Questioning Dubious Statistics

BBC More or Less Postcard

More or Less is a radio programme1 and podcast produced by the BBC World Service. The weekly show tries to make sense of the statistics presented in popular media (including the broadcasts of their own organisation1) in a way the average educated listener can understand.

As you might expect, a common thread in the podcast is whether the numbers reported in stories about studies, polls, and surveys are accurate and used appropriately. Spoiler alert: they often are not.

In a recent “bonus” podcast, the host offers a short debunking guide that would fit on a post card2 from his holiday at the shore. “How to question dubious statistics in just a few short steps.”

The whole thing is worth ten minutes of your time. If you teach math to high school students, you may even want to play it for them.

However, if you’re very short of time, the final step is, for me, the most important idea presented.

Number 6: Be Curious.

If a statistic is worth sharing, isn’t it worth understanding first?

Forget that nagging feeling that says you might just be spoiling a good story. Facts matter… but facts are also fascinating.

Treat them as puzzles. Treat surprising or counterintuitive claims, not with suspicion nor open arms but as mysteries to be solved. It’s fun.

And they close with this reminder.

Hopefully, with this postcard as your guide, you can step into a world of statistical adventure. Because it’s not just about winning arguments, it’s about being curious. The world, after all, is a fascinating place.

Whether you consider statistics “fun” or an “adventure”, the advice is solid. Be curious, some would say skeptical, about the numbers constantly being thrown at you in the news and your social media feed. Very often the story behind them is far more interesting, and different, from what has been presented in the headline.


If you listen to podcasts, More or Less is a good one to add to your playlist. I would have embedded a player here for the episode but the BBC doesn’t allow those of us outside the UK to do that kind of thing.

1. British show, British spelling. :)

2. For you kids out there, postcards were something your parents (maybe grandparents) sent from locations where they were on vacation in the days before Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and the rest. It was a slower method of trying to impress their friends and relatives. Or maybe make them jealous.

My Conspiracy Theory Theory

X files the lone gunment

Frohike, Byers, and Langly are skeptical of this rant.

I grew up with some of the classics. Unique gems like aliens hidden at Area 51, dozens of variations on the JFK assassination (aliens did that too), faked moon landing, Watergate. Today it seems as everything in the news is automatically attributed to some kind of conspiracy.

Well, I have a theory about that.

For each additional person who knows the details of a particular conspiracy, the likelihood of it being successful and secret declines by 5%. As the odds approach zero, the plan is either revealed or falls apart.

Let me explain.

Any conspiracy, by definition, begins with at least two people. A one-person plot is in the realm of lone-wolf, evil genius territory, and talking to yourself (or the fourth wall) doesn’t apply.

Every time you add a co-conspirator, henchman, girl friend1, lacky, nerd hacker, or janitor to the mix, the chance of someone making a mistake or becoming a disgruntled whistleblower increases. If the plan is hot enough, the temptation of book deals and screenplays gradually appear in the distance.

So, if you assume the beginning odds of success for any conspiracy at close to 100%, it only takes the involvement of twenty people to drive the chances to zero. I figure most of these things probably start far below 100% and thus require far fewer people to fall apart.

And of course, every theory needs a corollary…

As the odds of a conspiracy in some way related to President Obama, Hillary Clinton, or the New York Times approaches zero, the chances that it will be adopted by a Fox “news” host, continuously flogged on air, and believed by their viewers approaches 100%.

Yes, the truth is out there. Just not on Fox.


Ultimate conspiracy theorists, The Lone Gunmen were one of the best parts of the X-Files. Sometimes their stories made a whole lot more sense than the main narrative.

1. I’m not being sexist. Conspiracies are almost always a guy thing. Most women I know are too smart to get involved in this crap.

The Store is Tracking You

Screen Shot 2018 01 23 at 8 30 25 PM

Irony is not dead.

This week Amazon, the 800-pound gorilla of online merchants, opened an actual physical store. From the pictures, it looks like what Whole Foods (which Amazon bought last year) might have come up with if they were designing a Wawa.

However, the unique part of Amazon Go is that there are no checkout lines, cash registers, or cashiers, and the tech press went wild.

On arrival, you launch the Go app, which comes out today for iPhones and Android phones and connects to your Amazon account. It displays a 2D code that you scan at one of several glass security gates. The code identifies you to the store and opens the gate. (You can also check in other people—a spouse, a kid, a friend—whose purchases will be added to your tab.) Once you’re in, AI algorithms start to track you and everything you pick up and keep. You can bag your items as you go if you so choose, and need interact with an employee only if you’re buying alcohol, in which case an associate standing in the liquor area will check your ID.

The article talks about the store using a lot of AI, although I’m not sure this system is all that smart (yet). Really it’s only a couple of steps beyond how I already shop.

At the supermarket I go to most often, I pick up a hand-held device after scanning a loyalty card. As I select the items I want, I scan the bar code and stick it in my bag. At check out, I scan a code on the device, wave my Apple Pay at the register, and leave. Amazon engineers take that semi-manual process and incorporate the scanner into the building itself.

This is only one store, in downtown Seattle, and it’s not clear where Amazon plans to take this concept. But it’s not hard to predict where this general technology is going.

Between the general lust for data by corporations and governments, and the paranoia-fueled push for more “security”, this kind of tracking system will become more powerful. And likely be spread far and wide.

Watch for AI-powered cameras and sensors at your local mall, airport, convention center, wherever lots of people come and go. At your school?

Ok, that’s enough ranting on this topic for now. I have to go work on my sensor-blocking tin foil hat. :)


Tweet by @typesfast, posted January 22.

 

Conversational Code

You won’t find Swift anywhere on that map.

Speaking of computer science for all (as in a post from last week), Apple CEO Tim Cook was visiting a college in the UK to promote the company’s Everyone Can Code curriculum. The UK Guardian was one of the news organizations that covered Cook’s stop, as they might for a visiting rock star.

Although the headline (“Apple’s Tim Cook: ‘I don’t want my nephew on a social network’”) hints that the article will focus on the newly-discovered issue of tech overuse, most of it is a largely flattering profile of Cook. Plus some information about the financial and tax problems Apple is facing in both Europe and the US.

But buried in the small section about whether everyone should learning programming, we find this idea from Cook.

I think if you had to make a choice, it’s more important to learn coding than a foreign language. I know people who disagree with me on that. But coding is a global language; it’s the way you can converse with 7 billion people.

I’m one who would disagree.

Coding is largely a global standard, but it is not a language for communications. Learning to code does not help students understand the world outside their borders and offers no insight into another culture. It is not more important than learning a conversational language that is not their own.

If a school was, for some reason, forced to make a choice between the two, their students would be far better off in a Spanish or Chinese language course than they would be learning to code.

Nothing to Celebrate

Some Limits on Freedom

Ok, it’s been an exhausting year of almost non-stop social chaos in this country. I’m sure there are plenty of retrospectives of the events of the past twelve months (and much trivia) you could watch and read this weekend but I’m not going to look for them.

I’m also not going to write one. I just have a few thoughts about all this crap, mostly recycled from three previous rants. Feel free to ignore them.

The origins of this mess we’re in go back farther than one year, of course, and I continue to assign primary responsibility to the dead weight of indifference expressed by a significant number of American citizens in 2016. I can only hope that enough of those who opted out of voting, or worse, voted as a “message” to some unknown entity, are now paying attention.

I’m sure many more people are now at least awake, as expressed by the so-called resistance of the past year. However, as I ranted previously, resistance is not futile, but it’s also not enough. Pushing back does not move the country forward. At best, it maintains the status quo. Most likely, resistance will only keep us from sliding too far back into that past you hear so much about. The one that was “great” for some, but not for most.

One positive will be the many new faces who will be running for office this year. However, they, as well as the more familiar ones who want to stay in office, need to do more than put up a lot of scary ads saying “I’m not with him/them”.

They need to explain, clearly and forcefully, their vision for positive change and how it can be achieved. Engage us with how we can progress and improve society, as opposed to returning the “normal” that obviously wasn’t working for large parts of the county.

Finally, much of what has been written and said by our so-called leaders over the past twelve months, also brought to mind an essay written almost twenty years ago by the great Isaac Asimov.1

His point in the column (published in Newsweek, an actual paper magazine), is that, although many in American society loudly exclaim that the people have a “right to know”, they rarely are referring to having accurate and meaningful information. Instead they ridicule and devalue knowledge.

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

Asimov ends the essay with this idea:

We might begin by asking ourselves whether ignorance is so wonderful after all, and whether it makes sense to denounce “elitism”.

I believe that every human being with a physically normal brain can learn a great deal and can be surprisingly intellectual. I believe that what we badly need is social approval and social rewards for learning.

Asimov’s refusal to accept willful ignorance would make a wonderful message for any candidate, for office at any level, to include at the center of their campaign.


The image is of a t-shirt for sale in The Newseum. If you are visiting Washington DC, plan to spend half a day in this wonderful alternative to that other museum of American history.

1 The whole essay is a little dated, as you might expect, but worth reading.