## Percentages and the pastrami panic…

the hot dog horror, and the salami scare. This story in the NYT quotes a source:

“We see a 4 percent increase in the risk of cancer even at 15 grams a day, which is a single slice of ham on a sandwich,” said Dr. Nigel Brockton, director of research for the American Institute for Cancer Research.
Eating a more typical serving of 50 grams of processed meat a day would increase the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent, a
2011 review of studies found.

What does this really mean? Lifetime risk of colorectal cancer is about 1 in 23, or a little over 4%.  Now, does that slice of ham double your risk (4% to 8%), or merely increase it from 4.3% to (1.04*.043 = .045), 4.5%? Do a full fifth (18 + 4 = 22) of the 50-gram noshers get these specific cancers? Of course not. The quote, and the story, are completely ambiguous, but if you follow the link, you find that the data are relative risk values, which is the second interpretation. 50 grams a day entails about a 1% extra risk, and that’s not even counting all the people already in the 4.3% who eat deli meat and get cancer. If you do, and you stop, your risk of these cancers goes down from about 4% to…a little more than 3%. Perhaps Zabar’s should sue the Times over this alarmism.

Eating a reasonable amount of these exceptionally yummy foods seems to me a good deal, at the price of being 1% more likely to get this type of cancer before I get one of the other kinds or a heart attack. YMMV, of course. Everyone dies of something, so a much more useful statistic would be the average number of [quality adjusted ?] life years I’m putting at risk from a ham habit, and from an occasional indulgence.

The lesson here is that any statistics involving percentages have to be stated carefully to make it clear whether an increase adds to an existing rate or multiplies it, and “X% added risk” simply doesn’t cut it. Dr. Brockton and the reporter are equally at fault here, along with the Times copy editor. Students and colleagues: don’t make this mistake, especially when you’re explaining science to the public. What Dr. Brockton meant to say is that “the 15g pigout habit raises your lifetime risk from 4 to 5%”. There’s no escaping the additional words. Or reporting base rates: something that “quadruples your risk of contracting the gleeps” is not a big deal if the incidence of gleeps is a fraction of a percent.

## Why you can skip the SOTU

The word considerable does not mean what most people think it does. It means “needing or deserving of consideration” , not “big”  or “a lot” .  It means what everything Donald Trump says is not, and tonight’s speech (and the post-speech tweets and flailing about by flacks and shills that will follow) will be more proof: Trump’s discourse is not considerable and should just be ignored as such.

One significance of the Jewish ceremony of Bar Mitzvah is that the principal is now responsible for what he says: when an adult says he will do something, the odds that he will should go up, and in general people can depend on that and make corresponding commitments. What Trump says he will do has no such significance: his statements of intent are vacuous and ephemeral, as Mitch McConnell and the dozens people he has stiffed in business can attest.

When grownups assert facts about the world, the assertion has some bearing on what you should believe, though of course some are better informed than others or smarter.  When Trump says practically anything, his relentless, terrier-like, purposeful ignorance means it has no informative value whatever, whether he’s noodling about climate, Iran, the border, or trade data.

A third kind of discourse enlightens us about the speaker’s values: “I’m a Christian” is shorthand for a bunch of actions in the world one can expect the speaker to try to perform or not.  Trump’s value statements are as vacuous, and as labile—whether odious or decent–as his fact discourse.

It’s not just a matter of mendacity, though his endless, insouciant lying about big things and small have a lot to do with this. He doesn’t misrepresent his values; he just doesn’t have any (except his own ego). If there were money to made from it, and he had permission from Laura Ingraham and Putin, he would as readily get on a climate alarm jag as he does about immigrants.

All of which has been a paralyzing problem for all of us and especially for the press.  Deference to his office, and long journalistic tradition, seems to require that when the president says “A is B”, the fact that he said it requires reporting, perhaps with a quote from another source who says “no, it’s not!” But when this president says absolutely anything, the event is not like any other president, or any other important public official saying something.  It has no bearing on anyone’s belief, on what he will do in the future, or on our views of him: it’s not considerable. It’s like a horserace prediction based on a dice roll. We’ve had two years of our press trying to treat Trump’s discourse as the utterances of a responsible, more-or-less-informed, responsible adult: it’s time to stop. The word lie is, thankfully, starting to be used to characterize his mendacities, but why tell us about something that will be inoperative or a passing fancy by the next news cycle?  We need a completely new convention, recognizing that the presidential utterance process has been replaced with an inconsequential–not considerable—model, and treating it like the “speech” of a parrot or random artificial speech generator.

Not considerable: how to listen to tonight’s speech, or why you can just ignore it.

## Language gaps

I have been reflecting on two traditional habits of our media that have become not only dysfunctional but actively destructive.  First, reporting on Trump as though he is a basically serious person.  The press is, slowly, getting better about nailing Trump for lying, and using the word. Old habits die hard, and the habit of treating the discourse of a US president as being considerable, and assuming conventional links among utterance, belief, and intention is one of those. But it’s not working, because those links are broken in Trump’s case.

When someone says something, in any serious context, we take the utterance as some sort of forecast of behavior.  “Drive me around in my car and I’ll pay you \$X” is a commitment, maybe enforceable in court; “I love you” uttered by anyone not a complete cad isn’t as firm an assurance of future behavior, but normal people take it as at least not meaning “I don’t care about you” or “Actually I love someone else”, and normal people say it, or don’t, knowing that.  People can change their minds, but the general rule applies,  especially for public figures and leaders: what you say is and is seen to be predictive of your future behavior. A colleague of mine said what it means to a Jew to be Bar Mitzvah is that you are now responsible to what you say.

Accordingly, presidential discourse has always been reportable as spoken: data that is predictive (not perfectly) of consequential actions. However flacks and commentators spin it, we have taken presidents’ words as considerable.   It’s time to stop what has become a mechanistic charade: we have a president whose speech, whether about values, beliefs, or promised action,  only predicts his behavior accidentally. He reneges on flat commitments like promises to give to veterans’ causes, to invest in infrastructure, and ‘deals’ like the one last fall about immigration.  He is relentlessly, doggedly ignorant about absolutely everything, so his statements of fact are not even hopes and wishes, but short-run chum for his most hateful base, whatever he thinks a rally audience wants to hear. When Trump’s rallies, tweets, and press events are broadcast the way a normal president’s events used to be, and when his environmental policies are presented as though the fact assertions they rest on are on this side of the line between knowledge and witchcraft, they are flatly misrepresented. “Trump said X today” is simply not the same kind of report as it would be regarding the utterance of a responsible adult; tradition is a poor guide now. “Trump said X” means “the last person (or rally crowd) who flattered Trump in his presence, or his latest instructions from Putin, told him to say X” and little more.

## Shock news: denialist hack trashes electric cars

Bret Stephens is out to lunch on electric cars.

NYT journalist Bret Stephens has written a column attacking Elon Musk as “the Donald Trump of Silicon Valley”. Musk, whose 27% share of Tesla stock is currently worth \$13.2bn, can look after himself. Perhaps Stephens has friends in the dispirited coterie of Tesla bears who need a helping hand?

What interests me is Stephens’ undocumented attack on Tesla’s main product, electric cars.

Tesla, by contrast, today is a terrible idea with a brilliant leader. The terrible idea is that electric cars are the wave of the future, at least for the mass market. Gasoline has advantages in energy density, cost, infrastructure and transportability that electricity doesn’t and won’t for decades. […] Electric vehicles were supposed to be the car of the future because we were running out of oiluntil we weren’t.

Set aside the easily checked fact that governments do not subsidise electric cars because they worry the world is running out of oil, but because of climate change and urban air pollution – plus a good dose of energy independence, as in China and India. Let’s see how electric cars have actually been selling. A chart from the IEA:

Source: IEA, Global EV Outlook 2017, data in Tables 4-6

The 5-year CAGRs are: PHEVs 143%, BEVs 85%, all EVs 107% (see spreadsheet). Continue reading “Shock news: denialist hack trashes electric cars”

## Let’s End the Condemnation Derby

Lazy journalists (and some lazy activists) have an annoying habit I call the “Condemnation Derby”. It goes like this.

Every day, some people do things to which we might reasonably object. For example, tomorrow it might be:

(1) The Mayor of a city in Faroffistan had his thugs smash the printing presses of the town paper!
(2) A Senator who has long crusaded against drugs was photographed using cocaine!
(3) A Hollywood star slapped a waiter while calling him/her an ethnic slur!
(4) During a “hot mike” moment, a Congressman was heard calling his assistant “sugar tits”!
(5) Donald Trump tweeted (fill in here whatever awful tweet he did in the past 24 hours)!

Armed with such a list, the journalist starts ambush interviewing politicians, asking “Do you condemn [Insert here any of the above five]”. The politician may very well not even have heard of the incident at all. Maybe he or she will condemn in strong terms anyway. But if the politician doesn’t, the list gains a new item:

(6) Congressman/Senator/Mayor So-and-So REFUSED TO CONDEMN/DIDN’T CONDEMN STRONGLY ENOUGH (fill in any of #1-5 here)

The journalist can now ask the next person not only if they condemn #1-5, but also whether they condemn the politician who refused to condemn. And if they don’t condemn both, they become item #7. When these stories get traction as they sometimes do (particularly if activists play along), they evolve into “Even a week after (item here), Representative Smith STILL HASN’T CONDEMNED…”

Beyond being lazy, there are two problems with this type of journalism.

First, moral condemnation by public figures can still make a difference, but only if it used sparingly. When ever office holder is constantly being dragooned into condemning everything, it gives an out to someone who truly deserves condemnation “Yes, my pro-lynching comments were criticized, but so was last night’s lame joke on Will and Grace”.

Second, the act of condemnation by politicians often amounts to cheap grace. Our political leaders have power, with which comes responsibility to more than furrow a brow, express grave concern, frown angrily, chastise one’s colleague etc. We should care a lot less about whether officeholders mouth words of condemnation regarding things we don’t like and a lot more about whether they pass laws to make such things less prevalent.

## Joy Ann Reid and the tyranny of technical expertise

Update

Oh, well. As Churchill didn’t quite say, “An occasional meal of one’s own words is part of a healthy, balanced diet.”

## “MAGA maggots” and my fifteen minutes

One of the more disgusting aspects of contemporary political and media culture is the practice of forming on-line hit squads to go after innocent victims when they dare to complain in ways that discomfit right-wing politicians or discredit right-wing causes.

The latest example is the concerted attacks on the student survivors of the Parkland massacre who are organizing – with admirable skill and self-restraint – to demand more effective gun control laws. I’m on record as a skeptic about how much good politically practicable gun control can actually do under U.S. conditions, but there’s no doubt that making it harder for juveniles to access AR-15s and similar weapons could help moderate the carnage in schools. (That’s a small part of the total gun-violence problem, but still worth addressing.)

In any case, it does my heart good to see these young folks stepping in to the public arena with so much energy and such a sharp eye for political efficacy. You don’t have to entirely agree with them to unreservedly admire them. If it had been my friends who were killed, and if I’d spent hours hiding in a closet wondering whether I would survive, I doubt that I could master their self-possession.

## The NY Times Posted a Lott of Crap

So John Lott is promoting guns again, this time in an op-ed piece in yesterday’s New York Times. But this time heâ€™s taking a different tack. Some years ago Lott maintained that a survey he conducted on defensive gun use showed its benefits. However, no one could check it; he said that he lost the data in a hard drive crash â€“ but he couldn’t even provide evidence that he hired and paid interviewers to perform the survey.

He also used published crime statistics to promote his idea that relaxed gun laws prevented homicide. He subsequently was found to have misused the statistics in, shall we say, â€œinnovativeâ€ ways, to “prove” that more guns leads to less crime.

Abandoning data and surveys to promote guns, this time he uses a couple of anecdotes relating to individuals. That is, one person who was improperly denied a concealed carry license is more salient to him than the deaths of dozens of schoolchildren across the country.

I first encountered Lott when he began to use crime data improperly and wrote to him explaining the issues. When he did nothing about it, I wrote an article criticizing his research. To counteract my criticism, a woman named Mary Rosh started appearing on the web, who vilified me and who praised Lott as one of the best teachers she ever had. Then it turned out that Mary Rosh was a fiction, a persona created by Lott to debunk his critics. [He even implicated his four children: he admitted that the name â€œMary Roshâ€ was cobbled together using the first two letters of his kidsâ€™ names.] In other words, he hid behind the skirts of a woman he created out of whole cloth, just to promote himself and his pro-gun ideology. Here is my take on his actions in 2003.

At the time Lott was a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, an organization with which he is no longer affiliated â€“ which makes me look more kindly on AEI. Now he hangs his at the Crime Prevention Research Center, where he is president. I have no idea who funds this center, but I can guess. Those who want to learn more about the organization and Lott should read this article.

I realize that the New York Times is trying to do its best to look at both sides of controversial policies, but this really takes the cake. To publish a person who admitted to lying about his professional life, and who is writing about the policies he lied about, is offensive to me and should be to all those who look upon the Times as a credible source of information.

## On arguing with fools, and Prof. Ann Althouse in particular

There’s an old Yiddish expression that translates roughly:

“Never argue with a fool. People might not be able to tell the difference.”

That’s good advice, and the fact that I ignore it too often is, I confess, an error and a fault.

But there’s also an old English expression of equal authority:

“In for a penny, in for a pound.”

So having foolishly engaged via Twitter with Prof. Ann Althouse of the University of Wisconsin Law School, and having attracted counter-fire not only from the good Professor herself but from her even less adept colleague Prof. Glenn ReynoldsÂ of the University of Tennessee Law School, it seems wise, just this once, to respond at some length. Don’t read on unless you have a prurient interest in folly, or in trolling, the bastard child of folly born of its occasional dalliance with intellectual dishonesty.

## So much winning!

Remember that Trump promise?Â  Notice any winning happening?

Me neither, but I think I see the problem. It’s a typo: should be whining.Â  Now everything makes sense, because whining is the pervasive, universal quality of all the discourse of Trump and his mouthpieces, reaching some sort of high point in today’s Sanders briefing , though Spicer almost pegged the meter in his very first briefing.Â  Fake news, lying press, I can’t get a break, Joe and Mika are so mean to me, it’s all Obama’s fault, why aren’t you writing about my historic electoral victory, Russia hoax…so much whining! Including rallies that are a new type of collective mass unison whining: all together now, China! Coal! We don’t get no respect!

It does suck to be Donald, but not for the reasons he’d like to think. Anyway, the press is beginning to realize it has to call a lie a lie to properly present the story: I propose that reporters and commentators reflect on whine as the other word most underused, in proportion to its relevance and accuracy, in discourse about our current presidential farrago. Try it: easy to say, it’s a verb, everyone knows what it means, and it has the perfectly apropos connotations of infantile affect and ineffectuality.

Whiner, that’s our Donald all over.