Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Second Verse: The Census Will Be Wrong

This is a follow-on to my post of three days ago: The Census Will Be Wrong. We Could Fix it. My friend Matt sort of set me off with his comments - I think he likes to do that :-)  - and my "longer response" has turned into a post of it's own, and inspired another yet to come.

Matt writes: I think the author underplays the risk of political/agenda hijinks... The first thing that came to my mind when I read this was that craptastic Lancet paper about civilian deaths in Iraq. Perception is reality, and statistics have gotten a bad rap from a few bad actors. Them's the breaks.

First of all, this is by no means a flame aimed at my friend, and anyone who says otherwise is itching for a fight. This is intended to be my professional opinion with some lightly researched examples to illustrate the problem.
  1. The current census "head count" is known to be flawed (1), and both Democrats and Republicans attempt to take advantage of this (1). 
  2. The mathematics of statistical resampling are apolitical. It's simple a better way to do it, and less subject to error and bias.
  3. Statistical resampling is a simple concept wrapped in a lot of boring math. The basic idea is to go back re-check some of the original counts, and fix them.
  4. The Lancet surveys of war casualties in Iraq is arguably flawed, but a flawed paper in no way invalidates a field of mathematics, or for that matter even the methods of that paper. By way of equally flawed logic, we should abandon all automobiles because Chrysler made the "K" car (That last bit makes more sense than I thought it would.).
  5. The Lancet paper is, if anything, an example that of a study that would benefit from resampling. At a glance - and that's literally all I've given it - the war causalities estimates may suffer more from a lack of precision than a lack of accuracy.

There seems to be a common thread here that many people just don't get what statistics can really tell us. Part of that problem is the growing pains of a fairly recent area of mathematics working it's way into a culture already stressed with information overload. Another part of the problem is that statistics have been poorly taught, frightening students with the math and failing to convey the meaning behind it.

That last sentence expresses one of my original motivation for this blog: to hell with the math, I want people to understand the meaning. Keeping with this theme, my next post will be about the statistical meaning of Accuracy, Precision, and Bias.

Here are some odds and ends I dugs up while researching this post:
-Article about 1999 Supreme Court decision on statistical resampling.
-The 1999 Supreme Court decision on statistical resampling.
-There are some additional comments on the blog of Jordan S. Ellenberg, author of the Washington Post Op-Ed.
-Unrelated Census Hijinx
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Monday, May 10, 2010


For some unknown reason I occasionally post something dance related.

[Found on TED]
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Saturday, May 8, 2010

The census will be wrong. We could fix it.

This is sort of a professional pet peeve among statisticians, and the issue comes up with every census;

Jordan Ellenberg writes: Opponents say that statistical adjustment would violate the constitutional requirement of an "actual enumeration" of the population. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in 1998 that the Constitution's language was "arguably incompatible . . . with gross statistical estimates." The sampling adjustment is indeed an estimate of the population -- but so is the unadjusted number, which estimates that the number of Americans missed is zero! To choose the raw count is to be wrong on purpose in order to avoid being wrong by accident.

Emphasis added. There are demonstrably better statistical methods to perform census estimates, and they should be used.

[Hat Tip 2 Terence Tao]
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Friday, May 7, 2010

You Can't Trust Science!

I get it - I get the whole Atheism versus Religion thing. In matters related to science, the atheists generally have it right, and it's not too hard to find someone who is: A) a kook, and B) religious, that is sadly wrong on a given scientific matter. I'm cool with that.

There one thing that bugs me though; this video offers a good example of a bad argument. It is an error to say that because religion has little to offer in terms of scientific thought and progress, it has nothing to offer at all. Religion has a lot to offer*, just not in the realm of science and technology. There are valid criticisms of religion, but criticizing religion for not being scientific is just silly.

Likewise, atheism may be entirely agreeable to scientific thought, but it is the scientific thought and not the atheism that creates progress and technology. Giving atheism credit for science and technology is equally silly.

All I'm saying is that science and religion have to be appreciated on their own merits. And if you just want to see the boobs, they appear at 3:20 into the video. ;-)

* I won't go into what religion offers and/or what it has accomplished, because that is a matter of individual beliefs, and your mileage may vary. I won't get into that argument.

[Hat Tip to One Good Move]
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