Sunday, January 27, 2008

Books that make you dumb? I don't think so.

Time for another statistics lesson. I'm not the world's greatest statistics whiz (not like the super-geek on TV's "NUMB3RS" show), but that's part of my point: you don't have to be a super-geek to detect major mistakes in statistics that come your way.

This isn't a rant - it's just an interesting example of what to be careful about, with a little entertainment along the way.

I just got an email with something that, on the face of it, is fascinating:
Some one matched up the most popular books in Facebook college groups with average SAT scores at colleges to see what people commonly read at different intelligence levels.
Nice graphics, and a decent explanation about his method. On the face of it, pretty interesting.

But there's this thing about statistics: you've got to be careful about (at least) three things:
  1. When you see a pattern, are you really seeing a pattern you can count on, or is it just a momentary coincidence? (If the first two people to walk into your office are men, does that mean only men will walk in today?)

  2. Even when you do see a pretty reliable pattern, can you be reasonably sure it means what you think it means? (A relationship between the behaviors of two variables is called a correlation, but that doesn't mean you can say one caused the other. A famous example: for some years there was a correlation between wolverine population and the number of sunspots. Did either cause the other? Not likely, and besides, who could tell? The lesson: Similar behavior of two figures could just be a coincidence.)

  3. Finally, you've got to be really careful about whom you actually measured. (If you interview people who are hanging out in skid row bars at 2 a.m., you may reach some interesting conclusions about the opinions of people in skid row bars at 2 a.m., but you can't say they're conclusions about people in general.)
Returning to the email: this guy saw patterns in which books were favorites at colleges with different average SAT scores. Addressing #1, he correctly didn't count colleges with very little data. But blew it on #2, when he titled the page "books that make you dumb," revealing a pretty massive fixation on one aspect of the whole picture, and flying in the face of his assurance that "I know correlation doesn't equal causation."

And besides, on #3, he doesn't even mention the gross sampling error of making an assertion about the book, based on data from Facebook readers who read it AND who participate in listing their favorites. Example 1: the Jesuit scholars at Boston College are highly intellectual, and I imagine that if they ranked their favorite books, the Holy Bible would rank high; but I doubt the Jesuits are ranking books on Facebook, and the Bible ranks among the lowest on this guy's charts.

Example 2: if some book actually made many people so brilliant they ditched Facebook, those people would disappear from this ranking entirely, and all that would remain would be the people who completely didn't get it. And, that book would show up as "making people dumb."

Besides, there's the whole issue of whether SATs are any indication of smartness, not to mention which type of smartness (Gardner's Multiple Intelligences).

He woud have been better off titling it BooksThatLowAndHighSATSchoolFacebookMembersLove.

This isn't just an academic issue - these errors can lead us to drive off a cliff. When we think we see something, and we don't, then with the best of intentions we can make serious mistakes in our conclusions, our policy decisions and our life choices.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

On the health of complex systems

Somewhat related to my "nature of wellness" post is the general question of what is health.

I've known Dorron Levy since November of 1994, and for almost the whole time he's devoted his career to figuring out how to tell whether a system is healthy, with the goal of enabling early detection, which allows solving a problem before its consequences spread, becoming more costly and eventually becoming urgent.

His work that's been published is about computer-based systems, but the underlying theoretical work is quite generalized, and I expect it'll lead to sophisticated early detection of human health problems. He's started a blog,, to lay out his thinking in easy-to-digest chapters. If you're at all interested in how things work, you might enjoy reading it.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Don't fall for SEIU

Some of you may have received an email today from MoveOn. I urge you not to donate to this particular campaign, and to go to MoveOn's suggestion form and warn them, as I did:

Be very, very careful about SEIU. I'm a strong progressive myself, very pro-union philosophically, but these people give unions a bad name. They lie, distort, send subversive emails and letters full of half-truths or outright untruths. Creating a strong union movement must not depend on such Bush-like tactics!

I'm quite disappointed to see them showing up in a MoveOn email.

Watch out - they open you to what could be well-documented claims of fraud and deception. That is NOT something MoveOn needs!

Here's why I said that.

These people are weasels. Those of you who've been following Paul Levy's blog, as CEO of my hospital (Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, aka BIDMC), and who perhaps have met him, know what kind of man he is: competent, compassionate, committed, honest. SEIU wants to unionize his hospital, and they've been claiming he's a slimy liar who uses manipulative tactics more appropriate to the Bush administration.

Here's a blog post from the other day about a packet they just sent to 500 affiliated doctors (who don't even work for the hospital!). The package suggests, among other things, that Levy is failing to honor the Jewish tradition of social justice.

Furthermore, SEIU is trying to prevent putting the issue to a secret ballot of the affected workers, supervised by the National Labor Relations Board, and has even supported legislation to eliminate those elections. Note - NLRB elections were created specifically to prevent manipulative employers from blocking workers' free choice.

Paul advocated in an August 2006 post for a free exchange of views: "we will vigorously oppose any efforts to short-circuit the legitimate process by which employees of this hospital can consider, debate, and vote on this issue."

Several months later
he again advocated that the vote be by secret ballot. Last summer he spelled out specific tactics the union has used in other cities. One commenter said
The initial cause for unions was to avoid worker exploitation and unsafe working environments. I don’t see this happening at BIDMC. If a Hospital or business provides a good safe place to work with decent benefits and livable wages for all its employees than there is no need for union intervention. That being said I do feel there are still places of business that could use a union…Maybe the SEIU should be looking at Wal*Mart????"
I couldn't agree more. I wonder why on earth they're not doing that. Or, consider Nike, which in 2003 went to court to claim the right to lie about whether they'd cleaned up their sweatshops! They finally gave up, six months later, and agreed to donate $1.5M to a workers' rights group.

Paul's "pages from the playbook" post contains comments spanning three months, with back and forth between Levy and various attackers (and supporters). You can decide for yourself whether he's open and honest. Consider in particular the August 13 comment by an employee, which criticizes several things about life as a nurse at BIDMC - Paul published it unedited. This man is not a manipulator.

We need unions where there are rampant abuses, as with Nike and Wal-Mart. But SEIU does not give unions a good name.

I personally believe the Reagan administration did us all a great disservice when they started busting up unions, starting with PATCO... that's one reason the middle class is disappearing in the US, with grave consequences throughout the economy. But the solution is not to lie and go after great not-for-profit institutions. Shame on them - not only are they not attacking the problem, they're giving the solution a bad name in the process.