Difference between revisions of "Chance News 39"

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1.  Stephen Senn, like many statisticians, loves to make jokes.  Sometimes the humor escapes the reader.  Look up homeopathy in Google to see why his statement about overdosing when the patient neglects to take the homeopathy medicine is hilarious.
1.  Stephen Senn, like many statisticians, loves to make jokes.  Sometimes the humor escapes the reader.  Look up homeopathy in Google to see why his statement about overdosing when the patient neglects to take the homeopathic medicine is hilarious.
Submitted by Paul Alper
Submitted by Paul Alper

Revision as of 19:06, 12 August 2008


Steve Simon suggests the following classic quote:

The glitter of the t table diverts attention from the inadequacies of the fare. -- Sir Austin Bradford Hill. Source: Austin Bradford Hill, "The Environment and Disease: Association or Causation?" Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, 58 (1965), 295-300. The full text of this paper is reproduced at Edward Tufte's website and is well worth reading. This quote is cited in many places including the excellent article "The missed lessons of Sir Austin Bradford Hill" Phillips CV, Goodman KJ. Epidemiol Perspect Innov. 2004; 1: 3. doi: 10.1186/1742-5573-1-3.


The following is a graphical forsooth. It has circulated on several email lists including edstat-l.


Submitted by Steve Simon

Here are a number of Forsooths from Stephen Senn's book Statistical Issues in Drug Development (Statistics in Practice)

"Most Trials are unethical because they are too large." Page 178.
"Small Trial are unethical." Page 179.

"A significant result is more meaningful if obtained from a large trial." Page 179.

"A given significant P-value is more indicative of the efficacy of a treatment if obtained from a small trial." Page 180.

"For a given P-value, the evidence against the null hypothesis is the same whatever the size of the trial." Page 182.

"Warning: Trials in homeopathy are extremely dangerous. If patients forget to take their medicine they are likely to overdose." Page 288.

"Pharmaco -economist: one who asks, not only if the treatment for dysentery was effective, but also after the price of toilet paper." Page 361.


1. Stephen Senn, like many statisticians, loves to make jokes. Sometimes the humor escapes the reader. Look up homeopathy in Google to see why his statement about overdosing when the patient neglects to take the homeopathic medicine is hilarious. Submitted by Paul Alper

A quantitative approach to art history

A Textbook Example of Ranking Artworks, Patricia Cohen, The New York Times, August 4, 2008.

An economist has offered a surprisingly forthright opinion about the art world.

Ask David Galenson to name the single greatest work of art from the 20th century, and he unhesitatingly answers “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” a 1907 painting by Picasso.


The ranking was based on a purely quantitative criteria: how often the artwork was reproduced in books about art (28 times, more than any other artwork).

His statistical approach has led to what he says is a radically new interpretation of 20th-century art, one he is certain art historians will hate. It is based in part on how frequently an illustration of a work appears in textbooks. “Quantification has been almost totally absent from art history,” he said. “Art historians hate markets.”

Previous work in art by Mr. Galenson also had a quantitative bent.

In 2002 Mr. Galenson discussed his theories about creativity in the book “Painting Outside the Lines.” Then, two years ago, he published “Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity,” arguing that young innovators have a flash of inspiration that upends the existing order in an instant. There are old geniuses too, he said, but their approach is vastly different. They are what he labeled “experimentalists,” who develop their work gradually through years of trial and error. His theory of creativity was based in part on examining auction prices. His approach was hailed by some as a breakthrough, and this spring he was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship to pursue his research.

Auction prices, although clearly quantitative, do have a problem.

Since many of the most important individual works rarely, if ever, come to market, he decided to use art history textbooks to value each piece. He tallied the number of illustrations of each piece in the 33 textbooks he found that were published between 1990 and 2005, on the assumption that the most important works merited the most illustrations.

This effort has received both praise

Michael Rushton, who teaches the economics of art at Indiana University, said that Mr. Galenson was on to something; in science or art, he said, “innovation really requires a market.”

and criticism.

Art experts, not surprisingly, are more skeptical. “The economic notion of artists is interesting for art historians to have to grapple with,” John Elderfield, chief curator emeritus at the Museum of Modern Art, said when Mr. Galenson’s theory was described to him. “These are works in the histories that we tell of modern art. They seem to be milestones, and that’s fair enough.” But he cautioned that this approach could only go so far. “There are great, great things being made which are not reducible to statistics.”

What are the other great works of art, according to this statistical criteria?

Vladimir Tatlin’s “Monument to the Third International” (1919-20), a plan for a celebratory tower, came in second with 25 illustrations.


“Spiral Jetty,” a gigantic earthwork coil that Robert Smithson planted in the Great Salt Lake in Utah 1970, came in third with 23,


followed by Richard Hamilton’s “Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?,” a 1956 collage widely considered to be the first Pop Art, with 22.


Umberto Boccioni’s 1913 bronze sculpture “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space”


tied Picasso’s “Guernica” (1937) with 21.


Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 “Fountain” — a white urinal — was seventh with 18 illustrations,


and his 1912 painting “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2” was eighth with 16.


Further reading

The article mentions the following book:

The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art. Don Thompson (2008). Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN-10: 0230610226.


1. Does producing a quantitative measure of something like art make sense? Does it enhance our understanding of art or grossly oversimplify it?

2. How does Mr. Galenson's efforts compare to other quantitative measures of success, such as frequency of citation in the peer-reviewed literature?

3. Recent publications (such as this one or the book Freakonomics) seem to imply that all of life's difficult questions can be understood from an economic perspective. To what extent does it help or hurt to incorporate economic values into areas ostensibly outside of economics?

4. What (if any) other "great, great things being made are not reducible to statistics"?

Submitted by Steve Simon

Death and taxes - 2009 edition

On the theme of visualising data in an interesting way, graphic designer, Jesse Bachman, has updated his death and taxes graph with the latest figures from the US President's official budget request and the comptroller of the Department of Defense. This on-line, interactive graph neatly visualizes how the US federal government spends its income taxes.

Death and Taxes - 2009, by Jesse Bachman.

Clicking on this image will open up a larger but static version of the graph. Whereas the interactive website version allows users to zoom in on different parts and to pan around the graph to see its full resolution, which isn't available with the static graphs associated with this article.

This is a large representational graph and poster of the federal budget. It contains over 500 programs and departments and almost every program that receives over 200 million dollars annually. The data is straight from the president's 2009 budget request and will be debated, amended, and approved by Congress to begin the fiscal year. All of the item circles are proportional in size to their spending totals and the percentage change from 2008 is included to spot trends and disproportion.

Further reading

Submitted by John Gavin.