we forced—coerced might be a better word—him to remain in prison.

Blitzer But what do you say to the families of the victims of al-Megrahi’s man-caused disaster?

The Life of Noble Savages (New and Improved title!)

Women ruled over this peaceful, complaisant Earth. Not actually “ruled”, you understand, because ruling implies hierarchy and hegemony, and these are bad: instead, these women guided, by entirely intuitive ways of knowing (evidence was unwelcome); guides which were, we can only guess, accomplished by issuing a vast streams of non-confrontational edicts and reminders, which were not to be confused with nagging.

The Mathematics of Boneless Pork Rectums

That makes about 25,000 rectums per container. Using the universal principle “one pig, one rectum”, this makes it 25,000 pigs slaughtered per container. Of course, packaging adds bulk, so that the actual number of rectums that can be transported per container must be less. A figure of 20% to 30% increase per rectum seems reasonable. That is, each dry rectum, considering the plastic, dry ice, cardboard, etc., is like 1.2 to 1.3 packaged rectum.

Socialist Math Textbook Exercises

Grand socialist (of both the national and international varieties) schemes were directly responsible for the deaths of at least 150 million, over roughly a 100-year period. If the average height (including babies and the tall) is 66 inches, and you stacked those bodies end-to-end, you could reach about 156,250 miles. Now, the moon is about 240,000 miles away. Assuming the same kill rate, how many more years of grand socialist rule would we need to (A) reach the moon, and (B) return safely to Earth?

Put Down That Salt!

The Sergeant’s hand moved to his hip, but he didn’t draw his weapon. His perp was a foreigner and he wasn’t sure any violence would look good on his record. He said, “Everybody knows that salt leads to high blood pressure.”

Liberal Fascism by Jonah Goldberg, Part I, Part II, Part III

In 1793, influenced by the writings of weeping pussy-willow philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, and a year after they joyfully stuffed their king in a hole, French intellectuals created the Committee for Public Safety, in which it was decided that the safest thing to do was to lop off as many heads as possible.

Funny Climatology

Use of Deadly Force Authorized Against Renegade Sea Lions

Last year, 11 sea lions were shot and killed when they refused to stop eating salmon. So far this year, there has only been one deadly confrontation, when the sea lion “Whiskers Malone” was shot multiple times after showing his hind flipper to police.

I’m Sick of All These Climate Skeptic Deniers

And every time we look, it’s better than we thought! Yet the simple facts we preach won’t sink into the skulls of deniers. Our words just bounce off their ears and fall to ground where they are gleefully trampled.

Guest Post by Paul “Population Bomb” Ehrlich: Fight the Climate Skeptic Conspiracy!

If you concentrate on those missed predictions to dismiss me, you will be making a terrific mistake. Because it’s not the predictions that count, it’s how important the theory behind them is! And no theory is more important than man-made—and woman-made—adverse climate change.

Live from Copenhagen, The Benny Hill Show!

It is chaos. Benny and Bald Guy attempt to negotiate a twisted path through the throng, but are stopped short by a group of people dressed as chickens. The people-poultry are arguing with a rival gang of activists on stilts, who want the disputed ground to put on an anti-global warming puppet show.

Global Warming Political Enemies List

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Nearly 500 Enemies of Science are marked with scarlet letters, and I only made number number 264. But before you start snickering, let me ask you this: is your name on the list? Well, is it, Mr Smarty Pants?

Berkeley Day of Action Planning Meeting (Student Riots)

“Capitalism is in its death throes! All these evils corporations—and all corporations are evil—all they can do is to take. This time we took from them!…That reminds me. I have pictures on my iPod of when Kevin organized the pizza throwing at the police. Marza has set up a Facebook page where everybody’s pictures are uploaded….”

For the technical posts, see my Statistics links page, or use the navigation guide or search box on the left.


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Eliminating Randomness Reduces Need For God And Increases Belief In Evolution

Caution! The experiment I’m about to explain might increase your belief in God. It should only be attempted by academics who are immune to such deleterious effects.

Got a pair of dice? Before you throw them, guess what numbers will show. Obviously, what will happen is random, you have no control over the dice, and chances are you will guess wrongly. This is bad news. Because when you experience the dice’s randomness, you now are more likely to believe in God. Even worse, you might even toss your copy of The Descent of Man into the bin!

The result of this experiment really do appear to follow from the work of Bastiaan Rutjens, Joop van der Pligt, Frenk van Harreveld who wrote the paper “Deus or Darwin: Randomness and belief in theories about the origin of life” in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

These eminences hope that, “belief in God and other supernatural agents can increase as a result of psychological threats such as existential uncertainty…and lack of control.” They “hypothesize that a threat to personal control (which poses a threat to perceiving the world as orderly and structured…) only increases belief in an external agent (i.e., God) when no notion of an orderly world is available.” [Citations are removed from all quotations.]

Even stronger:

[P]eople should be less in need of God when order in the world is affirmed, for example by offering an orderly perspective on evolution…[A] highly secular and scientific worldview …should be capable of protecting the person from the aversive experience of randomness, rendering belief in a controlling God superfluous.

See what I mean? If you had guessed what spots would show on your dice roll, your belief in a controlling God would be superfluous! But if you guessed wrongly and thus turn to God, you will find comfort because “Belief in God as a controlling agent thwarts notions of randomness in the universe and provides order.” No wonder gamblers pray.

To prove what they hoped would be true, Rutjens and his compatriots lassoed some undergraduates—the staple guinea pigs of academic psychologists—and asked them how religious they were. They then pestered them to recall “an unpleasant situation over which they had or lacked control” and to “provide three reasons supporting the notion that the future is (un-) controllable.”

Next, some kids were told about Intelligent Design (ID), others were whispered secrets about Darwinian Evolution (TE). ID has a controller, they said, and no randomness. TE was a mess, random from the get go. Our intelligent authors then designed an introduction to a third theory of evolution, one which is ordered and without randomness, but needing no controller (CMTE). And then just less than half the ID people heard of it, and just less than half the TE group heard of it. Finally, they asked the students to pretend they were biologists and to choose which theory (ID or TE; then ID or CMTE, or TE or CMTE) best explained all life as we know it.

Drum roll please, for the results are upon us. The kids who said they lacked control in their personally remembered “unpleasant situation” were more likely to believe in ID! These beset, twisting-in-the-wind kids were also more likely to choose CMTE over TE. It also appears (their graph displaying the results is sloppy—a mystery, since this article was peer reviewed) that ID just edged out CMTE.

Follow all that? Here are their conclusions:

[I]n the current study, affirming order provides in the same need as affirming belief in a supernatural agent, and consequentially nullifies increases in belief in such an agent.

And:

[F]raming Darwin’s Theory of Evolution as depicting an orderly and predictable process [CMTE] reduced the need to bolster belief in a supernatural agent. In other words, increases in religious belief under threat are nullified when other (even science-based) options to restore order are present. To conclude, because of its emphasis on random processes the theory of evolution in its original form will in all probability continue to spark controversy around the world, especially in uncertain times.

I don’t need to tell you, my loyal readers, that once you believe in evolution (and I do), all of life’s blessings are yours, so that naturally we must convince all living beings of its monumental importance and, once convinced, the world will be as one.

But perhaps you were not aware that the best way we can free people from belief in supernatural agents is to present the world’s operations as proceeding from a comforting, orderly process. Of course, this might only be so for Dutch undergraduates who were able to remember “unpleasant situations” over which they felt they had lack of control.


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Too Many Kids Go To College: A Fourth Conversation With Myself

Links to the first, second, and third conversation with myself about teaching.

William Glum again, eh? What happened this time?

Matt In my Algebra Sans Algebra class, I asked a student to go to the board and work out whether the times series (0.7, 0.7, 0.7, 0.7, 0.7, …) was an example of linear growth, exponential, or both.

William Time series—

Matt —Don’t even try and tell me it’s difficult. We have been covering this material for two weeks. It should only have taken a day, but I spent two solid weeks going over and over and over the same things.

William You taught the equation of a straight line and an exponential line for two weeks?

Matt You know that I did. This student could not get started. I even sketched the axes of a graph on the board. All she had to do was to plot those numbers.

William Some people are shy when they’re in front of a class.

Matt Shyness wasn’t this student’s problem. I asked the whole class, “Help her out. What should she do?” There were various suggestions, most of them wrong.

William Aha! You said “most.” That means that some students knew the answer!

Matt I sometimes worry about you. The title of this series is “Too many kids go to college” notAll kids should not go to college.” What bothered me was that a majority of the class was clueless. That makes it hard to thrill to the few who understood.

William What happened?

Matt I finally had to tell her, “Just draw a horizontal line anywhere on the graph. Any horizontal line.” Can you guess what she said?

William I won’t play that game anymore.

Matt Exactly. She had no idea what a horizontal line was. And don’t claim “Nervousness!” or something equally idiotic. She told me, “I don’t understand.” I started qi-gonging the air, waving my hand in a straight line. “Just draw a flat line across the graph!”

William So she eventually got it.

Matt Yes, I suppose she eventually did manage to scrawl something that resembled a line.

William All’s well etc.

Matt But it didn’t end well. The graph, don’t forget, was not the answer to the question I had asked.

William This was just one student, you know. Nobody ever claimed that all students can understand math.

Matt It wasn’t just one student, it was many. And lots of people make that claim. Not to be abrupt, but did you hear the story of Victoria Ying, a CUNY professor teaching second-year Anatomy and Physiology class?

William Second year?

Matt According to the paper, “Ying, who began teaching full-time at City Tech in 2006, realized something wasn’t right one day in her second semester after she gave a lecture on arteries and veins. ‘A student came up to me and asked: “What is an artery?”‘ recalled Ying, 31.”

William This is the second year anatomy class?

Matt Then the poor lady had her wallet stolen, called the cops, who came, but informed her that the thieves were under-aged. She reported these events to her higher ups, which is when her troubles really began.

William How so?

Matt The school accused her of having a “sexual relationship” with a student. She says it’s a lie meant to shut her up.

William Is it?

Matt Who knows? But that artery story smells fresh to me.

William Hmm.

Matt And then there’s Richard Quinn down in Central Florida. Some senior “business” students got hold of Quinn’s exam and shared it out with the class. Many took it and cheated.

William What happened?

Matt He said he received some “tip-offs from students that classmates had been bragging about cheating”, which won’t surprise you. The bragging, I mean. Quinn is making everybody take a re-test, and the school itself is going to kick out those who don’t confess.

William And lose valuable tuition dollars?

Matt What’s interesting in that video of Quinn reading the riot act to the kids, is that one student can be seen in the foreground playing on his laptop, studiously ignoring Quinn.

William Perhaps he was taking notes.

Matt Sure he was. But the big question, the one I want to ask students, is, Why cheat on something that you can master in minutes?

William Kids these days have a lot of social commitments.

Matt Maybe it’s better you don’t talk at all, if you’re going to say things like that. And there’s the student who has to miss my next exam because he has a court date, the necessary consequence of being arrested.

William Well…

Matt This school even made the national papers of late, telling of its reputation as a “drinking college.”

William Not good.

Matt The opposite is true: it’s a positive boon! Many kids choose to come here because of that reason. This reputation is so lucrative that the administrators ought to goose it and do a deal with beer companies. Rowdy drinkers could be portrayed wearing the college’s colors in commercials, for example. Just think of how enrollment would swell!


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