Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘science and society’

Why people hate statisticians

Andrew Dilnot, former head of the UK Statistics Authority and current warden (no really!) of Nuffield College, gave a talk here last week, at our annual event honouring Florence Nightingale qua statistician. The ostensible title was “Numbers and Public policy: Why statistics really matter”, but the title should have been “Why people hate statisticians”. This was one of the most extreme versions I’ve ever seen of a speaker shopping trite (mostly right-wing) political talking points by dressing them up in statistics to make the dubious assertions seem irrefutable, and to make the trivially obvious look ingenious.

I don’t have the slides from the talk, but video of a similar talk is available here. He spent quite a bit of his talk trying to debunk the Occupy Movement’s slogan that inequality has been increasing. The 90:10 ratio bounced along near 3 for a while, then rose to 4 during the 1980s (the Thatcher years… who knew?!), and hasn’t moved much since. Case closed. Oh, but wait, what about other measures of inequality, you may ask. And since you might ask, he had to set up some straw men to knock down. He showed the same pattern for five other measures of inequality. Case really closed.

Except that these five were all measuring the same thing, more or less. The argument people like Piketty have been making is not that the 90th percentile has been doing so much better than the 10th percentile, but that increases in wealth have been concentrated in ever smaller fractions of the population. None of the measures he looked was designed capture that process. The Gini coefficient, which looks like it measures the whole distribution, because it is a population average is actually extremely insensitive to extreme concentration at the high end. Suppose the top 1% has 20% of the income. Changes of distribution within the top 1% cannot shift the Gini coefficient by more than about 3% of its current value. He also showed the 95:5 ratio, and low-and-behold, that kept rising through the 90s, then stopped. All consistent with the main critique of rising income inequality.

Since he’s obviously not stupid, and obviously understands economics much better than I do, it’s hard to avoid thinking that this was all smoke and mirrors, intended to lull people to sleep about rising inequality, under the cover of technocratic expertise. It’s a well-known trick: Ignore the strongest criticism of your point of view, and give lots of details about weak arguments. Mathematical details are best. “Just do the math” is a nice slogan. Sometimes simple (or complex) calculations can really shed light on a problem that looks to be inextricably bound up with political interests and ideologies. But sometimes not. And sometimes you just have to accept that a political economic argument needs to be melded with statistical reasoning, and you have to be open about the entirety of the argument. (more…)

Small samples

New York Republican Representative Lee Zeldin was asked by reporter Tara Golshan how he felt about the fact that polls seem to show that a large majority of Americans — and even of Republican voters — oppose the Republican plan to reduce corporate tax rates. His response:

What I have come in contact with would reflect different numbers. So it would be interesting to see an accurate poll of 100 million Americans. But sometimes the polls get done of 1,000 [people].

Yes, that does seem suspicious, only asking 1,000 people… The 100 million people he has come in contact with are probably more typical.

Learning to count

The US espionage services promised last year to reveal roughly how many Americans were illegally spied upon through “accidents” in the warrantless surveillance law restricted to communications by foreigners overseas.

Last month the promise was retracted.

“The NSA has made Herculean, extensive efforts to devise a counting strategy that would be accurate,” Dan Coats, a career Republican politician appointed by Republican President Donald Trump as the top U.S. intelligence official, testified to a Senate panel on Wednesday.

Coats said “it remains infeasible to generate an exact, accurate, meaningful, and responsive methodology that can count how often a U.S. person’s communications may be collected” under the law known as Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

So we’re supposed to believe that the NSA is capable of making brilliant use of the full depth of private communications to map out threats to US national security… but isn’t capable of counting them. Presumably these “Herculean” efforts involve a strong helping of Cretan Bull—-.

I am reminded of this passage in Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften [The Man without Qualities]:

Es gibt also in Wirklichkeit zwei Geistesverfassungen, die einander nicht nur bekämpfen, sondern die gewöhnlich, was schlimmer ist, nebeneinander bestehen, ohne ein Wort zu wechseln, außer daß sie sich gegenseitig versichern, sie seien beide wünschenswert, jede auf ihrem Platz. Die eine begnügt sich nicht damit, genau zu sein, und hält sich an die Tatsachen; die andere begnügt sich nicht damit, sondern schaut immer auf das Ganze und leitet ihre Erkenntnisse von sogenannten ewigen und großen Wahrheiten her. Die eine gewinnt dabei an Erfolg, und die andere an Umfang und Würde. Es ist klar, daß ein Pessimist auch sagen könnte, die Ergebnisse der einen seien nichts wert und die der anderen nicht wahr. Denn was fängt man am Jüngsten Tag, wenn die menschlichen Werke gewogen werden, mit drei Abhandlungen über die Ameisensäure an, und wenn es ihrer dreißig wären?! Andererseits, was weiß man vom Jüngsten Tag, wenn man nicht einmal weiß, was alles bis dahin aus der Ameisensäure werden kann?!

Thus there are in fact two distinct mental types, which not only battle each other, but which, even worse, generally coexist side by side without ever exchanging a word, other than that they assure each other that they are each desirable in their own place. The one contents itself with being exact and keeping to the facts; the other is not content with that, always looking for the big picture, and derives its knowledge from so-called great eternal truths. The one gains success thereby, the other gains scope and value. Of course, a pessimist could always say, the results of the one have no value, while those of the other have no truth. After all, when the Last Judgment comes, what are we going to do with three treatises on formic acid, and so what if we even had thirty of them?! On the other hand, what could we possibly know about the Last Judgment, if we don’t even know what could happen by then with formic acid?!

The NSA is focusing on the big picture…

Exponential vernacular

Like most mathematicians, I think, I’m irritated by the way “grows exponentially” has come into common parlance as a synonym for “grows rapidly”; whereas exponential growth in mathematics may be fast or slow, depending on the current level of the quantity. This has even crossed into technical discussions, as when I heard a talk by a cancer expert who objected to standard claims that cancer mortality increases exponentially through adulthood — which it does — because the levels actually stay low through the 50s, and so only “increase exponentially” after that point.

Anyway, I was under the impression that the vernacular application of this mathematical concept was fairly recent. So I was intrigued to find the cognate concept of “growing geometric”  popping up in Evan Thomas’s Nixon biography, on the Watergate tapes. In the context of cancer. Used correctly! It’s quite a famous part of Watergate lore, where John Dean refers to Watergate as a “cancer… close to the presidency”.

We have a cancer — within — close to the presidency, that’s growing. It’s growing daily. It’s compounding, it grows geometrically now, because it’s compounding.

“A triumph of personal bias over research”

The Guardian reports on a new research study that finds the overstretching of the NHS — particularly in the winter — has caused about 30,000 excess deaths in 2015. The government’s response is practically Trumpian:

A DH spokesman described the study as “a triumph of personal bias over research”. He added: “Every year there is significant variation in reported excess deaths, and in the year following this study they fell by nearly 20,000, undermining any link between pressure on the NHS and the number of deaths. Moreover, to blame an increase in a single year on ‘cuts’ to the NHS budget is arithmetically impossible given that budget rose by almost £15bn between 2009-10 and 2014-15.”

Demeaning experts who bring unpleasant news is the primary tactic. (more…)

16th century Sokal hoax

Many of our readers will recall the celebrated hoax perpetrated by mathematical physicist Alan Sokal in 1996 against the humanities journal Social Text. Sokal submitted an article “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” for an issue on “Science Wars”. The article strung together buzzwords helter-skelter to conclude with a flattering claim of the importance of social theory for natural science. The fact that it was published is cited even today by supercilious physicists and insecure journalists as conclusive proof that academic jargon in the humanities and social sciences is all fake.

Anyway, I was just reading Montaigne’s essay “Du pedantisme” (On pedantry), and found the following anecdote:

J’ay veu chez moy un mien amy, par maniere de passetemps, ayant affaire à un de ceux-cy, contrefaire un jargon de Galimatias, propos sans suitte, tissu de pieces rapportées, sauf qu’il estoit souvent entrelardé de mots propres à leur dispute, amuser ainsi tout un jour ce sot à debattre, pensant tousjours respondre aux objections qu’on luy faisoit. Et si estoit homme de lettres et de reputation, et qui avoit une belle robbe.

I observed at my home a friend of mine making sport of one of these [pedants] by making up a nonsense jargon, propositions with no succession, a patchwork of pieces that had nothing in common except for some buzzwords  that he stuck in that related to their topic, and he amused himself a whole day with this crazy debate, always managing to think of new answers to the man’s objections. And this was a greatly reputed man of letters.

CDC works toward the president

Dem Führer entgegenarbeiten — Working toward the Leader — was one of the most important neologisms of the early Third Reich. No one really knew what Hitler wanted to do — not even Hitler himself — and the organs of state were in turmoil, certainly incapable of providing rapid guidance at the local level to the government’s plans. So everyone’s obligation was to surmise what the Führer’s ultimate objectives were, and work toward accomplishing it, without needing specific instructions.

Compare that to these recent decisions of the completely apolitical Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

CDC abruptly cancels long-planned conference on climate change and health

The Climate and Health Summit, which had been in the works for months, was intended as a chance for public health officials around the country to learn more about the mounting evidence of the risks to human health posed by the changing climate. But CDC officials abruptly canceled the conference before President Trump’s inauguration, sending a terse email on Jan. 9 to those who had been scheduled to speak at the event. The message did not explain the reason behind the decision.

CDC Indefinitely Postponed LGBT Youth Health Summit After Election

To be fair, the reason seems to be that they needed the resources to focus on their conference on disease transmission by refugees and illegal immigrants.

 

Political DNA

As someone who actually works with DNA — or, at least, DNA data — I find the drift of the colloquial use of “DNA” disturbing. It’s impossible for me to avoid the resonances of biological determinism, but I’m not sure how other people understand it. I’ve collected a lot of usages, and it seems to have been used in the past to suggest that individuals are being driven by their training or by the historical imperatives of their organisations. Which is sort of fair. But either the meaning is drifting, becoming more crude, or it’s being appropriated for racist purposes.

In this article in yesterday’s Washington Examiner

That Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., will politicize everything is a given — it’s in his DNA 

Now, I’m pretty sure that the reference to his DNA is not meant to be an ethnic slur. But not completely sure. Why is it there? What is DNA supposed to be adding? Is it his political DNA, his personal DNA (in which case it’s just a redundant statement that this is his immutable characteristic), his family DNA, or his ethnic DNA (which would make it an antisemitic slur). Impossible to say.

5500-year history

An adviser to Donald Trump today gave a new argument against the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change:

There was an overwhelming science that the Earth was flat. And there was an overwhelming science that we were the center of the world.

In case there was any doubt about the source of his independent scientific perspective, he summarised his argument

I’m saying people have gotten things wrong throughout the 5,500-year history of our planet.

(5500 is a remarkably precise number by the way. My intuitive response was to think he was a young-Earth creationist, but their best researchers invariably give the Earth an age above 6000 years. Perhaps he’s a moderate Omphalist?)

Social science in action

IntersectionalityWhile watching Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech last week, I found it hilarious to see people in the crowd holding up (protest?) signs saying “INTERSECTIONALITY MATTERS”. Since when does abstract sociology jargon get onto political signs?

What’s next? “INHIBIT HEGEMONIC TOTALISING DISCOURSE”? Perhaps a call-and-response chant:

What do we want?
Analytically robust amelioration of social conventions!
When do we want it?
Diachronically.

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