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Monday, August 22, 2016

Protected Bike Lanes: North American Evidence?

This posting is just a place to make my critique publicly available to those locally who've requested it. It probably won't be of general interest.

The start

Mike,

If you have a chance could you take a look at these two reports and let me know if the statistical methodology looks right. I don’t need a full review or anything like that. I just don’t have any way of knowing if they really know what they are talking about. I believe that it is all the same data that both reports are working from.


When I inquired of ActiveTrans [Chicago-based Active Transportation Alliance, a bicycling / mass transit / pedestrian advocacy group] if there were peer reviewed studies supporting the safety of protected bike lanes, they sent me a link to the People for Bikes web page: http://www.peopleforbikes.org/statistics

When I looked at what they had on the safety of protected bike lanes I found lots of stuff about people “feeling” safer, and puff pieces and memos by advocates, but this single Canadian study seemed to be the only thing that approached rigor, I think.


Full citations for this study:

Harris, M. A., Reynolds, C. C. O., Winters, M., Cripton, P. A., Shen, H., Chipman, M. L., … Teschke, K. (2013). Comparing the effects of infrastructure on bicycling injury at intersections and non-intersections using a case–crossover design. Injury Prevention, 19(5), 303–310. http://doi.org/10.1136/injuryprev-2012-040561

Teschke, K., Harris, M. A., Reynolds, C. C. O., Winters, M., Babul, S., Chipman, M., … Cripton, P. A. (2012). Route Infrastructure and the Risk of Injuries to Bicyclists: A Case-Crossover Study. American Journal of Public Health, 102(12), 2336–2343. http://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2012.300762


My Comments

Here are some comments. Note that while I am a statistician, I work in marketing research, not transportation analysis.

This is really one study, with different parts of the analysis published in AJPH (2012) or BMJ (2013).
Case crossover is a very reasonable study design, although the relative risk factors in this case are less stable than they seem. A logistic regression model (equation 1) seems reasonable.

This is an exploratory study; note in table 4 of AJPH they report 14 significance tests, two ways (unadjusted, and adjusted) at the 5% level.  Five of the 14 confidence intervals show significance (unadjusted).  The results about the same for the adjusted (which is good), and to simplify the discussion I’m just going to consider the unadjusted.

The finding that jumps out at you is that .12  odds ratio (OR) for cycle tracks, and 88% reduction. That seems huge, but we need to look a bit more carefully at this.

1.       First of all, it’s NOT an 88% reduction. It’s an 88% reduction in the OR relative to the reference condition (major street, parked cars, no bike infrastructure).  But that particular condition is a relatively dangerous condition. It’s appropriate to run the study that way (you usually pick the largest condition as the reference condition), but it’s easy to say “88% reduction” while forgetting it’s NOT an 88% reduction overall, just to pretty much the most dangerous condition in their data.
For example, I might be only 10% more polite than the average person, but I’m 88% more polite than Donald Trump.

2.       The confidence intervals for all of infrastructure options overlap. There’s no statistical difference between any of these:
a.       Local street, no bike infrastructure
b.      Local street, designated bike route
c.       Local street, designated bike route with traffic calming
d.      Off street, sidewalk
e.      Off street, multiuse path paved
f.        Off street, multiuse path unpaved
g.       Bike path
h.      Cycle track (i.e. protected bike lane)

This is because the confidence intervals overlap. The tests show that some of these are different than the reference condition (major street, parked cars, no bike infrastructure), and some are not.  It is true that this overlapping intervals method I’m using is only approximate, but the overlap is pretty large.  Interpreting these non-differences as differences is a common statistical reasoning error. See, for example,
Gelman, A., and Stern, H. (2006), “The Difference Between ‘Significant’ and‘Not Significant’ is Not Itself Statistically Significant,” The American Statistician,60, 328–331.

3.       The cycle track difference is pretty frail.  From table 4, there are 2 accidents on cycle tracks, 10 non-accidents on cycle tracks (the control observations). While they fit a logistic model using the overall data, we can best see why this is a frail result by considering this as a binomial, like a coin flip.  Because of the way the case crossover design works, we could expect the same number of accidents and non-accidents on cycle tracks, e.g. a 50-50 split.
a.       With 12 observations and a 50% expectation, we would expect 6 and 6, but just like a coin flip we would probably see a result that varied.  A 2-10 split is (as reported) statistically reliable, but just barely so. 3-9 would not be (one more accident). 2-9 would not be (one fewer control in a cycle track).  So, if we change ONE OBSERVATION in either direction, we have NO STATISTICALLY SIGNIFICANT EFFECT AT ALL for cycle tracks. 
b.      Since the control segment reflects a random choice by the investigators, it’s just luck that they picked 10, rather than 9, control segments on cycle tracks.  (In fact, doing a rough calculation there’s about a 45% chance of picking 9 or fewer controls and getting no significant effect at all.)
c.       In short, there’s a good chance this 88% reduction has some type M error in it (actual magnitude, if we were to do a bunch of similar studies, would be far less than 88%).  Again, I want to emphasize that this does NOT mean the investigators did anything wrong in their reporting or analysis.

4.       There are a couple of other quirks in this study. The accident risk was NOT higher at  intersections (OR = .96, nonsignficantly lower), which I don’t think is a normal finding. I’m used to thinking intersections are much, much more dangerous than non-intersections; I’m  pretty sure that was John Forester’s analysis. But I no longer have a copy of Effective Cycling.
 Note in the BMJ article they analyze intersections and non-intersections separately.

The BMJ article uses the same data, but different controls – in fact, for some cases they use multiple controls for the same case; it’s not clear to me how  they adjusted for this non-independence, and it’s clearly harder for me to do the approximate binomial calculations. (not saying they did anything odd, just that it’s not clear how they handled the cross-case dependence).  In the BMJ article, cycle track is statistically significant for non-intersections, but not for intersections. But there aren’t any cycle track accidents at intersections here, so we’re out of data. 

Overall: it’s a pretty good study, and seems to have paid careful attention to definitions, etc.  But it’s only one study, and the cycle track result seems to depend on the choice of a single, random control case.  Not much of a platform to spend millions of infrastructure money on, if that’s all we’ve got.

And, given the small data size, they obviously couldn’t distinguish the type of barrier used on the cycle track (curb, bollards, or parked cars).

SLIGHT ADDENDUM:  Instead of looking at the binomial as 2-10 versus 6-6 expectation, we could compare the observed proportion of accidents (2 out of 690) with the observed population of controls (10 out of 690). In this case, 2-9 is still significant, 2-8 is not, so this depends on a change in the random picking of 2 controls, not one.  That’s about a 33% chance, not a 46% chance.  But the general notion that this is a fragile result is still true – because it depends on a carefully constructed, but still small, data set.

Evanston


I think part of the impetus for asking me to look at this was the current controversy over a protected bike lane on Dodge in Evanston, IL  

In this case, a protected bike lane (with parking on the left, curb on the right) has replaced a regular bike lane (with traffic on the left, parking on the right).  I have not been on Dodge since the change, and can't comment on this particular case.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Basic Laws of Human Stupidity

Randy Cassingham of This is True included this recently:

In recent reading, I’ve stumbled on a paper by Carlo M. Cipolla. An Italian, Cipolla taught economic history at the University of California at Berkeley, and proposed “The [Five] Basic Laws of Human Stupidity”:
  1. Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.
  2. The probability that a certain person will be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.
  3. A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.
  4. Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular, non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places and under any circumstances to deal and/or associate with stupid people always turns out to be a costly mistake.
  5. A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.
“Our daily life is mostly made of cases in which we lose money and/or time and/or energy and/or appetite, cheerfulness and good health because of the improbable action of some preposterous creature who has nothing to gain and indeed gains nothing from causing us embarrassment, difficulties or harm,”

Cipolla wrote in the explanation of the 3rd law. “Nobody knows, understands or can possibly explain why that preposterous creature does what he does what he does*. In fact there is no explanation — or better, there is only one explanation: the person in question is stupid.”

The fifth law has a corollary: A stupid person is more dangerous than a bandit. (Because a thief at least has motives, even if you don’t agree with them.)

It’s all spelled out in his short paper: The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity
It's a fun essay, not to be taken too seriously.  But there is a puzzle here with the second law. Cippola writes:

Whenever I analyzed the blue-collar workers I found that the fraction s of them were stupid. As s's value was higher that I expected (First Law), paying my tribute to fashion I thought at first that segregation, poverty, lack of education were to be blamed. But moving up the social ladder I found that the same ration was prevalent among the white collar employees and among the students. More impressive still were the results among the professors. Whether I considered a large university or a small college, a famous institution or an obscure one, I found that the same fraction s of the professors are stupid. So bewildered was I by the results, that I made a special point to extend my research to a specially selected group, to a real elite, the Nobel laureates. The result confirmed Nature's supreme powers: s fraction of the Nobel Laureates are stupid. 
What? Some Nobel Laureates are stupid? There could be at least two factors in play here.

The first is that we humans have areas of expertise and areas of non-expertise, which is where we are stupid. I didn't say ignorant, I said stupid.  I am ignorant of the inner workings of a modern car engine. I would be stupid if I tried to make a major repair myself.

But smart people make this mistake all the time. Thinking they are smart, they express opinions in areas far outside their area of study. Academics, who tend to be experts in narrow areas, are particularly prone to this.

The second is Lawrence J. Peter's Peter Principle: people rise to their level of incompetence.

A junior employee does a superb job, so they get promoted to a job they do very well. So they get promoted to a job  they do well. Then they are promoted to a job they are competent at. Finally, based on that long track record, they are promoted to a job that is beyond their capabilities.

So, you start out smart in an organization, but can easily end up incompetent, which is so close to stupid you can't tell much difference.

Thus, with the help of these two phenomena, we can see how there can be stupid people distributed everywhere.



Wednesday, August 10, 2016

TV changes

I was intrigued by a bit of clickbait that said "What TV show was #1 the year you were born?"

But it was depressing to see that they only provided information beginning 10 years after I was born. I felt instantly older.

So, I decided to look further.  One of the interesting things I found was how different the top shows are from what's on TV now.

Let's take the oldest ratings I could find, for the 1950-51 season, from http://fiftiesweb.com/tv/tv-ratings/.
We see actual TV plays here at the top -- a genre that's disappeared.  Each week there would be a different play, unconnected to what was shown the week before.  There's a couple of comedy-variety shows (not many of these any more), one western, and Talent Scouts, a distant cousin to "The Voice" and "America's Got Talent".

If we move forward to 1958-59 we see the dominance of the Western:
Except for the Danny Thomas sitcom, all off these top shows are Westerns -- a genre that's pretty much disappeared from prime time TV now.  (Arguably, The Real McCoys was more of a rural sitcom.)

Even those of us who lived through these days tend to remember best what's still shown on TV. Those are mostly sitcoms: I Love Lucy, Mayberry RFD, The Brady Bunch, and so on.

In terms of drama shows from that era, the one that comes first to mind is The Twilight Zone. Twilight Zone is still shown on reruns, and deservedly fondly remembered.  But it never shows up in the ratings of top shows. Despite its prominent effect on popular culture later, it wasn't much respected at the time.

Mike Wallace asked [Rod Serling] a question illustrative of the times: "...[Y]ou're going to be, obviously, working so hard on The Twilight Zone that, in essence, for the time being and for the foreseeable future, you've given up on writing anything important for television, right?"

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Advertising a product you don't want people to buy

A friend sent me this link to a bunch of slick-looking automobile posters. These are from Tascen's Automobile Design Graphics, which has 500 car advertisements across eight decades.

One of the fascinating ads here is the one for the '67 Falcon.
There's a tricky problem advertising a product you really would prefer people don't buy (because you'd rather sell them a more expensive model).
So you have a plain product shot. Relative to the others on this page, it looks dorky. And it's for a guy who can't afford to take the family somewhere nice, or at least cruise around Mulholland Drive -- the best you can do is take them out to pick flowers in a field.

If you were a real man, you'd get a Mustang!  Look around the showroom and spend some bucks, man!

Similarly, compare the wimpy guy in this non-alcoholic beer commercial with the typical macho babe-magnet beer commercial:
Are they trying to sell O'Douls, or are they really trying to un-sell you?


Now just above the Falcon ad you have the 1957 VW bug ad. That's another cheap car, but that's the only car VW had on the US market at this time, so they aren't worried about downselling you. You can feel the excitement in this illustration, although in a real VW beetle you'd mostly feel bumps  The Volkswagen advertising in the 1950s and 1960s was some of the best advertising ever.


Now, the expert commentary on the Falcon ad says this was an ad aimed at women -- e.g. as a car to take the kids to school in, etc. That makes some sense.  But note that the ad still can't bring itself to actually have the woman drive the car. In those days, women only drove cars when the husband wasn't in the car.


Wednesday, August 03, 2016

2016 Election: More times I was wrong

I hesitate to make any comment on the 2016 presidential election, because I have been pretty much wrong so far.

1. Like nearly all pundits, I didn't expect Trump to have much staying power, and I figured he would be a distant, comic memory by summer of 2016. 



And there I am posting in April, that I was wrong.  I find it useful to look back and see where I have been wrong. It's good for the humility, and also helps you listen to others -- they might be right!

But we can go further.
2. I didn't expect Hillary Clinton to run. I figured she would explore the situation, but figure it wasn't worth the hassle.  She'd have to endure a likely FBI inspection of her emails. She'd have to listen to Benghazi endlessly. Republicans have had that store of attack information from 2008 safely stored away, and have added to it.  Her record as secretary of state? Not much to run on. There's still much terrorism, the Arab Spring has only made the unrest in the Arab world worse. It's not that these things are necessarily her fault, but then there's not much to brag about either.  There's the sleaziness of the Clinton Foundation donations from foreign governments.  

Who needs to listen to these things when you could have a nice, well-earned retirement? But like Gollum and the ring of power, she just can't give it up.

3. I was wrong in thinking dear Bernie Sanders would make a serious run at Hillary. I supported Bernie, but was pleased / surprised that so many others did.

But the fact that Bernie had such a strong campaign does point out that Hillary Clinton isn't much of a campaigner. If she was, she would have wiped out Bernie quickly -- and, in fact, would have been both nominated and elected in 2008.  And she would easily be much ahead of Trump now.  If she loses to Trump, she will clearly be in the running for the worst campaigner ever, although it's not clear exactly how one would measure that.  

But that's not what I came here to say.

So, what do I want to say? Let's start with some bullet points.

1. The RNC (Republican National Convention) was a dark, negative view of America.  The DNC was much more optimistic. You could even view them as polar opposites, as this editorial cartoon does:

2. Over the last decades, nearly all the increase in wealth has gone to the 1%, and a lot of the rest to those just under the 1% as the upper middle class expands

3. As to the rest of Americans, they aren't getting richer. The good union manufacturing jobs are shrinking. The decline of fixed benefit pensions make the future unsure. Their children aren't going to be better off than they are, and many of them are less well off than their parents. 

4. Hillary and the Democrats really don't offer much here. The bipartisan support for trade legislation over the last generation (NAFTA, etc.) is now a whipping boy. Obamacare was a noble effort, but is likely to collapse due to poor design as premiums take large hikes next year.

5. Trump channels these disaffected (largely white male) people. It's not that Trump has helped them in the past (preferring immigrants for his hotels and bullying suppliers) or that he has a plan for the future (other than "I can fix it" bluster). Might as well believe in the tooth fairy.  It's easy to scapegoat Mexicans, Muslims, women, and the whole spectrum of Trump insultees, but that really doesn't get us anywhere.  

6. So, if you are one of those many Americans who feel squeezed, you're being pandered to by a bullying, clueless narcissist on the one hand, and a party whose convention features all those groups you blame on the other. 

    That's a real bleakness of this election for many.

     And it's not going away soon. Anyone who believes either bullying billionaire Trump or Hillary, darling of Wall Street will do anything meaningful about income redistribution is a dreamer.

     One of the things people feel most squeezed about is emergency medical bills and/or large health insurance premiums.  Both these could be solved by a single payer system such as Canada, Britain, France, etc. have (albeit with higher tax rates). We should be talking about how to transition to such a plan -- a very tricky endeavor from where we are now.  But instead we see mostly carping about Obamacare (not trying to fix it) with some alternative proposals,but none that are very specific.

That's pretty predictable given the strong vested interests among drug companies, insurance companies, hospital companies and other corporate entities dependent on the dysfunctional status quo. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Social media shaming

As an example of social media shaming, a friend posted this on Facebook this evening:
Now I don't like Trump either, but this bit of syndicated shaming from Occupy Democrats isn't likely to improve the political dialogue at all.

And we all know that Republicans have been preparing piles of dirt for Hillary Clinton for years. 

Shame versus Guilt

A Facebook friend posted a link to David Brooks article on The Shame Culture.  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/15/opinion/the-shame-culture.html?mwrsm=Facebook&_r=0

Brooks is publicizing an argument made by Andy Crouch in Christianity Today. "From online bullying to Twitter takedowns, shame is becoming a dominant force in the West....Typically carried out by anonymous online users with axes to grind and little to lose, doxxing involves making someone’s private information public. That includes home addresses, phone numbers, financial histories, medical records—anything that can be found in the endless databases available to canny hackers.
Doxxing can be a drive-by prank on most anyone who draws attention. But more often its targets are singled out for humiliation....
Brooks summarizes:
Crouch starts with the distinction the anthropologist Ruth Benedict popularized, between a guilt culture and a shame culture. In a guilt culture you know you are good or bad by what your conscience feels. In a shame culture you know you are good or bad by what your community says about you, by whether it honors or excludes you. In a guilt culture people sometimes feel they do bad things; in a shame culture social exclusion makes people feel they are bad.
Crouch argues that the omnipresence of social media has created a new sort of shame culture.


But is this quite right?

I would put it a little differently than Brooks or Couch.

The classic argument is that we lost the ability to be a shame culture when we moved from rural areas and small towns to big, anonymous cities where either nobody knew us OR if they shamed us we could easily find another group of friends (easier than living in a town of 200, for example).

 I think it's possible that we've lost both guilt and shame, by and large. The move from absolutes to relatives cuts down on guilt, and I explained shame above. In certain aspects we have a greed culture -- what's best for me, which is inherently socially isolating.

Perhaps this is part of the decline in religious observance in the West -- guilt, shame and fear (of Hell) were major factors in sustaining religious observance.

Honor-Shame evolving into Fame-Shame


But now, having thought a bit more about Crouch's argument, I'm more sympathetic to his point -- that in social media communities such as Facebook, we have created an arena in which we can be shamed by information we have shared (or videos that have been taken of us, etc.) Rather than being born into a small-town community, we signed onto it.

But on Facebook, we're being shamed by idiots, rather than the classic small-minded small-town people -- usually good people with a different/narrower point of view.

And instead of the opposite of shame being honor (external) or self-esteem (internal), "large parts of our culture are starting to look something like a postmodern fame-shame culture."

Fame is, of course, much different than honor.

Is shame good for us?

Here Couch and Brooks disagree:

Couch sees an opportunity:
“Honor–shame dynamics are intrinsic to the gospel,” missionary executive Werner Mischke told the ION attendees, “not just a lens we put on to make the gospel understandable to oral cultures. When we read the Bible’s emphasis on honor and shame, we are taking our Western lenses off to see what’s actually there.”
Brooks isn't so happy about the return of shame:
 The guilt culture could be harsh, but at least you could hate the sin and still love the sinner. The modern shame culture allegedly values inclusion and tolerance, but it can be strangely unmerciful to those who disagree and to those who don’t fit in.
I'm more with Brooks on this in my current thinking. I see polarization causing a lot of harm in the U.S. -- where we tend to just listen to people and sources that agree with us, which isolates our thought and gives power to that thought -- we dare not disagree with these people and sources, or we will become shamed.

Thursday, March 03, 2016

Politics as unusual, 2016

For Lent, I decided to give up political posting on Facebook.  No posts, no liking other posts, no comments on the political posts of others, no matter how much they need my advice ;)

This has been a hard vow to keep.

But I keep reminding myself that with all the heat, there's relatively little convincing being done by Facebook posts and tweets.

Do pro-Bernie posts make others "Feel the Bern"? Do those comments wondering how Bernie is going to convince a Republican Congress to do anything have any negative effect on Bernie supporters? [especially those who realize that it was a Republican House that wasted all that time trying to impeach Bill Clinton, and is hardly composed of Hillary fans]

The endless posts attacking and parodying Trump don't seem to be having much impact so far. Seems to be more proof that "There's no such thing as bad publicity." (P.T. Barnum)  I don't understand it. I predicted last summer that Trump would be only a distant memory by the summer of 2016 -- sort of like remembering what year Howard Dean was the temporary frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. You have it here in writing: I WAS WRONG.

The pro-Hillary posts seem determined to emphasize the least persuasive arguments for me (an older white male).

  • Hillary is inevitable so Bernie should just get out. 
  • We wouldn't be asking the same questions of Hillary if she were male.
I don't find either the argument that she is inevitable or the argument that I'm a mysogynist particularly persuasive in getting me to be a Hillary supporter.

I've yet to see a positive post about Cruz in my newsfeed.  I see positive posts from my friends about Bernie, Hillary, Rubio, Trump, Kasich, Carson, and even Lindsay Graham. But I have yet to see a positive post about Cruz, except a couple that basically say "He's odious, but better than Trump." 

But I digress. My month away from the US in January and my current vow of silence make me realize that we're all just posting to ourselves on Facebook, and we're unlikely to be convincing anyone.  

To the extent that we are reading these things, I think I am like many of my friends in finding the political discourse on social media profoundly depressing.  Is this the 2016 candidates, or something about social media, or both? Or maybe we're just here at this point now: 
and with March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, and early November still to go!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Top 10 reasons my daughter (and I) are both better than Santa

In 2008, I wrote the post below, waiting for my daughter to come home from college for Christmas. Now I'm waiting for her and her husband to drive in from Vermont, but the sentiment is still the same (and my daughter has responded in kind).  Merry Christmas!

When I was a small child, I waited for Santa to come.
Now, I’m waiting for my youngest daughter Abby to come back from college.
This is a big improvement, because Abby offers several advantages over Santa.

TOP 10 REASONS ABBY IS BETTER THAN SANTA

1. Abby won’t come down the chimney, so there’s no risk of needing an emergency rescue team.
2. Abby can spread sunshine and joy the whole year around, not just at one time of the year.
3. Abby’s willing to play Monopoly or Risk or Rummicube, unlike Santa.
4. Abby doesn’t abuse animals, such as reindeer, by making them work too hard.
5. Abby will help take down the Christmas decorations. Santa’s never any help.
6. You can reach Abby on a cell phone, at least sometimes.
7. It may be a tossup comparing Santa’s “Ho, Ho, Ho” and Abby’s laugh with a snort occasionally thrown in. I’ll go with Abby on this.
8. Abby’s name can’t be re-arranged to spell “Satan”.
9. Abby’s better to talk about bikes with.
10. Santa’s hair always looks the same. Abby provides more surprises. Will it be blue? Pink? Shaved off?

ABBY'S REPLY: Top ten reasons dad is better than santa:


1. He provides year-round puns, Santa just writes a couple in dad's handwriting once a year


2. "Ho ho ho" is not nearly as good as jumping up and down shouting "BONUS BONUS BONUS" for reasons neither of us can remember

3. Nothing better than his full bodied laughter when I try to convince whimbly not to poop in the neighbor's yard (especially when my tactic is yelling "DONT POOP DONT POOP" as loud as possible).

4. Santa may be clever to visit all those houses, but nothing beats the satisfaction of teaming up with siblings to prevent Dad from trading sheep for wood and land locking him in traders of Catan (no houses HERE, DAD).

5. Santa doesn't go on long walks and up my step counts with me

6. Nothing like family photos full of rabbit ears (this includes Beth Kranders)

7. Santa eats all the milk and cookies. dad "accidentally" makes wrong turns and winds up at the ice cream store.

8. dad drinks all the beer i dont want to, and leaves all the nice light beers for me.

9. I can reach dad on the phone, sometimes

10. Nothing like forgetting to call dad in a while and checking your messages to him singing "Oklahoma" loudly and out of breath in the middle of a train station

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Looks like daughter #2 turned out OK


Providence, Permissions, and Probability


This is a work in progress, but I want to get some thoughts down.

A traditional Christian view is that things in the world occur according to God’s providence.

Here's a theological definition: Providence is the means by which God directs all things — both animate and inanimate, seen and unseen, good and evil — toward a worthy purpose, which means His will must finally prevail. http://www.oneplace.com/ministries/thru-the-bible-with-j-vernon-mcgee/read/articles/providence-is-the-hand-of-god-11044.html

Often there’s an activist view of Providence.

Providence means that the hand of God is in the glove of human events. When God is not at the steering wheel, He is the backseat driver. He is the coach who calls the signals from the bench. Providence is the unseen rudder on the ship of state. God is the pilot at the wheel during the night watch. As someone has said, "He makes great doors swing on little hinges." God brought together a little baby's cry and a woman's heart down by the River Nile when Pharaoh's daughter went to bathe. The Lord pinched little Moses and he let out a yell. The cry reached the heart of the princess, and God used it to change the destiny of a people. That was providence. That was the hand of God.  (same source)

So why do bad things happen to good people? Why is there evil in the world? God permits this to happen (permission) for various reasons, depending on the particulars of one’s theology.  In particular, bad things may happen to us so that we may become better for the experience.

God can allow bad things to happen to good people in order to teach them lessons, to discipline them, to improve their character, to encourage them to depend on Him, etc. We know from the Scriptures that nothing occurs without God's permission (Ephesians 1:11). We also know that God is good, so we must conclude that He allows bad things to occur because they are according to His sovereign plan, and ultimately it will work out for good--especially for those who love Him (Romans 8:28). https://carm.org/why-do-bad-things-happen-good-people

So, we might deserve it due to our past sins, or it may be sent to teach us a lesson. But what lesson?  Isn’t it hard enough to deal with the disaster that’s befallen us without trying to figure out how we might have deserved it, or trying to figure out what lesson we are to be learning?

Clearly in the Old Testament we have the idea that God’s providence leads to positive outcomes for those who live a good life, and negative outcomes for those who do not lead a good life.
10 The righteous shall rejoice when he seeth the vengeance: he shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked.
11 So that a man shall say, Verily there is a reward for the righteous: verily he is a God that judgeth in the earth. (Psalm 58)

In our time, this can lead to abominations, such as the prosperity gospel

Prosperity theology (sometimes referred to as the prosperity gospel, the health and wealth gospel, or the gospel of success)[A] is a religious belief among some Christians that financial blessing is the will of God for them, and that faith, positive speech, and donations (possibly to Christian ministries) will increase one's material wealth. Based on non-traditional interpretations of the Bible, often with emphasis on the Book of Malachi, the doctrine views the Bible as a contract between God and humans: if humans have faith in God, he will deliver his promises of security and prosperity. Confessing these promises to be true is perceived as an act of faith, which God will honor. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prosperity_theology

The flip side of the prosperity gospel is, of course, that if you are poor or sick, it’s your own fault.

Not falsifiable

The providence / permission theological view is similar to many systems of theology in that it is not falsifiable – there is no conceivable set of circumstances which the theory will not fit. It might not fit them well, but it will fit them.  Not all such non-falsifiable theories are theological: similar criticisms have been made of Freudian psychology and string theory in physics.

In terms of science, if it can’t be falsified it can’t be supported, either. That’s why it’s called faith.

Probabilistic interpretation of reality

We can make an alternative interpretation in terms of probability theory. We can think of the universe as being set up in a certain way (e.g. by God) so that certain things happen probabilistically.

Let’s look at an example from my own life.  In 1985, my wife and I had a child that lived only 28 days due to a rare birth defect, trisomy 18.  Trisomy 18 occurs about 1 in every 6,000 births.

One can conceive of this as providence/permission, in which case God has chosen to have this happen to us. Why? To test us? To make us better people? There is no clear answer to this. If God was trying to make a point, it wasn’t clear at all. 

One can also conceive of this as a random, probabilistic event. There is no particular meaning to this being our child, and our cross to bear, other than the fact that this happens 1/6000 of the time and unfortunately it was us.  This is similar to buying a lottery ticket and winning – not because providence/permission intended you to win, but because of random chance.

In my case, thinking of our child as being a random event was liberating.  I could use this as a learning experience, as a chance to grow, as an opportunity to be of service to my family, without trying to figure out some deep inner meaning that I might never find out.

Willful Ignorance

These views of providence/permission and probability may seem inconsistent, but they are not necessarily so.  In Herbert Weisberg’s book Willful Ignorance:The Mismeasure of Uncertainty he notes that making probability judgments involves putting events into classes. So we can make a class of births and a class of Trisomy 18 births and compare the size of the two classes in order to come to a probability.  The willful ignorance part comes from the fact that in putting these events into classes, we ignore the differences between the individual events.  We put all Trisomy 18s in a class, regardless of individual differences in the individual births, in order to measure the size of the class.

We might draw the classes up differently. We might look at female births and male births, and female Trisomy 18s and male Trisomy 18s and get somewhat different probabilities (because females with Trisomy 18 are more common), but we are still showing willful ignorance in putting these events into classes in order to determine a probability.

Note that by using such willful ignorance (and putting things into the right classes) we gain new knowledge about what will probably happen under some circumstances.  But only probably happen – not certainly happen.

Not Necessarily Inconsistent

Here’s how we could resolve the apparent inconsistency:  to us, things may appear to occur randomly, with a certain probability.  This may be because they actually are random, or because they aren’t random, but we can’t see what’s really happening.

Weisberg uses the example of a roulette wheel, where each number on the wheel has a 1/38 chance of being the number. A roulette wheel is a random process, with the probabilities of occurrence clear.
Suppose, though, there was a genius who figured out a way to make the ball go into a specific slot, so he or his confederate could always win.  But, in order not to make the casino suspicious, he picked his random winning numbers using a random number table, so he would decide “this time it is going to land in 7” and then “this time it is going to land on 25”.  In this case, he would be perfectly in control, but the results would look random to both the casino and the other players.  In this case, we have the genius controlling (providence/permission) but our best interpretation of this roulette universe would be that it is random.

That’s the key sentence there: our best interpretation of the world may be that it is random, within certain rules. One in 6000 births is a trisomy 18.  1 in X people will get lung cancer – a higher probability if you smoke, but still possible even if you don’t smoke. By now smoking, we are just improving our odds.

This finds an echo in the New Testament in Romans:. “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” (Romans 11:34).  Or, much earlier, Isaiah: “Who can fathom the Spirit of the LORD, or instruct the LORD as his counselor?” (Isaiah 40:13) But, of course, the probabilistic view does not require there to be a religious interpretation.  Things could be random or from completely natural causes. A religious interpretation isn't falsifiable.

The probabilistic view at first seems cold and hard, but I don’t think it is.  It seems better to me than to have good people try to figure out why God sent some bad thing their way, which seems an awful lot like blaming the victim, just as the Prosperity Gospel blames the poor for being poor.

A Clockwork Universe?

At this point, you might think this is similar to the clockwork universe of Laplace and Newton.

Laplace next stated his conception of a deterministic universe, arguing that blind chance, or fortune, is only “an illusion of the mind.” He subscribed to the principle of sufficient reason, according to which “a thing cannot occur without a cause which produces it.”

Weisberg, Herbert I. (2014-06-23). Willful Ignorance: The Mismeasure of Uncertainty (Kindle Locations 5158-5160). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

Laplace made many developments in probability theory, regarding probability as a way to approach our lack of complete understanding of causes.

But, after the development of quantum theory we now think Einstein was wrong when he contended God does not play dice with the world. At some subatomic level, things may indeed be probabilistic rather than deterministic.

Clockwork or not …

But this is a digression.  In personally interpreting the world around us, it does not matter much if the randomness is due to our limited understanding, or if the randomness is really there at the heart of the matter.

Nor does it matter much if bad things are truly probabilistic, or if there is a God whose inscrutable ways we cannot understand if behind it.  Bad things are best understood on a personal level as a probabilistic process, rather than God’s punishment or desire to teach us some lesson we can’t understand.  Learn from the experience, but don't try to figure out why you were picked. 


Saturday, December 19, 2015

Cheap time filler takes over media.

In a way, this is a golden age of publishing and the free press. "Freedom of the press" only meant you were free if you had a press. Now everybody does.  If I want to self-publish a book, I can so that easily at sites like Smashwords.  I can put this blog out there and, in theory, have it read by billions of people. I say "in theory" because I'm not sure my own family even reads it

But it's not a golden age of quality. The same few stories get endlessly repeated, then disappear, seldom to be followed up on.  It's like watching kindergarten soccer, where there's a scrum around the ball around all times, with few kids staying in position.

And, this time of the year, there is a proliferation of "year's best" lists.

Why? 

My theory is “cheap time filler”. Think of a 24 hour news channel, or a newspaper columnist now forced due to cutbacks to turn in more material per week. How to fill it?

A top 10 list doesn’t demand a whole lot of work — just review your own old stories, or Google “top Paraguayan vacation spots” and there you are — editor ready copy.

[I made up “top Paraguayan vacation spots” on a whim. But I did, in fact, Google “top Paraguayan vacation spots”. The second and third search returns were:
The Top 10 Things to Do in Paraguay 2015
The Top 10 Things to Do in Asuncion 2015]

My “cheap time filler” explains a lot about what’s on TV and other media these days. 

Celebrity coverage is cheap to produce. 

Sports opinion shows are cheap to produce (not the rights to the games themselves). 

Bemoaning Donald Trump is cheap to produce. Even getting Donald Trump on your show is cheap, and gets good ratings. 

Covering the latest poll results is cheap to produce. 

Having two “experts” yell over the top of each other is cheap to produce.

Investigative journalism? Coverage of foreign countries? Not so cheap.

Personally, the only time I made a “top 10” list is when I wrote my list of accomplishments for my annual personnel reviews, and only then because it was required. Do people who aren’t in the media actually make such lists?

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Lynching headlines

Jay Leno isn't doing "Headlines" on the Tonight Show any more.  He's missing the all-too-abundant headlines involving Attorney General Lynch, such as

Chicago Tribune, Wednesday December 16, 2015 page A17

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Intermission time at Illinois pension theatre

In our last episode, http://www.truncatedthoughts.com/2015/05/another-act-coming-to-illinois-pension.html  the Illinois Supreme Court had just struck down the pension agreement the legislature had pieced together.

This was no surprise.  That legislation was unconstitutional on its face and was mainly designed so the legislators could claim they had taken action, without actually accomplishing anything.

That was in May, 2015.  It's now December 2015. What's been accomplished in the last seven months?  Nothing.

The theatre this time involves the lack of a budget for the state of Illinois. Illinois is supposed to have a balanced budget beginning July 1, but we don't have a balanced budget or any budget at all.

Despite no budget, the rate of spending that's actually occurring will leave Illinois in the hole for the 2015-2016 fiscal year.

The attention on the budget story is a distraction from another seven months of failure to deal with the larger fiscal crisis.  It's more theatre.  Neither Rauner nor the legislature has to take the flak for actual activity. It's just more theatre.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Political pretending, pandering

Yes, we're all in a panic.

We're afraid of mass shootings, or just being shot by a stray bullet, period. That's pretty understandable.

Part of this is watching too much TV news. Now that I've moved into a condo and joined the fitness center next door, I often watch TV while I'm on the cardio equipment. Even watching Fox, CNN or the network news will scare you out of proportion.  And so much of it is just to fill air time with idiots speculating.  Probably more informative to watch Wheel of Fortune.

But I digress.  We are afraid.  So we have knee-jerk reactions


  • Ban all Muslim entry to the U.S.; maybe put the ones who are here into internment camps like we did the Japanese during World War II.
  • Build a fence; deport 11 million Mexicans
just to take two easy examples.

A moment's thought should be enough to disabuse one of the notion that these ideas are either desirable or workable.  So, I won't give another digression on that point.

Politicians who pretend they will do these things are pretending.  If elected, they might take a few steps along this way, but basically won't do it. They are just pandering to a base of people who they hope will elect them. 

Political pretending and pandering is as old as democracy, maybe older.  But in this particular case, it's causing a lot of harm to those outside the base, 

For example, it encourages the sort of microagressions that Muslim women face, e.g. http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/12/what-being-hijabi-really-like/ 

Hijabi women are consistently subjected to stares and pervasive microaggressions (subtle forms of discrimination, from strangers, friends, and co-workers).
In the past, I’ve been asked loaded and offensive questions: Strangers want to know if my father or husband forces me to wear the hijab or if I will be beaten for uncovering.
Even though I’ve lived in Texas my whole life, I’m often told I’m “exotic” and asked where I am “really” from. I frequently use the word “y’all” and don’t have an accent, but I still have to defend my right to be just as American as everyone else.
These questions can be harmless, a curiosity about the scarf I wear around my head, but they’re also constant reminders that I do not belong. I’m forever marked as an outsider.
It's in that sense that these actions are insidious.  To oversimplify our domestic mass killers, they tend to be young men who feel alienated.  (Another degression: young men feeling alienated covers perhaps a large majority of young men at some point in their time as young men.)  So, are we increasing this dangerous alienation among immigrants (and those whose grandparents were immigrants)?

How's that going to help? Answer: it isn't.

And it's always somebody else

 One of the major rules of tax politics is summarized in this doggerel:

Don't tax you,
Don't tax me,
Tax that fellow behind the tree.
So, by contending that what we need to do is act against Muslims or Mexicans, we're taking measures to counter American problems that will have minimal impact on us white folks.

This avoids realistic actions on gun control (which might make a dent in domestic terrorism and gang violence).

It avoids realistic discussions on privacy versus protection -- how much FBI, NSA (etc.) spying do we need to allow to protect ourselves? How much is just intrusion with few benefits and many costs?

It avoids trying to figure out what the heck our foreign policy should be in the future in the Middle East (and elsewhere).  Sure, we have messed up terribly for 15 years.  WHAT NOW? DO WE EVEN HAVE A CLUE?

Jingoistic slogans are not a coherent, executable policy.