Why Theism makes no sense to me, in one simple picture


September 5, 2014 Posted by | astronomy, cosmology, religion, science | , | Leave a comment

About those gravitational waves and ripples in space-time

Physics Professor Mano Singham directs us to this Nature science video.

It is a good video; note that it appears that what is actually being detected is akin to a type of vector calculus curl.

March 17, 2014 Posted by | cosmology, physics, science | | Leave a comment

Science: skepticism of new findings and explaining it to the public …plus one more Ryan comment

Are we seeing gravitational ripples from the big bang? It is possible.

But announcements of new discoveries or announcements that a long standing model has been modified or even overturned SHOULD be treated with skepticism. That it takes a long time for a new idea to take root in science is NOT a bug but rather a DESIRED feature. Sadly, many, including many in the mainstream media, do not know this. Get a load of this headline from NPR:

Not-So-Objective Scientists Cling To Accepted Wisdom

Overturning scientific dogma is tricky. Reporter Joe Palca tells NPR’s Rachel Martin that one astronomer learned that lesson when he calculated that the universe was younger than colleagues believed.

Note: the paper in question was reviewed for publication and then….published. That is hardly “censorship of new ideas”. Of course, some scientists behave badly but on the whole, existing theory will be modified as new evidence comes in. But proposed new evidence SHOULD be treated with skepticism. That is so difficult for many non-scientists to understand and evidently impossible for NPR to understand.

Speaking of taking science to the public: this 12 minute video from 60 symbols is interesting. A physicist gave a popular lecture and made the comment to the effect “no two electrons in the universe can have the same energy level; hence when one electron changes energy level, all of the rest of the electrons in the universe are affected, hence everything is connected.” Now strictly speaking, the Pauli Exclusion Principle says that no two electrons can have exactly the same quantum state, so if an individual electron changes state, that “affects” the rest of the electrons. This really isn’t controversial.

But of course, some physicists corrected him, and other people went crazy with the woo-woo (common interconnected consciousness, etc.)

60 symbols comments on that. They talk about physics, about how woo-woos misuse physics and about talking to the general public about technical science ideas.

Bonus: some politics
Paul Ryan’s comment: no he isn’t racist but his ideas are dated. Still, I don’t think that Mr. Ryan was using the “too lazy to work” canard but rather “the lack of role models…e. g. seeing your parents go to work” situation.

March 17, 2014 Posted by | cosmology, economy, nature, physics, politics/social, science, social/political | , , | Leave a comment

Sensationalistic titles of science announcements

Workout notes -3 F outside but sunny; still I ran inside.
First I went on treadmill 1: ran at mostly 0.5 incline and changed speed every 5 minutes. Then at 10:10 mpm I did 10 x (2 minutes 0 elevation, 2 minutes at elevation) going 1-2-3-3-3-3-3-3-3-3 and then 2 minutes to get to 1:01:55 (6 miles).

Switched treadmills then varied the speed to make 2 more miles (21:22).

the plan was to really gun the last 2 miles (at a tempo pace) but the hill repetitions took more out of me than I had anticipated. The intensity: what I call “projected marathon pace”: no I couldn’t actually run a marathon at 10:10 minutes per mile, but this is still a useful training intensity for me, especially for hill repetitions.

Note: I still have to focus; I almost stepped off of the treadmill surface when a nearby woman went into “child” pose (facing away from me, of course).

Stephen Hawking has some questions about black holes, with regards to the “event horizon”. Of course, it was known long ago that one could have some “Hawking radiation” from these; basically particles can materialize from the quantum vacuum (pair production) and then one of the newly created particles could get sucked into the black hole, leaving the other suddenly unpaired particle as radiation. (yes, this is grossly oversimplified)

But there are unsolved problems, and so Hawking’s new paper deals with these.

But the headlines read: “Hawking says that black holes don’t exist”. Uh…no. He didn’t say that.

January 28, 2014 Posted by | cosmology, physics, running, science | Leave a comment

Tribalism, values, philosophy and what science you accept….

I can say that one of the hardest things to do is to give up a preconceived notion based on new data and science.

So, I am seeing all sorts of “oh, hah, hah, where is your “global warming now” posts and articles.

(side note: here is an interesting article about so called “wind chills”. Yes, 10 F with a strong wind feels worse than 10 F with no wind, but I’ve always thought the wind chill stuff was a bit bogus. Remember that the wind makes it feel colder as this enables heat to be transferred from out of your body; in engineering class you learned that \frac{dQ}{dt} = k \Delta T \frac{dm}{dt} where \frac{dm}{dt} is the mass flow rate of the fluid and the \Delta T is the difference between the ambient temperature and the temperature of the object. You know this if you’ve taken a hot bath: in the tub if you are still, you might be ok, but you feel hotter if you move…..because if you move you are increasing the flow rate of the water around your body.

Well, wind does the same thing.

Back to the main argument:

So, people say “we’ve had record cold; how can the earth possibly be warming up?”

Well, for one, “global warming” is talking about a long time trend of average temperatures:


You can see the upward trend, but there are also ups and downs. For example, the next several years after 1998 were cooler years compared to 1998, mostly because 1998 was so blasted hot.

In fact, I took a similar graph, and started it in 1998 to “show” that the earth is really cooling!


I can easily see this being convincing to some.

Then one has to understand that warming means only small change in temperature per year and that how cold we are in winter largely depends on where the jet stream is, as it holds back that arctic air mass. And even if the arctic air mass is a degree or two “warmer”, it is still brutally cold (by our standards).

So, as you can see, the issue is a bit complicated. And yet, many conservatives deny it, just as they deny evolution.

Part of it is tribalism in action.

But part of it is philosophical; conservatives desperately want to believe that their deity is in charge:

They deny evolution for similar reasons: how can one believe that “every hair on your head is numbered by God” if you are the outcome of a stochastic process? (NOT a purely random process!)

So, one might say that philosophy matters. It certainly does to liberals; just look at the so-called “pro-science” liberals (so they tell you) who foam and the mouth about GMOs though, on the science issue part (whether the GMO foods are safe or not), they are dead wrong (more here)

Question them and once you get past their nonsense (IF that is even possible), you’ll find out that what they are really objecting to is the business practices of companies like Monsanto…and some are bound to an appeal to nature. Hey these mushrooms are natural; maybe we can get these woo-woos and crackpots to eat them?


So my frustration grows. It is ridiculous to resist facts (as currently understood) due to some philosophical point of view…..or is it?

This made me think of my post about Copernicus and the scientific objections to the Copernican theory of heliocentric astronomy.

My first reaction: why in the world would we view the earth as being special or different from the rest of the universe?

Oh oh…that is a PHILOSOPHICAL point of view. That is, the “null hypothesis” should be that the laws of science are basically the same everywhere; there are no “special” areas.

Yes, there is evidence that suggests that this is true, but why should this be the “null hypothesis”??? In fact, there is evidence that an aspect of this might not be true (albeit with tiny variations in our observable horizon)

I suppose that I should rethink my disdain for philosophy and point of view (lens of viewing things, if you will).

Of course, an expression of humility (we only know a little) does NOT open the door to wholesale crackpottery, woo-woo and nonsense.

January 7, 2014 Posted by | cosmology, environment, evolution, nature, science, Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

Does success go to one’s head? And some science..

Workout notes 2 mile run in 20 minutes (treadmill: 10:45/9:15)
4 x 800 with 400 walk/jog recoveries (100 walk, 300 jog)
4:11, (3:21), 4:02 (3:35), 4:02 (3:35), 4:04, (3:32) (30:24 for 3 miles)
200 backwards walk (for the hamstring which did NOT hurt)
1 mile run (10 minutes)

Then leg weights: hip hikes, Achilles (a couple of sets)
Squats: 10 x 45 (got deeper to legal depth with each rep), 5 x 95, 5 x 105
good mornings (10 x 45)
leg curls (one legged), push backs, adduction, abduction (3 sets of 10 each)

My 800’s left something to be desired, but in all honesty I wanted to “run as smooth as possible” (and my running is UGLY) and not pull something; I felt my left quad (lightly) at first and I was aware of what could happen to the hamstring, though I didn’t feel it. So this workout felt “successful” even though it was far from “fast”. I never “pushed” the pace.

The theme of this video is that people who think of themselves as successful (be it in obtaining actual wealth, or even winning in a rigged Monopoly game) start to act “entitled” and….sort of arrogant?

I didn’t SEE the study and would be interested in seeing how behavior was classified. In the monopoly study: could it be that people who see themselves as “winning” just act happier? I don’t know.

But the results sort of make sense to me. I’ll give one example from my life.

I know that when I was running my best (1981-1982, and again 1997-2001) and walking my best (2003-2005) I had a bit more “swagger” when I showed up at races. I’d get to the start with hands on my hips, just thinking that I was hot stuff. No, my results were never very good in the great scheme of things (best result: 23:40 for the 100 mile walk in 2004; I was running my 5Ks in the 19-21 and 10Ks in the 40-43 range for the early 80s and again in 1997-2001) but I usually finished in the upper 15-20 percent of races.

Now, forget those ultra walks; the 5Ks are usually high 24 to 27 (typically 25:xx) and the 10K are 53-54. I finish usually just ahead of the median runner but mostly that is because the current era sees more slower and older females showing up.

What this tells me: my former “higher” finish places were more about my being a male and my being younger than the other runners who showed up than anything else! Did that ever deflate my ego! :-)

And I can tell you, I have a much different attitude at the races than I used to.

Same with the weight room; I was just a bit, well, more confident when I was a 300 pound bench presser. Now at 200…not so much. I am much meeker. However the real difference is that I am smaller now and I am older and I’ve had a couple of bouts of a sore rotator cuff. If you put my presses into the “age/body weight” equivalent calculator, my performances have not changed very much. But my awareness has.

Bonus Science and Politics
Though things can change in either direction, right now, it appears as if a 50-50 US Senate spilt is the most likely result from the 2014 midterms. Given past histories and the fact that many of the open seats are in “red” states that are currently represented by a Democrat, I’d give the Republicans a slight edge and call it, oh, 52-48 for the Republicans. But a lot can happen between now and then.

Science: I am astonished at how much there is to learn about micro biology and how much is being learned:

An emerging technique for analysing genomes has given scientists a look at microbes that were until now difficult to study, revealing unexpected links among different branches of the tree of life.

Led by Tanja Woyke, a microbiologist at the US Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute in Walnut Creek, California, researchers used single-cell sequencing to read the genomes of 201 bacterial and archaeal cells taken from nine diverse environments, such as hydrothermal vents and an underground gold mine. None of the organisms had ever been sequenced or cultivated in a laboratory. The results are published today in Nature1.

“This is an astounding paper,” says Norman Pace, a microbiologist at the University of Colorado–Boulder. “The achievement of hundreds of genome sequences from single cells at a shot is an entirely new level of microbiology.”

Single-cell sequencing enables scientists to decipher the genome of just one cell by amplifying its DNA by 1-billion-fold, opening the way to studying ‘microbial dark matter’. These are organisms that have been discovered through methods such as metagenomics studies — which examine batches of micro-organisms living in a common environment — but are difficult or impossible to grow in the lab.

Woyke and her group attempted to explore this dark matter by selecting a highly diverse range of microbes and sequencing a portion of their genomes (which could range from less than 10% to more than 90% depending on the cell). The sequences clarified the microbes’ relationships to one another and to other species.

The work reveals that some conventional boundaries between the kingdoms of life are not as rigid as has been thought. For instance, the researchers suggest that one bacterial lineage synthesizes purine bases — building blocks of DNA and RNA — using enzymes previously thought to exist only in archaea. Meanwhile, three of the archaeal cells sequenced in the study harbour sigma factors, which initiate RNA transcription and have previously been found only in bacteria.

Wow. I continue to be astonished at how rapidly biological knowledge is growing.

Physics and cosmology: Sean Carroll on the Arrow of Time:

Key points:
1. In the small (say, particles, or objects obeying Newton’s laws), “forwards and backwards” in time are indistinguishable.
2. In the large (say, a glass cup that shatters), the directions of time are distinguishable; entropy increases with time.
3. Just as a large body (say a planet) distinguishes directions (say, “up from down”) when you are near that large body, the Big Bang gave time its arrow; we started from a low entropy state.

July 16, 2013 Posted by | biology, cosmology, physics, politics, politics/social, running, science, weight training | , , , , | Leave a comment

Cheers for science, boos for cold. :-)

Screen shot 2013-03-21 at 9.45.40 AM

I just walked out the door to go to the gym, saw the sunshine and said “oh bleep it, I am going outside”. But I bundled up:
underwear, bike shorts, tights, second pair of shorts
nylon shirt, long sleeve t shirt, sweat shirt, gortex jacket
mittens (heavy duty)
stocking cap.

And yes, my feet got cold; should have worn wool socks. I chose my 417 feet of climb course since the cold ALWAYS slows me a bit.


Time: 1:04:45 (51:17 for the 5.1 segment). It was only 10 minutes per mile but I still sweated up a storm. And I did enjoy the sun.

A West Virginia paper printed someone’s anonymous phone rant; it was filled with slurs and threats. My beef: it was anonymous. Had this person used his name/address and they verified that it WAS that individual, then, hey, go ahead and print it.


We have a more complete picture of the background microwave radiation left over from the Big Bang.

We also have a promising candidate for a leukemia treatment:

A treatment that genetically alters a patient’s own immune cells to fight cancer has, for the first time, produced remissions in adults with an acute leukemia that is usually lethal, researchers are reporting.

In one patient who was severely ill, all traces of leukemia vanished in eight days.

“We had hoped, but couldn’t have predicted that the response would be so profound and rapid,” said Dr. Renier J. Brentjens, the first author of a new study of the therapy and a specialist in leukemia at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

The treatment is experimental, has been used in only a small number of patients and did not work in all of them. But experts consider it a highly promising approach for a variety of malignancies, including other blood cancers and tumors in organs like the prostate gland.

The new study, in five adults with acute leukemia in whom chemotherapy had failed, was published Wednesday in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

Go Science!!!

March 21, 2013 Posted by | biology, cosmology, free speech, running, science, social/political | , , | Leave a comment

Why Theism Makes No Sense to Me

I’ve seen a few debates about religion, theism (believing in an active deity) and atheism (denial of the existence of such a deity).

Yes, I’ve read the debates between “well, believing in God is good for you” versus “no, it isn’t”.

Of course, I have an opinion (which I think is evidence based) on whether or not religion or religious belief (or “spirituality”, whatever that means) is good or not, but, that is NOT the point of this post. It could be that, say, believing in Jesus makes you as smart as Stephen Hawking and being an atheist makes you, oh deeply depressed.

But that has nothing to do with “truth” though it might have something to do with “what one WANTS to be true”.

And no, I am not talking about the power of suggestion or the value of religious myth (here, “myth” means “story with deep personal meaning” rather than “falsehood”).

What I am talking about: does it make any sense to believe that some deity intentionally created humans and “cares” (in a human like way) about the welfare of humans (e. g., “loves us”)

Yes, I know about evolution being a directionless process and a belief in “guided evolution” really isn’t compatible with science.

So, yes, that is one reason that theism makes no sense to me; we were put together by a bunch of jerry-rigged steps (e. g. the Vagus Nerve) As an aside, I can recommend Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish for an excellent discussion of how humans are put together.

But perhaps there is some clever “work around” this.

But consider this: get a grip on the massive scale of the univers (this is a cool, well put together tool)

And you can watch this:

Now we are one planet orbiting a rather ordinary star in a rather ordinary galaxy. Each galaxy has roughly between 10 million (dwarf galaxy) and 100 TRILLION stars, and we know that there are, visible to us, over 170 BILLION galaxies.

So on an emotional level: am I to swallow that Bronze Age people, who knew so little, got such an immense question right? What is more likely: WE (what are “we” anyway: Homosapiens? Or all the other members of hominidae included too?) are the center of some creation, or that, well, we just aren’t that special? Why our life form? What about other life forms on other planets, or even other galaxies?

To me, theistic belief, as I have seen it practiced, is VERY ego-centric. Oh sure, “God centered, not me centered” I hear. But you are assuming that there is some super awesome “thing” that cares about you. Please.

It makes far more sense to assume that rather dull humans (as in: human beings, on the whole, really don’t know that much; not that believers are substantially dumber than anyone else) are just making stuff up so they can feel better about themselves.

I also wonder about all of the other gods relegated to the waste bin and wonder about a time when the current ones will be as well.

PS: if you say “see, you SAID that “humans don’t know that much”! True, I did. But “humans don’t know that much” in no way implies “therefore my conception of a deity is correct” or even “therefore my conception of a deity is plausible”.

March 17, 2013 Posted by | astronomy, atheism, cosmology, religion, science | Leave a comment

Big…Big…Big….and the joke is on us…

Ok, can you see what she is protesting?


Hint (if you don’t get it): many claim that homosexuality is sinful because “that is what the Bible says”. Well, the Bible says that OTHER things are sinful including eating things like lobster (yes, I know; some of the prohibitions are revoked in Acts).

Speaking of homosexuality: no, strictly speaking, the Bible condemns homosexual acts, not homosexuality (which is a relatively new concept). If that sounds confusing: the idea of “sexual orientation” is relatively new (classifications didn’t exist until the later parts of the 19’th century) ; in the times of the Bible it was thought that people who engaged in homosexual sex were being disobedient rather than acting on their nature.

Still, this Lawrence O’Donnell video is pretty good:

The joke is on us
Yes, I’ve posted some Jon Stewart videos; it seems as if he attacks nonsense. But sometimes he slips up:

Oh, dear. Jon Stewart took on the platinum coin, and made a hash of it — he faceplanted, as Ryan Cooper says.

What went wrong? Jon Chait says that he flunked econ, but that’s just part of it. He also flunked law, politics, and just plain professional.

So, yeah, as Chait says, Stewart seems weirdly unaware that there’s more to fiscal policy than balancing the budget. But in this case he also seems unaware that the president can’t just decide unilaterally to spend 40 percent less; he’s constitutionally obliged to spend what the law tells him to spend. True, he’s also constitutionally prohibited from borrowing more if Congress says he can’t — which is a contradiction. But that’s the whole point of the discussion.

And it makes no sense at all to talk about any of this without the context of extortion and confrontation.

Above all, however, what went wrong here is a lack of professionalism on the part of Stewart and his staff. Yes, it’s a comedy show — but the jokes are supposed to be (and usually are) knowing jokes, which are funny and powerful precisely because the Daily Show people have done their homework and understand the real issues better than the alleged leaders spouting nonsense. In this case, however, it’s obvious that nobody at TDS spent even a few minutes researching the topic. It was just yuk-yuk-yuk they’re talking about a trillion-dollar con hahaha.

Hey, if we want this kind of intellectual laziness, we can just tune in to Fox.

Well, The Today Show IS intellectually lazy, by definition, even when I agree with them.

Size of the cosmos and things in it…

This is a LOT of water:

Astronomers have discovered the largest and oldest mass of water ever detected in the universe — a gigantic, 12-billion-year-old cloud harboring 140 trillion times more water than all of Earth’s oceans combined.
The cloud of water vapor surrounds a supermassive black hole called a quasar located 12 billion light-years from Earth. The discovery shows that water has been prevalent in the universe for nearly its entire existence, researchers said.
“Because the light we are seeing left this quasar more than 12 billion years ago, we are seeing water that was present only some 1.6 billion years after the beginning of the universe,” study co-author Alberto Bolatto of the University of Maryland said in a statement. “This discovery pushes the detection of water one billion years closer to the Big Bang than any previous find.”

Hope you are thirsty. :-)


This is the largest known spiral galaxy:

Astronomers have crowned the universe’s largest known spiral galaxy, a spectacular behemoth five times bigger than our own Milky Way.

The title-holder is now NGC 6872, a barred spiral found 212 million light-years away in the southern constellation Pavo, researchers announced today (Jan. 10). The distance between NGC 6872’s two huge spiral arms is 522,000 light-years, compared to about 100,000 light-years for the Milky Way.

NGC 6872 has ranked among the largest known spiral galaxies for decades. But it has only now been crowned champion, after detailed study of data gathered by a number of instruments, including NASA’s Galaxy Evolution Explorer spacecraft, or GALEX.

But it isn’t the largest structure:

Astronomers have discovered the largest known structure in the universe, a clump of active galactic cores that stretches 4 billion light-years from end to end.
The structure is a large quasar group (LQG), a collection of extremely luminous galactic nuclei powered by supermassive central black holes. This particular group is so large that it challenges modern cosmological theory, researchers said.

“While it is difficult to fathom the scale of this LQG, we can say quite definitely it is the largest structure ever seen in the entire universe,” lead author Roger Clowes, of the University of Central Lancashire in England, said in a statement. “This is hugely exciting, not least because it runs counter to our current understanding of the scale of the universe.”
Quasars are the brightest objects in the universe. For decades, astronomers have known that they tend to assemble in huge groups, some of which are more than 600 million light-years wide.

This is larger than our current physics predicts is possible, hence we have some revising to do.

Think of it this way: it is so large that if aliens were on one side of this structure and the earth was on the other side, the aliens could watch the earth being formed!

January 12, 2013 Posted by | astronomy, cosmology, jon stewart, physics, political humor, politics, politics/social, religion, science, social/political | , , | Leave a comment

Stretch the Intellect Saturday…

Physics and Cosmology
Physics is not my specialty but I do follow it on a popular level. So when the cosmologists started babbling about “dark matter” I kind of wondered “is “the aether” making a comeback”? Well….no.

Yes, there is a similarity: neither has been directly detected; its existence has been inferred by observed effects. However both have been examined…and “the aether” has been discarded because experiments designed to detect it have failed (e. g. Michelson-Morley experiment)…in fact have provided evidence to show that it did NOT exist.

Roughly speaking, “the aether” was conjectured to provide some medium for light-electromagnetic waves to propagate in; at the time these waves were thought to be like sound waves (disturbances of some sort). Modern physics (relativity theory and quantum mechanics) have shown that these waves are very different from sound waves, though there are similarities.

On the other hand, evidence continues to pour in for dark matter and dark energy, as Sean Carroll explains:

Dark matter, in particular, is nothing at all like the aether. It’s something that seems to behave exactly like an ordinary particle of matter, just one with no electric charge or strong interaction with known matter particles. Those aren’t hard to invent; particle physicists have approximately a billion different candidate ideas, and experiments are making great progress in trying to detect them directly. But the idea didn’t come along because theorists had all sorts of irresistible ideas; we were dragged kicking and screaming into accepting dark matter after decades of observations of galaxies and clusters convinced people that regular matter simply wasn’t enough. And once that idea is accepted, you can go out and make new predictions based on the dark matter model, and they keep coming true — for example in studies of gravitational lensing and the cosmic microwave background. If the aether had this much experimental support, it would have been enshrined in textbooks years ago.

Dark energy is conceptually closer to the aether idea — like the aether, it’s not a particle, it’s a smooth component that fills space. Unlike the aether, it does not have a “frame of rest” (as far as we can tell); the dark energy looks the same no matter how you move through it. (Not to mention that it has nothing to do with electromagnetic radiation — it’s dark!) And of course, it was forced on us by observations, especially the 1998 discovery that the universe is accelerating, which ended up winning the Nobel Prize in 2011. That discovery took theoretical physicists around the world by surprise — we knew it was possible in principle, but almost nobody actually believed it was true. But when the data speak, a smart scientist listens. Subsequent to that amazing finding, cosmologists have made other predictions based on the dark energy idea, which (as with dark matter) keep coming true: for the cosmic microwave background again, as well as for the distribution of large-scale structure in the universe.

Of course, there is a long way to go in developing this theory.

Physics and Philosophy
Here is yet another “play nice” plea to physicists (Jim Holt in the New York Times):

Why do physicists have to be so churlish toward philosophy? Philosophers, on the whole, have been much nicer about science. “Philosophy consists in stopping when the torch of science fails us,” Voltaire wrote back in the 18th century. And in the last few decades, philosophers have come to see their enterprise as continuous with that of science. It is noteworthy that the “moronic” philosopher who kicked up the recent shindy by dismissing the physicist’s book himself holds a Ph.D. in theoretical physics.

Physicists say they do not need any help from philosophers. But sometimes physicists are, whether they realize it or not, actually engaging in philosophy themselves.

Here is my take. Physics is hard. Only the smartest among us do original research in physics and these people spend years in training to able to start. In fact, it takes an intelligent person with great math/science aptitude years of focused effort to even become conversant on the questions.

Those who haven’t spent that much concentrated time (and frankly, who have a lower aptitude for this subject) really don’t know what they are talking about; they really aren’t qualified to give comments that are worth listening to.

Note: I am talking about the science itself and its interpretation; I am NOT talking about, say, the ethical issues that come up (e. g., the use of nuclear weapons, the production of weapons of mass destruction, experimentation on humans, animal research, etc.) On these issues, I am happy to listen to philosophers because in these areas THEY have put in the concentrated long term effort and they have displayed some aptitude for this sort of thinking.

Statistics and Data: what does one consider when one tries to make sense of data?

Here is a baby case: suppose you want “the average household income of a neighborhood”; what do you use?
Well, it depends on what question you are interested in. If you are interested in, say, how the typical person lives (spending habits, energy use, etc.) then median income might be what you want, especially if the standard deviation (minus an outlier or two) is small.

If you are talking about, say, the total money that is spent from that region, then perhaps the mean (average) is better.

One uses the data germane to the problem at hand.
Paul Krugman patiently explains this:

Just a quick note on a question that comes up in some comments: why do I sometimes look at percentage changes in unemployment, sometimes at changes in absolute levels? Isn’t that inconsistent?

The answer, of course, is no. When you do stuff with data, here is the universal rule: do what makes sense given the question you’re trying to answer. It’s like the issue of where the y-axis in a diagram starts — it depends on context. Starting at zero isn’t a universal rule, certainly not when changes of a few percent up or down are in fact crucially important for the policy discussion.

So on unemployment, one favorite story out there is that we have lots of unemployment, and must have lots of unemployment, because the pre-crisis structure of the economy was unsustainable: too many people were building houses in Nevada, too few doing other stuff in other places, so there has to be unemployment as workers move from the occupations/localities that were oversized to those that were undersized.

OK, so what would be the “signature” if this story were true? There would be lots of job losses among construction workers in Nevada, of course; but for the story to make sense there should be rising employment in those other sectors people are supposedly moving to.

But of course, that’s not at all what you see. Instead, you see job losses everywhere, with most of the total job loss taking place in sectors that were clearly not overinflated by the bubble. And that is the relevant comparison: if non-bubble sectors are losing rather than gaining jobs, and in fact account for most of the job losses, then this story is just wrong.

He concludes:

But as I said, the universal rule for using data is to think about the question you’re trying to answer. A foolish consistency here really is the hobgoblin of little minds.

The problem here is
1. All (or at least 99.99 percent, myself included) of those who comment on his blog are significantly below him in intellectual level and many are completely unaware of this and
2. The pundit class does not constitute our finest minds. And from what I can tell, our pundits are blissfully unaware of this as well (left and right, I am sorry to say). Just read what they have to say about ANY technical matter; they almost always get it wrong.

June 9, 2012 Posted by | cosmology, economics, economy, media, physics, science, statistics | Leave a comment


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