Beginning tomorrow, and lasting a semisolid two weeks, will be my class at Cornell. A Masters “How To” in statistics, directed towards MBA-like personages. An impossible task. No subject of substance can be learnt in two weeks.
But it will be my task to (1) demonstrate statistics, despite all public evidence to the contrary, is (or can be) a subject of substance, and (2) to display its lineaments entertainingly.
The blog—except for one notable exception, probably this Wednesday—will follow my thoughts on the nature of probability and statistics, and how those thoughts make their way to the students.
What appears here won’t necessarily appear in class. Topics here will necessarily be telegraphic, but also more fundamental, more philosophical. The first day will focus on logic, belief, intuition, induction, the nature of probability.
On day one, we’ll talk about questions like this one: Before peeking at the answer, see how you fare at analyzing this sentence, spoken on John Dvorak’s X3 in defense of downloading video using, inter alia, bit torrent: “Anything I buy, I buy legitimately.”
Isn’t that a bit like saying, “Anything I steal, I steal illegitimately”? It is, until we realize we can buy illegitimately, too. However, the original is a good sentence and it, and ones similarly structured, are recommended to politicians like Anthony Weiner.
Later in the course, we’ll talk about topics like cancer clusters.
Seek And Ye Shall Find…Cancer Clusters
A person with cancer never suffers alone: others will also have his disease. Just like our man, the other similarly diseased souls must live somewhere. It will thus happen that two or more people who have cancer will often be found to live “near” each other, especially in sprawling urban areas.
A “cancer cluster” is thus defined as group of cancerous folk who all live near one another, where “near” can mean anything from one block to 100 miles. Importantly, “near” must never be defined until the cancerous have all be identified. This makes designations of “clusters” easier.
When the number of sufferers inches past the century mark, there will usually be a team of lawyers ready to claim these unfortunates belong to a “cluster.” By this they mean that some person or well-funded corporation must be responsible for causing the cancers; and since they caused the cancer, they must pay the lawyers for having discovered this fact.
A lovely property of classical, p-value-based statistics is that cancer clusters can always be found (we shall learn how over the next two weeks). Which is to say, “statistically significant” results of clusters can always be found. This not only gives constant employment to lawyers, it helps keep up the level of National Gross Nervousness.
To prove this, Steve Milloy quotes from the announcement of a new cancer-cluster law.
The “Strengthening Protections for Children and Communities From Disease Clusters Act” [pdf] (S. 76), offered by Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), cleared the panel on a party-line 11-7 vote. Only Crapo joined Democrats in supporting the bill.
It’s for the children!
The writer (at Milloy’s site) calls cancer cluster “myths.” This is not so: they are not myths; they are real. People who have cancer can certainly live “near” one another and cluster. But this does not mean, or even imply, that something in the environment nearby where they lived caused the cancer.
The burden of proof should always be on those who cry “Cluster!” to show what biological mechanism causes the cancers in those that have it and does not in those that do not have it. Raw statistical “proof” that clusters exist are of little to no use.