succumbing to peer pressure

Saturday, March 24, 2007

It's all fun and games

At tonight's (somewhat early) going away/baby shower for the Canadians a few of us became 5 years old again and needed little more than a bright green yoga ball to invent hours of potentially-injurious games. Details, and potentially gruesome photos of the slice-and-dice job I did on my finger attempting to open a can of rotel, to come tomorrow.

Oh Heebie, I feel your pain, I really, really do. My favorite is her disclaimer: "Third parties sometimes get uncomfortable when I gawk in utter disbelief at my math students, thinking 'Heebie would be shocked if I were in her class. I don't remember any of that stuff.'" And it's true - I know sometimes when I rail about my students my friends try to remind me that, you know, math is hard! But most of the time I'm pissed because my students were clearly just not listening. You, dear reader, may not have had a math class in a decade and may have forgotten what a summation sign is. But my students are, allegedly, paying thousands and thousands of dollars to sit in my class with their eyelids propped open and have seen no fewer than a dozen summation signs several times a week for several months. They should recognize one! etc.

In other news, my dad continues to demonstrate that he is cooler than I am, and probably than I ever have any hope of being. I know I've said this before, but it bears repeating. I'm reconstructing my music files on the new laptop, and putting together a playlist, and I just realized that nearly every song on the list is something Dad sent me (Wolfmother, the New Pornographers, Rock Kills Kid, My Morning Jacket, Bloc Party). Granted, I am just cool enough to know I like these bands, so I'll just convince myself that it's because he has more disposable income and therefore has gotten around to obtaining albums by bands that I already knew about. Yep, that's it, I'm sure.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

When Scientists Argue

When 'experts' disagree, or rather, various talking heads can point to various experts (either accurately or inaccurately) to support their diametrically opposed opinions, who should the public believe? Typically, the public believes whichever side they've always believed, and moves on to washing dishes or giving the kid a bath or whatever else occupies the majority of their brain space. But a suggestion was made at my conference last week that has coincidentally come up again and again for me this week. The suggestion, during a panel on the role of biostatisticians in policy development, was that it's time for the American Statistical Association to start weighing in on some of today's major controversies. Perhaps not officially endorsing a 'side' but writing a few user-friendly articles parsing the available data. As data analysts, we are, allegedly, good at spotting faulty conclusions, poor interpretations, weaknesses in data collection, etc. etc. We could, at the very least, plow through any false media claims to 'scientists disagree' when that is clearly not the case (*cough*global warming!*cough*). We are also supposed to be (at least, those of us worth our salt) capable of explaining results to non-technical audiences. Here again perhaps we could lend a hand, elaborating on the sort of equivocating scientists naturally do yet which inevitably leads the lay person to conclude that there is a lack of agreement within a given community of scholars. (a scientist's careful treading around words like proof, theory, and evidence is enough to convince the average American that he or she doesn't know what the hell he or she is talking about)

This came up at that dinner party last week, then I was arguing with someone about what swath of the population made up the majority of minimum wage earners. I contend it's single women (from an albeit biased source - Ms. Magazine) while my opponent argued that it's predominantly teenagers and young adults, none of whom are primary breadwinners. The problem is, we may both be (somewhat) correct. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports minimum wage stats with a denominator of the general-hourly-wage-earning public. So their stats tell you what percent of hourly-wage-earning women earn the minimum (4%) NOT what percent of minimum wage earners are women (I haven't sufficiently googled to try to find a source for Ms's numbers). Do you see the difference? Furthermore, the BLS says that about half of minimum wage earners are under 25, and a little more than a fourth are 16-19. Now, those may be high school and college students working holidays and weekends. But without further information we can't conclude (as the Heritage Foundation linked earlier does) that those under 25 minimum wage earners are in school, living at home, not the sole breadwinner. So there are two problems with the data here - different denominators, and potentially inaccurate (and implicit) assumptions.

Example number 2 - Recently a friend asked me to use my quantitative wherewithal to wade through an ongoing tiff between Michael Spagat and Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. What Spagat is claiming, given the people who listen to him, could be tremendously damaging. But I want to give the problem due thoughtfulness (my friend's request is both flattering and daunting).

It would definitely be nice if my professional association did more of this kind of thing.

Today is Back Up Your Birth Control Day! I think of this as being aware of your plethora of birth control options (condoms, diaphragm, The Pill/ring/shot/etc., cervical cap) but most organizations are focusing primarily on Emergency Contraception. Given the myriad of misconceptions surrounding EC, this seems reasonable. EC is currently available without a prescription, but is kept behind the counter to prevent those impressionable young teens from gaining access. However, some stores are still refusing to provide it, despite company policies to the contrary. So don't wait until you're freaking out about a contraceptive mishap, stroll down to your local pharmacy and demand some EC today!

The ACLU also has some links to interesting and useful things you can to celebrate today, or any day!