Category Archives: Social

ignorance is bliss

Two days ago, on the Facebook, I linked this always pleasant bit of information: we dodge extinction because a huge asteroid will sail right past us on Halloween. (And by “right past us” I mean, c. 300k miles). What gave me a slight chuckle was the article’s admission that this asteroid was just discovered, as in: “Oh crap, there it is; and it’s coming fast.” No time to rustle up some guys from an oil rig, train them in space flight, launch them into space, blah, blah, blah. Nope. This cosmic beanbag is almost here. It also gave me a chuckle because the story reminded me of something I read from Bill Bryson, who always gives me a chuckle.

After supplying a useful analogy for the sheer number of asteroids and the Earth’s interaction with them, Bryson writes:

As Steven Ostro of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory has put it, “Suppose that there was a button you could push and you could light up all the Earth-crossing asteroids larger than about ten metres, there would be over a hundred million of these objects in the sky.” In short, you would see not a couple of thousand distant twinkling stars, but millions upon millions upon millions of nearer, randomly moving objects–“all of which are capable of colliding with the Earth and all of which are moving on slightly different courses through the sky at different rates. It would be deeply unnerving.” Well, be unnerved, because it is there. We just can’t see it.”

–Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003), 171

A few pages later, Bryson unfolds the really good news:

I asked [Ray Anderson and Brian Witzke] how much warning we would receive if a similar hunk of rock [i.e. the one that caused the Chicxulub crater] were coming towards us today. “Oh, probably none,” said Anderson breezily. “It wouldn’t be visible to the naked eye until it warmed up and that wouldn’t happen until it hit the atmosphere, which would be about one second before it hit the Earth. You’re talking about something moving many tens of times faster than the fastest bullet. Unless it had been seen by someone with a telescope, and that’s by no means a certainty, it would take us completely by surprise.”

–Bryson, 179

The next three pages are fairly detailed educated guesses as to what would happen next. It ain’t pretty. Happy weekend, everybody.

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gotta love it…

when the murmurings of a few are projected so that they seem to be the chorus of the majority. In this end-of-the-year reflection “study”, the writer goes on and on about American perceptions concerning various topics.  The upshot being: Americans are not entirely pleased with 2013.  Here are the results (if you didn’t click on the link):

  • “Most Americans won’t remember 2013 fondly…”
  • “Most Americans are happy to see 2013 go…”
  • “More than two-thirds view the year as one that was bad for the world…”
  • “More than four in ten say it was a bad year for their family…”
  • “60% of Americans…”
  • “77% of adults under 30…”
  • “a third of senior citizens…”
  • “The public sees the world…”
    • “At the end of 2012, 69% said it had been a bad year…”
  • “There are almost no issues where a majority of Americans have seen improvement…”
    • “Only a quarter say healthcare coverage is better…”
    • “more than half say it has gotten worse…”
  • “When it comes to how 2013 impacted American families…”
    • “A majority does admit that last year was a good one…”
    • “although fewer than one in ten would say it was a very good year…”
  • “how Americans rate their family’s financial situation…”
    • “33% say they are worse off…”
    • “16% say their family is better off…”

One might read this and think (so hopes the writer of the article) that the pulse of all American has been checked and this is conclusive evidence of where we’re at.

However, there is one big, fat, nasty, smelly problem: the figures/percentages given in the “study”-report only reflect the views of the 1000 people surveyed. Proof? Right here. And notice, if you did read the article, that information is nowhere disclosed in the main article, except for a tiny link at the end (i.e. you have to look for the link then go elsewhere to get the details), thus allowing the writer to present the findings in sweeping, categorical terms and therefore give the illusion of factual comprehensiveness or, heaven help us, “objectivity”.

I’m sorry, but a survey of 1000 Americans is nowhere close to serving as a accurate barometer for the thoughts, sentiments, feelings, opinions, etc of all 317,328,103 Americans.* At best, a survey of 1000 people is an accurate (more or less) barometer for the thoughts, sentiments, feelings, opinions, etc of 1000 people. To assume or to suggest otherwise is both speculation and imposition.

If you are a writer and use surveys to make various claims or observations, you owe it to your readers to be upfront and honest about the data. In other words, don’t claim to be speaking for the masses when in reality you’re only speaking for a comparatively small handful. I would recommend 1) making the data (i.e. the figures/number surveyed) initial and more obvious, and not relegate it to a tiny link at the bottom of the page, and 2) changing the wording so as to reflect the facts (i.e. “66% of those survey” or “66% of 1000 Americans”).

If you are a reader of such surveys and honestly believe that the findings are representative of the whole of American people: you’ve been duped. (Go here and here for why I both distrust and loathe surveys).

* According to the estimated figures found here.

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award for “parents of the year” goes to…

these people:

Screen Shot 2013-06-29 at 11.15.27

I weep for society.

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more statistical loathing

I have grown to dislike and even distrust the use of statistics, particularly in the form of percentages. (See here and here for examples of why this is so). Admittedly, some uses are rather comical. For instance, just the other day there was an advert on TV for mascara (Maxfactor, I think it was) and the voice-over made grand statements about women’s views on the product. Based on the VO’s claims, one would think that he was speaking for the whole of womankind. Hardly. At the bottom of the screen appeared the percentage of women supporting the claims made and number surveyed. The figures? 74% of 70 women!¹ No typo. Seven, zero. My first (cynical) thought was: “So, you [Maxfactor] basically got your own PR department to offer some opinions.”

As benign or even banal as this instance might be, it adheres to or relies on (and possibly even perpetuates) a rather malignant rhetorical ploy: shape opinion on the basis of persuasively strong claims supported by high percentages.² For example: “The majority of people (78%) believe _[insert hot-button issue here]_ should be permitted” or “…feel that _____ is unfair.” The underlying assumption appears to be: with language such as “majority” or “most people” and percentages exceeding 50%, we can make the issue appear to be prevailing and widespread, and if we can get people to believe the language and percentages, then we can shape public opinion in a particular direction. To remain in my cynicism, this usually means: the “majority” we’re documenting is the cultural norm, so you might want to get on board rather than fight against the “majority” view.

However, because I am that annoying person who asks, when confronted with percentages: ” ‘x’% of how many surveyed?”, and because the survey pool is hardly ever deep and wide enough or representative of the whole, I will neither be persuaded by the claims made (because they do not represent the whole they claim to) nor accept the data to be empirical evidence of public views/opinions (because it’s not). Moreover, I will not pretend that, say, 1500 people surveyed constitute a “majority” view and that I must accept their view, which is really a “minority” one (based on comparative figures), simply because they’re touted as the majority in a particular survey. In fact, I don’t have to accept anything simply because a few say so–and do so rather loudly (i.e. delusionally pretending to be the many).³ I accept things because they are worthy of acceptance, but that requires an entirely different (and more substantial) kind of conversation.

¹ I’m not sure if they’re doing this in the States (or anywhere else), but here in the UK it is now common practice in adverts to show both the percentage and the number of people surveyed.
² It is, therefore, no wonder that the survey-data is either tucked away at the end of the article or on a completely different site.
³ Current issues in American politics illustrate what happens when a few are allowed to shape the many, and do so on the assumption that the few are portrayed as more powerful than the many.

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take a lesson

Tiger Woods is apparently in hot water for something he said and did (or did not say or do). See here for the story. Here’s the part of the story that bugged me:

However, one of the marshals in the group, Gary Anderson, said that Woods did nothing of the sort: “He didn’t ask us nothing, and we didn’t say nothing. We’re told not to talk to the players,” he told Sports Illustrated.

So… according to your double double-negative, Mr marshal Gary Anderson, Tiger did ask you something and you did say something in return. And that would mean you broke the “rule” about not talking to the players. Right now your defense is looking pretty crappy. Take a lesson from the one who gets his CV randomly read out and state things clearly:

Nothing was said to us and we certainly said nothing to him.

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another one left behind

I have four e-mail addresses: personal, University, joint (i.e. my lovely wife and me), and Yahoo. The first is the one I prefer and use most often, the second is used out of necessity, the third is for random things, and the last is lovingly called, my “crap e-mail.” It’s the one I use when I have to sign up for things or give out a valid e-mail address. Thus, it’s the one that receives the most crap (or spam).

However, because it’s a Yahoo address this means I occasionally have to endure the Yahoo homepage, which is usually nothing more than a cesspool of banal dronings about superficialities masquerading as real news. Admittedly, every so often there is something important and newsworthy, but it’s typically late in the feed or sandwiched between useless slices of stale drivel. (Can you tell I have a slight disdain for Yahoo?)

In exceptional cases (and by that I mean their rarity, not their quality), I find something that is simply laughable–not because it is funny but because it is painfully pathetic. Case in point: this morning I was slapped in the face with this story. My angst is not with the story itself. I truly feel for the woman who was inadvertently harpooned and I do pray that she makes a full recovery. My beef, however, is with the ineptitude at keeping the details straight–let alone consistent. Or valid. Or right. Here’s what I mean.

Take a look at the way in which the story is advertised in the newsfeed:

Screen Shot 2013-05-09 at 09.01.07

Now, I ask you, dear reader: do you remember seeing anything in the original story about the women being “inches away from death”? I don’t. I do, however, remember seeing that “the harpoon came within 1cm of killing the woman.” In case you missed it:

Screen Shot 2013-05-09 at 09.01.12

Last time I checked, “1cm” is a far cry from “inches”–the plural form implying more than one inch. Come on, people; it’s basic education! You know, the stuff you learned when you were about 5. (Another child left behind).

I think what bugs me even more is that the newsfeed presents the “inches from death” as though it’s a legitimate quotation, but it’s not. No one in the article says that! Ever. So, not only are the technical details inconsistent (i.e. patently wrong) yet presented as though nothing’s really problematic, the quotation doesn’t even exist yet it is proffered as though it does. That’s just poor and painfully pathetic reporting.

I think I need more coffee….

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a modicum of solace

Yesterday The Guardian provided the results of an American-based survey on various conspiracy theories. Interestingly, the headline focused only on one of the 26 questions: Obama as the Antichrist. Two things–one about the headline, and one about the survey–and then a third, which is less troubling.

With regard to the headline, it’s a bit misleading. According to the numbers in the results (the full break-down is here), only 13% believe Obama is the Antichrist. That’s hardly “one in four Americans.” The only way you can get close to a “one in four” charge (i.e. 25%) is if you lump the 13% from the “not sure” category, which is what Paul Harris does in the article. He does this on the basis that “not sure” = “possibly so” or “I could be convinced”. A bit shady on the method, but understandable. “One in four” sounds better and (slightly) more widespread than “one in seven(ish)”.

With regard to the survey, it too is a bit misleading. If we went on the title alone, we get the impression that 25% of (all) Americans believe Obama is the Antichrist. Given the population of the US (315,610,625, as of 8.30 this morning), that would mean something around 78,902,656.25. (Who is the .25 of a person!?). But that can’t be right. Outside of Garnier, who would survey that many people? Harris does explain that the survey involved only “a sample of American voters”. Okie dokie. According to this site, last year there were 146,311,000 registered voters in the US (a number that seems too clean for my taste, but no matter). So if we use that number, then, according to Harris’ “one in four” charge, that would mean 36,577,750 people surveyed believe Obama to be the Antichrist. (Thankfully, no fractions of people this time). But that can’t be right either.

Conveniently (or smartly), Harris leaves out the exact size of the sample, and he suspiciously leaves out any links to survey itself. Again, it sounds so much better and more–dare I say–condemning to say “one in four Americans” and let people assume that the number is huge. But what about facts? If you were to take the 12 seconds to do your own search and locate the survey in question (or just use the link I supplied–you’re welcome), you would see that the sample-size is . . . get ready for this . . . 1247. I didn’t leave out any numbers. 1,2,4,7. That’s all. Seriously, Harris: Asda’s got more stuff on sale.

Accordingly, if we use Harris’ bold figure of 25%, that would mean only 311.75 people believe Obama is the Antichrist. That’s not “one in four”. That’s like one in a million (I think; my maths are a little rusty this morning). But no one is going to care if Harris says that figure, so it’s no wonder that his misleadingly says, “one in four”. Things get uglier if we use the solid number of 13%, which would bring the total to a whopping 162.11 people. That’s just under one in every two million (again, I think). Seriously, Harris: you’re going to paint 1/4 of Americans with a brush admittedly used by only 162.11 people? Tsk! Tsk!

The third thing, and this is the modicum of solace: only 162.11 people admit to believing Obama to be the Antichrist. I don’t mean to sound crass, but it’s comforting to know that only 162.11 people have a faulty understanding of the Antichrist. If we follow what the Johannine Epistles say, the “antichrist” (ἀντιχριστος) is anyone who “denies the Father and the Son” (1Jn 2.22) and/or denies “Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh” (2Jn 1.7). While the Johannine Epistle seem to suggest a solitary figure–i.e. the Antichrist–appearing in the last days (cf. 1Jn 2.18; 4.3), nothing definite is said about him (or her–sorry, I have to be PC these days). However, since the language of the Epistles on this matter is apocalyptic, we can safely assume that this solitary figure is understood in apocalyptic terms–i.e. he (or she) ain’t human. And if he (or she) ain’t human, then Obama can’t be the Antichrist. Same goes for the new Pope–contra this guy–or any other person.

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