Monday, December 31, 2012

Year in Review Links 2012

A few year end roundups for all of y'all.  My big plans involve champagne and my pajamas, and a whole lot of gratitude for a wonderful year.

First, 5 retracted research studies.  #2 is weirdly hilarious. (h/t Maggie's Farm)

Then, best data shares of 2012.  Way to represent Boston!

This list is a bit more modest....not "best of" rather "20 great" infographics.

And here are about 10 different "best science books" links, all in one place.

Unrelated to data, but good for a laugh:  Dave Berry's year in review.

That's all for 2012.

Don't forget that 2013 is The Year of Statistics!

Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Traffic fatalities: in initiatives we trust

In my last post, I took a look at the idea that gun fatalities were set to surpass traffic fatalities as a cause of death in the US.  In the comments, SJ pointed out that the word "surpass" was not appropriately use.  The primary driver of this convergence was really the decrease in traffic fatalities, so it would have been better phrased as "traffic fatalities set to drop below firearm deaths".  The article I originally cited had this to say about the drop:
The national gun-death rate would not be approaching that of motor vehicles if it weren't for the fact that the latter has dropped fairly drastically in the past half decade or so thanks to an increased effort to make the nation's roads and vehicles safer. Gun-rights advocates will point to the relatively subtle rise of the gun-death's purple line to argue that we don't need to pass more gun restrictions. Gun-control advocates will point to the more severe drop of the yellow line to make the case for what might happen if we were to.

It got me curious though....was that drop really do to some new law or set of regulations?  I've been a licensed driver for over a decade now, and I couldn't recall any specific big changes in the past few years that change how I drive. Let's take a look at that chart again:
Between 2006 and 2007, there was a steep drop, and an even more profound one in 2008.  Luckily for me I happen to have the chief hearings examiner for the State of NH Department of Motor Vehicles on speed dial*, so I gave him a call to see if he knew what was up.

Apparently there were no major changes to federal DUI law or any other major traffic laws in that time, so it wasn't a change in regulations.  Individual states may have changed some things, but it seemed dubious that this could have had such a profound effect on a national scale.  So I had one expert officially stumped. 

I decided to investigate further, and came across a great article dealing with exactly this topic.

Apparently the traffic fatality rate actually ticked back up this year.  The researcher quoted suggests that while policies and safety regulations have certainly helped, he expects that the poor economy did more to motivate changes in peoples driving than anything else.  People go slower to save gas, and are more aware of the financial cost of getting a ticket or losing their license.  Additionally, commuting miles tend to be low fatality, whereas driving for pleasure tends to be high fatality.  In a bad economy, people do more of the former and less of the latter.

He also offers some awesome things to look for when assessing stats like these:

  • Be cautious in assuming that a sudden, large drop in fatalities is in response to interventions related to vehicle design. It takes about 20 years to turn over the fleet. 
  • Don't expect most regulatory actions aimed at drivers to produce a sudden, huge drop in fatalities because such actions usually target only a portion of drivers (such as improvements in graduated driver licensing targeting young drivers only). 
  • Realize that any sudden, large reduction in fatalities is likely only an unintended byproduct of factors that influence the entire transportation system, such as a rapid change in the economy. 
  • Be aware that most rapid, underlying changes are transient, and therefore, their effects are mostly transient, too.
Read:  don't pat yourself on the back too quickly.  Be suspicious of anything that works too well.   

 *aka: my Dad

Friday, December 28, 2012

Deceptive charting: stop it with the firearm death category

On Slate this morning there was a headline about how firearm deaths have surpassed motor vehicle deaths in 10 states.  The article cited a report by the Violence Policy Center that showed that between 1999 and 2010 there was a  decrease in motor vehicle deaths nationwide, and a slight increase in firearm related deaths.  Thus, the report and article argued, we are heading towards a day when firearm deaths surpass motor vehicle deaths.

I've blogged before about how deceptive I think the term "firearm deaths" is (as it lumps in police action, homicides and suicides as one group), and it turns out this is the same report that annoyed me the first time.  This time however, I was struck by the chart they included in the article:

I was curious about this chart....what would it look like if the firearm deaths were broken out in to categories? The VPC report said it used WISQARS to generate the data, so I took a look.  WISQARS actually has 5 categories for death by firearm:  homicide, suicide, unintentional, legal intervention and undetermined intent.  

Here's what those look liked graphed out:

Essentially, homicides by gun have not changed in the 11 year period covered here, though they did tick up in the middle.  Suicides have gone up.  If you're curious what the other three categories look like when they're not all bunched up:

So unintentional fatalities are decreasing, and the other two categories appear to be fairly constant.

As a reference point, the population was 280 million in 1999, and was 309 million in 2010.

To be honest, I don't have a strong opinion about gun control, but I do hold data integrity at a premium.  If we're going to talk about regulating guns in order to keep people safe, you have to either include suicide prevention as one of your foremost points, or you have to start using the homicide data only.  I do not believe it is intellectually honest to quote total firearm death statistics when the national conversation is clearly focusing on homicides.

If we don't start with the right data, how will we know if any interventions actually work?

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Medical errors and reporting mechanisms

I got in to an interesting discussion today over at about medical errors and the huge variety of numbers that are out there.

It reminded me of a project I started to work on a few years ago at work, where I attempted to correlate low staffing levels to an increased error rate.

When I finished the graph, I discovered that the trend was completely in the wrong direction....low staffing levels actually appeared to be correlated with fewer errors.  When I did some fishing around, it became obvious what had happened.  The error reporting system is all self reporting by staff.  When they don't have enough staff to cover all the work, they also don't have time to fill out error reports, and thus many small to mid sized errors went undocumented.*  When there was more staff available, people were more compliant in their error reporting.

This is yet another risk of self reported data.

I will admit, it still amuses me that somewhere deep in my documents file, I still have a spreadsheet that suggests that the fastest way to get rid of errors would be eliminate most of the staff.  Correlation does not equal causation, and graphs are only as good as the source data.

*Hospital policy dictates that we should record "near miss" errors.....situations where nothing actually went wrong, but almost did.  The theory is that we need a record of these issues so we can address things before they actually cause a real problem.  However, if no one documents them at the time, they are nearly impossible to find later.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

On Scotsman, feminists, and logical fallacies

Hope everyone had a merry Christmas....mine was most definitely lovely.  I got an iPad and a garbage can full of manure.  I'm relatively sure I'm one of only a handful of people on the planet to get that combination of gifts (and love them both!).

Anyway, I recently ran in to an interesting logical issue that I've been mulling over.  

I've done a few posts lately on benevolent sexism and some of the annoying research that tries to assess it lately, but I'd like to make it clear that I am actually a feminist.  While I find some attempts at measuring sexism a little less than intellectually rigorous, I also can't ignore that much of my educated/working mom/non last name changing life is due to those strong women who came before me.

So it was with interest that I read this Quora interview with Gayle McDowell (republished on Slate) on "Why Do Some Women Hate Feminism?".  

In this piece,  she talked about her view of feminism and why it inspired hatred from many people.  

Now the piece itself was good, but not groundbreaking.  What interested me was one of the comments, where someone accused her of engaging in the "no true Scotsman" fallacy.  You can read more about it at the link, but here's the original story that coined the phrase: 
Imagine Hamish McDonald, a Scotsman, sitting down with his Glasgow Morning Herald and seeing an article about how the "Brighton Sex Maniac Strikes Again". Hamish is shocked and declares that "No Scotsman would do such a thing". The next day he sits down to read his Glasgow Morning Herald again; and, this time, finds an article about an Aberdeen man whose brutal actions make the Brighton sex maniac seem almost gentlemanly. This fact shows that Hamish was wrong in his opinion but is he going to admit this? Not likely. This time he says, "No true Scotsman would do such a thing".
I thought this was an interesting accusation.  If taken seriously though, I wondered how this allows anybody to protest any characterization of any group they happen to belong to?  I mean for the moment we're talking about feminists, but nearly every religious/ethnic/cultural group has to defend themselves from people who claim that their group is inherently violent/bigoted/crazy.

What always gets me in these claims is that people want to keep with sweeping generalities rather than even admit the data they'd need to ever make that particular claim provable.  Are feminists out to destroy men?  Well, in order to ever assess that, you'd need to figure out approximately how many women define themselves as feminists (using a population representative sample of course) and then figure out how to assess whether or not they wanted to destroy men.  This would get you in to assessing "hidden" agendas as well, as many would likely not admit it, meaning you'd have to ask tricky questions to sort through it, and likely get some false positives.  That's a lot of work.

Anyway, I'm not a philosopher, but I'd guess the "no true Scotsman" fallacy is one that should be hurled with care.  Group identity is any area where we will almost never have data to back up our feelings, and that needs to be kept in mind.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Have yourself a curiosity driven Christmas

If that's what you celebrate of course.

No big post today, as I'm cooking Christmas brunch, but I did want to highlight a few good Christmas gifts.

We didn't go crazy on Christmas gifts for the little lord this year, opting instead for some books.   He's just starting to get interested in books put in front of him (mostly to shove in his mouth) but I have a feeling by this time next year he'll enjoy Dr Suess almost as much as I do (for my money "barbaloot suites" is one of the most fun phrases to say, possibly ever).

Also promising is the book Big Questions from Little People (and Simple Answers from Great Minds).  It's the kind of book I loved as a kid, and in fact I'm reading it now (he doesn't seem to mind that I borrowed it).

My favorite Christmas present I can remember was the Big Book of Amazing Facts, which I read so often the cover fell off.  Not actually sure that Amazon link goes to the right seems to be a fairly common title, but the publishing date on that one seems about right.

If you want to see some more fun reminiscing about curiosity inducting gifts, see this NYT article today on "gifts that keep on giving, if not exploding".

And most of all, happy holidays to you and yours.  Thanks for stopping by.

Monday, December 24, 2012

A very Mayan Christmas

I know we're all supposed to stop talking about the Mayans, seeing as how the world was supposed to end on Friday and today's Monday and all....but this link was too good to pass up.

You enter your birthday, and it tells you how many (major) apocalypse predictions you've lived through.

I've got 59 under my belt, and my husband has 60.  I kind of want an ev psych person to do a study on the stability of marriages as a function of lifetime apocalypse prediction differentials.  I'd read that paper.

Link includes gratuitous profanity.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Benevolent Sexism Part 3: Tradition?

A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But here, in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn't easy. You may ask 'Why do we stay up there if it's so dangerous?' Well, we stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: tradition!
I didn't used to care much about tradition.  Then I got married.

I don't know exactly what happened, but somewhere on my way down the aisle, I got totally overwhelmed by the idea that I was about to partake in a ceremony that literally billions of people had gone through for thousands of years.  According to Stephanie Coontz,  there is only one documented culture throughout all of history that did not build it's society on marriage (can't remember the name now....though I believe it was somewhere in Asia and formed family structure based on siblings all living in the same household).  It was the most connected I've ever felt to the rest of humanity (until I had my son), both to those here and the faithful departed.

Since that time, I've always been a little dubious of those who want to evaluate cultural tradition as though those deeper roots shouldn't count.  In case you can't see where I'm going with this, this happens a lot in sexism research.  Recently, a study performed at UC Santa Cruz suggested that men and women still think men should do the proposing.  The most cited reason by the participants was "a desire to adhere to gender role tradition".

This whole thing caused some hand wringing, with my favorite Slate writer, Amanda Marcotte commenting that it is "benevolent sexism that leeches women of much of their autonomy beyond just the right to say yes or no".


Alright, here's the thing.  We've kept the tradition, but the whole back story?  It's changed.  Nobody gets engaged at random anymore(okay, someone must).  People talk about this stuff first.  Women even initiate a lot of these conversations.  The tradition has stayed, but a woman's agency to ask where the relationship is going, to discuss rationally if marriage makes sense as a next step, has developed.  This study did not ask men or women what they envisioned leading up to the proposal, just what that one moment would look like. All the articles I read about this talked about "how little had changed" in the realm of marriage when it came to equality for women.  Poppycock.

The traditions haven't changed, but all the behavior around them has.

One of my favorite advice columnists is Dan Savage, a liberal gay male who is most notable for creating Rick Santorum's "google problem".

I listen to his podcast, and he routinely gets callers that say things like "I've been living with my boyfriend for 5 years, and now I want to get married but I can't propose because I'm really traditional so I don't want to bring it up" or "my boyfriend of 2 months and I are having sex problems, and I think it's because he's a really traditional Christian guy".  He gets straight to the point with these people:  a traditional Christian does not have sex with someone they've been dating for two months.  A traditional couple does not live together for 5 years before talking about marriage.  Those things were unacceptable for most of history, and you need to come to grips with that.  People love to call themselves "traditional", but most of them don't like to act like it.

So give the college kids a break.  Women have an unprecedented level of say over who they marry and when, they're just trying to keep their balance.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Saturday Fun Links 12-22-12

I was going to post this yesterday, but then I thought maybe the world was going to end.


Seemed like such a lock too.

So here we are, a day late, with some entertaining links for your viewing pleasure:

First a bit of holiday cheer from reader many elves would Santa need on his staff to get it all done?  12 million, apparently.

In data news:  This week the Sunlight Foundation released a new data app called Sitegeist.  It downloads 5 pages worth of data about your surroundings, including demographic and housing data, political contributions, and interesting things to do.  I've been using it for a few days, and it's pretty interesting.  Apparently my neighborhood donates twice as much to Republicans as Democrats.  Who knew.

Speaking of Republicans....are you conservative?  Do liberals tell you that means your anti science?  Here's a fast retort....ask them what was up with this.

I've had a weird uptick in the number of designers emailing me asking me to share their infographics on my blog.  Don't they know infographics are dangerous AND I HATE THEM?

All right, I'm a bit of a hypocrite, I did think the top 10 sports infographics of 2012 were pretty cool

Thursday, December 20, 2012

(Legal) Truth or Consequences

I'm still putting together some more for my previous series, but in the mean time:

Since starting my current job (where I primarily analyze how to solve operational problems), when I hear a public policy debate, my first question is always something along the lines of "will this solution work?"  

However, there seem to be many people whose first question is "is it Constitutional (or otherwise legal)?".

On the one hand, I think the "will it work?" question is good to establish first, because then you could potentially use the answer to change the law/amend the Constitution.

On the other hand, I generally believe the Constitution was set up to protect us from a variety of natural consequences from particular legislative perhaps the Constitution question is the more important one and I'm just projecting because of what I do for work.

Obviously the ideal is to consider both, but it seems to me that many people have a knee jerk reaction to consider one or the other first.  And no, I'm not considering people who seem to not consider EITHER the usefulness OR the legality....though their number is legion.  This question came up because of the recent events at Sandy Hook, but this doesn't need to be limited to the gun control debate.

So which approach do you prefer?

Does it depend on the issue?

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Benevolent sexism Part 2: Who's defining this thing anyway?

Definitions are important.  REALLY important.  I've blogged before about how confusing things can get when researchers choose to define a word in a way most people wouldn't think to, and this topic is no exception.

Benevolent sexism is not a term most people use in their daily lives, and thus we should be especially cautious when approaching this term.  When Charles Murray wrote a recent critique of a study (scratch that, an abstract of a study) on benevolent sexism, he defined it up front as "think gentlemanly behavior".  People in the comments section went on to talk about how great it was to hold doors for people/have people hold doors for them. 

Thus, as my first step, I decided to take a look at what the actual researchers definition of benevolent sexism is.  Not their one sentence summary either, I wanted the assessment test.  After combing through quite few papers, I found that the most common assessment for benevolent sexism appears to be from a 1996 paper* that Google scholar tells me has been cited over 1200 times.  I couldn't find a free version of the paper, but I found the test here.

Basically the test asks 22 questions....11 designed to assess hostile sexism, and 11 designed to assess benevolent sexism (this test was only designed to test sexism against women, btw).  Before going any further, I decided to take it myself.  It's a 0 to 5 scale, and you're scored on the average.  Below 2.5 on either is considered "not sexist".   Here's the cheat sheet of which questions assess benevolent sexism, along with the answer that qualifies you as a non-sexist:

  1. No matter how accomplished he is, a man is not truly complete as a person unless he has the love of a woman. (Disagree)
  2. In a disaster, women ought not necessarily to be rescued before men. (Agree)
  3. People are often truly happy in life without being romantically involved with a member of the other sex. (Agree)
  4. Many women have a quality of purity that few men possess. (Disagree)
  5. Women should be cherished and protected by men. (Disagree)
  6. Every man ought to have a woman whom he adores. (Disagree)
  7. Men are complete without women. (Agree)
  8. A good woman should be set on a pedestal by her man. (Disagree)
  9.  Women, compared to men, tend to have a superior moral sensibility. (Disagree)
  10.  Men should be willing to sacrifice their own well being in order to provide financially for the women in their lives. (Disagree)
  11.  Women, as compared to men, tend to have a more refined sense of culture and good taste. (Disagree)
This actually confused me more than it enlightened me.  I mean, I feel I need some context for these questions before I can actually answer them.  I mean, like number the woman sick?  Is she your wife?  Your daughter?  A cousin?  For #1 and #3....are we excluding gay people on purpose or what? Also, I'm actually pretty cool with single people who are single by choice. And #8, for those of us not alive in the 60's, what's up with the pedestal thing?  For #6....I would kinda hope they at least adore their mom, right?  It would kind of worry me if a man didn't have any women in his life he felt that way about.  To get to Charles Murray's definition though, how many of these really cover "gentlemanly behavior"? I count two (thought you could persuade me as high as 4)....and there's no holding doors thing in there at all.

Anyway, vague questions aside, this test is pretty darn standard when it comes to assessing benevolent sexism for research purposes.   So keep this list in mind, and you'll have a better idea of what's being referenced here.**

*Glick, Peter, and Susan T. Fiske. "The Ambivalent Sexism Inventory: Differentiating hostile and benevolent sexism." Journal of personality and social psychology 70.3 (1996): 491.
**In my search for this particular assessment I found a really cranky critique of this assessment test over at Psychology Today.  This test confused me more than made me mad, but I thought the critique was kind of funny.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Benevolent sexism (part 1) OR why no one will give me the good drugs

Today, for the first time in my life, a doctor refused to write me a prescription for a medication I actually needed.

It was an interesting decision on her part, one I agreed with actually, but it fit in to some thoughts I've been having lately quite well, so I'm sharing it here.

I mentioned yesterday that I took a nasty tumble down the stairs, and it appears that I've severely bruised my tail bone and have some muscle spasms going on to boot.  I went in to the doctor today to verify that nothing was broken and to see if there was anything I should be doing.  I knew going in to this that any medication options would be limited (I'm an absolute lightweight when it comes to pain meds so I decline most of them anyway, and I'm still nursing to boot).  All was going as expected until she got to the part about the muscle spasms.  At that point she told me that normally she'd write me a prescription for muscle relaxers but she "felt uncomfortable giving them to a new mom".

Now let me be clear:  I agreed with her reasoning.  She knew that I would be holding a small child quite a bit (true), and that I was likely doing a lot of the night time feeding (also true) and that I was unlikely to surrender this duty (once again, true).  Thus, she felt it likely that I would (intentionally or not) end up using the drugs improperly by taking them and then at some point in the next 8 hours holding my child.  Thus, she refused to write me the script.

Now again: she did the right thing.  She was not accusatory, but merely realistic, I told her I understood completely, and we agreed on a different plan that involved ibuprofen and lots of ice.  This is not my regular doctor (she was on vacation) but I thought she did an excellent job of tailoring her medical knowledge around my current life circumstances.  

I bring this up because in the past few months 3 different people have sent me research studies (or commentaries on research studies) around the issue of "benevolent sexism".   Benevolent sexism is the basic concept of sexism that comes in a "positive" form.  I put positive in quotation marks because some would argue that this is a negative disguised as a positive, and others argue that positive is, well, actually positive.

The complicating factors for this research are twofold.  First, almost all of those doing the research are part of the gender studies crowd and believe benevolent sexism is a bad thing.  Second, recent studies suggest it makes people happier.  

I think this is one of those areas of research where definitions are absolutely crucial.  In reading over various articles that study it, I've found definitions that range from the benign (men opening doors and paying for dinner) to the more substantial (refusing to promote women because you assume they would prefer more time with their kids or giving men raises over women because men need to provide for a family).

I've read dozens of these studies in the last couple weeks, and as I drove away today, I was pondering how some of these researchers would have viewed my interaction with my doctor.  What would she have said to my husband if he were in the same circumstance?  Would her actions have been coded as paternalistic or realistic?  Would the conclusions have said she was judging me or assessing me?  I know how I would answer these questions, but it was an interesting thought experiment.  

I'm going to put up a few specific examples in the coming days (this post is getting too long as it is) so if you have any thoughts/studies/etc you would like to see included or addressed, leave it in the comments.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Pardon me if I don't get up/a peek inside my email inbox

Lousy day here in Bad Data Bad-land.  I stayed home from work today because my throat feels like it's been attacked by razor blades, and in my Nyquil induced haze, I fell down the stairs.   I'm hopeful that I didn't break anything, but standing/walking/sitting hurts WAY more than it should.

Luckily I still have pain meds left over from my c-section, so that's a consolation.

If I start slurring my typing by the end of this, you'll know what happened.

One of the reasons I love the internet is my family's habit of sending all family emails about random subjects.  The immediate family is 6 + 2 spouses, so the 8 person email chain can get a little amusing.  A few days ago, my mother, who is forever scolding us to get outside more often, forwarded us this article on how hiking boosts creativity.  My brother, a biology teacher, was the first to respond with this:

Love it, but before I love it too much . . .Bethany, could we get an analysis of this creativity test?

I've apparently got them all a little nervous when it comes to research now.

Anyway, being the good sister that I am, I thought I'd take a look at the data.  Essentially, the study took a group of people headed on an Outward Bound hiking excursion and gave them a creativity test.  Then it took another group of people, sent them out hiking, and gave them a creativity test after they'd been in the wilderness for about 4 days.  Those out in nature for several days did better to a statistically significant level.

The creativity levels were measured using the Remote Associates Test, which is a test that gives people 3 words and asks them to find the common word that ties them together (ex: falling actor dust*).

Overall, I thought it was an interesting and unique study, definitely one that deserves follow up with a larger sample size and some other variables.  The authors hypothesized that the boost in creativity was due to either technology deprivation or nature exposure, but also noted that:
A limitation to the current research is the inability to determine if the effects are due to an increased exposure to nature, to a decreased exposure to technology, or to other factors associated with spending three days immersed in nature. In the majority of real-world multi-day hiking experiences, the exposure to nature and technology are inversely related and we cannot determine if one factor has more influence than another. From a scientific perspective, it may prove theoretically important to understand the unique influences of nature and technology on creative problem solving; however, from a pragmatic perspective these two factors are often so strongly interrelated that they may be considered to be different sides of the same coin. We suggest that attempts to meaningfully dissociate the highly correlated real-world effects of nature and technology may be like asking Gestalt psychologists whether figure or ground is more important in perceptual grouping.
I would be interested to see a follow up that addressed if this were related specifically to nature, or if it was true of any is people's creativity 3 days in to a cruise?

It was definitely a fascinating study, IMHO.  Daniel, permission to love it has been granted.

I'm going to go lay down now, very gently.

*answer: star 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Weekend book lists

As the AVI pointed out in the comments on my last post, book lists are troublesome.  Are we ranking books that are important, books that are supposed to be important, books that we're reading or books we want people to think we're reading?   What makes a good book anyway?

That being's a list of 623 books, compiled from 13 different "100 best books" lists (actually, now I'm says 623, but if you scroll all the way down it's 624).

I've read 127, in part because I was working on the Modern Library's top 100 novels list for a while.  It shows that my focus was on top novels too....I've read 39 out of the top 50, and 100 of the books I've read were in the top 300.

So how is this list skewed?  Well for starters I know the Modern Library list was supposed to be English language novels from the last century.  From the looks of the main list, some of the other lists included translations and older books, along with nonfiction.  Still, the name of the website sort of takes care of any complaints....all they're claiming is that this is "a list of books".

Which, of course, it is.  

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Friday Fun Links 12-13-12

Still don't have enough Christmas present ideas?  How about the book My Ideal Bookshelf which compiles different "notable" peoples favorite books?  Just as cool is the chart the editor's boyfriend did to show how all the lists interacted.

The little lord is recovering nicely from his first cold.  I feel he has traversed this journey valiantly....this chart from rambling muse does a good job of showing where he's been:

If you're looking for a good podcast with interesting math facts, try Math Mutation by Erik Seligman....all sorts of fun little number facts.

This week, TED put out a letter to all TEDx organizers asking them to vet their talks a bit better.  The letters good, but even better is the subreddit that documented the talks that prompted the letter to begin with.

We're #1! And I still hate infographics

Sometimes I think I should link to my blog on my facebook page.  Then I realize that would mean I couldn't repost ignorant infographics with impunity.  Like this one:

As of this writing, this has been shared over 1000 times, and that's just by one group.

Now seriously, does this even look right?  My guess up front is no more than 5 of these are correct, even before considering reporting issues.

First, I had to dig around for the source data.  I pretty quickly found looks like it might have been the original source for this.  As a test, I tried Total Crimes, and came up with exact list above (US, UK, Germany, France).  Now, this is total crime, not per capita, and at the bottom of the list there's this disclaimer: Crime statistics are often better indicators of prevalence of law enforcement and willingness to report, than actual prevalence.  O RLY?

Seriously though, I'm not even going to get nitpicky on this one.  I just want to see how many of these lists are even accurately copied.  Inaccuracies will be in bold.  Ready?  Let's go:

#1 Total Crimes:  Accurately transcribed
#2 Rape: Nope. Per capita rapes go: Lesotho, New Zealand, Belgium, Iceland and totals are: France, Germany, Russia, Sweden
#3 CO2 Emissions: Accurately transcribed
#4 Divorce Rate: Accurately transcribed
#5 Teen birth rate: US is at the top, but only 40 countries are on here...they all appear to be the OECD countries too.  Anyway, the next 2 are's Bulgaria and the Czech Republic (Slovakia is correct)
#6 Heart attack: Couldn't find an actual "heart attack" category, but heart disease deaths go: Slovakia, Hungary, Ireland, Czech Republic
#7 McDonald's: Accurately transcribed with TOTAL numbers, but per $ of GDP, we're only #4
#8 Plastic Surgery: Weirdly, this is the only one not on the website.  I dug up a chart from the Economist though, and it put the top 4 as South Korea, Greece, Italy, and Brazil.
#9 Prisoners: Accurately transcribed

So that was slightly better than expected.  3 were patently wrong, and I would quibble with the teen birth rate as our leading the list requires that only developed countries be counted.  

Interestingly, out of the nearly 200 comments, only 4 people asked for the source data, and only 2 people offered up some sort of record keeping type objection.  

As I went a little further in to the Nationmaster data, I discovered that China passed the US for CO2 emissions in 2007, so that one was just old info on the website.  I also found that our divorce rate per capita is highest, but not when you compare it to the number of marriages we have.  

So the only ones left are total crimes (by convictions) which would definitely feed in to having a high number of prisoners (that we acknowledge....China I'm looking at you).  McDonald's was started here...I'm pretty sure we have the most Starbucks as well. 

That's 3 out of 9.

Good job internet.  

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Wednesday Brain Teaser 12-12-12

Jack and Jill were racing, but it was no contest.  Jack beat Jill by 10 yards on a 100 yard course.  Jill suggested that for the second race, Jack should start 10 yards behind the starting line.  Presuming they run the same speed, who wins this race, and how long before Amanda Marcotte writes a column about it?

Monday, December 10, 2012

Take your stinking paws off me you damn dirty ape!

I was reading an article the other day....something about people being foolish....and I ran across a rather fascinating comment.  It started as a regular comment of exasperation, but ended with an interesting stat "what do you expect from a country where 7% of people think the Planet of the Apes could come true".

Much to my delight, the person linked to something I'd never seen before....the National Geographic Doomsday Preppers Survey

This is an absolutely great little survey about various catastrophes and the ways the world could end.  The question referenced above gave a list of movies and said "Which of the following movies, if any, do you think depict events that could happen in the next 25 years?", and yes, 7% agreed with Planet of the Apes.  Of course, the phrase "depict events" is a little vague....technically you could say yes if you just thought Charlton Heston might yell at something in the next 25 years.  That seems pretty certain actually.

The whole thing is pretty interesting actually....apparently 27% of people think something's pretty likely to happen on December 21st, cuz you know, Mayans and all.  I was also a little perplexed to find out that, were the world to be ending tomorrow, 20% of people would spend their last night on earth stocking up on food and water.  I'm pretty sure my plans would be a little more fun.

I felt some of the questions had other interpretation problems.  One question asked how many years before the world would experience a major catastrophe.  Is that anywhere?  Because that actually happens fairly frequently.

Also, to the question "who would you share your supplies with" only 28% of parents said they'd share with their children.  That looks lousy, but another category says "immediate family" I'm guessing some people got confused.  

Overall, a great little survey that reminded me to keep researching generators, and to do something fun this week before the world ends next Friday.  

Stats in pop fertile are you anyway?

I don't watch much TV.  Though I occasionally watch a crime procedural or two (see kids, science is fun!), I can't remember the last time I watched a sitcom (scratch that, I have watch the Big Bang Theory on more than one occasion).  Thus I was somewhat interested to see the feminist blogosphere calling out the Zooey Deschanel vehicle (oh she's so that rain????) "The New Girl" for using a deceptive statistic.

Apparently a recent episode focused entirely on the premise that "by the time a lady hits 30, she loses about 90 percent of her eggs."

When the fact checkers weighed in, they revealed that while that stat is true, women start out with approximately 300,000 at 30 there are still about 30,000 hanging out there.

Of course eggs don't necessarily equate to fertility, and fertility doesn't necessarily mean a healthy pregnancy.  Despite what many comments section trolls claim, women's prime childbearing years are not in their teens, but rather peak at 25 or so.

While taking a look at this, I actually found more evidence that the fertility decline starts circa 27, but the overall chances of ever achieving pregnancy don't start to drop off until 33 or 34.  This was a good reminder that the "turning 30" thing has little to do with an actual physiological change, and more to do with people just liking round numbers.

Also related: I had often heard (and even quoted) that women who had already had kids were able to have kids later in life than those who had not (ie a woman who has a child at 30 will have an easier time having another one at 37 then one who is trying at 37 for the first time).  There's a suggestion that this actually isn't's just that by having that first child you've self selected as someone who doesn't have a pre-existing fertility problem.  I couldn't find the original study to verify this....but it seems like a plausible oversight.

Another note: fertility stats are really difficult to try to find, IVF clinics are the ones publishing most of them and they're dodgy with citations.....still a better source for info than a TV show though.

One last note: congrats to regular reader're going to love being a Dad.  The world needs more banjo players....brainwash him/her early and you just might get one.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Are you ready for some football?

There are very few things in life more boring than hearing someone talk about their fantasy football feel free to tune out now.

Good grief has my first foray in to FF been a disaster....but an excellent example of how picking your data points can change the results.

For those of you not well versed in standard FF setups, each week your team plays another team in your league.  Your teams do not reflect real NFL teams, but rather new teams composed of existing players.  Your record is determined by how often you beat the team you're playing that week.

In my league of 8 (run by the AVIs son, btw), I'm dead last.

However, I'm 3rd for points scored this year.  In fact, I've scored only 30 points less than the first place team....and 343 points more than the team directly ahead of me in the standings.   My problem of course is how many points my opponents score when they play me.  I have had more points scored against me than any other team by almost 100 points for the season.


This week is the first round of the playoffs, and I'm projected to lose yet again.  While I love the stats part of fantasy sports, it's really much better to be lucky than good.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Weekend Moment of Zen 12-8-12

Apparently I can't get Ben Goldacre's new book until February, so I only have this TED talk to hold me over until then.

Best quote "If I conducted one study, and withheld half the data points from that one study, you would rightfully accuse me of research fraud.  And yet for some reason, if somebody conducts ten studies, but only publish the 5 that give the result they want, we don't consider that misconduct."

Friday, December 7, 2012

200th post

Blogger tells me this post will be my 200th, so it seemed like a good time to go a little meta and reflect on my own statistics since I went live on March 21st.

Most popular posts:

#1 My most popular post didn't surprise me, it was the one where I correlated retraction rates in scientific journals with conservatives decreasing trust in science.  That one got linked to/reposted on quite a few blogs, so it didn't surprise me too much.

#2 The second most popular is a little strange, I still haven't figured out what key words keep leading people to my 4th of July post....most of that's just a repost from the Census Bureau.

#3 My third most popular post is my feelings on the application of Title IX to STEM professions.  It's pretty funny because that's the only post I've ever done that my brother ever got actively upset at me over, and it ended up as required reading for a class at a community college in California on gender issues.  I considered emailing the professor to ask what the discussion around it was, but I wasn't sure I wanted the answer to that question.

The rest:

#4 5 Rules for Reading Scientific Papers Online
#5 Soviet Propaganda, Infographic Style
#6 Arguments and Discussions, learning the rules
#7 Mission Statement
#8 Rule 6D
#9 Are Republicans Stupid?
#10 Rule #6

#9 makes me laugh because "are republicans stupid" is actually the most popular search that brings people to my blog (excluding searches for my blog in particular)...I don't think that post gives them what they're looking for.  Relatedly "gas prices the day bush took office" also brings me some traffic.

I'm happy to report 4% of my traffic comes from Linux users (stay strong my friends!)

Most popular countries are:

I suspect most of the Russia traffic is spammers, and probably Ukraine as well.  Not sure about the rest.

The correlation between the number of posts I put up in a month and the amount of traffic I get is .68, but it drops to .53 if I exclude March as a partial month.

I'd be interested to hear any thoughts on this, and as always any directions for the future!  Thank you all for making this an entertaining 200 posts, and I look forward to the next 200!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Fashionable Neuroscience

The Assistant Village Idiot is doing a series on fashionable politics

I find the term fashion a little difficult to wrap my head around, because it's hard to tell the difference between something that's "fashionable" vs "fad" vs "popular" vs "interesting to a lot of people" vs "start of a permanent change in society".  Of course I think everyone has trouble differentiating this in the moment....the real difference between these ideas can only really be seen in retrospect (you know, like the internet fad or Dick Rowe saying guitar groups were on their way out).

Anyway, after pondering this, I ran in to this article on fashions in neuroscience.

Essentially, researchers made a faux fMRI map that reflected how often studies were done on various locations in the brain. 

 Even more interestingly, they also did one that mapped paper impact factor based on various areas to see which areas would be most likely to get further citations.  They also did a word cloud.

Red areas got more citations, blue are negative.  The top wordle is words in the successful papers, the bottom in the less successful ones (as measured by subsequent citations).

I'm still not sure if they reflects fashion or  researchers following  the same trains of thought, or just everyone sticking with the areas that light up the best.  We'll probably see in about 50 years.

In the mean time, stay classy San Diego.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

December 5th

I had a rather entertaining post about doomsday prep all set for today, but then I looked at the calendar.

Six years ago today, at a trivia night, I got introduced to a guy who perfectly complemented my trivia strengths and weaknesses.  I knew I must get this delightful person (who could always remember who was in what movie, or what musician did what song and when) to be on my trivia team for as long as possible.  When he beat me at Trivial Pursuit, I knew I had to marry him.

The chances of love at first sight are small, and the chances of finding someone who would put up with someone who does literature searches and statistical breakdowns of optimal household and relationship management are even smaller, so I feel pretty darn lucky to have him in my life.

While the genders are reversed, I like the way this video puts it (linked to in case the embedding doesn't work).

Put more simply (from Andrew Gelman's whole post on the topic):
You are perfect; I’d make no substitutions
You remind me of my favorite distributions
With a shape and a scale that I find reliable
You’re as comforting as a two parameter Weibull
When I ask you a question and hope you answer truly
You speak as clearly as a draw from a Bernoulli
Your love of adventure is most influential
Just like the constant hazard of an exponential.
With so many moments, all full of fun,
You always integrate perfectly to one.

Love you honey!

Monday, December 3, 2012

Assessing clinical trials

It occurred to me recently that it's a bit odd that most of my "real world" exposure to research comes in the form of the variety of clinical trials that go on around me on a regular basis, and yet I rarely comment on clinical trials.

This is probably because most clinical trials are a little dense to get through, and the results tend to be less interesting to people (it turns out the reuptake limitations actually weren't as dramatic as they made them out to be!) and there's rarely much media involvement to mix things up.

Anyway, I heard a tidbit recently about when to be suspicious of results of clinical trials that I thought I'd pass along.

In any trial assessing a new treatment/drug/etc vs a placebo, you would expect to see more dropouts in the "treated" arm of the study.  This, of course, is because most drugs/treatments have very real side effects that will bother people and cause them to drop out.  Therefore, if you see a trial where the dropout rate is higher in the placebo arm, you should be suspicious.  Placebo studies should almost always be blinded for the patients (and ideally for the providers), but if significantly more of those in the placebo arm drop out, you know this has gone wrong.  Patients don't keep showing up if they know they're not actually getting treated with anything...and once we've established that the patients know which arm of the study they're in, the results become much less reliable.

I thought that was an interesting tidbit to keep in mind.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Weekend Moment of Zen 12-2-12

Do you like Johnny Cash?  Do you like data visualizations? Ever wondered how far he travels in "I've been everywhere man?"

The answer is 181075 kilometers.

Thank you internet.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Friday Fun Links 11-30-12

FYI, I'm done with 75% of my Christmas shopping.  Still have to get a tree though.

For those of you not done yet, I'll help you out with what to give me.   Here's a whole list!  

And for my little genius baby, I'm thinking this "Outlier" bodysuit would be perfect....or perhaps a stuffed normal distribution?

Alright, enough shopping.  Need some entertainment?  Try the "thanks textbooks" tumblr. Featuring the best of the worst problems/examples/etc in textbooks.  Highlights in the commentary include "I’m less concerned with the question, “What does the scale read?”  and more concerned with the question, “Why the hell are we lubricating a hamster?”  and "Who has a “favorite” orange?  How long have you had this orange that you’ve bonded with it so much?  Who has an equation to calculate the weight of an orange?Is it your favorite because it happens to weigh nine pounds!?"

Thursday, November 29, 2012

A post that starts with a brain teaser, moves to a visual, and ends with a stern reminder

I wanted to put up a brain teaser yesterday, but the little one got his first cold.  Baby coughs are sad.

Anyway, one of the more famous statistical brain teasers is the birthday problem.  There are a few variations, but essentially the question goes something like this:

You're at a party with 23 guests, including you.  What are the chances that  two people there have the same birthday?

The trick of course is that no one has to have a specific birth date, so the answer is not 23/366, but instead around 50% (interestingly, if the party were 50 people, it goes up to 97%).    For a further explanation, see here.

What's interesting about this problem is that you have to assume every birth date is equally likely...which of course isn't true.  I've written before about uneven distribution of birthdays in the US, due in part to scheduled c-sections or induced labor.  Anyway, I saw an interesting heat map today of birthday distributions from the Daily Viz, which is what got me thinking about the brain teaser.

 To note, this chart was made from a list of ranked birthdates, which is here.

I was a little struck by this, because I was thinking about how terrible I am at estimating things like this on my own.  The most common birthday in my circle of friends/family is Halloween.  The first week in April has the birth dates of my mother, sister and husband.  Neither of those time frames are overly popular within the general population, although I'd guess the difference between "most popular" and "least popular" are relatively small.  It was a good reminder that those I spend the most time with are not terribly representative of the population in general, on average.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Qualitative vs Quantitative probability

Ann Althouse linked to a local news story about a hospital in Minnesota that went 62 hours and 19 deliveries without delivering a baby girl*.

The comments on the Althouse post have a lot of smart people trying to figure out the probability and arguing about how unusual it is to deliver 19 boys in a row and if we should be impressed.  The point is made repeatedly that every combination of boy/girl deliveries is equally likely, which of course is true.  As I was reading through the comments though, it occurred to me that people are getting way too hung up on the quantitative probability here.  

The real question is much easier:  are there any other combination of 19 deliveries that would have been as interesting to you?  Out of 524,288 possibilities, only 19 girls would have been as interesting as 19 boys.  For some it would be equally interesting at 18, 17 or 16, some not.  It's a little like a lottery ticket coming up 1 2 3 4 5 6 or 4 8 15 16 23 42.  

The chances of something interesting happening are directly proportional to how many outcomes you find interesting. That's what I call a qualitative probability, not a quantitative one.  It's like that post from thankstextbooks.

*The Althouse post says 14 hours, but the article says 62 hours, not really sure where the discrepancy came from.

Meta on meta

The AVI has a poll up on polling, in reference to my post about polls.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Call for advice!

I've recently been considering going more in depth with my stats education (especially the data analytics software stuff), and am checking out a few grad programs in applied statistics.

Anyone have any good suggestions?

Online and/or located in New England preferred.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

How important is important?

I saw an interesting link on Instapundit today, under the headline "men on strike".

It took me to a Fox News article entitled "The War on Men" which led with a study by the Pew Research Group that said:  
According to Pew Research Center, the share of women ages eighteen to thirty-four that say having a successful marriage is one of the most important things in their lives rose nine percentage points since 1997 – from 28 percent to 37 percent. For men, the opposite occurred. The share voicing this opinion dropped, from 35 percent to 29 percent.

The article went on to elaborate that this was a huge societal change caused by feminist women being too angry and unmarriable for men to bother.

Really? Because feminism started in 1997?

Despite the hoards of internet commenters regaling everyone in the comments sections about how their own lives (and ex-wives), like, totes prove that women are awful (obvi), I felt a little dubious.  I was curious about  this survey.....if we were really reading this that women value marriage more than men now, was that not true in 1997?  I remember 1997, and I'm pretty sure the sexual revolution (cited in the article as part of the problem) was over by then.

Anyway, since most Pew Research studies are surveys of about 1000 people, I went searching for the sample size on this one.  I was curious what those 60 or so males were answering in 1997 that was so different.  Of course I had to search the Pew website for a while to find the survey (my suspicions grow when articles don't provide a link) but I found it here.  

As I scrolled down, one graph caught my eye:

Wait a minute....that graph shows men and women being pretty equal on the topic of marriage.  What gives?

Here's the graph the Fox News article was talking about:

See the difference?  It's in the notes.

Men and women differ when the response is "one of the most important things" but not when you include the next answer down...."very important".

So the big culture strike is men moving marriage from "one of the most important" things to a "very important" thing.  That's not nearly as sensational as promised.

I'm actually curious what percentage of the respondents in this survey were married when they answered this.  For an unmarried person, this could be a bit of a "how often do you beat your wife?" question.  I mean, if you're not sure if you want to get married would you answer not important?  Because then it sounds like you're saying you'd be okay with an unsuccessful marriage.  I'm not sure what I would have answered prior to getting married myself....marriage always felt pretty optional to me.  Anyway, now that I am married, I would have definitely answered "one of the most important things".  If this had been two different questions, I would feel better about extrapolating from the results.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Friday Fun Links 11-23-12

I guess it's a day late, but here are 4 ways to cook a turkey using NASA gear.

Speaking of crazy uses for things, did you know you can cook fish in your dishwasher?

Alright, that wasn't math or science related, but this is.  Neil Degrasse Tyson is teaming up with the GZA from Wu-Tang clan to teach kids math, and man, it ain't nothing to @#$*& with.

Getting ready for Christmas?  How about some Hubble Telescope Christmas cards?

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

On Marco Rubio and lines in the sand

In the post election fall out, no story has hit me as personally as the new media kerfluffle over Marco Rubio's "age of the earth" comments.  For those of you still trying to tune out, here's the recap.  Rubio, a Republican Senator from Florida, got asked in an interview with GQ how old he thought the earth was.  His reply heard round the world:
I'm not a scientist, man. I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that's a dispute amongst theologians and I think it has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States. I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow. I'm not a scientist. I don't think I'm qualified to answer a question like that. At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country where people should have the opportunity to teach them all. I think parents should be able to teach their kids what their faith says, what science says. Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I'm not sure we'll ever be able to answer that. It's one of the great mysteries. 

This immediately caused cries of how scientifically ignorant he was, as the correct answer is apparently 4.54 billion years.  Rubio has been accused of putting religion ahead of science, and this has sparked a general conversation about how religious orthodoxy and science are incompatible.  In fact, Phil Plait over at Slate put it this way:

I got a chill when I read Rubio’s statements, “I think it has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States. I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow.”
Perhaps Senator Rubio is unaware that science—and its sisters engineering and technology— are actually the very foundation of our country’s economy? All of our industry, all of our technology, everything that keeps our country functioning at all can be traced back to scientific research and a scientific understanding of the Universe....Senator Rubio is exactly and precisely wrong. Science, and how it tells us the age of the Earth, has everything to do to do with how our economy will grow. By teaching our kids actual science, we can guarantee the future of this country and its economic growth. By hiding it from them, by equivocating about it with them, by providing false balance between reality and wishful thinking, what we guarantee is a future workforce that can’t distinguish between what’s real and what isn’t.

(Highlight in the original)

Now, I agree with Plait.  Science is critical to our understanding of the world.  I started this blog in part because it makes me incredibly sad exactly how little most people know about math and science, and how malleable most people believe facts are.  I think scientific literacy is one of the biggest gifts we can give our children, and obviously I spend a decent amount of my free time trying to promote more critical interpretations of popular facts....and that is where I disagree with Phil Plait and the other Rubio critics.

I think drawing a line in the sand over one specific issue like this is wrong.

I am not a young earth creationist....but I was raised by them.  I'm not talking about my parents either, I'm talking about the 13 years of Christian school education I received, including 7 years of strict Baptist teaching in middle school and high school.  Every science or math class I took for my entire pre-college career was taught by a young earth creationist (or at least someone who had been willing to say they were one).  In this environment, any science class not taught by an avowed Christian was immediately suspect.  When I announced my intention to go to a secular university and to study engineering, I fielded question after question about how I would be able to stay true to my faith while being taught science by those terrible atheists.  I was encouraged to change my choice of school or my choice of major, to change anything, because of the constant assaults on my beliefs I going to have to withstand.  I was told horror story after horror story of Christian kids singled out and flunked for standing up for what they believed in.  A friend's mother actually cried while talking to me about it.  For a time I reconsidered, but in the end I didn't change my mind and I went to college ready to face the fire.

Well, the fire never came.

In four years where I barely left the math/science buildings, in four years of biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, physics and engineering classes, I was never, not once, asked how old I thought the world was, how we all got here, or if I thought there was a place for God in any of it.

It's not just that no one asked, it's that it never came up.  I mean, I'm pretty sure in one of my biology classes there was a passing reference to "this is an evolutionary adaptation", but other than that, no one raised the subject.   We were too busy learning about how to multiply numbers in a matrix or how objects move on frictionless surfaces.  In fact the only time it came up was either when people found out I went to a Baptist high school ("oh, so you were taught the whole earth in six days thing? what was that like?) or when I'd run in to Christians who would want to grill me on how I was being treated.  Ironically, many of these Christians were in the psychology or sociology departments, both of which had professors FAR more critical of fundamental Christian beliefs than anything I encountered.

Over time, I came to be fairly critical of the particular high school I had gone to and the attitude of religious fundamentalism.  It was science, really, that set me free.  The ability to review evidence, to think critically, to decide what is and isn't a valid source, and a healthy sense of skepticism all moved me away from those people who claim religion mostly so they will always feel sure about everything.  I like feeling unsure.  I like admitting I could be wrong.  I like saying there's some ambiguity, and that I'll look in to it independently and form a conclusion. I will always love science for this.

However, when people use science to do the same thing to others that I feel religion was used to do to me, I get upset.  Science should be used to open people's minds to the idea of evidence based investigation, not to make fun of people because they repeat something they were raised with.  To set the bar at the age of the earth, to say that no one who even questions the 4.54 billion year number is allowed to come in, well I think that ensures that fewer people of faith will even bother trying to enter the sciences.  This needlessly perpetuates hostilities on both sides.  If religion throws down a gauntlet on one side, it's up to science to sit back and say "no problem, come on in, take a look around for yourself and see how you feel after".  Science is not an excuse to shove a conclusion down someone's throat.  Science is a process of teaching people how to reach a good conclusion to begin with.

Getting back to Rubio and his detractors....this is why I can't criticize the man.  Rubio's a Catholic, a lawyer, and a politician.  I doubt he's seriously sat down and studied geology, astronomy or anything else that would help him understand the age of the earth debate.  Additionally, his Catholic faith tells him that many conclusions could be valid (Catholics are not required to be young earth creationists).  So when he was asked a question outside his comfort zone, he said what he knew, admitted his limitations, and said what he didn't know.  To me, that's science.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

If it makes you happy (it can't be that bad)

I don't have any citations to back me up, but I'm pretty sure it's a proven fact that a belly laugh from a baby is the most amazing sound on earth.

Anyway, I saw a great headline today, a classic "there's more to this story" moment:  "Sex and alcohol make you happier than kids and religion, study finds".  While I'm sure the headline made many a college student raise their hands with a "damn the man!", I was curious where this was all coming from.  What makes us happy is notoriously difficult (in part because the things that make us feel the best are paired with things that make us feel bad.....water tastes better if you're thirsty, showers are amazing when you're feeling gross, absence makes the heart grow fonder, etc)

This took quite a bit of searching around, as apparently this was not actually a published study, but rather a press release for a talk a postgrad is giving (or gave, Nov 14th) at the University of Cantebury.  It's a pity because I think the demographics of the survey population might be relevant, but I'll work with what I have.

The study itself seems pretty interesting.  While the headline is true, it really sells short what the authors were trying to do.  They were actually trying to capture how different actions effected people (in the moment) on four different levels....pleasure, meaning, engagement and happiness.   Sex was rated number one in all categories, but other ratings were more divided.  Alcohol/partying was highly rated for pleasure and happiness (2nd), but lower for meaning (10th).  The "kids" part was actually the activities of childcare and/or playing with kids....which I felt like covered a pretty broad range of interactions.  I mean, making my son laugh is the highlight of my day, but the time I spend changing diapers and calming fussiness?  Well, it's hard to put that all in the same category.  In the same vein "religion" was actually "religious activity"...which is slightly different IMHO.  Anyway, childcare and religious activity both rated high on meaning and happiness, and lower on pleasure and engagement.  

Basically, the point of the study was not to measure pervasive life effects of individual actions, but rather to quiz people (via text message) at random points in time on what they were doing and how it made them feel. The upside of this is it doesn't rely on people's memories of what made them happy, which could be influenced by later context.  The downside of course is that it is an action devoid  of context.  Drinking alcohol could make someone happier at the moment, but the rating does not include any potential consequences that might come in later.   What was most interesting to me about this study was the things people do regularly that they seem to know won't bring them happiness, meaning, pleasure or particularly engage them, most notably Facebook time.

In the end, the headline just neglected 3 out of 4 categories and reported the most sensational results.  That's not surprising.  I actually ended up finding the study pretty interesting, and I'd like to see it published somewhere with more details.