Posts Tagged ‘Education’

Mike’s Rule of Expertise

Sunday, February 17th, 2013

Shortly after I graduated from college, I was on a kick to try to get healthy and lose weight. It still hasn’t worked, 19 years la- … holy crap, 19 years?! … let me see … 1994 .. good God, I’m old … anyway, it still hasn’t worked 19 year later.

At one point, I tried Herbalife. This was not something I came to of my own accord. A friend’s husband was into it on the lowest tier of their multi-level marketing. I was too young and stupid to know just how idiotic herbal supplements were, so I figured “what the hell” and jumped.

It was a big mistake. The compound contained ephedra and it caused my first incident of Premature Ventricular Contractions — a common harmless arrhythmia that nevertheless is scary as hell. Some time later I tried a prescription weight loss pill that also caused PVC’s. They went away after I stopped, mostly. I still get them occasionally, most notably right after my wedding and when I haven’t been getting enough sleep. I had a full cardio workup six years ago and everything looks fine. But I still wonder if the ephedra did any permanent damage.

The thing is that I’m not normally into that sort of thing. But it was sold to me because I wasn’t terribly familiar with high-pressure marketing techniques and certainly didn’t expect them from a friend’s husband. I’ve since … well not wised up, exactly. I’ve gotten confident enough to tell people to fuck off. In fact, high pressure sales pitches are the surest way to drive me away. When we bought our first home, I literally walked out on people who tried to get me to buy right then with “if you buy right now” incentives. The home we bought was sold in a low-pressure way. We felt — correctly as it happened — that this reflected the salesman’s confidence in his product.

I’m rambling. Let me get to the point. Part of the sales pitch I got for Herbalife went like this:

Mike, I’m telling you, I’ve investigated all kinds of supplements. I’ve looked into everything. And I’ve researched this product really thoroughly. I wouldn’t take anything I didn’t know everything about. So trust me: this is the real deal.

Standard stuff, right? But hidden within that is something I’ve come to recognize as the mark of a shyster. If someone spends an inordinate amount of time telling you, in a vague sense, how much experience they have and how much expertise they have and how they’ve really researched this and they’ve looked at everything out there, they are, to be blunt, full of shit.

This instinct has served me well. When Neal Boortz began flogging the Fair Tax, he talked about how much research had been done and how he’d looked at every plan out there (really? every plan?). That pinged my radar and I did some research and found out that the Fair Tax had giant gaping problems (documented here). When a contractor came by and gave me a pitch about how he’d tried everything and he was the best expert, I went with someone else.

And you see this constantly in the alternative medicine crowd. Sellers and promoters will constantly tell you how extensively they’ve surveyed things, how much research they’ve done, how much experience they have and, inevitably, it turns out not to be the case.

So, in my roundabout way, here is Mike’s Rule of Expertise: Experts don’t constantly reassure you of their expertise; they simply dole out facts and data.

Let cite some good examples from my blogroll: Radley Balko doesn’t talk about what an expert he is on criminal justice matters; he tells you specifically what he’s learned, seen and read. The Bad Astronomer doesn’t talk about how much experience he has in astrophysics; he points you at research and researchers who’ve done the work. Maggie McNeill doesn’t pontificate about her extensive background in the sex industry; she links every study and opinion piece she can find. Joe Posnanski doesn’t talk about how many athletes he’s interviewed or how much Bill James likes him; he crunches the numbers, gets the quotes and presents the facts.

I’ve been to hundreds of science talks. Not one has centered around the speaker’s credentials and how they’ve explored every alternate theory. They present hypothesis, data and conclusion. The best ones acknowledge their limitations and possible alternate theories. The kind of dead certainty you will encounter in, say, a homeopathy practitioner, is minimal in any good scientist and absent in the best ones.

This is how real experts do it. Experts want you to trust the facts; con men want you to trust them.

(In a related note, I, like most astronomers, rarely affix “Ph.D.” to the end of my name unless I’m applying for a grant where the credential is required. I also only refer to myself as “Dr. Siegel” when yelling at the cable company. And the only time I’m called that at work is either as part of a running gag or when being addressed formally (grant correspondence, for example; and I usually encourage them to call me Mike). This is partially because astronomers are an informal bunch. It is also related to my time at UVa, where everyone except Ed School professors and medical doctors takes the moniker of “Mr.” and “Ms.” as a sign of respect to Mr. Jefferson.

But I also I think this flows from the same skepticism of over-credentialing. A real scientist wants you to trust the data, not them. The only academics I know who use the Ph.D. suffix or the Doctor prefix are either a) pretentious; b) medical doctors, where I think it’s appropriate, and c) women or minorities in disciplines where they have trouble being taken seriously and it’s hard to begrudge them. And anyone who refers to themselves as “Dr. Smith, Ph.D.” is almost certainly full of it.)

What brought this to my frontal lobe was a re-eruption (a few months ago now) of controversy over Sex at Dawn. I find the premise of Sex at Dawn — that humans are naturally polyamorous — interesting if flawed. But what has long bothered me is the certainty with which this supposedly scientific premise is discussed. Every time I hear Christopher Ryan speak, I feel like he’s about to sell me herbal supplements. He’s not quite as bad as my friend’s now ex-husband. He actually does know some stuff. But he seems stunningly unaware of what he doesn’t know or of what facts are inconsistent with his thesis. Is he right? Dammit, if this comes down to me reading his book, I give up.

Anyway, there is some controversy over Christopher Ryan’s credentials. I took a look at his wikipedia page and this is what I found:

He received a BA in English and American literature in 1984 and an MA and Ph.D. in psychology from Saybrook University, in San Francisco, CA twenty years later. He spent the intervening decades traveling around the world, living in unexpected places working odd jobs (e.g., gutting salmon in Alaska, teaching English to prostitutes in Bangkok and self-defense to land-reform activists in Mexico, managing commercial real-estate in New York’s Diamond District, helping Spanish physicians publish their research). Drawing upon his multi-cultural experience, Ryan’s academic research focused on trying to distinguish the human from the cultural. His doctoral dissertation analyzes the prehistoric roots of human sexuality, and was guided by the psychologist, Stanley Krippner.

Ryan has guest lectured at the University of Barcelona Medical School, consulted at various hospitals, contributed to publications ranging from Behavioral and Brain Sciences (Cambridge University Press) to a textbook used in medical schools and teaching hospitals throughout Spain and Latin America and makes frequent mass media appearances. Ryan contributes to both Psychology Today and Huffington Post.[

I read that and I heard, “I’m telling you, I’ve been all over the world and met all kinds of people and read all the papers. And this polyamory thing; this is the real deal.” Maybe Ryan is right. I’ve got an 80-book backlog right now, but I’m hoping to get to his at some point. But a Wikipedia entry filled with such a wide array of credentials combined with his “I’m such an expert” public statements make me suspect the work has flaws. And what I’ve read indicates this perception is correct. If and when I get to his book, I’ll know for sure.

(I wrote the above a couple of months ago. When I went to it today, I was reminded of a recent post at Popehat that mocked a legal spammer for doing the same thing: talking himself up as some modern-day renaissance man. Ken has a lot more experience in dealing with shyster lawyers, obviously. His approach to this is different because he gets a lot of legal spamming. But the basic tenet is the same: a real hot shot lawyer doesn’t try to wow you with his credentials.)

Thursday Linkorama

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

I think I’ve spent the entirety of this week either on the phone or having a meeting or curled up in bed with a migraine. Sigh. Some weeks are like that.

  • I can’t say that I enjoy the retuning of some songs to different keys, per se. I do, however, find it utterly fascinating how important key is to the mood and feel of a song or musical piece. I knew a woman back in college who had a variety of health issues that would eventually take her at a young age. But she was an amazing pianist who could shift the key on a song instantly and play it perfectly. Somehow, it never changed the tone like these retunings do.
  • Cracked looks at lines censored by TV. My brother and I used to get great amusement from watching movies like The Breakfast Club and Police Academy on Channel 46. The dubbing was so bad and the lines so hilariously stupid, we almost preferred them. My favorite comes from Police Academy: “Mahoney …. nobody plays with me.” with “plays” delivered about an octave and a half lower than Bailey’s register.
  • This article, which tries to argue that Southern dominance of Miss America is a result of racism, is so idiotic, so filled with PC bullshit and is such an inaccurate assessment of Southern history, culture and tradition, that it could only possibly have been published in the New York Times.
  • Eerie pictures of Chernobyl and amazing pictures of World War I.
  • Jacob Sullum details some of the concerns about allowing the CDC to do research into guns. I’m in favor of lifting restrictions on scientific research, even if it does mean politicized work. I just hate restrictions too much. But it is worth noting that the public health experts have a bad history of cooking the books to reach their conclusions, as seen in the EPA’s study of second-hand smoke and the CDC’s own study of obesity deaths.
  • A woman drives 900 miles out of her way and through several countries due to a supposed GPS error. Maybe it’s me, but I doubt the GPS was the only malfunctioning thing in that car.
  • An environmentalist admits he was wrong on GMO’s. Thanks a lot.
  • How much do you want to bet that most of the people involved in these idiocies were not fired?
  • I can’t vouch for the accuracy, but if these people really have recreated a hairstyle from the Roman Empire, that’s pretty damned cool.
  • Mathematical Malpractice: Spree Killings Again

    Monday, December 17th, 2012

    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.

    Texas Linkorama

    Wednesday, December 12th, 2012
  • The idea of building gondolas in Austin strikes me as a really dumb. Gondols are slow and would take up lots of space for the number of passengers they transport. Texans aren’t big on mass transit to begin with (the light rail system is likely to be a flop). And what do you need a gondola for in a city that is really flat? This crosses me as a solution in search of a problem. And if it doesn’t have high ridership, it’s bad for the environment. And expensive.
  • Down with homework!
  • I always suspected that the high I got off parenting was an evolutionary thing. I find these things intriguing and fascinating. Much of what we feel in life: compassion, empathy, love, tenderness is the result of millions of years of evolution making us into creatures that look for the species rather than ourselves.
  • A really good post on the Jefferson slave thing. Also, highly recommended on the subject: Ta-Nehisi Coates. Actually, TNC is just recommended, full stop.
  • One day, parenting authorities will get it through thick skulls like that fun physical activities are good for children even when they involve a low amount of risk.
  • Ah, peak oil. These days, the biggest energy concern is that we won’t run out of fossil fuels and that global warming will be worse than feared.
  • A fascinating story from NPR about how our image of Jesus has changed with social norms.
  • While it strikes me that global helium supplies are a legitimate concern, the idea that our technical needs in 50 years will be the same as they are now crosses me as silly. Think about the chemicals that were important 50 years ago. Are we in the grips of a global lead shortage?
  • Wednesday Linkorama

    Wednesday, October 17th, 2012
  • Distracted parenting is a problem, obviously. But, despite the horrible tragedies described, it’s not clear how big a problem it is. Mobile devices free parents up to do more things with kids and to supervise them more. I will let on, however, that they can occupy your attention. I was at a park when a kid broke his arm and didn’t notice immediately because of my phone. Don’t know if it would have been different with my kid.
  • I’m really looking forward to reading Nate Silver’s book.
  • Statues at the bottom of the sea. Amazing. And heart-breaking, when you think of what they represent.
  • I think this author has a good point that the Star Wars universe is likely illiterate. However, I think it’s less a conscious “where is modernism driving us” thing than a reflection of Star Wars being built on medieval narratives and cliches.
  • An interesting take on one of the more panned documentaries of the year. It does seem that people have a problem accepting that being anti-Big Education is not the same as being anti-education. Or even anti-teacher.
  • This story made my day. This is religion at its finest.
  • Whatever the political fallout of Benghazi, the story of the attack is an amazing one.
  • This is NOT the way to fight global warming. And they say all the greed and abuse is on the skeptic side.
  • Tuesday Linkorama

    Tuesday, October 2nd, 2012
  • Paul Ryan and the Republicans appear to be backing down on DADT. About time.
  • Apparently, there is a new blood test that could detect some types of cancer.
  • Yeah, I never thought much of the writing fever approach to teaching writing skills. You learn to play music by learning scales. You learn writing by learning vocabulary, grammar and sentence construction.
  • A fascinating profile of one of the CIA’s operatives. What’s telling is precisely why we provide aide to loathsome regimes.
  • Hmmm. Kids getting their grandparents’ Holocaust tattoos.
  • Friday Linkorama

    Thursday, August 23rd, 2012

    Long-form

  • I encountered this problem with my own child. Some pediatricians are simply obsessed with child growth charts, even to the point of stupidity. We had one pediatrician — who we quickly dumped — freak out because Abby was supposedly way too short for age. It turned out they’d put her height in as centimeters instead of inches. It was simply bizarre watching this medical professional insist that our daughter, one of the tallest in her class, was dangerously short. We quickly switched to one who uses the charts for reference but is not defined by them.
  • The most telling part of this story, about Iran banning women from certain college majors, is the note that Iranian women were massively outperforming their male counterparts. Can’t have that, can we?! Looks like the Islamists are figuring out what the Communists did: when you educate a person, they are halfway to freedom.
  • I’m of two minds about peoples who have not contacted civilization. On the one hand, I don’t like forcing civilization on people. On the other, there seems a bit of condescension in the “don’t disturb their culture” mentality.
  • This article, in which Megan McArdle argues that we like to be conned, seems dead accurate to me. Gregg Easterbrook has made the same argument. Bubbles don’t happen because people are stupid. Bubbles happen because people are greedy. They know, deep down, it’s an illusion; but they keep hoping the roof won’t cave in on them.
  • Weekend Linkorama

    Saturday, July 30th, 2011
  • Grade inflation visualized.
  • Why is the federal government encouraging kangaroo courts on college campi?
  • It seems that we get these internets is ruining our minds stories about once a week now.
  • I think this is one of the coolest maps I’ve seen. You could almost redraw states by it. West Texas would be independent, which I’m sure would be fine with them.
  • Wednesday Linkorama

    Thursday, June 2nd, 2011

    Thanks to Twitter siphoning off my political rants, you’re getting more … non-political links:

  • Cracked debunks the Twitter revolution. I’m forced to mostly agree. Social networking may have played a minor role in the upheavals in the Middle East, at best. But real activism involves risking your life, not turning your Facebook profile green.
  • I really really like this idea of the Billion Price Index as a complement to traditional inflation metrics.
  • Do you know … do either of you have any idea of how fucking glad I am I don’t have a big ass commute anymore? I can’t imagine how I did it for so long.
  • I really hope the anti-homework agenda catches on. What’s being done to kids these days is absurd busy work bullshit.
  • So do you think studies like this will, in any way, slow down those who want to ban fatty foods?
  • Political links:

  • Experts are once again stunned that poverty does not cause crime. They seem to be stunned by this quite a lot.
  • Want to stimulate the economy? Wonder how America can lead the world in innovation again? Repeal SOX.
  • Weekend Linkorama

    Sunday, May 8th, 2011

    Non-political links:

  • And now … low salt diets are bad for you.
  • I found this article, from Vanity Fair about the Playboy Clubs of the 60′s oddly fascinating, and not just because of my generalized interest in the opposite gender. Doubtless the clubs were bad bad things. They certainly wouldn’t function today — they’d get justifiably eaten by sexual harassment laws. But the 60′s and 70′s were interesting times in terms of sex. Mad Men, to my understanding, mines that particular retro-chic vein very well. The article also reminds me of the near-innocence in the early days of commercialized sex that has been lost as it has become ubiquitous. Hef, at least in the early days, was great at up-marketing porn. The magazine had legitimately great articles (for which they paid a fortune to writers). Early pictorials were far more tasteful and coy than today and the clubs, from the description, played to that aesthetic. Plus, how cool would it have been to see Aretha Franklin give only her second public performance?
  • On the flip side of that, Cracked dissects one of the most disturbing romance/sex writers out there. Egad.
  • And just to round out a gender-conscious linkorama: this comes from the Fanatics Come in All Faiths file. Hillary Clinton has been photoshopped out of a White House picture.
  • Political Links:

  • Egad. Sugar interests vs. corn interests. Who to cheer for?
  • Of the many things our government could be worrying about, why is raw milk even on the list?
  • A touching note on forgiving bin Laden from a 9/11 survivor.
  • Half of Detroit can’t read. The city is spending $13,000 per pupil on their schooling system. Can we maybe admit that money isn’t the limiting factor here?
  • Weekend Linkorama

    Saturday, April 30th, 2011

    Non-political links:

  • It seems to me that this should be bigger news. Law schools are openly lying about their graduate employment numbers.
  • This is ridiculous. Priceless jazz recordings will never be played because of rights concerns.
  • I don’t entirely agree that 3-D is a scam. But I mostly agree with it.
  • The latest baseless child-related freakout: iPads.
  • Political Links:

  • Oh, that liberal media! Right.
  • A very thoughtful piece on jury nullification.
  • Bolivia goes the stone age route on rights for nature. This is a perfect example of the terrible effects of good intentions. The primary result here will be to further empower the already oppressive Bolivian government.
  • Weekend Linkorama

    Sunday, April 3rd, 2011

    Non-political links:

  • Honestly? This racy ad on HPV doesn’t bother me. As my blogging on porn has shown, my offense threshold is very high.
  • Orac destroys Mann Coulter’s sloppy research on radiation.
  • Now this is interesting. Maybe we don’t have to drug up our livestock and risk epidemics.
  • Political Links:

  • This just in: Nancy Pelosi is also a lying fool. Maybe she just felt bad that the Republicans were making such idiots of themselves and joined the fool parade in solidarity.
  • Signs that Newt Gingrich’s Presidential campaign is doomed: over at the very Right Wing site Hot Air, only half of the users are buying his bullshit in re: flip-flopping on LIbya. When the half the Right Wing already thinks your full of shit and the election is still 19 months away, you’re doomed.
  • Justice in America: banks get off, home-owners go to jail. What’s most disturbing is how they found this guy – the IRS is targeting people for acting too rich.
  • I’m beginning to think that the GOP really has lost their fucking minds on the abortion issue. The law being proposed (outlawing abortion after 20 weeks) sounds restrictive, but is of a piece with the view of large majorities of Americans (assuming you think these things should be decided by majority rule). But the rhetoric accompanying it is insane.
  • You know, at this point, the fact that AARP was bribed to the tune of a billion dollars to support PPACA doesn’t surprise me.
  • Was Bill Clinton more conservative than George Bush? Hells yes.
  • Oh, that liberal media. Right.
  • The latest idiocy from PPACA. Healthcare is going to get a lot worse before it gets better.