Lying with Charts & Graphs

(silly WordPress mysteriously ate this essay yesterday. So, painfully reconstructed…)

Here is a nice chart that’s been making the rounds:

So, nice harmless little doodad attempting to benevolently terrify us into eating our veggies? Or Exhibit Z in What The Heck is Wrong With You People!?! Or something?  Let us count the issues that should be OBVIOUS to anyone with ANY KNOWLEDGE OF SCIENCE AT ALL:

1. Isn’t that an odd set of countries? There are over a hundred countries in the world, yet only these exact 12 are chosen, and no reason given why. Hmmm – could it be that these exact 12 happen to give the exact ‘right’ graph? Like, the data was cherry-picked to show exactly what the grapher wanted to show? Inquiring minds want to know: what does the graph look like if you picked, say, the top 100 most developed countries by per capita income, or any other selector not determined by the results you’d like to see?

2. Correlation doesn’t equal causation. There are famously charts showing stock market performance relative to the location of hemlines in fashionable women’s clothing – the shorter the dresses, the better the stock market does (or did – not sure this holds over the last couple decades). So, even if the data had not been so obviously cherry-picked, we’d need to wonder if it is really telling us what its makers want it to tell us. Wouldn’t we want to take wars, famines, and nuclear disasters, among other things, into account?

3. If this were the Brave New World, very few would die of cancer or heart disease – but only because everyone is summarily executed at the age of 60. So, are the clearly virtuous people on the right hand side of the chart just dying of something else before they get a chance to die of cancer or heart disease? In other words, in countries where all the obvious health problems that kill people young have been addresses – adequate calories, clean water, antibiotics, basic medical care – wouldn’t we expect to see a greater prevalence of causes of death that are not so easily addressed, like cancer and heart disease?

4. Are we measuring things the same in every country? Are causes of death accurately and consistently recorded in each country so that this sort of comparison is valid at all? For example, if I die of cancer as a result of getting AIDS, what is my cause of death?

So here, by the miracle of the interwebs, is a quick chart I put together:

This is an attempt to illustrate a couple of the problems mentioned above, not to answer them. In the “Life expectancy – % of table average” column, we note that 5 of the 6 ‘worse’ countries, where pouty children of all ages turn up their collective noses at raw veggies in appalling numbers, people live noticeably longer than the unweighted average life expectancy of the table as a whole. So, it seems you could expect to live a few more years eating hideous yet tasty and convenient prepackaged food and then die of heart disease or cancer than your more virtuous yet sorter-lived consumer of not so tasty endive and arugula.

Next, for kicks, I added a column for percentage of the unweighted average of the number of cigarettes smoked per year per capita, to highlight the countries with greater or lessor cigarette consumption.  4 of the 5 countries with the greatest life expectancies also consume significantly more cigarettes per capita than the average, and 3 of the 4 with the shortest life expectancies smoke markedly fewer. Soooo, maybe we should forget the kale and fennel, and light up a Camel if we want to live long?

Or just maybe prepackaged foods and cigarettes are relatively expensive? So that countries that are relatively wealthy, and might therefore reasonably be expected to have better health care and less life-shortening poverty, also have people who can afford to buy more Ding-Dongs and Marlboros? The country with the lowest life expectancy on the table – Laos – also has the lowest consumption percentage of packaged foods and the 2nd lowest use of cigarettes, and is relatively poor. Mere coincidence?

Who knows? But a couple dozen well-funded studies would be required to find out.

The issue is not really this one little piece of propaganda wrapped in a lab coat pretending to be Science! It’s that a college educated person brought this to my attention – person with strong political views, who consistently promotes items in various social media which attempt to advance the claim that Her Party is OBVIOUSLY the party of the Smart People, and that only stupid bigoted yahoos belong to the Other Party. Over the late election unpleasantness, anytime I ventured onto Facebook or Twitter, I was subjected to dozens of little charts and diagrams and maps making the We’re the Smart Party, They’re the Dumb Party claim, all by people who showed no evidence of being able to recognize something as patently phony as the graph presented here – in fact, it is more often than not the same people proposing *both* political and PC propaganda graphs.

Here, to put it bluntly, are people who by their own words and actions have proven themselves utterly incompetent to judge even the most trivial claims made in the name of science – yet they feel qualified to call other people stupid, AND are the people who tell pollsters they ‘believe in science’.

And they vote.

(If I get a chance, I’ll treat a few of the more insidious charts and graphs in the future.)

Science Headline: Oh, Come ON!

This may take some sort of prize:

Astronomers find super-Earth with climate like ours, say it’s due to planet’s night-day cycle

Let’s list the problems with this headline, here:

1. ‘Find’ and ‘Find evidence suggesting maybe…’ are categorically different claims. It may be crass and unsophisticated of me to point this out, but it’s different enough to constitute a *lie*.  Put another way: a wife noticing a red smudge on her hubby’s collar has found evidence suggesting maybe; this is categorically different than catching him in bed with the nanny.

2. Climate like ours? Setting aside the insurmountable difficulties in saying much of ANYTHING about a planet whose very existence is only inferred (well-inferred, but still) from wiggles and anomalies in a series of very tricky observations, we don’t know if it’s a mini-gas giant or a ball of rock 7 times* the size of earth, or something else entirely. A guess at its mass is about all we can reasonably make at this point. Does it even *have* an atmosphere? We don’t know! So, speculation on the climate this cipher might have, if in fact it is a big heavy rock with an atmosphere like ours (‘like’ being a bit vague as well) – it does strain credulity. It’s kissing cousins with lying.

3. Night-day cycles. Riiiight. So, we’re now guessing that, because this planet is both large enough and far enough away from its sun or any other large masses that could slow and lock its rotation a la Mercury or the moon (these are two things – mass and distance from the star – that scientists can reasonable at least guess at) it has a day and a night, ignoring the question of it those days and night, if they exist at all, have a reasonable period. If it’s spinning like a top, with 2 hour days, or spinning so slow as to have week-long days, that would make it hard for life as we know it: thousand-mile-an-hour winds in case 1, total freeze followed by total melt down in case 2.

Why they would assume a reasonable rotational period, I’m not sure – planets larger than earth that we know of – Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune – all have ‘unreasonable ‘ rotational periods – something to do with the conservation of angular momentum as they congealed.  We’re not even sure how the earth, after its presumed collision with a Mars-sized body 3 – 4 billion years ago, ended up spinning as fast as it does, with the axis tilt it has (axis tilt being another major factor in climate). and earth’s rotation is slowing down due to drag from the moon.  So, the reasonable expectation is that this planet spins too fast, making for violent weather and making it very hard for your average 1 ton person (at 7 Gs) to stand up.

Bad Science headline! Bad!

* Planet was 4-5 times the mass of earth yesterday. Seems to be putting on the weight. Oh, well, it’s *only* Science!

Current Weather Events Cause Reexamination of Position on Climate Change

OK, so, despite the constant assertion that weather does not equal climate, it seems the climate change enthusiast pool is now packed cheek to jowl with people who have jumped in due to recent weather. I feel compelled to add my 2 cents, and perhaps a little chlorine.

Out here in Northern California, we have had a couple decades of unusual weather – unusually mild. Oh, yea, it rained a bit more than we’re used to back in ’05 – I believe a couple single-day rainfall records were set – but, overall, winters have been mild, summers have had, if anything, fewer of those annoying 100F+ days where you almost have to turn on the air conditioning until night comes and it cools off.  Other than that – hey, it’s California! Read those weather forecasts, and weep, you rest-of-the-country people. (Then read about our home prices, Hollywood bozos and politicians, and have one of those little chuckles at our expense.)

Therefore, in the totally scientific manner exemplified by the Sandy Proves Global Warming crowd, based on my direct experience with unusual weather events, I’m going to go with: nah. Things are cool. No worries.

It’s Science! Right? Right?

Understanding Today’s Feast Seems Harder than it Needs to Be

Today is the Feast of  the Dedication of the Archbasilica of the Most Holy Savior and Saints John the Baptist and the Evangelist at the Lateran – St. John Lateran for short. This feast is celebrated by Roman Catholics the world over.  I think this is a feast that we American Catholics really need today, which is why it seems common for us to go out of our way to not get it.  For example, at today’s services, the mandatory comments were made about us being the church, not some building. Living stones, and all that. Which is of course correct, and totally shallow in this context. Looking to the Liturgy and the readings for today we find the answer to the question: Given that we are the living stones in Christ’s Church, why is the dedication of a physical building an important feast in the Church?

The Incarnation changed everything. Or, perhaps more accurately, the Incarnation revealed to us dense humans what the created Universe is really like – The Incarnation is the apex and fullness of Creation, the ultimate expression of the ensoulment  of all things, that God is bodied forth in His Creation for us and in us. This mystery of the workings of body and soul, of God and Man, is Sacramental.

Church building are sacraments – physical signs by which God gives grace. This grace-giving is true in two senses: First, the capital ‘S’ Sacraments are celebrated in the church building, so that the building becomes the occasion  and physical focus for their graces. Second, as holy ground set apart and the expression of the finest art and material we can offer, the church building itself uniquely raises our hearts and minds to God, helping us to open up to His graceful touch.

Historically, this feast brings to mind the end of the persecution of the Church under the Romans in 313, when Constantine both issued the edict of Milan and donated the palace and lands of the Laterani family (seized by the empire under Nero) to the Pope. So, the conversion of the palace’s basilica  into a now-legal church was a huge milestone for Christianity – they could publicly and legally celebrate Mass in Rome.

What this meant to those Christians is captured in the readings for this Feast: That God’s life flows from His Temple, that “the most High has sanctified his own dwelling” and that Jesus himself calls the temple “my Father’s house”.  They and we are invited to see this beautiful building, the mother church of Rome and all Roman Catholic churches everywhere, as a sign that gives grace, as a very particular and special sacrament.

Aside: somewhere, in fact multiple somewheres, people will no doubt sing ‘Sing a New Church’ and ‘What Is This Place?‘ today for this feast. The Baby Jesus will weep.

Here, Let Me Help with Your Science! Headline:

What you said:

Alien ‘Super-Earth’ Planet May Be Habitable, Astronomers Say

What you meant to say was:

Astronomers Think Maybe They’ve Found a Nearby Planet that Can’t Be Immediately Crossed Off as Uninhabitable, Although that’s the Way the Smart Money is Heavily Leaning

Here’s what’s up, according to published sources: Astronomers looking for planets outside the Solar System took another look at ‘nearby’ (in the sense of utterly unreachable unless we come up with, you know, warp drive) system HD 40307g (which is curiously the model number of my brother-in-law’s Samsung wide-screen) and discovered wiggles and anomalies that might be a planet 4 or 5 times the size of earth – AND might fall in the theoretical Habitable Zone – far enough from its sun to not boil off all water, yet close enough to not be a frozen ball.

An inquiring mind would want to know: Well, is it a rocky planet with a metallic core (and magnetic field) covered by liquid water, or just a mini gas giant? And isn’t 4 or 5 gs a lot of gs? Could any complex earth life thrive in 4 or 5 gs? My knees hurt just thinking about it. And even if it is a solid planet with liquid oceans (unlikely – check this out), what kind of atmosphere should we expect? Shouldn’t we get a much better look at this thing before we start hyperventilating and phoning ET and all that?

But I’m a hopeless fuddy-duddy that like my science with observations and rigorous theories and a gauntlet of reviews and challenges and stuff. No. Fun. At. All.

“You Just Don’t Get It” and the Death of Reason

Started to write an essay on how ‘You just don’t get it’ as used in modern discourse (to use the term loosely) is among the scariest and most dangerous phrases you’ll hear. That effort got totally out of hand, metastasizing into several thousand words on the Death of Reason, with side trips through my meager understanding of the history of philosophy, theology, the Reformation, Descartes, Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Marx, Freud as well as science, modern politics and education and, well, frankly, what I think about just about everything. Came to three conclusions: The ‘You just don’t get it’ essay deserves another (shorter) shot; that the other stuff I wrote I can maybe refashion into a series of posts on the death of reason; and that Marx Freud would be an OK name for one of those ironic alternative bands.

So, here’s the short essay on ‘You Just Don’t Get It’ ™

Continue reading ““You Just Don’t Get It” and the Death of Reason”

Election Day!

Get out the Prayer:

Heavenly Father, Holy is your Name!

We pray for our nation, that we may be first of all children in Your Kingdom an thereby become good stewards  of the nation you have entrusted to us;

That we acknowledge our sins and repent: even the least of my sins is enough to open the door to all the evil that assails us and to require the sacrifice of the Lamb for redemption;

That we treat our brothers and sisters with love, patience and civility regardless of their political views;

That we hope not in the princes of this world, but in the one true Prince of Peace;

That Your will be done in the voting booth and in everything we do in our lives;

That whatever the results, we rededicate ourselves to being open to Your Grace and becoming the saints You created us to be.

Through Christ our Lord, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Seperation of Science and State

Been reading the endless and inescapable  STUPID claims that Sandy PROVES that we need to do more right now about global warming or we’re DOOMED!

A single weather event proves nothing, as all even slightly saner heads admit. Global warming may be happening – seems to be, although not over the last decade. But a decade or even a century is a pretty brief time frame, climate-wise.  We are still coming out of an ice age, geologically speaking, so it has clearly been warming up over the last 10,000 years or so. And, man may be contributing to this rise by dumping carbon dioxide into the air. Could be, although the chain of reasoning and the data upon which that reasoning is based is remarkably difficult and treacherous: how reliable are the temperature measurements made by different people over many years  at stations that used to be out in the countryside but have since come to be surrounded by cities? We’re talking about tiny fractions of a degree, here. How reliable are computer models incorporating multiple tricky-to-determine variables (and omitting many others) of uncertain independence from each other? I’ve built comparatively simple financial models, and even they are prone to being influenced by what the builder would like to see. If the result seems ‘reasonable’ – it is what I expected to see – I dig a lot less diligently through all the assumptions and caveats than if the result seems ‘unreasonable’ – not what I expected. That’s how people tend to work. That’s not how science works, however.

But today’s thought is more about gullibility and arrogance than technical discussions that can quickly devolve into hair-splitting and on which I am, in any event, largely unqualified to comment.  (I’m perfectly qualified to critique Science! in general, but not qualified to answer the kinds of questions I’ve mentioned above. You’d need to be an expert in statistics, model building and the calibration of scientific measuring devises – Mike Flynn, for example.)

Eisenhower famously told us all to beware the military/industrial complex. And many of us do – BS warning klaxons go off whenever a military supplier and the generals and admirals who will get the cool new toys start telling us we HAVE to have these weapons to counter the growing threat of mumble mumble shuffle shuffle. Do we waste billions on useless military hardware and redundant military bases? Is this even a question? (answer: no. it’s a rhetorical devise.) Once you add in the aspect that voting for military projects is an ideal way for elected officials to send jobs and money back to their districts, our democracy is all but doomed to buy enough nukes to blow up every conceivable opponent a hundred times over, and so on.

In the same speech, a few lines later, Eisenhower also said (and it was enlightening and disheartening to read this speech to see how far political rhetoric has fallen in a mere 50 years!):

Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity [my emphasis]. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.

The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded [my emphasis].

Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific technological elite.

It is the task of statesmanship to mold, to balance, and to integrate these and other forces, new and old, within the principles of our democratic system — ever aiming toward the supreme goals of our free society.

OK, so: do the same BS warning klaxons go off when suppliers of Science! to the government start pitching their wares? Do we turn a gimlet eye toward political officials who stand to benefit if the government spends more money on Science! in their districts? Do we demand equal time for those who would dispute the claims?

Or do people even less qualified to judge the particular science than I am – Bloomberg? Rosanne Freakin’ Barr? Al Evil Mr Rogers Gore? – get to call other people stupid and tools of da’ Man for, you know, insisting on actual science? For insisting that the claims do not get out in front of the headlights? The fundamental complaint: our self-appointed betters find us cats just exasperatingly difficult to herd.