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A Look Back at Everyone Draw Mohammad Day

Posted by PLaplace on June 6, 2010

Though the official “Everyone Draw Mohammad Day” passed by several weeks ago largely unnoticed, I thought I would draw some attention to reason magazine’s celebration of the day.  Around the time the contest was first making the rounds, the editors at reason announced that they would hold a contest for best EDM Day picture, and post the winner on their website.  The entries were numerous, and I must admit that though the runners up were all fantastic in their own way, the winner truly took the cake and fit the spirit of the event perfectly.  If you have not seen it, I highly recommend you take a minute and check it out.  The winner is at the bottom of the page:  And the Winner of the Everybody Draw Mohammad Contest is…

Bonus link:  reason also published an article entitled “Defending the Project of Free Inquiry,” defending their decision to celebrate EDM Day in the first place and rebutting the argument that EDM Day is counter productive because it also insults moderate Muslims.  A fantastic read as well.

Posted in Islam, Mohammed cartoons | 1 Comment »

Statistics and Reality

Posted by PLaplace on May 2, 2010

Fellow poster Dan Draney drew my attention to this article on statistics the other day.  It’s a fascinating look at what statistical significance really means and how the notion is unwittingly abused by those in the sciences, predominantly in the fields of psychology and economics.  As astute observers may have inferred from my pseudonym, my interest in mathematics and statistics is more than casual, and as such the topic of abuse of statistics is dear to my heart.  Moreover, in a world where billions, if not trillions, of dollars ride on the reliability of statistical models and conclusions, a strong understanding of what statistical significance means is essential.

The beauty of statistics comes not from its ability to discover objective truth, which it cannot do, but rather from its ability to quantify uncertainty.  At the heart of statistics lies probability theory.  This is used to assign probabilities to experimental results.  If for instance, 12 out of a 1000 people suffer heart attacks when given a new drug, is that result significantly different enough from what we might expect from blind chance to justify pulling a drug from the marketplace?  It turns out than when one digs deeply into the laws of probability, one discovers that it is possible to prove many many probabilistic conclusions from the simple assumption of randomness in sampling.  Even if one knows absolutely nothing about an underlying population (for instance, how many people favor Barack Obama over John McCain) a properly constructed sample can yield measurable results.  Hence the importance of always conducting surveys, clinical trials, and psychological experiments with completely random samples, i.e. calling random households or selecting random patients.  This point is crucial, so I will repeat it:  without a random sample, results mean nothing.

As concerns politics, this is rarely a problem with the major polling firms such as Gallup or Rasmussen.  Their statisticians are rigorous and extremely competent.  One must however always be wary of polls put out by think tanks or political advocacy groups, especially if they talk about “weighting” the result for demographics or socioeconomic status, any other number of data manipulation techniques.  The instant this happens, all of the conclusions of the survey or study evaporate.  Additionally, another issue is margins of error.  These are critical to the quantification and understanding of statistical conclusions.  If someone says that Barack Obama is leading John McCain by 49% to 47% amongst registered voters with a margin of error of .1%, that result is highly significant and I would put money on an Obama victory.  If the margin of error was 3% (as is common for most polls), then we can’t really say anything about Obama’s chances of winning.  To but it in betting terms, a margin of error of .1% might correlate to something like 1000:1 odds of an Obama victory, while a margin of error of 3% would be close to 1:1.

Now when it comes to predicting a presidential election, there are enough polls going around that a clear picture normally emerges, regardless of the results of any individual poll.  But what about when the survey in question is only done once or twice, such as our heart attack experiment above, and billions of dollars might be on the line?  In that case the difference between 10:1 odds of being right (often not enough of an outlier to justify action), and 1000:1 odds can be critical.  Surveys and studies will almost always show differences between the populations in question, be they voters, medical subject, or psychology volunteers.  Being able to interpret what these differences actually mean is an essential skill, not just for statisticians but for anyone who might encounter statistics on a regular basis.  Given how often statistics are thrown around in academia, industry, and government, the ability to decipher statistical conclusions can often prove useful.  While not everyone can devote years to the study of the mathematics behind it all, and few rigorous statistics courses are offered as part of the “standard” American college or high school education, taking some time to at least browse wikipedia might well prove invaluable down the line.  At the very least, one might find oneself better equipped to correct the erroneous conclusions of those who bandy about flawed studies without knowing their error.  The world can always use a little more truth.

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments »

Trust in Government

Posted by PLaplace on April 22, 2010

Daniel Henninger has an excellent column in the Wall Street Journal today about a new Pew Research Center poll on the people’s trust in the government at both the national and state level.  Henninger likens the results to a “no confidence” vote in government, and I’m inclined to agree with him.  The whole article is well worth reading.

Digging deeper into the numbers though, I made an interesting discovery.  Throughout the long and continuing health care debate, many comparisons have been made to both LBJ’s Great Society programs and FDR’s New Deal with regards to their unrepealability.  While the Pew Data doesn’t go all the way back to FDR, it does include some statistics for LBJ.  In particular, during the “Kennedy/Johnson” administration, as Pew labels it, public trust in government averaged 68%.  For comparison, public trust in government during the first year of the Obama administration averages 22%.  One doesn’t need a background in statistics to see that this is significant.

What interests me about these numbers is that throughout the debate there has been the fear/hope, depending on which side of the aisle you’re on, that if the Democrats could just ram through health care reform, it would be impossible to repeal.  The evidence presented for this was almost always Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, all products of either the New Deal or the Great Society.  I would argue that the Pew’s polling data undermines this claim fairly severely.  With an electorate where almost four out of five people distrust the government, I don’t think repeal of the health care bill will be nearly as difficult a proposition as feared.  If the GOP can embrace its limited government principles, tap into this general distrust of  intrusive government, and tie it all together to health care, taxes, and spending, then they may have a strong, winning combination on their hands come November.

Posted in healthcare | 2 Comments »

A Ray of Light

Posted by PLaplace on April 10, 2010

Good news came my way today in the form of sensible statements by Obama administration officials.  In an interview with the Huffington Post (article here) Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and domestic policy adviser Melody Barnes had this to say:

“You’re correct, some universities are running up tuition increases far above the rate of inflation,” Duncan said. “But you see other universities doing some really creative things. You see some universities going to three-year programs, basically taking out of their expenses. You see other universities going to no-frills campuses.”

“And so students and parents are very, very smart,” he added. “They’re sophisticated. They’re going to vote with their feet, they’re going to go where they can get a great education but getting the good value along with that. And folks that don’t contain cost, I think, frankly are going to lose market share, lose competitive advantage.”

Though March brought a great deal of bad news on the governmental front, it is heartening to see that at least some members of the administration have a respect for and at least a basic understanding of market mechanisms. Before being appointed to the cabinet, Duncan was head of the Chicago public school system, and he has a history of support for school choice oriented reforms.  It’s a pity these ideas weren’t put forward when it came to health care, but seeing them applied to education will be of some consolation.  If Duncan can successfully push for this approach in the administration’s handling of education, then he will have my praise.

On another note, in the HuffPo article itself, the author takes a moment after the quotation to offer his position on education:  blur the line between different colleges, “open up the application process,” and “convince” colleges to “keep tuition low and recruit more students.”  I can’t help but be struck by this plan’s basic similarity to another newly minted government entitlement program.  I have a  fear this may well be the left’s solution to most every problem.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

The Individual Mandate and You

Posted by PLaplace on March 29, 2010

A fascinating tidbit came my way today (from more than one place) regarding the recently and regrettably passed health care bill.  Tucked away on page 33 of the recent Joint Committee on Taxation report on said bill comes this enticing nugget in regards to the penalty applied to those not maintaining “minimum essential coverage”:

“The penalty applies to any period the individual does not maintain minimum essential coverage and is determined monthly.  The penalty is assessed through the Code and accounted for as an additional amount of Federal tax owed.  However, it is not subject to the enforcement provisions of subtitle F of the Code. The use of liens and seizures otherwise authorized for collection of taxes does not apply to the collection of this penalty.  Non-compliance with the personal responsibility requirement to have health coverage is not subject to criminal or civil penalties under the Code and interest does not accrue for failure to pay such assessments in a timely manner.”

In short, though the bill does stipulate a tax of $695 or 2.5% of income, whichever is greater, on those without health insurance, there is no real mechanism in place for enforcement of this tax.  Many writers have already commented on how this is a possibly catastrophic flaw in the Obamacare machinery, for without any teeth the mandate will have no real effect.  If it has no effect people will not buy into the insurance risk pool, and as a result insurance premiums will soon begin an upward death spiral of sorts.

What interests me more is whether this omission was intentional, or simply a blunder.  While I always seek to credit ignorance over malfeasance, Morgen Richmond at makes the point (in the final paragraph) that this built in self-destruct provision could have been inserted with the intention of insuring the eventual death of the private insurance industry.  After all, it would most likely be easier to slip in a public option or single payer system somewhere down the line if the insurance industry had been jacking up prices in response to the last effort at “reform.”  This line of argument however presumes an incredible amount of attention to detail on the part of this bill’s architects, and while that is a possibility, my cursory observations of Washington lead me to believe it is highly unlikely.  Moreover, it seems that though this provision might make it easier to demonize the insurance industry, it would be even easier to point out how Democrats had set themselves up for failure in their own bill; a point which would provide a strong case against letting them do it again.  In that case we are left with ignorance on the part of the Democrats.  Given the size, scope, and general murkiness of the 2700 page bill itself, I find the explanation of ignorance highly plausible.

On a final note, for all of President Obama’s repetition that the mandate penalty is not a tax, even the Joint Committee on Taxation doesn’t buy it.  They title the section on the mandate as “Excise Tax on Individuals Without Essential Health Benefits Coverage.”

Posted in healthcare, taxes, Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Congress and the People

Posted by PLaplace on March 23, 2010

Reading on recently, I came across a link to this poll (2nd item, “Negative Words for Congress”) done by the Pew Research Center on the public’s impression of Congress.  The results are, to put it mildly, less than favorable.  While we all know that Congress’ approval ratings are perennially in the dumps, what fascinates me is people’s specific complaints.  In particular, the difference between what I would delineate as structural complaints (those having to do with the nature of Congress as a body) versus performance complaints (those having to do with Congressmen as legislators).

The structure of the poll was fairly simple; 749 people were asked to “provide the one word that best describes their current impressions of Congress.”  Given the wide variety of possible responses, the results were fairly scattered, but Pew published the list of the top 19 responses and their respective counts, totaling to 240 of the 749.  Splitting these into structural, performance, and neither, the totals become 111, 86, and 43, respectively.  Or, in more useful form, 46% of complaints are structural, 36% are performance, and 18% can’t be classified.

This reveals, I think, a fundamental misunderstanding of why Congress is built the way it is.  Congress is supposed to be “dysfunctional.”  It was designed under the idea that a legislative body so fractious would be incredibly difficult to operate without strong agreement across its members, and therefore (in theory) across the nation and the populace.  Hence, the rights of the minority would be protected, and the consent of the governed would be required.  That Congress sometimes can’t seem to get anything done is something we should be grateful for.  I for one sleep better when Congress isn’t in session.

Though the 46% number above is hardly a rigorous statistic, I feel it signals a certain ignorance about, or at least disagreement with, the basic foundations of our republic.   I can’t help but worry for the future of our country if 46% of us believe the problem is that Congress isn’t doing enough.

Notes on methodology:  For the above breakdown, I counted the following complaints as “Structural”: Dysfunctional, Inept, Incompetent, Ineffective, Sucks, Gridlock, Slow, Messy.  The following were “Performance”:  Corrupt, Self-serving, Lazy, Crooks, Disappointing, Idiots.  The rest I didn’t feel could easily be classified:  Confused, Bad, Poor, Lousy, Terrible.

Posted in Constitution | 2 Comments »

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