I’m just out of time this week… but, we must offer this (6:15 for the theme relevance):
“Could you use a little water in your whiskey?”
“When I drink whiskey, I drink whiskey. And when I drink water, I drink water.”
Amen, Michaleen Oge Flynn. Amen.
Friday, April 24, 2009
That beats out getting referenced in Bruce’s Cryptogram, which was my last “best day”. Most of the visits were to the post analyzing the fallacies in Jim Carrey’s HuffPo op-ed. Fighting the woo seems to be popular.
It’s preventing me from getting other things done. However, I posted a comment over at Phil’s blog that has as much to do with numbers as the topic of vaccinations, and it illustrates an interesting version of the Gambler’s Fallacy, so I’m replicating it here:
A comment read, in part:
That goes for every parent that has witnessed the change in their child immediately after a vaccine or shortly thereafter.
This actually *is* a fallacy, a post hoc ergo propter hoc. There is a simple reason why this is not relevant, take the following facts…
* children take vaccines
* autism displays its first symptoms in childhood
* children under the age of 5 make up ~7% of the population
* there are ~360 million people in the U.S.
* about 80% of children are vaccinated entirely
(editor’s note: I didn’t make those numbers up, you can find them with a couple seconds and a web browser)
This means 360 x 0.07 x .8 = 2 million children (roughly) have been vaccinated. With the vaccination schedule being what it is, then, there are somewhere around 100,000 children getting a shot every month (that last one is handwavy, it assumes a lot about frequency distributions, but that’s not really germane to my point). Autism rates are estimated at anywhere between 1 in 100 and 1 in 150 children, that means we have about 17,000 diagnosis of autism. If every single one of those autism diagnosis was given to a vaccinated child (they’re not, but again for our sake here it introduces very small error), and those 17,000 have a scatter distribution of vaccination patterns, that means not one, not dozens, not hundreds, but *thousands* of those diagnosis came within days or weeks of a vaccination.
Put those thousands of people together on a message board (and since autism is hard to deal with, a very high percentage of these family *do* bond together, like SMA sufferers or MS or cancer or any other family-impacting disease), you’ll have a few thousand people all saying to each other, “Gee… MY kid got a shot right before her symptoms started showing, too! There are thousands of us! THAT CAN’T BE A COINCIDENCE.”
But you can see, it actually *isn’t* a coincidence… it’s exactly what we would expect to happen.
This is one of those times where people don’t think about what big numbers really mean. Here’s another example, one without a muddying emotional component: the odds of hitting “black” 20 times in a row on a standard “0” and “00” roulette wheel are really bad. A roulette wheel has 18 blacks and 18 reds numbered 1-36, plus green 0 and 00 for a total of 38. The probability of a black is 18/38, the probability of black 20 times in a row is
(18/38)^20 =~ 3,091,874 to one.
Holy bejeezus, you think, that’s crazy impossible! For the record, it’s still much better than the odds of winning the California lottery.
Here’s the thing. If every man, woman, and child in the United States started playing roulette right now, guess what? After 20 spins each, we’d have roughly100 people (give or take) staring thunderstruck at the roulette wheel, amazed at their unbelievable luck. Put all of those 100 people on the same message board, and they’d probably attach some sort of crazy significance to the day that they all won – it must be significant, how could *that* be a coincidence? Not to burst their collective bubble, but there’s nothing amazing or unbelievable about it… it’s what we expect to happen.
[edited to add] apologies for the above, I made a reference error (as was pointed out here and here). Currently, according to the Census Bureau, the number of people in the U.S. is ~306 million, not ~360 (http://www.census.gov/main/www/popclock.html). Just goes to show that transpose errors happen to the “best” of us, right? I’ll leave correcting the results above as an exercise for the reader; the end result is not significantly different.
It’s a great scene, but you can skip to 2:45 for the purposes of this post.
The scene is from 2007’s No Country For Old Men. For anyone not into contemporary American cinema, Javier Bardem (the guy with the haircut) won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as Anton Chigurh, “an emotionless, compassionless killing machine. His inability to comprehend human life is matched only by his ability to take it, as he does with ruthless abandon throughout the running of No Country For Old Men… As for the victims who don’t have some sort of reason to be dead behind them, he flips a coin to decide their fate.”
Here’s the question. What do you think he’s going to do if the gas station owner doesn’t call that coin?
You see, the character of Anton considers himself some sort of instrument of fate, almost a force of nature. Once he decides to pull out that coin, there are two possible results; you call the toss correctly and you live, or you call it incorrectly and you die. You could refuse to call the coin toss. Nobody does this in the movie, but my guess is that Anton would probably start torturing you until you make a call; since he doesn’t believe that it’s fair for him to call the toss, he’d force you to do it.
I’m writing this to illustrate a point. In some ways, your environment is like Anton. Your environment will occasionally force you to make a choice, and many people refuse to acknowledge this.
When you wake up in the morning, sitting next to your bed on the nightstand is a metaphorical revolver with 1 “bullet” and somewhere around 100,000 empty chambers. When you decide to get out of bed and walk to the bathroom, you spin the chamber in a game of Russian Roulette and pull the trigger. If you’ve picked the chamber with the bullet in it, somewhere between your bed and the bathroom you trip and fall and give yourself a fatal head injury. When you get to the bathroom, there’s another metaphorical revolver with 1 bullet and about 100,000 empty chambers, you get to play again. If you fail, you drown in the bathtub (note: for the morbidly statistically inclined, the chamber is about half that size if you’re a woman). Of course, some days you don’t even get to choose to get out of bed. The alarm clock itself is a revolver and if you have a weak heart, there’s a small but statistically present chance that your clock will give you a heart attack. Bang. You’re dead.
It’s a game we all play, every day. You can’t opt-out of making these choices, there is no way to not play the game. Oh, and sooner or later you’re going to lose. Happy Friday!
I’ve been reading a lot of the “vaccination” posts out on the Internet over the last few days and an observation has bubbled up into my forebrain. Many people don’t understand that there really is no difference between making some of these choices yourself, and allowing them to be made for you by the environment. I’ve seen posts on more than one comment thread that boils down to, “I’m just not comfortable taking the risk of injecting my child, I think the risk of the disease is less.” Many, many of these people have offered this observation *after* being shown that no, actually, the quantifiable risk of vaccinations is not only less than the risk of disease, but they’re not even on the same scale. Some people have commented that this is plainly irrational (I’ve been thinking it myself, but I’m trying to stay smooth in these hot-button “debates”).
The problem is that for these people, the thought that they might harm their child is so mindnumbingly horrifying that they are including that in their analysis, but only on one side. The line of thinking, I’m imagining, goes something like this… “If I choose to give my child a shot, and something happens, it will be my fault, because I decided to okay the shot.” Conversely, however, if they choose *not* to give their child a shot, and the child gets the disease and suffers, it’s something else’s fault… random chance, the will of God, some grand conspiracy, etc… “I can pretend like they my child got the measles and died because fate decided that my child was going to get the measles, instead of acknowledging the fact that my child got the measles because I refused to vaccinate them.” Consciously or subconsciously, they’re punting. They’re assigning *more* pejorative value to their action than they are to the pejorative value of their inaction. They’re pretending like they can ignore old Anton.
While this might give you the opportunity to retain your sanity if (God forbid) something should happen to your child, let’s be honest about what’s going on here. You’re afraid. You realize that the world is unsafe, and you’re assigned the responsibility of making decisions for this little person that you love more than your own life, and the cold reality that they are mortal scares the beejesus out of you. It scares you so much that you’re allowing a sense of time to overcome your ability to think clearly: “If I vaccinate my child and something happens, it’s my fault because it happened right after the decision. If I don’t vaccinate my child and they get a disesase three years from now, that’s three years from now and it’s so far away and I just don’t want to think about it that’s so morbid and oh God I’ll just stick my head over here in the corner and decide later.”
Bruce talks about this on his site. The part on Prospect Theory details exactly what I’m talking about here:
The authors of this study explained this difference by developing something called “prospect theory.” Unlike utility theory, prospect theory recognizes that people have subjective values for gains and losses. In fact, humans have evolved a pair of heuristics that they apply in these sorts of trade-offs. The first is that a sure gain is better than a chance at a greater gain. (“A bird in the hand is better than two in the bush.”) And the second is that a sure loss is worse than a chance at a greater loss. Of course, these are not rigid rules–given a choice between a sure $100 and a 50% chance at $1,000,000, only a fool would take the $100–but all things being equal, they do affect how we make trade-offs.
You can see how this applies to the thought process I’m talking about above. For someone who discounts their own “choice” as being relevant to the risk, a vaccination is a sure gain (reduced susceptibility to disease) and therefore better than a chance at a greater gain (passing on the vaccination and avoiding any possible risk *and* getting lucky and not getting sick anyway). For someone who includes their own “choice” as being relevant to the risk, a vacciantion is a sure loss (a chance to directly inflict harm upon my child) which is worse than a chance at a greater loss (passing on the vaccination and having my child get sick and dying).
Is it still irrational? Well, from the view of utility theory, absolutely. But humans aren’t necessarily wired that way, and consequences are measured not just in death and horrible side effects, but in the emotional damage those consequences do to the participants involved. Five years ago I’d be calling people who refused to vaccinate their child criminally negligent and horrible people. Now I just see them as humans. Scared humans making bad decisions, but humans nonetheless.
Recognize your fear, and overcome it, everybody. Here’s one time where “do it for the children” actually applies. It’s not about you and your fear, it’s about doing what’s best for them. Unfortunately, that’s not always so clear-cut, and sometimes you’ll do the right thing and your child will suffer for it. Kids get trapped in burning cars and die because of their car seats. Far, far, far more children are saved because of them. Even if vaccinations were as dangerous as some people (erroneously) claim they are, they’re still better than disease.
I must scrounge for this week’s theme. Times like these made me wish I had more spare time to edit these together into a montage…
Scroll to 1:56:
From 2:10 on, pretty much
And we can’t end on a depressing note, so… The Trammps!
Read this, and tell me how far you get before you feel like this:
I didn’t get past, “Since World War II a majority of the most prominent and vocal defenders of the evolutionary position which employs methodological naturalism have been atheists“, the third sentence. I did read the whole thing, though… although I might have to medicate myself to recover from this section.