Telling Lies #3: Truncated Scale

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Which brand has the higher approval rating?  Brand X or Brand Y?

There is no difference is there?  Is there not?

When it comes to brand marketing a true believer will always find a difference.  It’s just a simple matter of manipulating the statistics.  Take the same data, and present it in a more compelling way.  Just truncate the axis and show the difference instead of the absolute scores.  Then you get this graph:

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Woah, Brand X has a way higher approval rating than Brand Y.  It must be 3 times higher!  Now that’s a good result.

Note to art department:  Just don’t bother with those pesky numbers down the left hand side.  Get rid of them entirely.  A picture paints a thousand words.

Telling Lies #2: Conflation

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Black Prisoners outnumber Whtes 4 to 1

You have heard it every time you have heard a US politician up for election.  Being tough on crime gets you elected.  So forget the truth, it’s time for conflation!

Conflation is when you take data from different sources and blend them into a statement that appears, on the surface to be correct.  It seems right.  Who’s going to challenge it?  And if anyone tries to challenge it just bury them in statistics.

So the US politician will wade into the debate saying that “we need to get tough on repeat offenders” and nobody will argue with that.

Then they say “our jails are overflowing with repeat offenders” and nobody will argue with that.  The prisons of the USA are the product of the plea bargain system where you throw the book at an offender and have them plead to a misdemeanor and let them walk, first time out.  So the prisons ARE overflowing with repeat offenders.

Then they move into conflation.  “Men of colour are proportionally the majority prisoners in our jails”.  The audience nods.  The audience assumes the candidate just said “Most of the prisoners are black”.  But he didn’t.

He took a couple of different statistics and sort of blended them together into a statement that, while not an outright lie, is intended to misdirect you.

THIS IS THE BORING BIT THAT YOU WILL NOT WANT TO READ:

In the USA the Black people make up about 13% of the population.  Black people make up about 37% of the prison population.  Black people have an incarceration rate 4 times higher than white people in the USA.

So how can this political candidate say 37% is the majority?

Well, he kept the word “proportionally”.  In long worded terms he is saying that if you took 10,000 Black men and 10,000 white men and 10,000 Hispanic men and filled a prison from these 30,000 men you would find that 45 prisonners are white, 83 are hispanic and 231 are black.  So man for man, in a prison population of 359 people 64% would be black.  If the USA poplation was divided equally by the 3 races, which it is not.

This is the kind of maths that easily sells the public on harsh sentencing and larger prisons.  Especially when the public are white voters.  These are the kind of conflated statistics that sound very real.  They just seem to be right.  Every time you turn on the TV and see inside a prison what do you see?  A LOT of black folks.

This same process of conflating different statistical sets can be used to confuse any argument.  It is a very popular tool with populist politicians who tend to represent more marginalised and less educated people in society.  If you just lost your job to a Romanian immigrant you WANT to believe that 80% of Romanians are here illegally.  You WANT to believe that they are criminals.  So when someone hands you those statistics on a plate you eat them up.

If you live in a small rural village in the West of Ireland and you hear that 200 Syrian refugees are arriving next week to live in the closed hotel what is your first assumption.  Do you believe that 50% of the Syrian adults have 3rd level education?  Or do you believe that 10% of the young males have been radicalised by Islamic fundamentalists?  I can conflate statistical sets to sell either side.  But you, as a reader, which will you consume?

It is a technique of marketing also.  Nowhere better than in marketing of weight loss products.  How do you get fat?  By eating lots of fat.  So if you cut fat out of your diet you will lose fat!  Here is our sugar, it is 100% fat free.  They have conflated the fat on your waist with the fat in your diet.  Which is a bit like saying that bats can fly, so watch out for flying baseball bats.

How can you spot conflation?

A trick is to tell yourself to look for the kid in the china store.  You know the kid who went wild and broke all the china?  Seems correct?

It was a Bull in a china shop.  And it was a kid in a candy store.

One a metaphor for a pending disaster, the other for unbridled excitement.

Conflate them and suddenly you have a kid in juvenile court facing a charge of vandalism.

 

Meaningless Statistic

In the first 9 months of 2015 my site has received 3043 views.
This represents 13% growth on the full year statistics in 2014.
On a month by month basis visits to my site have risen by 50%.
This represents 338 views on my site each month.

Statistics such as these are meaningless.
It might be different if I were doing this for money, but I am not.
So I don’t care if I get 1,000 or 10,000 views on my site every month or week or day.

All I care about is you, the person who is reading these words now.
I hope you enjoy what I am doing.
If I can enrich a moment for a single person my effort will have been worthwhile.
So….. how are you today?

Fact or Anecdote?

How the Religious Right use Anecdotes to undermine scientific argument.

When it comes to debating issues there are two broad strategies you can employ.

  1. Use facts to prove your case.
  2. Tell a good story.

An anecdote is simply a good story, usually one that is personalised to make it highly emotional.  In many cases those who use anecdotes present them as pseudo-facts and call them by scientific sounding terms such as “anecdotal evidence”.

The human brain is programmed to relate to stories.  Behavioural economists have demonstrated how humans default to “type 1” and struggle with the “type 2” thinking that is required to correctly assess complex quantitative data (Thinking, Fast & Slow.  Daniel Kahneman, 2011).

Anecdotes play to our Type 1 thinking.  We can place ourselves in the story and empathise with a situation far more easily than we can digest a plethora of bland numbers.  Politicians have long known this.  Former US Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill, famously told us that “all politics is local”.

Many will remember how John McCain and Sarah Palin latched onto “Joe the Plumber” as the poster boy for Republican Party credentials to serve small business.  Tony Blair led the British Labour Party to power after years in the wilderness by targeting the middle ground swing voter that they called “Mondeo Man” after the Ford car so favoured by sales teams in the UK.

Many technical professionals argue with hard facts, detailed statistics, “boring” numbers.  They bog their audience (and interviewers) down in Type 2 diatribes.  If they are in an argument with an anecdotist they will lose.  One of my favourite lines in debate, delivered by an Anecdotist to a Statistician;

Ah sure you can prove anything with statistics, I want to talk about the facts.”

The very best technical experts know that they must convert their cold, hard, impersonal statistics into a warm, engaging, human story.  This is the realm of the “Insights” professional.  It is something I call #tainment such as teachers putting the fun in teaching and making it Edutainment!

 

What has all this to do with Religion?

One of the primary roles of the religious community is to take a long (very long) view of the impacts that changes have on society, societal mores, community health and general spiritual wellbeing.  This position serves a vital role in counterbalancing short term profit motivated interests.  The various churches will always drag their heels on rapid change.  Experience has shown that it takes many years to understand the full impact of a change, and their preference is to delay and postpone rather than move and regret.

HPV vaccination is a perfect illustration of this position, as it is an area fraught with ethical issues.  These are neatly summed up in this quote from Patrick Hayes MD, a Catholic Doctor.  It was originally published in Health magazine, and is also available online here:  http://www.catholic.org/news/health/story.php?id=51576

Dr. Hayes says “ …as HPV is a sexually transmitted disease (STD), the success of a ‘medicine’ that appears to remove the consequences of sin, by preventing genital warts and cervical cancer in persons who have one or multiple sexual partners who have had multiple sexual partners, leaves persons of faith and chastity questioning the motives and wisdom of governments, pharmaceutical companies and doctors.”

He also says “The vaccination should not be mandated, because in the absence of sexual contact, unvaccinated students pose no threat to others. “

Overall Dr. Hayes writes a fair and balanced piece.  The latter statement is straight out of the Catholic playbook.  Let’s face it, in the absence of sexual contact girls will never get pregnant.  This is the Catholic position on the use of contraception!

The Irish Government introduced a vaccination programme for schoolgirls from age 12/13 (first year in secondary school) using Gardasil, the HPV vaccine developed by Merck.

We are now seeing the anecdotal machine getting into gear.  Ireland is a backwater, but an important one for religious issues.  If Ireland takes a backward step on HPV vaccination this sets a precedent for pressure groups in the USA who are opposed to vaccination.  They are prepared to invest money and resources into Ireland to see such an outcome.

Some of these groups are opposed on religious grounds, others are opposed to “big government” setting up mandatory healthcare.  They all prey on the concerns of parents for the health of their children.

Their key arguments are:

  1. Here is a girl (anecdotal evidence 1) who became ill or died after receiving the vaccine.  If you give the vaccine to your daughter she will become ill or die.
  2. Pharmaceutical companies know this is a dangerous poison, but they are making big profits on it, so they are covering up the facts (conspiracy theory 1)
  3. Doctors involved in the clinical trials were bribed by the Pharmaceutical company to falsify the results (conspiracy theory 2). Here is a case of such a doctor (anecdotal evidence 2)
  4. We have given the pharmaceutical company all the information and they have ignored it (anecdote 3: the cold hearted corporate machine)
  5. The FDA (local medical approvals board) were fed misinformation on this drug by the pharma company (ergo they are incompetent fools) and certain key officials were given payoffs in the form of money or business trips or jobs (ergo they are corrupt). The bottom line is that you can’t trust government.

Let’s address these arguments one at a time:

  1. Any government sponsored vaccine must pass through a rigorous testing and selection process.  It must go through extensive and detailed clinical trials.  Every drug or vaccine carries side effects and risks.  These are detailed and quantified as part of the trials process.

In statistical terms these negative outcomes represent a tiny fraction of the population.  The benefits of the vaccine far outweighs any negative outcomes.  However, if you are the parent of one of the girls who dies then the statistics are cold comfort.

When Gardasil was rolled out in Germany two girls in the first vaccinated cohort died as a result of the drug.  That is 2 in 1.5 million, which represents 0.0001%.  The incidence is miniscule in statistical terms and devastating in personal terms to the families involved.

Yes there are cases where girls became ill due to the vaccine.  They tend to fall within the limits established by the clinical trial.

There are also many cases where girls become ill shortly after they receive the vaccine.   The anecdotists seize on these cases to boost the fear factor in relation to the drug.  Just because condition B followed condition A does not prove causality.  Anti-vaxxers don’t care about such niceties.  They don’t need to prove their points.  They simply have to throw doubt upon the opposite position.  This is classic “fear marketing”.

I am not a fan of fear marketing techniques.  It is most effective with people who worry the most, and with those who don’t have the education or intelligence to carry out proper research.  Fear marketing preys on the weak and that is not nice.  It is not Christian.

  1. The conspiracy theory that the Pharma companies are knowingly selling poison for profit.  There have been cases where pharma companies have behaved dreadfully, so I won’t apologise for them.  The Tamiflu scandal by Roche pharma is a perfect example, where they withheld information.  The drug was not a poison, it was just useless.  Merck with Vioxx, Bristol Myers Squibb with Abilify and GSK with Avandia.  They may not be selling poison, but they are manipulating the data for profit.  That is despicable.
  1. Doctors manipulating data? Yes, the evidence is there.  It happens.  Doctors, it seems, are no more immune to corruption than any other group in society.  Some manipulate results because of poor research practice, where they screen out data that does not meet with their preconceptions.  Others do it for cash.

I think we need to look at how we recruit and train doctors.  At present, in Ireland, medical schools select medical students on academic excellence.  If we selected on empathy and care for others I suspect we might attract fewer high wealth seeking individuals.

  1. The cold hearted corporation anecdote also holds true. We have all seen Erin Brokovich!  Look at the Ford Pinto scandal, where the bean counters preferred to pay death and injury damages rather than recall and fix faulty cars.  Such a cavalier attitude to the lives of humans represents a real concern about the kind of people who lead large companies.  The corporate ladder appears to reward executives who are amoral and unempathic.
  1. Incompetence and/or corruption in medical approvals officials.  Given point 2, that pharma companies manipulate the clinical trials data, it is no surprise that government officials have been caught out.  They have been lied to, repeatedly.  Also, like the doctors, they are not immune from corruption.  There are enough smoking guns out there to fill an arsenal.

So when you look holistically at the arguments put out by anti-vaxxers there appears to be more than enough smoke to suggest a fire.  When you put all the pieces of disinformation together you come up with a pretty compelling conspiracy theory.

The only way to debunk the conspiracy theory is to tear it apart, step by step, using cold hard statistics.  No audience is going to hang around for that.

The upshot of all of this is that the medical and pharmaceutical industries are personally and collectively responsible for the mess they have made.  In modern Ireland we have outbreaks of Measles and Mumps in teenagers who were not vaccinated back when the MMR was blamed for Autism.  Study after study has disproved any link existed.  The doctor who originally made the link was found guilty of falsifying his results.   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Wakefield  And still the story continues to spin and be believed.  Now we see exactly the same arguments being rolled out in relation to HPV vaccines.

Hey Lard Ass!

OBESE-MAN

I lost a few pounds over the last few weeks and was very proud of myself.  Then I checked out my weight on one of those online BMI calculators and I got this nasty message:

Your BMI is 25.4. This BMI indicates you are overweight. There is an increased risk of developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers with a BMI in this range. Losing weight is beneficial and can be achieved through healthy eating and being active daily. It is a good idea to set a realistic target of amount of weight you would like to lose over a number of weeks. If you are muscular as a result of a lot of sport you don’t need to lose weight.

OK, that sounded like there was hope for me at the end.  Am I muscular from playing a lot of sport?  Is gardening a sport?  Does golf count?

So I looked further into these BMI thingy’s.  On a US medical website I learned that my weight is actually in the “Normal” range.

BMI

Normal hell!  Look at that statistic at the end.  My weight is in the 32nd percentile for my age and height, IN AMERICA.

For those who don’t dabble in statistics allow me to explain.  If I live in the USA 68% of my peers are heavier than I am.  That makes me feel positively skinny.  And there is the worry.

When the societal norm is obesity, overweight seems slim.

Truth is, I am overweight.  I have to lose a few more pounds.  In Ireland I “feel” fat.  That puts positive pressure on me to watch my weight.  If I lived in the USA I would not have that positive pressure.  I would probably be half a stone heavier.  I would probably suffer from high blood pressure.  Chances are I would be taking drugs to control my blood pressure.

There is a lesson here for overweight people.  If you really want to lose weight, move to a land of slim people.

According to Suzie Orbach “Fat is a feminist issue”.  Suzie was instrumental in developing the psychology that led to the fabulous Dove advertising campaigns.  Fat is an issue that defines how many women see themselves, it affects their self-confidence, and how they interact with the world.

There is a growing movement amongst young (at heart) women who reject being thin in favour of being fit.  Advertisers are no longer afraid to show women sweating when they work out.  Cross-fit gyms have embraced this new culture by removing mirrors from their gyms.  It’s about the work, the discipline, the muscular integrity.  It is about looking good because you worked to look good.  It is about looking good to feel good about yourself, not to be an accessory to a man.

But there’s more.  In the USA in the 20th century one of the key photo opportunities used by US electoral candidates was the shot of them emerging from church/temple on the Sabbath with the family.  This said everything about strong morality, ethics, conservatism, family values, hetrosexuality, Mom, apple pie and the USA, without ever having to say a word to the waiting press.  Today the goalposts have shifted.  The modern electoral candidate must demonstrate personal strength of character by displaying a fit body.  The president of the USA cannot be a fat guy.  Fat people can’t control their own appetites.  What hope do they have of controlling the nation?

In modern society to be fit to rule you must be fit to run for office, and to do that you must be fit to run down the road.