Archive for the ‘numbers’ category

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.

What Does the Public Really Need To Know?: Science/Math edition.

July 14, 2008

So, last week I have the good fortune (a) to junket in LA (thanks, History Channel — look for their latest Einstein documentary sometime between October and the new year) and, thus geographically advantaged, the chance to raise a glass or two with Sean Carroll and Jennifer (new digs) Ouellette (familiar haunt) — two of the brightest lights among those who blog the physical sciences.

Among much other discussion (how to do good science on television, whether there is any useful algorithm available to help navigate LA traffic) we drifted into that hardy perennial: what, really, does the general public need to know about science. Not for the greater good of science, not to secure more complaisant support for big accelerators or stem cell research, but for them/ourselves?

There are lots of facts that I think would give people pleasure — I love knowing that Albert Einstein patented a hearing aid (with Rudolf Goldschmidt); that chimpanzees fashion tools in the wild; that the first reaction written down in something like the modern form of a chemical formula was that describing the fermentation of alcohol. There are ideas that are enormously powerful — and some of them are clearly of value as part of anyone’s mental apparatus in confronting daily life. (Natural selection, offers insights well beyond the history of life, for example, (though great care must be taken, as we know, to our sorrow) and as general a heuristic as Ockham’s Razor would help people deal with silly season stories like this one.)*

But while these and much more are part of what I think any education should provide, the question I asked over something-or-other in martini glasses last week,** and re-ask here, is what the minimal body of knowledge is that every adult should possess.

Regular readers of this blog will guess the answer I gave: the bare minimum is arithmetic, or more broadly, a grasp of quantitative reasoning and a set of simple rules to apply such reasoning in everyday life.

For example — these posts sought to illustrate of the value of remembering to do something as basic as converting a cardinal number into a percentage, to make it possible to compare different data points.

Another example: the habit in this country of focusing on miles-per-gallon as a measure of fuel efficiency leads systematically to bad decision making. If we instead looked at gallons-per-mile (or hundred miles), it would make it clear that replacing a 16 mile per gallon SUV with a 20 mpg station wagon is a much better choice than replacing a 34 mpg compact with a 50 mpg hybrid, assuming equal miles driven for each vehicle. No one reading this needs much help figuring out why — but for the details, listen to the NPR story from which this particular example came. (See — I had to say something nice about NPR after slagging them for their Shakespeare follies.)

In sum: I’ve been at the popular science game for a quarter of a century now. I’ve written about climate change and physics and cancer research and precision guided weapons and big telescopes and the origins of the pentatonic scale and I can’t remember it all now. I hope everything found some audience who got something out of it. But more and more now I look for stories that in their telling express some of the basic habits of scientific thinking — whatever the body of facts with which I may be dealing.

There is much more to such habits than a quantitative turn of mind — notions of observation, of framing answerable questions and lots besides . But more and more the starting point seems to me to be conveying how much mastery of the world one can get from astonishingly simple acts of counting and comparing.

What do y’all think?

Update: See Chad Orzel’s recent post on John Allen Paulos’ Innumeracy for another swipe at the same problem. (h/t Bora)

*For an antidote to the “Who wrote Shakespeare” tomfoolery, you can begin here with James Shapiro’s latest — one of the best of a spate of Shakespeare-as-window-on-the-birth-of-the-modern books that have appeared recenlyy.

**Fortunately, the waiter in the very chic bar in which the three of us chatted had never heard of what I tried to order, a French 75, which is the only reason I remained unfogged enough to have any kind of a conversation that night. Just the mention of it makes me feel a little shaky. Enjoy, but at your own risk.

Image: Codex Vigilanus, 976 C.E., in which Arabic numerals first appeared in a Western European manuscript. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

We Love Math, Electoral College Department.

June 12, 2008

Andrew Sullivan says that this question-and-answer is why he doesn’t do math.

That Sullivan is quantitatively challenged is, of course, no surprise to anyone who reads his blog on a regular basis.  But his excuse here is pretty lame.

The problem posed at FiveThirtyEight.com was “How many unique ways are there to acquire at least 270 electoral votes without any excess?”

The solution to that did indeed turn on a sophisticated application of combinatorial methods.  According to the analysis by Isabel Lugo (posted at 5:22 p.m. on June 10), there are 51,199,463,116,367 different possible  ways to accumulate 270, 271, 272 or 273 electoral votes.

Lugo’s solution does indeed demand both smarts and training, and she received her just due of praise from the comment thread.  Certainly, though I can follow, gasping, the reasoning as she explained it, I can’t claim any greater chance of cracking such a problem than Sullivan could — which is to say, none.

But Sullivan’s surrender — “it’s just too hard, and look at the cute, big number” makes me crazy, and illustrates one of the persistant reasons why our discourse is so bad, why, as Brad DeLong keeps asking, we can’t get a better press corps.

That is: there is a difference between ignorance of advanced math (in which I take second place to no one), and an inability or unwillingness to master the basics of quantitative reasoning.

What’s remarkable, is how far you can get with not that much, just a basic disciplined approach to simple concepts — estimation, use of ratios and so on.

And with such simple tools it is possible to get a handle, if not always a precise result, even for such subtle, complex problems as the electoral vote question that so flummoxed Sullivan.

As Lugo pointed out, introducing her analysis — her exact number was anticipated by a much simpler simulation by commenter Brian at 4:43.  Even if you don’t follow Brian all the way through the simulation, his exercise begins with a simple piece of arithmetic that gives the first hint of the scale of a likely solution, the fact that with 51 jurisdictions there are 2 to the fifty first power, or 2.25 quadrillion possible win/lose outcomes.

That’s enough to tell you from the start that you are dealing with a big number. The next steps take you further, and show how the simulation produces a plausible argument that the number of outcomes where the electoral vote totals hit the desired range (270-273) is going to come in at just a bit under three percent of that huge total number of outcomes, or right in the range of the 51.2 trillion outcomes that Lugo derived.

And my point is that whether or not you can imagine performing this bit of computer-mediated approximation, even the very first step, one that comes from high school math, is enough to get you into the right neighborhood, the right scale in which any answer will have to land.

It’s a necessary skill for any reporter today, I think, really any citizen.  I won’t go here into the same riff I’ve blogged many times before.  I’ll outsource instead to my new blog humor BFF xkcd:

How to Think: Public Policy edition.

May 27, 2008

One of the running strands of this blog is the notion that the public’s interest in science is at least as much in the ways scientists think as it is in the particular discoveries that emerge over time. Not that the latter are unimportant — far from it: they are rather the currency with which science buys and holds the attention of the culture that supports it.

But to take a recent example, the uncovering of a fossil animal intermediate between a fish and a land-living creature was the fact that got Neil Shubin’sYour Inner Fish off and rolling. But the real story Shubin told, excellently (despite this snark), was the process by which Shubin and others put themselves in a position to anticipate and appreciate the significance of that fossil.

It’s that old chestnut: “The King died; the Queen died…” is a list of facts. “The King died; the Queen died of grief…” is a story. The story to be told by science writing is one that allows its reader to enter into the means of discovery, ideally in ways that such a reader can use, even if she or he never confronts a limbed fish.

More specifically, I’ve emphasized a couple of attributes of science that need to get more play in our broader culture — empiricism (rigorous observation and experiment) and abstraction, by which I usually mean some kind of quantitative analysis.

Then along comes my younger brother, Leo. He’s a senior civil servant for a California county, running a huge budget. On the side he teaches a course in public policy at a local college.

This year, a student’s question prompted him to put what he hoped his class had learned into capsule form — and in a few words it captures what I’ve been trying to say in too many more, lo these many months. He wants his students to impose as much discipline as possible on what they think we know. It should not be limited to those few fortunate enough to learn from him. Here’s his valedictory to this year’s class:

1. When people are talking about public policy issues, always remember the question—what is the underlying problem or opportunity they are proposing to address? How are people modeling the problem in their minds (often unstated)– – as to what are the problem’s causes and what could various interventions hope to achieve? Once you state the underlying assumptions out loud, do they make sense; are they reasonable? So often we jump to a particular solution and advocate it without stepping back to think whether there might be other ways to address the same issue

2. Quantify wherever possible so that you think about how big the problem really is and how much difference you can expect from the different approaches people may take. If you have no way of measuring the problem, you are unlikely to be able to prove to people tackling it is worth the effort, and no way of judging the success of any pilot programs you might have a chance to implement.

3. Clarify the trade-offs between doing nothing and the various alternatives. Whether a public policy approach is worth doing can’t be answered without comparing it to something else. You need clear criteria and to compare approaches against each other as to how well they meet your criteria. Just advocating a course of action by itself is not convincing unless you can compare the outcomes to doing nothing or other alternatives.

Amen and Amen. Here endeth the lesson.

Image: Edward Hopper, “The El Station,” 1908. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

I Don’t Really Want To Argue With Neil Shubin…

April 7, 2008

but I will, a little. Not on matters of substance on the evolutionary history of the human body, as discussed in his book, Your Inner Fish. I’ve just begun it, and so far, it’s great. I’ll blog a bit of a review when I’ve actually gone through the whole thing, but for now, I want to raise a point that we confront every year for our science writing students at MIT — the problem of placing numbers in context.

Shubin runs into this issue right on the first page of chapter one. In his lede to the big idea of the book as a whole: that we can read a deep story of human evolution through, among other types of evidence, ancient transitional fossils, he seems to be trying to do two things at once. He promises to explain his confidence in the conclusions he will present over the next few hundred pages, and, just to make sure of his reader’s patience across that narrative, he adds the hook of a suggested scientific thriller or detective story. The passage concludes with this thought:

How can we visualize events that happened millions and in many cases billions of years ago? Unfortunately, there were no eyewitnesses; none of us was around…Even worse, the animals that existed back then have been dead and buried for so long their bodies are only rarely presereved. If you consider that over 99 percent of all species that ever lived are now extinct, that only a very small fraction are preserved as fossils and that an even smaller fraction still are ever found, then any attempt to see our past seems doomed from the start.

There are at least two problems with this, both illustrative of common errors in science writing for the public. The first is a kind of science-yness contained within the sudden eruption of a statistic: the fate of 99 percent of all species that have lived on earth. What does that number mean? Nothing, here. Neither that number, nor the facts that follow — the fractions that leave fossils, the remnant that might be found — tell you anything about the quality of the evidence or of the statistical reasoning one could attempt based on those fossils that are discoverable.

Put the same thought into a different context. Amazingly, even though there is a poll of 3,000 people to discover the current state of US opinion about President Bush, amazingly, the opinions of 99.999 (as of July, 2007, according to the CIA) percent of all Americans remain unknown! Surely any attempt to guage US political opinions seems doomed from the start!…Or not.

The analogy is not quite fair of course. But the underlying point remains: the issue is not how many species have gone extinct, but whether the recoverable record of their former existence is robust enough to support the conclusions Shubin wants to draw. The use of a faux statistic here — or if not false, then so contextless as to be free of meaning — serves merely to distract. It lends the appearance of rigor, of a kind of authority.

Look, it says: scientists use numbers; they can quantify their knowledge — which must mean they really know something.

But if the reader smells a rat, if he or she notices that number is off-topic, not relevant to the actual argument being made, then any rhetorical advantage is lost. You’ve just given your audience a reason not to trust you.

As readers of this blog know, I am a big fan of finding simple ways to express numerical reasoning to broad audiences. This is how not to do it. Don’t just throw numbers at the page. Show how they actually work. Make explicit the argument that your knowledge of the numbers and their relations express. Stay away from the “three out of five dentists recommend…” sleight of hand.

There…I got that out. Now for the other point. This really is one of rhetoric. Shubin finishes off the passage above by telling his readers that “any attempt to see our past seems doomed from the start.” But of course that’s true only if the preceding statement makes sense, which I’ve just argued it doesn’t.

Really, though, what is that comment doing here at all? It’s an old rule in story telling: don’t give your audience a reason to tune out. Telling them up front that there is a good reason to think that what you are about to talk about couldn’t happen would seem to violate that rule.

What makes the slip more frustrating is that Shubin immediately launches into his genuinely remarkable story of how he and his field performs exactly that “doomed” task. Turn the page, just that one page, and Shubin launches into a clear, personable, and persuasive account of the task of finding a fossil record and the implications of doing so for understanding events in deep time.

The book properly begins on that second page of text, in my humble opinion. There, Shubin writes:

“I first saw one of our inner fish on a snow July afternoon while studying 375-million-year-old rocks on Ellesmere Island at a latitude about 80 degrees north.”

That’s a classic opening, placing us as the Latinists among us would say in medias res (h/t Mrs. Small, Berkeley High School’s erstwhile defender of classical education) — in the middle of the matter. We are there with Shubin, we are seeing our inner fish for the first time, we are shivering in the snow at some exotic, romantic location, and we are ready for our guide to tell us how we got there, and where we go from here.

That’s how you begin a piece.

So why the throat-clearing (for that’s really what I think it was) of the prior page?

If I were to play text-doctor at a distance, I’d guess that what happened here is that either Shubin or his editor didn’t trust the strength of their material. Someone decided that the reader needed to be tricked into reading a fish story (though they would not have thought it in quite those terms). The narrative hook being set seems to be that of the heroic researcher performing the impossible — that “doomed” attempt to read the past. Better, by far, IMHO, just to get on with it.

The moral: less is better, and above all, trust your stuff.

One last thing: I’m picking on Shubin here not because I think his is a bad book. Quite the contrary: as far as I’ve read so far, its a very good take on an important subject. Most of it is exemplary science writing: communicating deep ideas with a light touch in a manner intelligible to any interested lay person. Go buy it.

In general I’m a wimp of a critic. I don’t like dumping on crappy stuff. I know that it takes just as much sweat and effort and blood-oozing-from-the-forehead to write something that doesn’t hang together as it does to complete a book that clicks. As long as someone made a sincere effort to get something they cared about down on the page, I don’t want to be the one sticking the boot in. (Stuff like this, however, is fair game. If you set out to do a dishonest thing, then I’ll slam into the pile as happily as anyone.)

I’d much rather praise a good piece of work while taking a hard look at the parts that don’t go as right as they should. Certainly, you need only look here, or here, or here, to find plenty of bones to pick. (And trust me — you don’t know pain until you see a work that you tied intestines into knots over for a couple of years going for the grand sum of .06 on the remainder table. Feh. That was a pretty damn good book too, if I do say so myself. But I digress….)

Writing anything is hard; science writing is particularly confounded by the need to express often highly abstract ideas in concrete, lay-and-language friendly terms. So read this post as just me taking advantage of what are in fact minor mistakes in Shubin’s fine book to point out a couple of common pitfalls in the practice.

Image: Joaquin Sorolla, “Beach at Valencia” 1908. Source Wikimedia Commons.

What’s Wrong With This Broadcast: NPR Edition

March 15, 2008

I’m listening to my local NPR station’s broadcast of Scott Simon’s Saturday Morning Edition as I write this, and the host introduced a discussion of the upcoming fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq by talking about casualties: the 3,975 American servicemen and women killed to date, and, as the host put it, Iraqi casualties estimated from some 40,000 to over 100,000.

Apparently Scott simply forgot about two separate studies published in the fifteen months, each of which concluded that excess Iraqi deaths since the American invasion topped half a million. The Johns Hopkins, Lancet group published their result first: they see about 650,000 deaths as the most likely number as of the end of 2006. As discussed in this post below, a later WHO led study led to the number Simon quoted, an estimate of 151,000 Iraqis dead by violence since the start of the war as of late 2007. Though that number is often cited as a definitive refutation of the Hopkins work, the WHO survey identified 151,000 deaths by violence among 400,000 excess deaths total. As a Hopkins researcher pointed out while methodological differences led him to trust the higher number more, the two estimates were in broad agreement.

Simon also ignored another major study suggesting even higher totals: a British independent surveying company’s estimate of over one million deaths. (To paraphrase a famous West End comedy, perhaps NPR’s motto has become “No Data, Please. We’re American.”)

In other words: Simon simply spoke falsely when he introduced histwo guests, Senators James Webb and John Kyl to discuss the current state of the war. The misstatement, to put the kindest gloss on it, framed the subsequent interviews.

That error (see — kind) materiallly affected what came next. By drastically understating the upper bounds to the cost of the war to the Iraqis, he allowed Senator Kyl’s claims of the likelihood of a political and strategic success of the occupation to stand essentially unchallenged. Those claims have to be understood against the background the sectarian devastation that has taken place already. The real question, one that Simon never thought or had the gumption to ask is not “is the surge working?” but “is the reduction of violence of the last several months meaningful?” — given the lack of the political change the surge was supposed to nurture.

All of which is to echo, once again, Brad DeLong’s cri de coeur.  Like he said:  Why, oh why can’t we have a better press corps?

Image: Francisco Goya, Los Desatres de la Guerra, plate 79, captioned “Murio la Verdad” — “The Truth has Died,” c. 1820. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Welcome to Cosmic Variance folks — and a question

March 11, 2008

Welcome to all coming via Sean Carroll’s very kind shout out.

Come on in, look around, enjoy yourselves.

And if you have a moment, consider answering this prompt. In this post written a couple of weeks ago, I wrote a complaint about some lousy reporting on the housing crisis — but my larger point touched on one of the big themes of this blog, how applying even the simplest quantitative reasoning makes a huge difference to one’s ability to make sense of (detect the bullshit in) everyday experience. I argued that this was one of the foundations of what is often miscalled (IMHO) scientific literacy as it applies to the public. I pointed to a couple of examples, one from Freeman Dyson, and another by J.B.S. Haldane to show how such minimal math makes a difference in real science as well.

And then I made this request: Perhaps readers could be persuaded to post examples of what they think are elegant, simple insights about everyday experience such simple applications of math can give us?

Anyone want to belly up to the bar?

In any event — glad to have you all here.

Image: Hans Holbein, “Portrait of the Astronomer Nikolaus Kratzer (detail)” 1528. Image: Wikimedia Commons