My Baby Shot Gun Control Me Down… with Statistics

Best way to lie? Statistics, no question about it, and if you don’t believe me I can show you some statistics that support this point… or any other point for that matter. But statistics are even better to lie to yourself; the same way different people see different things when they look at clouds, people also see different things when they look at data, and if there is one endless debate where people reinforce their beliefs with cherry picked data that debate is gun control.

tyt.us.vs.japanTalking about cherry picking, let’s check at the The Young Turks‘ argument to support stricter gun control in the USA: “ban guns like Japan and you have 2 gun related homicides, don’t ban guns and you have 10,225 gun related homicides”. And they explain their point in a way that you’d better not to dare to disagree. Sure they could have compared data from 2007 where the USA had 9,146 gun related homicides and Brazil 34,678 mentioning that Brazil has much tighter gun control laws than the USA but, unfortunately, this is the way politics and media works; it does not matter if you are right or wrong, only if you look right or wrong. But let’s analyze some data and a few more examples of how information is presented to us. Continue reading

Astrology: The woo-woo that works

French psychologist Michel Gauquelin gained notoriety in the 50’s after publishing data showing that sportsmen were born in a non random fashion when considering the movement of planet Mars, the nicknamed Mars Effect has been the core of passionate discussions over its statistical validity since then but, beyond whether this effect truly holds or not, there are many reasons why genuine statistically significant data can be found in the astrology world, so we’d do better not to ignore planets and stars entirely.

mars_effect
Number of sportsmen born given the position of planet Mars according to Gauquelin’s data

We humans develop efficient strategies in our daily life that are useful for most situations, for example, if we see dark clouds and a few moments later it rains we associate dark clouds with rain and, voilà, next time we see dark clouds we take measures. The problem begins when we break a leg right after seeing a black cat, our association machine, a.k.a brain, does its magic and next time we see a black cat we take measures too. But you know what? The brain is right!

What is not so right is human difficulties to removed associations once they are set in our brains, a.k.a stubbornness. We humans develop all sort of strategies too keep our associations alive and demand extraordinary amounts of evidences to break them yet, even when those evidences are presented, we keep fighting them by doubting the methodology or the honesty of the persons bringing them up. There might be evolutionary advantages explaining why we create associations so easily but cannot break them with the same ease, but whatever the reasons are the problem only worsens when in some cases our stubbornness makes the associations come true! And that is what astrology is all about. These are a few examples of how astrology makes spurious associations come true: Continue reading

Racial Profiling vs Description of the Suspect

You are a policeman in a car chase of a criminal wearing globes and a mask, the most likely scenario according to statistics is that the criminal is a white person. Then the car stops in front of a bar and the criminal rushes in getting rid of the globes, mask and changing his clothing. You enter the bar and you see a white guy and a non-white guy. Who should you question first? The non-white guy. Racism? No, Bayes’ Theorem.

reverse-racial-profilingAccording to the US Department of Justice racial profiling is defined as:

Any police-initiated action that relies on the race, ethnicity, or national origin rather than the behavior of an individual or information that leads the police to a particular individual who has been identified as being, or having been, engaged in criminal activity.

A key part in this definition is where it justifies the police-initiated action when there is information that leads to a particular individual. In other words, if there are witnesses saying that the thief was a barefooted blond white little girl wearing a green blouse and a red tutu then going after girls looking like that would not be considered racial profiling but simply checking on the description of the suspect.

But how about if the police-initiated action is not based on information coming from witnesses but in information coming from statistics? Is information coming from statistics still information according to the definition of the US Department? Continue reading