Archive for the 'Politics' category

Willfull Ignorance about Statistics in Government

May 21 2012 Published by under Bad Math, Bad Statistics, Politics

Quick but important one here.

I've repeatedly ranted here about ignorant twits. Ignorance is a plague on society, and it's at its worst when it's willful ignorance - that is, when you have a person who knows nothing about a subject, and who refuses to be bothered with something as trivial and useless about learning about it before they open their stupid mouths.

We've got an amazing, truly amazing, example of this in the US congress right now.
There's a "debate" going on about something called the American Community Survey, or the
ACS for short. The ACS is a regular survey performed by the Census administration, which
measures a wide range of statistics related to economics.

A group of Republicans are trying to eliminate the ACS. Why? well, let's put that question aside. And let's also leave aside, for the moment, whether the survey is important or not. You can, honestly, put together an argument that the ACS isn't worth doing, that it doesn't measure the right things, that the value of the information gathered doesn't measure up to the cost, that it's intrusive, that it violates the privacy of the survey targets. But let's not even bother with any of that.

Members of congress are arguing that the survey should be eliminated, and they're claiming that the reason why is because the survey is unscientific. According to Daniel Webster, a representative from the state of Florida:

We’re spending $70 per person to fill this out. That’s just not cost effective, especially since in the end this is not a scientific survey. It’s a random survey.

Note well the emphasized point there. That's the important bit.

The survey isn't cost effective, the data gathered isn't genuinely useful according to Representative Webster, because it's not a scientific survey. Why isn't it a scientific survey? Because it's random.

This is what I mean by willful ignorance. Mr. Webster doesn't understand what a survey is, or how a survey works, or what it takes to make a valid survey. He's talking out his ass, trying to kill a statistical analysis for his own political reasons without making any attempt to actually understand what it is or how it works.

Surveys are, fundamentally, about statistical sampling. Given a large population, you can create estimates about the properties of the population by looking at a representative sample of the population. For example, if you're looking at the entire population of America, you're talking about hundreds of millions of people. You can't measure, say, the employment rate of the entire population every year - there are just too many people. It's too much information - it's pretty much impossible to gather it.

But: if you can select a group of, say, 10,000 people, whose distribution matches the distribution of the wider population, then the data you gather about them will closely resemble the data about the wider population.

That's the point of a survey: find a representative sample, and take measurements of that sample. Then, with a certain probability of correctness, you can infer the properties of the entire population from the properties of the sample.

Of course, there's a catch. The key to a survey is the sample. The sample must be representative - meaning that the sample must have the same properties as the wider population of which it's a part. But the point of survey is to discover those properties! If you choose your population to match what you believe the distribution to be, then you'll bias your data towards matching that distribution. Your sample will only be representative if your beliefs about the data are correct. But that defeats the whole purpose of doing the survey.

So the scientific method of doing a survey is to be random. You don't start with any preconceived idea of what the population is like. You just randomly select people in a way that makes sure that every member of the population is equally likely to be selected. If your selection is truly random, then there's a high probability (a measurably high probability, based on the size of the sample and the size of the sampled population) that the sample will be representative.

Scientific sampling is always random.

So Mr. Webster's statement could be rephrased more correctly as the following contradiction: "This is not a scientific survey, because this is a scientific survey". But Mr. Webster doesn't know that what he said is a stupid contradiction. Because he doesn't care.

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Obama Campaign Lies with Bad Math

Mar 07 2012 Published by under Bad Math, politics, Politics

This post is a bit of a change of pace for me.

As you all know, when it comes to politics, I'm a hardcore lefty liberal type. And lots of annoying people like to claim that the reason I write more critical posts about right-wing politicians than left-wing ones is because I'm hopelessly biased. I definitely do end up writing more posts critical of RW than LW politicians, but I believe that that's because in modern day america, the right wing has completely lost touch with reality. They're just far more likely to regurgitate long-disproven lies, or to use specious, unsupportable, or just plain pig-ignorant reasoning.

But a reader sent me a copy of a recent fund-raising letter from the Obama campaign, and it's pissed me right off. I probably actually received a copy of it myself, but I've got my spam filters set to throw away anything from the Obama campaign, so I didn't see it until it was pointed out to me.

When it comes to bad math, in my opinion, there are two main kinds. There's ignorant bad math, and there's dishonest bad math. In the former, the people pushing it don't understand what they're talking about. They're saying something that they actually believe. It's hopelessly wrong, and if they made any effort to learn something about what they're babbling about, they'd see how wrong they are. In the latter kind, the people pushing it are deliberately trying to deceive their readers/listeners. They know that they're doing something wrong, and they're hoping that you are stupid enough to not catch on.

The latter kind of bad math is far worse than the former.

And this Obama campaign fundraising letter is very firmly in the latter camp.

I'm not going to post the entire thing, and I'm not going to provide a link. That would be giving them publicity for this despicable, dishonest effort, which is exactly what they want, and I will not reward them for this.

The letter starts by complaining about a Romney campaign fundraiser, saying:

It may not take the Romney camp very long to get to a million -- they announced today that just 9 percent of their money comes from donors giving less than $200.

Take note of the fundamental point there. Of the money collected, 9% came from small donors.

Then they attempt to contrast themselves against Romney:

Our campaign is different. It's about bringing people together to protect the progress we've made and make a lot more in a second term. And 98 percent of the donations people like you make to this campaign are $250 or less.

The main point: of the people donating, 98% were small donors.

You're supposed to look at that, and say "90% of the donors to Romney are big-money people, but just 2% of the donors to Obama are."

But they're not comparing the same thing. One is a percentage of money, and the other is a percentage of people. Let's take a quick look at an example, to show how this works.

Suppose we've got just ten donors. They gave 200, 200, 200, 100, 100, 100, 50, 50, 50, and 1,000,000 dollars, respectively. Obviously, 90% (9 out of 10) donors gave $200 or less. And if you work it out, more than 99% of the money came from donations of $1,000,000 or more.

What does the Obama campaigns actual donor distribution look like? I don't know. But I'd guess that it's actually pretty similar to the Romney campaign. Politics in America is, very much, a rich persons sport. Both campaigns are absolutely relying on huge donations from people with lots and lots of money. The Obama campaign wants to trick us into believing that they're different. But all they're doing is proving that they're not. They're lying to us, and hoping that we're too stupid to notice.

(There's another level of dishonesty there, but it's far more trivial. In the Romney campaign figure, they talk about the percentage of donotions smaller than $200; for the Obama campaign figure, they use $250. Why? Probably because they wanted a number for the Romney campaign where they could say that more than 90% came from big donors. And hell, once they were lying, what's another lie?)

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The Disgrace of Memorial Day

May 28 2007 Published by under Politics

Today is Memorial Day, and I feel compelled to say something about it.
We're in the middle of a horrible and pointless war. A war that we started, based on a bunch of lies. Since we did this, we have caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis, and thousands of American soldiers. And we did it for no reason.
As the situation has grown progressively worse, and more and more people have been maimed and killed, we've heard an endless drumbeat from Bush supporters: me must support the troops!
I support American soldiers. As the son of a WW2 veteran, I grew up with a lot of respect for soldiers. People who join the military voluntarily give up many of the freedoms that we take for granted, and allow themselves to be put into situations that people like me can't even really begin to imagine. We ask the members of our military to go and put themselves into a situation where they have to pick up a weapon, point it at someone, and kill them in cold blood - because they're a member of the enemy's army. We ask them to put themselves into a position where other people are going to try to kill them. These are horrible things, things that most of us can't even really contemplate. Because my father put himself into that situation many years ago, he understood what it meant, in a way that I can only imagine.
When soldiers go to war, they're taught to dehumanize the enemy. They don't do that because they're bad people. They do that because they have to: normal people, sane people, can't pick up a gun, look through its sights at another human being that they don't know, and pull the trigger and watch them die. People put into that situation hesitate - and hesitation in battle costs lives. As horrible as that sounds to us sitting in our comfortable homes, that's what must happen to create effective combat soldiers.
When we ask people to do that on our behalf, we take on a great responsibility. We are asking them to do terrible things, things that will, under the best of circumstances, leave deep emotional scars. What happens when we put them into the hell of war is our responsibility. When we send them to war, we are obligated to respect the kind of sacrifices that we ask them to make; to make sure that we only ask them to do it an a cause that's truly worthy of the price that they will pay; and to care for them and their families after the war is over.
In this war, that hasn't happened. We've asked people to kill and die for no good reason; and while doing it, we have consistently neglected the soldiers we put in harms way, and the families that they left behind.
Our president criticizes people who want to get our soldiers out of harms way as "not supporting the troops" - while opposing funding for medical care for soldiers, housing wounded people in rat-infested hell-holes, denying financial assistance to them and their families. He talk about sending people back into combat three and four times as "support". He sends them to die, and never attends a funeral, never watches the coffins coming home, never takes any responsibility for the horrors he's inflicted on them and their families. He works hard to oppose things as simple as funding medical care for returning soldiers. But people who fight him on that, he tars as "not supporting the troops".
He's given the orders to teach them them to torture people, given the orders to tell them to torture people, and them blamed them for doing it. The horrors that he has chosen to inflict on them are, in his eyes and the eyes of his supporters, unimportant. He feels no responsibility for what he's made them do. He's sent near-children to the front lines, and watched as they're punished for following his orders, while pardoning - or even rewarding the people who created the policies and gave the orders.
We should honor and respect the people who make sacrifices for our country. Instead, we spit on them, and call it support.
Today is memorial day, the day when we are supposed to remember the people who gave their lives for our country. And instead of honoring them, we're sending more of them to die for no good reason, in a phony pointless war. Honoring them means making sure that we never ask them to sacrifice themselves unless there is a real need. We deserve to be deeply ashamed of what we've permitted in our names. On this day when we honor them, we should be begging them for forgiveness, for what we made them give, and what we made them do.
And meanwhile, our president's idea of celebrating memorial day is giving a five minute speech, and then rushing off to his barbecue.

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