Archive for the ‘numbers’ category

Why you should always read Cosma Shalizi

March 27, 2009

Reading Delong reminded me that I had not been to Cosma Shalizi’s Three Toed Sloth lately, so I rectified that error and was reminded again why this is a bad mistake to mix.

Read this post.  It captures quickly and utterly intelligibly what I spend much more time arguing with much less clarity:  you don’t need much math to gain a great deal of insight into our shared world.  What you do need is the habit of using what math you do know as a guide to your thinking.

As Hillel would say at this point:  the rest is commentary….now go and study.

In brief, Shalizi is wondering why there are so few steelworkers these days, compared with a half century ago.  Is it because of foreign competition?  Or is it because the demand for steel in the United States has not kept up gains in productivity per worker?

With nothing more than arithmetic and a little data that can be sucked up from the web in very little time he came up with a pretty persuasive answer:  productivity exceeding demand accounts for most of the loss of the 400,000 or so US steelworking jobs that disappeared over the last fifty years.

It is not, as Shalizi emphasizes, the answer; he performed a back of the envelope calculation and he identified a couple of Rumsfelds* to think about in weighing just how solidly grounded his analysis might be.  But it’s good enough to serve as a working hypothesis, subject to more detailed examination as needed.

For more detail on how this happened, and why Shalizi is very likely right on this, you can turn to a book that I’ve long felt was basically missed by its audience — Richard Preston’s second, called American Steel.  It’s not an analytical work; no math at all.  Rather, it tells the story, in Preston’s familiar deep-inside journalistic style, of a then-young and brash steel company called Nucor as it tried to build the first continuous slab casting steel plant in the world.

In the event, American Steel virtually disappeared in the marketplace, the victim of an earlier wave of publishing dislocation, but it’s worth seeking out.  In the context of Shalizi’s argument it provides an account of the productivity boom as lived.    It still won’t give you the synoptic view of the data Shalizi has said he doesn’t have to hand — but it is both a good read and way to get a qualitative sense of the argument Shalizi makes more abstractly through the numbers.

Put it another way: if you have even a modest willingness to entertain numbers, (more than the Congressional GOP seems to, which is a point to be repeated, I’m sure, lots and lots as we watch that once-respectable organization masticate its own intestines), you have the ability to take tales of the sort that Preston tells and fit them into a larger understanding, some sense of how change in the world happens.

Of all the aims I have for science writing, my own, my students’, anyone’s, it would be to get the pleasure and power of number so deeply intertwined into our culture that nonsenses like yesterday’s GOP budget charade would simply not occur.  I don’t know how to get there, but I care more about that than any number of facts one might lump into a sack called scientific literacy.  But all that’s grist for another day’s post.

*Shorthand for “known unknowns” — a coinage in honor of the only time on record when I feel are former and unmissed Defense Secretary was unfairly ridiculed.

Image:  Soviet airport mural “Steel makers

Andrew Sullivan and Eric Posner are Dangerous Fools: Numbers and Iraq redux edition.

November 26, 2008

Andrew Sullivan is innumerate.

This is, of course, the blog-equivalent of the dog-bites-man story, except that this time his ignorance of matters quantitative does not merely encompass the manipulation of numerical objects, but their rhetoric, the use and abuse of selected quantities to minimize the perception of human suffering.

The occasion for this arrant blindness comes from a blog entry on the University of Chicago Law School faculty blog by Eric Posner, in which Posner argues that the Iraq invasion was a humanitarian and human rights success.

The arguments for human rights advances is based on a number of criteria — freedom of the press, democratic behavior and so on, and I’m not going to quarrel there.

But the claim that the American led invasion has reduced the violence, murder and injury suffered by the people of Iraq over that imposed by Saddam Hussein’s regime is marked by such sleight of hand as to be both (a) deceiving and (b) strongly suggestive of bad faith.

Andrew framed Posner’s claim thusly:

In short: if we never invaded, Iraqi civilian deaths due to sanctions may well have been greater than the wartime deaths.

Andrew’s culpability here is simply that he used his bully pulpit — by some measures the most bulliest in the blogosphere — to promote an argument that turns on a critical weaseling of the data to preserve that very point.  Posner’s commenters on the original post do a very good job of dissecting the numerous, elementary errors in his use of mortality statistics; its the very simple mindedness of Posner’s gaming of the numbers that make me see this as pure propaganda, rather than mere stupidity.

But those critics focus on errors of method, mostly, Posner’s habit of picking useful baselines, his comparing of incomparables and so on.  I just want to bring one more fault up, one that I believe even a completely numerically challenged Andrew Sullivan should have been able to pick up.

That’s this one:

Let’s suppose that the sanctions regime had continued for 10 years, from 2003 to 2013, and further that security flattens out—it doesn’t get worse, but it doesn’t get better. Under these assumptions, 400,000 Iraqi children would have died if the war had not occurred and the sanctions regime continued. Now, almost 100,000 Iraqis died during the war, and so one of the war’s benefits is that it saves the lives of 300,000 Iraqis (over 10 years).

There is a great deal that is wrong with this passage.  The assumption of a continued sanctions regime for a decade is highly questionable, given that one of the stated pretexts for war in the beginning was that the sanctions path was unlikely to hold indefinitely — in part for exactly the same humanitarian concerns that Posner professes here.

But while that error is real, and is of a piece with much else in the post that most charitably can be deemed sloppy thinking (again — check out the comments, the glaring lie-by-citation comes in the 100,000 number.

Posner is right:  there is a reputable project — Iraq Body Count — that states that as of this writing between 89,369 and 97, 568 civilian deaths by violence have been documented since the war began.  Problem number one is that IBC itself acknowledges that its belt-and-suspenders approach to documenting a death, necessary to preserve its credibility as the arbiter of the floor, or minimum number of deaths evoked by the war, produces a substantial undercount.  In 2006, an IBC presentation stated that the total deaths could be as much as double their published number.

That same presentation then took up the then-controversial Lancet/Johns Hopkins study that suggested that between 300,000 and 900,000 civilian deaths had occurred by 2006 as a result of the war, charging that a number of methodological flaws marred the results. The arguments are off point, as the underlying claim in the study is that it is measuring excess deaths rather than deaths by violence.

The distinction is crucial, as Posner’s claim, echoed by Sullivan, is that the number of Iraqi deaths due to the war is less than those from all causes due to the direct or indirect consequences of Saddam Hussein’s continued rule and the continuation of sanctions.  If you want to compare violent deaths — those the IBC counts — with violence imposed by Saddam’s regime, that’s an apples to apples pairing. If you want to count all the suffering of children lacking food or medicine due to the sanctions regime and Saddam’s manipulation of the UN Oil for Food fiasco, then the proper comparison is to all the suffering induced by the social disruption, the lack of services, the failure of governance that flowed in the wake of the invasion — those the Lancet study and others sought to estimate.

Those numbers are huge.  They range from over 300,000 (as of 2007) to over a million.  Most of the estimates run well above Posner’s highly suspect extrapolation of 400,000 deaths. Both totals are grotesque, of course.  It is better to preside over the slaughter of 400,000 than a million only in the most curdled of calculations of moral responsibility. Iraq before and after 2003 offers ample scope for pondering how the international approach to that country and its governance for decades has failed its people.

But it is simply wrong — and dangerous, and morally bankrupt — to defend the invasion of Iraq on the grounds that it saved lives.  No reasonable assessment of the data on hand support that claim, and its making serves to grease the skids for the next, ever hopeful essay in defense of American exceptionalism and the uses of violence for good.

I don’t know much about Posner.  He has the fact of a famous father behind him, but this does not mean that he is merely a self-made son in the manner of such luminaries as Kristol, W. or Goldberg, J.  At the same time, the real accomplishments to be found on his resume beg the question of why he would publish such a clearly false claim about the number of deaths to be considered.  I don’t know the answer.

As for Andrew.  It’s odd.  He’s someone who I think is a sentimental naif a lot of the time.  He is obviously smart, obviously enormously prolific in his reading and his writing, and he has fought the good fight over these last several years on a bunch of issue. He certainly has noted the increasing weight of evidence that the Iraq war was a fiasco, and a bloody one at that.  At the same time he does seem to freeze every time he faces a claim that has numbers in it.  This number, the total of Iraqi dead, is hardly a hidden datum at this point; he should have remembered the controvesies and responses to a number of claims.  And yet he gave the props of his influential blog to Posner’s nonesense.

Again, I don’t know why Sullivan refused to think for a moment about Posner’s claim before posting.  It may be a residual reflex to find some way to defend his initial support for the war: kind of a “hey, it bankrupted this country; devastated that one; brought America into moral jeopardy (see torture, inter alia) and diminished our soft and hard power throughout the world, but at least it saved some kids” thought.  Except it didn’t, and there is still no excuse for the moral and strategic error commited in 2003 and compounded since.

Image:  Francisco de Goya, Los Desatres de la Guerra, plate 30, during and after 1810.

Dog Bites Man (Woman): Palin is Lying Again/Basic Arithmetic edition

October 4, 2008

Amazingly enough, when Sarah Palin got her Couric do-over in the friendly confines of Fox News, all of sudden she remembered some stuff she “forgot” when talking to someone who actually asked follow up questions.

Her court case nonesense is probably better eviscerated by someone who actually knows something of the law, but I want to take a whack at her claim that, oh yes, she does read the newspapers…or as she put it:

CAMERON: Well, what do you read?

PALIN: I read the same things that other people across the country read, including the “New York Times” and the “Wall Street Journal” and “The Economist” and some of these publications that we’ve recently even been interviewed through up there in Alaska.

Oh yeah?

Think Progress has already questioned the probability of Palin reading The Economist.  But the idiocy goes deeper than the mere likelihood that Palin was simply parroting a list of approved elite-friendly titles a leader of the free world would be expected to read.

Think about this with an eye toward real life.  In Palin you have a governor of a state who also happens to have five children still at home.  She is a moderately busy person.

She also has a certain media list she needs to monitor. She has a direct political and governance interest in reading local newspapers, especially that or those of record for her state; she would also, being a skilled thoroughly modern politician, have her eye and ear on local political TV and radio.

She is also a human animal, subject to the same physical constraints that anyone with this basic biology must face.  In this context, that means she is subject to the same limits on reading speed that anyone faces.  The reading speed for comprehension has a range of 200-400 words per minute; skimming can be accomplished at rates as fast as 700 words per minute.

So let’s confront The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.  What follows is a mix of real data and inferences; the idea is to get a broad sense of the scale of the task Palin has set herself without spending half a day on the analysis.  It’s a first order “does this make sense” pass, nothing more.

On average the Journal is 96 pages long. A single broadsheet page of a newspaper, even in its modern, slightly shrunken form, can deliver roughly 3,000 words (actually more — the page used for this number is the Times’ op-ed, which typically runs three – four pieces c. 800 word pieces with some art).   Clearly art (in the newspaper sense) and advertising cut into the news hole available for words — and lets be conservative here too; say only one quarter of the average issue actually contains words to be read.

That would leave someone reading the WSJ cover to cover with something like 24*3000= 72,000 words to take in.  Give it another hair cut to acknowledge the ongoing constraints of print journalism.  So two national newspapers today could offer a dedicated reader 100,000 words (and quite possibly much more).  At 400 words per minute — fast for comprehension, slow for skimming, that many words would occupy someone for 250 minutes, or just over four hours every day.

Give it another haircut.  Throw out half the paper. Sarah Palin does not need to read the company news pages of the Journal or the New York Region report in the Times.  We’re still talking two hours (and we haven’t even touched the drag on the day that The Economist hits her in-tray.

In other words…all this is nonsense.  Palin does not read these papers in any meaningful way. Nor should she, in fact.

She’s the governor of Alaska, not of New York.  She needs to read her local stuff, and her staff should be flagging what she needs to get from the national media; certainly it would make sense if someone in Juneau prepared a digest of stories relevant to state-state issues and those national ones that impinge on her decision-space.

Palin could have said something like this during the Couric interview; she could have made this basic point to Fox — that she stays up on the information most relevant to her job, and relies on her staff to make sure nothing slips through the cracks.  The moment would have passed unnoticed.

Instead, she committed herself to an impossibility; that she as governor and mother still finds the time to read the papers for several hours per day.

Two last points:  First:  Once again we see in Palin someone willing to lie at any moment to reinforce the image she or her handlers think she needs to display.  I know that what you have just read is overkill — but there is something about the contempt in which Palin and her keepers hold their audience that makes me want to stomp each moment of stupidity until its cries “uncle.”

Second:  The running scream of this blog is that simple quantification exercises are essential for making sense of the world around us.  Journalists and everyone need to count.  I know that Fox News is not a journalistic enterprise; it’s Pravda with better graphics.  But as I hope the above back of the envelope exercise suggests, it would help the rest of us a great deal if we turned the niggling feeling, “but-does-it-make-sense,” into a reflex animated by a habit of quantification, approximation and inquiry.  Here the lesson endeth.

Image:  Johnny Automatic Children Reading Newspaper.  Source:

Numbers are Fun: McCain/Palin Bankrupts America edition.

September 9, 2008

Josh Marshall notes today that the weight of lies coming from the McCain campaign around their choice of teh-worst-Vice-Presidential-nominee-evah ™ is beginning to bear down to the point where even such rabid running dogs of the liberal media elite ™ as Fox News and the Fournier-burdened AP are taking note.

So far press attention is focusing on the Bridge to Nowhere deceit that has been part of the New Improved Palin marketing campaign since day one — and more power to that story, as it strikes to the twin cores of the GOP claim on this election:  that John McCain and Sarah Palin are honest, incorruptible; and that they are agents of change primed to upset business as usual.  Begging for money, lying about it, and then keeping the cash once the project is cancelled doesn’t do wonders for such an image.

But just to make sure we don’t lose sight of the larger picture, which is that  Palin has been a disaster at each level of government she has so far attained — and hence that her choice by John McCain represents a truly telling indication of what a McCain administration might do to the American people.  It ain’t pretty.

Today’s demonstration of that claim comes from Palin’s mismanagement of the one significant public works performed in Wasilla, AK, during her tenure as mayor.

As that frothing pinko rag, The Wall Street Journal has reported, Palin’s administration championed the construction of a roughly 15 million dollar sports complex for the town.  The project itself was mismanaged, with rookie errors like failing to complete the purchase of the land needed for the complex before the project began. (Perhaps Palin should have described herself with this edited line:  “What’s the difference between a sheep to be shorn and a small town mayor?  Lipstick…”  Just sayin…)

That’s bad enough — are you sure you want to let this kind of incompetence loose on America again? (In case you’ve blessedly erased the memory, let me just repeat, “Heck of a job, Brownie….”)

But the real sting in the tail comes from the financial consequences for the good citizens of Wasilla that their former mayor is now leaving far, far behind.

When Palin took over as mayor, Wasilla had no long term debt.  When she left, it had accumulated almost 20 million bucks of loans that the town will be paying off for years.*

To understand what that means in the context of a national campaign, all it takes is a little arithmetic.

For example:  One way to look at government debts as something other than just the raw number of the total is to do the simple calculation of how much that debt works out to be for each resident of the jurisdiction paying for a spending spree.

We know how many people live in Wasilla — just under 6,000 at the time Palin stepped down and left her luckless fellow citizens with the bill.  We can thus count her debt not as a total that is hard to place in context, but in units we can compare across the country:  debt per person in the jurisdiction — or roughly $3,600 per Wasilla resident in Palin debt.

Now take that number onto the national stage. By this measure, if Palin/McCain were to achieve a budgetary debacle at the federal level only as bad as that then-Mayor Palin managed for her home town, the total new debt our country would owe (much of it to the Bank of China, most likely) would come to 308 million people times $3,600.

That adds up to $1,108,800,000,000 or more than one trillion dollars.

We’re real money, even by the standards set in the last eight years of GOP misrule.

And that’s not all:  there’s another way to think of the numbers that make Palin’s performance look even worse:

Calculate the accumulated debt as a multiple of the annual budget of the jurisdiction.

In her last year as mayor, Wasilla spent about 5.8 million dollars in non capital expenditures (up 50% from the time she took over, BTW).   Twenty million is roughly 3.3 times that total.

Now take it to the federal level:   The proposed budget for FY 2009 totals 2.65 trillion in discretionary spending (omitting Social Security, Medicare and interest on debt already accumulated).  Multiply that by 3.2 and you get a number in the 9 trillion dollar range.  Even if you cut out military spending from the discretionary total, you still are left with a number that multiplies out on the Palin scale to around 4 trillion.  Ouch.

All of which to say is that while the media is beginning to focus (at last) on the question of whether you can trust  John McCain, his running mate and his campaign say, they might want to pay some attention to another line of inquiry.

Trust them?  Hell–can we afford them?

Image:  German banknotes from the hyperinflation of 1922-1923.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

How Numbers Help Make Sense of Things: The Palin Pick edition

August 29, 2008

I’ve hammered on the theme that the goal of getting the public to understand science has little to do with specific facts or even ideas, and much more with helping folks master analytical tools that will help make pull the signal out of the noise of events and the day-to-day business of living.

I’ve argued that such an effort begins with developing a familiarity not so much with math as scientists and technologists think of field, but with much simpler approaches to quantification.  A little arithmetic goes a long way, as does what is to me the single most important idea:  this kind of basic math creates abstractions that, properly employed, allow us to find deeper points of contrast or similarity between disparate events than raw facts, even raw numbers ever could.

The best example (IMHO) that I’ve come up with came in this post.  But John McCain’s to-me bizarre selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate provides another opportunity to deploy some simple quantification to provide a little insight into how odd — and ultimately, how bad — a choice that was.

The basic argument against the Palin choice is all over the blogosphere.  You can look Steve Benen (from the left), Andrew Sullivan from the non-base right, and Ramesh Ponneru enjoying a moment of clarity in the opium – den end of wingnut right for variations on the theme. They all argue, and I agree, that the choice is a bad one from  because she is in fact desperately unprepared for the job.

The reasoning behind that argument is pretty simple and to my mind compelling:  leadership in her local PTA, a mayorality in a small town, a couple of stints on appointed state boards and something like 20 months as governor of a state whose population — 683,000 or so, is less than that of the Boston metro area in which I make my home– doth not a potential president make.  Lots of specific issues are already coming up, but that’s the basic story.

But there is a counter argument: conservative hacks (Ralph Reed on NPR this morning, for example) are trying to suggest that her executive experience as Mayor and Governor make up for her deficiencies in national security, international affairs, national issues and so on.

It’s a pretty risible argument, but how ridiculous it is can only be seen with  a clear idea of the scale of the jobs she has done so far to see just how much love to give her, and McCain, on this score.

So, at last to return to the premise of this post, that a little help from numbers can reveal a great deal, what can we find that would help place Palin’s level of competence in context?

First let’s constrain the analysis and accept the apparent McCain campaign judgment that especially after the events of the last week or so, a female veep selection was essential.  That leaves several potential picks mentioned over the last week, perhaps the most prominent of whom was Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson.

Now whatever you may think of her views (not much, from where I sit), Hutchinson is a conventionally serious choice: she had executive responsibility as Texas State Treasurer (briefly, but longer than Palin has been governor of a state with the population of one of Houston’s suburbs); she’s into her third term in the Senate with big time committee appointments (on Appropriations, Veterans Affairs and  Rules and Adminstration, ranking member of Commerce, Science and Transportation); she’s won elections in a large state; and she knows how Washington works.

Seems like an obvious choice.  She did not light a fire under the anti-choice base, but there is no doubt that she is a national figure dead in the mainstream of the Republican party.  Her resume trumps Palin’s in every particular.

But let’s give McCain the benefit of the doubt on another constraint.  In a change election, watching Obama driving the message home brilliantly over the last week that Washington insiders are the problem, it is a plausible argument that the woman the campaign concluded it needed had to be someone from beyond the Beltway.

So far, Palin meets these criteria:  she’s definitely got a pair of X chromosomes and Juneau is about as far (barring Honolulu) as you can get from Washington in American politics.  Maybe, following this decision tree, once you impose these narrowing filters, Palin was as good as it gets.

Or not.  Another name that came up from time to time in the search was Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett Packard CEO.

Now this is a harder comparison to make between than that between Hutchinson and Palin — after all, how do you rate corporate life to work in government?

You look to the numbers.  Both Alaska and HP are economic ecosystems.  They generate wealth, must be governed, have operations and a bottom line.  The comparisons are imperfect, but they give an idea, most importantly of scale, of how big a job each of these executives have performed.

In 2005, (the last year for which I could find the data in a quick troll) Alaska’s gross product — all of its economic activity — totaled just a whisker less than 40 billion dollars.  For 2005 — the last year during which Fiorina worked for the company, HP’s total revenue — the value of all its economic activity — more than doubled that number, topping  86 billion.

That comparison drastically understates the disparity in managerial responsibility between the two.  Last year, Palin signed into law her first budget – Alaska’s largest ever :  6.6 billion.  For 2005, HP made a profit of 3.473 billion, which, deducted from gross revenue, leaves about 83.5 billion out of the revenue total that had to be spent to make that money.

Certainly there would have been passive expenditures there, already agreed interest on loans, for example, as there are certainly automatic payments within a state budget.  But broadly speaking the comparison is overwhelming:  a CEO of a major company has much more fiscal responsibilty and a much larger economica strategic burden to handle than the leader of a small government administration — by about 13 to 1 on the numbers in this case.

Now this is not an argument that Carly Fiorina should have been standing next to John McCain today.  That there are all kinds of considerations that go into such decisions has been amply demonstrated by the choices of both Joe Biden and Sarah Palin.

But if you are trying to get a handle on just how far Palin’s experience has been from the level of responsibility that goes into leading the United States of America, it is worth remembering that in her one supposed area of expertise is as an executive.  And in that role, her 20 months of running the Alaska budget is loosely equivalent to the mangerial task of handling the revenues of the 348th largest company in America, which in 2007 was the Ball Corporation, the fourth largest packaging and can company in the country.

And in case you were wondering:  the 2007 budget for the United States of America topped 2.7 trillion.

Just to finish this off:   McCain, Obama and Biden have never had to adminster an operation larger than their Senate offices, or for McCain, a peacetime bomber squadron.  But they didn’t claim that attribute, offering instead claims of judgment, experience, temperament, knowledge of the affairs of the nation and so on.  By contrast, “executive experience” is Palin’s only alleged skill in governance.

So the two points I hope this post makes are (a) that there are ways to think about making rational comparisons between potential leaders, and they include at least some willingness to think if not mathematically, at least arithmetically…and (b) that as expected from a first review of her resume, this just slightly deeper look into the numbers supports the proposition that Sarah Palin is  the most unqualified Vice Presidential candidate in living memory.

Why science writing is hard — Andrew Sullivan (and surrogates) illustrate.

July 29, 2008

Outsourced largely to a e-mailer to Andrew Sullivan’s blog.

The back story: A study in the journal Obesity (press release here) extrapolates from current data to suggest an enormous increase in the percentage of Americans who become obese (defined as possessing a Body Mass Index over 30). If this comes to pass, it would evoke a huge amount of spending to deal with health consequences of such American expansion.

The claim gets picked up in Wired, which then lands it in a drive-by post on Sullivan’s extremely popular blog.

The only problem: no one in the expanding circles of puffing this very slender piece of work took note of the key phrase which, to the original study author’s credit, did make it into the press release that otherwise over-hyped its subject. The release said: “Their projections illustrate the potential burden of the U.S. obesity epidemic if current trends continue.” (Italics added.)

Here’s the comment that — also to his credit — Patrick Appel (subbing for Andrew) then published:

It never fails to impress me the fact that people see a journal article and then turn their critical reasoning skills off. Looking through the actual paper in question, it’ll be figure 1 that’s giving the headliner quote of 86% fat by 2030. Except that this is wrong….

…the kicker: these are *linear* extrapolations, taken out well beyond where they actually tell us anything. The tell-tale hint? Take those projections out another 15 years and they say the overweight plus obesity fraction will be 100% before 2045. Yes, that’s right. Not a single healthy person left alive in the US. Marathon runners? Triathletes? Starving supermodels? Richard Simmons? All of them obese. Presumably from the fresh vegetable blight of 2040, forcing every last one of us to subsist entirely on Chicken McNuggets and Spam.Oh, and that trend they’re talking about is extrapolated from 3 data points. Sure, it’s suggestive, but I wouldn’t scream bloody murder from these stats.

….Yes. Chalk this one up there with, “According to current trends, housing prices will keep rising, allowing us to take on LOADS of bad debt!”

Exactly so.

The moral of this story is one I and my colleagues at the MIT science writing grad program try to drum into our students very early. Just because a press release or a paper says something doesn’t mean you can suspend your bull-shit sensor. Science writing is a specialized beat because claims are asserted in technical language, and in many cases, in forms that require at least a bit of statistical due-diligence to assess.

Simply glossing a press release with a hip-ish reference to Wall-E (Wired), and then passing on the news as fact (Appel-for-Sullivan) ain’t close to good enough; in fact, I would say, this kind of slapdash reporting (or transcribing) that does a fair amount of damage to the public’s willingness to pay attention to scientific results — not as much as the overtly fraudulent kind of stuff that comes out of the Discovery Institute or climate change denialists — but still, this kind of stuff doesn’t help matters.

Now — professional or credentialed science writers are hardly immune to all kinds of flaws of their own, ranging from the cheer-leading problem (in which science writers only tell the “good” stories – and miss, for example stuff like this. (Abstract only — full article costs $).

Then there is the context problem – it’s possible, for example, to get so absorbed in the particular fashion in a field that it becomes hard to remember — and report, that there is more to physics than string theory, for example, or that the identification of the gene “for” something is only a tiny part of the biological knowledge needed to comprehend most of what’s going on in an organism.

And certainly, plenty of science writers don’t possess in themselves enough specialized knowledge to smell out dicey stories in much or most of what they cover. I could not do any of the science I have covered over the last quarter of a century. What I have learned (with some hard lessons, to be sure) is to check not just the facts of any story I want to write — but its meaning as well.

In this case, the facts were fine. A study does exist that says what the Wired item and the Appel post say it does. But it was the interpretation of those facts that was off. In this case, as the commenter above points out, the issue was simple — any trend line that suggests incidences exceeding 100 percent coming soon ought to raise a couple of alarm bells.

Ideally, this kind of first-order BS test should not require specialized beat-centered training. Anyone writing for the public about more or less anything ought to know enough about numbers to get that one; it is or ought to be as much a part of a liberal arts intellectual arsenal as is the skill of writing a clear sentence.

To that end, I wish I could publish here the guide to mathematical reasoning my colleague Alan Lightman has written to introduce the science writing grad students at MIT to the tools they can use to make sense of the hype factor in science news. He”s getting ready to turn that material into a short book, I believe, and it can’t come to soon.

In the meantime, this concise and funny book is a good place to start.

Image: Cornelis de Vos, “The Triumph of Bacchus,” 17th century. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Why it helps to run the numbers…

July 23, 2008

and why it matters.

Brad DeLong reproduces a  memo from Obama campaign econ. policy director Jason Furman.   In it, Furman discusses the latest Tax Policy Center report on the true costs and beneficiaries of the Obama and the McCain tax plans.

Money quote from the TPC report:

The two candidates’ tax plans would have sharply different distributional effects. Senator McCain’s tax cuts would primarily benefit those with very high incomes, almost all of whom would receive large tax cuts that would, on average, raise their after-tax incomes by more than twice the average for all households. Many fewer households at the bottom of the income distribution would get tax cuts and those tax cuts would be small as a share of after-tax income. In marked contrast, Senator Obama offers much larger tax breaks to low- and middle-income taxpayers and would increase taxes on high-income taxpayers. The largest tax cuts, as a share of income, would go to those at the bottom of the income distribution, while taxpayers with the highest income would see their taxes rise significantly.

For extra credit and reading pleasure, see the extensive comparisons the Center made between the tax proposals as described the candidate’s advisors, and as set out in stump speeches and or campaign policy documents.

The key point there, at least as the Obama campaign would have you know, (PDF here), is that there is a $2.8 trillion gap between what the McCain advisors say the GOP nominee-apparent’s plan would cost, and what the number is in what we laughingly call the real world.

These are important numbers, and as important, they are not, in the last analysis subject to that much controversy.  That is:  while it is possible to argue a great deal about the long term economic effects of different tax policies, coming up with the immediate or even the medium term costs of different proposals is not a black art.

These are what scientists call deductions.  They are not quite facts, not yet.  But starting from a baseline of factual knowledge — the current tax code, revenues, analysis of earlier changes in tax policy and so on — it is possible to make well grounded predictions of what would happen if each candidate were able to impose the policies they now promise.

The bottom line:  well, my argument that a McCain presidency will be disastrous for scientific, technological and medical research is strengthened by this latest report.  With non-defense discretionary spending already squeezed by the disastrous Bush brew of tax cuts for the top brackets and an unfunded war, McCain’s proposed tax and spending priorities leave essentially nothing for such luxuries as advanced education, basic and applied research and all the rest.

If our investment in science lags, of course, we will suffer along every axis from national security to our ability to relieve human suffering or to uncover novel sources of human happiness (who knew the ARPANET would enable us to Twitter at each other.  Hmm.  Perhaps I should rethink that example.)

But the key here is that you cannot make this argument without the baseline numbers.  McCain can and does say that he supports research and innovation to solve such fundamental problems as America’s energy needs.  I don’t doubt that he believes it when he says it.  But such commitments are meaningless, lies in fact if not in intent, given his tax and budget policies — or else his tax promises are lies.  That’s what you can say when — and only then, you actually dig in the weeds of the data.

In this context, TPC study offers one more valuable yardstick against which to weigh all the other commitments McCain is making.  The question is will anyone (but your earnest, but rather low-profile blogger) do so?

But not to snark before time, I’m waiting.  This is my question: will the reporting on this story emphasize the actual differences between the two plans and the consquences?  Or will it focus instead on some variant of the “McCain counters Obama’s tax sally.”  That is — do the voters/audience get an account of the facts that McCain would wish to dispute, or just the dispute?  Will the story make it onto the news budget at all?

We’ll see.  As an extra credit question, I’m wondering whether Marc Ambinder will engage this at all?  He’s reproduced a lot of Scheunemann.  So how about a little domestic substance from the “Reported Blog on Politics?”  Will update as events warrant.

Image: James Gillray, “A great stream from a petty-fountain; or John Bull swamped in the flood of new – taxes,” hand colored etching, 1806.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.