Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category
This analysis, which claims that the US has more school spree killings than 36 nations combined, is getting a lot of play. It shouldn’t. It is extremely bad mathematical malpractice.
The basic reason it is mathematical malpractice is the same reason the Mother Jones study was: it is difficult to analyze extremely rare events. When you narrow your investigation to events that happen maybe once a decade and are compiled haphazardly, you are simply going to be dominated by small number statistics and selection bias. You can therefore use those numbers to say, basically, anything you want.
Let’s break down just how bad the numbers are being twisted here.
1) The sample ends in 2009. That excludes the recent spate of knife attacks in Chinese schools that have left 21 dead. If you did this analysis a week ago, you would have had to drop China from the right column.
2) The sample excludes acts of terror or war. But if Islamists shoot up a school because they don’t want girls to read, are those kids any less dead? If a drone strike misses its targets and kills a classroom, are those kids less dead? Why must we exclude the Beslan attack that left 186 kids dead?
3) The sample excludes single homicides, which amount to 302 deaths in the United States over the time involved and God knows how many in other countries. So you are literally excluding 90% of the problem and focusing just on a tiny subset of killings.
4) Comparing us to 36 other countries is ridiculous when some of those countries are places like Bosnia-Herzegovina (population 4 million). We have more population, period, then 30 of the countries on that list combined. Also included in that list of countries are England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, which are, technically speaking, not countries.
5) The problem of small number statistics can be best illustrated by playing with the data a bit. If I include the knife attacks and move China into the left column, suddenly China has more violent deaths than 30 other countries. If I move Germany onto the left side, suddenly they have more spree killings than a bunch of other countries. If I define the sample in the 1990’s, suddenly Australia dominates the statistics. You simple can not draw conclusions from samples that are that sensitive to single events.
6) Combining points 4 and 5, if you look at spree killing rates rather than the deliberate mathematical malpractice of comparing absolute numbers, the situation is very different. In 2009, the Winnenden shooting killed 15. Scaled up to the population of the United States, that would be the equivalent of 60 people dead, more than the worst year the United States has ever had. In 1996, 35 people were kill in Port Arthur, Australia. Scaled up to the US population, that would almost equal 500 dead. It is an event that is seared into the memories of Australians. My point is not that these countries are worse than we are. My point is that these are rare and horrible events and you can manipulate the numbers to prove anything you want.
7) The biggest thing missing here is a sense of time. Is the rate of school killings going up or down? The answer, of course, is down. Check out chart one at Ezra Klein’s blog that shows that the rate of assault death has fallen by over half since 1970. Check out the NCES page I link above which shows a significant decline in on-campus homicides, from 40/year in the 90’s to 30/year in the 00’s. That decline is a hundred more kids running in the sunshine. The NCES data, based on a complete sample of over 600 incidents, is useful. This …. isn’t.
I’m not trying to downplay the horror that unfolded on Friday. However, I don’t think any debate can proceed unless we have a good grasp of the problem we are trying to solve. Far too many children are murdered in school in this country — that was as true on Thursday as it is today. But to be useful, the debate needs to be on honest terms. Committing mathematical malpractrice by deceptively comparing the United States to 36 other countries as though there something to be learned from that is not an honest debate and is likely to produce a panicky and ill-considered response.
I can’t recall an election cycle when so much attention was paid to polls. We do, of course, have more polling than ever. And the election is likely to be very close, so everyone is riveted on the polls. But it’s not just the attention to the polls: it’s the loud debate over them. I can’t recall seeing so many articles analyzing the polls, adjusting the polls, arguing the polls and selectively quoting polls. This has been especially strong from the Republican side, which has claimed that 1) the polls are skewed; 2) Nate Silver is a gay Obama supporter and can’t be trusted; 3) the polls are skewed; 4) Rasmussen is the only reliable pollster; 5) boy, are those polls skewed.
I don’t think this is a unique function of Republican hysteria or reality denial, incidentally. It is a result of a few models and analyses favoring Obama right now. If they favored Romney, I’m sure we’d be hearing conspiracy theories from the Left.
(The reporting on polls is enough to drive you mad. The bias and misunderstanding of how polls and statistics work would be stunning if I didn’t think it was deliberate. To illustrate how this goes, imagine that Romney and Obama are tied for the purple state of New Ubekibekistanstan. On one day, five polls come out that read like so:
Poll Palace: Tied
We R Polls: Tied
Polls R Us: Romney +1
Republican Poll Man: Romney +2
Liberal Poll Dudes: Obama +3
That’s a tie. But guess which ones the liberal blogs will talk about? Guess which ones the conservative ones will? This is how alternative realities are created.
Then there’s the issues of “margin of error”. If a poll comes out showing Romney is leading New GOPland by three points with a three point margin of error, the liberal blogs will say it is essentially tied. But it’s not. 3+-3 means that it’s about 70% likely that Romney leads and it’s as statistically likely that Romney leads by 6 as it is tied.
Then you compound the two. Imagine New GOPland has three polls released:
Polls R Us: Romney +2 +- 3
We R Polls: Romney +5 +- 2
Poll Palace: Romney +8 +- 3
Assuming there are no biases, Romney actually has a solid lead: five points, give or take two. But the news media will say it’s tied.)
I should note that a big reason for the attention to polls is the null difference between the two candidates. If they really had major policy differences, we’d be talking about those. Romney supporters would be talking about how awesome his economic plan is and Obama supporters would be talking about how awesome the economy is. But because they are essentially the same man, we’re talking about polls.
And if we’re talking polls, we’re really talking about Nate Silver. Silver is one of several people who understand statistics and tries to incorporate all of the available data into an electoral projection. As of right now, Silver’s model projects Obama as a likely winner, although it is very close. Close enough that one week could shift it either way.
But his critics being full of crap doesn’t make Silver right. Silver came to fame with a dead-on projection of 2008. But 2008 was not a close election. It was, all things considered, a landslide for Obama. Only three states — North Carolina, Missouri and Indiana — were within 1% and Silver missed on Indiana (to be fair, Silver gives probabilities not certainties and getting two out of three coin flips right is just fine). 2012 is going to much closer. And I dare say this will be the real test of Silver’s abilities. Is he going to be proven dead on again? Or will his model be spectacularly wrong?
This year is reminding me an awful lot of Election 2000. It’s not just because of the closeness and the likelihood of an electoral college-popular vote split; it’s because that was the first time an attempt to model the electoral outcome was done. And, as the Wayback machine reminds us, it failed spectacularly. Real Clear Politics predicted Bush would win by 10 points in the popular vote and with an electoral landslide of 446-92. That … didn’t happen.
I remember the events very clearly. My advisor tipped me to the RCP site as evidence that the media were ignoring Bush’s pending win. But I also remember being highly skeptical. because it seemed to me they were going overboard to try to make Bush win, constantly putting states in “definite Bush” but very few in “definite Gore”.
(Of course, that may have been my natural pessimism: I was a Bush supporter and RCP’s projection seemed too good to be true. If I were supporting Obama this year, I’m sure I would have convinced myself that Silver is wrong in his analysis.)
Here’s a breakdown of how RCP went wrong:
States Bush Would Win: Alaska, Utah, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, Indiana, Arizona, Virginia, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana, Kentucky, Ohio, North Carolina. They also had Nevada as a probably win. Bush did win all of these and most of them were not close. Ohio, now a swing state, went to Bush by 170,000 votes. That was not really the problem. The problem was:
States Gore Would Win: DC, New York, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Rhode Island with Connecticut as a probable win. These were the only states they had as definite Gore. California, Maryland, Washington — these were not seen as definite Gore states. And it was this bias that I was subconsciously picking up: not that they overestimated Bush’ performance, but they under-estimated Gore’s, refusing to accept that people would vote for him. They seriously had Gore polling at 42% nationally. Given the popularity of Clinton and the state of the economy, that was absurd.
Leans Bush: They correctly called Missouri, New Hampshire, Florida, Arkansas, Tennessee and West Virginia. They also had New Mexico and Oregon, which went to Gore but were cose. But Washington? Michigan? Pennsylvania? Maine? Gore won them all by 5 or 6 points.
Leans Gore: Maryland and Vermont. Again, we see a reluctance to put things in Gore’s column. Gore won both by double digits. The idea that Maryland “leaned” was laughable.
Slight Bush: Delaware, Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, California All were easy wins for Gore. Only Minnesota was within shouting distance.
Slight Gore: New Jersey Another huge win for Gore.
We can see that it wasn’t just that RCP was wrong; they were wrong everywhere, systematically and massively underestimating Gore’s support.
So what happened? And does this mean we should point and laugh at projections for this year?
Well, first of all, RCP way over-estimated Ralph Nader’s influence. This may sound strange to Democrats still bitter about 2000, but RCP estimated Nader at 5.7%, over twice as well as he actually performed. And almost all of his supposed voters went to Gore. This not only skewed the popular vote, it massively skewed the vote in blue states like California.
Second, Bush eventually underperformed the polls by three points. Ted Frank makes the case that this was because of the November Surprise of Bush’s drunk driving arrest. While that’s possible — I thought so at the time — I’m less convinced now. When you get into the last days of the election, most people have decided. I really doubt this shifted the national polls by three points in three days, which is a *very* large and *very* rapid shift so late in the game.
In the end, I think it was all of the above: they overestimated Nader’s support, the polls shifted late and RCP had a bit of a bias. But I also think RCP was simply ahead of its time. In 2000, we simply did not have the relentless national and state level polls we have now. And we did not have the kind of information that can tease out the subtle biases and nuances that Nate Silver can.
Ah, Nate Silver. We keep circling back to him. So what do I think? Is Silver going to be sitting pretty on November 7 or will he have egg on his face?
I don’t know.
I think he’s doing the best job he can, given the difficulty of the data. But when the election is this close, you’re straining the ability of even the most careful analyst to predict the future. I think it’s possible that he will miss. But it’s not because he’s biased or stupid. It’s simply because close elections are difficult to forecast. Even the smallest error — a 1% national offset in the popular vote — could have big implications for the final result. I simply find it hard to believe that any model can predict an election likely to be within the noise.
I will note that if Silver does miss badly, this does not make his critics right. We should never confused the process with the result. If Silver misses but some guy throwing darts an electoral college map gets it right, this does not mean dart-throwing is superior. It means that one guy got lucky and the other missed something.
My prediction? I don’t know. This feels like an electoral-popular split since Romney’s red-state support is stronger than Obama’s blue-state support. That may be my own bias playing up: I would love to watch the pundits argue 180 degrees from where they were in 2000 and I would love to see the President, whoever he is, weakened to the point where Congress takes the lead on solving our budget woes.
But right now, no result would surprise me. There’s nine days left. There’s a massive hurricane bearing down (natural disasters can hurt incumbents and I expect the GOP to say Obama’s response is incompetent no matter what). Job numbers have yet to come out. Some football teams have yet to play.
To be honest: I just want it to be over, one way or the other. I’m tired of it. I’m tired of one side or the other quoting whichever poll most favors them. I’m tired of the bullshit gotchyas. I’m tired of being bashed from one side as an Obama bootlicker and the other as a secret Romney supporter. I’m tired of everything having a political implication.
Hopefully, in a little over a week, we can start getting back to policy and ideas and things that really matter.
A few weeks ago, Mother Jones did a timeline of mass shootings in response to the spate of summer shootings. The defined their criteria, listed 61 incidents and pointed out, correctly, that most of them were committed with legal firearms.
The highlight is a map of mass shootings over the last thirty years. The map has some resemblance to Radley Balko’s famous map of botched law enforcement raids. But the use of a map and dots is where the resemblance ends. Balko was very clear that his list of incidents was not, in any way, definitive. And he did not try to parse his incomplete data to draw sketchy conclusions.
Mother Jones felt under no such compulsion.
This week, they’ve published an “analysis” of their data and drawn the conclusion that our society has more guns than ever and, perhaps related, more mass shootings. Below, I’ll detail why I think their “analysis” — and yes, I will keep using quotation marks for this — is useless, uninformative and flat-out wrong.
That’s the question Andrew Sullivan is asking. Here’s my response to his contention that conservatives no longer have a sense of humor and liberals do:
While I agree with your point, I think the psychoanalysis claiming that conservative can’t be funny is way off. It used to be the other way around. Ronald Reagan had a fine sense of humor. So did Bush 41. I remember going to Republicans events in the 90’s and finding people who were optimistic, upbeat and humorous. Conservatism has always had its humorists — O’Rourke, Mencken, even Twain* to some extent in his way (although they tended to be more of a libertarian bent). Hell, back in the 90’s, Rush Limbaugh was consistently hilarious. I swear.
(*I’m sure a lot of people will balk at the idea of Twain as conservative. Certainly he was anti-religion and anti-bigotry. But he was deeply distrustful of people in positions of power. It is, after all, Twain who said that all kings is mostly rapscallions. I wonder what he’d say about our current leaders.)
A big reason for this was that, until the 90’s, liberals were in power, so conservatives were outsiders. And liberals were just so silly and made for such easy targets. I remember, as I came of political age in the 80’s and 90’s, being surrounded by dim humorless liberals who would occasionally do a painfully unfunny roast for a retiring senator or something. They were all so deadly serious about everything, so *concerned*, so wracked with that aggravating mixture of moroseness and self-righteousness that surrounds true believers.
I’m not sure when things changed, but I agree with your reader who cited Bill Hicks: it is the rise of fundamentalism that has drained the humor out of the Right. And when the talk shows hosts were invited into the halls of power, they lost their satirical bite. Moreover, the Left has moved away from the absurd sanctimony of the 80’s and 90’s. These days it is the GOP that spends all their time wailing and gnashing their teeth about things no sensible person would bat an eye over (e.g., gay marriage, the various notroversies surrounded the President). These days it is the Right who are so sanctimonious and self-righteous. Nowhere is this more visible than Limbaugh, who has become painfully unfunny, as the Sandra Fluke thing demonstrated. By contrast, the Left is … well, not sensible … uh … maybe a bit less silly … about certain things.
Maybe a lot of conservatives don’t have a sense of humor now. But it was not always so.
The Akin controversy has brought a lot of ugliness to light. I’ll push aside the broader political issues, which I’ve discussed on the other blog. Instead, I want to focus on a particular piece of nonsense from one of the more influential pro-Life figures, who has tried to argue that rape pregnancies are very rare.
You would think this would be straight forward. You could, for example, find rape victims and ask them if they got pregnant. And indeed, a study estimated that about 5% of rapes end in pregnancy and 32,000 fetuses are conceived in rape every year. You could also ask women getting abortions if they were raped. And indeed, Guttmacher did this and produced a lower estimate of about 10,000 or so. There is no real incentive, at this point, for women to lie about how they got pregnant. Or there are just as many reasons for them lie either way since many women are tragically ashamed of having been raped. But there is no a priori reason to suspect that either number is greatly inflated.
(The Guttmacher number seems a little better since the numbers in the former study would indicate about 640,000 rapes a year or three times what the FBI and NCVS conclude, even including the under-reporting factor. The difference is likely that Guttmacher is recent and Holmes was published in 1996, shortly after crime rates peaked. Rape rates have plunged in the last 16 years and are down about 85% over the last 30.)
But plain facts aren’t enough for some people, so John Wilke, “M. D.” has come up with a bizarre rape equivalent of the Drake equation to try to figure out how many rape babies are conceived every year and come up with a vanishingly small number.
It’s fairly easy to tear apart.
I’m doing more long-form posting of links I care to comment on. But here’s a few I don’t have time for.