Thursday, June 7, 2012

Quote of the week and more recall coverage

Statistics are like bikinis.  What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.  ~Aaron Levenstein

I've been reading more of the Scott Walker recall election coverage, and was struck by the frequent references to Walker being "the first governor to survive a recall election".  Of course this made me curious how many governor's had been recalled.  I remembered the California governor a few years back, so I had been imagining it would be at least a dozen or so.


It's two.  Lynn Frazier from North Dakota in 1921, and Gray Davis from California in 2003.

I had to laugh at my own sampling bias.  My assumptions were pretty understandable....I've been of voting age since 1999, and in that time this has happened twice.  Therefore it was reasonable to assume this happened at least occasionally.   I figured about once every 10 years, which would be 23 or 24 in American history.  I was pretty sure not every state had a recall option, so I halved it.  12 felt good.

This is the problem when data leaves out key relies on our own assumptions to fill in the details.  Engineers are normally trained to get explicit with their assumptions when estimating, as evidenced by the famous Fermi problem.  However, even the most carefully thought through assumptions are still guesses.

That's why it's important to remember the quote above: what you're shown is important, but it's not half as interesting as what's hidden.


  1. I think a lot of journalists really want to be sportswriters. You know the type: that is the first time in 40 years that a hitter did thus and such with one hand tied behind his back. So, mainstream journalists want to identify firsts no matter how insignificant it really is.

  2. Impeachments of Presidents must have come along every couple of decades, right? I mean, there was one in the 70s (before my time) and in the 90s.

    Except that the one in the 70s was short-circuited by President Nixon resigning before the House voted Yes/No on the Bill of Impeachment.

    Only two Presidents have ever been tried in the Senate after a Bill of Impeachment was passed by the House. One was Andrew Jackson, the other was Bill Clinton.

    This is another example of the errors that can come through sampling bias and lack of historical research.

    However, politicians talking about impeachment of Presidents is a common thing.

    I think Michael has it right: politics is treated like sports by the journalists.