Tina K. Russell

May 13, 2008

Western medicine

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Tina Russell @ 7:38 pm

Bad Science » Pools of blood

The earliest example of a cumulative meta-analysis is from 1981, in a paper which looked at the routine use of antibiotics during surgery to prevent infection. They showed, by doing a cumulative meta-analysis, that research had continued to be done for years after antibiotics had been shown to be effective, not only at preventing infections during operations, but also in reducing the death rate afterwards. Because this was missed, thousands of patients were randomly allocated to receive placebo control pills in studies, denied acccess to a treatment which was known to be effective, and many of them will have died unnecessarily, simply for the lack of a bit of clever number crunching.

Ideas like cumulative meta-analysis from the world of evidence have saved countless lives, and they could save many more. They are clever and they are fascinating. They are the same tools you hear rubbished by big pharma, by homeopaths, and by lobbyists from the $56bn food supplement industry. But you will never find them celebrated, anywhere, in popular culture.

I have to breathe deeply and count to ten when one of my liberal friends disparages “Western medicine” for its monolithic, overriding focus on getting better. I have to remember that, in all too many people’s minds, the corrupt American healthcare industry (which is bad) is tied in their minds with the basic concept of science (which is very, very good). Science saves lives, science teaches us about the world, science helps you live longer, science helps you live your life better and helps you connect with people you love.

A recent New York Times article, on how undocumented immigrants often have to turn to “traditional healers” for help, bugged me. I felt it underplayed the dangers of not having access to modern healthcare. Its more critical mistake, though, is that it romanticized the role of a sham doctor, one who may genuinely believe in what he or she does but nonetheless is an archaism that no resident of a developed country should be subjected to.

We may turn up our noses at what Stephen Colbert calls “Lab-Coat Larrys” and assume scientists are elitists out of touch with what ails us. But when we dismiss statistics as being incongruous with our personal experience, often we are sacrificing people’s lives at the altar of a romantic whim. That’s why I get angry when I hear about homeopaths or “energy healing” or see yet another acupuncture clinic spring up from the ether; they may be good placebos, certainly, but they’re still placebos, and placebos rely on deception, intentional or not. Their effectiveness as such does not absolve the practitioners of their crime: sowing mistrust, doubt, and misinformation about science, which inevitably leads to deaths down the line. They are “complementary” only in the sense that a lie “complements” the truth.

April 26, 2008

The Word Problem

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Tina Russell @ 9:30 pm

Study Suggests Math Teachers Scrap Balls and Slices – New York Times

Entranced, perhaps, by those infamous hypothetical trains, many educators in recent years have incorporated more and more examples from the real world to teach abstract concepts. The idea is that making math more relevant makes it easier to learn.

That idea may be wrong, if researchers at Ohio State University are correct. An experiment by the researchers suggests that it might be better to let the apples, oranges and locomotives stay in the real world and, in the classroom, to focus on abstract equations, in this case 40 (t 1) = 400 – 50t, where t is the travel time in hours of the second train. (The answer is below.)


Perhaps I hate word problems because, well, I’ve got ADD, and the time it takes to figure out what the problem is actually asking is plenty of time to be distracted by something shiny. But also, I’ve had math teachers–who are, incidentally, going to Hell–insist that “word problems need word answers,” and though I’m always willing to oblige a similar reciprocation in the case of the silly question, I think operating in the perfect, Platonic world of ideas is damn fine for all my math problems. I like keeping my math and my cutting prose separate, thank you.

Seriously, math class is time you need to practice, crunch numbers, get the concepts down, not time to indulge the teacher in romantic educational fantasies. If Mei Lin needs to plant a flower garden and wants to find its perimeter, I’ll assume that, as a corporeal being, she can figure it out her own damn self. Time I spend unwinding word problems is time wasted! And if teachers can’t read my scribbles–a mere half-fulfillment of the hallowed principle of “show your work”–they can screw themselves. I’m here to do math, not write feature articles on the process.

I once had a math teacher who had us keep a “math journal” outlining what we’re learning! We got points for laying it out nicely and…. GAAAH! I can’t take it any more!

Math teachers need to love math! If you don’t love math, don’t teach it! End of story! Goodbye!

March 31, 2008

What are the odds of that?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Tina Russell @ 7:38 pm

A Journey to Baseball’s Alternate Universe – New York Times

[Baseball’s] most mythic achievement is Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, a feat that has never come even close to being matched. Fans and scientists alike, including Edward M. Purcell, a Nobel laureate in physics, and Stephen Jay Gould, the evolutionary biologist, have described the streak as well-nigh impossible.

In a fit of scientific skepticism, we decided to calculate how unlikely Joltin’ Joe’s achievement really was. Using a comprehensive collection of baseball statistics from 1871 to 2005, we simulated the entire history of baseball 10,000 times in a computer. In essence, we programmed the computer to construct an enormous set of parallel baseball universes, all with the same players but subject to the vagaries of chance in each one.

To tease out the meaningful lessons from random effects (fluky streaks that happen by luck), we redid the whole thing 10,000 times. In each of these simulated histories, somebody holds the record for the longest hitting streak. We tabulated who that player was, when he did it, and how long his streak was.

And suddenly the unlikely becomes likely: we get a very long streak each time we run baseball history.

This is a very important statistical lesson: somebody has to have the longest hitting streak in baseball history, and it makes sense that it would be a talented player like DiMaggio. A similar logic plays into the “birthday problem”: most people would be surprised to know that, in a room of 23 people, there’s a slightly greater chance than not that two people have the same birthday. The thing is, when you turn that question around, it becomes: what are the odds that no two people share a birthday, that each person’s is unique? Then you realize that the odds are not one in ~365¼ (the chance that one person has a specific, arbitrary birthday), but more like one in two (the chance that someone in the room has anyone else’s birthday). These odds increase exponentially the more people you add, because more people means more birthdays and more possible birthday matches.

This is important because a lot of fallacious arguments are based on a loose understanding of statistics. (Here’s an example. Here’s another.) Remember that “unlikely” is not the same thing as “impossible,” and a curious statistic is not necessarily a definite trend.

March 13, 2008

One Nation, Unable to Divide

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — Tina Russell @ 6:35 pm

Report Urges Changes in Teaching Math – New York Times

Hear hear! Math lessons should indeed focus on teaching math. I’m completely serious when I say it’s a big problem that we’re veering away such practices as teaching students things and having them practice those things and become better at them. Say whatever you want for art or science or whatever, but for math, a standards-based, goal-oriented structure really is the best way to go.

That’s what I think, anyway.

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