How To Be A Proper Fucking Scientist – Answers Sheet

Previously, I posed 10 questions to tax and tickle people’s scientific methodology instead of, sigh, whether they know the definition of “photosynthesis” (if we really wanted to tax science knowledge, surely you want to ask about the light-dependent and light-independent redox pathways… No? Okay.). This is not easy – many are classic counter-intuitive examples of reasoning biases – and it’s not taught at school properly.

Anyway, here are the answers. This is long, and each one could take up a post on their own, as they require a lot of deconstruction and explanation.

Short aside: Unlike most posts I write, I’m not linking out to definitions. The jargon is in bold for people to research at their leisure. I did ponder linking each to LMGTFY, but I’m just so damn lazy.

Question 1

Question: The chaya leaf is claimed as a cancer cure. What is the most important part of the article announcing this?

Answer: (c) The experiments they have done

This should have been easy. The only relevant thing is the experiments done to prove the claim. That is ultimately what science is about; demonstrating a hypothesis through correct methodology and experimental processes. You can have all the cool theories you want, but if it doesn’t turn out to be true, then it means nothing. None of the alternative answers mentioned “it makes sense” or “it was a sound theory”, however.

The other answers on offer presented numerous fallacies and things that are very common in the media – however, they are irrelevant. The expert’s qualifications are irrelevant because of the argument from authority fallacy. Ditto the institution. Although who they are and where they come from are a good proxy, and worth raising when people speak outside their field of expertise, they are not directly relevant and have no impact on the validity of experimental work. A nine year-old girl working in a shed can produce science as valid as a professor tenured at Harvard – it depends on how their theories and experiments work (note that the opposite of this, where you assume the unqualified person is better is known as the Galileo Gambit).

The exact same goes for the reporter’s opinion on the piece. Though if the reporter is a qualified scientist, the ‘expert’ in question isn’t, and the reporter is saying it’s all bunk, it’s probably a good indication, but it’s still irrelevant and has no effect on the actual experimental evidence for a claim. Similarly, whether friends have tried something or not  is anecdotal evidence – anecdotes are not the same as data because they are prone to so many spectacular biases such as selection bias, selective reporting or cherry picking. Also, the plural of “anecdote” is not “data” (except when it is).

Question 2

Question: Autism correlates with organic food sales. What does this tell us?

Answer: (a) Nothing in particular

The autism and organic food correlation has been around for a while now and has slowly become a classic go-to example for this. The data is reasonably legit, but of course mere correlation is not causation; this rules out answers (b) and (c). From a correlation alone we cannot tell if one causes the other, or which way around it goes. For that, we need to do a controlled experiment,  where one variable is altered and we watch the change in the other. The existence of a correlation alone can give us a nice hypothesis to test, but it needs tested in a controlled way first.

Answer (e) is obvious nonsense and constitutes both an ad hominem attack, where you dismiss data and evidence on irrelevant personal grounds, and batcrap crazy conspiracy theory thinking (and no, that isn’t an ad hominem attack, it’s just a statement of fact).

When it comes to answer (d), however, it’s complicated. One can assume a hidden third relationship is at work, something known as a confounding variable or a confounding factor, but that’s not always the case; after all, there’s a correlation between smoking and lung cancer but there is a direct cause that’s been demonstrated there through other studies and good theoretical links, rather than a third hidden variable at work. Alternatively, there may be no causal connection at all, even given very strong correlation. You need at least a decent theory for this – for example, shoe size and reading ability correlate, and the third hidden relationship is age. Therefore the answer is a) the graph doesn’t really tell us anything particularly interesting apart from the fact there is a correlation. How we proceed from there to say something more useful is a matter of doing further experiments and analysis.

Question 3

Question: A company is offering a get-rich-quick scheme. What further evidence do you need?

Answer: (d) Interviews and testimony from the failures

In the ideal world, you want statistics to answer this. You want data. But in this case what we’re looking for is silent evidence, which is a specific corollary to cherry picking and selective reporting. This is evidence where some kind of selection effect stops you seeing it – ergo, the answer is (d).

For instance, suppose everyone who survived a long sea voyage through stormy weather in the 17th century said they prayed on the journey. Of course, what about those who didn’t survive to tell the tale; did they pray also, or didn’t they? This evidence is silenced. In this particular business example, you can sum it up with the phrase “there are no unsuccessful entrepreneurs”. By self-selecting out of the pool of evidence, you can make things look better than they really are. This is also common amongst psychics, where selective reporting and cherry picking means we only get to hear from the predictions that came true – the ones that didn’t are conveniently forgotten.

The other answers allude to confirmation bias. This is where you method for testing focusing on confirming your hypothesis. This sounds counter-intuitive – because, after all, you do want to confirm it, right? – but is actually the wrong way to go about things. Repeatedly looking at where your hypothesis works gets you no-where. You need to find the places where it doesn’t work. Trotting out success stories does nothing, you need to look for the failures to get a better picture.

Question 4

Question: An alarm, which catches 95% of thieves, sounds. What is the odds that it has caught a thief?

Answer: (e) More data needed

This question is about test sensitivity. Simply put, the answer is (e). We need more data; specifically the data on how many false positives it generates. This factor is known as the specificity. If the test generated zero false positives, then the answer would be 100% – but in reality this is almost never the case and all tests generate some degree of false positives, usually as a side effect of having such a high sensitivity. For example, police sniffer dogs usually have a high sensitivity to drugs, but are easily lead by the suspicions of their handlers or distracted by similar, but benign, substances. That produces a lot of false positives.

It is only the sensitivity that we’ve been given in the question, 95%. As an approximation we can say it’ll almost certainly be less than 95%, but without that false positive data we cannot be sure. This effect is alarmingly counter-intuitive. Question 8, below, goes into this effect in way more detail.

Question 5

Question: Some men are tall. True or false?

Answer: False

Here, we have a logical syllogism. A fun thing to do in logical arguments is to swap around the nouns used in the premises with something else, because this helps highlight a formal logical fallacy. A formal logical fallacy is a breakdown in the reasoning, so should be fallacious no matter what we put in there as variables. In this example we’re talking about three properties and how they are related; “men”, “tall” and “doctors”. We could simply make this generic and replace them with X, Y and Z.

  • Premise 1) Some X are Y
  • Premise 2) Some Y are Z
  • Conclusion) Some X are Z

Now it becomes a little clearer that there’s a problem. The premises don’t formally assess the relationship between X and Z. We can highlight it further by inputting values where we know that the conclusion will be wrong:

  • Premise 1) Some men are doctors
  • Premise 2) Some doctors are women
  • Conclusion) Some men  are women

Quibbles about the gender binary aside (the real world is always slightly fuzzier than pure logic suggests) this is obviously incorrect. We only get tricked into thinking the logic relating “tall”, “men” and “doctors” is a valid piece of logic because the conclusion happens to be true outside the context of the argument. Separating the formal and informal aspects of a logical argument, therefore, is an essential skill in order to spot flawed reasoning.

This context-dependent assessment of reason is common in all of us. In the classic example of the Wason Card Problem, the version using abstract letters and numbers, or colours and numbers, easily trips most people up; but a context-driven example involving ages and whether someone is legally drinking alcohol results in people getting the answer right every time.

Question 6

Question: 15 people drop out of a drug trial. What is the effect?

Answer: (b) Weaken the study because we lose information from the drop-outs

This is basic Ben Goldacre style stuff. It’s known that trials that do not report their drop-out rates overestimate their success, and not reporting these loses is a way to cover-up potentially disastrous results. This is vastly important because correct data from medical trials save lives. Knowing as much about a medical trial as possible, therefore, is essential to assessing its validity.

So consider the following: Why would people drop out? Because the drug affected them badly? Because it simply didn’t work and they had to be excluded? Because of some other ethical problems with the administration of the trial? Perhaps something else.

A large drop-out rate is one of the biggest alarm bells for a medical trial, and so the answer is (b).  Hopefully I don’t need to state why (a) and (d) are incorrect here, but (c) is incorrect because the statistical significance of a study is proportional not just to the size of a group but to the size of the effect. If we’re looking for a small, subtle effect on the order of 1% we need a large number of people. If the effect is huge and dramatic, we need relatively fewer people to say it’s significant. Therefore dropping the number in a group from 40 to 25 would not necessarily alter the significance of the outcome – but it does suggest that if those 15 dropped out for a particular reason, the trial’s conclusions will be erroneous.

This is also related to an issue called publication bias. This is where studies that come up negative simply aren’t published or released to the world. It’s another form of selection bias that prevents us seeing a full picture of all the data we have available. If people drop out of a study because a drug didn’t work for them, the final report will over-estimate its effectiveness. If studies aren’t published because they show negative results, our meta studies (where we look at multiple published studies in unison with each other) will also over-estimate the effectiveness. Thankfully, there are ways to spot these biases and they are implemented in meta studies.

Question 7

Question: Why is the graph misleading?

Answer: (c) Because it doesn’t start at zero

So, another graph question. First of all, I just made it up. It’s bollocks data, it’s just for illustration. Yet it illustrates things that have been seen on news reports quite frequently. The answer is c) the graph does not start from zero. Now, sometimes there are good reasons for this, but often it’s there deliberately to convey a political message. Namely, it emphasises differences where the differences may, in the grand scheme of things, be minuscule. That’s not to say they’re not significant, nor does it say they’re not real; it just robs them of a wider context. This kind of manipulation is all too common.

Obviously, (a) is incorrect because we can kinda assume it’s a percentage based on context (although meaningless graphs do crop up in pseudo-science). (b) is incorrect because it isn’t continuous data. (d) is completely irrelevant (it’s illustrative data, and we assume “A” and “B” are defined properly elsewhere) and (e) is just making stuff up – there is no such thing as some subliminal bias that you introduce just through colour. Colour perception doesn’t work like that (though, interestingly, different coloured pills do produce changes in the placebo effect).

Question 8

Question: Which test is better?

Answer: (e) It’s complicated

As mentioned above, this is related to question 4. We’re talking about test sensitivity again – except in this case it’s being very explicit about the existence of false positives. Indeed, the question gives you enough figures to work out the actual test sensitivity if the question was asked exactly as before. If you work it out for both tests, the new and old, the odds of the result being a true positive if the test says “yes” (the rate of what are known as Type I errors) come up at roughly the same for both.

A short aside: In fact, the figures given in the question were rounded off from ones I generated after a bit of fudging with a spreadsheet to make this the case: a test with 63% selectivity and 1.1% specificity has about the same sensitivity as a test with 99% selectivity and 1.8% specificity, and these figures just about render the sensitivity difference between the two independent of any realistic background rate (or prior probability in Bayesian jargon). The actual chance of a true positive if the test says “yes” works out to about 36% in both of these cases. So, the question uses rounded off figures of 99% and 65%, and 2% and 1% respectively. The specificity here seems quite negligible, but you’re actually doubling the rate of false positives from one test to the other. Therefore the final test sensitivity is very susceptible to small changes in this value.

So, in principle, the answer is (c) if you do the arithmetic. In terms of real-world effect on how good the test is in terms of Type I errors, they come out the same.

However, and this is a big HOWEVER, the real answer is (e). It really is much more complicated than that. The new test, with 99% sensitivity and 2% specificity, is marginally worse because of its false positives – the test sensitivity, the rate of true positives, drops from 40% to 33%. The new test also produces a larger number of false positives in real terms – twice as many. This sort of thing leads to complications. It adds to psychological trauma as more people are hit with positive test results, and have to end up undergoing further tests that can often be very invasive (such as biopsies), that may transpire to be unnecessary. There are also further practical cost implications to go with further testing of more people – even though the overall proportion of false positives remains roughly the same. But on the flip side, fewer people slip by the test through false negatives (only 1%, in fact). This means despite the cost and psychological implications of the extra false positives, the new test will likely save lives.

How you balance between those is a difficult, and indeed very complicated, decision, and also requires looking into a lot of variables such as how you target and pre-screen your testing based on demographic data, and how you refer to people for further testing. These are all very real considerations, however they’re rarely, if ever, raised in newspapers that discuss the effectiveness of medial treatments and interventions.

Question 9

Question: All toupees look fake. How do you evaluate this statement?

Answer: (b) Examine real looking hair

This is informally known as the toupee fallacy. No, really, look it up. It is another specific case of hidden and silent evidence, and a test of confirmation bias as alluded to in Question 3, above.

First of all, woe be unto anyone who chose (e). Semantic definition games are where we need to roll up a newspaper and bash you on the nose while saying “NO” in a firm tone of voice. Just no. You cannot simply “define” something as true, otherwise your statement is meaningless. A more long-winded justification of this can wait for another day, though.

Next (d) – no. This is wrong. You can evaluate the statement because you can evaluate any statement where the real-world results are defined correctly. This is where I differ greatly with (read, “I’m right, they’re wrong”) with people who claim that prayer can’t be tested with science. No. If you say “something has effect [X]”, then we can go looking for effect [X]. If you want to claim that toupees look fake, all you need is a suitable definition of a toupee (easy) and a consistent definition of what you consider “fake” (slightly less easy, but still doable). It’s very possible.

So, (a) – examining “fake” looking hair. Well, if you keep examining fake hair, you will find bad haircuts and toupees. That’s confirmation bias at work. You have proven nothing since you haven’t looked at cases where your hypothesis may fall down. And technically this is also true of answer (c). You’re examining both, you’re wasting your time. What you need to do is just examine real looking hair – because you might find a toupee that doesn’t look fake. You can only disprove your hypothesis by looking for things that will break it, and only by attempting to break it can you be sure it holds true. You cannot disprove that toupees look fake by examining only fake hair, you must try to find a toupee amongst the real looking things.

Question 10

Question: Two people died after recieving a new vaccine. What evidence do you need to evaluate this?

Answer: (b) The rate of vaccine uptake

We end with typical and all-too-common newspaper scaremongering. Remember; anecdotes are not evidence. So you need data, not stories. That means if you’ve answered (e), you need to take a course in critical thinking. Just like with correlation, anecdotes can give us ideas and hypotheses to test, but they are not in themselves sufficient evidence. If we recall life-saving drugs on a whim because of anecdotal evidence that isn’t backed up by data, we can cause more harm precisely because those drugs are life-saving. This isn’t something we should do on a hunch to placate the public because it could cost lives.

So we need data, but we need to ask what data is relevant. The fact I’m saying this should immediately point out that the answer isn’t (d). We don’t need all of it. Indeed, the answers (a) and (c) aren’t relevant to the question – precisely because we’re not looking at flu mortality. People die in flu epidemics, that rate might say something about the efficacy of the medications, but it says nothing about the safety of the medications. We’re not looking at flu related deaths, we’re looking at vaccine related deaths. Flu mortality is not even a confounding variable, it’s an irrelevant variable. You only need b) the rate of vaccine uptake in that demographic. I threw in option (d) as an intentional red herring; this is not that complicated a question.

I’ve been cheeky here, though; you do need one more piece of data that isn’t listed and that’s the death rate of that demographic. You can look this up in an actuarial table so let’s assume it’s given knowledge. This death rate works out to about 1% for this demographic. If 1% of people over 60 are expected to die anyway, then whether 2 individual deaths is a significant event depends only on the rate of vaccine uptake. If only 2-3 people took it and 2 died, we might be onto something – the vaccine uptake rate is the key piece of evidence. However, this is an unlikely scenario. If 50% of the population took the medical intervention, that could be millions. And 1% of a million is 10,000. If tens of thousands of your demographic were going to die anyway, of any cause, then two cases is hardly a significant event. Of course, you need to re-work those figures from the per-year rate to a per-day rate to figure the odds of anyone dying on the same day or the day after they receive a vaccine, but tens of thousands divided by 365 (not taking into account seasonal variations) still isn’t going to make 2 reported deaths anything more than coincidental.

In fact, we’d be expecting potentially hundreds of people do die the day they were vaccinated anyway, so if only two died after taking the vaccine, it would be significant evidence that this magical elixir actually stops you dying. Now that is counter-intuitive.

Conclusions and Further Work

Well, if you got to the end of this, congratulations. Maybe it was enlightening, maybe it was revision. I’m grateful to a few people for discussions of topics, contexts and statistics. You know who you are.

Complaints to the usual place.

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How To Be A Proper Fucking Scientist – A Short Quiz

Answers here, complaints about the answers can go here

Recently, this little quiz from Time Magazine has been doing the rounds. Reactions to it have mostly gone along the lines of – and I’ll paraphrase here – “Holy fucking shit how the fuck can people not answer these piss easy questions how fucking stupid are people?!?!?”

Yeah, yeah, whatever. You know stuff. Cool story, bro. But science education isn’t (read: shouldn’t be) about declarative knowledge. Memorising facts isn’t really science. For my students, I don’t really care if they can memorise the reactivity trends down the alkali metals and down the halogens – because you can simply deduce them by understanding the trends in electronegativity of the elements. And even the trends in electronegativity can be simply deduced by knowing atomic structure.

It’s safe to say that I’ve done pretty much minimal memorisation in my career so far, because you don’t need to “know” stuff (in the sense of rote-learning facts) to be a scientist. Well, I once thought about memorising the periodic table as an exercising in pegging and memory palaces, but – eugh – effort, and besides, I own this beautiful thing and have a caffeine addiction.

Instead, I propose the following exercise to test your real, actual factual, scientific know-how. Let’s see how pedantry over the number of planets helps you with this.

Question 1

A national newspaper prints a story on how an expert believes the chaya leaf will be a cure for cancer. What is the most important thing to look for in the story:

  • a) The expert’s qualifications
  • b) Which institution the expert comes from
  • c) The experiments they have done
  • d) Whether the reporter writing the story has a positive opinion on the subject
  • e) Whether your friends have tried the cure yet

Question 2

You are presented with the following graph:

What does this graph tell you?

  • a) Nothing in particular
  • b) That organic food causes autism
  • c) That autistic people eat more organic food
  • d) That there is a hidden third relationship at work
  • e) That the person making the graph is a shill for a pharmaceutical company

Question 3

A company is offering a programme to make you rich and successful in business. They say they take thousands of people each year on this course. To prove it works, they invite four people to speak about the benefits of the programme and how it transformed their lives. Of the following choices, which further evidence best indicates that the programme works as advertised?

  • a) At least three more speakers to make it statistically significant
  • b) Another testimony from an independent source
  • c) Nothing, the number of testimonies is sufficient
  • d) Interviews and testimonies from the people for whom the program didn’t work
  • e) Background information on the people offering testimony

Question 4

A shop has an automated alarm by the doors to test if people are walking out with stolen goods. The alarm sounds. Given that the alarm is guaranteed to catch 95% of all thieves, what is the probability that the person caught by the alarm is a thief?

  • a) 0%
  • b) Less than 95%
  • c) More than 95%
  • d) 100%
  • e) More information needed

Question 5

The following is a logical syllogism. The two premises lead to a conclusion:

  • Premise 1) Some doctors are tall
  • Premise 2) Some men are doctors
  • Conclusion) Some men are tall

The above syllogism is valid: true or false?

Question 6

A medical trial for a new drug to treat cold symptoms is undertaken. 20 people are placed in the control group and given a placebo pill. 40 people are put in the intervention group and given the drug, but 15 drop out over the course of the study. Does this:

  • a) Strengthen the study because the control and intervention groups are now nearly the same size
  • b) Weaken the study because we lose information on the drop outs
  • c) Weaken the study because the statistical significance is affected
  • d) Strengthen the study because people who the drug didn’t work on are weeded out
  • e) Have no effect on the study’s outcomes

Question 7

You are presented with the following graph on the news. It represents unemployment figures for two small groups of people in contrast to the previous year. The news report uses it to demonstrate a massive difference in the relative unemployment rate between the two groups.

graph

Why is the graph misleading?

  • a) It lacks a title on the Y axis saying that it’s a percentage
  • b) The data should be continuous, like a line chart
  • c) The graph doesn’t start from zero
  • d) “Group A” and “Group B” should be labelled better
  • e) The colour choice produces a sub-conscious bias in the viewer

Question 8

A new pre-screening test for breast cancer is announced in the news. The experts who made it claim a 99% success rate in detecting the condition early, an improvement on a previous test which had only an 65% success rate.  In the old test, 1 in 100 people would be falsely diagnosed, in the new test 1 in 50 would be falsely diagnosed. Which test is better?

  • a) The old test
  • b) The new test
  • c) They’re about the same
  • d) More data needed
  • e) It’s complicated

Question 9

All toupee’s look fake. How do you evaluate this statement?

  • a) Examine fake-looking hair
  • b) Examine real-looking hair
  • c) Examine hair whether it looks “fake” or not
  • d) You cannot evaluate this statement
  • e) The statement is true by definition

Question 10

A newspaper publishes a piece on the safety of a new vaccine given to combat the flu in people over 60. Their story centres around two people who died shortly after receiving the vaccine, and states that it should be recalled. What additional evidence is required to demonstrate that the vaccine is dangerous:

  • a) The rate of flu infections in people over 60
  • b) The rate of vaccine uptake in people over 60
  • c) The rate of flu mortality in people over 60
  • d) All of the above
  • e) Nothing, as the story is sufficient evidence to indicate a problem

Answers shortly. No cheating please.

7 (un)Surprising Signs That Astrology Is Total Bullshit (Part 2)

Had meant to finish and publish this earlier. It is the continuation of part 1, which can be found here.

Astrology & Redheads

astro_5

Yet another one to look up. In this case, we get astrologer Judith Hill. Hill’s claim to fame is that “she accepted a 1986 NCGR sponsored skeptic’s challenge and won(!) by successfully matching 5 anonymous biographies to 5 birth charts”. This sounds impressive until you realise that NCGR is the National Council for Geocosmic Research. Further, implied by the recounting of it in the interview linked to below, it seems that multiple astrologers had taken a shot at the same test. How many failed? Matching 5 and 5 randomly is about a 1% chance, which is hardly spectacular if 100 tried it. Indeed, if astrology was a reputable and reproducible science, shouldn’t the failure rate be zero across the board? Please don’t tell me that’s a “straw man”, if you think there’s anything to it it should damn well be reproducible.

For $30 you could get Hill and Thompson’s book on redheads here, although for those without such cash and time to burn a hint at the methodology can be found buried in this interview.

Take Mars placements within 30 degrees on either side of the Ascendant, and compare these with Mars birth placements opposite — 30 degrees on either side of the Descendant — then place these numbers side by side for redheads and non-redheads. Invariably, the redhead population will have a higher ratio of Mars on the Ascendant side and a lower ratio of Mars on the Descendant side.

A more in-depth look at the apparent results is buried in this whiny tl;dr screed (highly recommended is the section on why scientific rigour can’t be applied to astrology, which is bullshit because far more problematic fields have successfully been studied through rigorous methods). While Hill and Thompson’s papers are cited, I can’t track them down. However, when I read things like “p=<0.000035”, my bullshit alarm fires on all cylinders. Why just 30 degrees of the ascendant/descendent? What is the actual distribution? What was the selection procedure for these people? What tests generated these implausibly low p-values? (usually because they incorrectly multiply p values together, as Ben Goldacre explains here) Without these questions answered, we can’t take the research seriously.

Astrology and Mental Health

astro_6

Let’s get one thing abundantly clear; mental health is not something to joke about. Yet I can’t help but feel that if astrologers are claiming that they can solve mental health problems, then they are joking about it. We see how much bullshit they spew on a daily basis, so applying it to mental health is about as funny as applying chiropractic to an infant.

Still, no links so I’m having to find this stuff myself. So, a description of Dr. Mitchell Gibson I managed to find:

In 2005, Dr. Gibson left the traditional practice of medicine after he began to experience what he now calls enlightenment. He had been practicing meditation for more than 25 years and in August of 2003, he began to experience a state of consciousness called Samadhi. Samadhi is recognized as a state of bliss and expanded consciousness that accompanies prolonged meditative practices. Dr. Gibson has been recognized by spiritual masters all over the world for his achievement. He has been given the spiritual name Sri Surya Dass by the great Spiritual Teacher Sri Siva Baba.

I think this is him. He certainly sounds medically qualified (sarcasm). Of course, it could be a different person entirely, but certainly there doesn’t seem much evidence of him being “Harvard-educated” if I’ve got the right one. Like so many, he seems more interested in selling stuff vaguely related to spirituality than doing any real science that his alleged medical qualification would suggest. But you know what? I’m going to be lazy and leave it there. This apparently spectacular piece of evidence to prove astrology is being relentlessly vague and forcing me to do a lot of work just to refute what it can’t even be bothered to say itself.

But I will say that I spent a good 5 minutes with my favourite search engine looking up the schizophrenia claim. It is true; there is an established seasonality. However, the second part is an outright lie. There is a lot of work going into understanding actual seasonality and how climate affects the pathogenesis of schizophrenia – and “birth month” is emphatically not a factor since the big studies are specifically northern-hemisphere based while equivalent southern-hemisphere based studies fail to replicate this. It doesn’t take long to find it. Have a try.

Astrology and Athletes

astro_7

This is just bullshitting. It doesn’t state that the “founder” who quit CSICOP is Dennis Rawlins, who quit not because he became convinced that the Mars Effect was real, but that he didn’t particularly like CSICOP’s statistical approach or integrity. The spat is somewhat embarrassing, but that’s it; embarrassing.  It has no influence on whether the conclusion is correct. Now, remember that this was in 1975, about 40 years ago. It may as well be a millennium ago as far as science is concerned.  There were further replication attempts in the ’70s and in the ’90s that demonstrated no effect. Indeed, Gauquelin’s data for an apparent Mars Effect on athletes suffered a painful number of flaws itself; a staggering selection bias as well as statistical fudging on par with the Sharpshooter Fallacy.

This non-existent effect shouldn’t be confused with the more interesting and real effect discussed in the book Outliers, which demonstrates that those born at a certain time relative to the school year have an advantage at sport over their counterparts at school due to being more significantly older at a young age – indeed, up to a year-wide age gap between children put in the same grouping, which may seem relatively significant for grown adults in their twenties, but constitutes an age difference >10% below age 10.

Conclusions

This was such a waste of my time… I mean, seriously, look at it. This is terrible. All 7 points are supposedly the final concluding remarks on how astrology is totally legit and real, yet they say no such thing. They’re vague, they’re out of context, they’re selective. They’re relatively trivial to debunk. Yet, there they are, sitting proud and making people think there’s something actually to this delusion.

You Literally Won’t Believe These Mind-Blowing Simple Statistics… And How Wrong People Are About Them

Getting a bit sick of this post, actually. I should really get around to re-writing it with some newer information and statistics rather than leaving it scattered around 20 different comment sections. Either way, the take-home point for MRAs sharing this sort of thing remains the same – quit your bullshit persecution complex and get over yourself you whiny self-entitled prick.


How d’you like my attempt at a click-bait headline? Cool, eh? *wink-wink*

Anyway, here are the statistics in question. They’re a specific formulation of something I’ve seen 4-5 times in different ways. It concerns how “hard done by” men actually are – and therefore is a complete and thorough deconstruction and destruction of feminism and women’s rights.

privilege

Fucking women… Bah!

Hopefully, it shouldn’t take a genius to figure out where this is going. The above is bullshit – not that the stats lie, but that their application is flawed. I’ll cover a general response first for brevity and then, for completeness, look at each one individually lest someone whines about missing a point. This is extensive, but that’s the issue with bullshit; it takes a long time to thoroughly dismantle to the point where you can begin to start correcting things. I won’t re-explain what “privilege” means, I’ll try to avoid even raising it as an issue so that anyone reading this won’t need to understand it.

Summary

Overall, none of these statistics (save one, just, see below) have anything to do with gender. Gender is not a causal factor in these cases.* That’s it, basically. If you cannot be bothered to read further (I won’t blame you for that) then that’s your take home message. Those stats above are not male issues or problems in the way that, say, breast cancer or being raped is a female problem.** No one is being targeted in these situations because they are male, and if you can’t spot that, I’ll reiterate how that works for each point below.

Secondly, most of the people who regurgitate these statistics – whom I refer to as MRAssholes, because “MRA” alone suggests that they’re both interested in rights and activism, but this isn’t the case – are simply not interested in addressing these statistics and the dependencies. This sort of thing is used exclusively as a whine – “look how bad us men have it!!” or “see, women are privileged too!” That’s all. No thought, no solutions, no progress; just whining.

These apparent “activists” have demonstrably no interest in addressing these issues, or real issues that actually arise from being male. A simple search for “Men United” (the prostate cancer awareness campaign ran by Prostate Cancer UK) amongst the usual suspects of Men’s Rights on the internet, even the UK-based ones, produces absolute nada as a result. If their interest was in helping men for problems arising because they were men, that sort of thing would be front page news. But no, they instead want to attack women, and blame women, for their own shortcomings, failures, and personal issues. More general searches for male health and well-being also produce precious few results – while I’m open to proof that the precious few are actual rules and aren’t exceptions, I’m not holding my breath (I did find one, which is linked to below, but the comments section suggests it wasn’t universally supported).

So overall; this is whining, and pointless whining at that, with no solutions for how to actually help men or solve wider social problems. The specifics are below.

*Clarification: 4 out of 5 are conflating factors rather than casual. But if you want an executive, take-home summary that summarises them all, then it’s that gender is not a factor in these statistics. Certainly in the 1 out of 5, the cases of suicide, most MRA groups are blinded to why it is a causal factor.

**Clarification 2: I saw this line criticised elsewhere (thanks for not enquiring in the comments where I would have answered this in a less annoyed tone rather than having to have it sent to me from a closed Facebook group) because it supposedly reads as me saying “men can’t get breast cancer” and “men are never raped”. Really? You think I’m that stupid? Do you think I’m not aware of the prevalence of those things? Take the common sense interpretation of this, please – there are issues that, for Reasons, affect women more often than men, and others issues, for Reasons, affect men more oftern than women. Of the former, breast cancer and sexual violence are two examples. It’s not to say that this is not a problem for men, just that these are statistically outlying problems, not core things to keep you up at night because it’s within reasonable chance that you would be affected.

Combat Deaths

The thing about combat deaths is that this is entirely due to exposure. That 97% of combat fatalities are male needs to be taken in the context that about 97% of all soldiers worldwide are male. Even in a (comparatively) progressive modern military such as the US Army, only approximately 15% of all occupations are held by women – a figure that drops way further when you look at frontline infantry, and in the US Marines it drops to a literal handful. This is something that has been fought against by women and feminists for a long time, who have been demanding the ability to enlist throughout most of the modern warfare era. The results of this campaigning have seen an exponential rise in the number of military positions that no longer exclude women by default, and female soldiers are now as prized and celebrated as their male counterparts.

Yet, it is primarily male soldiers, generals and social commentators who oppose this. And if it’s not male soldiers (I can disagree with, but actually respect their view on this), it’s male sofa-warriors with an internet connection and an addiction to increasingly identical First-Person Shooters.

Go on Internet Tough Guy, tear yourself away from shouting racist abuse on multi-player Call of Duty long enough tell them they’re not allowed to serve in combat because they’re physically weak. Go on. See what happens. I dare you.

The statistic on combat deaths is further misleading because it excludes civilian deaths. Effectively by definition this affects either both sexes/genders equally, or disproportionately to women as the men were off fighting (yes, that’s conjecture, so?). Civilian deaths in war, on average, are responsible for approximately 50% of all casualties across the board. Historically this has been through war-induced famine, and with significant increases in some modern warfare fields where civilian casualties can dominate – the second world war, for instance, is estimated to be as high as 70% civilian casualties. That’s a lot of women killed due to combat.

But as stated in the summary, this is not a male issue. This is a social issue; and the way to improve it is to oppose war, not to oppose feminism. Anti-war protests and campaigns are ten-a-penny, yet no significant contribution to them has been made by prominent “Men’s Rights” activists or movements – and when they are, they’re framed in this rather dishonest way as the fault of women for not dying enough. As Man Boobz has reported recently, some self-styled MRAs are literally saying that women should die in droves to combat the discrepancy. If that attitude strikes you as a reasonable response to a disparity in the gender of soldiers killed, you have some serious issues you need to address.

Homicide Victims

That the majority of homicide victims are male needs to be put in the much wider context of a more nuanced breakdown of the demographics – but first, the easy and cheap shot; the majority of homicide perpetrators are also male. What should that tell us? Well, frankly, nothing much more than the demographics of the victims tell us, but you don’t see that factoid being cherry-picked as an example of female privilege.

The statistic has come as a surprise to some people I’ve spoken to on this – who either thought that the split was closer to 50:50, or that life really does work like a police procedural where the victim is always a pretty girl found in a dumpster by the hard-nosed cop and her witty and implausibly quirky sidekick (Castle, I’m looking at you…). But no, the majority of murders (in US statistics, which are nicely summarised here, while the equivalent UK data is discussed here – since we’re all about the first-world-problems here) are gang-related or drugs related. That gang membership and drug-dealing is a predominantly male profession makes being male more of a confounding variable than a causal factor in this case. Presumably as more women begin working in gangs, female victims and perpetrators of homicide will increase accordingly.

Rejected Plot Idea No. 1: Castle and Beckett discover the body of gang member killed for dealing drugs on the wrong territory. It goes unsolved for the rest of the episode.

Now, there are some cases where gender could be a causal factor in homicide rather than merely a confounding variable. For this, we need to look at whether the victim is the victim primarily for being a certain way – for instance, hate crimes are perpetuated with the victim’s identity being a part contributor to the motive. And quite fittingly, the US crime statistics do summarise exactly this in the form of “intimate” or “domestic” violence – i.e., between partners, lovers or family members – or in sex related crimes including rape. In this, sex/gender is not just a confounding variable, but is in fact the exact reason a perpetrator and victim will be in the same place at the same time. And in this (the US statistics), we see a very different picture to the overall, gang-violence dominated, trend; the majority of victims are female and the perpetrators are male. 70% of victims in “intimate” violence are female, and just shy of 50% are victims in intra-family homicide, 80% in sex related crimes and again just shy of 50% in arson and poisoning.

In short, where gender is a causal factor, the majority of victims are female; where gender is not a factor at all (e.g., arson), the rate of victims is ~50:50; and the skew in the overall 75% male figure comes from gang and drug rates of 90+% male victims (and, as a matter of course, 90+% male perpetrators) where sex/gender is just a confounding variable caused by gang membership. So while overall your prior odds of being murdered are  in the region of 75% if you’re male, if you’re outside one of the major high-risk groups such as a gang member or drug user, your risks increase significantly more if you are female.

Again, no mention of how to actually solve this problem coming from MRAssholes. It’s just a whine. No campaigning to decrease the murder rate, or campaigns to keep young men away from gangs. Nothing. They seem to be treating it as if Germaine Greer spent 90% of The Female Eunuch declaringthat young boys should join gangs and deal drugs, rather than far weirder things like drinking menstrual blood.

Industrial Deaths and Accidents

This is pretty much ditto to the military combat deaths; it’s a question of exposure. High risk occupations, manual labour and industrial for instance, are primarily male dominated. The occupations are often seen as masculine, anti-feminine, and as a result women are actively discouraged from performing them. Challenging these ideas of specified gender roles is something that modern feminism looks to fight against – that being female shouldn’t stop you being a bricklayer if that’s what you feel you should do, and as a corollary, that being a secretary should be a fine enough occupation if you’re male.

Mmm… secretaries…

Far from it being an MRA position, it’s actually a very third-wave feminist position to say there should be more female accident victims because better representation of women in the high-risk workplace is a stated goal.

Well, it would be, except that unlike the position above that suggests we should kill women to “even out” the disparity in combat victims since the first world war, an actual liberal position would be to reduce the number of accidents in total. Because, naturally, the average liberal feminist doesn’t go around actively celebrating someone’s death as a sop to equality. A gender breakdown is effectively a meaningless statistic that tells us nothing about the nature of accidents, however, a more useful breakdown does show a meaningful decrease in workplace accidents.

The Orwellian Nightmare; Big Guv’mnt regulation leads to fewer people killing themselves on building sites.

The way to reduce accidents overall is not to blame women for not being in the right (or wrong) occupations, but to take personal safety seriously, not to glorify unnecessary risk, and effectively punish those that risk the lives of workers and those around them in the name of corner-cutting and profit. Yet, from bitter experience I know that MRAsshole attitudes have a very significant overlap with libertarian anti-regulation politics – and a further overlap with the kind of weird douchey behaviour that is obsessed with being Alpha-As-Fuck, which means Real Men don’t wear helmets on building sites or something like that. Either you accept regulation and oversight combined with liberal attitudes to gender roles, or you accept higher casualty rates selectively for the dominant demographic; you cannot have both.

Suicide Victims

Now this is serious fucking business. But it’s also complicated fucking business. Rates of suicide are tied into a myriad of factors. On the face of it, there’s depression and mental health – that much is obvious. There is a massive stigma surrounding mental health; and indeed more so if you’re male, where talking about problems and opening up about them is considered “unmanly” (talking to someone about your feelings is soooo beta, you horrible mangina, you…).

So in this particular issue, the prevalence of male victims is more than the confounding factor that it is in the above examples.

But with the MRAsshole crowd, which is inextricably linked to hyper-misogyny and pick-up-artistry, such a stigma is actively reinforced. A search for “mental health” on A Voice For Men quite literally produces fuck all in terms of help or guidance. A little bit of kowtowing to generic “men’s health”, but two posts in two years rounds down to zero in my humble opinion when it comes to such a serious issue. The stigma that you face as a man for having mental health issues is massive; and yet it’s really an intersectional feminism position to fight against it because that’s about dismantling the attitude that says it’s not okay to talk and be open if you’re male. As someone in possession of both a penis and a Y chromosome (because this is, of course, so damn important for some people…), this is something that actually affects me – but improving access to mental health care in general, as well as specifically fighting against the stigma of being a man with a problem, is the way to fight against this.

Today on Spherical Bullshit, we ask “why do all mental health stock photos look exactly the same?”

But there’s also access to the means of suicide. I don’t really want to de-rail this into gun control, but, it’s a pretty solid statistic that the majority of firearms deaths in the United States are by suicide, not homicide. Where access to firearms is limited, those deaths don’t occur. The theory is pretty simple; suicidal thoughts are transitory; and the ease with which someone can actually kill themselves correlates with an increased suicide rate. A temporary deterrent doesn’t lead someone to seek an option elsewhere, but delays them committing the act long enough for the suicidal thoughts to pass – this is something backed up by evidence from suicide barriers on bridges. The correlation between gun-ownership and perceived manliness is pretty much undeniable – as this particular advert for Bushmaster evidently shows. Combine all this together and you have a significant recipe for increased suicide rates. You have an easy and rapid access to an object that will kill you effectively, that you own because you’ve been encouraged to be “manly”, and thoughts that you refuse to share because you’ve been encouraged to be “manly”. That’s the theory, and evidence from suicide rates and methods demonstrate it fairly robustly.

In this case I did – shock of horrors – find something on this subject on A Voice for Men that might be constructive – but unfortunately a good-size chunk of the comments underline exactly the problem outlined in this entire post; they don’t care about speaking out on male issues or mental health issues, they just want to blame women for them.

Child Custody

Child custody is a another complex issue that has a lot of confounding variables attached to it. It’s really not as simple as you expecting a 50:50 split in outcomes. In fact, given other evidence we should expect anything but an equal custody split.

Now, some history. Back in the day, wrangling over child custody was a non-issue. It was never contested; it was the case that the father literally owned the children, and the mother had no rights to her own children at all. That was just The Way. In the case of a divorce, the children defaulted to the father. Check out any period drama for a good demonstration of how this works, it’s a plot point in most of them.

Elizabeth Foster, later Elizabeth Cavendisth, Duchess of Devonshire, had three children by John Thomas Foster. After they separated, he maintained sole custody and control of the children, and didn’t allow them to see their mother for 14 years. Elizabeth had no legal rights over them. And yes, I’m bringing up this particular example purely because I’ve seen The Duchess and Hayley Atwell in period dress makes me want to take up smoking.

While this fact about male-dominated pre-20th century society is well-known, it’s not often applied. It makes for very striking and vital context for discussing child custody settlements today. We’re talking about women going from absolutely zero rights in this field, to something of a slight advantage in a courtroom. I feel oppressed already…

So, along comes modern law-making that decided that “sanity” was better than “de facto” when it came to figuring out child custody. And so the law switched over, slowly over the course of the early/mid-20th century, from the father having automatic and uncontested custody, to courts making a decision based on the “most suitable parent”. In a way, MRAssholes are right on this; it’s largely thanks to feminism that this has been brought about. The earliest waves of feminism, dating back to the suffragettes and even earlier, focused on legal rights and representation for women; and this included child custody amongst other basic rights that we now take for granted – though emphatically do not mean that social equality has been reached (see, like, all of the above). So far, so history.

But… consider the homicide statistics quoted above and related non-fatal statistics on domestic violence. In the cases of intimate violence and domestic violence, the perpetrators are largely male and the victims female – although by no means a rule, this heavily stacks the statistical weighting of what we expect to see. What the courts conclude as “the most suitable parent” will be heavily biased towards the mother. If a large number of couples split due to violence, and the majority of violence is committed by men, a disparity here should be a no-brainer and highly expected. There’s a lot more that could be discussed on this, but I’ll leave it here for now.

I’m not going to discuss specific cases where there’s demonstrable vindictiveness that leads to unfair custody results – ex-couples dragging themselves through divorce courts are vindictive and bitter, film at 11 – but this is largely a problem for those specific cases, and isn’t proven to be a systematic problem by an overall statistical discrepancy between men and women and their respective victories in child custody battles. That alone doesn’t say anything about specific motives of why the disparity is the case. Of course, this could be a serious issue that self-styled MRAs could have a good point about and a positive contribution to make. Unfortunately they seem incapable of staying on focus long enough. Even the usually on-topic Fathers4Justice went completely off the rails with their most recent attack ads on mothers.

Further Summary

This was long, but hopefully thorough enough. So, in final conclusion, we’ve seen the statistics. We’ve seen more detailed breakdowns of the statistics. We’ve seen the context of them. We’ve seen reasons why the world is like that. We’ve seen ways we could fix it. We’ve seen reasons that most male “rights” enthusiasts largely miss the lessons we can conclude from these statistics

I deliberately haven’t tried demonstrating why treating these aren’t “female privilege” as some might put it; hopefully, I won’t have to.

Messages from Creationists

Before I start, a question. Seriously, what the fuck is with this trendy shit where you write on a piece of paper and take a photograph of it? Shitting bullfuck it’s just so fucking lame. Anyway… Here are some images of creationists from the Nye/Ham debate ripped from Buzzfeed and elsewhere. I thought I’d answer them. I’ll try and be nice. Some of the time.


“Influencing” is a long word. Who the hell thinks they could possibly fit “influencing” in that gap and so willingly chooses to break up a word with a hyphen when handwriting? No, really. Who the hell does that? If Bill Nye can influence anyone in a positive way, it should be to avoid being this short-sighted and stupid.


GOD IS A DICK! JESUS SUCKS COCKS!! KEN HAM IS AN IDIOT! THE BIBLE IS FAKE! GRAAAAA!!!

Still no lightning bolts. I guess that answers that one.


Short answer: Yes.

Long answer: Yes. Absolutely yes.


Short answer: No.

Long answer: Once you understand that 1) the Earth is not a closed system and so the Second Law won’t rigorously apply 2) that the complexity of the chemical reactions that form life in fact are driven by entropy increases in the wider system and 3) that “does not…” at the beginning of a question introduces ambiguity and is as stylistically appalling as combining that hair with that beard – one or t’other, please. Then no.


The heliocentric model of the solar system demonstrates that the sun is in a (relatively) fixed position while the Earth orbits around it, during that time the Earth also rotates so that from a (relatively) fixed position on Earth, the sun appears to orbit around the Earth. Sections of the Earth that face away from the sun are in darkness, an alternatively switch between facing towards and away from the sun. Hence the sun comes up and down from our frame of reference.

Something else just bugs be about this one, but I can’t quite put my finger on it…


I’m going to have to go through my thermodynamics lecture notes and find the part where ΔG = ΔHTΔactually does this…


Indeed.


Okay, serious answer time. Put a coffee on. An “objective meaning” in life is not, in fact, objectively required. That much is self-evident from the mere fact that someone can even ask this question. We need to remember what “objective” refers to – it’s something that exists independently of the self and of our opinion. In short, it’s something that remains true regardless of our belief in it, anything else is subjective and dependent on our thoughts and opinions. As a corollary to this, we can easily show that any claim of objective meaning is, in fact, subjective. Saying, for example, that “God has a plan for us” does not give me, in a subjective sense, any meaning, or comfort, and indeed interests me not. If this sort of statement was objective by the definitions of “objective” I’ve just given, this wouldn’t be the case at all. The easiest way to respond to such a question, therefore, is to ask where you get your objective meaning in life. That’s properly objective (see, online I can bold, italic and underline!) and not “subjective but I totally don’t think it is”.


[Insert every paper ever written on chemical biology, abiogenesis, autocatalysis, chemical selection, biochemistry, science…]


“AVADA KEDAVRA!!!”

Books. Don’t mess with them, kids.


Because aliens are comparatively plausible. And considering most serious people think panspermia and directed panspermia are totally batshit implausibly stupid and only gullible idiots who watch too much SyFy believe in it, what does that say about Young Earth Creationism, Mr I’m Only Going To Show My Hands Rather Than My Gurning Face?


The only thing where there is no in between, is between your ears where the rest of us have squishy grey stuff.


I’m going to go ahead and assume you don’t know what any of those words mean.


You’re a fucking idiot.


Because you’re also a fucking idiot.


OH SWEET JESUS I MIGHT NEED TO TALK ABOUT INFORMATION THEORY HERE!!!

Nah, fuck it. Dawkins already did the hard work for me here. Warning, it’s long. It’ll blow your tiny little creationist brain just trying to comprehend that many words in one place.


I believe my purpose is to praise Allah and glorify his prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. Prove me wrong, bitches.


Only one Australopithecus specimen?!? Holy crap, someone better tell the President of Paleontology fast! They think there’s nearly a dozen!!


Now here’s  a definitional linguistic clusterfuck I’m not diving into…


Easily, actually. Because I’m smart. Well, perhaps not “smart” in the grand scheme of things. But next to people who think the entire human population was created through incest, twice, I’m a fucking 1-in-a-trillion genius.


Wut?


Because when given the choice, some of the monkeys preferred to stay the same.