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Stats, Damned Stats, and Sanity

who paid, and who says?

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, February 20, 2013.

I have no proof, but I'm guessing the United States is the nation most concerned with and dependent upon statistics, especially social stats. We track everything. One of the reasons we're sometimes thought the most violent nation is that we have good police stats and require those in domestic disturbances to be charged, while in much of the world police can't be bothered and they aren't tabulated.

Increase in the appearance of detail often conceals truth. Thanks to Ward Churchill, more people are aware now that heavily notated texts are not proof of truth nor indicative of actual work. So, in this sparkling mood, I read that four of the happiest cities in the United States are in Colorado. Longmont, Boulder, Lafayette, and Ft. Collins. I'm rather happy, myself, and I love Boulder, so I find nothing to contradict. Like many similar and dubious ratings of late, the sadder states are Red States in the south, the happier states in the north, Maine being the happiest state of us all. Louisiana and Mississippi are the most morose, it seems, but after all: where do the Blues comes from?

This long overdue and crucially necessary research was obtained by the University of Vermont and Twitter, that absolute finger on the pulse of our species. Apparently they chose key words as indicative of happiness or sadness and plugged in the data. Voila.

Americans long ago surrendered to statistics. Our national past-time, baseball, is a grease drain of a game, boring and slow. But it is a statistician's dream, and coverage of the sport is full of absolutely meaningless statistics and facts to help the audience supposedly understand what is going on, what they are listening to, what they are watching on the tube. They try to inflame rivalries between teams, this to increase public interest, and each broadcast will tally up the history of competition between the two ball clubs, who each have changed cities, perhaps coasts, team names, leagues, and thousands of players in a line so broken and mutilated that it's very ridiculousness exerts a sort of charm.

The most exciting thing about baseball in the last half century is not Reggie Jackson hitting the first pitch of three different pitchers for a home run in a single World Series game, although I think it arguably impressive. It's Moneyball, a movie about baseball statistics and how to use them to make the most of mediocre players you can afford on your pro team. Of course, the excitement was for one year only when the team utilizing it got as far as the early playoffs. Then, everyone started doing the same thing, we're told, and nothing actually has changed. If Brad Pitt hadn't been in it, who'd have watched it?

But all advertising and statistics are paid for by entities so devoid of objectivity and often sanity - including but hardly especially governments - that no announced completion of a study or research project ought to be treated as science, or even sensible. In fact, the very first thing that media should demand before publicizing these things is who paid for the study or project, and if hidden in corporate gossamer, track it down to the deep pockets. It doesn't matter that the study was paid for by a not for profit called Darling bunnies for healthy babies if the money emerged from the Koch brothers or Montgomery Burns or the Chinese nuclear industry. Or our own.

The last election showed a pronounced tendency to improve on this, and all to the good, and yet we still read about research and studies announcing results of import or nonsense with no clear idea if it means anything whatever.

To assist in your evaluation, keep the following in mind. The term 'scientist' is meaningless. Those on the right wing like to try and intimidate by declaring scientist Dr. Fraud Flake, of, say, MIT, has proven that climate change is a flaky fraud. He's a doctor and he works at MI T. His doctorate might be in English literature, though, and he has no more standing to criticize those scientists who specialize in climate than Kim Kardasian.

Unless the scientist's specific degree is appended, you can generally assume it's irrelevant to the tale at hand.

Right away, if you have accurate knowledge of who paid for the study, and this is included in the first paragraph, and weasel words like 'scientist' are replaced by 'nuclear physicist,' the value of the study can be more accurately assessed. And we will be spared conclusions like this one from the happy state survey: The researchers ...found that wealthy areas tended to have higher happiness levels and that areas with high rates of obesity has lower happiness levels.

Who would have thought?