The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Posts Tagged ‘math’

Prayer, Miracles, and Damned Statistics

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 7, 2010

We’ve all heard the line: There’s lies, damned lies, and then there’s statistics. The implication is that people can use statistics to deceive themselves and others.  But the opposite is also true: people often deceive themselves due to a stark ignorance of numbers & statistics (often referred to as innumeracy).

For example, at this time of year, at least in Christian circles, there is a lot of talk going around about prayer and miracles – usually in the guise of stories about supposedly “miraculous” healing.  And the media loves to give air time to these kind of anecdotal stories with nary a whiff of skepticism.  However, to its credit, ABC News did a segment recently with Elizabeth Vargas where she gave a fair amount of face-time to skeptic Michael Shermer.  Here are some excerpts from Shermer’s account of the interview at the really groovy SkeptiBlog…

Would I Ever Pray for a Miracle?

I really like how Shermer goes into the issue of large number statistics, confirmation bias, and believers counting the “miraculous hits” while discounting the enormous number of inevitable misses…

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Posted in mathematics, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

“Toyota Terror” and Media Scare-Mongering

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 15, 2010

Yes, we’ve all been hearing in the media lately about how Toyota is issuing major recalls for many of its most popular vehicles, such as the Camry & Prius.  The problems, we are told, range from sticky accelerator pedals to brakes that don’t function properly.  In addition, the media have made a really big point of noting that the accelerator problem has likely led to a whopping 19 deaths over the last decade!!!  ZOMG!!!11!1

Errr… that’s it?  19 deaths in a decade?  Really, that’s the big news?  Not to sound cold & heartless, but this seems so like the making of a molehill into a mountain in an effort by the media to keep a story going, when it’s obviously well past its “sell by” date.  To get a little perspective, let’s take a look at this responsible article by NPR on this issue…

Most Auto Accidents Caused By Drivers, Not Defects

Driving a Toyota may feel pretty risky these days, given all the scary stories about sudden acceleration, failing brakes and recalled vehicles. But that feeling has a lot more to do with emotion than statistics, experts say. That’s because defective vehicles are almost never the cause of serious crashes.

“The whole history of U.S. traffic safety in the U.S. has been one focusing on the vehicle, one of the least important factors,” says Leonard Evans, a physicist who worked for General Motors for three decades and wrote the book Traffic Safety.

To Err Is Human

Studies show that the vehicle itself is the sole cause of an accident only about 2 percent of the time. Drivers, on the other hand, are wholly to blame more than half the time and partly to blame more 90 percent of the time.

A look at data on Toyotas from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration confirms this pattern. The data show that in the decade ending in 2008, about 22,000 people were killed in vehicles made by Toyota or Lexus, Evans says. “All these people were killed because of factors that had absolutely nothing to do with any vehicle defect,” he says.

During that same period it’s possible, though not yet certain, that accelerator problems in Toyotas played a role in an additional 19 deaths, or about two each year, Evans says. And even if an accelerator does stick, drivers should be able to prevent most crashes by simply stepping on the brakes, Evans says. “The weakest brakes are stronger than the strongest engine,” he says.

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Posted in mathematics, media woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Why So Much of Polling is B.S. — F**k You, Frank!

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 3, 2009

“The numbers don’t lie” goes an oft-quoted saying… and that’s true, for the most part.  Numbers don’t lie, but what does lie is the people who are reporting the numbers.  The recent brouhaha over health care reform in the United States has brought this fact about numbers & statistics into stark relief of late.  Most people, when they read a poll, don’t really think about the numbers all that much, or they are too innumerate to really understand what they’re reading – which is how so many are easily manipulated.  And oftentimes the polls are self-contradictory.

For example, look at this recent article – which is, refreshingly, a good example of critical thinking in the modern media – concerning the question of polling public opinion on health care reform…

Health care polls leave pols dizzy

Legislators hoping to learn what their constituents think about the issue — and how to vote to keep them happy — face a dizzying deluge of hard-to-reconcile data, some of which suggests that voters are more than a little confused, as well.

What to make of it, for example, when one poll finds that 63 percent think “death panels” are a “distortion” or “scare tactic,” and only 30 percent think the issue is “legitimate,” while another finds that 41 percent believe that people would die because “government panels” would prevent them from getting the treatment they needed?

Or when one survey finds that 55 percent of Americans support the public option, while another says 79 percent favor one — but also notes that only 37 percent people surveyed actually knew what “public option” meant?

And because there is such ambiguity in these polls, those with an agenda can usually cherry-pick whatever data they want to make a case for their particular argument.  Even changing the wording of a particular question just slightly can have a huge impact…

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Posted in mathematics, media woo, politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Las Vegas: A Town Based on Bad Math & Gullibility

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 15, 2009

During my recent trip to Las Vegas for TAM7, as with all my previous trips to “Sin City”, I noticed the large number of people gambling.  Now there is a certain social aspect to gambling, but a lot of people play these games of chance hoping that they’ll win it big.  They literally believe that, through some lucky charm or prayer, that they’ll hit the jackpot, and that’s exactly what the casinos want them to believe…


Of course, the casinos in Vegas are banking on a combination of people’s lack of critical thinking & skepticism, innumeracy (misunderstanding of math), susceptibility to the gambler’s fallacy, and basic gullibility – and based upon what I’ve seen, the casinos have been quite successful at cashing in on all of these things.

That’s because in addition to knowing basic human nature, the casinos also know the mathematical odds. They don’t say “the house always wins” for nothing, folks.  Even if someone occasionally wins it big (which will eventually happen by the law of large numbers, just as when someone wins the lottery), there are way more people who are losing money.  In the end, these casinos make much more money than they pay out.

Ironically, I saw the following slot machine sign while in Vegas…


In order to make this sign a more accurate reflection of reality, one of the O’s should be crossed out, because chances are that if you’re playing these games you’ll end up a loser.  So, statistically speaking, how does one win in Vegas (without cheating)?  The answer is simple, folks: you don’t play the game 🙂

Posted in mathematics, psychology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Media Math

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 24, 2009

I saw this over at Wheat-dogg’s world, and I simply had to share it 😀

media math

Posted in humor, media woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Need for Science Teachers

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 7, 2009

I teach high school & college physics, and just this week a colleague of mine sent me a disturbing article in the Chicago Tribune about a crisis in the teaching profession in the state of Illinois. Now, it’s not necessarily the kind of crisis that you might envision – that there aren’t enough prospective teachers on the market. It’s actually the opposite problem – there are too many teachers; at least, there are too many of certain kinds of teachers.

Here are a couple of key excerpts from the article:

The nation’s third-largest city school system [Chicago Public Schools] is seeing a deluge of applications, a phenomenon usually associated with coveted suburban jobs. Applications have doubled in five years—to 23,568 for the 2008-09 school year—fueled in part by the economy but also by a glut of new teachers statewide.

The “overproduction” of teachers is highest in social science, according to the state. Local districts are reporting an oversupply of applicants for elementary school teaching jobs, as well as English language arts and physical education teachers.

This confirms suspicions I’ve had ever since I was getting my certification to teach math & physics many years ago: there are too many education majors or those enrolled in certification programs who are specializing in the humanities such as English & history. But there is something even more disturbing in the article…

Districts also report what they consider to be shortages of qualified teacher applicants, which in 2008 were reported in special education areas, but also in physics, chemistry, math and foreign language.

So the problem is a double whammy – not only are there too many people going into teaching the humanities, but there is a lack of qualified teachers for core scientific & technical subjects such as math, physics, and chemistry!

I don’t know about you, but I see this as a huge problem – especially if it is a common trend throughout the United States (which I suspect it is – see this USA Today article from 2006). If we in the United States are trying to retool our economy to be more forward-looking in the 21st century, then we’re going to need to emphasize basic scientific research & technological development. But where do the scientists and engineers to work on those important projects come from? They come from our educational system.

But when our educational system has too many people wanting to teach English literature and too few people qualified to teach basic physics, how can we possibly expect to educate a workforce that will have the necessary understanding of science & math to be competitive? Without engineers, how can you design & build newer cars, roads, bridges, and infrastructure? Without scientists, how can you do the basic research into alternative energy sources as well as explore other essential questions, such as global warming, medicine, etc?

And this begs an even more fundamental question: Why is it that so many students enrolled in teaching certification programs at U.S. universities & colleges steer away from the physical sciences and mathematics? In discussing this question with my colleague, we speculated on some reasons…

1. Majoring in science and/or math in college is perceived to be very difficult, especially the more mathematical the specific area of science (physics, for example, usually attracts the fewest students of all the sciences). Many U.S. college students choose not to major in science/math because “it isn’t an easy major” or “it’s too much work” compared with other subjects. In all my years of college & graduate school, I cannot tell you how many times I heard fellow students make those sorts of comments. This reflects a fundamental problem – intellectual laziness coupled with a profound lack of work ethic. But why?

2. Sadly, science and math are not respected as much in U.S. society as they were a generation or two ago. Don’t get me wrong – we all love getting on the Internet or playing the latest music on our I-pods. But what is lacking is a respect for and understanding/appreciation of the process of science which leads to the development of those technological marvels. In a way, we’ve gotten so used to being on top that we forgot what it took to get us here. Besides, how can we be surprised that the public image of science is taking a beating when there are constant assaults against our scientific institutions from creationists, New Agers, and sCAM advocates? When the media in this country treat the nonsense of psychics & vaccine deniers halfway seriously, without a hint of critical thinking, why does it shock us that we see the inevitable dumbing down of our educational system regarding actual science?

Without a broader & deeper societal appreciation for science and its methods, how can we expect that enough young people will wish to pursue the sciences, engineering, or science/math teaching as a career path?

This is one reason why I think it is so important for skeptics, critical thinkers, and defenders of science to stand up and speak up. If we are to have any chance of reversing these disturbing trends in science & mathematics education (both in terms of getting good teachers and in terms of educating our kids), then it is incumbent upon us to do our part. If we continue down this dangerous path, then ultimately we will only have ourselves to blame.

Posted in education | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

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