Monday, September 29, 2008

My thoughts on the recent Presidential Debate

If one wants less partisan coverage, I suggest you go to the Presidential Debate Blog which has a variety of coverage.[i] My own, more partisan thoughts follow:

Overall, I thought that both McCain and Obama performed well. The debate format and their behavior allowed real give and take. Both of them seemed to be cordial with each other. It is nice to have both major candidates for President be actual adults. I did have a few specific issues that struck me:

McCain very early one once again complained about 3 million dollars to study bear DNA. Given that McCain has been extensively criticized for his repetition of this claim(including at this blog) about a study which everyone but John McCain thinks was a good use of money, this once again shows McCain’s disturbing tendencies to either belittle or ignore good science.

McCain was not the only individual in the debate who made painful remarks. Obama claimed that given all the tax “loopholes” American businesses pay one of the lowest tax rates in the world. This claim is simply false.

Obama at one pointed talked about the United States as a “shining beacon on a hill.” I’m sure that will make a lot of high school history teachers happy but I’m not sure how many Americans will have any idea what he was referencing.

Both McCain and Obama engaged in standards of rhetoric that were at best misleading. For example, McCain used “pork” as a synonym for “earmark” and Obama tried to claim that he was not in favor of increasing certain taxes so much as “closing loopholes”.

The moderator did a very good job and pointed out when both Obama and McCain attempted to dodge questions. Overall, the debate was a close one but I’d give the edge to McCain.

[i] Since they were mentioned on CSPAN I suspect that my plugging of them will not be contributing substantial traffic.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Slacktivist and Left Behind

Fred Clark over at Slacktivist has completed his detailed review of Left Behind.

Left Behind is a novel written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins set in the time following the Rapture of all the true Christians. The book and its sequels have sold 65 million copies. Given how well this book has sold and given the nature of its contents, it is disturbing that many non-evangelicals are not even aware of the book’s existence.

The book and its sequels are full of misogyny, hatred and ignorance.. They portray a world where anyone desiring world peace does so merely to help promote a New World Order ruled by the Antichrist. Anyone who does not accept Jesus as their personal lord and savior burns in hell for eternity. The authors have so little understanding of how the world functions that they seem to believe that the UN decides who each country sends as an ambassador. And there are many more examples. [1] This is before we consider that the writing is just awful. To understand the extreme aspects of modern evangelical Christianity you should read this book. To get much of the same material with a lot more amusement, read Slacktivist’s review.

Clark has gone through the entire book, summarizing and commenting throughout so you don’t need to damage your brain with this book. He is a moderate evangelical with substantial experience with the more fundamentalist and extremist evangelicals. This gives him an insightful perspective on Left Behind. His review is long, but extremely amusing and erudite. In commenting he quotes such luminaries as William Shakespeare, Herman Melville, and Joss Whedon. Clark’s work is similar to my discussion of Stel Pavlou but written by a much more erudite and funny fellow. Also, unlike Decipher, this is about a book that actually matters. Go. Read. Now.

[1] Yet another example: In the writers' world, Israel expands its borders to include all the territory claimed by the Palestinians and yet somehow is at peace with all its neighbors.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

John McCain, Barack Obama, and ScienceDebate 2008

As many readers are likely aware, there has been a large-scale attempt by prominent scientists and science organizations to have a Presidential debate focused on science issues.[1] Thus far that has not happened. However, the Science Debate 2008 project was successful in getting Barack Obama to provide written answers to a list of questions that had been deemed most important. Now McCain has provided answers to the same questions.

The answers can read found here. I’m still thinking about them in detail but here are my first thoughts about McCain answers. I have three points and a question to readers.

First, even here he feels a need to bring up his military experience, as if it were somehow relevant. In answering the very first question, McCain, says, that "I am uniquely qualified to lead our nation during this technological revolution. While in the Navy, I depended upon the technologies and information provided by our nation’s scientists and engineers with during each mission" (in fairness this is only part of his answer). The question he was answering was: “Science and technology have been responsible for half of the growth of the American economy since WWII. But several recent reports question America’s continued leadership in these vital areas. What policies will you support to ensure that America remains the world leader in innovation?”

This is irritating. McCain is a war-hero by any reasonable definition of the term. That doesn’t make him at all qualified to make decisions about scientific issues. We all rely on technology every day. That doesn’t make the man on the street who uses a cell-phone and an Ipod at all qualified. Indeed, if we consider McCain’s prior admissions about his complete inability to use computers, and his past poor record of understanding science issues if anything McCain is a counterexample to the claim that prior reliance on modern science and engineering makes one qualified to lead during a technological revolution.[2]

And lest you think this is the only example of McCain harping on his military experience, in a later question about oceanic research and environmental issues he says “ As a former Navy officer I was constantly reminded of the power, wonder and complexity of our world’s oceans. “ We get the point Senator. Really.

Second, when discussing funding for scientific research McCain says that “We must also ensure that basic research money is allocated to the best science based on quality and peer review, not politics and earmarks.” This raises a series of questions: McCain has repeatedly used as his primary example of porkbarrel spending a study which by all accounts but McCain’s was useful and a good way of spending money. Is McCain able to tell what constitutes quality and peer review? Does he even care?

Third, McCain discusses how military research has helped the general public. He lists four technologies, “Internet, email, GPS, Teflon”. Now, for the internet and GPS McCain is correct. However, email originated at MIT as a civilian technology before ARPANET existed. At best, that is a sloppy mistake. And it leads in to my question to readers: It is not clear to me that the 4th technology listed, “Teflon” came from any military use. Teflon was discovered by DuPont. The only reason it is associated with the military at all is that it was used first primarily by the military although other early uses also existed. Indeed, the official DuPont history of Teflon does not even mention the military at all. So my question to readers is: Does this count as another sloppy mistake by the McCain campaign? The email mistake alone demonstrates poor research and care with the campaign’s answers to these questions. For anyone who cares about science related issues, the campaign’s lack of effort and sloppiness here should give pause.

[1] For one interesting discussion about this see this piece by Lawrence Krauss and the Presidential Debate Blog.

[2] I don’t think we are undergoing a “technological revolution.” However, the claim that we are is so widely accepted and such necessary boilerplate for any politician at this point that I don’t blame McCain for using the phrase.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Large Hadron Collider has killed a young girl.

Actually the LHC didn't kill anyone. The irresponsible media did.

According to a variety of news reports, a 16 year old girl in India named Chaya killed herself prior to the activation of the Large Hadron Collider because she did not want to witness the destruction of the world. Over the last year or so, there has been a steady stream of crackpots and cranks who have tried to claim that the new particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider, could destroy the world or do other nasty things. There are many problems with this notion, including the fact that the energy levels of the particles being collided are of the same or smaller than the energy levels in normal cosmic rays which hit the Earth's atmosphere every day.

Throughout the world, this nonsense has received far more attention than it warrants. However, there has been particular hysteria in India where this idea has received much attention. Apparently, many people flocked to temples throughout India on Tuesday preparing for the end of the world.

What is the real lesson here? The Large Hadron Collider isn't dangerous. Poor reporting by dumb, lazy reporters is dangerous. Thanks to the general media's inability to report science accurately, a young lady has died. Chaya is dead and her family has lost a child. That's what happens when reporters engage in hysterical reporting. It isn't harmless. People suffer and die. In this case, bad reporting has led to the death of a child.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Simpson's Paradox

Simpson's Paradox is a wonderful little statistical phenomenon which is counterintuitive to most people. Here is a simple, concrete example.

Consider two cancer drugs A and B. We do a study, Study #1, where we give some cancer patients drug A and some people drug B. Let's say we give 11 people drug A and 7 people drug B. Of the 11 people given drug A, 5 die and 6 survive. Of the 7 people given drug, B 3 die and 4 survive. So it seems that drug B is better than drug A since 4/7 is greater than 6/11.

Just to be sure we do another study, Study #2. Again we give some patients drug A and some patients drug B. Of those given drug A, 6 die and 3 survive. Of those given drug B, 9 die and 5 survive. Again it seems like drug B is better than drug A since 5/14 is larger than 3/9.

But wait! What happens if we look at all the data together? Now, of those given drug A, 11 died in total and 9 survived. For drug B, 12 died in total and 9 survived. So when we look at the combined data drug, A is better than drug B.

This paradox is known as Simpson's paradox. While one might think that this is the sort of thing that only comes up with cleverly picked numbers in the real world, there are actually many examples of actual data that exhibits this behavior.

Aside from being extremely counterintuitive, this result also plays havoc with our naive notions of what constitutes confirmation of a hypothesis. In particular, the fact that we can have two separate pieces of evidence which alone constitute confirming evidence but together constitute disconfirming evidence is jarring. Results like this one undermine naive Bayesian views of how science should function.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Sarah Palin and Wikipedia, part II

It appears that both the New York Times and I missed the real story about Sarah Palin and Wikipedia. Shortly after I posted my previous post, I received an anonymous tip to look at the edits to the article from August 21st. Those edits, by an anonymous IP address, are much more interesting than the edits by Young Trigg.

The edits appear to be done by what may be a professional PR person.

The editor’s IP address,, which most likely corresponds to a home DSL line, has no other edits to the English Wikipedia. Using a home address to make edits is something that the smarter PR people have engaged in after repeated scandals in the press made clear to them that using IP addresses corresponding to their organizations was a bad idea.

Now, the individual edits in question:

First, the editor toned down the wording on the Monegan incident, replacing discussion of Monegan being fired with a statement that he had been “dismissed.”[1] The editor then also removed material disputing Palin’s version of events and removed material noting the ongoing investigation.[2]

The editor also changed the section on Palin’s approval ratings so that the headline was “High approval ratings” and similarly toned down a section header that had the word “controversy” in it.[3]

Now, one aspect of the edits is subtle and can be easily missed: The editor downplayed the later articles about the Monegan incident so that if one followed the links one would go to the less negative material in an earlier newspaper article. This is more obvious if you look at the entire set of changes:

There are two other points that suggest that these edits were made by a PR individual: When changing section titles, the individual capitalized the entire section title. For example, “Matanuska Maid Dairy controversy” became “Matanuska Maid Dairy Closure.” Similarly, “Approval ratings” became “High Approval Ratings.” Now, a regular Wikipedian would be familiar enough with the Wikipedia manual of style not to do this. Moreover, the edits all occurred in an eight minute span. That speed of editing for someone who is not a regular Wikipedian, including the addition new sources to an article, would be difficult without prior planning. That is most consistent with a PR person having a set plan and then implementing it.

Finally, the individual in question made one other edit, also on the 21st. This is the individual’s only edit aside from the Palin article. The editor moved Palin to the top of the list of rumored Republican vice-presidential candidates.[4] This edit is particularly interesting, because as of the 21st, there was very little noise about Palin as a candidate at all. While we must speculate, it is quite possible that these edits were made by an insider to the McCain campaign, a possibility that both the Times and I missed.


Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Sarah Palin, Wikipedia, and The New York Times

The New York Times had a recent article on edits to Sarah Palin’s Wikipedia biography that appeared to clean up and expand the article a few hours before her selection as the Republican vice-presidential candidate was announced.

The New York Times article is inaccurate. There is one minor inaccuracy, one factual error, and one serious omission.

First, the minor inaccuracy: The Wikipedia user’s name in question was not “YoungTrigg” but “Young Trigg” with a space. This isn’t as trivial as it might seem: Wikipedia user names are very sensitive and someone trying to follow-up on the article might have difficulty finding the pages discussed in the New York Times article if they did not know this and were not familiar with navigating Wikipedia. Furthermore, this shows sloppy reporting. I could understand how a copy-editor might change “YoungTrigg” as one word to “Young Trigg” as two words but I am at loss to find an explanation other than sloppiness for going in the other direction.

Second, the factual error: The New York Times claims that Young Trigg’s edits to the Palin article were “all positive.” This is false. As Trigg pointed out on his talk page after the matter blew up on Wikipedia, Trigg expanded the section concerning the state-trooper controversy. The addition, while not negative, is not positive either. Indeed, the overall thrust of the edit is to add more negative material about Wooten, the state trooper who Palin is accused of trying to get fired due to familiar disputes. The edits in question also contain some minor elements which could be construed as making the section more positive for Palin. However, the expansion in general makes the section more prominent in the article and does not make Palin look good. From the timestamps, it appears that the New York Times writer, Noam Cohen, read Trigg’s talk page after this comment was made.[1]

Third, the omission: What happened to the article overall shows how well the system on Wikipedia works. Young Trigg’s edits that were well-sourced and relevant (most of them) stayed in. Edits that were slanted towards Palin or otherwise not-neutral were removed. Most of Trigg’s edits have stayed for the simple reason that most of them were good edits. So even if Trigg was an operative sent by the McCain campaign (which frankly, I doubt), this shows Wikipedia triumphing over that.

This quick self-correction is connected to a general point that I’ve tried to make before that seems to often get lost: people often say that Wikipedia is fine for non-controversial topics but is bad for controversial ones. The almost exact opposite is true. Controversial topics have many more editors looking at them and thus will be more likely to be neutral and well-sourced.

One final remark: in Wikipedia and Wikimedia circles Noam Cohen is considered to be be one of the more accurate reporters on Wikipedia matters. This article is about average for him. As far as I can tell, the primary reason that Cohen is highly regarded is not that he is a such an accurate reporter, but that almost everyone else is far worse.

[1] The New York Times article notes that the Young Trigg account retired. The retirement announcement on the page was added in the same edit that Trigg made his comment that he had not made only positive edits.