Tuesday, May 29, 2007

When big numbers mean nothing.

One annoying aspect of modern life is the use of statistics to drive public opinion. Please, someone help me see why this example is not a particularly bad one:

100,000 Chinese die annually from passive smoking.

A study says that 100,000 people a year die in China from passive smoking. I don't know how they came up with that figure, but I am pretty sure it is meaningless.

China has about 1.3 billion people. According to the CIA World Factbook, China's death rate is about 6.9 per 1000. That means that about 9 million people die each year. What is the level of confidence of this figure? I don't know, but I'd be surprised if the figure is more precise than + or - 100,000 deaths.

So the 100,000 figure probably falls within the range of error. If so, it can't be used to make any meaningful statement.

Yet it is front page news on Yahoo!

Another sobering thought: it is estimated that more than 99% of households who have suffered a death this past year possessed a refrigerator*.

No question that all that smoking in China is unhealthy, but using a such a level of precision to support a policy change is plain misrepresentation. And it happens all the time. The global warming hysteria is another late example. Government inflation figures are just as misleading. Is it no wonder that people distrust the authorities?

Yes, there are too many dangers to comprehend. The biggest one, though, is almost statistically certain**: 90% of statistics used by policy makers are lies.

* Source: personal observation, every household I've been in in the past 30 years owned a refrigerator. (In other words, I made this up).

** This is my personal estimate based upon a tightly focused study(in other words, I personally took a sample of 1 statistic and extrapolated from there. . . .)

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Republicans have their Pee Wee Herman moment

About 20 years ago I was at the house of some relatives. Their four year old son was watching a television program called "Pee Wee's Playhouse" with some friends. I had never heard of the show, but it seemed bizarrely odd. I sat down with the kids to watch.

One feature quickly became annoying. A particular word was chosen at the beginning of the show. Whenever that word was spoken, alarms and sirens would go off. The kids were instructed to run around in circles screaming. They learned that lesson well. Every 5 minutes or so the word would get mentioned: sirens went off, and the living room erupted into screams as the crazy kids spun and flapped their arms.

The Republican Party in 2007 apparently follows a similar pattern. There is some prescribed phrase that triggers insanity among them. Ron Paul, last Tuesday, apparently found the magic words to set them off.

"Fruitcake." "Wackjob." And to a Paul supporter: "You disgust me." These are phrases you can find at prominent conservative blogs regarding Ron Paul's sparring with former mayor and drag-queen impresario Rudy Giuliani in the latest Republican debate. (Below I set out the exchange from the transcript).

Ron Paul reminded people that the traditional conservative foreign policy was non-intervention. One does not meddle with other countries' internal affairs. He invoked the old conservative icon Robert Taft. He reminded us that this was the view of the founders of the country. The fact that the US doesn't understand the Middle East and nevertheless tries to insert itself there leads to hatred and a desire to attack us.

Rudy Giulinai didn't like this. In fact, he stated that he had never heard of such a view before. (Keep in mind that this explanation is also set out in numerous government reports, including a CIA analysis. Rudy needs to read some of the government's findings.) He demanded that Paul retract his statement. Paul, of course, refused. He reminded Giuliani that it was the CIA that coined the term "blowback", refering to Iran's retaliation against the US for deposing a duly elected leader and installing the oppressive Shah.

So-called conservatives are now spinning and screaming. Michigan Republicans want Ron Paul banned from their debate. Other Republicans are accusing him of being in the wrong party (which is odd, considering Paul's reference to Taft). Nasty names are being thrown about. This is what passes for political discourse in our time.

At least some of the conservatives are taking a breath and reconsidering. R.E. Finch has a thoughtful post on the conservative blog redstate.com.

I hope others come to their senses too. I'm not expecting a lot, however. Ron Paul has merely pointed out what used to be common wisdom. Who knew that such simple ideas could cause such panic?

From the transcript:

MR. GOLER: Congressman Paul, I believe you are the only man on the stage who opposes the war in Iraq, who would bring the troops home as quickly as -- almost immediately, sir. Are you out of step with your party? Is your party out of step with the rest of the world? If either of those is the case, why are you seeking its nomination?

REP. PAUL: Well, I think the party has lost its way, because the conservative wing of the Republican Party always advocated a noninterventionist foreign policy.
Senator Robert Taft didn't even want to be in NATO. George Bush won the election in the year 2000 campaigning on a humble foreign policy -- no nation-building, no policing of the world. Republicans were elected to end the Korean War. The Republicans were elected to end the Vietnam War. There's a strong tradition of being anti-war in the Republican party. It is the constitutional position. It is the advice of the Founders to follow a non-interventionist foreign policy, stay out of entangling alliances, be friends with countries, negotiate and talk with them and trade with them.
Just think of the tremendous improvement -- relationships with Vietnam. We lost 60,000 men. We came home in defeat. Now we go over there and invest in Vietnam. So there's a lot of merit to the advice of the Founders and following the Constitution.
And my argument is that we shouldn't go to war so carelessly. (Bell rings.) When we do, the wars don't end.

MR. GOLER: Congressman, you don't think that changed with the 9/11 attacks, sir?

REP. PAUL: What changed?

MR. GOLER: The non-interventionist policies.

REP. PAUL: No. Non-intervention was a major contributing factor. Have you ever read the reasons they attacked us? They attack us because we've been over there; we've been bombing Iraq for 10 years. We've been in the Middle East -- I think Reagan was right.
We don't understand the irrationality of Middle Eastern politics. So right now we're building an embassy in Iraq that's bigger than the Vatican. We're building 14 permanent bases. What would we say here if China was doing this in our country or in the Gulf of Mexico? We would be objecting. We need to look at what we do from the perspective of what would happen if somebody else did it to us. (Applause.)

MR. GOLER: Are you suggesting we invited the 9/11 attack, sir?

REP. PAUL: I'm suggesting that we listen to the people who attacked us and the reason they did it, and they are delighted that we're over there because Osama bin Laden has said, "I am glad you're over on our sand because we can target you so much easier." They have already now since that time -- (bell rings) -- have killed 3,400 of our men, and I don't think it was necessary.

MR. GIULIANI: Wendell, may I comment on that? That's really an extraordinary statement. That's an extraordinary statement, as someone who lived through the attack of September 11, that we invited the attack because we were attacking Iraq. I don't think I've heard that before, and I've heard some pretty absurd explanations for September 11th. (Applause, cheers.)
And I would ask the congressman to withdraw that comment and tell us that he didn't really mean that. (Applause.)

MR. GOLER: Congressman?

REP. PAUL: I believe very sincerely that the CIA is correct when they teach and talk about blowback. When we went into Iran in 1953 and installed the shah, yes, there was blowback. A reaction to that was the taking of our hostages and that persists. And if we ignore that, we ignore that at our own risk. If we think that we can do what we want around the world and not incite hatred, then we have a problem.
They don't come here to attack us because we're rich and we're free. They come and they attack us because we're over there. I mean, what would we think if we were -- if other foreign countries were doing that to us?

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Don't panic, the fish are OK

Today, May 8, 2007, they found melamine was fed to fish, but it's not likely to cause any trouble.

Farmed fish fed contaminated material

But the safety of the fish isn't what caught my eye. It was this quote by Dr. David Acheson, "the FDA's assistant commissioner for food protection":

"What we discovered is these are not wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate but in fact are wheat flour contaminated by melamine."

So, according to Dr. Acheson, it never was imported Chinese gluten. Instead, it seems to have been simple contaminated flour all along.

Yesterday, on May 7, 2007, the FDA issued a news release titled FDA/USDA Joint News Release: Scientists Conclude Very Low Risk to Humans from Food Containing Melamine.

That article talked about how meat from hogs and chickens which were fed contaminated feed was no big deal either. As far as it goes, and if this were the only issue, I'd accept the analysis.

But the FDA release was continuing the party line that the contamination came from imported gluten and rice protein:

"In the course of the investigation, it was discovered that pet food was contaminated by wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate that contained melamine and its compounds."

But after the fish story of today and Dr. Acheson's admission that it was flour that is contaminated, not gluten, the obvious question is raised: "How safe is the supply of flour?"

The other obvious question is: "how long has the FDA known about this?"

As of this writing, there is no reference on the FDA or the USDA website regarding this new observation. They are still reassuring us about pork and chickens. It's their job, of course, to make sure we don't panic.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Update on Ron Paul in South Carolina Debate

A few days ago I posted a link about how Ron Paul was shut out of the May 15 South Carolina Republican debate by Fox News. Apparently he is going to be in it:

South Carolina Republican Party

Also, I posted that Mike Gravel was frozen out of the June 3 New Hampshire Democratic debate by CNN because he was something of a maverick. That decision has been reversed as well.

Gravel's website

In both cases, it seems that bloggers put pressure on the media.

Last night's Republican debate wasn't big on substance, but I noticed one thing: when Ron Paul stated that he was adamently opposed to a National ID card, suddenly all the other candidates who supported it started to backpedal.

Even though Ron Paul is a long shot, his principled positions are having an effect on the others. Let us pray that it continues.