09/21/14

No Data Are Better Than Bad Data


Avoid bias
The full name of an article I read today is, “The Fallacy of Online Surveys: No Data Are Better Than Bad Data.” It’s from 2010 and very good. You can find it on the Responsive Management website. It makes some key points about the invalidity of online surveys:

  • For a study to be unbiased, every member of the population under study must have an equal chance of participating.
  • When online surveys are accessible to anyone who visits a website, the researcher has no control over sample selection. These self-selected opinion polls result in a sample of people who decide to take the survey — not a sample of scientifically selected respondents who represent the larger population.
  • Non-response bias in online surveys is complicated by the most egregious form of self-selection. People who respond to a request to complete an online survey are likely to be more interested in or enthusiastic about the topic and therefore more willing to complete the survey, which biases the results.
  • Unless specific technical steps are taken with the survey to prevent it, people who have a vested interest in survey results can complete an online survey multiple times and urge others to complete the survey in order to influence the results.
  • Because of the inability to control who has access to online surveys, there is no way to verify who responds to them — who they are, their demographic background, their location, and so on.

I’ve said this all before. The article concludes:

As a result of these problems, obtaining representative, unbiased, scientifically valid results from online surveys is not possible at this time, except in the case of the closed population surveys, such as with employee surveys, described earlier. This is because, from the outset, there is no such thing as a complete and valid sample — some people are systematically excluded, which is the very definition of bias. In addition, there is no control over who completes the survey or how many times they complete the survey. These biases increase in a stepwise manner, starting out with the basic issue of excluding those without Internet access, then non-response bias, then stakeholder bias, then unverified respondents. As each of these becomes an issue, the data become farther and farther removed from being representative of the population as a whole.

There’s also a good slide show on internet surveys here that goes over the basics presented in the article above. A 2008 paper addressed just issue with online surveys: self-selection. The author, Jelke Bethlehem, wrote:

…web surveys are a fast, cheap and attractive means of collecting large amounts of data. Not surprisingly, many survey organisations have implemented such surveys. However, the question is whether a web survey is also attractive from a quality point of view, because there are methodological problems. These problems are caused by using the Internet as a selection instrument for respondents.
This paper shows that the quality of web surveys may be seriously affected by these problems, making it difficult, if not impossible to make proper inference with respect to the target population of the survey. The two main causes of problems are under-coverage and self-selection.

The author concludes:

It was shown that self-selection can cause estimates of population characteristics to be biased. This seems to be similar to the effect of nonresponse in traditional probability sampling based surveys. However, it was shown that the bias in selfselection surveys can be substantially larger. Depending on the response rate in a web survey, the bias can in a worst case situation even be more than 13 times as large.

In other words: most online surveys are bunk. You might also recall I wrote about online surveys in past posts. I won’t repeat what I said then, but here are the links to those posts:

09/20/14

The Unexamined Life


“The unexamined life,” Socrates declared in his trial, “is not worth living.” His student, Plato, wrote down those words in his account of Socrates’ trial and death, in the book, Apology.*

Socrates was speaking for himself and about the value of his life as a thinking person. He was on trial in 399 BCE for impiety – questioning the gods and introducing new gods – and corrupting youth. His real “crime” was his threat to established thought: he made his followers think, to question everything, to examine their beliefs and their knowledge and determine for themselves its validity. He taught them critical thinking and analysis – a dangerous new way to look at things. It shook the foundations of his society.**

And, of course, here is where Socrates’ approach conflicts with faith. Faith requires us to stop questioning and believe. Socrates exhorted his followers to question. His detractors stood on the firmament of faith. There was bound to be a clash.

The jury found him guilty and sentenced Socrates to death. But more than two thousand years later, Socrates words remain with us, are still repeated and debated today, while the members of the jury and their arguments are long forgotten.

As Stanford University’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes about Socrates, of course there were political undercurrents to his trial:

Socrates pursued this task single-mindedly, questioning people about what matters most, e.g., courage, love, reverence, moderation, and the state of their souls generally. He did this regardless of whether his respondents wanted to be questioned or resisted him; and Athenian youths imitated Socrates’s questioning style, much to the annoyance of some of their elders. He had a reputation for irony, though what that means exactly is controversial; at a minimum, Socrates’s irony consisted in his saying that he knew nothing of importance and wanted to listen to others, yet keeping the upper hand in every discussion. One further aspect of Socrates’s much-touted strangeness should be mentioned: his dogged failure to align himself politically with oligarchs or democrats; rather, he had friends and enemies among both, and he supported and opposed actions of both.

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09/18/14

Is the Internet making us stupid? Or just shallow?


Click the first
In my never-ending search for some bit of knowledge one day, during a mix-and-match of search engine terms while looking for classical writers’ views on death and dying, I stumbled onto what might have been an off-kilter New Age site, OM Times, or more likely, a parody of the genre. On the page titled “8 Things You Didn’t Know About Death,” I read,

“… light rays have qualities like wisdom, kindness, compassion and intelligence. This light makes visible what is invisible on earth, the Divine nature of all things….”

Loud guffaws broke the cool silence of the house and startled the cats sleeping on the dining room table nearby. Light rays have wisdom? Intelligence? I almost snorted tea through my nose I laughed so hard. It had to be a parody.

Codswallop almost always makes me laugh. At first. Then, as I perused the site more, I got worried at how much of it there was. A lot of effort put into a parody, it seemed. Do people actually believe this stuff? Or are all the New Age websites really satirical, like the Onion, making fun of popular beliefs, superstitions and fears?

Surely some of them must be poking us in the metaphorical ribs with a wink and a nudge. It’s hard to believe they’re serious when you check the other stories on this site. With articles headlined by lines like:

  • Are Your Loved Ones Sending You A Message From Beyond?
  • 10 Signs That You Were Born a Mystic
  • Top 10 Traits to Identify an Indigo
  • Numerology: September Forecast
  • The Science of Miracles
  • The 7 Most Common Messages from Spirits
  • My Life As an Earth Angel
  • Crystals For Reiki

You have to think they’re pulling your leg. And pulling it hard. None of this stuff is real; it’s all piffle; no one can take this malarkey seriously. Miracles? Numerology? Crystals? Just look at the opening of the story titled, “Travelling to the New Earth:”

There is a place beyond the Fifth Dimension where a new vision is taking shape, where mankind is getting a proverbial ‘do-over.’ This place is called ‘the New Earth.’ It exists in a dimensional space above the fifth dimension somewhere in the sixth and seventh dimensional areas accessible by meditation and through ‘stargates’ some of which are physical and some of which are energetic. Thus, many are able to visit the New Earth in meditation.
The New Earth is a high vibrational area where we all hope to live one day. It is free of fear and conflict. I am told it is the highest expression of Heaven on Earth or Shamballa.

I know, I know. I nearly laughed myself into a fit when I read that. There must be an app for creating winky New Age stories out there that lets you mix all the buzz words and goofy ideas together and come out with something that can be published here. This stuff makes Harry Potter read like a documentary.

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09/14/14

A Treasure Trove


AssholesA recent trip to Toronto to see family and friends – and celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary – also netted me a treasure trove of books, thanks to the proximity of a new/used BMV bookstore to our hotel. And, of course, Susan’s patience while I browsed the shelves. Several times.

I managed to find a dozen books (well, to be fair I found many more I wanted, but restrained myself to buying only a dozen). These included:

Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, by Tom Mueller (hardcover, Norton & Co., 2012). I actually started reading the paperback version of this book only last week and was immediately swept away by it. A rich story about politics, food, economics, travel, business, law, agriculture and culture, it deserves a post all on its own. I bought the second copy so I could share it with friends. This book has already changed the way I see not only olive oil, but the food industry in general – and it added a whole new dimension to my understanding of the economics of the Roman Empire. Of course, it helped to have my eyes (and taste buds) opened to authentic olive oil by the folks at the Collingwood Olive Oil Co.

Blandings, by P.G. Wodehouse (Arrow Books/Random House, 2012). Six of Wodehouse’s Blandings tales that were made into the recent BBC series. I discovered numerous other Wodehouse titles in paperback at the store, none of which I have read, and was torn: which to buy? All? Some? One? I settled on the one volume (in part because I plan to get the BBC series on DVD) but will return for more. Several more. I already have most of his Jeeves & Wooster writing, but not much of the rest (and yes, I have the BBC Jeeves & Wooster series on DVD, too).

The Dhammapada, translated by Gil Fronsdal (Shambala Library, 2008). A relatively new translation of the teachings of the Buddha, one that will be a companion to the other new translation I recently bought. I have several versions of this work and this might be the best and most accessible, but I must compare verses to see which offers me the strongest resonance. The Dhammapada is an essential book in my library; one of those irreplaceable books of wisdom. I had originally considered this title when I got the Wallis translation but decided on Wallis after reading some online reviews (you can read my comments about it here). I think I’ll post some verse comparisons in a future post.

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09/9/14

Our gawker culture


Gizmodo imageSuddenly the Net lit up with headlines news: celebrity nude photos leaked! Videos too! Facebook timelines were replete with media stories. Shock. Horror. Voyeurism. Click, click, click the viewers racked up the view count as they raced to the sites just in case they actually showed something. A little flesh to feed our insatiable desire to gawk.

Meanwhile psychopaths in ISIS continue to harvest human lives and slaughter journalists, Syria continues its brutal civil war, drought threatens the American southwest, climate change ravages the planet, Russia sends soldiers to undermine Ukraine and shoot down civilian airliners, pesticides continue to wipe out bee populations, Scotland’s referendum on separation looms, Ebola claims more lives in Africa, Al Queda expands its terror network in Asia, the Taliban continue their murder spree in Afghanistan…

All ignored while we look for photos of naked “celebrities.” Who needs to worry about terrorism, poverty, hunger, disease, who needs to ponder solutions to the world’s ills when we can look at tits and ass. And famous tits and ass at that.

Many web sites scrambled to share them as quickly as possible before threats of legal action forced their removal. And if not posting them, they posted links to the sites that did. The (recently updated) headline on Gawker reads, “J-Law, Kate Upton Nudes Leak: Web Explodes Over Hacked Celeb Pics.” and continues:

The list of celebrities whose nudes are supposedly in this cache includes Jennifer Lawrence, Avril Lavigne, Kate Upton, Lea Michele, and McKayla Maroney, and several of them—the photos, not the celebs—have begun to show up on various message boards across the internet.

What does this say about the society we’re created, that we are more drawn to a cheesecake than big, important, world-changing issues? (another Gawker story notes these photos have been circulating for a while in file-sharing sites…)

Our brave new online culture allows us to become a nation of anonymous peepers and stalkers. Gawkers who pursue the titillating, the trivial and the salacious; we consume the gossip and rumour eagerly. We revel in conspiracies and wild allegations, while rejecting facts, data and common sense. The highly-popular Gawker site, with its salacious gossip and celebrity trivia, is the perfect embodiment of our shallowness: it is the supermarket tabloid on steroids.

Who needs truth when you can have rumour and innuendo? Ah, haven’t we learned that in local politics already…

But why isn’t anyone asking: what were there nude pictures doing online in the first place?

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08/17/14

Inanity and vanity


Michel de Montaigne wrote in his usual self-deprecating but sardonic way:

If other men would consider themselves at the rate I do, they would, as I do, discover themselves to be full of inanity and foppery; to rid myself of it, I cannot, without making myself away. We are all steeped in it, as well one as another; but they who are not aware on’t, have somewhat the better bargain; and yet I know not whether they have or no.
Book 3, IX: Of Vanity

That chapter is one of his longer pieces in The Essays, and like most others in the collection, is not simply focused on the subject of the title, but meanders through several thoughts and observations that may not all seem related. In this case, he ponders on his estate, his old age, his government service, on writing (his own and that of others), his talents, his father, memory, friendship, travel, and more.

The quote above is from the 1877 edition, translated by Charles Cotton and edited by William Hazlitt. Donald Frame, in his 1957 translation, renders it as this, somewhat more clearly:

If others examined themselves attentively, as I do, they would find themselves, as I do, full of inanity and nonsense. Get rid of it I cannot without getting rid of myself. We are all steeped in it, one as much as another, but those whoa re aware of it are a little better of — though I don’t know.
Quoted in Bakewell: How to live; A Life of Montaigne.

I do not have the Screech translation yet, to compare this quotation with his rendition, but the book is on order from Amazon and should arrive next week. According to the New York Review of Books, it is more modern than Frame: “Despite Frame’s declared intention to be non-archaic, there are still traces of fustian in his style…” We’ll see if that’s true, when I get my hands on it.

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