Jose Drost-Lopez

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‘Proofiness’: The Wrong Kind of Math

In Book Review on May 4, 2011 at 12:22 am


This guy must be onto something. Look at all those fancy numbers.

Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception is a lucid exposition of innumerate thinking in its many ugly forms. The author, Charles Seife, notes that a fundamental source of numerical confusion is measurement, which necessarily involves units and a degree of uncertainty stemming from the measuring instrument. Sometimes reported measurements lack units because there is no well-defined quantity to measure: what does it mean for a type of mascara to have “12 times more impact,” as L’Oreal once advertised? Sometimes people treat different units as the same, as New York politicians have done in claiming drastic improvement in their state’s educational performance based on state tests that got easier over time. Even when units are handled correctly, most people misunderstand precision.

The commonest mistake is “disestimation”–assuming an estimate is more precise than it is. Take vote counts: due to all kinds of undercounting and double-counting errors, the margin of error will be at least 2% of the total votes. That means that in cases where the difference in votes between two candidates is tiny—the 2000 presidential election especially—the logical response is to declare a tie. But ties do not sit well with most people, so closely contested elections degenerate into squabbles over hundreds of votes, as if those decisive votes were the only ones subject to error. In one of the most hilarious passages of the book, Seife chronicles the fight over one ballot in Minnesota’s close 2008 Senate race; that particular ballot offered the write-in candidate “Lizard people” but also bubbled in Al Franken for governor, leading to a heated fight among lawyers and a panel of judges about whether “Lizard people” is a valid individual (the decision: yes, he/she is).

Speaking of error, Seife devotes a chapter to undercutting most polls reported by the press. The typical opinion poll will show the percentage of people who gave each response, along with a “margin of error.” The lurking problem with these polls is that the largest source of error is not acknowledged. “Margin of error” as journalists report it is actually just statistical error due to random variation, which depends on sample size. Much more important is systematic error, skewing of the results due to the design of the survey. Examples of design problems include picking a sample that does not represent the population being studied, wording and ordering questions in a way that influences answers, and asking questions which might tempt people to lie. One blaring example of design failure is internet surveys, which can only include people with decent internet access who volunteer to take the survey based on motives that will probably skew their answers. But sadly, people will exaggerate even in careful face to face interviews—that’s why the CDC found in 2007 that heterosexual men somehow have more sexual partners than heterosexual women.

In surveying mathematical failures, Seife offers his own cutesy terminology. Sometimes I find it dull: he calls misattributed causation “causuistry,” which is neither memorable nor easy to say. Other times I found myself chuckling. He dubs fitting inappropriate lines and curves to data points “regression to the moon.” This is a play on the phrase “regression to the mean” that gets across the idea that foisting simple models onto complex data leads to wacky conclusions. Case in point: a 2004 Nature paper extrapolates a linear fit for sprinters’ times to argue that women will surpass men in the next century. Seife rejects that as ridiculous, pointing out that the same linear extrapolation would predict sprinters eventually breaking the sound barrier and surpassing the speed of light.

Proofiness is essentially a series of warnings, anecdotes, and lessons. Those three elements dance together gracefully throughout the book, making for an engaging read. So go out and find yourself a copy! Here is some more background on Proofiness if you’re not sold on the book yet:

http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/10/29/the-dark-art-of-statistical-deception/

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/19/books/review/Strogatz-t.html

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129972868

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/10/08/AR2010100802980.html

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The Political Brain: How Obama Got it Right

In Book Review, Cognitive Sciences on July 10, 2010 at 3:15 pm

When I first glanced at Drew Westen’s The Political Brain, which promises to explore “the role of emotion” in the success of political campaigns, I braced myself for two disappointments typical of the pop psych genre: either Westen was a political pundit who did not really understand the brain, or he was a researcher trying to force his lab experiments to tell a coherent and important story. My cynicism was totally misplaced. From the outset, the book displays an impressive attunement to both the political sphere and to contemporary psychology.

In an interesting twist, Westen reveals that he is a devoted Democrat, but rightly comments that his Machiavellian approach offers insights for everyone. Anyhow, it is fitting that Westen’s mission is to reinvigorate the Democrats, whose election record as of the book’s publication date (2007) was shoddy. In the presidential elections of the last century, only seven out of eighteen presidents had been Democrats. Moreover, in recent memory, the blue corners of the nation had been flabbergasted to see both Gore and Kerry fall to George W. Bush. Sweeping aside notions of presidential merit and rational voter choice, Westen demonstrates how failed campaign strategy dragged Gore, Kerry, and many of the last century’s Democrats down.

The central buffoons of the story are Democratic political consultants, who operate on a flawed view of voters’ minds. They gear their appeals toward a dispassionate mind, one which makes political decisions by weighing evidence, reasoning to valid conclusions, and calculating the expected utility of each candidate. This view is not just outdated and simplistic; it loses elections. Real people vote based not on expected policy outcomes, but on feelings of shared values, trust, and emotional identification with candidates. But while the Democrats mistakenly take their cues from the debate team, Republican consultants focus on useful lessons from marketing. They create a party brand. They emphasize values and advise candidates to project likability and trustworthiness before intellect. They tell simple stories that envelop their candidates in positive associations while tagging their opponents with negative ones.

Though Westen gives a clear-headed view of how networks of emotionally laden associations in the brain color voters’ decisions, his most valuable insights come in his examples. He dissects speeches and TV commercials from Clinton and Reagan, his two models of success, showing how each told an emotionally compelling and coherent story. And most enjoyably of all, he pulls out hilarious segments of the Bush-Gore debates in which Gore makes a very cold factual attack and Bush responds with goofy but emotionally appealing comments. Case in point: “BUSH (nodding toward Gore): Look, this is a man who has great numbers. He talks about numbers. I’m beginning to think not only did he invent the Internet, but he invented the calculator. It’s fuzzy math” (First Gore-Bush debate, October 3, 2004). Just as Gore’s advisors were congratulating themselves on winning the debates, the electorate was shifting toward Bush.

Want to hear more? Check out Jonah Lehrer’s summary of one of Westen’s experiments.  For still more, go read the book!

Drew Westen is a clinical, personality, and political psychologist at Emory University. He founded Westen Strategies, a political and corporate consulting firm.

Since the publication of The Political Brain in 2007, Westen has become a mini-superstar and campaigns across the country have flocked to him for advice. The question on my mind is this: how intentionally did Obama’s team enact Westen’s principles? The vague but enthusiastic promises of “hope” and “change we can believe in” clearly worked, and not because they appealed to rationality. While Westen was not a key campaign player, he gave plenty of informal advice and I bet some of Obama’s team paid attention.

Either way, let’s not take Westen for an Obama fanboy. Here was his searing explanation for Obama’s popularity drop:

“What’s costing the president are three things: a laissez faire style of leadership that appears weak and removed to everyday Americans, a failure to articulate and defend any coherent ideological position on virtually anything, and a widespread perception that he cares more about special interests like bank, credit card, oil and coal, and health and pharmaceutical companies than he does about the people they are shafting.  The problem is not that his record is being distorted. It’s that all three have more than a grain of truth.”

All in all, I’m glad to see Westen’s book wield pertinent psychological research to great effect. Hopefully, society’s thought leaders will increasingly heed the sciences of the mind.