On knowing what you are talking about….

First: this is how some discussions about religion appear to me. Comments to the effect of “I don’t see how it could be otherwise” are not convincing.


When people talk about raising the retirement age, remember that there is a big spread in “years lived after 65″ between wealthier white collar workers and poorer blue collar ones.

See here:

I was pleased to see this article by Annie Lowrey documenting the growing disparity in life expectancy between the haves and the have-nots. It’s kind of frustrating, however, that this is apparently coming as news not just to many readers but to many policymakers and pundits. Many of us have been trying for years to get this point across — to point out that when people call for raising the Social Security and Medicare ages, they’re basically saying that janitors must keep working because corporate lawyers are living longer. Yet it never seems to sink in.

Maybe this article will change that. But my guess is that in a week or two we will once again hear a supposed wise man saying that we need to raise the retirement age to 67 because of higher life expectancy, unaware that (a) life expectancy hasn’t risen much for half of workers (b) we’ve already raised the retirement age to 67.

Ms. Lowrey’s article is here.

Here is one of my pet peeves: all too often, a non-specialist will attempt to claim that the mainstream view/theory in a different profession is wrong because it doesn’t make sense to them. Here Larry Moran takes on a chemistry professor’s (at Rice University, no less) claim that evolutionary theory is flawed. Professor Moran concludes:

I suppose I’m going to be labeled as one of those evil “Darwinists” who won’t tolerate anyone who disagrees with me about evolution.1

I’m actually not. I just don’t like stupid people who think they are experts in evolution when they have never bothered to learn about it. Here’s my advice to graduate students in organic chemistry: if you want to know about evolution then take a course or read a textbook. And remember, there’s nothing wrong with admitting that you don’t understand a subject. Just don’t assume your own ignorance means that all the experts in the subject are wrong too.

It isn’t just “experts at a different field” though. Right now, we are hearing more and more from people who think that vaccines are bad and contain lots of harmful chemicals. One scientist had enough and made an epic drunken rant:


No, this is not a partisan issue; there are plenty of liberal anti-vaccination types out there, and they are a disgrace.

March 16, 2014 Posted by | creationism, economy, evolution, ranting, religion, science, social/political, Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Memes and massive online open courses and education for the masses

A description of the massive online open courses movement can be seen here. I’ve read where some have said that somehow this was supposed to be a threat to conventional higher education.


Yes, I think that the MOOC is a good thing; it makes a ton of good, valuable resources available to those who want supplemental work or to those who are, say geographically isolated.
But there are some factors that I don’t see discussed that often.

1. Learning some types of material is hard. I’ve taught college mathematics for upwards of 20 years. The students almost always THINK that they know the material better than they actually know it; I find this out when I grade their examinations. How are they going to learn the stuff if they don’t have the “pass the test” incentive? Yes, I know that some of these MOOCs have a online exam at the end (multiple choice) that is machine graded, but only a tiny percentage of people get to them.

Learning is hard and time consuming.

2. Prerequisites: many might find, say, some of the counter intuitive conclusions of quantum mechanics interesting. But how many are going to be disciplined enough to learn the math to learn this area properly? How many are even capable of learning the mathematics properly?

Here is a hint:


Yes, I know that this is nonsense; there is nothing to “solve” here; this is the Fourier function representation formula. And yes, given a function f you need to know how to solve for a_n, b_n to even begin a proper undergraduate quantum mechanics course.

So if you don’t know this already, are you going to spend the years necessary learning enough mathematics?

So. I think that this massive open online stuff is good, it isn’t going to benefit a high percentage of the population. It IS a boon to a tiny percentage of outliers though.


Yep, when you see some internet arguments about subjects such as the constitutionality of a given law, whether a given GMO is safe, climate change, evolution, fracking, etc., well, people think that providing a link to an “activist” website or their having half-digested a couple of pop-books on the subject (IF that) qualifies them as an expert, or at least gives them an opinion that is worth taking seriously.

Psst: it doesn’t.

And, of course, it is ALWAYS someone else who is “stoopid”


Yes, I’ve seen the unmodified version of this meme (modification is in red) posted on many people’s walls, including the walls of woo-woos and those who really haven’t accomplished all that much. I know that the National Academy of Science isn’t in my future, and I don’t have any members on my friends list.

I have lots of blind spots and, if I have an advantage on most, it is that I know that there is a huge gap between me and the truly genius level people AND I understand that what “makes sense to me” might well be false, or at best, incomplete. But the Dunning-Kruger effect is strong in many.

January 19, 2014 Posted by | education, ranting, social/political | , | Leave a comment



January 18, 2014 Posted by | ranting | , | Leave a comment

Channeling my inner Republican

Yes, I am a liberal because I accept science (and I strongly disagree with the rabid anti-GMO woos) and because I think that some social programs actually stimulate the economy (e. g. businesses hire more when they have more customers).

But I have some sympathy with those who say things like Don’t Have Kids if You Can’t Afford Them!

It is YOUR job to support your kids. Yes, I know; sometimes people ARE responsible and are then hit with illnesses, accidents, lay-offs, etc. THAT is what safety nets are for.

But all too many are indigent (or poor) prior to having kids, sometimes on purpose. And no, I am NOT just talking about “other people”, “them”, “people who look differently than I do”, etc.

September 14, 2013 Posted by | ranting, Republican, social/political | | Leave a comment

Apology to Ann Coulter (and unfair attacks on Kathleen Parker)

No, I haven’t gone crazy. I still think that Ann Coulter’s column (which you can read here) is dumb.

But on my Daily Kos diary I did take this quote out of context (and issued a correction when alert readers told me that I could have taken it out of context):

Perhaps, someday, blacks will win the right to be treated like volitional human beings. But not yet

Initially, I read this sentence as Coulter saying that blacks didn’t deserve to be treated as volitional human beings (“volitional” as in being able to think rationally for themselves). But when I reread the article I see that she probably meant that “the media and political/social leaders should be treating blacks as volitional human beings but aren’t as yet”.

Yes, it is still a dumb quote; I still see no reason at all that Trayvon Martin should have been profiled. He was minding his own business and people have the right to do that. But it isn’t an inherently racist quote.

My apologies to Ann Coulter.

Kathleen Parker
I winced when I read this:

Screen shot 2013-07-18 at 10.20.15 AM

From here.

I invite you to read the entire Parker article, which contains this:

This is not to justify what subsequently transpired between Zimmerman and Martin but to cast a dispassionate eye on reality. And no, just because a few black youths caused trouble doesn’t mean all black youths should be viewed suspiciously. This is so obvious a truth that it shouldn’t need saying and yet, if we are honest, we know that human nature includes the accumulation of evolved biases based on experience and survival. In the courtroom, it’s called profiling. In the real world, it’s called common sense.

No, this isn’t “justifying” profiling, but what this admits is that human beings appear to be hardwired to take mental shortcuts (heuristics) which rely on (often faulty) inductive reasoning: “gee, black men have caused these these recent break ins and we see black guys arrested on television, so this black guy is more likely to be a criminal than, say, a similarly dressed white or Asian guy”.

And yes, people often call such heuristics “common sense”. But, too many times, “common sense” is often a matter of “knowing what isn’t so”, and I think that Ms. Parker was commenting on that.

I should also say this: I could believe (at first) that Ann Coulter meant what she said in a mean spirited, racist manner because I have little respect for her. But I have to concede that I was almost certainly wrong in how I took that sentence.

On the other hand, I immediately thought “Parker couldn’t have meant that; she is too smart to have said what the headline claims” because I see her as smart and principled. So I went ahead and read her column with an open mind.

I tend to give the benefit of the doubt to those that I perceive to be intelligent and principled; you might call that a type of Bayesian reasoning. ;-)

July 18, 2013 Posted by | racism, ranting, social/political | , , | Leave a comment

Same Planet, different worlds.

This was seen as “wow, that is cool”…

And these people who were “having fun” just completely disregarded those around them (note one of these people crashing into someone else who was finishing).

I see them as self-centered narcissists.

Also on the Steamboat thread: one of my Facebook friends whined, bellyached and complained about the streets being closed for the race (though cross trafic was permitted to pass in gaps). This wasn’t the first time.

Then from the Steamboat Training group: There were hurt feelings because the 15K finishers got a medal whereas the 4 mile runners did not. Seriously….the larger running races are becoming kindergarten.

Then there is this, from the Huckabee Facebook page:

Screen shot 2013-06-15 at 4.59.56 PM

Oh sure, the others died but one who survived said that he prayed. I suppose that the others didn’t? :-)

And also from our Right Wing
Screen shot 2013-06-15 at 8.48.50 PM

Uh, no…these women aren’t the same.

I might live on the same planet as these people, but we live in very different worlds.

June 16, 2013 Posted by | ranting, social/political, Uncategorized, whining | , , , | Leave a comment

Bad Arguments Don’t Imply False Conclusions

I admit that I haven’t followed the Steubenville rape case closely. I know that some of the people have posted angry rants about some of the media pointing out that the rapists ruined their own lives (they did) and about “rape culture” (huh)? And much of the reporting from the left wing media has been poor. Here is an example. Most of it is a “jocks are an entitled bunch who feel that they can do whatever they want and coaches should be..uh….

In thinking about Steubenville, thinking about my own experiences playing sports, thinking about athletes I’ve interviewed and know, I believe that a locker room left to its own devices will drift toward becoming a breeding ground for rape culture. You don’t need a Coach Reno or a Bob Knight to make that happen. You just need good people to say or do nothing. As such, a coach or a player willing to stand up, risk ridicule and actually teach young men not to rape, can make all the difference in the world. We need interventionist, transformative coaches in men’s sports that talk openly about these issues. We need an economic setup in amateur sports that does away with their gutter economy. But most of all, we need people who recognize the existence of rape culture, both on and off teams, to no longer be silent.

As for Steubenville, Coach Reno needs to be shown the door, never to be allowed to mold young minds again. Football revenue should go toward creating a district-wide curriculum about rape and stopping violence against women. And “Jane Doe,” the young woman at the heart of this case, should be given whatever resources she and her family needs to move if they choose, pay for college or just have access to whatever mental health services she and her family require. After the trial, testimony and verdict, they deserve nothing less.

“Teach young men not to rape?” Uh, well, our society teaches people not to steal, yet some do. We teach people not to murder, yet some do.
We teach people not to drive while intoxicated, yet some do.

While the campus sexual assault prevention programs HAVE been correlated with reductions in sexual assault rates (I learned this from Steven Pinker’s book Better Angels) and they should be continued, people are foolish if they think that rapes will be eliminated and that an example of an incident can be extrapolated to a whole so-called culture. That is not sound reasoning.

Now, at the college level, we do have some data:

Male athletes in big-time college programs are responsible for a significantly higher percentage of reported sexual assaults than other students, according to the first national study on the subject.

While athletes constitute 3.3 percent of the total male student population, they were involved in 19 percent of the sexual assaults reported to judicial-affairs offices at colleges, according to a Massachusetts-based study released yesterday at a sports-sociology conference in Georgia.

Sex crimes involving athletes are less often reported to campus police, suggesting that women are particularly reluctant to accuse athletes of wrongdoing unless they can do it quietly and efficiently, as the more private, campus judicial-affairs system allows.

The authors of the study are Todd Crosset and Mark McDonald, professors in sports management at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and Jeffrey Benedict, a graduate student at Northeastern University.

Without getting into the causes behind the relationship between athletes and sexual assault, the report provides evidence of a problem consistently discounted by coaches and administrators.

“Obviously what it warrants is the question: Is sports contributing to the incidence of rapes and sexual assaults?” Benedict said. “In some cases it’s probably coincidence. But in many cases it may be that being a player in a big-time program makes it more difficult to determine what’s criminal and what isn’t.”

The authors leave to future researchers the question of whether the culture of contact sports creates attitudes that foster sexual crimes against women.

However, what I haven’t seen (and need to see) is correction factors: is there a correction factor for, say the athlete’s IQ versus the IQ of the general student population (low IQ correlates with increased violent crime). Is there a correction factor for socio-economic background? In other words, does belonging to a sports team increase the chances that an individual will commit sexual violence? Or, is there a correlation between the person who is good at sports (especially the violent ones) and the ones who are prone to commit sexual violence?

Remember it has been shown that there are genetic factors to behavior.

Also from the above study:

But, the authors warn, “even here, reports were not uniform from school to school – suggesting that the social environment of programs may vary significantly and have a substantial impact on the rate of sexual assault.” Rates often jumped after coaching changes, indicating that coaches may have a strong influence on player attitudes, the authors wrote.

Although campus police records also showed that athletes were involved in sexual assaults at a higher rate than other male students, the authors concluded that the difference was not “statistically significant” on that basis.

Police records, however, are the least accurate gauge of sexual assault on campuses, Benedict said. As in any criminal matter, victims must file formal charges against the accused perpetrator and submit to a public, sometimes lengthy legal process.

Victims showed a preference for going through the campus judicial-affairs office, which cannot impose jail time but can offer relief to the victim by such measures as removing the alleged perpetrator from the same class or residence hall. The office also handles matters behind closed doors.

Now some might say: “athletes have a high profile and are therefore more likely to be charged falsely”. But another report talks about this:

Athletes, and some of their supporters, have also contended that because of their notoriety, athletes are more likely to be scrutinized or falsely accused than nonathietes and that no real differences exist in their behaviors. The findings here do not support this contention since the athletes in this sample self-reported higher levels of physical and sexual abuse yet none of the athletes in the sample had been publicly accused of abuse. Further, the victims of sexual abuse in this sample reported higher rates of victimization than perpetrators admitted to, implying that perpetrators do not always acknowledge the sexual abuse they commit.

So the study (the one with the data) is an example of a reasonably good article; Dave Zirin’s The Nation article is pretty much junk (one reason I quit subscribing to that rag; I mostly agree with their conclusions but their arguments tend to be terrible; it is “Newsmax for left wingers” caliber stuff).

I also looked at the Boston University hockey case and read an article about a “task force” recommendation. I found the following to be interesting:

A six-month assessment by a special task force appointed to examine the culture and climate of the BU men’s ice hockey team has found significant deficiencies in the structures and processes that are designed to provide oversight of the program. These weaknesses, in turn, resulted in the supervision of student-athletes’ conduct falling disproportionately and inappropriately to the coaching staff, whose oversight was also lacking. The task force also found that a culture of sexual entitlement exists among some players, and that this, combined with the absence of sexual assault prevention training and education, led to risky behaviors.

Hmmm, ok…but…

The report concludes that the hockey team’s disciplinary history does not show a pattern that is significantly different from the undergraduate population as a whole,

Emphasis mine. Of course, in this case, “n” might be too small to make a conclusion.

Anyway: there is SOMETHING going on here even if it isn’t the “cultures” that some are talking about. I have to remember that many “know” things because they construct a model that “makes sense to them”, which, of course, is NOT evidence. This may be a result of their thinking or the data that they have access to, or their own life experiences.

I know that I am sometimes guilty of this: I’ve played sports in high school (and, ok, I sucked) and didn’t find any “rape culture” in the locker rooms. I know some elite athletes…who are….well, let’s just say that racewalkers aren’t a representative sample of athletes. :-)

So, I haven’t been in these locker rooms; then again, neither have the ranters who think that they “know” so much.

My conclusion I am not sure as to what is going on; there is a problem but I am unconvinced that it is a “culture” problem.

March 19, 2013 Posted by | ranting, social/political, sports | , | 1 Comment FAIL

Screen shot 2013-03-01 at 7.48.57 PM

Screen shot 2013-03-01 at 7.48.31 PM

I know that math is hard for some, but someone needs to inform these clowns that “0 percent” means…well….zero.

It has flurried and showered constantly over the past 5 days.

March 2, 2013 Posted by | Peoria, Peoria/local, ranting, whining | | Leave a comment

Humor, Snark and Ridicule…


Ok, the above is funny.

Politics and statistical literacy

A facebook friend posted this.


Now someone on her comment thread doubted these statistics because he knew that just walking around was safer than being in a war zone. That is, of course, true. But that doesn’t mean that the above statistics are false. What it means: wars tend to be brief and the armed forces involved are far smaller in number than the population of the United States.

Interestingly someone tried to argue by just posting a link, and I admit (and admitted it there) I misread the number of countries that were being compared (with respect to homicide rates). But the person attempting to argue with me didn’t get that this was a comparison of European countries; after all this study (which was a competent one) talked about the “high homicide rate” of the Netherlands and Sweden. Yes, their homicide rate is about 1.1 out of 100,000 whereas ours is 4.8 out of 100,000. But this person didn’t know that and won’t accept it.

The point: statistical and numerical illiteracy hamstrings a person when it comes to being able to make an intelligent contribution to a discussion on the major issues.


I am happy to let Ted Nugent be the face of the Republican party:

Bill Maher: made a joke that he wanted to see Donald Trump’s birth certificate to ensure that he wasn’t fathered by an orangutan and joked that he’d pay 5 million dollars to charity if one were produced. Mr. Trump produced a birth certificate and is now attempting to sue Mr. Maher for a breach of contract. Just watch the response:


Sorry, my sympathy for “senior citizens” is very limited here. Why? Here is why.
Screen shot 2013-02-09 at 9.38.37 PM

You old people voted for the Republicans. You richly deserve what you get.

I generally like Daily Kos. It is one of the few places you can make a physics joke and someone will get it. There are some smart people there. But if someone from a “community” feels that people from that community has been insulted, a “this prejudice X is the last remaining socially acceptable form of bigotry allowed in America…people from community X are your {insert obligatory list of family, friends and professions here}”, etc. etc. You could write one of these diaries with a computer program.

Well, here is the “fat acceptance” diary (you know, anti obesity programs are just there to enrich the diet/weight loss industry, right?”) :-)

I’d say that this opens our community to ridicule from the red staters, but fortunately the Republicans also have their share of obese people, though I wonder if they are as prone to blaming external forces for their situations as liberals are. Oh wait, of course they are; look at how they whine and complain when they lose an election; much of their strategy is to make the poor social conservatives feel like they are being victimized by “the libs”.

February 10, 2013 Posted by | 2012 election, humor, obesity, political/social, politics, ranting, republicans, social/political | , | Leave a comment

Rant: journalism and discussion about the Obama drone program

I’ve been following the “drone attack program” and the “authority to kill US citizens” issue closely. This will come up during the confirmation hearings for proposed CIA head John O. Brennan.

I’ve also tried to follow some of the discussions. Many have been extremely simple-minded.

I think that the problem is very difficult. What happens when a US citizen joins an Al Qaida-like organization, including one that has carried out, plotted attacks that have killed others? On one hand, it isn’t exactly the same thing as a US citizen who joins the army of a belligerent nation; obviously in the latter case, the “citizen” can be killed by standard military operations.

On the other hand, isn’t it at least similar? What constitutes an “army” anyway, if it is a non-state agency?
On the other hand: what if this person hasn’t really joined the organization but is in the area doing something else (say, humanitarian work). How is the person declared a “belligerent”, and who/what makes that declaration? What is the standard of proof?

Will this escalate into an excuse to kill political opponents? What safeguards (checks/balances) are there to prevent this from happening?

And what do you do? We are talking about areas that have no effective law-enforcement, and standard operations (military ones) usually result in many civilian injuries and deaths.

So, I am conflicted; I can see several sides of an issue.

However, some in the liberal media (that is the “liberal subset of the media”) think that a lack out outrage means that liberals are ignoring the problem.

Why isn’t there more outrage about the president’s unilateral targeted assassination program on the left?

Note: the article itself isn’t that bad; it contains a decent summary of the program and principled objections to it. But as far as the headline….

No, it isn’t that we are “ignoring” justice. It is that some of us have the intellect to see that this is a complicated, sticky issue and some of us are still working through our own thoughts.

I find it especially ironic that such charges are coming from a media that showed, among other things, that it doesn’t understand science and can’t even digest a simple collection of poll numbers (re: “the 2012 election is razor tight!”). Frankly, I doubt if many journalists and pundits have the mental firepower to give this issue proper examination.

Note: If you want to comment, fine. However I’d like for you to explain how your plan would work “right now” and what the potential weaknesses are, as well as why you might be wrong. If you can’t give me the weakness of your ideas or analysis, then you probably aren’t worth talking to about this.

February 7, 2013 Posted by | politics, politics/social, ranting, social/political, world events | , , | Leave a comment


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