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Saturday, April 13, 2013

Distracted Driving and Statistics

It is generally common knowledge that 90% of statistics are made up on the spot.

Of course, who knows what the actual numbers are (I'm sure someone has written a thesis on this), but it is true that a surprising number of statistics are wrong.  But what's worse are the statistics that aren't wrong, but are used incorrectly.  These statistics are used to influence people and are a terrible abuse of math and science.  Math and science are supposed to be about truth, but what happens when the "truth" isn't what it sounds like?  To quote Mark Twain,

"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."

One example is from an article I read recently on daydreaming while driving.  It turns out that Detroit has been busy using its copious extra money on useless studies instead of trying to make jobs and save its crumbling economy.  According to this report, daydreaming while driving is the cause for 62% of fatal accidents caused by distraction, while only 12% of such accidents were caused by cell phone use.

Those in charge of this study then went ahead and claimed that "daydreaming is more dangerous than texting."  Does anyone else see the gap in logic here, or is it just me?

While on the surface this may seem alarming, which is probably why the news has picked up the story. But let's just dig a little deeper.

What are the statistics for the percentage of people who regularly use cell phones while driving?  What about those who text while driving?  Or who use phones without hands-free devices?  I do not know these numbers, but if I were to guess, I'd say something like.. oh.. 10% of people will text while driving.

Now, how many people daydream while driving?  Again, I don't know the number, but my uneducated guess would be... 100%.  Yes, I firmly believe that everyone at some point lets their mind wander while they are behind the wheel.

Now, let's put these two together.  Again, I am making up the numbers to prove a point.  Let's say the percentage of people who get into fatal accidents is 1%.  That makes 0.62% of those caused by drivers who daydream.  This means that if you daydream, you have a 0.62% chance of getting into a fatal accident, because 100% of drivers daydream.  Now let's say you are texting.  Although only 0.12% of that 1% of fatal accidents is caused by texting... only 10% of the drivers text.  That means, if you text, you have a 1.2% chance of getting into a fatal accident.  That's TWICE as dangerous as daydreaming.

Now, I do not know if daydreaming really is more dangerous than texting, but I seriously, seriously doubt it.  However, the point I am trying to make is that you have to think about the statistics you are being told.  Just because the news report or some study jumps to conclusions doesn't mean you have to.  Particularly when it comes to statistics.

Thursday, April 11, 2013


I've been told that there are only 2 stories; A stranger comes to town, and someone leaves town.  Really, there is only one story- change.

For years I have been a terrible person to watch TV or movies with.  It is fairly rare when I don't predict exactly what is going to happen, perhaps that episode, or perhaps a few later.  It happens so frequently, that my friends have told me not to spoil the show for them, as if I've seen it before.  Combined with my ADHD, I have a tendency to say things before my brain has had a chance to stop my mouth.

Now, I only have a degree in "creative nonfiction," and a bachelor's at that.  Not storyboarding, fiction writing, screenwriting, or anything like that.  So how is it that I am able to predict shows with such frequency?  Is it because our TV shows and movies are lacking in their originality?  Or is it something else?

Part of it, I'm sure, is that there is little originality, but if you look hard you can still find it.  And part of it is that we've watched TV shows and movies our whole lives, so we've seen a lot of the formulae that producers and directors "know" work.  But, that's not all.  I think it has more to do with something called "tropes."

Tropes are tools that writers use.  They are parts of stories, characters, etc. that work because we all have formed some expectation in our minds of how things are supposed to work, whether or not we are aware of them.  And if you use them correctly, they can bring your story to life, give you an audience, and let you genuinely surprise people.

Perhaps the original study into tropes is a book called The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  It goes into delicious detail explaining which characters work, which don't, and why.  Granted, it's not really ABOUT tropes and it involves a lot of philosophy and mythology, but it also is about tropes if you keep an open mind.

There is a good source that I once in a while go to when I'm looking for a trope (but I find that the more I write, the more tropes are in my arsenal without needing to search).  TV Tropes is a wiki page, so you need to take what you read with a grain of salt, but if you're stuck in a rut, this source may just be what you need to get out.  But  I warn you; once you start learning about tropes, you (and possibly yours friends) will never enjoy TV the same way again.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

How not to lose weight

There is something that I've learned we are missing in the education of our children.  I would say that it is "common sense," but it goes further than that.  It has to do with a capacity for logic.  It's "skepticism."

Why is this a good thing and not a bad?  To start out, true skeptics are indeed open-minded.  They just don't want to be made a fool of and believe something at face value.  A true skeptic would be thrilled if it turned out psychic powers are real.  But we do not want to just believe Joe Schmo on the street when he claims he's psychic - he has to prove it.  Scientifically.  There shouldn't be any doubt.

Skepticism, however, goes further than psychics.  We run into situations every day where we should be doubting what we are told.  Turn on the radio or the TV and you are bombarded with commercials whose sole purpose is to convince you to part with your money.  They will make any claim they can legally get away with to persuade you, and that is the problem.  Too many people don't realize that every word they are saying has been mulled over by a team of lawyers to make sure they can't get sued.  Why would lawyers have to be worried about something like that if their claims were true at face value?

The worst case I've heard recently was a radio commercial.  It is yet another "miracle weight loss" drug that will make you "lose weight, fast" without having to exercise, diet, etc.  Here's the clincher.  "These ingredients have been clinically tested to help you lose weight."  Did you catch that?

Clinically "tested."

That doesn't mean they were scientifically proven, or that science even suggests that they can help you lose weight (and, by the way, "help" us lose weight?  Shouldn't that be "make" you lose weight?).  All this means is that the makers of this likely benign and inert chemical tested it themselves and didn't tell you what the conclusions were.  For all we know, they make you fatter, or made lab rats grow a second head.  And it claims that the ingredients were tested, but not the drug itself.  Did you know that there is sulfuric acid in corn syrup?  That apples contain cyanide?  Or that bitter almonds can kill you?  But in most cases the harmful parts have been removed/processed or are too small to affect you.  And it's easy to make dangerous chemicals out of household ingredients that are, in and of themselves, benign.  So testing the ingredients isn't doing any good.

Often the weight loss drugs in question use people's lack of scientific understanding to make spurious claims.  My favorite was one that claimed that people who used the drug lost 10 pounds in 6 months, which was far less than the average person loses by just moderately exercising.  One of these products, Sensa, claims that it actually makes you lose more weight than the average.  But take a look at the ingredients and you'll find that all of them are benign or pass right through your system, doing nothing to you or your appetite.  Look carefully and you'll see that they aren't claiming the drug Sensa makes you lose weight, by but that the Sensa System does.  And what is that system?  When you use Sensa, you are asked to count your calories and mark down what you eat.  That simple act, keeping a food journal, makes you cognizant of how much you are eating and makes you eat healthier.

There, I just saved you a bunch of money.

Doubting everything you hear is not a bad thing, it is a cautious thing that can prevent you from losing money, or even keep you out of jail.  As Descartes put it, "I doubt, therefore I am."  If you are indeed looking to lose weight, first you should go to your doctor and ask him/her for advice.  Then, you should start exercising (provided your doctor has given you the go-ahead).  Finally, eat your food in moderation, and chose the healthiest foods you can.  Don't eat until you are full - just eat until you are no longer hungry.  And eat slowly.  Give your brain time to realize that you're no longer hungry.  I am not a nutrition expert, a doctor, or a weigh-loss guru.  I'm just a guy who likes to think things through.