Archive for July, 2008

misunderstanding statistics

US News and World Report has several current stories that illustrate the problem with aggregate measures. These are attempts to pull something ‘newsworthy’ out of an average. Anytime you see news based on an average – a single number or comparison representing a large group – you should put on your skeptics hat and start looking at the underlying statistics. Statistics provides a number of means to qualify and understand averages because large groups can be quite different yet have some similar numbers like their averages.

The first example is Girls as Good as Boys at Math. This is related to the recent idea that Title IX ideas should be applied to science faculties as well as sports participants in schools. What the news stories don’t tell you is that, although the average of math capability by gender is essentially the same, the distributions are not. The distribution for boys is flatter and that means it is more spread out. You’ll find fewer boys in the middle, near the average, than girls and more at each end than girls. This means that when you start selected by either the very math gifted or the very math dumb you are going to find more boys there than girls. But the average is the same!

Are Americans Really Getting Poorer? has the problem of trying to track an average over time and choosing what to use as a reference point. This particular issue also has the problem of defining wealth and poverty, which isn’t as simple as it seems because that has to be a weighed collection of concepts and measures in itself.

Dude, Where’s My Recession? The Series gets into the ongoing observation about how economic measures and public perceptions are not well correlated to each other. The economic indicators are attempts to aggregate many measures of economic activity. The news and public perceptions, on the other hand, are determined by a selected sample whose selection criteria often place the sample towards one end of the distribution.

All of these issues – gender differences, wealth distribution, economic strength – are hot topics. None are simple. If decisions must be made it will probably be the case that a careful consideration of the distribution and not just the average should be accomodated.

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Read a book to learn

Brad describes what he has learned about how to read a book.

All deliberate action is prefixed by an idea. Books provide a rich source of intellectual leverage. Knowing how to read is one of the most important skills you can learn on your path to personal growth.

If you want a book to have the most impact on your brain, slow down your reading, think about it, take notes, and act immediately on what you read.

Ultimately, every growth-related book is a 30-day challenge in disguise, limited only by your creativity and willingness to transform thought into action. You’ll know the quality of your reading habits not by how many books you can claim to have read, but by how many of the good things in your life can be traced back to a spot on your bookshelf.

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Price of oil; price of gasoline; many factors; blame game

The price of oil has its factors. The price of gasoline has its own set. The two are not as directly connected as is sometimes presumed. They do not track with each other directly.

There is a common set of factors the influence price of gasoline and crude oil. A large part of that set is political. That means that the price is a social choice about what should be bought. An example of this is described in an IDB editorial Plugging Up The Pipeline.

There hasn’t been a new oil refinery built in the U.S. since 1976, in part because of actions like those of the NRDC. The environmental lobby, which went off the rails decades ago, has resisted almost every attempt to create more energy from fossil fuels.

This is countered by those opposing new facilities asserting that there is no need for them; that the supply of gasoline is keeping up with demand without new facilities. That is a shallow and circular argument.

America has so far paid a small price for the radical environmentalism that grew out of a rational movement in the 1960s. The costs will eventually be deeply painful, though, if lawmakers and the courts continue to give these groups license to shut down needed energy advancements.

This ideology has been sitting on the lid of human yearning, a desire of the little people for a more comfortable life. So far its cost has been no big deal and easily hidden in the noise of daily life. The recent burst in commodity prices and cost of fuel may make it more visible for what it is.

T. Boone Pickens’ latest energy plan is an indicator of this visibility even though it is just a rehash of old ideas and wishful thinking.

Soon enough reality will become too much to ignore. Energy, power, fuel, and our dependence upon them have no simple solutions but will require a balance in technologies and in the financial, economic, and environmental costs that we choose to pay for a lifestyle we prefer.

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A climate of fear – and its outcome

Cool off on health scares by Glenn Swogger Jr. describes a problem.

The problem is a pervasive unease and anxiety that feeds upon itself and searches for danger, at which point reason, along with common sense and skepticism, tend to be tossed aside.

He cites five possible sources that include rapid social change, complex problems, and increased awareness.

Fear has its price. It exerts its negative effects through paralyzing our capacities for judgment and consideration of alternatives. … Another all too common side effect of fear – one that makes it difficult to discuss problems – is the impulse to regard others as potential foes.

The point is illustrated in the very first comment. That attempts to dismiss Dr. Swogger because he is a trustee of an organization that receives funding from the food industry. That is a taint by implication and not by fact. It is an illustration of fear creating dishonesty. Rather than address the points at issue, attack the messenger.

It seems that many want to believe in fears to such an extent that they create them. Often this creation is based on a kernel of truth exaggerated to such an extent the kernel gets lost. Sometimes the creation is out of whole cloth.

The fact is that suspicion often supersedes a proper skepticism. When that happens, the search for truth becomes a search for comfort and that often does not lead to good outcomes.

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A steady anchor in buffeting winds

There has been mention of the need for an anchor in disparate essays recently. Both involve culture and society.

Anthony Dick wrote in Constitutional Torture, Standard judicial malpractice at NRO:

One of the central purposes of a written constitution is to bind future generations to certain fixed standards and principles of justice that stay constant in the face of shifting winds. In order for this system to function, provisions such as the Eighth Amendment must have some fixed substance that exists independently of changing social attitudes. If nine out of ten Americans woke up tomorrow believing that we should start drawing-and-quartering jaywalkers, the meaning of the Eight Amendment would not suddenly “evolve” to facilitate the new consensus. The text and meaning of the Constitution prohibit such cruelty today, and will prohibit it tomorrow.

Then there is Mark Roberts about some difficulties in the Presbyterian Church.

A grown up church interacts responsibly with the world in which it lives, yet without buying into that world’s latest fads and fancies. It responds to the community in which it has been sent by God, but without merely echoing that community’s values. A mature church takes seriously the cultural trends of its milieu, but always weighs these trends in the scales of God’s truth. Such a church is relevant, but not pandering as it responds to its neighbors.

On the contrary, a church of spiritual infants rides the wave of the moment, celebrating its apparent relevance while rushing toward the rocks of its destruction. It abandons God’s timeless truth in favor of timeliness. It chases after whatever is hot, whatever is fashionable, whatever promises not to offend. It models itself after social institutions, arguing that the church should imitate the ways of business, or government, or the media. The immature church is rudderless, moving all over the place, yet never getting anywhere.

Two of the fundamental institutions of our society, the church and the courts, are noted as causing worry about their abandonment of fundamental guiding principles and their shifting in the winds of popular culture. The Bible? The Constitution? Mean what they say? Say what they mean? Appropriate guidance for today?

It appears that some think the anchor is shifting as we are buffeted in the winds of human desires.

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