Monday, June 26, 2006
Tuesday, June 20, 2006
That is the headline of a story on today's CNN web page. Someone who actually reads the story, however, will discover that 47% of those polled said they would definitely vote against Hilary Clinton, 47% against Kerry 48% against Gore, and 63% against Jeb Bush. It is true that McCain scored 34% and Giuliani 30%, but that puts Hilary in the middle of the unpopularity ratings and not, as the headline implies, at the top.
She did, however, have one distinction—the highest positive rating. 22% of those polled said they would definitely vote for her. The other candidates had ratings ranging from 19% (Giuliani) down to 9% (Jeb Bush).
I have to confess that my title for this post is also misleading. My previous example offered statistics that appeared, if you did not pay attention, to support its misleading headline. This one does not. Strictly speaking it is not lying with statistics but about statistics.
I should add, for the benefit of anyone to whom it is not obvious, that I am not a supporter of Hilary Clinton.
Merely of the truth.
Sunday, June 18, 2006
Clicking on the link, one discovers that:
"Motorcycle fatalities involving riders without helmets have soared in the nearly six years since Gov. Jeb Bush repealed the state's mandatory helmet law, a newspaper reported Sunday.
A Florida Today analysis of federal motorcycle crash statistics found "unhelmeted" deaths in Florida rose from 22 in 1998 and 1999, the years before the helmet law repeal, to 250 in 2004, the most recent year of available data.
Total motorcycle deaths in the state have increased 67 percent, from 259 in 2000 to 432 in 2004, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics.
Records, though, also show motorcycle registrations have increased 87 percent in Florida since Bush signed the helmet law repeal July 1, 2000.
Deaths went up 67%, registrations went up 87%, so deaths per motorcycle have been going down. "Unhelmeted deaths" went up steeply, which sounds convincing—until you realize that one result of not wearing a helmet is that an accident that would have killed you even with a helmet now counts as an "unhelmeted" instead of a "helmeted" death. I do not know what else changed over the period; it would be interesting so see comparable statistics from states that did not change their laws. But the evidence actually presented in the article, taken by itself, implies precisely the opposite of what the top level headline suggests.
Friday, June 16, 2006
It turns out, if you believe the account on Snopes, which I gather is a usually reliable source, that the conventional account is not merely debatable, it is false—the result of deliberate fraud by one James Vicary. From Snopes:
" You see, Vicary lied about the results of his experiment. When he was challenged to repeat the test by the president of the Psychological Corporation,
"As numerous studies over the last few decades have demonstrated, subliminal advertising doesn't work; in fact, it never worked, and the whole premise was based on a lie from the very beginning. James Vicary's legacy was to ensure that a great many people will never be convinced otherwise, however."
What struck me as interesting about the account is that Vicary's fraud worked. I don't know what its long term effects were on his career, but the long term effect on our culture was to strengthen the idea that human beings are not all that rational, that what appears to be voluntary choice is often really due to fraud or coercion. Vicary's flashing messages provide a memorable and convincing argument against freedom of choice on the marketplace, and one that I see echoed in many arguments. And the fraud continues to work long after it was exposed.
For another, and perhaps more debatable, example of the same pattern, consider Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa. It was a very popular book, widely used in college courses. Part of its implicit message was that the traditional pattern of sexual behavior in our society was a mistake—an unnecessary and damaging repression of natural impulses, as demonstrated by the happy and sexually liberated youth of Samoa. While the changes in sexual behavior during the course of the 20th century surely had multiple causes, it's reasonable to view Mead's book as one of them.
Many years later, Derek Freeman, in Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth, convincingly argued that Mead's entire account was bogus. Mead did not know the language when she arrived in Samoa, was not particularly skilled in languages, and it is at least debatable whether she ever became fluent. She did not live with the people she was studying but with an American family in the village. By Freeman's account, she was heavily dependent on what she was told by a couple of teenaged informants through a translator; he thinks they were deliberately misleading her in the direction of what she wanted to believe, for their own entertainment. And she made no attempt to check the available crime statistics, which would have shown that her peaceful paradise had high rates of murder and rape.
Freeman's book set off an extensive controversy, with some anthropologists accepting his view, others defending Mead. The most interesting response I saw was by a friend and ex-colleague of Mead, who accepted Freeman's factual claim and argued that what Mead was really doing was not research but the creation of a myth, and that the spreading of that myth in our culture had good, not bad, effects.
After reading some of the controversy I think Freeman is probably correct; I remain uncertain as to whether, if so, Mead was a victim of her informants, as Freeman suggests, or deliberately dishonest. But either way, however false her account of Samoa, the effect on Europe and America, good or bad, remains. Lies can succeed.
Thursday, June 15, 2006
Wednesday, June 14, 2006
Today, there was a response—by someone who worked for the division of GM that produced the car. The response debunked essentially all of the original post, in detail. A few samples:
General Motors lost two billion dollars on the project, and lost money on every single EV1 produced. The leases didn't even cover the costs of servicing them.
The range of 130 miles is bogus. None of them ever achieved that under normal driving conditions. Running the air conditioning or heater could halve that range. Even running the headlights reduced it by 10%.
Minimum recharge time was two hours using special charging stations that except for fleet use didn't exist. The effective recharge time, using the equipment that could be installed in a lessee's garage, was eight hours. ...
NiMH batteries that had lasted up to three years in testing were failing after six months in service. There was no way to keep them from overheating without doubling the size of the battery pack. Lead-acid batteries were superior to NiMH in actual daily use.
It struck me as a wonderful example of a point I made in an earlier post—how useful Usenet is as a source of information. Once you find a newsgroup with a reasonable number of smart people having diverse positions, you get to watch both sides of an argument, for free, and end up with a reasonable idea of what the best case is that can be made for each.
And, of course, the thread is still going, so we get to watch and see if there is a persuasive rebuttal to the rebuttal.
Monday, June 12, 2006
Currently, something like five to twenty percent of children are diagnosed with ADHD and those so diagnosed are widely claimed to be unable to function in a classroom without medication. Fifty years ago, neither Ritalin nor ADHD diagnoses existed—and classrooms functioned, judging by results, at least as well as they do now. That raises an obvious puzzle, to which I can see at least four possible solutions:
1. The rate of ADHD has drastically increased. While that is not impossible, there seems to be no plausible explanation for such an increase. The only clear evidence on causation is that ADHD is in part genetic.
2. ADHD is in large part a bogus problem—the view of many of the critics of Ritalin use. Teachers get parents to drug their kids because it's less trouble than dealing with normal kids undrugged. This seems to contradict the anecdotal evidence from lots of parents, who report large improvements in their children's behavior as a result of the drugs—but that might mean that one percent of children really have the problem and the rest don't.
3. What has changed is not the prevalence of ADHD but the environmental requirements on kids. The same child who is functional in many other environments may be a serious problem if he asked to sit still and be quiet for most of five hours a day—as many of us would be. The point was made by one mother who commented that it was odd that her child only seemed to have ADHD nine months of the year—he was fine, undrugged, during the summer. The problem with this explanation is that, fifty years ago, schools had classrooms in which kids had to sit and be quiet.
4. Fifty years ago, undiagnosed ADHD kids were a serious problem, but while we have largely solved that problem with drugs, other school problems have gotten worse, which is why, on net, things are no better now than then. That seems inconsistent with at least the stronger claims about just how much of a problem ADHD is in the classroom and how common it is.
As these brief comments suggest, I don't have a clear answer to the puzzle. Suggestions? Pointers to webbed discussions that might help?
Sunday, June 11, 2006
There are two things wrong with this argument. The first is that the U.S. government borrows on a world capital market, and capital is fungible. If South Korea gets mad at us and South Koreans insist on cashing in U.S. treasury securities as they come due, refusing to buy any more, and investing in Japan instead, that frees up capital that would otherwise have been invested by someone else in Japan—which can then be used to buy the next issue of T-Bills. If the South Koreans decide, for some odd reason, not to invest anywhere at all, that decreases the world supply of capital by a tiny fraction of the total and pushes up world interest rates, not several fold as Mr Schultz seems to imagine, but by a minuscule amount.
Much the same mistake is made by those who explain the Iraq War as an attempt by the U.S. to make sure it can get enough oil. Oil, too, is a fungible commodity with a world market. Middle Eastern countries that depend on oil revenue are unlikely to stop pumping and selling it, whoever runs them. If Iraq decides to sell to France instead of to the U.S., that frees up whatever oil France would otherwise have bought for our use.
The second mistake was pointed out, as best I recall from my high school researches, by Daniel Webster c. 1832. Then as now, there were vocal worries about foreigners owning too much of America. Webster pointed out that foreign investment meant, not that they had our stuff, but that we had their money. If push came to shove, if foreign governments tried to pressure the U.S. by threatening to withdraw their citizens' investments, we could keep it—refuse to pay back the debt. Their capital, after all, in the form of canals and the first railroads, was immovably located under our jurisidiction.