Statistics: Tool of an Elitist Bastard

I was prepared to enjoy Susan Jacoby‘s Op-Ed in the New York Times, “Best Is the New Worst” (30 May 2008). Yes, the title “Best Is The New Worst” is a snowclone, the sort of trite phrasal template with plug-and-play slots which is the refuge of lazy writing. In fact, “X is the new Y” is a classic of the genre. (Is this headline choice an example of such, or a clever meta-reference intended to mock declining standards? Discuss.) However, this bit was more troubling, and made me look askance:

Another peculiar new use of “elitist” (often coupled with “Luddite”) is its application to any caveats about the Internet as a source of knowledge. After listening to one of my lectures, a college student told me that it was elitist to express alarm that one in four Americans, according to the National Constitution Center, cannot name any First Amendment rights or that 62 percent cannot name the three branches of government. “You don’t need to have that in your head,” the student said, “because you can just look it up on the Web.”

Ahem. Laziness in a student may well be a cause for alarm, but uncritically accepting the spin which innumerate and agenda-driven reportage has placed upon a survey is, I dare to suggest, even worse. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that these numbers, intimidating though they may be, are in fact completely worthless. They don’t measure what they’re claimed to measure. The reason goes back to the First Amendment itself:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

This breaks down to six different rights. The first half of the religion bit — the Establishment Clause — covers a different territory than the second half, the Free Exercise Clause. It’s possible to have the right to follow your personal religion even in a country which has an established church (hint, hint: the United Kingdom has Muslims). Speech and the press get one “freedom” each, but the people have a “right” to assemble and another “right” to petition.

The National Constitution Center website features a 1997 survey which speaks of “four rights” in the First Amendment, and lists them as “speech,” “religion,” “press” and “assembly.” Now, I’d argue that this obscures the constitutional status of religion, reflecting or enforcing an oversimplified view of the matter, but more importantly, the right to petition vanished down a memory hole.

If it were universally acknowledged that, say, petitioning and assembly were two faces of the same freedom, then I wouldn’t mind so much. However, a 2006 survey by the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum asked respondents to name their First Amendment rights, and their “correct” answers were the freedoms of religion, speech, press, petition and assembly. When two different love-the-Constitution groups can’t even be consistent on how many freedoms exist, can the results be considered reliable? What, exactly, are we citizens supposed to know, and will we lose credit for knowing the wrong “right” answer? Suppose that the NCC called you one September morning in 1997, and you said that the First Amendment covered speech, religion, press and peaceable assembly. You would be a sterling citizen in 1997, but nine years later, the Freedom Museum would stamp you defective.

Both surveys share another flaw. As was pointed out back in 2006,
several “freedoms” which are likely to be uppermost in an American’s mind are found in other, later amendments: bearing arms, avoiding self-incrimination, avoiding unreasonable search and seizure, not being enslaved (took a while for that one) and so forth. What happens if you remember a whole list of these rights, but can’t recall which amendment they go under?
Continue reading Statistics: Tool of an Elitist Bastard


Megan Garber writes the following in the Columbia Journalism Review‘s daily blog:

We currently find ourselves in, to put it mildly, a lull in the 2008 campaign’s primary season. The delegate tallies are in limbo. Parsing them seems to require a postgraduate degree in calculus.

I call mathification! The analogue of linguification, this term refers to statements which, as Isabel Lugo puts it, “clearly intend to get across a true point about the real world by making a false point about mathematics.”
Continue reading Mathification

A Gedanken Canon

Originally posted at Pharyngula. Salvaged from the comment threads, edited and re-posted due to popular acclaim.

Let’s try a thought experiment. Suppose that in the near future, our global civilization collapses: maybe we try to cancel out global warming with nuclear winter. Centuries later, cities are being built again, and archaeologists come across books. One series in particular must have been exceedingly important, as copies are found in different languages — French, German, English, Latin — all around the world. Each copy is only a fragment, but by comparing the overlapping portions a complete canon is tentatively identified. Some portions, attested only in surviving electronic records and printed material of lesser quality, seem to be later additions by a community of hands, but then again, portions of the canon itself are judged on literary grounds to be as low-quality as the least inspired of the apocrypha. The first copy found is in Latin, which scholars know to be the oldest of the languages in which translations exist, but further investigation turns up copies in Germanic languages which appear to be older.

Much of the material in these chronicles is of a fantastic nature, with epic battles between good and evil waged in a realm beyond the sight of most citizens, which the chronicles describe as blissfully ignorant. Believers in magic point out that prophecies made in one book are fulfilled in another, a claim which scholars dismiss as valueless. Upon a closer look, however, some places in these fantastic tales can be matched with known cities of the era, attested by archaeology — places like London. What’s more, incidental mentions of technology coincide with what is known about the era just before the Great Collapse.

Should we then have faith in Harrius Potter?