Archive for October, 2009

Ig Nobel Onomastics

Polish Driver\'s License

First, a new twist on a story that our legal desk covered back in February: at the annual Ig Nobel awards ceremony earlier tonight, the Prize for Literature was awarded to the Garda Síochána na hÉireann (i.e. the Irish Police Force) for the 50 or more speeding tickets they've issued in the name "Prawo Jazdy", Polish for "driver's license."

And as if that wasn't enough onomastic excitement, the 2009 Ig Nobel Prize for Veterinary Medicine was awarded for work reported in Bertenshaw, C. and Rowlinson, P., Exploring Stock Managers' Perceptions of the Human-Animal Relationship on Dairy Farms and an Association with Milk Production, Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of The Interactions of People and Animals 22:1, pp. 59-69, 2009. Specifically, Dr. Bertenshaw and Dr. Rowlinson share the prize for their demonstration that (and here I quote from the article's abstract): "On farms where cows were called by name, milk yield was 258 liters higher than on farms where this was not the case (p < 0.001)."

Yet all this groundbreaking research leaves me with more questions than answers. What is the causal direction behind the correlation? And if my cow produced 238 liters too little milk, would I admit to the researchers the names I used for her? And how much milk can an Irish policeman get from a speeding Polish cow?

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Everyday statistical reasoning

Mark Liberman has been writing about the persistent misinterpretation of claims about statistical differences between groups with respect to some property — misinterpretations in which these differences (often small ones) are understood as general (and essential) differences between the groups. A little while ago, Mark suggested that reporting the differences by means of generic plurals ("Asians have a more collectivist mentality than Europeans do") promotes misunderstanding and proposed that such generic language be avoided.

In comments, Mark noted that changing the language of popular science reporting is not by itself going to fix an inclination to essentialist thinking (which is all over the place), though it might be a step in the right direction.

Mark looked at groups X and Y with respect to property P, focussing on statistical differences between X and Y. Let's say that members of X tend to have P to a greater degree than members of Y. Then there's a statistical association (perhaps a very weak one) between X and P. And most people have as much trouble understanding statistical association as they do statistical differences. Here, the characteristic error in reasoning is treating the association as invariant: all Xs have P (and no non-Xs do). Again, the error is all over the place, often showing up in objections to claims of statistical association. As in the following case from a September 30 NYT story "Dementia Risk Seen in Players In N.F.L. Study" by Alan Schwarz.

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When did managers become stupid?

Andrew Gelman at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science, commenting on my posts about a Dilbert cartoon that skewers "the vacuous way managers talk", asks "What is a 'manager' anyway?"

My only comment here is not on the Bayesian inference but rather on the idea that "managers" are dweeby Dilbert characters who talk using management jargon. I was thinking about it, and I realized that I'm a manager. I manage projects, hire people, etc. But of course I don't usually think of myself as a "manager" since that's considered a bad thing to be.

For another example, Liberman considers a "spokesperson for a manufacturer of sex toys" as a manager. I don't know what this person does, but I wouldn't usually think of a spokesperson as a manager at all.

The LL posts in question were "Moving low-hanging fruit forward at the end of the day", 9/26/2009;  "Memetic dynamics of summative cliches", 9/26/2009; "'At the end of the day' not management-speak", 9/26/2009; "Another nail in the ATEOTD=manager coffin", 9/28/2009; and "Memetic dynamics of low-hanging fruit", 9/30/2009.

And Andrew's comment is very much to the point.

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