Friday, August 22, 2014

Why Statistics Is Sexy. Or The Need to Distinguish Between Large and Small Numbers.

I've always liked statistics as a science  but never thought it hawt and sexy.  Now I wish we could make statistics more sexy (bare more skin?) in order to save more of us from falling into those hidden wolf traps of the net.  They don't have sharpened sticks, those traps (holes in the ground, covered by branches), but they do hurt our understanding in somewhat similar ways.

An example of the wolf trap:  Someone writes on, say, racism or sexism in recent events and then gets attacked by trolls.  Suppose that in one scenario there are five very active trolls hammering at the poor writer, in an alternative scenario there are five thousand such trolls. 

The two scenarios are not the same, they don't tell us the same story about the likely number of people "out there" believing whatever those trolls believe.  That's why it's very wrong to argue that the presence of five Twitter trolls in one's mentions means that the troll-opinion is extremely common in the real world.  Yet in the last week I've seen several people take that view of events:  The mere existence of any nasty trolls (and nasty they are) means that those trolls have sizable backing in the world of opinions, ideas and values.

So that is about proportions or percentages.  There will always be people with extreme nasty values, there will always be some who troll.  To unearth a troll comment and then to write about it as if it represents a sizable number of people in the real world is lazy and just wrong.  Even utopia would have a few trolls, hankering for life in hell.

It matters whether 0.1 percent or 60% of Americans believe that broccoli should be banned.  Those who don't get that difference are going to create "the-sky-is-falling" stories, and they are not ultimately helpful.

Add to all that the problem of self-selection, which means that those who comment on any particular incendiary topic are much more likely to be the ones who hold the extreme opposite view of the one any particular writer has used in a piece (broccoli haters, whether 0.1% or 60%, will be much more likely to be in the comments section of your Broccoli Is King article than anyone else). 

That's why the comments sections, especially if not moderated, are dominated by angry voices and often opinions better suited to critters who just crawled out of the primeval slime*.  You know, the way any article about gender inequality that focuses on women gets comments from angry meninists.

People who agree with the writer tend not to waste time scribbling that down under the article, and people who aren't that bothered either way tend not to spend time in the comments, either.  The Twitter discussions work on somewhat similar principles, though the fact that people have followers makes them less hostile to the imagined writer here.  But those who hated what you wrote are the ones with real energy to look up your handle and then enter the "discussion."

These two problems I've described above are a) ignoring the actual prevalence of various beliefs  and b) ignoring self-selection on the net.  That double-ignorance can have bad consequences:  We may be misled into believing that a molehill is a mountain, we may initiate much larger angry fights with an imaginary enemy (windmills?) and we may misunderstand the scope of the problem altogether.

A similar problem is born when someone writes an article starting with the planned plot.  Suppose that the plot is how much people hate broccoli.  The intrepid journalist will then go out and interview people.  What if the vast majority of those interviewed aren't bothered about broccoli at all?  That statement will not have a prominent place in the planned story.  Instead, even if it takes a very long time, the journalist will find a few people who reallyreally hate that green tree-pretender among the vegetables, and it is the opinions of those few people that we all will then read.

The next stage (and believe me I've seen this stage recently, though not about broccoli hating) is for people to talk about the vast camp of broccoli haters and mention the opinions of the interviewed few as representative of what that vast camp thinks.

This doesn't mean that anecdotes cannot reflect majority views or the views of an important numerical minority.  But strictly speaking an anecdote, if true, tells us only that one particular person held a particular opinion.  It doesn't tell us how common that opinion is.  For that we need the collection and analysis of statistical data about the whole relevant population (all vegetable eaters in the case of broccoli).

So all this was what has stopped me from writing on various interesting topics yesterday.  Aren't you glad I shared?
*With all due apologies to critters from the primeval slime who are probably charming and empathic ones.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Cruelest Month Of All. On Recent News.

The foreign and domestic news I came back to (from my selfish post-vacation angle) are so horrible that my customary post-travel migraine hurts less, even before drugs, than the thought of tackling them, assuming that I somehow should have wise words on anything.

Which isn't the case.  But neither is this August the cruelest month of all.  It just seems so, because of the access to global news which have not been good.  That access gives bystanders the feeling of participating, the diffuse feeling of needing to do something, yet knowing that there isn't much one can do.

Against that background the events in Ferguson, Missouri are not as horrible as the events in Iraq /Syria or Israel /Palestine or Ukraine or the Ebola epidemic in Africa.  Ferguson offers hope, of people responding to the police ineptness and brutality with protests, of black people responding to a poorly representative local government in terms of race by setting up voter registration tables, of all people waking up to the needs for racial justice in policing. Whatever the horrors of Ferguson, there are also these spots of light.

It's harder to see a lot of immediate hope in how the Ebola epidemic is developing.  Jina Moore writes touchingly of the special dangers women in Liberia face, because they are the majority of the caretakers of patients.  There is no known effective treatment for Ebola, with a current death rate of 54%, and that makes quarantine imperative, despite its cruelty.

Then there is the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant, with its extreme radical ideology, its desire for genocides of those whose religious beliefs differ from the radical doctrine by even one iota, its brutality and inflexibility.  The most recent news about the beheading of one US journalist and the threat to behead another journalist are disgusting. 

They might also be intended to elicit a certain response from the US, because recruiting new soldiers is easier if the enemy can be seen as the great white Satan raining drones on innocents in Iraq and Syria rather than local almost-coreligionists.  And the news about the slaughter of journalists are intended to terrorize the rest of us.

Right now the Islamic State is slaughtering to glorify the god they imagine to exist, and that slaughtering applies to anyone who opposes them but especially to adult men.  Women and children are usually not killed because they are seen as resources, not as equal opponents.  Young boys can be brought up to be soldiers, young girls can be married off soonish, and young adult women (and teenage boys) can provide immediate sexual services which do not seem to differ from the idea of rape or sexual slavery for the non-Muslim women and youth in the area.   But the longer-term goals of this particular regime are surely going to be terrible for the Muslim women.

Assuming there is a longer term for the regime.  My impression is that the fighters have a sizable contingency of outside fanatics:  men, who have gathered there to turn their dream of a medieval caliphate into reality.  I doubt that those dreams can be turned into anything but a nightmare, even for them.  Still, any possible response to the current nightmare will not be without further violence or cruelty, because that is what wars mean.

How does one end a post like this on a positive note?  By remembering that most people on this planet are not suffering the types of cruelty I describe above, and by believing that education, a just distribution of resources and the belief in the humanity of all members of homo sapiens can make some difference.  We are never going to have utopia, but we could have a  milder type of dystopian future where people complain about taxes and what their neighbors do to their yards and the way the youth behaves.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Letters from Vacation 3: The Male Nannies of Scandinavia

That title is a joke, reflecting the surprise of some outside observer a while ago  about the much greater participation of Nordic fathers on hands-on care of their children than is common in the Anglo-Saxon world, say, and probably in most other places.

I observed that participation in Finland.  Now, July is the vacation month there, so it could be that all those young dads were out alone with their children because they were doing vacation parenting only. 

But I seriously doubt that, given the great competency of so many young men loading (and unloading) two or three toddlers into and out of the family car while expertly assembling (and disassembling) the stroller and also negotiating with a crying child, all simultaneously.  Indeed, the parental skills most demonstrated were first class and clearly reflected long practice.

It's not that dads in the US aren't competent carers; it's that seeing them out alone with the children is much less common than what I recently observed, and that difference is probably a cultural one.  What drives it is unclear, but one guess is the generally greater gender equality in the Nordic cultures and another is the effect of the parental leave policies which make it desirable for the dads to take some part of the total parental leave, because that gives the fathers both time for bonding and time for learning how to care for the child, on their own.

I've written about this difference after my past travels to Finland, too, but as far as I can tell the trend is getting stronger over time, and the few dads I spoke with both love it and are surprised that the same wouldn't be true elsewhere.