Monthly Archives: December 2008


I was riding my bike through an industrial part of town this summer, when I saw a guy in an alley who had dropped his motorbike and was struggling to pick it up. He was maybe in his late 30s, slightly overweight, and short. I rolled in and got off my bike to help him, when from somewhere behind me came a man in a full street bike outfit, complete with helmet and boots. He also proceeded to help pick up the bike. Just as we got the bike up, a slightly younger, well-coiffed and wealthier-looking man, who had been talking on his cell phone, came running down the alley with an angry expression on his face, and he started examining the side of the bike for scratches, as if it was his slightly-more-than-he-could-afford yuppie showpiece. No one said a word the whole time.

I left, and since then have been unable to come up with even a hypothetical explanation for this scenario.

Why do big lectures exist?

Brad DeLong gives four reasons why big lectures might still exist, despite the increasing availability of cheap books since lectures were invented: because of budget stringency, to provide information through alternative communication channels, to encourage discipline, and because gathering in large groups is an age-old sociological event.

The trouble is, all of these things explain seminars as well as big lectures except for the first one, budget stringency. If universities could all afford enough faculty to offer classes of twelve students or less, why wouldn’t they? Except in those cases where the lecturer simply reads from the PowerPoint presentation, there don’t seem to be any significant differences between lectures and seminars that aren’t somehow related directly to the size of the class.

Sci Am dislikes evolutionary psych, too

David Buller at Scientific American weighed in on the burgeoning field of evolutionary psychology, claiming it “misguided”:

It may be a cold, hard fact that there are many things about the evolution of the human mind that we will never know and about which we can only idly speculate. Of course, some speculations are worse than others. Those of Pop EP [evolutionary psychology] are deeply flawed. We are unlikely ever to learn much about our evolutionary past by slicing our Pleistocene history into discrete adaptive problems, supposing the mind to be partitioned into discrete solutions to those problems, and then supporting those suppositions with pencil-and-paper data. The field of evolutionary psychology will have to do better.

I don’t have anything original to say about the article that Feministe, Pandagon, and 3 Quarks Daily haven’t already said, other than to point out that this comes at an opportune time, considering that the only outspoken opposition to evolutionary psychology that I’m aware of comes from the aforementioned radical liberal extremists writing to their picayune blogs. Hopefully Scientific American carries more cachet than we do.

Buller outlines four fallacies often committed by evolutionary psychologists:

1) Believing that an “analysis of Pleistocene adaptive problems yields clues to the mind’s design.” We have little to no evidence of the psychological behaviour of Pleistocene hominids, and we have no basis for inferring how those behaviours were adaptive to environmental or social problems in the lives of these hominids; as a result, all inferences made about their psychological adaptations are purely speculative, hardly better than guesses.

2) The belief that “we know, or can discover, why distinctively human traits evolved.” Comparing different species that share a common ancestor is a common and useful way of determining how the adaptations of those species is contingent on unique environmental factors. Unfortunately, humans have no living counterparts that can be used in such a comparison, since our nearest relatives apparently have none of the higher cognitive functions that EP hopes to explain (language, etc.).

3) The belief that “our modern skulls house a Stone Age mind.” This belief depends on a narrow view of the influences on human psychology; Buller suggests that not only may many of our adaptive psychological traits be held over from pre-human evolution, but it has also been shown that the interaction of genes with rapidly changing modern environments produces behaviours that would be drastically divergent from those of Stone Age hominids.

4) The belief that “the psychological data provide clear evidence for pop EP.” “Pencil-and-paper” data provides weak evidence for drawing conclusions about universal human nature or behaviour. This is the fallacy that gets to the heart of the liberal extremist radical bloggers’ complaints; Buller states that “the appearance that the evidence is compelling is created less by the data themselves than by the failure to consider and adequately test viable alternative explanations.” Coupled with the speculative inferences made by way of fallacy number one, evolutionary psychology serves as a ripe breeding ground for justifying preconceptions about human nature under the guise of scientific “proof”; since much of evolutionary psychology is inexplicably obsessed with competition for “mates,” a great deal of conclusions are drawn about gender differences that reinforce researchers’ preconceptions about normative gender roles. Holly at Feministe, referring to Echidne, characterizes EP methodology thusly: “a small amount of data is used to confabulate a hypothesis that just happens to provide moral support for traditional gender roles.”

I would add to Buller’s list a reliance on sketchy statistical methods, including, famously, tiny sample sizes and forced-choice questionnaires that are old hat in the pollster’s quiver of data-skewing tools. I hope that this article is the start of a trend that gives evolutionary psychology a reputation for bad science, which will either drive it out of existence or force it to adopt some more rigorous standards. And then, hopefully, the science journalists will lay off making things even worse for everybody by exaggerating and misrepresenting the already shoddy research.

Richard Dawkins needs a hug

Richard Dawkins is performing in a holiday special called “Nine Lessons and Carols for the Godless,” a show intended to recontextualize Christmas as a celebration of rationality. Dawkins says he’s taking part because he’s “fed up with atheists being portrayed as Scrooges, trying to rain on Christmas.”

Is he surprised by this portrayal? This is coming from the guy who claims raising a child in a religious household is a form of child abuse, that people who pray to God while they’re dying of cancer are “know-nothings,” that faith is like a “virus,” that humans are nothing but self-reproducing robots, that religion is “anti-human,” that people who believe in God are either uneducated or insane, and who is now crusading against Harry Potter for being “anti-scientific.” Yep, he’s a real charmer.

Another Rick Warren post

I guess it’s about time to jump on the anti-Rick Warren bandwagon, except I don’t really plan to hate on Warren as much as I plan to talk about  disagreement. For those of you living in a box (or outside of the States), pastor Rick Warren was recently invited to give the invocation speech at Obama’s inauguration ceremony in January. This invitation is troubling for a lot of people, considering that Rick Warren is an incredibly bigoted and offensive anti-gay, anti-choice, anti-women jerk. I read a wide range of blogs about a wide variety of topics, and a huge number of them came out against this decision; some claim Obama is simply trying to pander to the evangelical wingnut sector, some claim that the hope that Obama ran on is now being dashed, others think that Obama is making an effort to be inclusive and open up dialogue with people he disagrees with, but pastor Warren was still a regrettable choice.

Obama is in an unfortunate situation, like a lot of politicians, in that he has the opportunity to make a huge number of positive changes for the country, but he has to weigh all of his actions against the spectre of popularity and approval. His job is, officially, to do what his employers (the people) want him to do, not necessarily what’s best. If he wants to do something that he thinks would be good for the country, he has to convince the people to support him before he can go ahead and do it, lest he be fired for ignoring the instructions of his employers.

Opening up dialogue with people he disagrees with is one of those things that is good for the country, but that has the risk of upsetting a lot of his employers. I happen to agree with Obama that talking to bigoted assholes is a necessary step toward ameliorating harmful disagreements, just as I think talking to Iran without “preconditions” is an excellent way of coming to a resolution with Iran and other Middle Eastern countries who are justifiably pissed off at the United States. Talking should be the first step; if talking is only undertaken with preconditions, then it becomes coercion, and coercion is toxic to good discussion. I’m happy to see Obama talking with people like Warren, because it means that the first step to bringing those people around has already been taken, or is at least underway. But considering the position that Obama is in, I think Warren was a poor political choice for the purposes of the inauguration, because it is too easy to infer that his invitation was purely a political move designed to make bigots happy at the expense of oppressed minorities.

I read an essay by Sarah J. Cervanak and others this semester about the experience of teaching a course on US Latina feminisms, and I came across a passage where the authors describe students rejecting feminist theory for being “empty intellectualism and Eurocentric elitism.” It reminded me of how common it is for people, especially feminists and other leftists, to ignore people whose ideas are opposed or different to their own, without even engaging in dialogue with the ideas. I asked on our group blog how this is different from natural scientists rejecting the theoretical humanities for being fluff–people in the humanities resent people like Sokal and Morningstar, who criticize postmodernism without reading it first, but we criticize the natural sciences and feminist theory for being “too bourgeois,” too elitist or too positivistic without engaging in any dialogue first. The same thing happens in the blogosphere, too, as we saw with the posts about the female bodybuilders; lots of people were told to shut up before any conversation happened. It is much too common to see people shy away from talking with people who hold disagreeable views in favour of turning around and preaching to the choir–because that way you don’t have bother to manage any conflict.

Assuming Obama is doing this as a legitimate attempt to open up dialogue with homophobic bigots, I applaud him; but at the same time I resent him for legitimizing homophobic bigotry. What a dilemma.

Used/goes to go, please

I came across this sentence on Facebook the other day:

All people that used/goes to go to Boundary Community Elementary.

As far as I can tell, “used/goes to” is an amalgamation of “used to” and “goes to”, which appear parallel because they’re both followed by “to”; presumably “go to” is a continuation of “used to.” But here are the two sentences that were combined:

All people that go to Boundary Community Elementary.

All people that used to go to Boundary Community Elementary.

Where did “goes” come from? Combining the two sentences above produces

All people that go/used to go to Boundary Community Elementary.

My best guess is that the sentence was originally written as “All people that used to go to Boundary Community Elementary,” and then “goes” was inserted after the fact to take care of the present tense by someone who accidentally forgot about number agreement.

Newscast chartjunk: a totally unscientific analysis

“When a graphic is taken over by decorative forms or computer debris, when the data measures and structures become Design Elements,  when the overall design purveys Graphical Style rather than quantitative information, then that graphic may be called a duck in honor of the duck-form store, ‘Big Duck.’ For this building the whole structure is itself decoration, just as in the duck data graphic.”


This was written by Edward Tufte, a Yale statistician who could be tentatively called the world’s biggest expert on the design of information graphics. Using the concept of a duck, he developed the terms “chartjunk” and “data-ink ratio” in his beautiful book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information to describe graphic displays of information that overwhelm the information itself with extraneous and irrelevent design elements.

For some reason, chartjunk is a mainstay of the information graphics featured on network television newscasts. I will use the term “signal-to-noise ratio” to refer to the ratio of the information content of a newscast to all of the extraneous production factors that go into broadcasting that information, like elaborate sets, advanced green-screen technology, gimmicky re-enactments, fancy graphics, and other frills. I have an unproven hypothesis that the signal-to-noise ratio of informational graphics displayed during a newscast  directly correlates with the signal-to-noise ratio of the newscast as a whole.

For example, the following graphic was played on The National during a story about Maple Leaf foods and its newly revamped factory.




The entire sequence took about 23 seconds, during which the narrator introduced the survey and read out the results. All of this information can easily and clearly be represented with this small table:


Taking in this amount of information would probably take under 5 seconds for the average human, especially considering that it’s not really that interesting (who cares what the difference is between people who no longer buy Maple Leaf and people who no longer eat Maple Leaf?). The salient point, that people are still wary of Maple Leaf meat, hardly requires any quantitative information at all.

But conceding that the producers of the program thought this graphic was a worthwhile addition to the story, let’s analyze it a little further. Tufte gives the following equation for the data-ink ratio:


Giving the CBC the benefit of the doubt and ignoring TV screen size, the data-ink ratio of their graphic is probably less than 0.1, much less if we take into account the time dimension. That means that not only does 90% of the graphic have no information content whatsoever, but that the 90% is competing with the 10% that actually is information for the viewer’s attention.

An important thing to note at this point is that I consider The National to be one of the best newscasts available, and it’s sobering every time I see a dumb graphic like this one and imagine all of the time and expense that goes into producing fancy animated backgrounds and other junk instead of actually producing good information. The most sobering aspect of these graphics, though, is the fact that CBC is actually near the high-end of the newscast hierarchy;  graphics on other channels are often much, much worse, and they reflect quite accurately the abysmal quality of other newscasts in their entirety.

We can compare the CBC to newscasts like Fox and CNN to get a better idea of the correlation I’m talking about. Here is a screenshot of CNN’s election night coverage, courtesy of djspyhunter (here‘s the Youtube clip):


As you can see, the signal-to-noise ratio here is much worse than that of the CBC graphic, and it is exacerbated by the fact that several different data sets are being displayed concurrently, with no clear boundaries between them. This kind of graphic is very characteristic of CNN’s overall signal-to-noise ratio, which is aptly exemplified by a feature they introduced on November 4th that they refer to as a “hologram”:

Obviously this system adds nothing to a traditional split-screen other than much more superfluous junk that distracts from the actual conversation, and suggests that the content of the conversation is only incidental to the delivery system.

Here is a graphic from Fox with only one data point:


As always, the background is heavily animated in order to be as distracting as possible. Here is a table showing the same data:


It was shown for about half the time that the CBC one was shown for, but it also has less than half the information, which gives it roughly the same data-ink ratio. As in the case of CNN, this kind of graphic is indicative of the signal-to-noise ratio of the rest of the channel’s programming:

Okay I admit that may have been slightly unfair, but I think my point is clear. Tufte states succinctly,

The conditions under which many data graphics are produced–the lack of substantive and quantitative skill of the illustrators, dislike of quantitative evidence, and contempt for the intelligence of the audience–guarantee graphic mediocrity.

And, as I have been arguing, these same factors often affect the entire newscast as well. We can assume that good newscasters respect their audience enough to treat them like intelligent adults. This would involve the assumption that intelligent adults can handle small amounts of statistical or numerical data without becoming bored, that they can appreciate the news-value of the numbers themselves, and that they consider bombardment with useless information to be an insult to their intelligence. Good newscasters, we would assume, try to devote as much of the time and space available to them to disseminating timely, accurate, insightful and thought-provoking information. Fox and CNN clearly do not respect their viewers, nor do they consider them intelligent adults. Much more of their time and energy goes into developing new, advanced forms of chartjunk to clutter their screens and obscure their information, rather than into increasing the quality of their journalism and the accuracy of their reporting. While viewers do always have the option of changing the channel, it is unfortunate that the Fox and CNN approaches to newscasting seem to be taking over all the other stations as well, including the CBC; many media critics would cite this tendency as a symptom of the struggle for market share and advertising revenue where the desire to raise viewership numbers always trumps the importance of good broadcasting.