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July 8, 2008 | 4 Comments

Another increase in moronicity

This story has been making the rounds (I first heard of it from Roger Kimball’s blog). It’s so incredibly asinine that it deserves broad exposure.

The headline from England’s Telegraph is Toddlers who dislike spicy food ‘racist’. The article leads:

Toddlers who turn their noses up at spicy food from overseas could be branded racists by a Government-sponsored agency.

The National Children’s Bureau, which receives ?12 million a year, mainly from Government funded organisations, has issued guidance to play leaders and nursery teachers advising them to be alert for racist incidents among youngsters in their care.

This could include a child of as young as three who says “yuk” in response to being served unfamiliar foreign food.

The guide is 366 pages long! Yuk!

Nurseries are encouraged to report as many incidents as possible to their local council. The guide added: “Some people think that if a large number of racist incidents are reported, this will reflect badly on the institution. In fact, the opposite is the case.”

That is to say, nursery workers are encouraged to rat out small children to the local Party Leaders. No doubt horrific injustices like denying a love of curry will be noted on the tots’ permanent records. Can re-education day camps be far behind?

This reminds of a guy (whose name I expurgated from my memory) invited to campus when I was still at professor at Central Michigan. The topic was—what else?—diversity. This guy, who had many letters after his name, was touting a theory called micro-racism. These are racists acts that are so small that the person perpetrating them, and the person being disparaged, cannot see them. Only people specially trained could spot and analyze the atrocities.

Professors were told that when overhearing something shocking like—if you have a weak stomach, please do not read further—“Where are you from?”, we should recognize the ill intent behind the words and caution the student to modify his behavior.

That’s the only example of “micro-racism” that I can recall. Not too many examples were given. This of course makes it easy for the PC Police to label anything they want as “micro-racism.” Only an exceptionally dull person could not take any phrase whatsoever and twist it into an example of intolerance.

I don’t have the National Children’s Bureau’s guide, but I can only hope they include material on micro-racism.

July 7, 2008 | 6 Comments

What happened to sultry?

I like Jessica Rabbit. Her voice, I mean—Kathleen Turner. Throaty, a hint of edgy raspiness, alluring, damn sexy.

But I just found out that I was wrong. Turns out I do not like sultry voices like I think I do. Instead, peer-reviewed research has proved that “High-pitched voices are most attractive.” This can only mean that I require re-education to correct my incorrect choice. Experts have weighed in!

Actually, of course, and because I can’t continue being facetious, I want to highlight a very common piece of poor “science” journalism, based on questionable research. I want to dissect this article paragraph by paragraph (don’t worry, it’s not long), to show how to spot garbage.

The article, entitled “High-pitched voices are most attractive“, by Dave Munger over at Cognitive Daily, summarizes a paper by Feinberg and others entitled “The role of femininity and averageness of voice pitch in aesthetic judgments of women’s voices” in the journal Perception.

First, the title (the reporter’s, not the paper’s). It is false. Not just “maybe not true” but false as in “ridiculously untrue.” It is not true in my case, nor in many, many other cases. So why would somebody write such a headline? Laziness, probably.

The article starts with some unmemorable fluff about some celebrity, finally moving to the sentence “In general we perceive higher voices as more feminine.” This is true. But it is one of those statements that every single human already knew was true—who didn’t know females had higher voices?—only it could be “proved” true until “research” said it was. This unfortunate attitude is now commonplace. It isn’t true until some “researcher” does “research” to show it’s true. Nonsense.

Let’s not lose sight of what they author is trying to prove: “High-pitched voices are most attractive.” What is the evidence for this (false) statement? Well, this: researchers “recorded the voices of 123 young women as they pronounced five vowel sounds: ah, ee, eh, oh, and oo. Then ten male volunteers rated each voice for attractiveness.”

How many men? 10, or “ten”, or “just one more than nine.” No doubt these men were chosen from a broad population to ensure to capture a wide range of opinion. Just kidding. They weren’t. Like many papers, the “researchers” grabbed a bunch of men who were close at hand and hoped for the best. That is, these young American men were assumed to have the same tastes as Vietnamese, Yemenese, Chinese, Siamese, and other-eses, of all age, economic, social, etc. backgrounds. The same comments can be made about the women. Did they all speak English? Have the same accent? Did they vary their tone to fit the circumstance? Etc. etc.

The chance that the sample used was representative of all humans? The words “near zero” come to mind. And we haven’t even begun to ask why just five English vowel sounds would be representative of all sounds, nor how the manner of speech and the words used are mixed up in how attractiveness is rated.

A statistical graph is then shown, which I do not have the heart to reproduce. It is a scatterplot, showing the relationship of the frequency of the spoken vowel sounds with the attractiveness rating. A straight (and curved) line is drawn through the points. It is said to be “statistically significant.” This means that the p-value of the slope of the regression line is less than 0.05. What is a p-value? It says that the chance of seeing a statistic (which is a function of the estimate of that slope) larger than the one we actually got given the experiment were an infinite number of additional times and given the slope is actually 0. Yes, complicated and confusing. That’s classical statistics for you.

But, statistically speaking, the line is crap. Pick a frequency, a low one, like 180-190 Hertz. Attractiveness ratings range from just over 2 to about 5.5, just the same as they do for higher frequencies. For one high frequency lady (about 250 Hertz), the attractiveness was low; and there were far fewer high pitched sounds to sample from. The researchers have made the common error of conflating the “statistical significance” of the parameter (slope) of the regression line with the actually difference in observable attractiveness ratings. We do not see which women was which — some women’s voice might have been better than others regardless of pitch. To prove that the reporter does not understand what he has just seen, he repeats “Higher-pitched voices are more attractive” right after discussing the graph.

There are other problems with this graph. There are about 123 numbers. Fine. There were 123 ladies. But each recorded 5 sounds, and there were 10 men. Shouldn’t there be 123 x 5 x 10 = 6150 points? Because there are not, it means some prior data manipulation has taken place. A summarization has been done (the mean of attractiveness per women). I have no idea how this summarization would effect the results. Nor would the researchers, because it would require some sort of model, which is not present.

The researchers knew at least some of their limitations because, as the reporter reports, they asked “[W]ill simply raising the pitch of a female voice make it more attractive, or are there other factors involved?” So they picked “three groups of five voices…:five low-pitched, five medium-pitched, and five high-pitched.” After this— I swear this is true—“a computer program was used to artificially raise and lower the pitch of each of these voices.” Then “volunteers listened to high- and low-pitch versions of each voice and indicated which was more attractive.”

Again, they claim that higher pitched voices were picked slightly more often as being attractive (another bad statistical graph is shown).

But wait a minute. A “a computer program was used to artificially raise and lower the pitch of each of these voices”? Yes, “”a computer program was used to artificially raise and lower the pitch of each of these voices.”

Good thing that was the end of the article, because I couldn’t take any more. From 123 women, just 15 (that’s “three groups of five voices”) were supposed to represent all human females everywhere. These 15 voices were changed by a computer algorithm to sound how a computer programmer thought they should sound. After they made the voices sound like they wanted them to sound, they asked other people how they sounded. Oh, good grief.

If the overall finding is that “men prefer high-pitched voices”, then I would say that it is true, but everybody already knew it was true because everybody knows women have higher-pitched voices than men, and that men prefer women (generally), therefore they must prefer higher-pitched voices (generally).

But just writing that into a paper will not get you published.

July 4, 2008 | 9 Comments

At least they’re admitting it

Here’s the problem. You are a scientist, working on measuring the levels of aragonite in ocean water. It’s not very sexy and nobody beyond a small cadre seems to care. But it’s grant time and you and your team are “figuring out how to make the issue more potent” so that you can bring in the bucks.

How do you do it?

The first thing you should immediately consider these days is “turning up the heat on the issue through the media.” However, convening a press conference on “The Importance of Aragonite in Ocean Water” is unlikely to interest even the New York Times.

You need to be clever. Your job in “expanding awareness” has to start with a snappier moniker. You need a term that is “easy to comprehend” and, if you’re lucky, sounds “alarming.”

Renaming is thus “a critical step.”

So you ponder. Then you recall that aragonite levels are related to the amount of diffused carbon dioxide in ocean water. Some chemistry helps: when CO2 dissolves in water it lowers that water’s pH. And what is lowering pH sometimes called? Acidification!

Success! Not only is this a fantastically frightening term, it drives “home the idea that carbon dioxide [i]s a pollutant.”

Your next step is to find a PR firm whose specialty is to “link researchers with policy-makers and the media.” The good news is that there are no shortage of such places.

Of course, you have to be honest about “the” science and the uncertainties (as you understand them). But if you’re lucky, even the possibility, no matter how small, of risk will be enough to frighten Congress into action.

I think we can agree “the acidification story provides a model of how to get science on the congressional agenda.”

A fuller account of this fascinating and inspirational story may be found here (Nature magazine, again leading the way).

July 2, 2008 | 21 Comments

Lizards all male climate change club

Nature magazine reports this headline: Condemned to single-sex life by climate change.

They are talking about a species of lizards called tuatara that live “on about 30 small islands in New Zealand?s north.” The disgusting, scaly creatures are in exile on those islands because they have everywhere else been “wiped out by predators.” No word on who or what these predators are or why the predators cannot follow the tuatara to the islands and thus continue their campaign of herpetological genocide.

Anyway, the lizards are about to go extinct and it’s all your fault. It seems that when the weather is hot, more male tuatara lizards are born than female lizards. And we all know what happens when there are more boy than girl lizards. It becomes impossible to get a date and procreate.

This “doomsday prediction”, we are told by researchers, is assured because of (what else?) global warming.

How do the researchers know this? Why, a computer told them so.

Previous computers did not tell them so, which forced the researchers to reprogram them, this time incorporating in their models “physics of heat transfer with terrain data.” Well, that is impressive. The researchers then “simulated climate change and then monitored its effect on specific points across the island.”

What they found was shocking: Rampant maleness, which naturally carries with it the consequence of enforced bachelorhood.

For those of you who are not as computer savvy as I, let me summarize. Researchers programmed a computer to show that when the temperature rises, fewer female lizards are born. They then told the computer that temperatures were in fact rising. The computer then said “fewer female lizards are born.”

The researchers pored over this result and came to the conclusion that “warmer temperatures caused by global warming imply fewer female lizards will be born.” They wrote this in a paper which was duly summarized at Nature. Science in action!

All might not be lost because, the researchers suggest, the lizards might be “translocated” ( = moved) to cooler climes. I just hope that those mysterious predators aren’t in the new translocations.