Posts Tagged 'Technology'

The Racket of Education

educationracket

The government doesn’t do a great job of educating our children, mostly because there is inherently some level of corruption, and people and organizations think they need (more) money to do the great work. So it all ends up gamed, and the blame diffused. There’s a lot of good, mind you. I’m not advocating tearing it all down. But we do need to learn to see through the B.S. and maintain accountability.

The Show versus Reality: For the most part teachers are evaluated primarily on observation and test scores. For the first few years performance is evaluated by an administrator who comes into into classroom to watch. It happens about two or three times a year, and they generally know when it’s going to happen because either the admin team wants to be sure the administrator is there on a day and time that makes sense for getting the evaluation done (not wasting his or her time) or simply to give the teacher a chance to shave up the dogs and ponies as a favor. I don’t mean to imply that all teachers get a pass all the time. The principle usually figures out who the good and bad ones are, but this process, which could be instrumental, is only incidental toward that end. It lets them put the right things on a checklist, and takes the pressure off of them to take significant action that would otherwise be warranted.

Standardized testing is a measure that’s semi-objective, at least on the surface, but is fraught with its own problems. One of the big ones is that many teachers will teach to what they believe the test is, rather than to the overall betterment of the student. It makes the teacher look better, and again removes the burden for anyone to take more difficult action.

The other concern is establishing what the standards should be that are tested. This process is inherently filled with bias, whether cultural, demographic, religious or otherwise. “Standard” by definition ignores the individual. How much of this makes sense is debated. One problem I see everywhere that I’ve spent years talking about in this blog is how programmed we all have become. We’re made to think and act in certain ways so as to more easily fit or conform to society and be good workers. Of course, this mindset comes from a time when we needed people to show up for work every day and be good, consistent, quiet workers who don’t upset the way things are done or challenge anyone or anything. To conform. These days we struggle because the world has moved on, and this deeply ingrained training no longer serves us. We can’t figure out what to do. Schools have been very slow to respond to these changes.

Principals and superintendents shave the dogs and ponies for their shows as well. Schools and districts are compelled by honors and accolades from various sources. From Lighthouse Schools to National Board Certification for teachers to publisher rankings to accrediting agencies, school leaders are compelled to score high. Competition is good and it makes us better, but the problem here is that schools are going through the motions. While accolades from publishers or high scores from accrediting agencies seem great, they’re merely snapshots. If you look good that day or that week, by teaching something that will impress them (in spite of what lesson really should be taught in the context of the course material), it creates a perception that’s not reality.

You may have heard of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which in many ways is an organization that tries to help. Teachers who receive NBPTS accreditation have done good work and have done a LOT of work. I’m sure many people have been through the process and found it to be incredibly effective and rewarding. However, some get the certification and the promised increase in pay only until the next time the state decides budgets need to be cut. The state got the appearance they were looking for and moved on.

It’s not just firms like NBPTS that cash in on education. Publishing companies write textbooks specifically for large districts or large states. We’re talking big money here. Once books are adopted, many firms have a leg up on their competition. Textbook adoption is usually a district level decision. I’m not going all the way down this rabbit hole here because this one topic is covered quite a bit elsewhere, and one would truly have to have her head in the sand to not have an inkling of how gamed it all is, but suffice to say that the values of a few in power impact the many in unusually profound ways given how few controls there are in place to manage the merits of texts. It reminds me of the phrase, “History is written by the conquerers.”

Software developers also benefit from this situation. Schools are eager to adopt a new program or system to manage grades or attendance or all sorts of student data with only a cursory review. Sure, they talk a good game: peer review, teacher and parent consultation, blah, blah, blah. What it often amounts to is a five or six person panel calling the shot for the whole district.

None of this compares to the accrediting boondoggle. These are for profit companies hired to manage…accreditations. Their agenda is to produce sales. Each time the accrediting agencies show up, the school puts on a nice show and blows a nice chunk of change on wooing them. They usually don’t even eat or spend time with students. Teachers, have you ever seen anyone from an accrediting agency so much as eating in the same cafeteria with the students?

Then there is the Cool Stuff Arms Race. Interactive white boards that barely can be kept working, or are so difficult to use they end up wasting more time than they are worth. Never mind that the school asks teachers to be careful about using it because the bulbs are expensive!  iPods (not pads, “pods,” the music players) were rolled out at many schools a number of years ago. Hardly used. Eventually dropped. Districts don’t seem to understand what it takes to feed and clothe these technological wonders they bring home. Each school seems to have its own handful of things, but the teachers are rarely consulted about what they need, and once they have (what they don’t need) they struggle with a less than fully trained IT staff to keep it running. It ends up being not worth the effort, and traditional means are often used, which in most cases work just fine anyway. It’s all up to whether the teacher is committed and good at it, not so much the technological pyrotechnics involved. Cool new stuff keeps getting added to look good to parents, the media, and accrediting agencies.

This is not to say it is all bad. Good schools do well overall. It’s just frustrating to watch the massive amounts of waste in the process. Waste that results in no money for things that matter. Like the teachers. They are treated like the same commodity pens and paper are in a lot of ways. We try to build a structure that forces them into a paradigm that some idealistic administrator visioned without really understanding that it’s nearly impossible to manage that type of human interaction so systemically. (The medical profession, by the way, suffers from the same thing.) Instead, we should be taking every possible step to build the competency of the teachers, and then paying them accordingly so that once they become brilliant and skilled, they will actually want to remain in the profession, rather than going out to get a real job where they can earn a professional living.

Nobody wants to pay more taxes, and it really shouldn’t take more, but the reality is it probably will. Government is horribly inefficient, but it’s the best thing we have. Until people get serious about (first) understanding what education is needed for kids and then (second) demanding it, I doubt things will change significantly anytime soon.

Meanwhile, how do you know if your kids’ teachers are doing a good job and the district is a good one? You can start by asking your kids and watching what’s going on with their scores on standardized tests. Look deeper. Ask your kids’ teachers what the kids are supposed to learn and ask the kids about those topics. Talk to your kids about the content of their courses. If you’re kids’ teachers are worth their pay, they’ll be glad you did. There’s no substitute for being an involved parent. Not an overbearing, annoying one. But one whose head is in the game paying attention, and talking with the teachers.

Some take this to the extreme of homeschooling. In some situations this may be a viable alternative, and I absolutely applaud folks who can do it, but I expect there are precious few qualified to teach their kids AP subjects in multiple disciplines. Private schooling can be a good answer answer. Certainly many of the inefficiencies and half-baked decisions are minimized, not to mention the elimination of the grindingly slow pace of any kind of change in any governmental body such as eduction. The good private schools can’t game their reputations as easily because they are accountable for what happens to the kids once they leave because they are populated by kids whose parents have resources and talk to each other in the community, not to mention many of them knowing themselves from experience what a good education looks like. But that’s the elite. Below that, it’s still going to require diligent parenting to ensure success.

Hands on. No escaping that. Look past the BS for reality.

 

 

The Marketing Drug

marketpharmasl

Every time I see my dentist he tries to sell me stuff. Various services they provide that will in some way (they claim) improve my life by addressing some shortcoming or concern taking place in my mouth. I never knew my mouth had so many problems!

I’m all for selling people on things that can help them take care, even if they are merely for pleasure or aesthetics (vanity), but like everything else, there can be a tipping point where we sometimes take it too far, or are too manipulative.

It reminds me of how food is marketed. The marketing has become so powerful that some of the people being hurt actually are eager for it to continue. This creates a cultural feedback loop, where some aspire to have these respected marketing jobs, to do more marketing of similar items. It creates a society where the owners and leaders of these companies are celebrated as risk-taking, brave businesspeople, not as the modern robber barons that they’ve become.

The cultural feedback loop can’t be denied. The NAACP, which represents a population that is disproportionately impacted by the health costs these products create is actually allied with marketers in the fight to sell ever more and bigger portions to its constituents.

The crime continues because the money taken by corporations that change our culture is used to fund campaigns that conflate the essential concept of ‘freedom’ with the not-clearly-articulated ‘right’ to respond to marketing and consume stuff in quantities that would have been considered literally insane just three generations ago. And we like it.

[I’ll write the previous paragraph’s point again here to be clear: we’ve decided that consumers ought to have the right be manipulated by marketers. So manipulated that we sacrifice our long-term health in the face of its power.]

We ban accounting that misleads, and we don’t let engineers build bridges that endanger travelers. We monitor effluent for chemicals that can kill us as well. There’s no reason in the world that market-share-fueled marketing ought to be celebrated merely because we enjoy the short-term effects it creates in the moment. Every profession we respect has limits created and enforced by society. These rules make it more likely we don’t race to the bottom as we cut those corners or maximize our profits.

The question is this: are you responsible for the power in your hands? If so, then we need to own the results of our work. If not, someone else needs to step in before it’s too late. No sustainable system can grant power without responsibility.

Just because marketing works doesn’t mean we have an obligation to do it. And if we’re too greedy to stop on our own, then yes, we should be stopped.

And don’t even get me started on the marketing of drugs. The pharmaceutical complex is as out of control as anything humanity has ever witnessed. It’s capitalism, and the battle is to win. At all costs.

 

Canned

cannedWhen our desire and need for simplicity and efficiency replaces authentic human interaction we betray ourselves. Of course nobody is fooled. That’s not even the question. The perfunctory gestures of a polite society help connote a mood of civility. But in order to work, we must care enough to make them authentically.

Of course, it is far better for both parties to engage genuinely. Without that it all races to the zero of noise in the background that, given how busy we all are, isn’t only not needed, but actually becomes a nuisance. And transitions to a burden: “do I have to acknowledge these people?” Maybe you could write a subroutine for it. Let the computers talk to each other!

It’s no wonder we feel more alone than ever, even though we have far more input than ever.

Accuracy Versus Precision

People conflate these two concepts too much. The two words are used almost synonymously.

“That’s exactly what I’m talking about” is a phrase that may mean someone agrees with you strongly, or it could merely mean you are on point, but not in agreement. It’s not a very precise way to communicate because they have distinctly different meanings.

Accuracy connotes correctness. Precision speaks only to the level of detail. It is possible to be very precise, yet inaccurate. This is easily shown through looking at the value of π (pi), the numerical value for the ratio of the circumference of a circle relative to its diameter. We commonly see pi depicted as 3.14. This is accurate, and reasonably precise. We know in the background it is an irrational number; one that can’t be resolved into a fraction. It starts with 3.14159265358979 and continues forever in a non-repeating fashion, but 3.14 is precise enough for most work.

Here are a few different possible depictions of pi and how they relate to the two concepts.

Value                    Accuracy                     Precision
314                           No                                 No
3.8545841                No                                 Yes
3.1                            Yes                                No
3.141592653            Yes                                Yes

 

You possibly learned about scientific notation in school as a way to depict large numbers with relatively few digits. Many students missed one of the underlying points that it also affords an ability to be very accurate without always having to be precise. If I say, “50,000 people were at the concert” do I really mean it was exactly 50,000 people? Of course not. I’m not being precise, but I am (presumably) accurate.

So, to more “accurately” convey what I really mean, I could write that number using scientific notation. It might look like this. 50 x 10^3 people were at the concert. This means 50,xxx people were at the concert. Any number from 50,000 to 50,999 is implied. Accurate, but not precise. If I believe the number is in the range of 50,500 to 50,599, I could write it as 505 x 10^2.

Yeah, whatever. We break all sorts of rigorous rules in communication. What really matters is that we are able to communicate. We usually do okay, but there can be enough slop in it that things go wrong sometimes. We are linguistic beings who count on our linguistic interpretations to define every conscious thought. When we aren’t precise enough in what we communicate, we give rise to unpredictable results.

Accuracy is generally the more highly regarded of the two qualities, but precision may have the most intrinsic value because it is repeatable.

targetaccuracy

The quote, “it’s better to be lucky than good” may apply here. But when we throw luck out the window and focus more on our ability to accomplish something and get where we want/need to go, precision, or shall I say, consistency, is a characteristic we can use in the process. Otherwise it feels more like a game of chance, which is very difficult to manage.

One of the useful characteristics of religion, or any strongly held belief system, is that it tends to make those people more predictable, if not obedient. At a practical level it’s actually a pretty vital part of making our society work.

 

 

Probability: Facts, Statistics, and Reality

What is reality? Statistics are based on facts. We can’t deny or ignore them. But they aren’t always factual, or even meaningful.

I am a statistic and so are you. I drive a car. I eat. I buy things. I have an education. I don’t smoke. I was born at a place and time. I am programmed by my surroundings and DNA.

We use prior facts and statistics to reason with uncertainty, to get at probability, but we suck at it. In general we are really, really, staggeringly incompetent at processing all but the simplest statistical data in ways that produce meaningfully accurate evaluations. This is partly because it is much more difficult than it appears on the surface. We aren’t rigorous enough. But it’s also because our intuitive way of understanding complex relationships is…well…it’s too simplistic.

A Quick Lesson in Photography (It’s relevant, run with me)
In photography one learns about the relationship between the glass of a lens, the distance to the subject, and the focal point, which is where the image passing through the curved glass is in focus. The curvature, or varied thickness of the glass, bends light. Distorts it, providing a means to get a reasonably coherent image on to a sensor (without this, all light from all angles will hit the sensor, producing nothing more than a gray blur).

BasicLens

So a lens allows us to pick an area to capture, just like the position of your eye picks an area of the overall scene to project onto your retina through its lens (your brain further filters this into what it chooses to focus on). The focal point is where the image comes into focus after passing through the lens. The focal length is the focal point’s distance from the lens.

Modulating the distance between the lens and the subject changes focal point.

FocalPoint

In short, there is a relationship between the shape of the lens, the distance to the subject, and the distance where light reflecting off of that subject that passes through the lens will come into focus. Five minutes playing with a magnifying glass gives one an intuitive understanding of this. Note: the eye changes focal length by changing the shape of the lens, whereas a camera does it changing the distance between two (or more) lenses. All of these ingredients, and others to follow below, interact with one another to vary the result.

Simple? Well, it’s not that simple. There is more. (Hang in there.)

In around 1000 A.D., Arabic physicist, Ibn el-Haitam penned the first known accurate and comprehensive description of how light is refracted by shaped glass. This led to the development of a myriad of mechanical devices that provided augmentation for human vision. Through a combination of lenses, we can “zoom in” on specific parts of a scene, bringing things far away closer to us for better examination.

ZoomMicroscope

In Astronomy, however, the concept of “zooming in” isn’t as significant, even though it would be cool if we could zoom way in to distant objects. At those great distances our earthly lens ratios don’t accomplish much. And we can’t change the ratios too much due to diffraction. Diffraction, or the scattering effect of light, always exists when light passes through or around something, or is reflected. Diffraction essentially acts to defocus the image, which means that as the magnification or zoom increases, the sharpness and clarity of the image breaks down. This defocusing is inversely proportional to the diameter of the lens, not to mention the optical quality, but is always an issue. It’s one reason why the best telescopes have a large diameter.

DiffractionDiagram

DiffractionImages

Larger f numbers indicate smaller openings. Intuitively one can see that zooming in to any of these images would cause an increased breakdown in apparent focus.

 

The other reason for wider lenses is because they are inherently able to gather more light, which is pretty important for looking at far away stellar objects, some of which are so faint they cannot be seen by human eyes or conventional optics.

StarsTelescopeLightGathering

 

Gathering more light is also useful in earthbound photography. More light reaching the sensor allows it to record the scene quicker, which makes it easier to freeze the motion of moving images. Aesthetically this may or may not be desired. Note how these different capture speeds reflect different interpretations of “reality.”

WaterfallShutterSpeed

As capture speed slows, the motion of the water is revealed in different ways. The image on the left shows the exact position at an instant in time. The rightmost image shows the average position across a period of time.

PinwheelShutterSpeed

The actual speed of the pinwheel was the same in all instances.

 

Wider lenses come at a cost beyond the expense of manufacturing them. As we let more light in, and reduce diffraction, we simultaneously narrow the range of distances from the source to the camera that will appear in focus because light is hitting the sensor from wider angles off dead center.

BasicDOFDiagram

 

Photographers refer to the range of distances that will appear in focus at the focal point as “depth of field.” With larger apertures and lenses more precision in focusing is required, which is generally manageable, but the impact it has on the resulting photograph can be significant.

AperturDOFDiagram

 

More or less of it my be desired, depending upon the look one wants. Like speed, the depth of focus also serves to depict different views of “reality.”

DOFBulbs

DOFGirlBoy

 

It is a very useful consideration for pulling the attention of the observer to a specific part of an image.

DOFExample1

DOFBass

One can look broadly at an image and not see the distortions in the domains of time and clarity, but careful examination will reveal them. They can’t help but be there. We can capture a scene in a way that emphasizes or de-emphasizes certain of those, but in the immortal words of Scotty, “You can’t defy the laws of physics.”

We trust what we see with our eyes, too much. No doubt the reader has now surmised there is a matrix of trade-offs in what we “see” when we capture an image based on these parameters. Photographers make choices, intentionally and unintentionally, that affect the outcome. Observers usually take the photo at face value, with no regard for the actual reality of the scene, instead letting the photo determine the reality we believe existed in the moment.


 

Now, apply that same thinking to statistics and one can begin to see why it is so commonly held that statistics can be used to support nearly any conclusion. Unfortunately what often happens is that they are used too generally. Reputable (*) sources say things like…

  • 10% of our brains are used
  • 50% of marriages end in divorce
  • we share 99% of the genetic code
  • left handers die an average of 9 years younger than right handers
  • 18% of social media users use snapchat
  • 77 cent wage gap between women and men
  • 20% of women are sexually assaulted before they leave college
  • 0.0024% of deaths are from electrocution
  • men think about sex every seven seconds
  • The religion of Islam is growing at a rate of 2.13% per year
  • spousal abuse skyrockets on Super Bowl Sunday
  • The average household income in the U.S. is $70,000, or…
  • Any of the stats that show that the top X% earn [staggeringly large number]%
  • 80% of convicted sex offenders repeat the crime
  • 50% of 18-24 year-olds go on Facebook when they wake up
  • 30.5% of all desktop search traffic between 6/10/16 and 7/7/16 came from searches with the term “pokemon” in them
  • (my personal favorite – LOL) 90% of statistics can be used to say anything 50% of the time

There are so many more I could use: Crime Rates, School Quality, Unemployment, Mortality, Cost of Living, Obesity, Literacy, Birth Rate, Gun Control, Teen Pregnancy, on and on…

They are all generally accepted as true, yet none are precise across the board (stay tuned for a future blog post delving into the difference between precision and accuracy). There are nuances in specific ages, cultures, geography, time, education, temperament, weather, situations, and any of dozens of other variables that come into play. They are generalizations. Averages. Broad snapshots, or maybe narrow ones. Very useful as shortcuts to learning and not basing too much on mere assumptions, but also misleading in some ways. Many sound plausible. Some we believe. Some we would question. Some are subject to varied interpretations. Some are patently false. I’m not just referring to the inevitable weird exceptions that are in the noise of any statistical model. Noise is random. I’m talking about correlatable things with some significance that are missed, ignored, or misinterpreted.

For instance, Psychology Today based an article on the 10% of our brains get used statistic. We’re easy prey for this because we’ve been hearing variations on that number most of our lives. None of them account for what the data really says, which is that a small portion of our brains are used at any given moment, in a given activity, or for a given purpose. Other activities and functions require other parts of our brains to be used. The real number is significantly higher than 10% when all of this is factored in.

I can, to some extent, debunk every one of the above listed items with rigorous research, but then who says my facts are really correct? More significantly, is the interpretation of the data correct? For instance, the divorce rate of 50% seems pretty concrete. We have records to prove it, so there is no questioning the data, right?

If that’s the case, then why are the quoted stats sometimes so “approximate?” The APA website says “40 to 50%.” That’s a massive difference for something that seems so concrete. Further, we all seem to believe it, or do we? We accept it. But…most of us get married anyway!!! If you knew that you had a 50% chance of getting struck by a bus while crossing a street, would you dare to cross in spite of it? A little thinking and reading quickly leads us to realize there are tons of potential nuances to a statistic like this. So many it isn’t practical to try to list them all.

But there are also fundamental issues that skew the data. How is it calculated in the first place? Often the number is reached by simply comparing divorce filings to marriages over a given span of time. Make sense? It does on the surface, but it doesn’t necessarily tell us much because over time things change. Okay, well, what if we compare divorce and marriage rates in a given year? That’s a pretty short span of time and would seem to be a suitable snapshot. So, let me get this right…you want to add up all of the divorces in a year, no matter how many years all of those people have been married, with no consideration to when they were married or under what circumstances, and compare them to marriages this year? Doesn’t really work. As with photography, anytime you capture something moving in a static “image” or focus on a part of it, you’re forced to make decisions about how to present it to meaningfully convey the result. If anything, we should be comparing all people who are currently married to those getting divorces in a year, but it’s almost never done that way.

Yet we buy in. We’ve all heard the statistic so many times that it rings true to us, to the extent that nowadays any data showing something different would be called into question. We have become biased, mostly (in this case) by our own inability to effectively pick the data to look at, or in interpreting what it really means. And yet most of us decide to roll the dice and get married anyway.

We often apply statistics to provide probabilities about how the future will turn out. Seems simple enough. If 20% of children outgrow a childhood allergy to peanuts, then you could assume your peanut allergic child has a 20% chance of doing the same. It’s also easy to see there could be many subsets that could introduce other variables. Is the percentage the same across race? How about across a range of medical treatments or diets or subtle variations in DNA? That’s just scratching the surface – the basics.

Consider this test. Two groups of people engage in a coin flipping exercise. Group A looks for the pattern H-T-T (Heads, Tails, Tails), and Group B looks for the pattern H-T-H (Heads, Tails, Heads). Each member of each group records how many coin tosses it takes before the desired pattern occurs. The two groups then average their respective results. Do you think the average number of tosses between the groups will be the same, or will one of them happen sooner on average? (Don’t worry, most people, even very smart ones, get this wrong.)

It turns out it’s statistically provable that the average number of tosses to reach the pattern H-T-H is 10, while the average number to reach H-T-T is only 8. How could this be? It butts up against our common sense on the matter. If anything we would think that H-T-H would be easier to create, since it overlaps itself. Throw a T between any two occurrences of H, and viola!

But think about what happens the first time you get an H followed by a T. At that point, either of the two results can now occur.

Group A: you’re looking for H-T-H, and you’ve seen H-T for the first time. If the next toss is H, you’re done. If it’s T, you’re back to square one: since the last two tosses were T-T you now need the full H-T-H.

Group B: you’re looking for H-T-T, and you’ve seen H-T for the first time. If the next toss is T, you’re done. If it’s H, this is clearly a setback; however, it’s a minor one since you now have the H and only need -T-T. If the next toss is H, this makes your situation no worse, whereas T makes it better, and so on. Even when you lose you’re 1/3 of the way to winning.

Put another way, in Group B, the first H that you see takes you 1/3 of the way, and from that point on you never have to start from scratch. This is not true in Group A, where a H-T-T erases all progress you’ve made.

People write articles and make declarations every day who do not understand these types of relationships. We read them, and we usually believe them so long as they sound credible (often through citing studies and statistics) and/or match sufficiently with our common sense or already held beliefs.

Bipolar Disorder affects 3% to 5% of the population according to Gary Sachs, director of the Bipolar Clinic at Massachusetts General Hospital. It affects 2.6% of the population over 18 years old according to WebMD. The U.S. National Library of Medicine has been summarized as saying that it occurs more in women. The DBSA (Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance) say it occurs equally in women and men, but women tend to cycle faster. Closer examination, however, reveals that Bipolar II (a predominance on the depressive side) occurs more in women. These are basic examples of statistics being in general agreement, but presented in ways that show differences.

What about clinical testing? What if there is a test that is 99% accurate. When it returns positive, you could assume that there is a 99% chance the positive result is true, no?

Two problems…

  1. I have pointed out that there is almost always a higher level of detail or granularity that can be considered to further classify and characterize the risks of different individuals.
  2. It also depends on how common or rare the condition is. Suppose the condition affects 1 of every 10,000 people. If we sample a million subjects, the test will get the 100 who do have the condition right 99% of the time. 99 of them will test positive. Amongst the 999,900 who do not have the condition, the test will get it right 99% of the time, which means it will improperly show that 9,999 of them have the condition, when in fact only about 99 of them really do. So, less than 1% of the people who test positive actually have the condition!

Consider the case of Sally Clark. She was convicted of murdering her two male children, one of which died in 1996, and the other in 1997. Defense claimed it was likely SIDS that took them, but the prosecution, through expert witnesses, won, in part by showing that there was only a 1 in 73,000,000 chance that SIDS would affect two children in a single household.

Wrong, in two ways.

  1. The calculation was faulty. It was based on the probability of SIDS affecting a child of affluent non-smoking parents being 1 in 8,543, so therefor the odds of two children suffering from it are 1 in 73,000,000 (8,543 x 8,543). But this doesn’t allow for the fact that we don’t completely understand what causes SIDS. There are clearly unknown environmental and/or biological (hereditary) factors. It’s quite likely that if a child dies from SIDS that some of these unknown factors are in play, and may increase the likelihood of it affecting other children by a factor of 5 to 10.
  2. Even if 1 in 73,000,000 is correct, the statistical analysis of murder suffers from the same flaw as the medical example above. There are two parts to the explanation that must be considered independently. 1) That Sally was innocent – which is likely considering most mothers don’t murder two children – and she suffered an incredibly unlikely event. 2) She is guilty, which is unlikely, but if she were trying to kill them, she succeeded.

Figuring that out statistically is much more complicated, and in fact there are significant factors that could have and should have been considered from the get-go, such as the details that boys are more likely than girls to suffer from SIDS. She was eventually released from prison after the second appeal, which more carefully broke down the statistical odds of a double murder to between 4.5:1 and 9:1. Still likely, but hardly conclusive enough for a life sentence based on weak circumstantial evidence.

We can be pretty good at questioning conclusions from people who we believe are unlikely to have competence in a particular area. If the subject matter expert of the court had tried to present arguments about diagnosing an automotive problem, no doubt there would be suspicions. But this expert was in the field, and presumed to understand the data upon which he was drawing conclusions. Yet he got it way wrong, and nobody questioned it.

Sally, after spending a few years in prison as a convicted murderer of her two children (probably not the most enjoyable of prison stays, as far as prison stays go), died of an alcohol overdose a few years later. Her husband said she was never the same after that experience. There is more nuance and information on this story, but the takeaway here is that facts and statistics as used severely mischaracterized the likelihood of a natural death.

Data and stats should be subject to much more scrutiny than they commonly are. But we need them. We need the shortcuts, assumptions, and predictions they provide. It’s a shame we so often get it wrong, because it skews our perceptions and causes faulty decisions. But even where the data and conclusions are relatively good, which as laypeople we often have no way of knowing for sure, we often fail to see into the exceptions.

A whole pile of data can suggest that something is generally true, yet in certain circumstances it isn’t. We don’t or can’t always quantify those circumstances, but we know they exist. Marriage is an example where there appears to be a lot of opportunity. Can we study a detailed matrix of characteristics that will lead us toward better outcomes based on empirical results? I suggest that the big dating sites have an opportunity to do this with the big data they could be collecting. Employers already do it to some extent.

We can do better and learn more, but until then, you have to ask…

What about the exceptions? Now you have to decide. Do you trust what the data is telling you? It’s a lot more tempting to trust statistics at face value when they appear to align with what you already believe. But are you really looking at it the right way? Does it really apply to you, in your unique circumstances?

Is it a big decision? How does the upside balance with the downside, and how does that impact how you think about the stats? Here is where the dreaded lizard brain of fear steps in. We look at it through the filter of what we are in and interpret the facts accordingly, or by finding another’s interpretation that resonates through us, in some cases by stimulating a fear we already have. Fear is so powerful. It can even make us interpret unmitigated facts in a misleading way.

Sometimes you have to trust yourself. Nobody ever got anywhere important through only listening to others, and that includes the stats, the so called experts, the masses, and the common sense. That stuff is useful up to a point, but somewhere along the journey you have to pave your own way, lest you become a different kind of statistic: the person who is eminently forgettable (ironic oxymoron), not happy or satisfied.

Against All Odds

Invariably someone comes along who defies what others believe. The journey that brought them there can later be quantified. We just need the right lens and some effort and skill to be able to see it. It’s much easier, however, to divine it as mysterious or destiny. We look on from the outside with wonder, not always recognizing there is a quantifiable method to the madness. We tranquilize ourselves with belief that the person was lucky, or blessed.

Few achieve the big goal, or true happiness from solely following others, or common sense. Each of those success stories has a foundation of paving one’s own way.

So much of the past five years of this blog has been about the willingness to make a leap of faith. Not in some external force, but in yourself. As I continue to wrap things up and finish off all of the work that has been started, I still find I am frustrated and even hurt by how little progress has been made. I marvel at those who do it better than me, and hurt for those who continue to find excuses to wallow in the status quo. That’s not what life is about. But then, who am I to say? I’m just a guy with a camera and a blog.

Do not put your faith in what statistics say until you have carefully considered what they do not say. ~William W. Watt

 

(*) – I can substantiate every claim and example used here, along with my rebuttals, if necessary (just ask). I chose not to burden the reader with too many links and wild good chases in the interest of focusing on the heart of the message.

 

Do We Have to Lie in that Bed?

CaveiPadIt would be nice if we could figure out how to use our human ability to reason to overcome the emotional characteristics of our species that are evolved adaptations for a lifestyle of consuming and reproducing.

Our species started in an environment much different than the one we currently inhabit. The survival of any individual proto-human was something that wasn’t certain on a day-to-day basis; food was scarce, predators were many, writing and language weren’t invented yet (so the formation of social groups had to be done by much cruder methods), and unchecked growth wasn’t nearly the problem it is today.

Because of our ability to dramatically shape the environment in which we live — on a timescale much shorter than evolution can respond to, no less —  the environment that shaped us is no longer the environment in which we live. On a daily basis, we’re incredibly safe, there’s plentiful food for (almost) everyone, we have the means to communicate abstractly to form social groups, and the space and resources available to us will no longer support unchecked, exponential growth. The adaptations that we carry that made us fit to consume and reproduce then no longer serve us now. 

However, we still have the instincts that made our ancestors fit for their environment. Fear, anxiety, and the fight-or-flight response still haunt us in situations where they’re hardly appropriate (giving an important business presentation is hardly as dramatic of an issue as potentially getting mauled by a predator that’s just ten feet away). Over-eating at individual meals still happens, despite the fact that food is generally plentiful enough that we don’t need to stock up between rare opportunities. We still obsess over social acceptance, despite the fact that we’re nowhere near as reliant on our immediate social groups for survival as we were in the past.

All of these ill-suited behaviors cause a tremendous amount of unneccessary suffering. Consuming and reproducing are no longer particularly appropriate behaviors, yet the sophisticated industrial machine knows just how to tap into our evolutionary insecurities (via advertising) to be able to convince us to worry about both.

Having a reliable way to reason ourselves off of the evolutionary path of least resistance would improve our collective lives immensely — we could combat the unjustified anxiety many experience daily, we could lead fulfilling lives without succumbing  to the immediate whims of society, we could avoid the problems associated with over-consumption and over-reproduction — the list goes on and on.

Happiness, Part xx4, The Numbing

Numbing

Happiness is startlingly elusive sometimes.

One of our techniques for achieving happiness is avoiding potentially painful or at least threatening situations, or to even run away from them. It certainly works to some degree. When we change the environment, and find ways to mask or otherwise distract from the symptoms, the load lifts and we feel more free to be happy. We fill up our lives with people and things that do this. But in some areas in some ways we also know, down deep inside, it isn’t really real. It’s a perception worked to create for ourselves. Contrived.

This is one of the traps of alcohol. It’s good at masking pain, but oh so temporary, and it comes with very disruptive side effects. As is the case with many drugs. But there are drugs that provide an answer.

Clinically depressed people are prescribed drugs. Bi-polar disorder is treatable with drugs. The symptoms can be taken almost completely away. The problem is, those individuals often believe that the happy, medicated version of themselves isn’t really them. One could argue it’s them revealed through the correction of some chemical imbalance that messes it up, but those arguments ultimately suffer from the logical fallacy that you can’t introduce something artificial and believe that what it produces is more real than not having it introduced. After a time the underlying nagging of the lie robs them of the idealistic visions of joy, and it becomes harder to trust one’s identity, or to engage in intimately satisfying ways. In some cases it makes it very difficult to stay on the drugs. In one of the more cruel jokes on a large portion of humanity, we refuse to be happy even when we are actually, clinically and controllably happy.

Drugs do provide a good solution for many, but the dark corners of our humanity can rise to the occasion no matter how good we have it.


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