Posted in Ed vs. Logical Fallacies on February 20th, 2014 by Ed

In more than a decade of writing posts here you've had numerous opportunities to hear me state that if I could change one thing about this country, I would require every voting adult to take and pass a course in basic logic. Nothing terribly advanced or difficult, but a course with actual rigor. All that "rigor" means here is that one could not fluke or finagle one's way into passing; it would be necessary to understand the material.

Think of how much more palatable our society would be with even a small increase in the percentage of the population capable of making logical arguments and identifying illogical ones. Again, I'm not talking about creating a nation of formal logicians here – just people who could look at statements to the effect of, "Autism is usually diagnosed after children are vaccinated, therefore autism is caused by vaccination" and think, "Hmm, that is not a valid conclusion."

I should temper my earlier criticism of the Bill Nye-Creation Museum spectacle posing as a "debate" earlier this year. I still contend that it was ineffective at doing much beyond allowing "Intelligent Design" mouthbreathers to pretend that they are worth taking seriously. However, the debate and some of the absolutely cringe-inducing responses like the "Questions from Creationists" meme gave me some useful insight into the problems with the way people in this country reason. This has nothing to do with logical fallacies, although there are plenty of those to go around. The problem is that millions of Americans do not understand even the most basic components of reasoning.

Start from the very beginning: deduction and induction. Four centuries after Bacon and Descartes, it still hasn't sunk in. This is deduction:

:Bob is a Mormon
:Mormons don't drink alcohol
= Bob doesn't drink alcohol

Deduction is painfully simple, yet we can't seem to get it. For the conclusion to be valid, both premises have to be true. Lots of people skip that part. The premises and conclusion are not transitive, either:

:Bob is a Mormon
:Bob doesn't drink alcohol
= Mormons don't drink alcohol

See, that doesn't work at all. That's an attempt to turn deduction (from the general to the specific) into induction (from the specific to the general). Induction is even more difficult for Americans to grasp because by its nature it can never produce 100% certain conclusions. In the above example, the conclusion is in fact true. However, the two premises do not provide sufficient evidence to support the conclusion; we don't know that Mormons don't drink simply because Bob is one and he doesn't drink. If we had never heard of Mormonism before and knew nothing about it, that inductive conclusion would be tenuous at best.

That is not to say that inductive reasoning is always so flimsy – and this is where the skepticism about evolution ("It's just a theory!") comes into play. An inductive conclusion can be useful even when it is "only" 99.99% supporting. For example, "Every fish lives in water, therefore the next fish discovered will live in water" is inductive but highly reliable. It's possible, theoretically, that the next species of fish will be different from every other. It sure isn't likely, though. Similarly, "My window is broken and my valuables are gone; therefore my house was burglarized" is pretty darn reliable. I mean, it's possible that there is some other explanation (Aliens vaporized my property and then a random person threw a rock through the window on the same day) but it certainly is not a likely or even plausible one.

And the problem here as it relates specifically to Evolution is that it is an inductive conclusion. It is very, very reliable but we can't replicate human evolution in a lab or show a video of it happening. That some alternative explanation like creationism can be proposed and cannot be refuted with 100% certainty is all the ammo that creationists need. They demand that evolution is 100% reliable to be treated as the truth while of course believing in God and whatnot without being able to construct an inductive argument that can get within spitting distance of reliability.

That's what so many people fail to understand: that plenty of valid, reliable conclusions are less than 100% reliable because it is not possible for inductive arguments to be 100% reliable. And whenever it suits their biases and personal beliefs, people tend to demand 100% reliability from conclusions they choose not to believe before lowering the bar to about an inch off the ground for whatever tortured nonsense they are motivated to believe. That's how evolution or climate change are Just a Theory while supply side economics and the existence of god are ironclad facts.


Posted in Ed vs. Logical Fallacies on February 25th, 2013 by Ed

As a person with no children, I learned long ago that when people with children are talking about parenting it's best not to participate conversation. I used to take the "Just ask questions" approach but I found myself on the receiving end of too many rants. Unfortunately my new strategy doesn't work well in one-on-one situations. Recently I was getting the "Parenting is overwhelming" speech from someone I know pretty well, and I was at a point where I needed to say…something. I thought it would be safe to mention a few things I've read about the Parenting Guilt industry – you know, those commercials and "news" stories about how you're hurting your baby unless you do/buy X, Y, and Z. A lot of new parents live in fear that if they ever feed their child something that isn't certified organic quinoa with fresh kale, Junior is going to get cancer or, I don't know, burst into flames on the spot.

She indicated that she was worried all the time about saying the wrong thing to her child, and I said, "It's not like one wrong word is going to turn your child into a serial killer." I was trying to be sympathetic, or something. She responded not-jokingly, "How do you know that?" Silence returned. I mean, I thought it was self-evident that saying, "Stop that! You're driving me nuts!" to a child is not going to scar him for life emotionally or turn him into a deviant. But hey, I can't prove it, so certainly my theory is invalid.

In 1952, Bertrand Russell wrote the following regarding the existence of god:

If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.

Russell was talking about religion specifically, but he raises a broadly applicable point about the burden of proof – which rests on the party advancing an implausible hypothesis – and the difficulty many people seem to have distinguishing between validating A and being unable to invalidate it. The fact that I can't prove to you that there is not a teapot orbiting Mars is not evidence, either logically or empirically, that there is. Not surprisingly, this kind of argument is quite popular. After all, if you can't prove me wrong then I guess I can keep the status quo! Win.

This is similar to argument from ignorance, which we've already covered. But that was back in 2007, and I like Russell's imagery enough to give it a post of its own.

And seriously, you can give your kid a damn Whopper or swear in his presence on occasion. It's not going to kill him.


Posted in Ed vs. Logical Fallacies on January 28th, 2013 by Ed

If you've ever sat through a course on statistics, logic, or nearly any social science you've seen the example of the strong correlation between ice cream sales and crime. Although this is usually used to emphasize that correlation and causality are not always found together, it has also been useful to me when teaching research methods to illustrate the concept of antecedent variables. These are variables that explain, in whole or in part, the relationship between two other variables that are (or appear to be) correlated. In this instance the antecedent that drives both crime and ice cream sales is of course warm weather. Another good example is the relationship between educational attainment and income, both of which are positively influenced by parental income.

I could probably spend the rest of my life explaining this concept to Betsy Woodruff over at America's Crappiest Websitetm without having it sink in enough to make her retract this gem: "Are Frat Brothers Natural Conservatives? For many, the Greek system may offer a respite from liberal academia." It's loaded with gems of logic such as, "He says part of the reason members of the Greek system tend to be more conservative than their independent peers is that the organizations celebrate tradition and history."

Yes, that. And the fact that fraternities are, by definition, loaded to the gunwales with white males from wealthy families. I wonder if that could explain both their presence in the priciest parts of campus and their conservatism.

What do I know, I'm just a liberal academic. I'd better get some rest, I have a long day of indoctrinating students in my new course, "POLS 102: Embracing Muslim Communist Homo-Bortion". The prerequisite is defiling a Holy Bible.

But wait! There's more! Check out this adorable little blurb:

"The real thing we faced, even more than the bureaucracy of the university, was the on-campus media," he says. "It was something we were constantly combating, having negative stories surrounding our fraternity or other fraternities on campus being the highlight in the school newspaper."

He says negative stories were blown out of proportion and given front-page real estate, while the sparse coverage of Greeks' philanthropic work was relegated to the back. And Warren says the bias could have been a product of liberal push-back against institutions perceived as bastions of conservatism. Burns noticed the same thing. He described the paper at the University of Indiana as "extremely liberal" and "very, very against the Greek system." When he travels to promote his publication on other campuses, he says, he consistently hears stories of anti-Greek bias among student journalists.

Well they're certainly good conservatives; they're not even 21 and they already excel at blaming their image problems on the media. I don't understand why "Greek Life" doesn't get better press, what with the explicit classism and the commonly ostentatious lifestyles and the hazing and the sexual assaults and the annual excitement of Deaths from Alcohol Poisoning during Rush Week.

Also, "University of Indiana" doesn't exist, you nitwits.


Posted in Ed vs. Logical Fallacies on January 7th, 2013 by Ed

Originally written in December of 2011, the following quote from famous author and person-who-is-suddenly-quoted-about-everything Neil Gaiman is once again making the rounds online for the New Year:

I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.

Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You're doing things you've never done before, and more importantly, you're Doing Something.

So that's my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody's ever made before. Don't freeze, don't stop, don't worry that it isn't good enough, or it isn't perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.

Whatever it is you're scared of doing, Do it. Make your mistakes, next year and forever.

This kind of thing has always struck me as dubious advice when applied to the Big Things in life, and it's always coming from people who are in a position – professional and financial – to weather quite easily the consequences of their mistakes. Sure, it's great advice if you've always wanted to learn how to paint but have been afraid to try. But the "Go for it! Follow your dreams!" line of argument is, for all but the people who live life suspended over a giant financial cushion, almost universally a terrible one.

We all have something we'd love to be doing with our lives that we are not. The reason we are not is because our societies demand that we make some money. That's why we all work at jobs we almost inevitably hate – because if it was fun they wouldn't have to pay people to do it (note the preponderance of unpaid internships in fields like media, fashion, and entertainment). To the extent that we like or enjoy our jobs, 99% of us would still quit tomorrow and do something more enjoyable if we suddenly found ourselves with millions of dollars.

There's nothing wrong with any of this. It's just life. We work because we have to, and we accept that we can't all be living our dreams. Why not? Because many of us have very silly and impractical dreams, hence the name. Your dream to open a little used book store in an adorable, hip neighborhood (with astronomical rents) might run contrary to the fact that you could not actually make money and support yourself with such a venture. Or maybe you just aren't the kind of person who has any talent for running a business. How much tolerance for poverty do you have? I mean, you can move to Hawaii and surf all day if that's what you've always wanted to do with your life and you don't mind being homeless. I don't suspect many of us are ready for those kinds of privations, though.

Earlier this year The Guardian (UK) ran a much-discussed story about the top five regrets given by the dying in hospice care. Number one was "I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me." This sentiment makes perfect sense from the perspective of an older, dying person reflecting on life, but it does precious little to provide the rest of us with guidance. What people mean when they engage in this sort of hindsight is, I wish I had made different choices and they had all worked out. In other words, I would have chosen differently assuming it would have led to XYZ ideal outcome. And how often do the choices we make in life really lead to the ideal outcome? Maybe Grandpa is regretful that he spent 50 years as an accountant (the kind of responsible career "others expect of us") when he had always wanted to open a restaurant. He certainly would have been happier had he opened that restaurant…provided it succeeded to his satisfaction. Had he opened the restaurant and it went bankrupt (as most do), ruined him financially, and his marriage failed under the strain, would he really have been happier as a result? Or would he be 80 years old in a state-run nursing home for the poor (instead of in hospice) thinking, "I wish I had listened to Mom and stuck with accounting"?

Often we are afraid of making certain choices for the very sound and excellent reason that the odds of failure are exceptionally high and its consequences severe. You know you could quit your job, cash in the 401(k), and do whatever zany thing it is that you'd like to do with your life. You also know that you're likely to end up dead broke and facing a bleak future for you and your family if you do that. Yes, you might succeed and you'll be thrilled that you took the risk. What might happen rarely balances out what is likely to happen, though, and the classic Survivor's Bias ensures that we only hear about the Neil Gaimans who quit their job to write novels, not the thousands of others who did as he did and failed spectacularly.


Posted in Ed vs. Logical Fallacies on July 30th, 2012 by Ed

This news item is a bit outdated, originally appearing in April of 2012, but I came across it recently and it's full of quotes of the too-good-to-pass-up variety.

Recall last year when Florida Gov. Rick Scott – who totally doesn't own a chain of drug testing clinics, because he transferred his majority stake to his wife in the kind of "share shuffle" that is illegal in nearly every state outside of the former Confederacy – led the charge to drug-test all TANF ("welfare") recipients. Think of the money Florida will save when it can deny benefits to all Those People with their crack and their weed and their bath salts and whatnot!

Stunningly, the state did not end up saving any money. In its first four months the failure rate for benefit applicants was slightly over 2%. Since the state was obligated to reimburse the 98% who did not fail for the cost of their test, the cost to taxpayers far exceeded the amount that would have been paid in benefits to the drug using applicants. In four months, the program was almost $50,000 in the hole. In the grand scheme of a state budget this is not much money. The point, however, is that as a vehicle for fiscal responsibility this law is an abject failure. Few applicants failed the drug tests and the number of applicants was essentially unchanged.

The net savings of -$50k means that the law accomplished its real, which is to say unstated, purpose of funneling tax dollars to medical testing companies like the ones Rick Scott totally doesn't own. The problem for pro-testing lawmakers is to find a way to continue the policy now that its stated goal of saving money has been given the lie. Well that's not so hard; if you miss the goal, just move it to wherever the ball landed.

It turns out that they didn't write the law to save money. It was about morality and The Children all along!

Chris Cinquemani, the vice president of the Foundation for Government Accountability, a Florida-based public policy group that advocates drug testing and recently made a presentation in Georgia, said more than saving money was at stake.

"The drug testing law was really meant to make sure that kids were protected," he said, "that our money wasn't going to addicts, that taxpayer generosity was being used on diapers and Wheaties and food and clothing."

Florida's governor, Rick Scott, who supported the measure last year, agreed.

"Governor Scott maintains his position that TANF dollars must be spent on TANF's purposes — protecting children and getting people back to work," said Jackie Schutz, the governor's deputy press secretary.

Here is Ed's free lesson for the day: When an idea is pitched with "making sure that kids are protected" as a primary selling point, run. Run like your ass is on fire.

It's amazing how easy it is to turn a failed law into a success. Just redefine "success" on the fly and you can't go wrong. I can't see this type of argument without immediately having Iraq War flashbacks. Remember 2004? What a great year that was. It was the year in which we learned that we invaded Iraq because of al-Qaeda, and if not because of al-Qaeda then because of chemical/nuclear weapons, or human rights abuses, or Bringing the Fight to The Enemy, or establishing a foothold for democracy in the Middle East, or whatever other bullshit excuse seemed plausible at the time. Boy, moving those goalposts sounds exhausting sometimes.


Posted in Ed vs. Logical Fallacies on May 29th, 2012 by Ed

The political environment has been made slightly more tolerable over the past year by the crippling blow dealt to birtherism by the President's long form birth certificate. All but the most hardcore right wing conspiracy theorists – the "No Planes" part of the far right, if you will – have abandoned the idea that Barack Obama was not born in Hawaii. This is not to say, of course, that they have accepted his legitimacy as an elected official or as an American. Using the Conservative Scientific Method (start with the conclusion and work backwards, disregarding any evidence to the contrary) it is still perfectly logical to conclude that Obama is an interloper and a fraud. If he wasn't born in Kenya, then he must have been raised Muslim. If he wasn't raised Muslim, then he must have cheated his way into college. If he didn't cheat his way into college, then Harvard only took him because he was black. And so on. The conclusion always remains the same even though everything leading up to it changes: He is Not One of Us. He is a hoax. He is illegitimate. Somehow.

The latest theory – circulated mostly through forwarded emails from your insane relatives – focuses on a promotional pamphlet printed by a literary agency in 1991. In it, the short bio clip identifies Obama as born in Kenya and raised in Hawaii. This is confirmed real and is not a clumsy photoshop:

The literary agent has stated that this was a mistake. It's not hard to picture a 23 year old assistant editor seeing the Kenyan father and assuming that Obama himself was born there.

"This was nothing more than a fact checking error by me–an agency assistant at the time," Goderich wrote in an emailed statement to Yahoo News. "There was never any information given to us by Obama in any of his correspondence or other communications suggesting in any way that he was born in Kenya and not Hawaii. I hope you can communicate to your readers that this was a simple mistake and nothing more."

Nonetheless, anything stating that Obama was born in Kenya is bound to ignite a firestorm. Yet logic would suggest that a birth certificate, along with the other documented evidence, trumps some press release. Compounding the difficulty in making a big deal out of this, most conservatives have already buried the birther theory. But leave it to Breitbart (from beyond the grave) to turn this into a new conspiracy theory:

Andrew Breitbart was never a "Birther," and Breitbart News is a site that has never advocated the narrative of "Birtherism." In fact, Andrew believed, as we do, that President Barack Obama was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, on August 4, 1961…

Yet Andrew also believed that the complicit mainstream media had refused to examine President Obama's ideological past, or the carefully crafted persona he and his advisers had constructed for him. It is evidence–not of the President's foreign origin, but that Barack Obama's public persona has perhaps been presented differently at different times.

OK. Here's how it works.

Barack Obama was not born in Kenya, but he said he was in order to move himself up the academic ladder. His grades (which have not been released to the public, an integral part of this theory) at Occidental College were not good enough to get him into Columbia, nor were his Columbia grades sufficient to get him into Harvard Law School. So he lied and claimed Kenyan birth on his applications, which (per the theory) gave him some sort of advantage in the admissions process. Thus "birtherism" was all Obama's fault. People suspected he might have been born in Kenya because he said that was the case when it suited his purposes.

So here are the two potential explanations:

1. A literary agent made a mistake.
2. Obama lied about his citizenship / nationality / place of birth over a 15 year period as part of a conspiracy to advance his academic and professional goals.

Both of these are plausible. Given that, the law of parsimony would lead us to the one that requires the fewest assumptions, unproven assertions, and leaps in logic. In short, which one is simpler? Which is more plausible? It's possible that the "Obama lied" theory is correct. But it seems pretty unlikely compared to the alternative explanations.

If a theory this convoluted is necessary to make sense of your predetermined conclusions, there is a good chance that you're making shit up. That obvious fact is remarkably easy to overlook if you're 100% convinced that Barack Obama is a fraud. The phrase Unnecessarily Complex does not enter into your thinking. You will develop some theory, find evidence somewhere, and substitute "likely" for "plausible" to make sense of it all. And no matter what Obama says, does, or makes public, this parade of inane conspiracies will never stop.


Posted in Ed vs. Logical Fallacies on September 14th, 2011 by Ed

This isn't really political, but I did this in class on Tuesday and I had too much fun watching everyone tie their brains in knots not to share it here.

We are beginning to talk about probability in a course on research design / methodology, and I introduced the topic with a few basic examples. One of them is the infamous Monty Hall Problem. The MHP is like an optical illusion – no matter how many times I tell you that these lines are of identical length, your brain will keep telling you that the bottom line is longer. It is the kind of paradox with a solution that appears to be absurd even after it has been demonstrated to be correct. You simply cannot wrap your mind around it.

The MHP is a probability game named after the host of the 1970s/early 1980s game show Let's Make a Deal. The most popular part of the show was a game that has since become the subject of dozens of academic papers in math, statistics, and logic. Here is the basic setup:

The host confronts the contestant with three doors. Behind two doors there are goats (which the contestant did not actually win, but were intended as a gag "prize") while the third door hides a brand new car. The three prizes are distrubuted behind the doors randomly and Monty Hall knows what is behind each door. The contestant chooses a door, which remains closed. Hall must then open one of the other two doors to reveal a goat. He cannot open the door hiding the car (if the contestant has not chosen it). He then asks the contestant if they would like to stick with their original choice or switch to the other available mystery door.

An example is clearer; You choose Door 1. Hall opens Door 2 to reveal a goat. He then offers you the option of sticking with Door 1 or changing your choice to Door 3.

To 99.9% of humanity, this problem has an easy solution. Since Hall will open one of the two goat doors, the two unopened doors contain one goat and one car. There is no advantage to switching, since the odds of the chosen door containing the car appear to be 50-50. Going back to the example, if Door 2 is opened to reveal a goat, there's a 50% chance that Door 1 contains the car and a 50% chance that Door 3 contains it, right?

Switching, in fact, is always in the player's interest. When Parade magazine ran this problem in 1990 they received more than 10,000 critical letters, including several hundred from people with PhDs in math and science. All patiently explained that the odds are 50-50 and switching is not beneficial. The well educated letter writers were all wrong.

The probability of winning by staying with the original choice is 1/3, not 1/2. And the probability of winning by switching is 2/3. Most people, no matter how long they stare at this and work through the scenarios, cannot accept that. It took me days to absorb it when I first encountered the problem. It just does not make sense. Yet it's true. Since there are only two different objects behind the three doors – two goats and one car – there are only three possible combinations: car-goat-goat, goat-car-goat, and goat-goat-car. Perhaps the only way to understand why this creates a 2/3 probability of success by switching is to see the three scenarios spelled out. The yellow represents closed doors, the white door is the one opened by Hall to reveal a goat, and the arrow represents the door originally chosen by the player (which is always Door 1, for simplicity's sake).

And now that I've explained it and you've seen the irrefutable evidence, I bet your brain still doesn't comprehend why switching increases your odds. Mine doesn't. I know what the solution is but it will take me a few more years to understand why.

To paraphrase 50 Cent, I love this problem like a fat kid loves cake.


Posted in Ed vs. Logical Fallacies on September 23rd, 2009 by Ed

As Congress (and allegedly the White House) kick around the idea of a sin tax on sugar-laden beverages of no nutritional value – namely sodas, of course – disinterested observer and Coca Cola CEO Muthar Kent recently made a statement that proves absurd on several levels. Bloomberg.com relays his comments as follows:

Coca-Cola Co. Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Muhtar Kent said the idea of a federal tax on soft drinks, under consideration by the U.S. Congress and President Barack Obama, is “outrageous.”

“I have never seen it work where a government tells people what to eat and what to drink,” Kent said today, responding to an audience question at the Rotary Club of Atlanta. “If it worked, the Soviet Union would still be around."

If there is a lamer or more transparently juvenile way to defend a right-wing argument than by invoking the Soviet Union – which serves as a combination Red Herring, Straw Man, and false dilemma – I don't know what it is. It has surpassed Reductio ad Hitlerum as the favored fallacy of irrelevance given our new "socialist" President and a nation full of people who don't know what socialism is but are quite sure it's going to rape their daughters. But there are some very good reasons why Mr. Kent should tread more lightly than most in bashing centralized planning.

Our government doesn't tell people what to drink – although "suggestions" abound in the form of dietary guidelines and public health campaigns – but it sure as hell has spent the last century telling them what to grow. Namely corn. Metric shitloads of corn. The Federal government pays people to grow corn. It pays people not to grow corn. It pays people to think about growing corn. This is neither debatable nor controversial, having entered the mainstream of political knowledge with the ethanol debate and popular edutainment like the film Food, Inc. or books like Fast Food Nation, Animal Vegetable Miracle, or The Omnivore's Dilemma. Government policy has rewarded farmers (OK, agribuisness) for growing heathen quantities of corn without regard for the market or consequences and has thus engineered the flooding of the planet with mountains of cheap corn.

No person or entity has benefited more from this legislatively-mandated glut of cheap corn than the soft drink industry dominated by Mr. Kent's company. The pro-corn policy (Cornservative policy? Yes, I like that better.) has created an entire industry of chemists and biologists dedicated to finding some way to use all this shit that Congress pays farmers to grow. One of their earliest successes, aided heavily by the legislatively mandated ban on Cuban sugarcane, was corn-based liquid sweeteners. Expensive sugar would have produced expensive soda but cheap corn syrup produces oceans of cheap soda. And to call corn sweeteners "cheap" is an understatement. The market is so saturated that we could feasibly fill Lake Baikal with Karo for about $50.

OK, not quite that cheap. But the point is that the government has spent a century "telling people what to drink." It has been telling them to drink Coke by going to great lengths at public expense to ensure that a two-liter soda is half the price of a half-gallon of orange juice (which, if from concentrate, has corn in it anyway). Maybe Comrade Kent should thank the Politburo for raiding the public till to help his Collective Beverage Farm push its 200 calorie cans of corn syrup on the lard-assed Proletariat with no risk of failure. Raise your Sprite to the Motherland!


Posted in Ed vs. Logical Fallacies on September 9th, 2009 by Ed

The next phase in the coordinated campaign of anti-reform rhetoric in the health care debate apparently is to dip back into the Bush 2004 playbook and trot out the Red Herrings. I draw your attention to a recent editorial entitled "Fix the costs first." To wit:

The need for health reform is as plain as the headline on the front page of Tuesday's editions of The Buffalo News: "Salaried employees suffer loss of health care, reduced pensions due to Delphi bankruptcy." The system is falling apart. The wailing from the political right notwithstanding, without reform, we will have rationing.

But those on the left who continue to deny that controlling costs must be the first order of business need to read the same story. Today it's Delphi Corp. in Lockport, a company that is under severe economic strain. But as the costs of health care continue to soar — reaching 20 percent of gross domestic product by 2017 — more companies will find themselves under severe economic strain. Employer-based health care will become increasingly less available.

It's only a matter of time until we are besieged with warnings about capping malpractice claims.

Costs are not causing the problem, they are the end result of it. Drawing upon my experience in the world of medical collections – briefly, lest I start having flashbacks – the average hospital writes off tens of millions of dollars in services annually. That is to say lots of people are receiving services for which they don't pay. We know that emergency rooms are required by Federal law to treat any patient who presents himself regardless of ability to pay. For people without health insurance and with meager incomes, this becomes the sole source of medical care. Hospitals attempt to compensate for services they essentially provide for free by breaking it off in the ass of every patient with half-decent insurance. So the next guy through the door with a Blue Cross PPO gets charged $75 for an ibuprofen in an effort to make up the difference. Hospitals then pay insurers a discounted bulk rate for claims – thousands at a time – according an arcane formula that ends up being slightly more complicated than a group of astronauts doing their taxes in Latin. In short, they charge you $75 to get a negotiated payment of $60 from your insurance to start compensating for the fact that they just did a $15,000 operation to pull the steering column of a 1994 Toyota Tercel out of the sternum of an uninsured teenager.

The costs can't be controlled prior to extending coverage to everyone. The presence of 50 million uninsured people is in fact contributing mightily to the disconnect between the costs of medical care and reality. Bask in the rich irony as the Glenn Beck fan in the next cubicle wails loudly about how he isn't going to pay for anyone else's health insurance. We already pay for the uninsured. It's just a big, disorganized trainwreck, clearly superior to a government-administered program which would achieve the exact same end result.


Posted in Ed vs. Logical Fallacies on September 2nd, 2009 by Ed

There has been a lot of discussion over the past few days regarding the relationship among income, genetics, and intelligence. A controversial paper by economist Bruce Sacerdote purports to show that the relationship between parental income and children's income is different for biological and adopted children. Biological kids make more money as parents' income increases whereas adopted kids have a flat income curve as parental income increases. Mike has a great writeup (follow the link) explaining the high school-caliber errors in the author's ultimate conclusion that intelligence is passed down genetically, which is stacked upon the equally fallacious claim that high income = intelligence. In other words, Prof. Sacerdote presents some very interesting if deceiving findings – I can't emphasize enough Mike's point about the four year difference in mean age between the groups of children – and then closes with some nice eugenics.

Economists are useful people to have around in the academic world. They have great quantitative skills and, in my experience, a keen eye for research design. Unfortunately most of them think they are social scientists. They aren't. They are mathematicians practicing a hard science. They should not do political science, biology, or sociology any more than practitioners of those disciplines should do economics. But economists have the misfortune of seeing the entire world in rational choice terms and a field which encourages them to make the most immoderate, speculative conclusions possible based on their findings.

Prof. Sacerdote, for example, could have written a paper in which he said "Here is a very interesting disparity I have uncovered. I hope this encourages others to study this issue and find out what's going on here." Nah. As economists like to do, he just solves the dilemma himself at the end of the paper: it's genetic. People who make more money are smarter than people who make less, and that intelligence is passed on to their children. See how much easier that was compared to doing all that messy "research" and using "logic"?

Similarly, from the are-you-fucking-kidding file we have this entry on Harvard economist Greg Mankiw's blog. This man is a very good economist. He is famous. He has achieved much in his academic and professional career. Now read this:

The NY Times Economix blog offers us the above graph, showing that kids from higher income families get higher average SAT scores.

Of course! But so what? This fact tells us nothing about the causal impact of income on test scores. (Economix does not advance a causal interpretation, but nor does it warn readers against it.)

This graph is a good example of omitted variable bias, a statistical issue discussed in Chapter 2 of my favorite textbook. The key omitted variable here is parents' IQ. Smart parents make more money and pass those good genes on to their offspring.

Suppose we were to graph average SAT scores by the number of bathrooms a student has in his or her family home. That curve would also likely slope upward. (After all, people with more money buy larger homes with more bathrooms.) But it would be a mistake to conclude that installing an extra toilet raises yours kids' SAT scores.

Is this a joke? He opens by recognizing that the data offer no evidence whatsoever about causality and closes with a warning about making spurious and unwarranted conclusions about causality when correlation is present. Which is cute, because between those two statements he grabs his ankles, reaches deep within his ass, and pulls out the uncited, unwarranted, and baseless conclusion that the real causal mechanism here is genetics. A goddamn college freshman could look at the relationship between income and SAT scores and conclude, "Hmm. Well, parents with more money can afford expensive schools and SAT prep courses." That is just about the most basic example of cause and effect one could imagine.

If you took your car to a mechanic because the alternator was shot – you can open the hood and plainly see that the alternator is burnt out and not functioning – a reasonable mechanic would say "Hey, you need a new alternator." If you took the same car to an economist, he or (rarely) she would say "The problem is obvious. Your parents have low IQs, and thus you have inherited genes which make you too dumb to pick out a car that will be free of mechanical problems." If that analogy seems ridiculous, that is exactly what Mankiw has done here. He has ignored the overwhelmingly obvious explanation and substituted his own imagined causal mechanism.

Economists may not suck at causal inferences universally, but the ones that do it well and judiciously are well-hidden. Their field provides perverse incentives to draw attention to one's work by stating the biggest, most shocking conclusion that can be wrung from the data, however tenuous the evidence. Either that or they just suck at playing social scientist. Causality is determined by hypothesis testing and supported with evidence. When hypotheses can't be thoroughly tested, statements about causality should at least adhere to basic logic. Showing a correlation and then going off half-assed on one's own preferred explanation of How the World Works is not science. And it is particularly unwelcome when that preferred explanation happens to be 19th Century eugenics and a handful of social Darwinism.