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September 15, 2009 | 7 Comments

“Hand me that ice pack, stat! He has global warming sickness!“, Or, The ED and the Coming Heat Wave

Warning: I don’t write the headlines of stories that link here.

First, I checked. Nobody uses “stat” in emergency rooms anymore. A chief told me that he couldn’t remember the last time he said it in a non-joking manner. And nobody claims that there is such a thing called “global warming sickness.” But doctors Jeremy Hess, Katherine Heilpern, and colleagues come close in their “Climate Change and Emergency Medicine: Impacts and Opportunities,” just published in Academic Emergency Medicine, a top journal.

We can understand that Hess and his pals are worried that a vengeful Global Warming is on its way (ever coming, not yet arrived), because the media and many journals are saturated with (not always sober) warnings. Global Warming thoughts and fears are in the air (forgive me), so its only natural that conscientious souls will publicly ponder “What does it mean to me?”

Let’s see what Hess et alia say will happen when global warming finally hits. Heat stroke, exacerbations of heat-sensitive illnesses like acute coronary syndrome. Injuries from all those extra hurricanes and storms. Intentional injury associated with violent crime! Gastroenteritis (stomachache). Urolithiasis (kidney stones from dehydration; and there’s nothing funny about that). More zoonotic disease, of course. Add to these, increased cases of asthma, COPD and other respiratory infections, various bacteriological nasties, allergies, renal colic, poison ivy, burns (from wildfires, natch), cocaine overdose, and, as ever, the Big D.

When I read this list, I thought I had stumbled upon a related passage of St. John’s:

And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the fourth beast say, Come and see. And I beheld, and lo a pale green horse; and he that sat on him was called Death, and Hades followed with him. And power was given to them over a fourth of the earth, and that they should kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.

Fourth Horseman of the Global Warming

There have been a lot of claims about the evils that are imminent (they’ll start soon, soon), but my favorite is “Intentional injury associated with violent crime.” Presumably, this refers to the increasing frequency of fistfights that will surely break out over arguments of who is greener, thee or thou. But, no. When it’s hot, blood really does boil, and with increasing temperature comes increasing anger, angst, and rage. Hess even supplies a vague and foreboding hint about those who take “certain antipsychotic medications.” Remember to tell your pals—you read it here first—global warming causes irksomeness! We have all heard of rampant brawling in warm and sunny Florida, so look out!1

The story of Katrina (the windstorm) is retold. This literary device is used wisely, and the reader is left to infer that it could happen again! But we still haven’t heard the worst of it. Now, if you’re as experienced as I am at reading these kinds of papers, you know a version of the old headline “World Ends: Women and Poor Hardest Hit” cannot fail to surface. And so it does here, because we learn that all these fell winds will affect the “socially and economically marginalized” more than any other group.2

With that out of the way, the paper really hits its stride and the full reason for the concern becomes clear to us: Emergency Departments will need more money and resources! Naturally, all those extra emergently sick people will need to be cared for, and lest they burden EDs excessively, actions must be taken now, mostly by applications of large amounts of money. Our authors sternly warn us that ED docs might lose their jobs as global warming maliciously fiddles with the GDP. Prepare now!

What can we do to help? Green Up! First recognize that emergency services are “fundamentally petroleum dependent” (all those ambulances and air conditioners). Second, “model carbon literacy.” Did you know that “physicians are major consumers of energy”? And that they are “well-suited to affect public attitude”? Well, now you do. The solution: let the doctors tell us how to fix everything.3

Sadly, in the entire paper, not a hint, not a glimmer, not even a whiff of a possibility of a rumor, is given that there might be a chance that increasing temperatures (which themselves are uncertain) could improve health conditions. Fewer cases of hypothermia (hyperthermia is plugged)? Fewer deadly cases of pneumonia (a leading ED killer)? Fewer flu cases? Fewer asthma cases (some asthma is exacerbated by flu, and there is often a spike in cases in winter, as well as summer)? Less stomachache caused by the increased food supply (in turn caused by extra CO2 and longer growing seasons)? It’s easy to go on and on and on.

But our authors did not make the attempt. Which makes you suspect that their paper is a polemic and not research. The AEM editors thought so, too. They took the extraordinary step of including a two-page explanation of why the Hess paper was allowed. And in it, uniquely, they cite—twice!—global warming skeptics. They consider that all might not be as bad as some claim. They also openly say that, even if global warming occurs as predicted, “the changes discussed in most forums will likely be gradual enough to allow us to adapt and overcome—which, after all, is what emergency physicians do best.”

You can’t say fairer than that.


1Recognition of this perhaps explains why Monsieur Sarkozy wants to count happiness as part of France’s GDP.

2Since you know this is coming, you feel a growing tenseness until the relevant passage appears—are they going to forget?—then relief sets in and you can enjoy the remainder of the paper.

3Let me say something nice about Hess, and acknowledge that their Figure 2, showing the theoretical changes to distributions of continuous measures for shifts in mean, variance, and both is very well done. But then they spoil it by including a Figure 3, which purports to show a positive shift in ground-level ozone. The Figure is a forecast of what it might be like in the years 2031-2039. Yeesh.

September 14, 2009 | 10 Comments

The Conservatives by Patrick Allitt

The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities Throughout American History

by Patrick Allitt

Recommendation: check out from library for reference (buy here).

The Conservatives

What is a conservative? Allitt is not sure. This is odd because you’d think a man who wrote an entire book about conservatism would have provided an unambiguous definition. But Allitt is shy about this important matter, and, like Justice Stewart, is content to know it when he sees it. However, we cannot bypass this question—even though most readers will be satisfied that Allitt identifies all the usual conservative suspects—because when the alleged insult “You’re a conservative!” is hurled, we have to be know what it means.

It cannot be that a conservative is one who wishes to see the past in the present, who struggles to keep the old ways from fading, and who “think[s] of the past as rich and complex, and of the future as thin and vague.” For if this were true, then progressives—the natural enemies of conservatives—would not have railed against welfare reform under Clinton, because welfare had by that time long been the norm. Reform was new, and looking back to the glorious past, struggling to uphold the traditions of the New Deal, were progressives.

Couple this with the empirical observation that capitalism, like no other economical system, has changed (progressed?) the world in more ways and faster than any other. As it is usually conservatives who argue for less government control, and who are most suspicious of centralized we-know-more-about-what-is-good-for-you-than-you-do planning, it is progressives who must answer guilty to the charge of longing for stasis.

Then, for example, there is William Sumner and other post-Civil War leaders. It is “useful to think of them as conservatives…[who] denigrated tradition, marginalized religion, and showed more sympathy for low-born but self-made entrepreneurs than for established elites.” One service Allitt provides is—finally—an acknowledgement that intellectuals like Sumner and Supreme Court Justice Stephen Field—and many who followed after—were usually first in line to denounce plutocracy. Men like Andrew Carnegie (who certainly benefited amazingly from capitalism, but who argued and practiced forcefully noblesse oblige) never praised avarice. Their sympathy was for an educated, moral, and virtuous, but not necessarily moneyed, aristocracy, and was never for a rule by the wealthy (the followers of Ayn Rand notwithstanding).

The confusion about what a conservative is infuses the book. Every now and then Allitt comes out with something curious, like, “Think of the civil war as a conflict between two types of conservatism.” And then he says that it is better to see conservatism as “reactive and attitudinal than to regard it as a commitment to certain unchanging principles.” This won’t do. This leaves the definition floating and its interpretation ever changing. It lets its enemies ascribe its form. Anyone—left or right—who holds a political philosophy will find this position intolerable.

It is true that groups with varying core beliefs occasionally band together in an attempt to gain a majority: this, of course, is the political norm. But it’s not the core beliefs that are varying, it’s the groupings. Conservatives who favored small government welcomed into the tent the wave of disillusioned communist, big-government Trotskyites. (There were so many of these refuges that they gave themselves their own moniker, so they wouldn’t be confused with their classical brothers.) Then came the influx of Christian “evangelicals”, a small but not especially influential group that was made by their enemies to wear the conservative badge (and, as is human nature, they came to wear it proudly and loudly, eventually claiming the badge was their idea).

There is one thread that Allitt wove, but failed to recognize, that best describes the difference between conservatives and progressives, and that is their reaction to the world equality. Progressives say that they believe that all are equal, or can be, and that the lion will lie down with the lamb, if only X happens, where X can be, and has been, anything from voting for a particular ballot measure to, with Stalin et al., killing off as many who disagree with X as possible.

Conservatives say bosh, equality is an impossibility, and that Tocqueville was on to something when he said that equality might destroy liberty. They are apt to agree with Richard Weaver:

The comity of people is groups large or small rests not upon the chimerical notion of equality but upon fraternity, a concept which long antedates it in history because it goes immeasurably deeper in human sentiment. The ancient feeling of brotherhood carries obligations of which equality knows nothing…It places people in a network of sentiment, not rights…[F]raternity directs attention to others, equality to self, and the passion for equality is simultaneous with the growth of egotism.

The book could have used some editing: repetitions appear from time to time; in one place Allitt finds it necessary to tell us who Alexander was. Curiously, Allitt chose to ignore the influence of radio on the modern branches of conservatism. Books, newspapers, and periodicals have their place, even Fox News TV garners a mention, but Limbaugh, Hannity, Levin, and others are eschewed.

Remember: before you accuse somebody of being a conservative, make sure you know exactly what one is.

September 12, 2009 | 12 Comments

Complete Prediction of 2009 NFL Season

This is a continuation of the Lion’s example we did the other day. Every nicety you can think of has been ignored. I won’t even guarantee that I have copied the win/loss record correctly, as I did this by hand. The probabilities that at least one team wins or losses all games is printed below.

This table shows, for each team, the probability of winning 0 games, 1 game, …, 16 games. It has been sorted so that the team (the Patriots) with the highest probability of winning 16 is first, and the team (the Lions) with the lowest probability is shown last. All probabilities are rounded: probabilities less than 1% are shown as 0. The most likely number of games won is in bold.

Somebody remind me after the season to check how good these predictions were.

I used data from 2002 until 2008. In 2002, the NFL changed the league structure (they increased the number of divisions), so this felt like a natural point of demarcation. All data weighted equally. No account of the fact that teams are constrained to winning a certain number of games has been taken. For example, suppose there are only two teams in the entire league: it is then impossible that both can win (or lose) all their games. All ties (only one) have been counted as wins.

These are predictive distributions. The Lions truly stink.

Overall: the probability that at least one team wins 0 games is about 2%. The probability that at least one teams win 16 games is about 3%.

  0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16
Patriots 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 2 5 10 16 21 21 16 8 2
Colts 0 0 0 0 0 1 2 4 8 13 18 20 17 11 5 2 0
Titans 0 0 0 0 0 1 2 5 9 15 19 19 15 9 4 1 0
Steelers 0 0 0 0 0 1 2 6 10 15 19 19 14 9 4 1 0
Eagles 0 0 0 0 0 1 3 6 11 16 19 18 14 8 3 1 0
Giants 0 0 0 0 1 2 5 9 14 18 19 15 10 5 2 0 0
Chargers 0 0 0 0 1 2 5 10 15 18 18 15 9 5 2 0 0
Panthers 0 0 0 0 1 3 6 11 16 18 17 13 8 4 1 0 0
Packers 0 0 0 0 1 3 7 12 16 19 17 12 7 3 1 0 0
Broncos 0 0 0 0 1 3 7 12 16 19 17 12 7 3 1 0 0
Seahawks 0 0 0 0 1 4 8 13 17 18 16 12 7 3 1 0 0
Ravens 0 0 0 1 2 4 8 13 17 18 16 11 6 2 1 0 0
Bears 0 0 0 1 3 7 11 16 18 17 13 8 4 1 0 0 0
Buccaneers 0 0 0 1 3 7 11 16 18 17 13 8 4 1 0 0 0
Jaguars 0 0 0 1 3 7 12 17 18 17 12 7 3 1 0 0 0
Cowboys 0 0 0 1 4 8 13 17 18 16 11 7 3 1 0 0 0
Vikings 0 0 0 1 4 8 13 17 18 16 11 7 3 1 0 0 0
Falcons 0 0 0 2 4 9 14 18 18 15 11 6 3 1 0 0 0
Saints 0 0 1 2 5 9 14 18 18 15 10 5 2 1 0 0 0
Chiefs 0 0 1 2 5 9 14 18 18 15 10 5 2 1 0 0 0
Cardinals 0 0 1 2 5 10 15 18 18 14 9 5 2 1 0 0 0
Dolphins 0 0 1 3 7 12 16 18 17 13 8 4 1 0 0 0 0
Redskins 0 0 1 3 7 12 16 18 17 13 8 4 1 0 0 0 0
Jets 0 0 1 3 7 12 16 18 17 13 8 4 1 0 0 0 0
Bills 0 0 1 3 7 12 17 19 16 12 7 3 1 0 0 0 0
Bengals 0 0 1 3 7 12 17 19 16 12 7 3 1 0 0 0 0
Texans 0 0 1 3 7 12 17 19 16 12 7 3 1 0 0 0 0
Rams 0 0 1 3 7 12 17 19 16 12 7 3 1 0 0 0 0
49ers 0 1 3 7 13 17 19 17 12 7 3 1 0 0 0 0 0
Browns 0 1 4 9 14 19 19 15 10 6 2 1 0 0 0 0 0
Raiders 0 2 7 13 18 20 17 12 7 3 1 0 0 0 0 0 0
Lions 1 5 12 19 21 18 12 7 3 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
September 10, 2009 | 30 Comments

What is the probability the Detroit Lions lose every game (again!)

I am from Detroit and I am a Lions fan; erstwhile, anyway. The Lions stink, stank, and have stunk since before I was born. They are lousy, appalling, and nausea-inducing. They are no damn good. Rotten, too. Few can remember when last they won a game. My dad always jokes that in their first game of each new season, a fan in the stadium holds up a sign reading, “Wait ’til next year!”.

Because of their rank dismalness, they are, paradoxically, the most-loved football team, and the reason is simple. What opposing coach’s heart is not filled with glee when he gazes upon the schedule and sees that he is pitted against the Lions? Several lucky clubs get to play them more than once! Bears fans can’t wait for the Lions to come to town. Ecstasy!

The Lion’s soaring stinkitude is also a blessing to statisticians like myself, because their ridiculous record makes for a perfect illustration of probability.

Last year, the Lions won no games. More thoroughly, they won 0 and lost 16. But this was reason to cheer, because this feat was a record! No NFL team had ever been so bad before. Now, you cannot do worse than losing all 16 games unless—and this is what interests us—a team compiles this same spectacular record a second year in a row. So our question is this: What is the chance the Lions lose all 16 games this year?

Textbooks statistical procedures won’t work for us, so we’ll use a technique called Bayesian predictive inference—you only have to know that the answer depends on what information we feed our calculations. What information is available? Tons. We know who the Lions will play and we can guage those team’s individual players and their capabilities, and the same with the opposing coaches’ attitudes, the kinds of stadiums, and on and on. It’s really too much information and we can’t incorporate it in our equations simply, so we’ll limit ourselves to just the Lion’s record and assume all other information is somehow wrapped up in that record. But do we only use last year’s record? Or do we use more years?

If we consider only the “record year”, the 0-16, then there is just over a 50% chance that the Lions will repeat defeat and win no games. There is a 90% chance that they will win 2 games or less. And do you want to talk about sheer improbability? Then, using last year’s data only, the Lions have only 1 chance in a billion of winning all 16 games.

We can picture the whole thing like this:

Lions win probability distribution

The red line in the left box shows the probability of winning 0 games, 1 games, 2 games, etc., all the way to 16. The probability of winning 6 or more games is near 0. It’s not—it’s never—exactly 0, though. This is easier to see by looking at the plot on the right, which expresses the odds against winning. The odds against winning no games is less than 1, for example, and the odds against winning all 16 is 1 in a billion.

But these numbers don’t feel right, do they? We should probably take into account more than just last year’s wins and losses and input several past seasons into our calculations. We don’t want to go back too far in time, because historical teams’ structures will be too different than the current team’s (different coaches, players, etc.). But we can add past seasons year by year until we feel comfortable we have balanced including enough data with excluding data on teams that don’t “look like” the current one.

We can picture doing it like this:

Lions win probability distribution by season

We have already seen the red line: it is the probability of winning from 0 to 16 games using only last year’s record. The other lines show what happens to this probability when we add in successive years of data. The first addition is the 2007 season, so that the total data is the 2007-2008 seasons. This combination is hidden in the figure by other combinations, so we’ll move to the first visible one. That is the data from the 2003-2008 seasons (pale green).

Already, we have a considerably different picture from that produced using just the 2008 data. The probability of winning 0 games using the 2003-2008 set has fallen to 0.7%, which is just under 1%; in other words, it’s not very likely that the Lions will repeat their pathetic year.

Adding in more years doesn’t change the picture much. The largest combination is the 2000-2008 set, where the chance of winning no games is 0.6%. The chance of winning 4 or 5 games is highest (about 20%), and the chance of winning all games is still low. This next picture shows the odds against winning games. Even including all the data from 2000, the odds against winning all 16 games is still 100 million to 1. The lowest odds is for 4 games, which makes sense, because this is the most probable number of games the Lions will win.

Lions win odds distribution

No matter which way you slice the data, the Lions do not appear to have even a reasonable chance of a winning season. And it doesn’t look like they’ll lose all their games, either. But it is likely they will continue emanating a sulphurous-like stench each time they take the field


Note: also see this hard-hitting news report.