Archive for math misused

The Dealergate Post That Will Make No One Happy

I noticed yesterday that a good number of people are getting worked up because it looks like a large number of the Chysler dealerships that are being closed are heavy Republican donors. (Michelle Malkin does her usual roundup here)

I’m taking the time to try to do something that still seems somewhat lacking… run an actual statistical analysis of the data. I’ll post more when I get some real data, but I did want to put up a couple thoughts early on.

Thought 1: Megan McArdle says that this is likely a red herring. She points out that “Democratic and Republican dealers are unlikely to be found in the same place, and the rural counties that tend to be red are probably less profitable.  I would be less surprised to find out that the administration rescued specific donors from the hit list than to find that they deliberately closed Republican dealerships.”

If there was any behind the scenes work by the Obama administration, saving Obama dealerships seems more likely than spitefully killing Republican ones. And I think that we’ve got a pretty big “if” there to begin with.

Thought 2: All the skeptics to this story are pointing to Nate Silver’s “Car Dealerships are Republican (It’s Called a Control Group, People)“. Unfortunately for them, that post is a load of statistical garbage.

Nate is trying to establish a baseline of Republican-to-Democratic donations against which he can judge the validity of the data coming from the closed dealerships. This is a laudable goal, but I get really frustrated when people use statistical or mathematical terms and they don’t know what those terms mean. I’m starting to understand that people on both sides of the isle use “science-y” or “math-y” words because it makes it look like they’re using science and can therefore be trusted. That’s exactly what is going on here.  

Nate’s investigation does not a control group make for the following reasons:

  • There are really three categories here: Republican donor, Democratic donor, and not a donor. He doesn’t even recognize that the last category might exist.
  • He don’t make any distinction between Chrysler dealerships and other dealerships. Maybe Honda dealerships skew Republican and thereby mess up his “control group”. This is like testing a drug aimed at teenage girls and building a “control group” that includes toddlers, WWII veterans and 40-year-old soccer moms. His data is hopelessly polluted.
  • He assumes that everyone who owns a car dealership will list their occupation as car dealer (or some variant). Where I grew up, Hank Aaron owned a couple car dealerships, but I think it was unlikely he listed his occupation as “car dealer”. (If I got a business card from Hank Aaron, I would want it to say “Hank Aaron – Awesomest Person in the World… and Barry Bonds Can Die in a Ditch”)

Take your pick. I got more.

Thought 3: That fact that Nate Silver’s “analysis” is a load of crap doesn’t make the other analysis better… it just makes him something of an ass for pretending that he’s better than everyone else.

Example 1: Dan Collins says:

Statistics that are available suggest that Chrysler auto dealers donated 76% Republican and 24% Democratic.

Looks like someone else didn’t control for non-donating dealerships. (UPDATE: Dan Collins comments below that this statement was revised, although I still don’t see anyone taking into account non-donors.) 

Example 2: Doug Ross has a post called “Dealergate: Stats demonstrate that Chrysler Dealers likely shuttered on a partisan basis“. Towards the bottom, he has a “What Are The Odds” section in which he notices that one company, RLJ-McLarty-Landers, has six Chrysler dealerships that were not closed and claims that:

The approximate odds of such an occurrence can be calculated

He then proceeds to “calculate” those odds based on the assumption that the dealerships were closed at random.

His odds are meaningless. What is RLJ-McLarty-Landers happens to have remarkable market share? Or excellent customer service?

To posit an imperfect analogy, it’s like me being surprised when all the K-Marts in my area go out of business. So I do a statistical sampling of all local supermarkets and say “Ah-ha! All the Wal-Marts in the area didn’t go out of business… what are the odds of that?” And then I calculate the odds out and claim that there are nefarious plans afoot. (I love that word… afoot. Afoot, afoot, afoot.)

Thought 4: This smells like a conspiracy theory. I hate conspiracy theories. I lean toward believing that people, Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, are good people who are trying to do what they think is right.

On the other hand, if I had been editor at the Washington Post in the 70’s, I probably would have told Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein that they were acting like crazy people.

I confess to a heavy skepticism. So I’m running the data as carefully as I can and I’ll post what I find. It might take a couple days, though.  I’m not quite ready to quit my job to chase this story full time.

If you’re looking for what seems to be the best work on this so far, it’s probably at the entertainingly named Chrysler Dealership Campaign Donation Information blog. Based off an extremely quick scan of the information, it looks like Joey Smith (the author) is trying to gather data in a meaningful way.

Dick Cheney and “Hundreds of Thousands Of Lives”

I’m currently watching two week old episodes of Red Eye with Greg Gutfeld on Hulu. If you like outrageous, off the wall humor in your news, you really can’t do better than this show. While “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” take familiar cable news concepts and parody them, Gutfeld completely deconstructs those concepts. If he wasn’t so libertarian, media professors would call his show a work of surreal genius. The show may not be as consistently funny as some others, but it is far less safe… you never know where they’re going to go and what they’re going to say when they get there.

Anyway… back to the numbers thing. They were talking about Dick Cheney’s interview with Bob Schieffer in which Cheney (in Greg’s words):

…insisted that enhanced interrogation saved a crapload of lives. That’s right, he said ‘crapload’.

OK, he didn’t, but he should have.

They then show the part where Cheney stated that:

“I am convinced, absolutely convinced, that we saved thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives.”

Now I don’t want to talk about the morality and ethics of enhanced interrogation, a topic about which I can’t even begin to talk intelligently.

But I do know a little something about numbers and I remember that, on 9/11 we were all terrified (or at least I was) when we heard how many people worked in the World Trade Center buildings. The number “50,000” was tossed around a good bit that morning. I was happily surprised when the final toll was drastically revised downward over the several weeks .

Near as I can make it, the only way the Bush administration could have saved “possibly hundreds of thousands” of lives is if they stopped a nuclear attack in a major city. And I’m going to go ahead and say that the burden of proof on them is pretty heavy for something like that.

If you bust six guys drinking beer and talking about nuking LA, you probably didn’t save that many people. If, however, you bust six guys drinking beer and talking about nuking LA… and they have a dozen gas centrifuges in the basement enriching uranium, they’re still miles away from nuking LA, but at least you can make the case that you saved a crapload of lives by busting them.

Take note, I’m not at all against going after potential terrorists. I’m just against using numbers so carelessly that they lose their meaning. The “hundred thousand lives saved” is, as Kevin Godlington stated on the show, lunacy.

As a side note, Kevin Godlington is one of Red Eye’s best contributors. He is a British veteran who provides remarkable insight on the show and also works with military charities to help British and American soldiers deal with combat stress. I’ve had a couple people ask if they could donate to help my pro bono work here. If you’ve ever thought of doing so, donate to Kevin’s charity instead.

Dick Cheney and "Hundreds of Thousands Of Lives"

I’m currently watching two week old episodes of Red Eye with Greg Gutfeld on Hulu. If you like outrageous, off the wall humor in your news, you really can’t do better than this show. While “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” take familiar cable news concepts and parody them, Gutfeld completely deconstructs those concepts. If he wasn’t so libertarian, media professors would call his show a work of surreal genius. The show may not be as consistently funny as some others, but it is far less safe… you never know where they’re going to go and what they’re going to say when they get there.

Anyway… back to the numbers thing. They were talking about Dick Cheney’s interview with Bob Schieffer in which Cheney (in Greg’s words):

…insisted that enhanced interrogation saved a crapload of lives. That’s right, he said ‘crapload’.

OK, he didn’t, but he should have.

They then show the part where Cheney stated that:

“I am convinced, absolutely convinced, that we saved thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives.”

Now I don’t want to talk about the morality and ethics of enhanced interrogation, a topic about which I can’t even begin to talk intelligently.

But I do know a little something about numbers and I remember that, on 9/11 we were all terrified (or at least I was) when we heard how many people worked in the World Trade Center buildings. The number “50,000” was tossed around a good bit that morning. I was happily surprised when the final toll was drastically revised downward over the several weeks .

Near as I can make it, the only way the Bush administration could have saved “possibly hundreds of thousands” of lives is if they stopped a nuclear attack in a major city. And I’m going to go ahead and say that the burden of proof on them is pretty heavy for something like that.

If you bust six guys drinking beer and talking about nuking LA, you probably didn’t save that many people. If, however, you bust six guys drinking beer and talking about nuking LA… and they have a dozen gas centrifuges in the basement enriching uranium, they’re still miles away from nuking LA, but at least you can make the case that you saved a crapload of lives by busting them.

Take note, I’m not at all against going after potential terrorists. I’m just against using numbers so carelessly that they lose their meaning. The “hundred thousand lives saved” is, as Kevin Godlington stated on the show, lunacy.

As a side note, Kevin Godlington is one of Red Eye’s best contributors. He is a British veteran who provides remarkable insight on the show and also works with military charities to help British and American soldiers deal with combat stress. I’ve had a couple people ask if they could donate to help my pro bono work here. If you’ve ever thought of doing so, donate to Kevin’s charity instead.