False positives

by Chris Bertram on September 27, 2003

Via the “very interesting blog of Dr Anthony Cox”:http://www.blacktriangle.org/ , I see that Gerd Gigerenzer has “a paper on risk”:http://bmj.bmjjournals.com/cgi/content/full/327/7417/741 in the British Medical Journal. Doctors, it seems, are alarmingly ignorant about statistics:

bq. The science fiction writer H G Wells predicted that in modern technological societies statistical thinking will one day be as necessary for efficient citizenship as the ability to read and write. How far have we got, a hundred or so years later? A glance at the literature shows a shocking lack of statistical understanding of the outcomes of modern technologies, from standard screening tests for HIV infection to DNA evidence. For instance, doctors with an average of 14 years of professional experience were asked to imagine using the Haemoccult test to screen for colorectal cancer. The prevalence of cancer was 0.3%, the sensitivity of the test was 50%, and the false positive rate was 3%. The doctors were asked: what is the probability that someone who tests positive actually has colorectal cancer? The correct answer is about 5%. However, the doctors’ answers ranged from 1% to 99%, with about half of them estimating the probability as 50% (the sensitivity) or 47% (sensitivity minus false positive rate). If patients knew about this degree of variability and statistical innumeracy they would be justly alarmed.

Animal sports

by Chris Bertram on September 27, 2003

Simon Kuper has been pretty busy this week. Not content with analyzing the Islamic vote, he also provides “a handy compendium of weird animal sports”:http://news.ft.com/servlet/ContentServer?pagename=FT.com/StoryFT/FullStory&c=StoryFT&cid=1059480156751&p=1045677866454 , including elephant polo, goat racing and tortoise racing. Many of these pastimes are products of the British empire it seems. The champion tortoise answers to the name of Rosa Luxemburg.

The Islamic vote

by Chris Bertram on September 27, 2003

Simon Kuper has an “interesting piece in the FT”:http://news.ft.com/servlet/ContentServer?pagename=FT.com/StoryFT/FullStory&c=StoryFT&cid=1059480107034&p=1012571727132 on the importance of the Islamic electorate in Europe. Though the piece is mainly about Europe, I was amused to read the following (which everyone else probably knows already):

bq. the Muslim bloc vote first appeared in the US, home of the ethnic lobby. A fortnight before the 2000 election, the American Muslim Political Co-ordinating Council, a political action group, endorsed George W. Bush for president. The council said he had shown “elevated concern” about the US government’s profiling of Arab-Americans at airports, and about its use of secret evidence against Arab and Muslim immigrants. (Bush had mentioned this issue in a debate with Al Gore.). Bizarre as it now sounds, Bush’s concern for the civil rights of suspected Islamic terrorists possibly won him the election. It is estimated that more than 70 per cent of American Muslims voted for him, and that in the crucial Florida election he polled at least 60,000 more Muslim votes than Gore.

Dynamic Europe

by Chris Bertram on September 27, 2003

As an further antidote to the Paul Johnson rant, I thought I’d link to euro-cheerleader Philippe Legrain’s “hymn to European dynamism in Prospect”:http://www.prospect-magazine.co.uk/ArticleView.asp?accessible=yes&P_Article=12246 . There are one or two moments when Legrain has to turn up the volume in the hope that people won’t notice weaknesses here and there, but it is a pretty gutsy response to a certain widely-received view of Europe and America:

bq. over the past three years, living standards, as measured by GDP per capita, have risen by 5.9 per cent in the EU but by only 1 per cent in the US. So says the IMF, an institution hardly biased against the US. An unfair comparison, perhaps, given America’s recent recession? Then look at how the EU and the US size up since 1995, a period that includes America’s late 1990s boom. While living standards in the US have risen by a healthy 16.1 per cent over the past eight years, they are up by 18.3 per cent in the EU. This is not a sleight of hand. Pick any year between 1995 and 2000 as your starting point, and the conclusion is the same: Europe’s economy has outperformed America’s.

bq. It is true that the US economy has grown by an average of 3.2 per cent a year since 1995, whereas Europe’s economy has swelled by only 2.3 per cent. These headline figures transfix pundits and policymakers. But this apparent success is deceptive. Not only are US growth figures inflated because American statisticians have done more than their European counterparts to take into account improvements in the quality of goods and services, but the US population is also growing much faster than Europe’s. It has increased by nearly one tenth in the past eight years, whereas Europe’s population has scarcely grown at all. So although the US pie is growing faster than Europe’s, so too is the number of mouths it has to feed. Most people care about higher living standards, not higher economic growth.


by Henry Farrell on September 27, 2003

I’d planned to do a number on Paul Johnson’s extraordinary “rant”:http://www.forbes.com/columnists/free_forbes/2003/1006/037.html against Europe, but “Mark Kleiman”:http://markarkleiman.blogspot.com/2003_09_01_markarkleiman_archive.html#106461571572522168 has beaten me to it. I don’t have much to add, except to say that Johnson is a dreadful old fraud, even as superannuated Tory farts go. And his prose style is wretched; the sort of sub-Burkean lugubrious sententiousness that conservatives are liable to mistake for profundity when they’ve overdone the port a bit.

Still, there’s good news for those of you who think that Johnson’s right about Europe’s economic backwardness. Silvio Berlusconi has just launched a “new marketing effort”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/3137406.stm, encouraging foreigners to invest in Italy. As Berlusconi describes it:

bq. “Italy is now a great country to invest in… today we have fewer communists and those who are still there deny having been one … Another reason to invest in Italy is that we have beautiful secretaries… superb girls.

It’s a cliche to say that you can’t make this stuff up. But you can’t. You really can’t.

What liberal academy?

by Henry Farrell on September 27, 2003

Do conservatives have a hard time getting tenure in American universities? “David Brooks”:http://www.nytimes.com/2003/09/27/opinion/27BROO.html suggests as much in a NYT op-ed today. This isn’t David Horowitz-style ravings; Brooks makes a real argument. He quotes various conservative professors to say that:

bq. A person who voted for President Bush may be viewed as an oddity, but the main problem in finding a job is that the sorts of subjects a conservative is likely to investigate – say, diplomatic or military history – do not excite hiring committees.

Brooks’ respondents may be right about history (although military history is making a bit of a comeback; look at “Niall Ferguson”:http://www.boston.com/globe/magazine/2003/0629/coverstory_entire.htm). Even so, I think that Brooks exaggerates. While the average political scientist is somewhere to the left of the average punter, she isn’t all that far to the left. In my experience, most political scientists are moderate liberals, with substantial minorities who are real leftists, centrists, or mild to moderate Republicans. There aren’t many hardcore conservatives in top political science departments, but there aren’t many Marxists either. Indeed, I’d guess that there are rather more conservatives than Marxists – conservatives dominate certain areas of political theory (classical political philosophy) that most pol-sci departments have to offer courses in.

There’s also another factor that Brooks doesn’t talk about (although he hints at it at the end of the article). If you’re a young conservative, who’s just gotten a Ph.D. in pol. sci. or pol. theory from a good school, you have many attractive options outside the academy. Conservative think-tanks like Heritage and the American Enterprise Institute are remarkably well-funded (thanks to the “charming”:http://www.dailyhowler.com/dh022403.shtml Richard Mellon Scaife and other mega-millionaires), and provide direct access to the US policy process. They offer better pay (usually), more immediate recognition and more influence. It’s a wonder that any bright conservatives stay in the academy at all.