Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Church Safety

I was extremely disappointed in Time magazine for its November 30, 2009 article about church safety and crime. This article was two pages long, which is two too many. It is just more media shock sensationalism, preying on people's irrational fears and lack of understanding of prevalence and probability to get attention. Here is some perspective and context for the numbers that the magazine so irresponsibly presented as "a flurry of violent crimes".

# of murders in churches since 2008 as reported: 5
# of murders in 2006 (most recent year for complete data, CDC): 18,573
# of violent crimes in churches in 2009 (10 months): 40
# of violent crimes in 2006 in USA (DoJ): 5,858,840

If the average church visit lasts about an hour and a half (~1/6000 of a year), we see that the murder rate is about average, and the violent crime rate in churches is minuscule. When you factor in that many people staff and visit church beyond the weekly services, the relative rates of violence are even smaller. When we further examine the murders that did happen, two were going to happen regardless of the church setting (spurning wife and abortion provider), and the church was just convenient. The situation with the stabbed priest is a mystery, but the other shootout was some ignorant redneck who wanted revenge on liberals for his unemployment and targeted a Unitarian Universalist church. Bizarrely, Time doesn't specify the type of church, and continues on to say that a conservative Christian group reacted with polls of church security measures. As I discuss elsewhere, conservatives tend to be overly fearful and less able to usefully evaluate information. "Security experts" go on to talk about churches' vulnerability, but they stand to make money off of scared congregations, so their biased comments should be taken cautiously.

The article includes an anecdotal church in Houston that experienced many burglaries. Far, far from being representative of all churches, this story probably serves more as a warning for churches that sit in bad neighborhoods. If you're in an area riddled with drug addicts, you're going to get robbed whether you're a church or not.

This pathetic fear-mongering is shameful. There is no crime epidemic among churches, and churches are not at high risk for violence. I expected better from Time.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Determinants of Good Parenting

There was a decent Time article in the November 30th, 2009 issue about how "helicopter parents" need to chill out. The first page talks about how irrational it is that parents have become so intrusive and safety-conscious over the last couple decades despite drastic decreases in injuries and violent crime. What the article fails to address is the possibility that injuries and violent crime decreases BECAUSE parents have been more intrusive and safety-conscious. There is no evidence presented in the article of causality in either direction, nor of possible confounds that could explain both correlated phenomena. This is terrible and misleading writing.

The rest of the article is great. It correctly points out that parents have been generally irrational when it comes to risk evaluation. It is vastly more dangerous to drive your kid to school than to let him walk to the store alone. It is worse to take your kids to visit family than to let them eat Halloween candy that hasn't been x-rayed. The sensationalistic media has thoroughly confused people who do not understand or seek out real information about event probabilities.

Finally, the article references the Freakonomics authors Dubner and Levitt, who say that three of the biggest determinants of well-raised kids are: parental education, spouse selection, and waiting to have kids. This is also misleading.

There are very clear factors that contribute to all three of these variables and child-raising. As I write about repeatedly, people are on a continuum of what psychologists call "executive function", the abilities of the frontal lobe: planning, inhibition, predicting consequences, problem-solving. People at the low end (due to complex interactions between genetics and early experiences) are more impulsive and have trouble understanding information. These people are more likely to get pregnant early, do poorly in school, have rocky relationships, be hostile, etc.... Of course their children are raised poorly and have the same genetic predispositions and vulnerabilities, perpetuating a cycle that cannot be interrupted by visits to museums or reading books. Change has to come from long-term exposure to positive relationships with other people that provide models for security, patience, reflection, and compassion. This rarely happens, even when social services are involved, because impulsive ignorant people are often oppositional to services. These people drive away good spouses with hostility, and are more likely to end up in bad relationships due to impulsivity and a lack of understanding of options and the effects of their own behavior. There is a lot of believed futility because they lack exposure to positive behaviors and the ability to accurately evaluate behavior and consequences in general. These people are more inconsistent due to impulsivity, and authoritarian because they can't handle complexity.

People at the higher end of the continuum are more thoughtful, understanding, planning, and calm. They have better relationships because they are in the habit of engaging in intentional goal-oriented behavior that weighs probably consequences. They can think about people's feelings, including their own, and take effective action instead of relying on maladaptive impulsive reactions. They do better in school, are better at delaying/planning parenthood, and are more likely to raise their kids with compassion and productive interactions. They are more consistent with their kids, and less authoritarian.

The saddest part is that the bad parents tend to blame all of their children's failures and problems on the children, and refuse to accept their own roles in their children's development. They often refuse to change because they believe they do everything right. They tell schools and therapists to fix their kids, then blame everyone but themselves for the inevitable failures.

Don't worry so much about museums and reading books and whatnot. Just be a calm, patient, compassionate, responsive, thoughtful, empathetic, planning person, and the rest will tend to fall into place.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Beer and Relative Rates

Someone forwarded along this article about marketing research for beer. The article and its reader comments highlight the importance of understanding what relative rates mean. Remember, just because one event is more likely than another does not mean that it always happens. It just happens more often.

The article starts out with the unfortunate title, "What Your Taste in Beer Says About You". Your taste does not say anything definite about you. It only says what you are more or less likely to be like than people with different tastes. Projective psychological tests, such as the famous Rorschach, are the same way. The subtitle "How Choice of Brew Relates to Personality, Politics and Purchases" is better in that it uses the word "relates".

The mix continues. "The beer you drink says a lot about you..." Not necessarily. "Your choice of beer can be as telling about your personality as what kind of clothing you wear or the car that you drive." Yes, that is correctly written. Again, this form of marketing research is similar to some psychological tests. It finds patterns among people's choices and behaviors, and these patterns show up in the forms of relative rates. "People who do A tend to also like B more than people who do not do A" means just what it says, and does NOT mean that all people who do A like B, nor does it mean that all people who do not do A hate B.

Depending on what teacher a psychologist had, many psychological reports are written with definitive language, but other reports are written more accurately to portray the true nature of the information's relationship to the client. This article goes back and forth. Overly definitive: "There's a slang term that could sum up Heineken drinkers: posers." Accurate: "The personality traits of people who prefer Blue Moon... tracked similarly to the same type of people who prefer craft beers...." I won't even get into the argument about whether such a thing as personality exists or how it should be defined.

The comments left for this article show the confusion and ignorance that I want to try to correct. MattCrill wrote "Wow...what a bunch of hogwash. Couldn't be further from the truth. I'm a craft beer lover and absolutely none of your descriptions fit my profile." He failed to understand that the study results are about the trends among large groups of people, but his confusion was aided by the inconsistently definitive wording in the article. DarcyBaily had an equally wrong understanding of the article: "This couldn't be further from the truth. I am a craft beer drinker and none of that fits me." Just because you are in group A, but you don't do activity B that most people in A do, does not mean that it's a lie to say that most As do B.

Msalup said, "This article falls squarely on the "Uri Geller/Pseudoscience" arena. Can't believe that someone takes this kind of "segmentation" seriously." These are real statistics based on practices that multi-billion dollar corporations have used for decades because these segmentation practices are effective at guiding marketing and product development decisions. I don't know if it qualifies as science, but it's not just made up nonsense. GaryBuck commented on this article's "meaningless generalizations". Though the article does make some overly definitive statements, they are still not meaningless. The differences between the groups of beer-drinkers are meaningful, which is why the research was conducted. There are some good comments farther down the page.

So, the article could have been written more accurately, but I think many people would have had the same misunderstandings even if it were. Many people do not understand the qualifying language of statistics. This misunderstanding causes problems in people's decision-making and evaluations of the world around them. I am sure I will have more examples in the future.

For the record, I am a major explorer of craft beers (I keep a spreadsheet of what I've had with my reviews), and I do fit the mentioned trends except for buying organic.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Divorce and Remarriage

Pew, a company that does many surveys, came out with this interactive map of proportions of married, divorced, and 3+x remarried men and women by state. Here is what is remarkable about the rates:

Conservative parts of the country have higher proportions of divorced and multiply remarried residents. The "Red" states that often refer to themselves as the "Real America" and bastions of "family values", homes of the "moral majority", are quite divorce-happy compared to the more liberal states.

Top 5 states for 3+ marriages:
Arkansas (10% men, 10% women)
Oklahoma (9% men, 10% women)
Tennessee (9% men, 8% women)
Alabama (8% men, 8% women)
Mississippi (8% men, 8% women)

Bottom 5 states for 3+ marriages:
Massachusetts (2% men, 2% women)
New Jersey (2% men, 2% women)
New York (2% men, 2% women)
Connecticut (3% men, 2% women)
Minnesota (3% men, 3% women)

Top 5 states for currently divorced residents:
Nevada (13% men, 16% women)
Maine (12% men, 15% women)
Montana (12% men, 13% women)
Wyoming (12% men, 13% women)
Oklahoma (12% men, 14% women)

Bottom 5 states for currently divorced residents:
New Jersey (7% men, 10% women)
New York (7% men, 10% women)
Massachusetts (8% men, 10% women)
California (8% men, 11% women)
Virginia (8% men, 11% women)

The consistently higher proportions of currently divorced women compared to men is probably due in large part to child custody inhibiting remarriage. Women are overwhelmingly granted custody in divorce courts. Divorcees with children in the home have more trouble finding new spouses, and may also be less inclined to try to find a new spouse as the process can cause problems for the children.

As I have written about more extensively in another blog, there is a clear relationship between conservativism and bad decision making that I understand to have a neurological foundation. People who grow up with fear in a strict and belief-based environment develop brains that desire very simple and concrete information (e.g.:America is good. Homosexuality is bad. Muslims are bad.). They are overwhelmed by ambiguity and complexity, and depend on whatever very simple dogma they've been indoctrinated with, or their immediate emotional reactions to make decisions.

This emotional impulsivity, combined with a characteristic avoidance of contemplating the many possible ramifications of actions because that would be too overwhelming and complicated, leads to the following phenomena that we see happening at much higher rates in conservative states than in liberal states (check out GapMinder):

Teen pregnancy
Infant mortality
Divorce (related to young marriage, also in the Pew map)
Poor education
Higher drug use
Earlier death

I am sure the list can go on and on. These things all are rooted in impulsive behavior that focuses on emotions and immediate gratification without consideration for consequences and the long term. Conservatives are very hostile towards liberal ideas and values, but the outcomes are clear. The outcomes show us what attitudes and behaviors are best for our country. We need to stop the lies and hypocrisy, and focus on implementing best practices to bring about the good and sustainable outcomes we want for our descendants.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Call for Contributions

Over the course of my life, I have encountered many news articles and clips that misrepresent or confuse information, and advertisements that mislead and manipulate. I started this blog to explain how information has been misused, and provide explanations of the real meanings of the information. However, I have also improved my life by avoiding the more heinous offenders (e.g.: Fox News, commercials, conservatives, etc...), so I rarely come across examples to write about. I have no television, and I limit my internet consumption. I get most of my news from Jon Stewart, since it is easier to handle with some humor. Though I enjoy picking apart incorrect information use and providing accurate interpretations, I will not spend much time looking around for the junk.

If you find an article or video clip that uses statistics to make some claims, and you'd like me to examine it, feel free to send it to me. You can also write your own post and I'll put it up here, totally credited to you.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Exercise Science

There's been a lot of hubbub lately about barefoot running, since some guy wrote a book and has been on various talk shows. I love to run, but constantly worry about injuries and whatnot. I also love to learn the truth of matters. I started searching for real information about barefoot running. There's a lot of junk out there from believers and people trying to sell books or fancy "barefoot shoes". I finally came across a blog by two doctors of exercise science. Ross and Jonathan at take care to hunt down and critique studies on many facets of exercise, and address exactly the questions and criticisms I would have reading the studies. They are readable, thorough, and open to reader questions and comments. They qualify their comments, and don't claim certainty when there's no good support. If you want to know the truth about how much to drink while you exercise, how to run, or a wide variety of other exercise topics, dig through their archives. We need more folks like them. Don't just listen to Gatorade or Nike.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Willingham's Execution - The Injustice System

Big fuss right now about Texas wrongfully executing another man. The New Yorker article is quite long, and reminiscent of Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line. To summarize: a guy's house burns down with his three kids in it. He has a criminal record and likes rock music, so some biased cops pressure witnesses to say certain things, and the cops evaluate the scene with a bunch of invalid beliefs. The guy, Willingham, is convicted of murdering his kids, and is executed 12 years later. Right before he was executed, a scientist who actually knows what he's doing sends a report to the authorities showing that Willingham's testimony matches the evidence and the original arson investigators were as wrong as they could possibly be. The authorities promptly ignored the report completely.

What does this case mean?
Well, not a whole lot by itself. Remember that this sort of thing is very rare, and constructing a perfect system is practically impossible. Your chances of getting wrongfully jailed are low, and executed even lower. If you're going to worry about something, worry about your diet and driving habits. However, it is yet another example of many of the pervasive problems in our justice system, which we have a moral and ethical imperative to improve. The original article is very thorough in pointing them out. What is most disturbing is that we as a society have known about these problems for decades, but the justice system largely refuses to fix itself.

1) Eyewitness testimony is fallible and easy to manipulate. Even how a question is worded affects witnesses' responses. Our memories are not recordings, but are loose connections between salient concepts. Memories require attention to be stored, aided by rehersal and thinking about the meanings of the information, but warped by biases. They are altered over time through a cycle of recall and restoring, affected each time by attention, biases, and thoughts again. Experiments on witness recall are sadlarious (Alan Alda watched a good one on Scientific American Frontier once) as people so frequently report remembering things that never happened, forget what did, and change many details.

2) Expert testimony is also subject to manipulation and bias. Any lawyer can cherry-pick an "expert" to do what he wants. The two psychology experts in this case were an MFT way out of his specialty and an obviously corrupt psychologist who lost his license because of his inappropriate testimonies. Real psychological evaluation is a long and deep process involving interviews and standardized instruments. Anyone who claims to be able to determine sociopathy by looking at the posters in a guy's house is a charlatan and fraud. But cops and juries don't know that. The average person doesn't know much at all about specialized professions, and take an "expert's" word. I think that expert testimony is definitely vital when it is done correctly, and there needs to be a process by which it can be included in trials with safeguards. Any expert should be able to back up what he says with citations subject to the scrutiny of peers.

3) Cops are ignorant and overconfident. It is unfortunate that our society's body of knowledge regarding how memories are manipulated, how witnesses should be questioned, how fires should be investigated, etc... is completely passed over by police who believe that they know what they're doing, believe they are always right, and believe that they don't need to study more about what they do. Judges and cops think they are good at detecting lies, but they aren't. When these people are allowed to act on their self-serving beliefs instead of empirically validated information, the justice system fails.

What would help?
We need a system, a culture, that applies the information and empirical methods that we have. We know that this would lead to the most accurate outcomes. We need better training of police, judges, and juries to monitor and cast off their overconfidence and biases. We need more accountability and tracking, so that it's more obvious that something is wrong if a prosecutor, judge, expert, or region has abnormal rates of convictions. We need to stop telling jurors to make "gut" decisions. I'd prefer having only well-educated citizens as jurors who are more likely to understand and evaluate information, and less likely to make decisions out of an emotional drive for revenge, sympathy, or just which lawyer was most attractive.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Cost of Raising a Kid

Nancy Gibbs has a pretty bad essay in the back of the August 24 2009 issue of Time. She starts with the claim that kids cost over $220,000 to raise, which she bases off of a commercial website's (selling baby products) reference to an annual USDA report that she didn't understand. She seems to confuse in a couple places what parents decided to spend with what kids have to cost. Perhaps a better estimator of a child's cost is what the lower-income group spent instead of the middle-income group, since they are likely to spend less on non-necessities. She also uses the 2008 dollars total without explaination. Assuming an average inflation rate of 3.05%, the cost will be about $60,000 more, which is useful information to people who do not automatically think about inflation.

What the report really shows is that rich people spend more money on their kids than poor people, but smaller percentages of their pre-tax incomes. Also, it costs more to get a bigger home when you live in an area in which homes are expensive. Parents with more money buy more unnecessary stuff for their kids. Big kids eat more than little kids, and are more able to get themselves to where they need to go.

There are a lot of problems with the assumptions made, but the researchers did what they could with what they had. It's really hard to collect so much information from thousands of families over time. The report does not take into account money spent by non-custodial parents, which applies to a large portion of families these days. The housing assumptions are shakey, but probably better than alternatives. These numbers are definitely not hard and fast, and there is variance.

Nancy also says that parents with more kids "get a bulk discount". Sure, there are economies of scale for things like food and transportation, but this does not tell the whole story, based on the USDA's methods. What we are also seeing is that parents like spending some discretionary amount of money on their kids beyond necessities, and it gets split up among the children they have. A single child gets all the unnecessary money, but siblings have to share. When that second kids comes along, maybe you'll switch to store-brand products instead of name-brand, Target instead of the Gap. We don't know what people are buying, just what they're spending.

Nancy also says that children are recession-resistant, even though the April 13th issue of Time reported that unit sales of "Baby needs" were down 10.7% compared to the same 8-week period in 2008. Contraception unit sales are only up 1.5%, so I'd be surprised if the drop in baby products was largely due to a drop in the birth rate.

Probably what is most annoying to me is upper-class Gibbs's materialism. From her Ivy League, award-winning tower, she preaches for the unnecessary consumption typical of the high-income bracket, widening that divide between the mandatory cost of having children (useful information) and what people with money decide to spend (not as useful). Her Barbie-like comments that "SpongeBob is so last season", $60 per month is not enough for clothes, "the bureaucrats have not been to a mall lately", and the report should include the cost of sedatives are grating. The bureaucrats in this case are a couple of people with Ph.D.s who wrote a very transparent research report.

Nancy spends half the essay trying to convey the benefits of having children in one's life, even though studies show that having kids is stressful, and reduces quality of life on average. People should really think and plan more before having kids, and maybe the information in the USDA report will be helpful. Children can be a great addition to one's life, if there is relational, emotional, and financial stability, and a foundation of realistic expectations.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

I just caught a commercial for I am not knowledgeable enough to comment on the wisdom of investing in gold in general, but I do know shady marketing techniques when I see them. is using just a lot of slimy tricks to get people's money. Here's a rough rundown of what I remember:

1) Testimonials
The commercial had a former Fed commissioner, I think. The website has more testimonials, including Glenn Beck, who I plan to write about in the future for his consistently manipulative behavior. Never pay heed to testimonials. Ever. Even when they're not paid (and I bet these are paid), they're not a representative sample. They are useless for making good decisions. It's a trick.

2) Fear-mongering

The commercial started out with the heavy implication that the US economy is in a death spiral that will destroy old people's savings, leaving them penniless. This gets the fear up, so the old folks watching CNN in the middle of the day will pay attention to the rest of the commercial, eager to learn how to protect themselves.

3) Impressive-sounding irrelevant information
3A) "Gold is worth three times as much now than it did in 2000!" When it comes to investments, past performance does not predict future performance. If that were true, everyone would be rich because we would all invest in things that had increased in value in the past. This just does not happen. In fact, there are risks that investments are overvalued (tech stock 10 years ago, houses 18 months ago), which leads to a "correction", in which their value drops. may be trying to dump its gold right before a correction. It is interesting that they compared the current value of gold to that of 2000, when the economy had tanked because of the DotCom bubble.

3B) " has over a half-billion dollars in sales!" This is a shady tactic used by some online auction and investment sites in which they report a number based on the sales of things through the site, without the site ever owning the stuff, making the site look like it has a lot of capital when it really has nothing and just collects trading fees. I don't know to what extent that applies to, but I've seen it before.

3C) "Gold has never had a zero value!" Neither has pretty much anything else, except some stocks and defaulted bonds. So, that is marginally relevant when you're investing. Of course, at $900/oz, you're probably not so worried about a zero value as you are a value of anything less than $900/oz.

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Monday, June 8, 2009

Poorly Presented Stats in Men's Health

A client no-showed, so I grabbed the May 2009 issue of Men's Health from the waiting room to occupy myself. I generally enjoy Men's Health. It does have good nutrition and exercise tips sometimes. It also suffers from poorly presented statistics syndrome, especially in its "Facts of Life" segments.

"Facts of Life - 1: Percentage by which your stroke risk rises for each fast-food joint in your neighborhood."

What this could imply as written:
You are more likely to have a stroke the more fast-food joints are in your neighborhood, no matter what.

What this really means:
The average rate of strokes among residents of a neighborhood is 1% higher per additional fast-food joint in that neighborhood compared to other neighborhoods.

What this really implies:
People tend to eat fast-food more if it is more available to them, and fast-food increases risk of strokes, probably via increasing blood pressure and clots.

How to use this information:
Pay attention to your eating behavior. Choose to not eat fast-food, even if it is very convenient. In fact, fast-food is more likely to cause you other health problems than strokes. So, if you're not scared by the relative stroke risk (notice that no base rates are given), think about obesity, heart disease, and diabetes when you drive past a McDonald's.

"Facts of Life - 96: Percentage spike in the number of doctor visits for diabetes since 1996."

What this could imply as written:
Twice as many people have diabetes now? Diabetes exists at the same prevalence, but is being diagnosed better due to improvements in processes or technology? People with diabetes go to the doctor twice as often now? Probably some combination of those, but we can't determine it.

What this really means:
Just that there are about twice as many doctor visits for diabetes (I am assuming they combine both types) now as there were in 1996.

What this really implies:
Nothing useful at all. Someone pulled this stat out of its context, and we are not able to logically derive anything from it with confidence.

How to use this information:
Let it inspire you to find more information. We do already know that type II diabetes rates are skyrocketing due to obesity. We also know that many health care providers, insurance providers, and the city of New York have been trying ways of getting diabetics to be more compliant with managing the disease. There has been a lot of new encouragement over the last few years to get diabetics in for regular checkups, since it reduces the frequency of vastly more expensive emergency care and amputations, etc... If you have or think you have diabetes, see your doctor regularly and comply with your treatment regimen. It is a manageable illness.

"Facts of Life - 80: Percentage increase in a man's heart disease risk if he has erectile dysfunction."

What this could imply as written:
Erectile dysfunction increases a man's risk of heart disease by 80%. That is the worst way to read it, anyway.

What this really means:
Men who have erectile dysfunction are 80% more likely to have heart disease than men who do not have erectile dysfunction.

What this really implies:
Again, it's hard to tell. The stat has been removed from its context. There is possibly some phenomenon that causes erectile dysfunction that also increases heart disease risk. Based on my understanding of the disorders, stress and anxiety are likely culprits.

How to use this information:
If you have ED, talk with your doctor about it and your other heart disease risks at your regular check-up. Use the ED more as a warning sign that something else is wrong. You should also just generally be aware of your stress levels, and take care of yourself emotionally. Practice mindfulness and get some exercise. Connect and ally with your partner; iron out any problems in your relationship.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Fearmongering by Fox News

I'm sure this happens nearly every day, but I don't usually get to see it because I do not have television. It is only through the Daily Show's "Moment of Zen" on May 13th that I caught a Fox News ad.
(dramatic music) "These pictures look identical, but one contains a secret message. What's hidden inside, and how terrorists could use it against us, tomorrow at 10."

What this really means to you:
NOTHING! Seriously, this is blatant fearmongering to get ratings.

What the news program probably talked about is called steganography. It's been around for at least 600 years in some form or another. In the form described in the ad, it's been around for at least 20 years. The computer program Stego was written by a former Playboy model to encode information in subtle changes in digital images. This method of encryption was even featured in an episode of the television show Millennium back in 1997. This is nothing new. Everyone can use steganographic encryption, so it should be no surprise that terrorists, a subset of everyone, use it.

Terrorists' use of this encryption has no real effect on you. The Fox News ad may leave you wondering how you can protect yourself from this threat, so you would want to watch their show to find out. It is a trick. There is really nothing you can do, unless you're some kind of expert in this technology and you are able to scour the internet for information encrypted in images. But if you're one of those experts, you sure as heck don't need any of the information Fox News is giving out. In fact, when you realize that you can't do anything about it, you may become even more afraid, which would keep you tuned in to Fox News to learn more about threats in case there is something that you can do.

Our friends in the CIA and FBI are on it. Accept that you can't do anything, and enjoy the good things in your life. Turn off Fox News and spend some quality time with the people you love.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Discount Prices - Really a Bargain?

Summary: Decide in advance how much something is worth to you based on only the features and utility of the product. Never pay more than that, and you should be alright. Don't think you're getting a good deal just because a price is marked down.

Three Examples: discounts practically everything. I don't know that I've ever seen something on Amazon selling at their "list price". Amazon gives different people different prices for things, and prices change over time, so I can't cite anything stable, but here's what I'm looking at right now: Valkyrie (Single-Disc Edition) (2008), List Price: $29.98, Price: $15.99 (47% off!). Since when do DVDs cost $29.98? I've only seen prices like that at Suncoast, and promptly left the store. The List Price is made up. It is a fabricated number that bears almost no relationship to the product's production cost, distribution costs, licensing fees, etc.... Licensing is the lion's share of the costs, which is why you can get Betty Boop DVDs for $1, but Akira Kurasawa films cost twice as much as most new American movies. Walmart does the same thing on their website (same list price for Valkyrie, but the price is $15.86), but walking in the store shows shelves of DVDs for $13 or so with no "list price". The MPAA, MGM, TriStar, and whoever else are not losing money on those sales. The worth of a DVD is a totally subjective thing, and any prices you see for a DVD are over its costs to get to you. Don't let a website convince you that a DVD is worth $30, so you should be happy to buy it for $16. Decide for yourself if a particular DVD is worth $16 to you while ignoring the extra, unhelpful information.

Steam's video game experiment is interesting. Here's a highlight:
"When Valve held its recent holiday sale, titles discounted by 10 percent (the minimum) they saw revenue (not unit) increases of 35 percent. At a 25 percent discount, revenue was up 245 percent. At 50 percent off, revenue was up 320 percent, and at a 75 percent discount, revenue was up an astonishing 1470 percent."

Also important to note is that "retail sales did not change at all". So, what happened here? It is hard to tease apart how many of the consumers just buy hyped-up new games no matter what, how many had a set price in mind for the value of a particular game (or the value of entertainment per hour), and how many were just attracted to "this game is on sale for $Y, even though it's worth $X!" Base game prices are largely fictional values, heavily related to what the industry believes will make them the most money, but they hardly ever experiment like this. There is a belief that selling games at a lower base price will make customers believe that the games are not as good. That belief is somewhat accurate. Most people do believe that price reflects quality, and there is at least one great experiment with blind taste-tests of wine that shows what a really horrible way that is of predicting quality. So, the best way to sell a game may unfortunately be to fabricate a really high base price that some people will pay, then put the games on "sale". This is how millions of other products are routinely sold. News flash: video games do not become less fun when their prices change, or when they're used, or when they're a few years old. To know how good something is, get reviews from a trusted source, and ignore everything else.

San Lorenzo Market is a great example of what most of the world is like when it comes to listed prices and sales prices. Haggling is relatively foreign to America. I found myself in San Lorenzo in need of a new belt. The proprietor of the first stall I saw offered me a belt I liked for 40,000 lira. I said that I wanted to shop around before making a decision. Within twenty seconds, with me only repeating that I was going to shop around, the price dropped in stages down to 15,000 lira. My friend decided to buy a leather trenchcoat. The coats had prices printed on them that, again, everyone knows are complete fabrications. No one pays those prices. We stopped in to haggle once or twice per day for three days before he finally bought the coat he liked for less than half the listed price. Each salesman's job is to make the customers think they are getting an expensive (and therefore high-quality) product for cheap, when really each item has a real price the salesman won't go below, and every time an item sells for more, it's gravy for the salesman.

Exceptions - When a Bargain Really is a Bargain:
Sometimes businesses accidentally order too much inventory and need to get rid of it to make room for other products. Sometimes products are discontinued and have to get dumped. Sometimes companies go out of business and their assets have to be liquidated quickly for creditors. Sometimes no one will buy a totally safe baby's carseat at regular price just because an earlier model was recalled. This is how we end up with Woot and

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Movie Advertisements

This is nothing new, but it's on my mind. How often to find yourself watching or listening to an advertisement for a movie that just came out, and the ad boasts "Number 1 at the box office!" or "America's favorite comedy!" or some other similar claim? It happens often. Advertisers are trying to take advantage of our natural herd instincts or the bandwagon effect. What they're often neglecting to say, or saying in fine print so as not to get busted for false advertising, is that the movie was #1 at the box office for just a day or a weekend. A movie may have a huge opening weekend, then bomb as everyone who saw it lets their friends know how bad it was (Jurassic Park 2, seriously), but the ads focus on that opening weekend stat. That "favorite comedy" might be the only one out at the time among dramas and action flicks. They don't give you the parameters of their comparisons. There is a Superocity comic strip that comments on the phenomenon.

So, advertisements like that are not relevant to your decision-making process. They are inherently misleading. How, then, do you decide what movies are worth seeing? Find people with similar tastes to yours, and ask them what they enjoyed. There will always be people who go see a movie the opening weekend without any valid ability to predict the quality of the movie. Let them take the risks while you benefit from their reviews.

Look at these two lists: Gross for 3-day Opening Weekend and All-time Gross (not adjusted for inflation, or else Gone With the Wind would be up at the top). Notice that 16 of the top 20 opening weekend movies are sequels, since quality could be predicted to some degree by the preceding movies, and 10 of the top 20 all-time are sequels. Jurassic Park 2 was the highest opening weekend movie of all time for four years, but 60th overall, because Jurassic Park was so good. We got faked out on that one. So, there may be a correlation between quality of a movie and quality of its sequel, but it's not a sure bet. Total gross minus opening weekend gross would be a better measure of quality that total gross itself. DVD sales would also be telling. Titanic, Star Wars ANH, and ET did so well because people told their friends to see them, and many people went more than once.

There are only a few reasons why anyone would rationally go to an opening movie instead of waiting for reviews from people with similar tastes:
To avoid spoilers. No one can ruin the twist ending for you if you see it first.
Opening night is a cultural event. Star Wars, Harry Potter, Serenity; dress up and party with the other fanatics.
You write movie reviews.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Spam Flu

Every day for the last week my Google Reader has been bombarded with posts and articles about Swine Flu. The patterns of media attention are interesting, but unsurprising. The word "news" itself tells us that the content will primarily be things that are new to us. Novelty gets reported, and commonplace events are ignored. Man Bites Dog, right? Let's break down the progression:

1) Swine Flu outbreak in Mexico contributes to some deaths. Had you heard of Swine Flue before this? Probably not. It's new! And it kills people! News sources clamored to hype it up, to breed fear among people, to draw in consumers and sell advertising. They teased us with information that there was a mysterious danger out there, and we would have to keep consuming their news to find out how much danger there was to us, and how we could protect ourselves. Our brains hone in on this using automatic heuristics that generally helped keep our species alive for millennia.

2) Knowledgeable people step forward to dispense facts. Wash your hands. Stay at home if you're sick. We're probably all going to be fine. The risk is exaggerated. This information is new compared to the information in wave 1, even though it's old overall, so it still draws our attention and ratings.

3) Confusion is maintained in the face of wave 2 by constant updates on any fear-invoking event. Calming and frightening information is presented piecemeal to keep us interested, to keep us from figuring out how to feel and getting complacent with that feeling. First death in America! But it was a toddler from Mexico! Schools are closing to protect our children! Even though there was no evidence of Swine Flu! Swine Flu confirmed death toll is somewhere between 7 and 160 pending more tests! The regular flu kills 35,000 Americans each year, mostly the elderly, infants, and people with compromised immune systems! Another person just died! Swine Flu is no worse than the regular flu! We are drawn to seek more information until we can confidently declare that we are safe.

4) Eventually the situation is handled, and confusion is resolved. The "epidemic" is controlled by response measures. Evidence builds up until there is a consensus. We are saturated with information about the topic, and get bored with it. Each person has decided how they are going to respond, be it continuing life normally with confidence or locking oneself in a basement with a shotgun and canned beans. The novelty dissipates. The media looks for some other shocking new item to sell.

Now, I am selective with my news sources, so I probably missed most of the junk news out there. I have been impressed with the consistent quality of the information I got from Sources with integrity stay in wave 2, and only try to educate instead of fear-monger. We should demand higher standards in our media. The freedom of the press should not include the freedom to incite damaging panic among people who just lack the education to counter their natural brain processes.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Science - What It Is and Is Not

I too often encounter people who fundamentally lack an understanding of what science is, and this leads to problems in communication and understanding other ideas. Many people lump all kinds of modern technology and knowledge into their definitions of science, and that is woefully inappropriate. I meet middle school and high school students who tell me that they love science, when they actually just enjoy trivia about animals and volcanoes. Hippies (for lack of a better term) often accuse science of causing cancer and pollution and climate change. Some religious fanatics selectively cite a few news reports about some corrected or disproven theory or other as they proclaim that science tells us lies and misinformation, so we should ignore it. Science is not chemicals or information or beliefs or news reports or advice or a group of people.

Science is the method by which we determine the predictability of phenomena given specific conditions.

That's it. Science is a method that takes advantage of a number of experimental and statistical techniques to let us figure out the probability that phenomena Z will happen given conditions A, B, C, D.... As early as second or third grade we are taught the "scientific method" of 1) asking a question, 2) forming a hypothesis, 3) testing the hypothesis, 4) analyzing the data, 5) drawing conclusions (or some variation of these steps depending on your school district).

Example: 1) Does smoking cause lung cancer? 2) Since a true experiment with random assignment would be unethical, we will resort to some retrospective and longitudinal observations of smokers and non-smokers for X amount of years, and see who gets more lung cancer. 3) We collect the data. 4) (these numbers are made up) .03% of the non-smokers got lung cancer over X years, and 3% of smokers got lung cancer. 5) Since this is not a true experiment, the results are correlational, but we have a strong theoretical construct for causality, since there is no good data supporting the idea that a predisposition for lung cancer causes smoking, and we know from cellular studies that the chemicals in the smoke damages cells. So, smoking was associated with a 100x relative rate of developing lung cancer, which amounted to 3% of the smoking participants over X years. Further variation as a result of quantity smoked, age, sex, race, family history of cancer, nutrition, etc... should be analyzed by future studies.

In the example above, science was the method used, involving an observational technique, to determine the predictability (3%, or 100x relative risk) of an outcome (lung cancer) based on a condition (smoking for X years).

Some fields have good track records of coming up with theories with near-100% predictability. Chemistry and physics are good examples. We know how a whole lot of chemicals behave in given conditions, and they always behave that way in those conditions. Newtonian physics is pretty darn consistent for most of our purposes, but it threw us for a few loops at relativistic speeds, extreme densities, and a few other conditions. If you drop a ball, it will accelerate at the same rate and direction every time as long as you are in the same place. Quantum physics is a different beast.

Other fields have more trouble, usually because it is too hard to account for the thousands of conditions that contribute to the outcomes. Psychologists are happy to understand even a quarter of the variance in most phenomena. Medical doctors try to give the most probable diagnosis given the scientific research on various symptoms, then prescribe the most probably effective treatment (if they're knowledgeable of the research, though they can also fall back on whatever the drug company representatives bribed them to give). When we deal with probabilities below 100%, even our best practices are wrong sometimes, and that is where some people get confused and offensive, especially if they are accustomed to believing in things they were told are 100% certain, or are overwhelmed by complexity and ambiguity. We will be wrong sometimes, and that is not the fault of science, it is the fault of a complex world in which some things are affected by thousands of variables. People are especially troublesome with our many different genes and experiences (which can affect gene expression).

I have heard so many times, "Those scientists don't know what they're talking about! Science says one thing, then the opposite!" That is usually not what is happening. The media simplifies the often complex results of research, and people's brains simplify the news even more to make it easily memorable and usable. One day we find out that a food increases the risk of stroke; the next day we learn that it decreases the risk of colon cancer, but the complexity of the situation is lost in the simplification to "bad" and "good", and people start thinking inaccurate things about the process, what happened, and what science is.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Book Review: How We Decide

How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer.
3/5 stars
Executive Summary: Parts may be confusing and unhelpful to most people. Other parts are especially helpful to managers, marketers, shoppers, and people who like following politics. If you see this book in a store, your optimal decision would be to read chapter 6 and put the book back on the shelf.

Review: The field of neuroeconomics is really picking up, and I am excited to learn even more about what happens in the brain that relates to our behavior. This book tries to string together some captivating anecdotes with modern research to explain how we make decisions. Though often interesting and on the mark, passages are also often poorly presented, and concepts misinterpreted by the author.

My biggest complaint for the first few chapters was Lehrer's vocabulary. He seemed to use the word "emotion" to describe a dozen distinct phenomena, including conditioned behavior. He also often refers to thoughts as "rational" and "conscious" that are not. I believe that Lehrer tried to write a book that would tackle an assumed false dichotomy of "rational thought" versus "emotions" as the best way to make decisions, then demonstrate that each is appropriate in different situations and we use a combination of both. Unfortunately, he lumps together many different processes under those two labels, and confuses what is otherwise a good set of information to give people.

For example: chapter 4 tells a great story about a firefighter who saves his own life by ignoring fear and thinking through a problem. Chapter 5 then tries to make the point that using too much rational thought reduces performance (often true), but does so with a story about an opera singer whose performance is hurt by irrational thoughts spurred on by fear. The anecdote did not match the point that Lehrer's narrative was trying to make.

Another example: Lehrer repeatedly refers to a few studies on people's preferences for jams. A study shows that people end up picking a jam that they don't really like after they think about how the jam rates on some features that are not necessarily important to the people. Rating a jam high on unimportant features subconsciously tricked the people into thinking they favored that jam, even though another jam rated higher on the features they really cared about. Lehrer says that this is an example of how too much self-analysis causes us to make poor decisions. It is really an example of how too little self-analysis causes poor decisions. The people were over-analyzing the jams, not themselves. If they analyzed their own preferences more, they would have been more likely to weight each jam feature's rating based on their preferences, and choose the jam they'd be most happy with.

Chapter 6 really accurately describes a lot of critical decision-making processes and biases. This chapter reads like a handbook of how to monitor your own biases and check what other people tell you for how their biases are affecting them. Doctors, political pundits, and other "esteemed" people are not immune to the natural processes that distort our perceptions and impair our decisions. There's a footnote endorsing Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy that I think should have at least gotten it's own chapter. Lehrer notably did not deeply address racism or other uses of sterotypes (feelings) to discriminate.

Content summary and clarification:
* Sometimes you should follow your "gut reaction". ("I don't know art, but I know what I like.")
* If you've trained hard at doing a task, and paid attention to why you succeeded or failed each time during training, trust your training (basal ganglia) and don't overthink.
* Know yourself. Pay attention to your thoughts and feelings. Monitor outcomes to your decisions.
* Don't Panic (or get enraged, or get engrossed in hopelessness)
* Know the difference between correlation and causation. Understand probability.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Overview of this Blog

Information presented via television, magazines, or the internet is often presented without the proper context or explanations for you to understand how it realistically relates to your life. The media organizations often have an agenda to present information in such a carefully edited way as to maximize readership, advertising revenue, or support for a cause. Also, media organizations often do not have a sufficient enough background in statistics or psychology to effectively present relevant information even when they try to. This blog will obviously not be comprehensive, but will post examples of misleading media with added context, analysis, and explanation of the psychological processes involved in the (mis)interpretation of the information.

In order to be useful for non-academics, each post should include a very brief executive summary followed by the more in-depth analysis. I hope that academics will read this blog so that they may help me with their comments. I am human and suffer from automatic biases the same as everyone else; I just try harder than most to be aware of them and correct for them, but I am not perfect. I also do not have access to all data in the world, so readers are welcome to inform me and teach me. If all readers are academics, however, most posts would be "preaching to the choir". I hope that a significant lay readership benefits from the added information and understanding, so they are not manipulated, scammed, hoodwinked, ripped-off, and betrayed by the media.

In the interests of transparency, which should be mandatory for all information sources, readers should know that I am politically independent, socially liberal, but obsessed with fiscal efficiency that is responsible for outcomes. I have graduate degrees in clinical psychology and business administration. I am furious when resources are wasted that could be used to make net systemic improvements, and when people make decisions that cause net systemic harm. I am ethically utilitarian. I care about everyone, the whole system, and I do not favor any subgroup over another. I value honesty, integrity, and efficiency.

Examples of complementary sources of information:
I also have access to academic journals through university libraries, and will refer to these peer-reviewed sources, though they have their own problems that I will also discuss.

Examples of psychological processes:
Information bias
Attribution biases
Confirmation bias
Availability heuristic
Cognitive dissonance (and its resolution)
Projection bias
Representativeness, In-group/Out-group biases, and so on...