.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Thursday, May 25, 2006


35th Skeptics' Circle: Special Creationist Edition

The 35th Skeptics' Circle is up, and I submitted one of my posts for inclusion. This is my first participation in a blog carnival, and I'm glad I got a chance to contribute. This week the Skeptics' Circle is hosted by Skeptico, who's been having a bit of trouble with a creationist blog doppelganger lately. Gracious guy that he is, Skeptico let his doppelganger narrate the posts in the Skeptics' Circle (not really). Well, creationists are skeptical of evolution, so this Skeptico doppelganger is on to something right? Er, um, yeah. So anyway, check it out and enjoy!


Monday, May 22, 2006


The Da Vinci Code Spectacle

There's a saying we have here on the IntarWeb: Don't feed the trolls. Trolls inhabit all corners of the Net. On message forums, newsgroups, and blogs you can find people who post inflammatory messages for the sheer goal of provoking nasty responses from other posters and generally antagonizing everyone else. The only way to defeat a troll is to ignore it; if you don't respond to their messages, they have no means of provoking a fight, and they will eventually get bored and move on.

So what does this have to do with The DaVinci Code? Well, it appears the people who most strenuously object to its subject matter have managed to generate enough controversy to push the movie to a huge box office take on its opening weekend. If they had simply ignored the movie, I doubt so much hype would have been created. Hollywood is laughing all the way to the bank. I wouldn't call author Dan Brown a troll for the Catholic Church, but he, and Columbia Pictures, certainly are making lots of money off of the major controversy all these upset people are stirring up.

If you're screaming about how blasphemous The Da Vinci Code is, you're only feeding the troll (I know, I just contradicited my previous sentence, but it's a metaphor people!).

I read the book and thought it was entertaining. It was a good fast-pased thriller/murder mystery with an interesting twist at the end. The conspiracy theory proposed by the book, and apparently the author, is bunk (don't click this link if you haven't read the book yet and don't want to be spoiled), but it's still a fun story. I'll probably see the movie on DVD though. I don't get to the movies often these days, and I'd like to save my summer movie outings for the biggies like X-Men, Superman, and Pirates of the Caribbean. Does anyone want to complain about the unfair portrayals of genetic mutants, extraterrestrial vigilantes, or 17th century pirates?

Labels: ,

Thursday, May 18, 2006


The Legacy of Jeff Foxworthy

Okay, this post isn't actually about Jeff Foxworthy. But his trademark comedy routine poking fun at rednecks ("You might be a redneck if ..."; audio link requires RealPlayer) has inspired a couple of amusing lists in the blogosphere:And just to be fair, the list for intelligent design was a response to a similar list for "Signs you might be an intelligent design critic" posted at the ID-friendly blog Telic Thoughts. Personally I think the list lampooning ID supporters is more on target and funnier, but of course I'm biased.

(via Respectful Insolence)


Monday, May 08, 2006


Party Like It's Nineteen Eighty-Four!

I just read George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four last week. If you haven't read it before, I strongly recommend it (there's a free online version here). Orwell's cautionary tale of a dystopian future still resonates today as it did in 1948. I now fully understand what it means to call something "Orwellian" and how his ideas have influenced us today (However, I still have no idea how the Apple MacIntosh was supposed to save us from Orwell's future in that Super Bowl commercial).

When I got to the end of the story, it struck me how utterly deranged the members of The Party (the political organization that controlled the government of the fictional superstate of Oceania) were. The only goal of The Party was to attain and keep power over everyone else. All of their actions were focused on this goal, regardless even of the effects on the members of The Party themselves. Orwell's insight was that absolute power not only corrupts absolutely, the pursuit of that power drives you insane. Here are couple of passages from near the end of the book. Winston, the main character, is a low-level member of the Party and has secretly developed a hatred of the Party's oppression. He's been caught by The Party as a traitor, and O'Brien, a higher-up Party member, is torturing him. Here is O'Brien's explanation for The Party's motives:
"Now I will tell you the answer to my question. It is this. The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness; only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past, in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?"
And here is one of the more famous passages in which O'Brien describes the future of humanity under the dominion of The Party:
[O'Brien asks Winston] "How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?"

Winston thought. "By making him suffer", he said.

"Exactly. By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing. Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A world of fear and treachery is torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but MORE merciless as it refines itself. Progress in our world will be progress towards more pain. The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love or justice. Ours is founded upon hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy - everything. Already we are breaking down the habits of thought which have survived from before the Revolution. We have cut the links between child and parent, and between man and man, and between man and woman. No one dares trust a wife or a child or a friend any longer. But in the future there will be no wives and no friends. Children will be taken from their mothers at birth, as one takes eggs from a hen. The sex instinct will be eradicated. Procreation will be an annual formality like the renewal of a ration card. We shall abolish the orgasm. Our neurologists are at work upon it now. There will be no loyalty, except loyalty towards the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother. There will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy. There will be no art, no literature, no science. When we are omnipotent we shall have no more need of science. There will be no distinction between beauty and ugliness. There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always - do not forget this, Winston - always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face - for ever."
Pretty scary stuff, huh? After reading the book, I felt like Scrooge when he was pleading with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol:
"Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point," said Scrooge, "answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?"

Still the Ghost pointed downward to the grave by which it stood.

"Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead," said Scrooge. "But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!"
Scrooge learned the True Meaning of Christmas and changed his life. Have we learned from Orwell's warning? I hope so. Even today I see disturbing trends in our political and economic systems. The insanity of The Party and its dedication to power also ties into David Brin's ideas about satiability (see this series on his blog: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV). Satiability, he argues, is the difference between those who gain wealth and power and can use them wisely, and those who become slaves to the power they covet. It's an interresting parallel to Orwell's narrative.

As I said above, if you haven't read 1984, read it. And see if you can see some of the tactics of The Party being applied, albeit in much weaker forms, by modern-day politicians and media pundits. Scary stuff, indeed.

Labels: , , , ,

Thursday, May 04, 2006


Illegal Immigration, the Economy, and Statistics

Update 5/25/2006: This post is featured in the 35th Skeptics' Circle, hosted by Skeptico. Welcome, fellow skeptics!

I was inspired by MarkCC's Good Math, Bad Math blog to examine more closely what looked to be a fishy use of statistics. On the continuing illegal immigration debate, I found this New York Times article about the economic impact of illegal immigrants in the United States (discovered via David Neiwert's, Daniel Drezner's, and Kevin Drum's blogs). The main thesis of the article is that economists have analyzed the effect of illegal immigration on the American economy, and discovered that the actual impact has been much lower than expected. To quote the article:
As Congress debates an overhaul of the nation's immigration laws, several economists and news media pundits have sounded the alarm, contending that illegal immigrants are causing harm to Americans in the competition for jobs.

Yet a more careful examination of the economic data suggests that the argument is, at the very least, overstated. There is scant evidence that illegal immigrants have caused any significant damage to the wages of American workers.
The article also presents a graphic showing a comparison between the percentage of illegal immigrants versus the median hourly wage for high school dropouts in 9 selected states.

Okay, so this article seems to refute the claim that illegal immigrants are a significant drain on the American economy, right? However, Steve Sailer disagrees with a post on the VDARE blog entitled: The Uselessness of Economists on Immigration. He notes:
An accompanying graphic shows that a high school dropout in California, where supposedly 6.9% of the population are illegal immigrants, averages $8.71 per hour in wages versus merely $8.37 in Ohio, where only 1.0% are illegal immigrants.

Case closed!

Well, no, not exactly. What about the cost of living difference between California and Ohio? Don’t they tell you in Econ 101 and in Journalism 101 to always adjust for the cost of living?

According to the data gathered by the nonprofit organization ACCRA, which measures cost of living so corporations can fairly adjust the salaries of employees they relocate, California has the highest cost of living in the country with an index of 150.8 (where 100 is the national norm). Ohio is below average at 95.4. So, relative to the national average cost of living, high school dropouts in Ohio average $8.77 versus $5.78 for the equivalent in California. That means they are 52% better off in Ohio.
He then lists the numbers from the article's graphic and adds in the median wages corrected for the cost of living index (corrected wage = 100 * wage/(cost of living index)):

StateIllegal Immigrant % by PopulationHS Droput Median WageCost of Living IndexAdjusted HS Dropout Median Wage
New Jersey4.1%$9.03134.2$6.73
New York3.3%$9.02123.5$7.30

He precedes this table with the following comment:

Here’s the data from the NYT’s graphic, in which 9 states were cherry-picked to make it look like the higher the percentage of illegal immigrants in a state’s population, the better off high school dropouts are (r=+0.58). I’ve added the two right hand columns to adjust for the big cost of living differences. We then find a negative correlation of r = -0.46 between the percentage of illegal immigrants and the cost-of-living-adjusted median wage for high school dropouts. Quite a difference!
But does this actually refute the point of the article? "Cherry-picking" aside, the article never claims that "the higher the percentage of illegal immigrants in a state’s population, the better off high school dropouts are." Also, I doubt the actual studies done by the economists mentioned in the article only encompasses the data for these nine states.

Mr. Sailer has a point that the newspaper article should have corrected the median wage numbers for cost of living across different states. However, the corrected figures don't exactly prove his contention that illegal immigrants are significantly depressing the high school dropout median wages. He points out the disparity between California and Ohio when the numbers are corrected for cost of living, but ignores the fact that Nevada has a higher percentage of illegal immigrants than even California, and *still* has a higher median wage than Ohio, even after the numbers are adjusted.

In fact, just glancing at the table, it appears to me that the biggest effect on the corrected median wages is in fact the cost-of-living index. Of course, this is not surprising given that the corrected median wages are calculated by and thus dependent on the cost-of-living index. But what about the correlation coefficients Mr. Sailer calculated? Can we draw any meaningful conclusions from them? (If you're unfamiliar with correlation coefficients and their use in statisitics, check the Wikipedia article for a helpful summary.)

Let's calculate the correlation coefficients between every pair of columns in Mr. Sailer's table (numbers and figures generated by UCLA Dept of Statistics' Correlation and Regression Calculator):

Illegal Immigrant Population % vs HS Dropout Median Wages
r = 0.58

Illegal Immigrant Population % vs Adjusted HS Dropout Median Wages
r = -0.46

Cost-of-Living Index vs Adjusted HS Dropout Wages
r = -0.96

Illegal Immigrant Population % vs Cost-of-Living Index
r = 0.63

HS Dropout Wages vs Adjusted HS Dropout Wages
r = 0.09

Cost-of-Living Index vs HS Dropout Wages
r = 0.16

The first row of the table shows the correlation coefficients Mr. Sailer calculated. The values 0.58 and -0.46 seem significant until you look at the data plotted in a graph. Looking at the graph, this data doesn't convince me that there's much of any causal relationship between illegal immigrant population and high school dropout median wage, regardless of whether or not you correct for the cost-of-living index.

In the second row, as I predicted, we see a strong correlation between cost-of-living index and the adjusted HS dropout median wage. But perhaps the illegal immigrant population adversely affects the cost-of-living index, and thus we'd be justified in claiming that the illegal immigration population indirectly affects the high school dropout median wage? Well, the figure on the right graphs the illegal immigrant population vs cost-of-living index. The correlation coefficient is a slightly higher (than the coefficients in the first row) 0.63, but looking at the graph, the data points still look all over the place. That doesn't seem like a convincing causal relationship either.

In the third row, for completeness, I've added the correlation calculations between the other combinations of data columns. These columns do not have relevant relationships to each other and thus it is not surprising that their correlation coefficients are low.

Of course, the real problem is that it's unreasonable to draw any substantial conclusions about illegal immigration's affect on high school dropout median wage from nine measily data points. And I don't think the Times article was trying to do that. The graphic is a supplemental material, and the caption states:
The estimated number of illegal immigrants in a state's population shows no apparent correlation with the median wage for less educated workers in that state.
This is a much weaker statement than Mr. Sailer's interpretation that the graphic "cherry-picked" the data to try to make it look like "the higher the percentage of illegal immigrants in a state’s population, the better off high school dropouts are."

I do have to agree that it is misleading to not correct for the cost-of-living index for the median wage figures. But even it that were done, as the analysis above shows, that doesn't invalidate the graphic caption's assertion.

I think a substantial critique of the Times article would address the data actually used in the studies published by the economists. It seems unfair to claim economists are "useless" on immigration without addressing the studies they published, rather than the snippet of data published in the article.

A significant criticism I have with the Times article is that they don't reference the actual studies done. They mention a bunch of economist researchers but don't provide citations to help actually track down the studies. Fortunately we live in the age of Google. For the interested, here are links to the studies mentioned in the article:
I'm neither an economist nor an expert on illegal immigration, and I haven't reviewed these articles in depth. Therefore, I can't claim direct knowledge that these studies are accurate and support the conclusions of the Times article. But you can't dismiss their findings by dismissing the numbers in the Times article without bothering to investigate further. It's also misleading to claim an analysis of 9 data points in isolation is significant. That's just plain bad math.

Labels: ,