Chance News 59

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Revision as of 09:41, 23 January 2010 by Cibes (talk | contribs) (Measuring happiness)
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I wish I could say, well, I told people correlation doesn't equal causation back in 1989, so I don't have to say it again.

Joe Palca, NPR science correspondent, lamenting the lay public's continual lack of understanding of how science progresses; this appeared in an article by Julia Galef entitled "Uncertainty in Science, It's a Feature, Not a Bug," The Humanist, January-February 2010.

Submitted by Paul Alper

Suddenly, we could analyze, and there was no logical end to analyzing the data ... The trick is to not go over the line. ... "Oh, those are the guys who tell us how so and so bats on alternate Tuesdays under a full moon." ... [Y]ou have to be careful not to believe that the statistics tell the whole story ... You can always find mitigating circumstances to any statistic or any fact. And you don't want to lose the beauty of the game. You want to appreciate a game for [the] game's sake.”

Steve Hirdt, Elias Sports Bureau VP, discussing obscure sports statistics/records provided by ESB to media sports commentators during broadcast games, in “Is There a Stat for That?”, The Wall Street Journal, December 23, 2009.
Submitted by Margaret Cibes

In a civil suit gambler Terrance Watanabe, who lost nearly $127 million in 2007, claims that employees “plied him with alcohol and prescription drugs to encourage him to stay and gamble.” He faces criminal charges related to his remaining debt of almost $15 million.

One reason Mr. Watanabe was seen as so valuable to Harrah's, say … two of his handlers, is that he gravitated toward games with low odds, including roulette and slots. "He was considered a 'house' player because slots and roulette are house games -- they have terrible odds for the player," says [one of the handlers]. "And the way he played blackjack, he made it a house game. He made such bad decisions on the blackjack table."

Alexandra Berzon, in “The Gambler Who Blew $127 Million”, The Wall Street Journal, December 5, 2009.
Submitted by Margaret Cibes


Calculating high school dropout rates

KC School District's dropout rate doesn't add up. Michael McShane, The Kansas City Star.

The Kansas City, Missouri school district had some amazing statistics to brag about.

The Kansas City School District recently announced a dropout rate of 5.9 percent. Compared with the dropout rate of 41.2 percent reported a year ago, it appeared as if the district was moving by leaps and bounds in the right direction to correct the problem.

These results, however, appear to be incorrect.

The Missouri Department of Education says when the Kansas City School District’s Class of 2009 started eighth grade in the fall of 2004 it had 2,629 members. When that class graduated this spring, 1,032 students earned diplomas. It doesn’t take a degree in mathematics to recognize that does not add up.

The calculation of a dropout rate is not too difficult.

It is a simple mathematical formula; take the total number of students who graduate and divide it by how many students started in eighth grade. If necessary, adjust that number for demographic movement trends and with a No. 2 pencil and a scientific calculator, anyone at home can estimate the graduation rate.

Here are the numbers you need for the calculation.

Let’s calculate it together. When those 2,629 eighth-graders were enrolled in the district, the total enrollment for the district was 26,968 students. When 1,032 members of that cohort earned diplomas there were 22,479 total students enrolled in the district.

If you don't account for migration, the graduation rate is 1032 / 2629 = 39%. Here's how to account for migration.

In that same period, the overall district enrollment declined by 16.65 percent, so it’s fair to reduce the number of eighth-graders to reflect that, which we can do by multiplying by 0.8335. After those calculations, the adjusted graduation rate of the district is really 47 percent.

Part, but not all of the discrepancy, can be accounted for by a change in time frame. The 5.9% represents an annual drop-out rate, not a rate across four years, a practice that Dr. McShane derides.

The district’s using that number as its dropout rate is the equivalent of your credit card company telling you the monthly rather than the yearly interest rate. It may make you feel better, but you’re still going to pay big.


1. How would you convert a yearly dropout rate to a four year dropout rate?

2. The adjustment for migration makes some assumptions. What are those assumptions? Are they reasonable?

3. Would it make sense to compute confidence limits for the dropout rate?

Submitted by Steve Simon

Graphing the politics of health care

The Senate’s health care calculations
New York Times, 18 November, 2009
Andrew Gelman, Nate Silver and Daniel Lee

Using some beautiful statistical graphics, the authors discuss the politics of the health care debate . One graphic explores a putative relationship between senators' positions on health care and public opinion in their home states. However, the relationship is shown to disappear when a third variable is accounted for, namely President Obama's 2008 margin of victory in each state. A second graphic uses data maps to illustrate public opinion on health care broken down by age, family income and state.

To be continued...

Submitted by Bill Peterson

Ill health news

10 trends in health care journalism going into 2010
HealthNewsReview Blog
Gary Schwitzer

Schwizter is an associate professor at University of Minnesota School of Journalism & Mass Communication, and the publisher of Health News Review, a web site which monitors the accuracy of news stories related to medicine. The project is funded by the Foundation for Informed Medical Decision Making.

From the blog post referenced above we learn that "An updated look at the first 900 stories reviewed on shows that

    71% fail to adequately discuss costs,
    71% fail to explain how big (or small) is the potential benefit,
    66% fail to explain how big (or small) is the potential harm,
    66% fail to evaluate the quality of the evidence,
    60% fail to compare new idea with existing options."

As for television in particular, "After 3.5 years and 228 network TV health segments reviewed, we can make the data-driven statement that many of the stories are bad and they're not getting much better."

With regard to the US Preventive Task Force's mammography recommendations, "There was some excellent journalism done on the issue last week, but it was overwhelmed by and drowned out by the drumbeat of dreck shoveled out by many news organizations - including in much (not all) of what was provided on network TV." Further, "The week was certainly a setback for the nation's understanding of science, of evaluation of evidence, of the potential harms of screening tests." Much of this thanks to "The public relations machinery of the American Cancer Society, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology - and other groups that opposed the USPSTF recommendations" which "helped the anti-USPSTF message rule the media all of last week."

Discussion Questions

1. As an exercise in futility, discuss with your sister, girl friend, wife, mother the USPSTF recommendations regarding breast cancer screening.

2. Do the same with your brother, boy friend, husband, father regarding the recommendations for prostate screening.

3. Why is there alleged a "public relations machinery" against the USPSTF?

Submitted by Paul Alper

Another medical news blog

Robin Motz alerted us to the blog Medicine: Facts and Fictions, which is subtitled "Corrections to and explanations of medical stories in the news."

In particular, Robin highlighted an interesting post on meta-analysis that describes potential pitfalls, including Simpson's paradox.

Measuring happiness

“The Drag of Devising a State-by-State Mirth Meter”
by Carl Bialik (“The Numbers Guy”), The Wall Street Journal, December 24, 2009

This article discusses the difficulties involved in measuring how happy people are.

In 2008 Gallup and Healthways began a 25-year project with the goal of polling 1,000 Americans nearly every day about their “health and happiness.” Preliminary results were posted in Fall 2009 in the Journal of Research in Personality. (See “Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index” for an article about the project.)

Starting in 2005, the CDC began an annual survey of more than 350,000 adults and reported in Science the results of asking: “In general how satisfied are you with your life?” The CDC study controlled for socio-economic differences among respondents. (See “Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System” for the CDC’s data and methodology.)

According to Bialik a British economist commented that:

A state that has a lot of married, wealthy people is likely to rank high in happiness, but not because its residents have chosen the ideal place to live. In fact, wealthy, married couples tend to be happy anywhere. If you are single and not wealthy, moving to a more happily-ranked state isn't likely to lift your spirits much ….

Another economist is quoted:

Economists have typically played fast and loose with psychological terms.

Submitted by Margaret Cibes


“Secrets of the Economist’s Trade: First, Purchase a Piggy Bank”
by Justin Lahart, The Wall Street Journal, January 2, 2010

This article discusses economists’ tendencies to frugality in their personal lives.

According to Lahart, recent research by two University of Washington economists found that:

[E]conomics majors were less likely to donate money to charity than students who majored in other fields. After majors in other fields took an introductory economics course, their propensity to give also fell.

And a 1981 paper by two University of Wisconsin sociologists found that:

[E]conomics students showed a much higher propensity to free ride [take more than their fair share of something when circumstances permit] than other students.

Apparently economists tend not to be gamblers either.

One year, Yale University economist Robert Shiller, who'd never gambled in his life, found himself at a casino [in New Orleans]. He says that was because Wharton economist Jeremy Siegel realized that by using coupons offered to conventioneers, they could take opposing bets at the craps table with a 35 out of 36 chance of winning $12.50 each. Over two nights, Mr. Shiller netted $87.50. …. He hasn't gambled since.

See the paper “Why are economics students more selfish than the rest?”, by Yoram Bauman and Elaina Rose, University of Washington, November 2009.
Also see an abstract of the paper “Economsts free ride, does anyone else?”, by Gerald Marwell and Ruth E. Ames, University of Wisconsin, 1981.
Submitted by Margaret Cibes