Our Days Are Numbered: Stats Errors

Our Days Are Numbered is a (new) regular feature with posts about mathematics related topics. Why? Because our students, in general, struggle with math, and if we all know more, perhaps they will learn more.

I’ve been waiting awhile for the paperback of Charles Wheelan’s Naked Statistics. It looked like a great primer on the subject, but it kills me to buy hardcovers and (unfortunately) due to the rise in ebooks, it seems to be taking longer and longer for books to get published in paperback. Anyway, I’m off topic, already.

This adaptation from his book focuses on five ways to make mistakes (intentional or not) using statistics, and gives a nice primer for some related inductive reasoning errors related to causation, but all presented in snappy, easy to read prose with great examples. If you’ve never taken Statistics (or it’s been a long time), you might find it helpful.

Think, Know, Prove–Ad Hominem Discomfort

The Ad Hominem fallacy is well defined as occurring when debaters introduce “irrelevant personal premisses about [their] opponent. Such red herrings may successfully distract the opponent or the audience from the topic of the debate.” While I am not displeased by the media attention on the activities of our district administration, I’ve grown steadily more discomfited by the easy slips into fallacious argument, usually personal attack, that it has fostered.

A read-through of the comments that follow the CBS-2 story is enough to trouble anyone not indifferent to the boundaries of reasonable argumentation. Toss in some additional suggestions of contemporary social theory (ideas like the possibility that complaints about subject-verb agreement and misspoken words are really overt markers of social punishments for class and/or race transgression  (the odious underlying assumption being something like the easily-disproved-yet-difficult-to-dislodge-completely belief that the use of “standard English grammar is a sign of intelligence and the absence of the former is a signal of the absence of the latter)) and a semi-hysterical furor and we’ve got the makings of what one sober commenter called something that feels increasingly like a witch hunt.

As with historical witch hunts, the portrayals of those involved are demonizing, hyperbolic, and paranoid, and the effect is often spread around, poisoning the entire environment. An example of this would be the criticisms (present in the CBS comment threads and both of the recent anonymous blogs) of our new President on the basis of his previous employer, previous boss, spouses’ job, and more.

Before I started teaching as an adjunct, my professional experience consisted of working in a Marketing department, where my most impactful job was probably proofreading the first bus and last bus times times on the system map of the CTA; I only had that job in the first place (hello…philosophy major) thanks to the efforts of my chinaman (as in the Royko usage; or as here, third definition intended, definitely NOT the first), a regular from the bar I was working in while in grad school who, truth be told, probably did more work for the 11th Ward than he did for the CTA. Speaking of previous employment, at the time I was hired to teach full time, my primary source of income was still slinging whiskey in a bar on Division Street. When I got out of college, my first job was testing the air quality of and managing asbestos abatement projects. My boss at that company is now serving time in the Federal Penitentiary in Michigan.

What does any of that have to do with my ability to do those jobs and do them well? Nothing.

What does any of the above have to do with the “criticisms” aimed at either our Chancellor or new President? Well, at the risk of appearing to be a bit of a suck up, I’d say that their situation is similar. I am sure that we could all name ten academics whom we’d NEVER want to be Chancellor or President, right off the top of our heads and immediately. I’m equally sure that, if we looked, we could find ten educational leaders who were impressive in their effectiveness without previous experience as academics. In the comments of the CBS stories and in the blogs , the Chancellor has been criticized for being mean, scared, unpolished, and unprofessional while masterminding (or at least facilitating for some nefarious lever pulling cabal of greedy executives) the secret corporate takeover in plain sight of a huge institution.

Do you see the tensions there?

She is criticized consistently for a personal bankruptcy. Harold Washington, the man after whom our college is named, served 36 days in the county lock up for an income tax problem. Which is worse? If the first one is grounds for suggesting that Cheryl Hyman shouldn’t be Chancellor then the latter would suggest that, if he were alive, HW wouldn’t qualify to be the President of the College that is named after him, much less the Chancellor of the system.

She has certainly made some terrible decisions along the way–I truly can’t believe that she didn’t go around to all of the campuses to meet the faculty, set up and then canceled all of the meetings with local faculty councils over the summer, including the district wide faculty/administration retreat, all of which meant that the first interactions most faculty had with her was at the DWFDW fiasco (another terrible decision); no doubt, there have been some doozies, but a lot of the criticism I’ve seen seems rooted in deep personal dislike, and criticism rooted in “taste” is always deserving of suspicion. I have grown to appreciate many people whom I did not personally like.

(Related, mildly digressive, possibly offensive story (please skip to the next paragraph if you have delicate sensibilities): I once had a boss who liked to say, on his happy days, “Well, you’ll never have a meaner boss than me,” as a kind of consolation and half apology for his other days. My first week on the job, he called me out, screaming in front of the staff and customers, “Richardson! You ASSHOLE! What the fuck are you DOING with that? If you screw as slow as you work, you’d be the best piece of ass in Chicago!!” It went downhill from there. Ten minutes later, a bit shaken up, one of my colleagues sidled up to me and said, “Don’t worry about it. Asshole is a term of endearment for him. If he calls you a motherfucker, though, that means you’re fired.” He fired me twice. He was probably the best boss I’ve ever had in the sense of the one from whom I learned the most.)

With respect to our new President and his previous (and ongoing) associations with CCA and the rest, I would urge everyone reading this to remember that while he was “found” and vetted by an expensive national search executive consultant, he was ALSO interviewed and recommended by a committee that included the current FC4 President (Ellen), the current local FC President (Rosie), at least two highly respected and fabulous faculty members (Marite Fregoso and Brian Nix), an adjunct (Floyd Bednarz, also President of CCCLOC), a member of 1708, and at least one student.

I had a 90 minute conversation with him myself and came out of it thinking that if it had been an interview, he’d have gotten a “highly recommended” rating from me. I was very impressed with his approach and his assumptions about what he needed to do; I was also both pleased and impressed by his sense of purpose, his motivation, his description of how his previous experiences will translate into our environment (all covered in his letter), and his candor. He seems like a person who is grounded in moral commitments and principles that are consistent with our mission, and one who takes an approach that is best described as academic–thoughtful inquiry grounded in prior knowledge aimed at testing and reformulating hypotheses, pursued out of enthusiasm for the subject matter–even if he is not himself marked by that particular label (yet).

And yes, I know that actions will speak louder than words, and consultants are trained to be good listeners and leave the people they’re about to disembowel smiling and looking forward to it and blah, blah, blah. Still, I do not think I am particularly naive (or, at least, I am not often accused of that unexpectedly). I also do not think that people who work in Corporate America are inherently evil. The best advice I got as a chair came from a guy who did financial services consulting (and I got plenty of bad advice from academics, come to think of it).

I think I am somewhat unusually willing to live in a state of suspended judgment–in an extended state of, “Well let’s see what happens.” I suggest that is, at the least, the proper attitude to have toward our new President, if not to be downright optimistic on the basis of how he’s approaching the job. The same ought to be said about the Reinvention recommendations. Let’s see what they are, rather than engage in poisoning of the well. That is after all, what academics do (or should, anyway), and where we see anything else–from peers, from students, from reporters, etc., we ought to oppose it.

It is not my suggestion that all of the criticisms regarding the Chancellor, the President, and Reinvention are fallacious, but it did start to feel a little hysterical this week, and as things ramp up in the lead up to the next board meeting and the release of the task force recommendations, I think it is important to have a little discussion about the rules of engagement and the standards of reasoning we are going to employ and allow. I know that there are some who will say that it is folly to declare any tools of rhetoric or persuasion as off limits, if not downright derelict given the motivations of the “opposition” and potential impact of their actions. (I knew a guy, once upon a time, who thought it an important matter of principle to announce the following to anyone with whom he was in conflict: “Sir, should this situation come to blows, you should know that the Marquess of Queensbury rules will not apply.” A mutual friend of ours spent many hours on one slow Sunday night trying to persuade the guy that to announce such a thing was to fritter away an important advantage, and if he was going to fight “dirty” anyway, there was no need to announce it. No one was persuaded, and it did not come to blows.). I understand that position, but I am unconvinced.

We may be tempted at times to take the kitchen sink approach (more is better–throw it all) and watch in silent approval while someone uses a bad argument to make a point because we happen to agree with the conclusion being asserted. There might even be temptation to endorse the speaker, despite knowing that the argument given was a dubious one, because of our belief that the situation is dire. To do so, though, is to engage in bad faith. Such actions lessen the strength and impact of the good arguments we may have in our pockets, and so ultimately undermine the cause we’re trying to support, if not right away then in retrospect.

So, the question is, how are we going to do this in a way that is both reasonable and responsible? Or should we even worry about standards of reasonability and responsibility?

What do you think? What do you know? What can you prove?

A Great (read: philosophical) Treatment of “Nature”

I loved this piece when I read it back in December, and not just because he mentioned Annie Dillard in it…

For many, myself included, criticizing nature doesn’t come, well, naturally. My own preferred recreational activities—hiking, climbing, running, snorkeling, riding horses—embed me in nature. I have surrounded myself with animals of all sorts, and I try to avoid consuming pesticides, herbicides, and the antibiotics and hormones to which industrial agriculture has become addicted. I was delighted when a natural-foods supermarket recently opened within a mile of our home, and I patronize it almost exclusively.

Nonetheless, in resisting many things that I view as “unnatural”—nuclear weapons, global warming, chemical pollution, habitat destruction—while also honoring, respecting, defending, admiring, and nearly worshiping many things that are natural (sometimes just because they are natural), it is all too easy to get carried away, to forget that much in the world of nature is unpleasant, indeed odious. Consider typhoid, cholera, polio, plague, and HIV: What can be more natural than viruses or bacteria, composed as they are of proteins, nucleic acids, carbohydrates, and the like? Do you object to vaccination? You’d probably object even more to smallpox.

The rest is here and so, so good.