NPF: EVEN FOR THE POST, THIS IS BAD

Posted in No Politics Friday on February 29th, 2008 by Ed

There is absolutely no doubt about it. No competition. No debate. The New York Post is the worst newspaper in America. It's funnier than The Onion. I read it semi-regularly for kicks, but this…this one broke me. Even by Post standards, with their stated goal of maintaining a 7th-grade reading level and their editorial policy against compound sentences, this is excruciatingly bad. It crystallizes their stupidity, their no-fancy-book-learnin' populism, and their very twisted idea of "reporting."

Don't worry, in honor of NPF this is from the sports page. At a reputable newspaper, the journalistic standards are the same for sportswriters. As the Post has none it is not an issue here. Even if you don't care about baseball you should take a look at this trainwreck. As my buddies at FJM put it, this is what we're up against. "We" of course being the literate world.

If you can't plow through it, here's the premise. UPenn researchers/baseball nuts conducted a side project in which they created a quantitative method for measuring a player's fielding skills. They determine that former Mariah Carey fucktoy/Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter is the worst fielder in baseball. They video analyzed every single ball hit into play between 2002 and 2005. Think about that. The Post is incredulous, as he has won three Gold Gloves (an absolutely meaningless sportswriter-voted popularity contest masquerading as an award). What can those eggheads at Penn be smoking? (actual quote, sadly) Look at Jeter's Gold Gloves! This is roughly equivalent to arguing that Titanic is a great film because it won an Oscar or that Jethro Tull's Grammy makes them a top metal band.

So the basic point of the article – "SCIENCE IS FOR STUPID HOMOS. TYPICAL EGGHEAD BULLSHIT BY A BUNCH OF FAGS, PROBABLY BOSTON FANS, WHO DON'T REALIZE HOW FUCKIN' AWESOME JETER IS." – is typical Post fare. Now let's move on to the journalism and see how they defend their position. Bring on the experts!

"That's preposterous. I completely disagree. Jeter's a clutch player." said Yankees fan Mike Birch, 32.

"It's ridiculous," said fan Jay Ricker, 22. "Jeter is all-around awesome."

"He has intangible qualities that can't be measured with statistics," said East Village bar owner Kevin Hooshangi, 28.

Ladies and gentlemen, these are the Post's sources. So let's summarize the debaters.

Team Science: a group of PhDs with a large research project which included quantitative analysis of every single ball hit in play for three years (!!!)

Team Post: Three semi-literate Yankees fans who watch about ten games per year, at which they are blind drunk, slurring, bellowing nonsense, probably shirtless, and irritating the living shit out of everyone in earshot by the bottom of the third inning.

I know that baseball is not important. But let's not pretend that the rest of the Post is any different or better than this article. Just remember that this is what we're up against: facts are for stupids, science is fuckin' gay, and everything you hear that doesn't confirm your existing beliefs is biased and wrong.

ED vs. COGNITIVE BIASES, PART 2: SURVIVOR'S BIAS

Posted in Ed vs. Cognitive Biases on February 28th, 2008 by Ed

Stop! This isn't a re-post from Wednesday. It's new. I swear. I'm doing them back-to-back because the names are so similar. But other than the root noun the two ideas have little in common.

Historical analysis often engages in lengthy searches for explanations of favorable outcomes. Take the Cold War as an example. There is no shortage of explanations for why World War III didn't happen and why we didn't all die in a nuclear holocaust a thousand times over. Take your pick – mutually assured destruction, skillful diplomacy, Ronald Reagan's mighty persona, the power of vast international alliances, credible first-strike, credible second-strike, and so on. Maybe, although we can't say with certainty, we just got really fucking lucky. Maybe we all should have been roasted to a crisp. Maybe there was a 99% chance of nuclear war breaking out under the given conditions and we were just very fortunate to have the other 1% bear out in reality. Other than Robert McNamara, I haven't heard too many thinkers come to this conclusion.

The reason, at least in part, is the Survivor's Bias – the tendency to overestimate the odds of success in light of a successful outcome. We managed to avoid global nuclear annihilation, so we reason that some policy ("deterrence!") was protecting us all along. The problem is that if we ever find ourselves in another similar situation, we will be wildly overconfident in our ability to achieve the same favorable outcome using the same policies. In reality, those policies may have been irrelevant. In a nuclear stare-down with China, deterrence might not work; we don't even know that it worked the first time.

Think of it this way: you're playing roulette, and you bet every penny you own on 14. You chose 14 because you developed an elaborate formula (your birthday divided by ambient humidity times the square root of David Ortiz's on-base percentage) and it gave you that number. The wheel spins and 14 is the winner. You're ecstatic. But instead of taking your winnings and going home, you significantly overestimate the odds of the outcome you just received. "My system," you tell the assembled throng of Social Security pensioners, hookers, and ex-felons, "made victory a near certainty." You play a second time and find out the truth about the odds, namely that they are 1:38 – about 2%. You just got lucky.

Sometimes, rather than finding some justification for our success, we change our view of the odds. The odds couldn't have been so bad after all – how else can the success be explained? For example, the odds of a borderline-insane stripper writing an Oscar-winning screenplay are astronomical. Yet in light of Sunday's awards (and thanks to dozens of rags-to-riches fluff stories in the news) I bet there are an awful lot of waiters, baristas, hookers, and overall louts in Hollywood telling themselves "See? It can be done. If this idiot could make it, it can't be that hard. I can make it!" Mathematically, you can't. Sorry. The odds are horrendous. This person is simply one in a million, and her "one" coming up big does not mean that the odds of it happening were anything but abysmal.

Being pessimistic creatures by nature, of course we do the exact opposite on occasion and imagine the odds to be much worse than they really are. We do have a tendency to let success go to our heads quickly, though, affecting our confidence going forward and our retrospective judgment.

ED vs. LOGICAL FALLACIES, PART 16: SURVIVORSHIP BIAS

Posted in Ed vs. Logical Fallacies on February 27th, 2008 by Ed

This isn't a proper or formal logical fallacy. I don't care. It's a flawed pattern of logic and it's important.

Do you ever wonder why every commercial you see on TV for a mutual fund is able to claim(accurately) that their Super Spazz Fund is one of the top 10 or 20 percent of all mutual funds in terms of performance? And it's not simply that they only advertise the winners. Do a little research online and you'll find that almost every fund from a major company carries with it some sort of performance superlative. Top ten, top quarter, top something. That's rather odd, don't you think?

In a statistical sense, this is called survivorship bias – you only see the funds that didn't fail. T. Rowe Price or Fidelity or Strong want you to think that they are responsible stewards of their investors' money. When they have a fund that performs like shit, they either close it or merge it into a successful fund that will hide its losses. So the reason that every fund you hear about claims to be one of the top 20% of all mutual funds is simple – the other 80% have failed and likely no longer exist. Not all industries have the benefit of this kind of sleight-of-hand. When US News and World Report creates its annual list of college rankings, academia cannot fluff its image by disbanding the Thomas Cooleys and Arizona States. I recommend Elton, Gruber, and Blake's excellent "Survivorship Bias and Mutual Fund Performance" for a more detailed look on how this skews the face the industry shows the public.

Lest we pile all of our scorn on the financial sector, survivorship bias is pervasive throughout much of the research and many of the statistics you see on a daily basis. The pharmaceutical industry is a noteworthy offender. Studies of the effectiveness of certain classes of drugs omit those that have been pulled from the market or failed to win approval. Trials of individual drugs judge effectiveness based on participants who complete the study, noting only in the fine print how many dropped out (possibly, of course, because the drug was having no effect).

And lastly, what amateur logician or statistician is not driven to fits of laughter by the car commercials that talk about sterling grades in "owner satisfaction" surveys? Call me crazy, but I think that a lot of people who are dissatisfied with a car voluntarily remove themselves from the "owners" category by selling it. An owner satisfaction survey is a survey of people who liked the car enough to keep it.

THE CAPACITY TO UNDERSTAND IRONY

Posted in Rants on February 26th, 2008 by Ed

People are stupid. Sometimes their collective stupidity makes me angry at things I would otherwise enjoy.

Have you seen this blog entitled "Stuff White People Like"? It should amuse me. It has things like "Arrested Development" and "Public Radio" on the list. I like racial humor. I can also understand things at a level beyond face value. It's what differentiates us from the apes. If I took it at face value, I'd get offended and say something like "These are just stereotypes! I'm white and I fucking loathe Arrested Development!"** But since I'm not retarded, I understand that it's A) a joke and B) satire.

OK. Now read the comments.

It's good to know that there are no cultural limits on having a small, linear mind. An awful lot of it shows a stunning lack of awareness that this is satire. It's mostly "Ha ha! Yeah, white people are stupid like that." Let me put it this way, if I created a website called "Stuff Black People Like" how long do you think it would take for the comments (and most of the daily readership, for that matter) to be clogged with racists, neo-Nazis, and backward rednecks yukking it up to the tune of "Right on! Them darkies sure is stupid, and they're always drinkin' grape soda!" And boy would that kill the fun in a hurry.

I suppose we should consider it a moral victory that people can understand what the words say, if not what they mean. In twenty more years we'll probably be using sock puppets to communicate in the public sphere.

**It's true. I really, really do. Most people learn not to bring it up around me.

CONSERVATIVES: WE DEMAND SOCIALISM

Posted in Rants on February 25th, 2008 by Ed

Please forgive the brevity of today's post. My academic responsibilities were particularly consuming on Sunday. No, I didn't watch the f'n Oscars.

I am tickled by the There Are No Conservatives in Academia trope (a.k.a. the reason David Horowitz still gets work that does not involve a boombox and the curb outside a train station). The idea that there is an ideological litmus test for this profession is…well, if you're not in it, it's hard to understand just how idiotic that is. But I suppose D-Ho is anxious to latch onto any possible explanation for why no one takes him seriously. Otherwise he'd have to hold himself responsible – you know, like right-wingers are always telling everyone to do.

The Chronicle of Higher Ed chimed in with an interesting piece recently about the efforts to lure more conservatives into this low-paying, high-effort, thankless profession. Hmm, I wonder why people who only care about money and are, as a group, ragingly anti-intellectual aren't jumping at these jobs? It's quite a mystery. Anyway, we're apparently one step away from instituting affirmative action for conservatives (mmm, delicious irony) but for now universities will simply have to make some structural accomodations in order to lure conservatives who are more attracted to the higher salaries of law, business, and the private sector. My favorite quip:

The research led the Woessners to conclude that if higher education wants to attract more conservatives to the professoriate, it should smooth the way financially, offering subsidized health insurance and housing for graduate students, and adopting family-friendly policies for professors.

In short, right-wingers will find grad school more appealing if they are provided with the kinds of things that their ideology rails against for everyone else. That's rich – shying away from a profession unless it offers state-subsidized housing, state-subsidized health insurance, and official recognition of the unique needs of one's lifestyle. How very Republican.

NPF: THIS COULD ONLY END WELL

Posted in No Politics Friday on February 22nd, 2008 by Ed

I have the opportunity to interview at Regent University. If that name is not ringing a bell, go ahead and click the link. Yeah.

Part of me wants nothing to do with these retards, and the rest of me thinks I need to do this – wearing a wire or hidden camera, of course. I could ask fun questions like "Will your employment benefits cover my life partner?" and let them know that converting to Sunni Islam has really improved my ability to connect with students. All I need is a way to work dinosaurs into the conversation. Frankly I don't see what could go wrong.

JESUS H. TAP-DANCING CHRIST

Posted in Rants on February 21st, 2008 by Ed

Remember (and really, how could you forget?) the horrifying, Wagonhalt "cheerleader" video from Michelle Malkin? Looks like Ms. I'm So Bad I Actually Got Fired From Fucking Fox News is back to prove that there are additional talents she doesn't have.

I'm warning you before you watch this: it is really bad. Not "bad" like "That movie was OK but I wouldn't pay $8 to see it again." Not "bad" like your adorable young child's first school music recital. It's the kind of bad that haunts you when you are alone. It makes you reconsider the way you feel about the existence of God. It may have you scrambling to find twin screwdrivers so that you may jam them through both eardrums simultaneously.

OK? Go.

I made it about 1:25. How about you? I actually went back later and listened to the remainder just in case it got better. It did not. It sounds like that nice 45 year-old lady at your doctor's office…being forced to audition for American Idol at gunpoint, recording the performance on a Watergate-era tape deck.

I want all of my friends, bretheren, countrymen, and even enemies on the political right to sit down and do some serious soul-searching. Like most people gain weight with age and realize things like "There are dozens of ways I can dress attractively; wearing a halter top is not one of them," maybe it's time to admit that there are some things you're good at…..and comedy isn't one of them. Seriously. Michelle Malkin? Not funny. Dennis Miller? The Half Hour News Hour? Larry the Cable Guy? "Mallard Fillmore?" Brad Stine? All of these things and people are christ-rapingly awful. Humorous they are not. Mildly amusing they are not. They're just bad. Bad, bad, bad. Stop it. For a political coalition consisting of the brazenly anti-intellectual, humorless Puritans, and people who consider profit to be the sole legitimate arbiter of value, maybe creativity and humor are not going to be your thing.

We still love you, but go write a goddamn book on tax cuts or something. One's battles must be chosen carefully in life based on honest self-analysis. You might want to concede comedy to the Pagan Left. There's less shame in quitting than in videos like this.

BIG BROTHER COULD BE WATCHING, BUT TOTALLY ISN'T!

Posted in Rants on February 20th, 2008 by Ed

Perhaps no president has shredded the Constitution (albeit temporarily) quite like Honest Abe Lincoln, who is roundly considered to be the finest ever to hold the office. Abe gets off easy, I believe, because he was honest about what he was doing. "Yes, I know what the Constitution says. But for right now, fuck the Constitution." He was not only wrong (per Ex Parte Milligan, a typically retrospective reprimand) but his actions were largely unnecessary. Never, though, did he pretend like his actions were anything other than what they were: a curtailing of individual civil liberties. See, what bothers me is not when political elites do immoral, illegal, or despicable things in the course of their duties. I just can't stand it when they claim that their actions are moral, legal, and in your best interests.

The FBI caught a little bit of flack last week (emphasis on little) when it announced plans to create a billion-dollar database of biometric data. While proponents will argue that law enforcement already uses biometric data (fingerprints, mugshots, some retinal scanning) I'd say that's quite a far cry from ubiquitous surveillance cameras identifying you in public based on face scans and your gait. "But!", they will respond, "we're only talking about a few high-security risk locations. Train stations, airports, government facilities, and so on." Hmm. Maybe it's time for Ed to tell you a story about something called Combat Zones That See.

Our friends at DARPA – the folks who brought you hits like the Internet, Onion routing, National Missile Defense, and a goddamn mechanical elephant – have created an eerily similar amalgam of technology that wires entire cities for surveillance. CZTS was created to "to deter enemy attacks on American troops and to identify and track enemy combatants who launch attacks against American soldiers." A massive network of cameras feeds into a central database which uses advanced technologies (some of which, admittedly, are not yet perfected) to track all movement and individuals in the area. That sure sounds great in "combat zones." Neat invention, this. The potential civilian applications are a complete coincidence, of course. I'll bet they never even thought of any until the ACLU brought it up.

I suppose one could make an argument, albeit one with which I would not agree, that placing entire cities under video surveillance is a good idea. There's no question that it would increase the ability to monitor and prosecute illegal activity. However, I can't accept the fact that privacy issues related to domestic use of such a system are answered with "Gee, we never even thought of that!" followed by "OK, it's totally feasible, but trust us, we wouldn't do that!" Someone willing to take the step of creating the technology to enable the 24-7 Surveillance Society should at least have the decency to admit what this is. I do not count myself among the tinfoil-hatted, but it doesn't take extreme cynicism to wonder about the extent to which this technology is about "protecting" us. Anyone remember all that talk about how if we compromised our democratic principles, the terrorists would win?

Yeah, me neither.

ED VS. COGNITIVE BIASES, PART 1: HINDSIGHT BIAS

Posted in Ed vs. Cognitive Biases on February 19th, 2008 by Ed

Lo and behold, I was planning to start a new series this week and current events (if we can so euphemistically label mass murder) provide a picture-perfect example. But first let's talk about what hopefully will be an interesting series.

Cognitive biases are patterns of deviation from rational judgment that occur under a given set of conditions. It's an event or scenario that warps your judgment, which would be sound (or less unsound) otherwise. One reason I find them so interesting is that, unlike logical fallacies, they affect everyone and do so subconsciously. I see flawed logic largely as a matter of brainpower; as intelligence declines, the propensity to make arguments that make no sense increases. Cognitive biases sneak up on you. They're almost like our brain's way of rebelling against us, and they can seriously F your S up.

Let's start with Hindsight Bias, a.k.a. the "I Knew It All Along" phenomenon. It is the tendency to view what has already happened as more likely without realizing that retrospective knowledge of the outcome is affecting one's judgment (Plous 1993).

In short, humans have a very difficult time objectively evaluating how information about an outcome affects their memories. Take a simple example like the Super Bowl. If someone asked before the game, 'What are the odds of a Giants victory?' you'd say x. If I asked you today, 'What did you think were the odds of a Giants victory?' you'd say x+n. Knowing the outcome affects how you recall your estimate the odds in hindsight. Ample research (let me know if you care about a list of academic citations, which I'm happy to provide) shows this phenomenon in buying decisions, elections, medical diagnoses, foreign affairs, and more.

Cue the news.

Nearly every news item about the NIU gunman has quoted the DeKalb police chief, who noted that friends thought The Gunman's behavior became "erratic" in the weeks leading up to the shooting. Pure hindsight bias, of course. Let's say that instead of going on a killing spree, he simply went about his normal day. If you asked all of his friends today "Have there been any changes in This Guy's behavior?" they would be highly unlikely to note anything or offer any serious concerns. However, knowing that he seemingly came unhinged and shot 20-some people, small (or perhaps even imagined) deviations in his behavior are impregnated with meaning. Every email, every phone call that didn't get returned, and every day he showed up to work 3 minutes late suddenly becomes a "sign," obvious harbingers of what was to come. You simply cannot ask people "Did John Doe act strangely or differently last week?" right after he cracks and kills half a dozen people. And himself. The way to get useful information would be to wait (get some distance from the events) and make a conscious effort to question whether the "erratic" behaviors really happened and are being blown out of proportion.

In the wake of such a jarring series of events, that's a lot harder than it seems.

THUNDERSTORMS

Posted in Rants on February 18th, 2008 by Ed

So, is that it? Another gunman walks into another classroom and kills another handful of students, and it manages to hold down the top spot on the headlines for about 18 hours. The blood hasn't even dried yet and we're already done with the whole incident. These spree killings have officially become so commonplace that we discuss (and the media report) them like the weather – it's just some thing that happens, beyond anyone's control. We scan the story, mutter a quick "Oh, how terrible" and move on, reassured by the math which tells us that the next mass shooting 6 months from now probably won't happen near us.

Last spring, President Bush went to Virginia Tech to lead the memorial service. For NIU he sent a message. Next time he'll probably ask his press secretary to send an FTD bouquet. Whereas the media gave us a solid week of wall-to-wall VA Tech coverage, it appears that mass murder (especially with a mere 6 victims) barely counts as news these days. It's a big story the first time. Thereafter it's old news.

What limited debate these incidents provoke feels like the bobbleheads are just going through the motions. There's a stock narrative: this is just something that happens. We can't agree on a culprit, so we simply throw up our hands, label it Sad or Unfortunate or Horrific, and note its inevitability. It amounts to "School shootings are sad. I sure wish there was something we could do about it." In the classic false equivalency style, the media seem to believe that as long as there are two sides to the debate there is no objective answer. Left-wing America says guns are to blame. Right-wing America disagrees. Oh well, I guess we'll never get to the bottom of it. The cause is officially Unknown. Since we cannot alleviate what we do not understand, our only recourse is to note how Sad and Unfortunate it is.

I posted something very similar last year in response to VA Tech. Maybe the more efficient course of action is simply to save this post and bump it 6 months from now when the next college lecture hall is painted with blood. Unless of course it's a class I happen to be teaching, in which case you can put "His death was such a Mystery" on my tombstone.