October 2006

In the 1970’s, an appetite-suppressant candy was being marketed to Americans by the Dep Corporation, and was made available in chocolate, butterscotch, caramel and peanut butter flavors. They decided to call their product, AYDS, a name which seemed innocent enough at the time during which it enjoyed strong sales.

What a difference a few years make.

By the mid-80’s fear of the human immuno-deficiency disease, AIDS, pervaded western society and sales of the now unfortunately named dieting product plummeted. Changing circumstances can quickly render proven marketing slogans lethal to one’s goals. This is the fate that befell the warmongering campaign phrase “stay the course” this week as the flaws in the current US policy in Iraq became too big to hide. Progressive blogs and YouTubers were the first to ridicule the revisionist way this policyshift was announced. Keith Olbermann drew attention to the self-contradictory spin (i.e. lying) a number of different times on his show, and his latest eulogy to the now defunct rhetoric nicely summarises the developments of the last week:

However he did forget to mention one member of the “coalition of the willing” who also once used the phrase that everyone now avoids like a bad disease — Tony Blair (used twice in his statement while standing side-by-side with George W. Bush).

Why do people continue to listen to bad prognosticators? Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy, a website that explores and corrects many misconceptions in space science, explains why astrology is believed by so many people despite having no basis in scientific fact. Astrologers rely on people’s tendency to remember the hits while forgetting the misses. It is not just astrologers that take advantage of selective memory, but also anyone in the business of predicion. It takes special effort to draw one’s attention to the misses before one loses trust in their chosen method of forecasting the future.

Bill Maher recently drew attention to all the failed predictions made by the members of neocon think tanks (namely The Heritage Foundation and the Project for the New American Century), asking why they are still in the business of making predictions. It seems there needs to be many high profile failures on record before one loses trust in the policies that these poorly prognosticating think tanks promote. There are signs that this threshold in wrongness has finally been reached as some members of the Bush administration seemed to be willing to adopt a drastic change in strategy.

Of course any such reversal on previously held positions will be seen as flip flopping on the war and one cannot have that, unless one redefines what one means by “strategy” and performs some Soviet-style revision of history concerning the “stay the course” mantra. (Jon Stewart also tackled this sudden policy shift back in August.) Such chaotic thinking is no better than when the Republicans last used astrology to make decisions.

Stephen Colbert analyses US politics via by way of analogy suggested by Pennsylvania Senator, Rick Santorum, with hilarious results:

Fantasy analogies seem to be in vogue this US political season — perhaps as a way to introduce children to political concepts. E.g. the “Alice in Wonderland” analysis of propaganda. For more advanced readers of fiction, there is the obligatory 1984 comparison. Those who are less well read but follow American sports will better understand the football analogy:

“This is the fourth quarter, there’s two minutes left in the game, and we’re down two touchdowns. There may not be enough time left.” — Larry Diamond, one of a panel of experts advising the Iraq Study Group.

But count on Bush for the ultimate fantasy analogy. After years of flatly rejecting the comparison, he finally admitted the parallels between the Iraq and Vietnam wars. How is this a fantasy? The Bush administration believes the US could have won the Vietnam war had they not withdrawn.

I was listening to Today on BBC Radio 4 in the morning and they included an excerpt from last week’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in which he interviewed James Baker. The BBC included a snippet of the interview while reporting the leaked recommendations of the Iraqi Study Group which allegedly include a dramatic departure from “stay the course”. What is most curious about this is that a real interview excerpt from a fake news show was deemed suitable for inclusion in a serious BBC programme. One can only conclude that the countless other James Baker interviews by more mainstream media sources didn’t bother to ask the question that Today wanted answered: “Why do they say that? We don’t want voters to know what we’re planning until after the elections, because we don’t want to politicise it. Isn’t that the whole point?”. I read somewhere that more and more Americans are relying on the BBC for international news. Looks like the BBC have to rely on Jon Stewart for American foreign policy news.

Stephen Colbert’s Green Screen Challenge ended last Monday.

I feel sorry for runner up, George L, although it looked like he had a lot more resources at his disposal than the other entrants. He might have clinched it had he not let Jar Jar survive , but you can’t win ’em all.

I think people in general need to have a firmer grasp of basic statistics as it crops very often in decisions of extreme importance. Those in ignorance are too easily fooled and manipulated by persons with an agenda to push and who know how to misrepresent statistical techniques. A newspaper article meant to be shocking claimed one third of all deaths occuring on the weekend! Well, duh! Friday evening to Sunday night is one third of a week. Likewise, in Scott Adams’ Dilbert, the boss gets angry and suspicious when told that 40% of sick days are taken on a Monday or a Friday

With even more damaging consequences, in 1968 a couple was found guilty of a robbery because the jury was given bad instruction on the calculation of probability. The jury thought the probability that an innocent couple sharing all 6 attributes as those who committed the crime was 1 in 12,000,000 and convicted on that basis. When conditional probabilities were taken into account, the chance of coincidence increased to about 1 in 4 — far from beyond reasonable doubt.

More recently in the UK, a solicitor was convicted of killing her two children on the basis of an expert witness who testified that the chances of two Sudden Infant Deaths in the same affluent, non-smoking family were 1 in 73 million. To arrive at this figure he had to assume that two SID deaths among siblings are independent events but provided no evidence of this. The calculation is rubbish if SID has a common cause that is specific to the family, e.g. is genetic or traced to a pollutant in the home.

In the Intelligent Design vs. Evolution battle over education, the pro-creationists held that the chance that all the evolutionary mutations necessary to bring human beings into existence occured completely at random is so vanishingly small as to be impossible. This is the fallacy of equating the improbable with the impossible. I could shuffle a deck of cards and deal out all 52 face up, noting each one in order. When I work out the probability that such an order will come up, I will get a very tiny number (smaller than 1 in 8 followed by 69 zeros). And yet the event happened, because I just dealt out the cards in that very same sequence!

Global warming denialists play even more sophisticated statistical tricks, examples of which can be seen at ClimateAudit — a website devoted to debunking (mostly unsuccessfully) of one 8 year old scientific paper. They have gathered quite a following, mostly people not familiar with any of the statistical techniques involved. The website founders have published entire books disputing whether average temperature has a physical meaning while committing some very basic errors that are easily spotted by those with a little Excel experience.

Other myths, illusions and fantasies of a statistical nature include Bible Codes and homeopathy — all disproven with proper application of statistics.

This past week the Lancet published a study that employed the statistical technique of clustered sampling to estimate that the war in Iraq had resulted in 650,000 additional deaths. Immediately, this was disputed by many warmongers, many of whom had little understanding of the statistical methods involved, and those with a little knowledge only confirming the adage that a little learning is a dangerous thing. Tim Lambert’s blog provides a good summary of the attacks on this paper and includes counter arguments defending the research. There is little need to reiterate them here.

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”, by Disraeli (according to Mark Twain).

It’s business as usual at YouTube despite the Google buy out. Left leaning blogs have been circulating an old press conference clip in which Bush expresses doubts whether North Korea has increased their nuclear arsenal. At least Jon Stewart on The Daily Show has seen the bright side of the North Korean nuclear test – they now have one less nuclear weapon.

(We also see the return of Aasif Mandvi, whose debut Daily Show segment was extremely popular.) Stephen Colbert begins learning Korean while probing for Kim Jong Il’s weaknesses. But avoiding humour altogether, Keith Olbermann shifts blame to Donald Rumsfeld.

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