Thursday, March 26, 2015

Useless airline safety measures

Commercial flying is safer than ever, and the most prominent safety measures appear to be worthless. I have assumed that most of what the TSA does is worthless, but I thought that securing the cockpit doors was valuable. Now it appears to have caused the Germanwings crash, as well as a 2005 crash. I haven't heard that it has saved anyone.

Every time you fly, they tell you about emergency oxygen masks and flotation seats, even tho these never save anyone. The oxygen even caused a 1996 Florida crash.

The airline industry would probably justify this stuff by saying that the public needs a big show of safety and security in order to be convinced to fly. That seems crazy to me. The safety record is already so good that your drive to the airport is more dangerous than the flight. We should abolish the TSA and let the airlines just do what really contributes to safety.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Worst-case housing scenario

Ever wonder about the competence of the Federal Reserve Bank? I just found this:
7/1/05 – Interview on CNBC
INTERVIEWER: Tell me, what is the worst-case scenario? We have so many economists coming on our air saying ‘Oh, this is a bubble, and it’s going to burst, and this is going to be a real issue for the economy.’ Some say it could even cause a recession at some point. What is the worst-case scenario if in fact we were to see prices come down substantially across the country?

BERNANKE: Well, I guess I don’t buy your premise. It’s a pretty unlikely possibility. We’ve never had a decline in house prices on a nationwide basis. So, what I think what is more likely is that house prices will slow, maybe stabilize, might slow consumption spending a bit. I don’t think it’s gonna drive the economy too far from its full employment path, though.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Fired for opinions

The NY Times hired a part-time opinion columnist, and then fired him because he has some opinions!

Politico reports:

The New York Times has terminated its contract with one of its new online opinion writers after a Gawker article highlighted the writer's previous association with racist publications, according to that writer's Twitter account.

Razib Khan, a science blogger and a doctoral candidate in genomics and genetics at the University of California, Davis, was one of 20 writers who signed contracts with the Times to write for the paper's online opinion section.

The Times announced its new stable of contributors on Wednesday. Hours later, Gawker's J.K. Trotter reported that Khan had a "history with racist, far-right online publications." Khan wrote 68 posts for Taki's Magazine, a publication founded by a "flamboyantly racist Greek journalist," Trotter wrote. Khan also wrote a letter to VDARE, "a white nationalist website named after the first white child born in America, in which he discussed [an essay] concerning the threat of the United States becoming “more genetically and culturally Mexican.”

Khan is a geneticist, with a broad range of knowledge and opinions. None are particular extreme, from what I have seen. The NY Times is more racist than those publications, as it was publishing several race-baiting article a day on Ferguson Missouri. I once wrote a letter to the NY Times editor that was published, but that does not mean that I endorse everything the newspaper says.

It is funny to see a dark-skinned Bengali punished for writing a letter to a supposed white nationalist editor.

The subject of genetics is sensitive. The NY Times reports
Scientists Seek Ban on Method of Editing the Human Genome

A group of leading biologists on Thursday called for a worldwide moratorium on use of a new genome-editing technique that would alter human DNA in a way that can be inherited.

The biologists fear that the new technique is so effective and easy to use that some physicians may push ahead before its safety can be assessed. They also want the public to understand the ethical issues surrounding the technique, which could be used to cure genetic diseases, but also to enhance qualities like beauty or intelligence. The latter is a path that many ethicists believe should never be taken.
AAAS Science magazine adds:
In 1975, the notion of using recombinant DNA to design human babies was too remote to seriously consider, but the explosion of powerful new genome-editing technologies such as CRISPR-Cas9, zinc fingers, and TALENs has changed that. They have made it easy for anyone with basic molecular biology training to insert, remove, and edit genes in cells, including sperm, eggs, and embryos, potentially curing genetic diseases or adding desirable traits. Rumors are rife that scientists in China have already used CRISPR on human embryos. Researchers fear that publicity surrounding such experiments could trigger a public backlash that would block legitimate uses of the technology.
The idea of human improvement is very scary to a lot of people. Maybe a million people get born every day, with the big majority being sub-optimal circumstances. Why would anyone care if a couple get born as part of an experimental genetic treatment program? It would be insignificant to the population.

In more news about things you cannot say, a kid was kicked out of a college class for expressing some opinions. Buzzfeed reports:
True said he sparred with classmates over discussion topics related to ancient Greece and Rome, such as the “patriarchal” belief that logic is more important than emotion and his analysis of Lucretia’s rape. But it was his questioning of the widely shared and often debated statistic that 1 in 5 women in college are sexually assaulted — it doesn’t serve “actual rape victims” to “overinflate” numbers, he said — and his rejection of the term “rape culture” that led to him being banned, he said.

“I am critical of the idea of a rape culture because it does not exist,” he wrote in a lengthy email to Savery explaining his perspectives that he has also posted online. “We live in a society that hates rape, but also hasn’t optimized the best way to handle rape. Changing the legal definition of rape is a slippery slope. If sexual assault becomes qualified as rape, what happens next? What else can we legally redefine to become rape? Why would we want to inflate the numbers of rape in our society?”

More than 90 colleges are currently under federal investigation for allegedly mishandling sexual violence cases. Sexual assault on campus has become a hot-button issue both in Washington, where the White House launched a task force and senators have introduced bipartisan legislation, and on campuses like Reed, which roughly 1,500 students attend.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Study on merits of breastfeeding

Another new study on the benefits of breastfeeding is in the news, and I am just commenting on how it is reported. NPR radio reported on the study, and failed to explain how it controlled for obvious confounding variable. A comment has to explain:
I agree that correlation is often confused with causation, and has been particularly in discussions of breastfeeding. However I read the actual study, which is linked and they included maternal education, income level, smoking, maternal age, maternal pre pregnancy body mass index, gestational age, type of delivery, and birth weight in their study and took them into account. They also did the study in Brazil because breastfeeding was not positively associated with family income. The difference in IQ is seen even within income, as seen in figure 1 of the study. The authors of the study admit the study does not answer the question of whether this difference in IQ is attributable to the biological component of breastmilk, mother infant bonding, or intellectual stimulation, but this study goes much further than any previous study.
Okay, fine, maybe it is more convincing than other studies.

But what seemed curious to me was how NPR was eager to convince people that breastfeeding is good for the baby, but a lack of breastfeeding is not necessarily bad:
STEIN: Horta and Lawrence agree that babies raised on formula can turn out to be just fine, but they say everything should be done to help women breast-feed if they can. Rob Stein, NPR News.
Saying that breastfed babies are better off, on average, is the same as saying that formula-fed babies are worse off.

I guess they want to shame the moms who could breastfeed and choose not to, and not shame the moms who are unable to breastfeed. Are NPR listeners really eager to shame someone after hearing a story like this?

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Subjects were right to doubt a CIA report

In 2003 Pres. G.W. Bush asked the US Congress and the UN to authorize war against Iraq. The main reasons given were that Iraq had WND programs in the past, and had not complied with UN resolutions and inspections. The concern was that Iraq would develop either chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons.

A widely reported 2006 social science study found:
When Corrections Fail: The persistence of political misperceptions
by Brendan Nyhan, Jason Reifler

An extensive literature addresses citizen ignorance, but very little research focuses on misperceptions. Can these false or unsubstantiated beliefs about politics be corrected? Previous studies have not tested the efficacy of corrections in a realistic format. We conducted four experiments in which subjects read mock news articles that included either a misleading claim from a politician, or a misleading claim and a correction. Results indicate that corrections frequently fail to reduce misperceptions among the targeted ideological group. We also document several instances of a “backfire effect” in which corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question.
Their best example was giving subjects quotes about Bush, Iraq, and WMD to convince them that Iraq had WMD, and then later giving them a CIA report saying that no WMD were found in Iraq:
In other words, the correction backfired – conservatives who received a correction telling them that Iraq did not have WMD were more likely to believe that Iraq had WMD than those in the control condition.
The study did not actually ask the subjects to explain their reasoning. The researchers say that is a waste of time, because psychology research shows that people are too dumb to know why they believe what they do.

This appeared to be convincing evidence that some conservatives just irrationally believe what they want to believe in spite of the facts, because only the craziest conspiracy theorist would claim that the Bush administration covered up the WMD evidence that would vindicate its war theory.

But a NY Times story last month says exactly that. The CIA found WND in Iraq and covered it up:
The Central Intelligence Agency, working with American troops during the occupation of Iraq, repeatedly purchased nerve-agent rockets from a secretive Iraqi seller, part of a previously undisclosed effort to ensure that old chemical weapons remaining in Iraq did not fall into the hands of terrorists or militant groups, according to current and former American officials.

The extraordinary arms purchase plan, known as Operation Avarice, began in 2005 and continued into 2006, and the American military deemed it a nonproliferation success. It led to the United States’ acquiring and destroying at least 400 Borak rockets, one of the internationally condemned chemical weapons that Saddam Hussein’s Baathist government manufactured in the 1980s but that were not accounted for by United Nations inspections mandated after the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

The effort was run out of the C.I.A. station in Baghdad in collaboration with the Army’s 203rd Military Intelligence Battalion and teams of chemical-defense and explosive ordnance disposal troops, officials and veterans of the units said. Many rockets were in poor condition and some were empty or held a nonlethal liquid, the officials said. But others contained the nerve agent sarin, which analysis showed to be purer than the intelligence community had expected given the age of the stock.

A New York Times investigation published in October found that the military had recovered thousands of old chemical warheads and shells in Iraq and that Americans and Iraqis had been wounded by them, but the government kept much of this information secret, from the public and troops alike. ...

Most of the officials and veterans who spoke about the program did so anonymously because, they said, the details remain classified. The C.I.A. declined to comment. The Pentagon, citing continuing secrecy about the effort, did not answer written questions and acknowledged its role only obliquely. ...

Not long after Operation Avarice had secured its 400th rocket, in 2006, American troops were exposed several times to other chemical weapons. ...

In some cases, victims of exposure said, officers forbade them to discuss what had occurred. ...
As an American citizen, I do not want to believe that our President lied to us to get us into war. But there is overwhelming evidence that Wilson (WWI), FDR (WWII), and LBJ (Vietnam) did exactly that. Now it has somehow become accepted wisdom that Bush also lied to get us into the Iraq War.

Those political scientists should go back and study those liberals who believe that Bush lied to justify the Iraq War. Present them the evidence, and then see whether they re-align their opinions to the facts.

Some people will still say that Bush exaggerated the threat, or that the WMD did not justify the war, or that Bush deserves contempt for various other reasons. Maybe so. It also appears that many people are not rational about issues like this.

But people are wrong when they say that Bush took us to war under false pretenses of WMD. The war was as openly and honestly debated as any war. Congress and the UN had the facts, and voted for it. Some of the intelligence info turned out to be wrong, but the war had the support of the Democrat leadership for reasons that were essentially correct.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Four Laws of Behavior Genetics

SciAm writer John Horgan notes that the evidence for behavior genes has a history of being over-hyped:
In 1990 The New York Times published a front-page article by Lawrence Altman, a reporter with a medical degree, announcing that scientists had discovered “a link between alcoholism and a specific gene.”

That was merely one in a string of reports in which the Times and other major media hyped what turned out to be erroneous claims linking complex traits and disorders—from homosexuality and high intelligence to schizophrenia and bipolar disorder—to specific genes.

I thought those days were over, and that scientists and the media have learned to doubt extremely reductionist genetic accounts of complex traits and behaviors. I was wrong. Last Sunday, the “Opinion” section of the Times published an essay, “The Feel-Good Gene,” which states:
“For the first time, scientists have demonstrated that a genetic variation in the brain makes some people inherently less anxious, and more able to forget fearful and unpleasant experiences. This lucky genetic mutation produces higher levels of anandamide–the so-called bliss molecule and our natural marijuana–in our brains. In short, some people are prone to be less anxious simply because they won the genetic sweepstakes and randomly got a genetic mutation that has nothing at all to do with strength of character.”
The evidence for the "feel-good gene," which supposedly reduces anxiety, is flimsy, just like the evidence linking specific genes to high intelligence, violent aggression, homosexuality, bipolar disorder and countless other complex human traits and ailments. ...

Last fall, I quoted from a 2012 editorial in Behavior Genetics: “The literature on candidate gene associations is full of reports that have not stood up to rigorous replication. This is the case both for straightforward main effects and for candidate gene-by-environment interactions… As a result, the psychiatric and behavior genetics literature has become confusing and it now seems likely that many of the published findings of the last decade are wrong or misleading and have not contributed to real advances in knowledge.”
That is correct, but only part of the story as there have been real advances in the field. Razib Khan reports:
* First Law. All human behavioral traits are heritable.

* Second Law. The effect of being raised in the same family is smaller than the effect of genes.

* Third Law. A substantial portion of the variation in complex human behavioral traits is not accounted for by the effects of genes or families.

* Fourth Law. A typical human behavioral trait is associated with very many genetic variants, each of which accounts for a very small percentage of the behavioral variability.
Researchers model behavior by assuming that it is determined by genes, family upbringing, and random factors. Twin studies have proved that the genetic influence is huge, and the family upbringing appears to be negligible. DNA studies have failed to find any individual genes with a large effect. Larger scale studies are starting to show that a combination of many small genetic effects can be significant. For more on what randomness means here, see my 2015 essay.

Parents are usually convinced that their child-rearing is the biggest influence on their kids, but this is an illusion, according to the research.

Friday, March 13, 2015

A lot of Moslems support terrorism

Every time some terrorist incident is in the news, we are reminded that most Moslems are not terrorists. That is certainly true, and it is easy to find Moslems to denounce a particular terrorist attack.

This page summarizes various surveys of Moslem opinions, such as:
PCPO (2014): 89% of Palestinians support Hamas and other terrorists firing rockets at Israeli civilians.

Pew Research (2013): Only 57% of Muslims worldwide disapprove of al-Qaeda. Only 51% disapprove of the Taliban. 13% support both groups and 1 in 4 refuse to say.

Turkish Ministry of Education: 1 in 4 Turks Support Honor Killings
Update: Here is a new one:
The majority of British Muslims oppose violence against people who publish images depicting the Prophet Muhammad, a poll for the BBC suggests.

The survey also indicates most have no sympathy with those who want to fight against Western interests.

But 27% of the 1,000 Muslims polled by ComRes said they had some sympathy for the motives behind the Paris attacks.
So 27% of British Muslims agree with terrorist murdering of newspaper cartoonists.

Yes, a majority are against such violence. That should be said, I guess. But that leaves a lot who favor the violence.

Friday, March 06, 2015

Psychometrics is mainstream psychology

Wikipedia has an article on List of topics characterized as pseudoscience. Most of it has obsolete or crackpot ideas.

These two items are somewhat out of place:
Psychometrics – is the field where practitioners have claimed to be able to measure various abstract mental attributes such as intelligence or creativity in individuals and groups using various contrived tests. Additionally, environmental and pre-exposure factors are often disregarded. ...

Scientific racism – ... the claim of "classifying" individuals of different phenotypes into discrete races or ethnicities.
Both are justified by Stephen Jay Gould's book, The Mismeasure of Man. The book has been one of the biggest selling American science books ever, and is probably still required reading at many colleges.

The book is garbage. As you can see from the Wikipedia page, the main claims were proven wrong. It is a Marxist-influenced political attack. Only the part on skull measurement was published as peer-reviewed science, and even the ideologically-sympathetic NY Times said in 2011 that almost every detail of his analysis is wrong.

Psychometrics has been central to the study of psychology for a century. Besides the IQ tests, there are dozens of widely respected tests to diagnose mental disorders, detect personality types, or measure other features.

Classifying people into races and ethnicities is also common and well-accepted. I noted that it is essential to recent research on Neanderthals.

The Wikipedia editors say, paraphrasing:
Of course psychologists believe in psychometrics, just as astrologers believe in astrology. That means nothing as long as we have reliable sources who say that it is pseudoscience.
It ought to be possible to find reputable scholars to say that frequentism is pseudoscience, such as from the journal that banned it.

I once proposed that the list include Continental Drift, as it meets their criteria for inclusion. Others suggested evolution. Reputable sources have said that it was pseudoscience. In the world of Wikipedia, having a reliable source is more important than truth.

I used to think that pseudoscience was a useful concept. But the term seems to be almost entirely used by people with some sort of political agenda. While I think that I have an idea of what is or is not scientific, I do not think that we have a good definition of pseudoscience.

Update: I tried to add t his:
However modern geneticists and anthropologists routinely divide people into those of African, European, and East Asian ancestry. ref: NY Times, Feb. 19, 2015.
It was reverted, as was my attempt to fix the psychometrics paragraph.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Man is the most social animal

The new book, This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress (Edge Question Series), has a curious collection of opinions. It was promoted on the recent Science Friday.

The essays are all free online. One attacked this Aristotle quote:
Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.
Adam Waytz wrote:
For reinforcing a perilous social psychological imperialism toward other behavioral sciences and for suggesting that humans are naturally oriented toward others, the strong interpretation of Aristotle's famous aphorism needs to be retired. ...

Despite possessing capacities far beyond other animals to consider others' minds, to empathize with others' needs, and to transform empathy into care and generosity, we fail to employ these abilities readily, easily, or equally. ...

Even arguably our most important social capacity, theory of mind — the ability to adopt the perspectives of others — can increase competition as much as it increases cooperation, highlighting the emotions and desires of those we like, but also highlighting the selfish and unethical motives of people we dislike. ...

Because our social capacities are largely non-automatic, ingroup-focused, and finite, we can retire the strong version of Aristotle's statement.
No, man is very social by nature.

I used to think that chimps were more social, but they are not. They never cooperate in the ways that humans commonly do, such as building something together.

Only a few animals are truly social in the sense of cooperating. Mainly humans, ants, bees, and termites. And only human are social in the sense of a theory of mind.

I used to think that women were more social than men. That might be true when the group is the size of a small dinner party, but men are much more social in larger groups. See for example this Dutch reality TV experiment.

Aristotle's statement makes a lot more sense than Waytz's. Humans being social does not mean that we never compete or that we treat all others equally. Ants and bees are essentially slaves to the group. Some humans are also, but as Aristotle explained, our society permits some to become individualists, either because they are less than human or more than human. That is, the nonconformist may be the criminal who fails to adapt to society, or the free man who chooses to go his own way.

Sometimes a preference to the in-group over the out-group bugs people. But that is an essential part of being a social animal. Bees prefer their hive over a foreign hive, and ants prefer their own colony. If a social relationship means anything, it means a preference over those without a social relationship.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Against hypothesis testing

Statistic professor Andrew Gelman attacks frequentism:
The conventional view:

Hyp testing is all about rejection. The idea is that if you reject the null hyp at the 5% level, you have a win, you have learned that a certain null model is false and science has progressed, either in the glamorous “scientific revolution” sense that you’ve rejected a central pillar of science-as-we-know-it and are forcing a radical re-evaluation of how we think about the world (those are the accomplishments of Kepler, Curie, Einstein, and . . . Daryl Bem), or in the more usual “normal science” sense in which a statistically significant finding is a small brick in the grand cathedral of science (or a stall in the scientific bazaar, ...

My view is (nearly) the opposite of the conventional view. The conventional view is that you can learn from a rejection but not from a non-rejection. I say the opposite: you can’t learn much from a rejection, but a non-rejection tells you something.
He is a Bayesian, and he regularly attacks high-profile social science studies.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Nominating frequentism as the biggest fail

I posted a rant against nutrition science, and got this comment:
This is all true, but it should be noted nutrition science failed because of the Frequentist statistical methods that were used in the studies.

Frequentist statistical methods have screwed up a lot of other subjects. pretty much everyone it's touched in fact, from economics to the psychology, neither of which can be said to have increased their predictive capabilities within living memory.

I nominate Frequentist statistics as the biggest fail. ...

Already by the 50's and 60's statisticians had discovered a mass of (theoretical) problems with p-values and Confidence Intervals (the primary tools used in all those 'scientific' papers which turn out to be wrong far more than they're right). They only really work in very simple cases where they happen give answers operationally identical to the Bayesian answer.

These problems aren't merely faulty application. They are problems of principle and are inherent in Frequentist Statistics even if performed correctly. ...

The only difference between now and 50 years ago is that back then people could only point out theoretical problems with Frequentist methods. Since then, it's become clear to everyone that Frequentist statics is a massive practical failure as well.

Most heavy statistics laden researcher papers are wrong.

Every branch of science that relies on classical statistics as their main tool has stagnated. Just like Economics and Psychology, their predictive ability hasn't improved in half a century despite hundreds of thousands of peer reviewed research papers, and massive research spending that dwarfs everything that came before.
He refers to this 1976 E.T. Jaynes article demonstrating how the frequentist gets wrong answers.

This seemed a little extreme to me, but now I see that a reputable journal is banning frequentism:
The Basic and Applied Social Psychology (BASP) 2014 Editorial emphasized that the null hypothesis significance testing procedure (NHSTP) is invalid, and thus authors would be not required to perform it (Trafimow, 2014). However, to allow authors a grace period, the Editorial stopped short of actually banning the NHSTP. The purpose of the present Editorial is to announce that the grace period is over. From now on, BASP is banning the NHSTP.

With the banning of the NHSTP from BASP, what are the implications for authors? The following are anticipated questions and their corresponding answers.

Question 1. Will manuscripts with p-values be desk rejected automatically?

Answer to Question 1. No. If manuscripts pass the preliminary inspection, they will be sent out for review. But prior to publication, authors will have to remove all vestiges of the NHSTP (p-values, t-values, F-values, statements about “significant” differences or lack thereof, and so on).

Question 2. What about other types of inferential statistics such as confidence intervals or Bayesian methods?

Answer to Question 2. Confidence intervals suffer from an inverse inference problem that is not very different from that suffered by the NHSTP. In the NHSTP, the problem is in traversing the distance from the probability of the finding, given the null hypothesis, to the probability of the null hypothesis, given the finding. Regarding confidence intervals, the problem is that, for example, a 95% confidence interval does not indicate that the parameter of interest has a 95% probability of being within the interval. Rather, it means merely that if an infinite number of samples were taken and confidence intervals computed, 95% of the confidence intervals would capture the population parameter. Analogous to how the NHSTP fails to provide the probability of the null hypothesis, which is needed to provide a strong case for rejecting it, confidence intervals do not provide a strong case for concluding that the population parameter of interest is likely to be within the stated interval. Therefore, confidence intervals also are banned from BASP. ...

The NHSTP has dominated psychology for decades; we hope that by instituting the first NHSTP ban, we demonstrate that psychology does not need the crutch of the NHSTP, and that other journals follow suit.
The beauty of the NHSTP is that it reduces an experiment to a single number to decide whether it is publishable or not. As far as I know, there is no other single statistic that is a suitable substitute.

The original post was attacked by professional skeptics, and defended by Dilbert. The skeptics have the attitude that if you say that scientists were wrong, then you do not understand science. Science works by correcting previous errors, they say.

I think that the skeptic-atheists hate Dilbert because he has posted some criticism of how evolution is taught and explained. That makes him an enemy of the atheist-evolutionists, but then call him a creationist. I do not think that he is religious at all, but that is the way leftist ideologues are.

The Skeptic radio podcast that attacked Dilbert is best known for co-host Rebecca Watson and Elevatorgate. She told some crazy and probably made-up story about a fellow atheist flirting with her in an elevator at an atheist convention. The details are unimportant, except that these folks get very upset about this sort of thing.