Archive for the ‘Science and Edumacation’ Category

Mathematical Malpractice Watch: A Trilogy of Error

Wednesday, February 12th, 2014

Three rather ugly instances of mathematical malpractice have caught my attention in the last month. Let’s check them out.

The Death of Facebook or How to Have Fun With Out of Sample Data

Last month, Princeton researchers came out with the rather spectacular claim that the social network Facebook would be basically dead within a few years. The quick version is that they fit an epidemiological model to the rise and fall of MySpace. They then used that same model, varying the parameters, to fit Google trends on searches for Facebook. They concluded that Facebook would lose 80% of its customers by 2017.

This was obviously nonsese as detailed here and here. It suffered from many flaws, notably assuming that the rise and fall of MySpace was necessarily a model for all social networks and the dubious method of using Google searches instead of publicly available traffic data as their metric.

But there was a deeper flaw. The authors fit a model of a sharp rise and fall. They then proclaim that this model works because Facebook’s google data follows the first half of that trend and a little bit of the second. But while the decline in Facebook Google searches is consistent with their model, it is also consistent with hundreds of others. It would be perfectly consistent with a model that predicts a sharp rise and then a leveling off as the social network saturates. Their data are consistent with but not discriminating against just about any model.

The critical part of the data — the predicted sharp fall in Facebook traffic — is out of sample (meaning it hasn’t happened yet). But based on a tiny sliver of data, they have drawn a gigantic conclusion. It’s Mark Twain and the length of the Mississippi River all over again.

We see this a lot in science, unfortunately. Global warming models often predict very sharp rises in temperature — out of sample. Models of the stock market predict crashes or runs — out of sample. Sports twerps put together models that predict Derek Jeter will get 4000 hits — out of sample.

Anyone who does data fitting for a living knows this danger. The other day, I fit a light curve to a variable star. Because of an odd intersection of Fourier parameters, the model predicted a huge rise in brightness in the middle of its decay phase because there were no data to constrain it there. So it fit a small uptick in the decay phase as though it were the small beginning of a massive re-brightening.

The more complicated the model, the more danger there is of drawing massive conclusions from tiny amounts of data or small trends. If the model is anything other than a straight line, be very very wary at out-of-sample predictions, especially when they are predicting order-of-magnitude changes.

A Rape Epidemic or How to Reframe Data:

The CDC recently released a study that claimed that 1.3 million women were raped and 12.6 million more were subject to sexual violence in 2010. This is six or more times the estimates of the FBI’s extremely rigorous NCVS estimate. Christina Hoff Summers has a breakdown of why the number is so massive:

It found them by defining sexual violence in impossibly elastic ways and then letting the surveyors, rather than subjects, determine what counted as an assault. Consider: In a telephone survey with a 30 percent response rate, interviewers did not ask participants whether they had been raped. Instead of such straightforward questions, the CDC researchers described a series of sexual encounters and then they determined whether the responses indicated sexual violation. A sample of 9,086 women was asked, for example, “When you were drunk, high, drugged, or passed out and unable to consent, how many people ever had vaginal sex with you?” A majority of the 1.3 million women (61.5 percent) the CDC projected as rape victims in 2010 experienced this sort of “alcohol or drug facilitated penetration.”

What does that mean? If a woman was unconscious or severely incapacitated, everyone would call it rape. But what about sex while inebriated? Few people would say that intoxicated sex alone constitutes rape — indeed, a nontrivial percentage of all customary sexual intercourse, including marital intercourse, probably falls under that definition (and is therefore criminal according to the CDC).

Other survey questions were equally ambiguous. Participants were asked if they had ever had sex because someone pressured them by “telling you lies, making promises about the future they knew were untrue?” All affirmative answers were counted as “sexual violence.” Anyone who consented to sex because a suitor wore her or him down by “repeatedly asking” or “showing they were unhappy” was similarly classified as a victim of violence. The CDC effectively set a stage where each step of physical intimacy required a notarized testament of sober consent.

In short, they did what is called “reframing”. They took someone’s experiences, threw away that person’s definition of them and substituted their own definition.

This isn’t the first time this has happened with rape stats nor the first time Summers had uncovered this sort of reframing. Here is an account of how researchers decided that women who didn’t think they had been raped were, in fact, raped, so they could claim a victimization rate of one in four.

Scientists have to classify things all the time based on a variety of criteria. The universe is a messy continuum; to understand it, we have to sort things into boxes. I classify stars for a living based on certain characteristics. The problem with doing that here is that women are not inanimate objects. Nor are they lab animals. They can have opinions of their own about what happened to them.

I understand that some victims may reframe their experiences to try to lessen the trauma of what happened to them. I understand that a woman can be raped but convince herself it was a misunderstanding or that it was somehow her fault. But to a priori reframe any woman’s experience is to treat them like lab rats, not human beings capable of making judgements of their own.

But it also illustrates a mathematical malpractice problem: changing definitions. This is how 10,000 underage prostitutes in the United States becomes 200,000 girls “at risk”. This is how small changes in drug use stats become an “epidemic”. If you dig deep into the studies, you will find the truth. But the banner headline — the one the media talk about — is hopelessly and deliberately muddled.

Sometimes you have to change definitions. The FBI changed their NCVS methodology a few years ago on rape statistics and saw a significant increase in their estimates. But it’s one thing to hone; it’s another to completely redefine.

(The CDC, as my friend Kevin Wilson pointed out, mostly does outstanding work. But they have a tendency to jump with both feet into moral panics. In this case, it’s the current debate about rape culture. Ten years ago, it was obesity. They put out a deeply flawed study that overestimated obesity deaths by a factor of 14. They quickly admitted their screwup but … guess which number has been quoted for the last decade on obesity policy?)

You might ask why I’m on about this. Surely any number of rapes is too many. The reason I wanted to talk about this, apart from my hatred of bogus studies, is that data influences policy. If you claim that 1.3 million women are being raped every year, that’s going to result in a set of policy decisions that are likely to be very damaging and do very little to address the real problem.

If you want a stat that means something, try this one: the incidence of sexual violence has fallen 85% over the last 30 years. That is from the FBI’s NCVS data so even if they are over- or under-estimating the amount of sexual violence, the differential is meaningful. That data tells you something useful: that whatever we are doing to fight rape culture, it is working. Greater awareness, pushing back against blaming the victim, changes to federal and state laws, changes to the emphasis of attorneys general’s offices and the rise of internet pornography have all been cited as contributors to this trend.

That’s why it’s important to push back against bogus stats on rape. Because they conceal the most important stat; the one that is the most useful guide for future policy and points the way toward ending rape culture.

The Pending Crash or How to Play with Scales:

Yesterday morning, I saw a chart claiming that the recent stock market trends are an eerie parallel of the run-up to the 1929 crash. I was immediately suspicious because, even if the data were accurate, we see this sort of crap all the time. There are a million people who have made a million bucks on Wall Street claiming to pattern match trends in the stock market. They make huge predictions, just like the Facebook study above. And those predictions are always wrong. Because, again, the out of sample data contains the real leverage.

This graph is even worse than that, though. As Quartz points out, the graph makers used two different y-axes. In one, the the 1928-29 rise of the stock market was a near doubling. In the other, the 2013-4 rise was an increase of about 25%. When you scale them appropriately, the similarity vanishes. Or, alternatively, the pending “crash” would be just an erasure of that 25% gain.

I’ve seen this quite a bit and it’s beginning to annoy me. Zoomed-in graphs of narrow ranges of the y-axis are used to draw dramatic conclusions about … whatever you want. This week, it’s the stock market. Next week, it’s global warming skeptics looking at little spikes on a 10-year temperature plot instead of big trends on a 150-year one. The week after, it will be inequality data. Here is one from Piketty and Saez, which tracks wealth gains for the rich against everyone else. Their conclusion might be accurate but the plot is useless because it is scaled to intervals of $5 million. So even if the bottom 90% were doing better, even if their income was doubling, it wouldn’t show up on the graph.

Halloween Linkorama

Sunday, November 3rd, 2013

Three stories today:

  • Bill James once said that, when politics is functioning well, elections should have razor thin margins. The reason is that the parties will align themselves to best exploit divisions in the electorate. If one party is only getting 40% of the vote, they will quickly re-align to get higher vote totals. The other party will respond and they will reach a natural equilibrium near 50% I think that is the missing key to understanding why so many governments are divided. The Information Age has not only given political parties more information to align themselves with the electorate, it has made the electorate more responsive. The South was utterly loyal the Democrats for 120 years. Nowadays, that kind of political loyalty is fading.
  • I love this piece about how an accepted piece of sociology turned out to be complete gobbledygook.
  • Speaking of gobbledygook, here is a review of the article about men ogling women. It sounds like the authors misquoted their own study.
  • Rush is Wrong on Religion

    Friday, September 20th, 2013

    I see that Rush Limbaugh has dived into the latest climate nontroversy. That makes this is a good time to post this, which I wrote several months ago. Sorry to make this Global Warming Week. I hate that debate. But with the way the Daily Fail’s nonsense is propagating, I have no choice.


    Mathematical Malpractice Watch: Cherry-Picking

    Sunday, September 15th, 2013

    Probably one of the most frustrating mathematical practices is the tendency of politicos to cherry-pick data: only take the data points that are favorable to their point of view and ignore all the others. I’ve talked about this before but two stories circling the drain of the blogosphere illustrated this practice perfectly.

    The first is on the subject of global warming. Global warming skeptics have recently been crowing about two pieces of data that supposedly contradict the theory of global warming: a slow-down in temperature rise over the last decade and a “60% recovery” in Arctic sea ice.

    The Guardian, with two really nice animated gifs, show clearly why these claims are lacking. Sea ice levels vary from year to year. The long-term trend, however, has been a dramatic fall with current sea ice levels being a third of what they were a few decades ago (and that’s just area: in terms of volume it’s much worse with sea ice levels being a fifth of what they were). The 60% uptick is mainly because ice levels were so absurdly low last year that the natural year-to-year variation is equal to almost half the total area of ice. In other words, the variation in yearly sea levels has not changed — the baseline has shrunk so dramatically that the variations look big in comparison. This could easily — and likely will — be matched by a 60% decline. Of course, that decline will be ignored by the very people hyping the “recovery”.

    Temperature does the same thing. If you look at the second gif, you’ll see the steady rise in temperature over the last 40 years. But, like sea ice levels, planetary temperatures vary from year to year. The rise is not perfect. But each time it levels or even falls a little, the skeptics ignore forty years worth of data.

    (That having been said, temperatures have been rising much slower for the last decade than they were for the previous three. A number of climate scientists now think we have overestimated climate sensitivity).

    But lest you think this sort of thing is only confined to the Right …

    Many people are tweeting and linking this article which claims that Louis Gohmert spouted 12 lies about Obamacare in two minutes. Some of the things Gohmert said were not true. But other were and still others can not really be assessed at this stage. To take on the lies one-by-one:

    Was Obamacare passed against the will of the people?

    Nope. It was passed by a president who won the largest landslide in two decades and a Democratic House and Senate with huge majorities. It was passed with more support than the Bush tax cuts and Medicare Part D, both of which were entirely unfunded. And the law had a mostly favorable perception in 2010 before Republicans spent hundreds of millions of dollars spreading misinformation about it.

    The first bits of that are true but somewhat irrelevant: the Iraq War had massive support at first, but became very unpopular. The second is cherry-picked. Here is the Kaiser Foundation’s tracking poll on Obamacare (panel 6). Obamacare barely crested 50% support for a brief period, well within the noise. Since then, it has had higher unfavorables. If anything, those unfavorables have actually fallen slightly, not risen in response to “Republican lies”.

    Supporters of the law have devised a catch-22 on the PPACA: if support falls, it’s because of Republican money; if it rises it’s because people are learning to love the law. But the idea that there could be opposition to it? Perish the thought!

    Is Obamacare still against the will of American people?

    Actually, most Americans want it implemented. Only 6 percent said they wanted to defund or delay it in a recent poll.

    That is extremely deceptive. Here is the poll. Only 6% want to delay or defund the law because 30% want it completely repealed. Another 31% think it needs to be improved. Only 33% think the law should be allowed to take effect or be expanded.

    (That 6% should really jump out at you since it’s completely at variance with any political reality. The second I saw it, I knew it was garbage. Maybe they should have focus-group-tested it first to come up with some piece of bullshit that was at least believable.)

    Of the remaining questions, many are judgement calls on things that have yet to happen. National Memo asserts that Obamacare does not take away your decisions about health care, does not put the government between you and your doctor and will not keep seniors from getting the services they need. All of these are judgement calls about things that have yet to happen. There are numerous people — people who are not batshit crazy like Gohmert — who think that Obamacare and especially the IPAB will eventually create government interference in healthcare. Gohmert might be wrong about this. But to call it a lie when someone makes a prediction about what will happen is absurd. Let’s imagine this playing out in 2002:

    We rate Senator Liberal’s claim that we will be in Iraq for a decade and it will cost 5000 lives and $800 billion to be a lie. The Bush Administration has claimed that US troops will be on the ground for only a few years and expect less than a thousand casualties and about $2 billion per month. In fact, some experts predict it will pay for itself.

    See what I did there?

    Obamacare is a big law with a lot of moving parts. There are claims about how it is going to work but we won’t really know for a long time. Maybe the government won’t interfere with your health care. But that’s a big maybe to bet trillions of dollars on.

    The article correctly notes that the government will not have access to medical records. But then it is asserts that any information will be safe. This point was overtaken by events this week when an Obamacare site leaked 2400 Social Security numbers.

    See what I mean about “fact-checking” things that have yet to happen?

    Then there’s this:

    Under Obamacare, will young people be saddled with the cost of everybody else?

    No. Thanks to the coverage for students, tax credits, Medicaid expansion and the fact that most young people don’t earn that much, most young people won’t be paying anything or very much for health care. And nearly everyone in their twenties will see premiums far less than people in their 40s and 50s. If you’re young, out of school and earning more than 400 percent of the poverty level, you may be paying a bit more, but for better insurance.

    This is incorrect. Many young people are being coerced into buying insurance that they wouldn’t have before. As Avik Roy has pointed out, cheap high-deductible plans have been effectively outlawed. Many college and universities are seeing astronomical rises in health insurance premiums, including my own. The explosion of invasive wellness programs, like UVAs, has been explicitly tied to the PPACA. Gohmert is absolutely right on this one.

    The entire point of Obamacare was to get healthy people to buy insurance so that sick people could get more affordable insurance. That is how this whole thing works. It’s too late to back away from that reality now.

    Does Obamacare prevent the free exercise of your religious beliefs?

    No. But it does stop you from forcing your beliefs on others. Employers that provide insurance have to offer policies that provide birth control to women. Religious organizations have been exempted from paying for this coverage but no one will ever be required to take birth control if their religion restricts it — they just can’t keep people from having access to this crucial, cost-saving medication for free.

    This is a matter of philosophy. Many liberals think that if an employer will not provide birth control coverage to his employees, he is “forcing” his religious views upon them (these liberals being under the impression that free birth control pills are a right). I, like many libertarians and conservatives (and independents), see it differently: that forcing someone to pay for something with which they have a moral qualm is violating their religious freedom. The Courts have yet to decide on this.

    I am reluctant to call something a “lie” when it’s a difference of opinion. Our government has made numerous allowance for religious beliefs in the past, including exemptions from vaccinations, the draft, taxes and anti-discrimination laws. We are still having a debate over how this applies to healthcare. Sorry, National Memo, that debate isn’t over yet.

    So let’s review. Of Gohmert’s 12 “lies”, the breakdown is like so:

    Lies: 4
    Debatable or TBD: 5
    Correct: 3
    Redundant: 1

    (You’ll note that’s 13 “lies”; apparently National Memo can’t count).

    So 4 only out of 13 are lies. Hey, even Ty Cobb only hit .366

    Mathematical Malpractice: Focus Tested Numbers

    Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013

    One of the things I keep encountering in news, culture and politics are numbers that appear to be pulled out of thin air. Concrete numbers, based on actual data, are dangerous enough in the wrong hands. But when data get scarce, this doesn’t seem to intimidate advocates and some social scientists. They will simply commission a “study” that produces, in essence, any number they want.

    What is striking is that the numbers seem to be selected with the diligent care and skill that the methods lack.

    The first time I became aware of this was with Bill Clinton. According to his critics — and I can’t find a link on this so it’s possibly apocryphal — when Bill Clinton initiated competency tests for Arkansas teachers, a massive fraction failed. He knew the union would blow their stack if the true numbers were released so he had focus groups convened to figure out what percentage of failures was expected, then had the test curved so that the results met the expectation.

    As I said, I can’t find a reference for that. I seem to remember hearing it from Limbaugh, so it may be a garbled version (I can find lawsuits about race discrimination with the testing, so it’s possible a mangled version of that). But the story struck me to the point where I remember it twenty years later. And the reason it struck is because:

  • It sounds like the sort of thing politicians and political activists would do.
  • It would be amazingly easy to do.
  • Our media are so lazy that you could probably get away with it.
  • Since then, I’ve seen other numbers which I call “focus tested numbers” even tough they may not have been run by focus groups. But they cross me as numbers derived by someone coming up with the number first and then devising the methodology second. They first part is the critical one. Whatever the issue is, you have to come with a number that is plausible and alarming without being ridiculous. Then you figure out the methods to get the number.

    Let’s just take an example. The first time I became aware of the work of Maggie McNeill was her thorough debunking of the claim that 200,000 underage girls are trafficked for sex in the United States. You should read that article, which comes to an estimate of about 15,000 total underage prostitutes (most which are 16 or 17) and only a few hundred to a few thousand that are trafficked in any meaningful sense of that word. That does not make the problem less important, but it does make it less panic-inducing.

    But the 200,000 number jumped out at me. Here’s my very first comment on Maggie’s blog and her response:

    Me: Does anyone know where the 100,000 estimate comes from? What research it’s based on?

    It’s so close to 1% [of total underage girls] that I suspect it may be as simple as that. We saw a similar thing in the 1980′s when Mitch Snyder claimed (and the media mindlessly repeated) that three million Americans were homeless (5-10 times the estimates from people who’d done their homework). It turned out the entire basis of that claim was that three million was 1% of the population.

    This is typical of the media. The most hysterical claim gets the most attention. If ten researchers estimates there are maybe 20,000 underage prostitutes and one big-mouth estimates there are 300,000, guess who gets a guest spot on CNN?


    Maggie: Honestly, I think 100,000 is just a good large number which sounds impressive and is too large for most people to really comprehend as a whole. The 300,000 figure appears to be a modification of a figure from a government report which claimed that something like 287,000 minors were “at risk” from “sexual exploitation” (though neither term was clearly defined and no study was produced to justify the wild-ass guess). It’s like that game “gossip” we played as children; 287,000 becomes 300,000, “at risk” becomes “currently involved” and “sexual exploitation” becomes “sex trafficking”. 🙁

    The study claimed that 100-300,000 girls were “at risk” of exploitation but defined “at risk” so loosely that simply living near a border put someone at risk. With such methods, the authors could basically claim any number they wanted. After reading that analysis and picking my jaw up off of the floor, I wondered why anyone would do it that way.

    And then it struck me: because the method wasn’t the point; the result was. Even the result wasn’t the point; the issue they wanted to advocate was. The care was not in the method: it was in the number. If they had said that there were a couple of thousand underage children in danger, people would have said, “Oh, OK. That sounds like something we can deal with using existing policies and smarter policing.” Or even worse, they might have said, “Well, why don’t we legalize sex work for adults and concentrate on saving these children?” If they had claimed a million children were in danger, people would have laughed. But claim 100-300,000? That’s enough to alarm people into action without making them laugh. It’s in the sweet spot between the “Oh, is that all?” number of a couple thousand and the “Oh, that’s bullshit” number of a million.

    Another great example was the number SOPA supporters bruted about to support their vile legislation. Julian Sanchez details the mathematical malpractice here. At first, they claimed that $250 billion was lost to piracy every year. That number — based on complete garbage — was so ridiculous they had to revise it down to $58 billion. Again, notice how well-picked that number is. At $250 billion, people laughed. If they had gone with a more realistic estimate — a few billion, most likely — no one would have supported such draconian legislation. But $58 billion? That’s enough to alarm people, not enough to make them laugh and — most importantly — not enough to make the media do their damn job and check it out.

    I encountered it again today. The EU is proposing to put speed limiters on cars. Their claim is this will cut traffic deaths by a third. Now, we actually do have some data on this. When the national speed limit was introduced in America, traffic fatalities initially fell about 20%, but then slowly returned to normal. They began falling again, bumped up a bit when Congress loosened the law, then leveled out in the 90’s and early 00’s after Congress completely repealed the national speed limit. The fatality rate has plunged over the last few years and is currently 40% below the 1970’s peak — without a speed limit.

    That’s just raw numbers, of course. In real terms — per million vehicle miles driven — fatalities have plunged almost 75% of the last forty years, with no effect of the speed limit law. Of course, more cars contain single drivers than ever before. But even on a per capita basis, car fatalities are half of what they once were.

    That’s real measurable progress. Unfortunately for the speed limiters, it’s result of improved technology and better enforcement of drunk driving laws.

    So the claim that deaths from road accidents will plunge by a third because of speed limits is simply not supported by data in the United States. They might plunge as technology, better roads and laws against drunk driving spread to Eastern Europe. And I’m sure one of the reasons they are pushing for speed limits is that they can claim credit for that inevitable improvement. But a one-third decline is just not realistic.

    No, I suspect that this is a focus tested number. If they claimed fatalities would plunge by half, people would laugh. If they claimed 1-2%, no one would care. But one-third? That’s in the sweet spot.


    Saturday, August 31st, 2013

    I have quite a few posts in the queue that will come out in the next few weeks but this has been my quietest month ever on the blog. One thing I did want to post on, however, came to a head tonight. While working in the basement, I knocked over a basket of bulbs and one shattered. Of course, it was a CFL with mercury in it so I had to follow the EPA’s elaborate instructions for cleaning up. Because it was the basement, I couldn’t take the most important step — airing out the room.

    Of course, the amount of mercury in CFL’s is very small — a couple of mg. I probably got ten times the exposure when I dropped and broke a mercury thermometer as a kid and then played with the mercury for a while. But still, these things were foisted on us and encouraged before anyone had really explained the potential danger (in parts of the world, they’re now mandatory). The EPA has done an analysis showing that, on balance, less mercury will be released into the environment because of the decreased amount of coal burnt to power the bulbs. However, I’m not sure this analysis is accurate since 1) history shows that greater energy efficiency mostly results in us using more powered devices: energy use tends to rise or be flat; 2) coal is slowly dying an industry. Powered by gas or nuclear, it’s likely that CFL’s will put more mercury into the environment. It also ignores the aspect that having mercury in the air from power plants is a little different from having it on the floor where your children play.

    LED bulbs are better but … they have their own concerns, which no one talks about.

    Global warming is real — one of my queued posts is on that subject. But the environmental movement has become fixated on it almost to the exclusion of all else. There is no such thing as perfect technology. Wind and solar require dirty manufacturing techniques and extensive use of rare-earth elements (that have to be mined). Nuclear has its obvious dangers. Fracking is less carbon-intense than coal, but doesn’t come without its own set of risks.

    The problem is that we do not talk about these trade-offs. We don’t balance rare-earth mining versus radioactive waste versus carbon emissions. We simply get into tizzies about global warming or nuclear waste and stampede toward something that looks good. And that extends into the home. On balance, I might take an LED or CFL light because it saves money, saved energy and the toxin risk is low. But that choice should not be mandated. People should be free to make their own evaluations of the tradeoffs.

    Saturday Linkorama

    Sunday, June 23rd, 2013
  • This visualization of the Right of Spring is seriously seriously cool. Seeing the music like that, you start hearing the subtleties that elude you when you just hear it. This is one of the reasons I like to see classical music in performance. There is so much more going on than the ear can take in.
  • This map of linguistic divides in the United States, is something I could spend an entire post on. I match most of the pronunciations from Georgia except for “lawyer” and “pajamas”.
  • This story, about charities that just exist to raise money, should be getting national attention. It’s a disgrace.
  • I’ve used some of these.
  • Roman concrete was apparently better than the shit we’re using.
  • I think this is more or less true: the financial industry has stopped being about enabling economic progress and more about itself. When engineers can make more moving piles of money around than inventing things, we’ve got a problem.
  • Teenage boys killed the sex scene.
  • There’s Vitamins and then There’s Vitamins

    Thursday, June 13th, 2013

    Note from Mike: I recently tweeted an NYT story that claims deleterious health effects from consuming too many vitamins with the note that I thought it likely people were gobbling too many pills. My wife decided the article merited a response.

    This NYT article on vitamins contained a few scientific issues that I feel the need to respond to. Unfortunately, the NYT didn’t allow opinions to be expressed so you will have to endure my ranting and raving.

    The article provides details about published studies, two of which are published in The New England Journal of Medicine, that claim deleterious effects from excessive vitamin consumption. These studies show that those that took Vitamin A or beta carotene (Vitamin K) supplements were more likely to die from lung cancer or heart disease compared to those who didn’t. The article also lists other studies showing a correlation between taking Vitamin A, E, beta carotene (Vitamin K), Vitamin C and selenium supplements and mortality. The author then goes on the say the link between mortality and the vitamins ingested are antioxidants.

    I cannot agree with this conclusion as this conflates fat soluble vitamins and water soluble vitamins and minerals. Vitamins A, D, E and K are fat soluble meaning any excess taken in the diet is stored in the fat of an individual and the body can’t regulate these nearly as well as the water soluble ones. Selenium is water soluble, as are the Vitamins B and C. An excess of a water soluble vitamin or mineral is removed in the urine by the body. I can therefore see the disease and mortality states arising from fat soluble vitamins. But I am concerned that the studies showing consuming the water soluble vitamins plus Vitamin C and selenium came to the wrong conclusion. It may be a case of guilt by association with the fat soluble vitamins. Have any studies looked at water soluble vitamins in isolation?

    I worry about this because there are benefits to high vitamin levels for certain conditions. The third paragraph claims:

    Nutrition experts argue that people need only the recommended daily allowance — the amount of vitamins found in a routine diet. Vitamin manufacturers argue that a regular diet doesn’t contain enough vitamins, and that more is better.

    Up until I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), I would have subscribed to the nutrition experts’ opinion as well. But after turning my research interests towards the genetic underpinnings of MS (I am a medical geneticist), I quickly uncovered how vital Vitamin D is in the management of the relapse-remitting disease. I even tried getting out in the sun in the summer and turned to tanning beds in the winter to maximize my body producing enough Vitamin D to manage my MS without resorting to Vitamin D supplements. After many flare ups over a two to three year period, the last of which put me in a wheelchair in the summer time, my Vitamin D level came back each time as below optimal levels. For this reason, I now take four times the FDA recommended level of Vitamin D in a supplement form to help manage my MS. Over the past year of doing this, I can report, my MS is well managed without any flare ups. For this reason, I think that the levels listed on the recommended daily allowance are not adequate for people with medical conditions needing additional supplements.

    I consume a prescription strength dose of folate, vitamin B12 and Vitamin B6 for overcoming the chance of a miscarriage while I carry my second child. After three miscarriages, I was recently diagnosed as being a carrier of a gene known to be involved with miscarriages as well as migraines, cardiovascular disease and other disorders. To overcome this reduced gene function, more Vitamin B is needed to reduce homocysteine levels in the body. Since Vitamin B is a water soluble vitamin, I am also supplementing it with the consumption of spinach, which does not contain much Vitamin B12 or Vitamin B6, just folic acid (folate). Since my taste for spinach is waning, I rely on the supplement strength pill for these additional vitamins as I know my body can self regulate the concentration of these vitamins without much harm to the baby. Similarly, my husband also has the same genetic abnormality and suffers from migraines. To treat this disease, we buy an over the counter Vitamin B supplement for his symptom management at not much cost to us versus the prescription strength pill that I take.

    This is why calling on the FDA to better regulate vitamin supplement sales makes me a bit nervous. If the FDA becomes involved in this fight, I worry that the ability to self regulate symptom management for diseases and disorders may be impaired. Tighter regulation of the fat soluble vitamins may be justified. But it is not obvious that tighter regulation of water soluble vitamins is.

    Late May Linkorama

    Tuesday, May 28th, 2013
  • A brief bit of mathematical malpractice, although not a deliberate one. The usually smart Sarah Kliff cites a study that of an ER that showed employees spent nearly 5000 minutes on Facebook. Of course, over 68 computers and 15 days, that works out to about 4 minutes per day per computer which … really isn’t that much.
  • What’s interesting about the Netflix purge is that many of the studios are pulling movies to start their own streaming services. This is idiotic. I’m pretty tech savvy and I have no desire to have 74 apps on my iPad, one for each studio. If I want to watch a movie, I’m going to Netflix or Amazon or iTunes, not a studio app (that I have to pay another subscription fee for). In fact, many days my streaming is defined by opening up the Netflix app and seeing what intrigues me.
  • We go into this on Twitter. The NYT ran an article about how little nutrition our food has. Of course, they have defined “nutritional content” as the amount of pigment which has dubious nutritional value (aside from anti-oxidant value; so, no nutritional value). As Kevin Wilson said according to the graph, the value of blue corn is that it is blue and not yellow.
  • While we’re on the subject of nutrition, it turns out that low sodium intake may not only not be beneficial, it may even be harmful. I’m slowly learning that almost everything we think we know about nutrition is shaky at best.
  • Ultra-conserved words. I am fascinated by language.
  • Wine tasting is bullshit.
  • How the peaceful loving people-friendly Soviet Union tried to militarize space.
  • The most remote places in each state.
  • Porn is not the problem. You are. More on how “sex addiction” is a made up disorder.
  • Meet the coins that could rewrite history. Every time we learn more about the past, we find out that our ancestors were smarter and more adventurous than we thought they were. And some people think they needed aliens to build the pyramids.
  • The Law of BS

    Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

    Some time ago, I talked about my Rule of Expertise. I’m in the process of catching up on old posts from Bill James’ website. The article I refer to is behind a firewall. It’s about the Jeffrey MacDonald case. But in the course of it, Bill says something utterly brilliant:

    There are certain characteristics of bullshit, and there are certain characteristics of the truth. The truth tends to be specific; bullshit tends to be vague and imprecise. The truth tends to involve facts that can be checked out; bullshit is always built around things that you have no way of checking out. The truth tends to be told consistently, the same from one day to the next; bullshit changes every time it is told. Stable, responsible honest people tend to tell the truth; unstable, dishonest, unreliable people tend to bullshit. The truth is coherent and logical; bullshit is incoherent and illogical.

    Almost everything I said in my Law of Expertise post could be considered a subset of that general rule. When an “expert” tells you what a great expert he is, he’s spewing vague bullshit. Real experts tend to be specific, consistent and verifiable.


    I think the equation has changed a bit in the Information Age. The internet has a long memory and this has forced the bullshitters to be more consistent and more specific. The result is that BS now gets debunked faster than ever. However, it has also allowed BS to assume a facade of truth that fools some people.

    Think about vaccine hysteria. The lies are specific, consistent and seem to involve facts. That makes people believe it, even after thorough and unremitting debunking.

    (I should note, in passing, that the MacDonald case is of particular interest to me. My dad was — and still is, as far as I know — convinced that MacDonald was an innocent man railroaded by a biased judge, a vindictive prosecutor, a slimy writer and a vengeful father-in-law. I was convinced of that myself until I read Weingarten’s post, which pointed out that there is almost no evidence to prove MacDonald’s contention that his family was murdered by a bunch of hippies and that all the extant evidence — including recently tested tissue under the wife’s fingernails — supports the prosecution case. It’s kind of rare that I disagree with my dad on something like this, but … I do. The prosecution was able to put together a scenario consistent with the evidence (although I don’t buy the amphetamines angle). The defense wasn’t.

    However, while I am mostly convinced that MacDonald probably did murder his family, I’m not as sure that he should have been convicted. The crime scene was not properly secured, for one and exculpatory evidence might have been destroyed. The judge did seem biased against MacDonald. And I do think Bill James (and Megan McArdle) make a good point about prosecutions — once they focus on a suspect, they develop a tunnel vision which sees everything in light of that suspicion. James’ makes what I think is the most important point: the prosecution’s case fits together extremely well … if you assume that MacDonald was the killer.

    It’s an awful case and probably one of the reasons it fascinates so many people. On the one hand, you could have an innocent man convicted of one of the most heinous crimes a man can commit. On the other hand, you have a man committing one of the most heinous crimes a man can commit, including the deliberate murder of a sleeping toddler.

    In any case, you should subscribe to James’ site if you have even a mild interest in baseball. Baseball analysis is only part of what he offers.)

    Sunday Linkorama

    Sunday, April 28th, 2013
  • A fascinating look at how dollar bills move, courtesy of the Where’s George website. I find it fascinating the Pennsylvania is divided in half.
  • This is what I mean by Sports Media Twerp. They are never wrong and everybody else is just an idiot.
  • Really interesting blog on the least visited countries in the world. The writer is trying to visit every country at least once. Wish I had the resources for that.
  • I wish climate scientists would not overstate their conclusions. It makes it so much easier for people to pretend global warming is a hoax.
  • John McWhorter has a great article disputing the notion that texting is destroying the English language.
  • The contention that FDR was anti-semitic does not really surprise me. Years ago I read a book called While Six Million Died that detailed, point by point, how FDR did almost nothing to stop or prevent the Holocaust. It was only when members of his own Administration confronted him over foot-dragging on the issue of saving Romanian Jews that he did anything. He defeated Hitler, of course, which was why he became a hero to my grandparents’ generation. But the idea that he was immune from the anti-semitism that gripped much of the country and the world is absurd.
  • Fascinating and kind of frightening photo essay of high-density living. Think of all the stories you see in each picture.
  • Arguments Against the Paleo Diet

    Monday, April 22nd, 2013

    This video makes some fantastic points about the so-called “paleo diet”:

    This post, which I wrote months ago, was originally much longer and incorporated many of the points Dr. Zuk makes, in particular my belief that evolution proceeds in a haphazard random way and does not necessarily lead to some supreme state.

    She also puts some science behind the principle objection I have always had: that there is unlikely to be some idyllic point X at which our diet was perfectly suited to our physiology then and forever more. We have evolved with our diet. Our diet has been evolving since we were primordial slime. Claiming that our ancestors’ diet at some time X — even making the huge assumption that we know what our ancestors ate at point X — is arbitrary. Why go back to that point? Why not go back to the time when we were primordial slime eating protozoans?

    Moreover, how do we know that our ancestors were eating the right foods in the first place? That’s a gigantic assumption to make based on what we know about evolution. Isn’t it possible that their paleo diet was actually bad for them? That they only ate it because they had no choice in the matter? That our technology and diet has evolved toward something better suited to us?

    All that having been said, I’m not slamming the paleo diet, per se. Some people seem to have improved their health with it and I’ve found that cutting carbs benefits me. I do think the current received wisdom of cutting fat and protein and emphasizing carbs is not nearly as supported by the science as our government likes to pretend it is. But let’s not swing the pendulum too far back and pretend that the paleo diet has more science behind it. Or that any one-size-fits-all diet is appropriate. I think the point to take away is that diet is a lot more complex and a lot less well understood than we would like.

    Big Damn Linkorama

    Wednesday, March 20th, 2013

    It’s been a while and I’ve been accumulating links. You’ll have to forgive me if I ramble on a bit.

  • This article, about the potential for solar-powered roads, reminded me of Robert Heinlein’s The Roads Must Roll. But I am deeply skeptical that the kind of durable materials could be manufactured in the quantities needed. When people talk about alternative energy, they never seem to take into account the expense — financial and environmental — of manufacture and maintenance.
  • See, I told you Christopher Ryan was full of shit. He writes about our bleak future with sexbots taking over (or something). But Maggie McNeill — who knows a thing or two about sex — has frequently pointed out that people want intimacy for sex, not just pleasure. And a device capable of reproducing that would have rights of its own. Masturbation doesn’t cut down on the amount of sex people have. And I also haven’t noticed that the proliferation of dildos, vibrators and fleshlights has remotely cut down on the amount of sex going on (and reminder, dildos date back thousands of years). We have sex for intimacy as well as pleasure.
  • An impressive study reveals the age of the Iliad. Seems it was written about four or five centuries after the events.
  • This study disputes the idea that people’s political preferences change with age. You can clearly see that Democratic/Republic preferences are often based on who was in charge when the voter came of age. This doesn’t surprise me at all. As you can see in the graphs, Roosevelt, Kennedy, Reagan, Ford, Bush I, Clinton, Obama and Ike were respected and made lifelong supporters. Truman, Johnson, Carter, Nixon, and Bush II were hated and made lifelong opponents. I knew teachers who would never vote Republican because of Nixon. And I know people who will never vote Democrat because of Carter. It will be interesting to see how history judges Obama. I suspect he will create more lifelong supporters than opponents.
  • The opposition to GMO’s grows ever more absurd. We now have a golden rice that could literally save millions per year. And the opposition to them is increasingly based on lies and distortions.
  • Boobs Again

    Saturday, March 16th, 2013

    In a rather grammatically- and stylistically-challenged article, the Atlantic talks about the latest study:

    Viren Swami and Martin Tovée at the Universities of Manchester and Newcastle, respectively, look into the intricate world of why physical ideals are ideals, and in turn why they drive people beyond reason and morality in the current Archives of Sexual Behavior.

    Stylistic note: this lead make it sounds like the study is unique. But I’m guessing that the Archives of Sexual Behavior have published dozens if not hundreds of articles on why physical ideals are ideals. Indeed, the abstract says as much. So why are we talking about this one in particular? Is it the best done so far? I’m going to make the case below that it isn’t even close. What we’re about see is what I call the Scientific Peter Principle: poorly designed studies usually have the most attention-getting results.

    (Also, do ideals drive people beyond reason and morality? That’s an awfully loaded statement.)

    The problem is primal, so the research methods are not to be outdone. 361 white British men were “taken to a quiet private location” to look at women. Not real women; 3D computer renderings. The men were allowed to rotate them 360 degrees. The only difference among the women was breast size.

    The men were then asked to “make their ratings on a paper-and-pencil survey.”

    Emphasis mine. “Not to be outdone”? I can think of about a dozen ways I could outdo this study.

    Swami and Tovée compared the results with the men’s preferences in breast size, which showed that “men who more strongly endorsed benevolently sexist attitudes toward women, who more strongly objectified women, and who were more hostile toward women idealized a large female breast size.”

    The study’s abstract, which is all I have access to, is rather stunning in its lack of humility. After noting that previous studies have been ambiguous, they boldly proclaim their results and then say:

    These results were discussed in relation to feminist theories, which postulate that beauty ideals and practices in contemporary societies serve to maintain the domination of one sex over the other.

    Even if we were to accept the conclusions of this article — and I don’t — it’s a long way from there to beauty ideals maintaining the domination of one sex over the other. Would you like some science with your ideology? Actually, we don’t even need to go to the abstract to see the boldly stated ideological bias. The title is: “Men’s Oppressive Beliefs Predict Their Breast Size Preferences in Women”.

    So, yeah.

    You probably know that I’m not going to be sympathetic to this and not just because of my distaste for ideology. In my previous post, I stated my hypothesis that the breast fetish is just like any other fetish — something that the male mind has latched onto as a way of identifying potential mates. It’s commonality is simply because of its obviousness — visible breasts are the easiest way to identify the female of our species. It’s not a social construct, per se. It is a preference that arises within a social construct. If it weren’t breasts, it would be something else (and almost always is). But the key point here is that fetishes are not really chosen. They just happen. It’s just something that, on a very primal level, the human sexual id locks onto.

    Still, even without my prior assumptions and biases, we can easily see that this study, which has now been widely cited by various mainstream sites (and not just because they like to talk about breasts), has some big problems.

    First, the study was of 361 men. 361 men who were willing to be taken to a “private, quiet location”. 361 whose age, employment and marital status is not exactly clear. That’s an awfully small and demographically narrow number to be drawing conclusions from.

    Second, if the 3D drawing in the Atlantic article is an accurate reproduction of what they were shown, this wasn’t a reasonable test at all. I hate to break this to the authors, but the average bust size in the Western World is quite large and increasing: at least a 36C by old standards and probably larger if the lamentations of bra fitters are to be believed. This is partly rising obesity, marginally because of implants and mostly for reasons that aren’t really clear. This has had a significant effect on the landscape in that men’s perception of what constitutes a big bust has changed. Looking at the figures, even the last one didn’t really cross me as “very large”. Were these informed by some statistical survey of women’s breasts sizes? That’s one way you could improve this “not to be outdone” study.

    There’s a related issue of body type. Critics of male sexuality often claim that men want big breasts on skinny bodies. Certainly, there is a subset of men who like that but most men who prefer busty women actually prefer curvy women. They like big hips and curvy backsides just as much as they like big breasts. Asking these men to look at 3-D computer models — frankly, none of which look like a real woman — is problematic at best.

    (Aside: as I argued in my previous blog, male preferences are not monopolar. All things being equal, a man may prefer a woman with bigger breasts. But in the real world, things are rarely equal. He may be fine with a woman with smaller breasts if she has other features he finds attractive — enchanting eyes, a warm smile, a slender frame, beautiful hair. And — this is a critical point — if a man likes a woman, finds her interesting, enjoys her company — he will begin to see her as attractive. She will become beautiful to him. He will see the beauty in her even if there really isn’t that much to see on an objective level.

    I would posit that there are very few men who date or are attracted to women entirely on bust size. Their preference in models and pornography — situations in which there is no interaction — may reflect a preference (although even then there is probably a broad range). But their behavior in real life can be wildly at variance with this. I would bet you that a significant fraction of the men who preferred “very large” breasts are dating or married to skinny women. And I would bet that some of the men who preferred “very small” breasts are dating or married to busty women. And I would further bet that they find the women in their lives attractive despite not conforming to their preferences in zombie-like computer models.)

    Third, the questions. I don’t have access to the study, but here are the sample questions they provided:

    Attitudes Toward Women Scale (sample prompt: ”Intoxication among women is worse than intoxication among men.”)

    Hostility Towards Women Scale (sample prompt: ”I feel that many times women flirt with men just to tease them or hurt them.”)

    Benevolent Sexism subscale of the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory (sample prompt: “Women, as compared to men, tend to have a more refined sense of culture and good taste.”)

    Whoa, really? Those are your sample prompts? Those three prompts are all judgements. You would probably find lots of women who would agree with at least a couple of those. You would probably find that a man would agree or disagree based on his emotional state (if he’s just had a bad break-up, for example). And prompt three (and many of the questions on Ambivolet Sexism Inventory from which they are taken) aren’t clearly sexist. Many of even the most blatant ones probably probe misanthropy far more than they probe misogyny specifically.**

    (Another aside: the Atlantic author illustrates sexism by quoting a lawsuit in which a boss constantly commented on a co-worker’s breasts and once shook her breast as a substitute for shaking her hand. This is not the behavior of a man who likes big breasts or thinks women have a more refined sense of cultural taste. This is the behavior of a sociopath.)

    But I think the real flaw is highlighted by Ann Althouse:

    They were taking a science-y survey, so deference to authority and desire to be socially acceptable would be an influence along with real-world sexual preference.

    The scientists found “men who more strongly endorsed benevolently sexist attitudes toward women, who more strongly objectified women, and who were more hostile toward women idealized a large female breast size.” Were these men really the ones who “idealized a large female breast size,” or were they simply the ones who didn’t feel as strongly compelled to moderate their opinions to conform to the perceived demands of polite society?

    Exactly. I keep harping on this in the social sciences: there is a huge difference between what people think and do and what they tell a group of leering scientists that they think and do. Most people do not want to be perceived as abnormal (or sexist). This is a big problem with this study since, if I read it correctly, the men were shown all five images at the same time. This creates a very obvious social pressure that is different from if five groups of men were shown five different images separately. Hell, if I were put in a room and asked which image I liked, I might say 3 or 4 even though I would prefer 4 or 5 (and would actually prefer a real women with real physical proportions).

    How would I improve this “not to be outdone” survey? First of all, I would have a lot more than 361 white British men. Second, I would show each man only one image and ask him to rate her on a scale of 1-10. Second, I would get images of real women and digitally alter them, using some statistical model based on women’s actual bust sizes. Third, I would make a second axis by having some women altered to have both bigger hips and bigger breasts and others to just have bigger breasts. Breast size and hip size are correlated, as anyone who has seen real women instead of 3-D models knows. Fourth, I would use something a little less ambiguous than these prompts. For example, I might give the men two different job applications and just change the gender and see how they rated the applicant. Or have some people enact a job situation and ask them what they thought of the woman’s behavior. Something a little more direct, at any rate.

    Or I might go to the gigantic database compiled by the authors of A Billion Wicked Thoughts who gathered data from Google when men didn’t know they were being studied. The only problem is that I would probably find — as those researchers did — that men actually prefer curvy women, not just just busty ones. And that would ruin my thesis that a preference for big boobs is a results of sexism.

    So, let’s sum up: a small and poorly designed study asked men to look at unrealistic images of women. They were then asked leading questions of dubious utility. And from this, we conclude that men who like big boobs are more likely to be hostile to women and that feminist theory is vindicated.

    That makes me feel some hostility all right. But it’s not directed against women.

    **Update: Michael Talarski alerted me that there are links to the questions in the Atlantic article. Here is the attitude toward women quiz. The other triggers a download. The questions are mostly reasonable probes of attitudes toward women (although a few are bit ambiguous). But I would be curious to see how women score on that test. And I would be especially curious to see if these attitudes correlate with actual behavior.