Feet on the ground – head in the clouds.

The trouble with relying on statistics…

with 5 comments

Statistics can lie. In fact, all statistics are generated by studies funded by someone interested in finding something. Different research groups get together with an aim and, especially in the social sciences, they either publish all of their successes or abort the project. A bright line can be drawn between social scientists (including myself) and natural scientists. That particular science community is self-checking and one of the most reliable bodies of highly trained problem solvers on this planet. In the “debate” about global warming, how often are you presented with real studies of the issue, done by true scientists? I’ve heard some 3rd-degree evidence, such as the fact that Pluto is warming (and climate changes are being recorded on nearly every other planet in our solar system) and therefore our planet’s warming is not the result of human activity. This seems very convincing until you try to find actual studies, and the methodologies and findings from the study.

It is easy to find analysis and coverage (especially on talk radio) of these studies, but much more difficult to find and examine as a researcher. I am not claiming there aren’t a few scientific studies disproving global warming, but the media blitz set to dumb down and polarize the debate have done an incredible job. You could be led to believe that the debate is raging within the science community, and it’s really not. To what extent humans do negatively and can positively affect our planet is a debate, but the fact that humans have contributed to rapid degradation of some of our vital resources isn’t a question. Some environmentalist causes are complete nonsense, and so are some free market entrepreneurs’ money-making schemes. The point is to have the issues we do agree on sorted out and tackled first, let researchers argue over details and not put every cause and issue under the same umbrella.

A few points of the hype to avoid getting caught up in:

  • Al Gore’s theory of global warming – This is not one man’s theory, this is one man’s philanthropic goal and a majority of scientist’s viewpoint on climate change and the effects humans can have on the planet. If you’re attaching Al Gore’s name to everything Green, you’ve been swindled by someone. He’s involved, but he doesn’t get a cut of your tax credit for making your home more energy efficient.
  • Not every environmental issue is global warming – They shouldn’t even be billed as such, the umbrella of Green has put the stamp of sloganized consumerism all over anything remotely friendly for the environment. For example: if you think we can breathe for long on this planet after we’ve clear-cut every forest, you’re wrong. If you think we’ll cure many more diseases when the rain forest frog population has gone extinct. That isn’t to say we chain ourselves to trees, but stop the PR campaigns and admit what the agreed problems are, there are many.
  • Gas prices are about economics, not the environment – If you had 100 diamonds and only 3 people wanted to buy them, how would you go about maximizing your profit? If you now still have only 100 diamonds and thousands of people want them, would you leave prices the same? This is much the same as the gas price debacle. It has nothing to do with profiteering oil companies. If anything they take more risks being where they are in the Middle East and being liable for employees who need serious protection. This doesn’t make it right, but they aren’t gouging us during a war time. Something different is happening: India and China are developing. In the same way our population and way-of-ease exploded in the twentieth century, so are those of India and China as we speak. That means the teenagers of wealthy parents might be driving a car to school. That means more two-car homes. That means two countries with populations over a billion apiece have more drivers on the road. Demand goes up, prices go up. We need to eliminate our dependence on foreign oil and all fossil fuels if we are to stay ahead in this world. It’s the American thing to do.
  • This was all sparked by a blog by Charles Wheelan, an economist and columnist for Yahoo! discussing the problem with job conversion to overcome skill jobs lost overseas and due to a slumping economy, and his link to how a lack of education is part of the issue. I would say to Dr. Wheelan he’s accepted an incomplete idea when he looks at statistics like unemployment rate by education to justify his hypothesis, that we cannot use empty buildings and available labor workers to train and build a new green energy infrastructure.

    Although I generally agree with Dr. Wheelan, this just isn’t a very solid argument. His thought experiment can be considered another way: how many screw-ups do you know who still never lost their shot at a good job because of their situation at birth? How many hard-working people (or people at all) do you know in the poorest neighborhoods and rural areas in our country? Education is another indicator, a symptom maybe, but not the direct cause of anything. This argument falls flat at the point you realize pursuing an education (for some even beyond 8th grade) is not an equal opportunity. You can easily make it look like a race argument, but it’s truly just another sad testament to the shrinking middle-class. Here are my skillful questions:

  • Are standardized tests in wealthy, well-served schools the same as those in schools in the Phoenix area which do not have any maps in their history classrooms (except for the few instances where the teachers were able to provide one?
  • Are the common jobs people do around those same schools similar in any way? Is the school surrounded by Doctor’s and Dentist’s offices tested using the same material as those who walk by a Church’s chicken and a row of unused (except for the loitering junkies) office spaces?
  • Soon to come: my laundry list for improving our education system.


    5 Responses

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    1. “but [Al Gore] doesn’t get a cut of your tax credit for making your home more energy efficient.”

      Correct, but….I should research this further, but I believe that he owns or is on the board of directors of companies that collect money for ‘carbon credits’.

      “that we cannot use empty buildings and available labor workers to train and build a new green energy infrastructure.”

      I don’t see this as green issue, but simple economics – as a person gets wealthier, they outsource tasks, which is why they use gardeners, house cleaners, and eat in restaurants more often. We are becoming a nation that is, frankly, too wealthy to build some of our own stuff.

      Your standardized testing questions, however, are dead on. Inner-city students simply don’t see the possibilities of a good education like those in middle and upper class areas.


      April 13, 2008 at 12:34 am

    2. I’d see Al Gore being on the board as a sign he’s part of companies that are doing the right thing. But that would make it true, he would get some money. I think it’s Google and/or Apple, so high profile corporations anyway.

      I agree that outsourcing is simple economics, I welcomely accept creative destruction but I do like the idea of taking outsourced factories and converting them into alternative energy plants, helping decrease dependence on foreign oil and create a ton of jobs.

      I really am baffled at how Americans aren’t taking the climate change issue and turning it into a pro-jobs economic issue.


      April 13, 2008 at 12:59 am

    3. Pro-jobs? Not in what I’ve seen. Take ethanol. Ethanol is currently more expensive than gasoline, and is less efficient. The last time I priced this out for myself was a year ago, where the break-even point was gas at $6.75 a gallon. This doesn’t count the following:

      Ethanol (like most ‘green’ initiatives) is subsidized, so you pay more in taxes for green ‘stuff’, even if you don’t use it.

      Ethanol uses corn, raising the price, in turn raising the price of meat.

      So we get ‘green jobs’, which produce the same or less energy, for higher cost than oil/gas does now.

      Al Gore being on Google is one thing. Al Gore lobbying the government to use carbon credits, while personally profiting from the ‘carbon credit industry’? Not sure. Sounds like an oil executive to me.


      April 17, 2008 at 4:46 pm

    4. I’ll give you that Al Gore can be considered shady on the deal. My beliefs on energy and the environment don’t come from any one person, and I think he does himself a great disservice by being involved in both the business and activism side. That’s really a catch-22, but the public makes judgements from newspaper headlines alone sometimes.

      I also personally agree with the Ethanol arguments. Between the subsides and the costs of production, it’s more expensive and has less potential for solving a problem, it’s just a decent band-aid. I just think we’re obligated to find a renewable, home-brewable source of energy. Whether it’s for environmental, energy dependence or economic reasons, we’ve really got to stop being slaves to oil. The gradual modernization in India and China should tell us that demand for oil will be increasing, which is why prices are getting out of hand. There may be some more to the story, but supply and demand explain a lot of the gas price story.

      Part of the problem I see is that the market isn’t really solving the energy dependence problem because the incentives favor the status quo. Even the public image incentives, given anyone trying to implement “green” idea can easily be considered just another businessman with something to sell.

      I’m absolutely loving your feedback catofgrey, thank you!


      April 17, 2008 at 5:08 pm

    5. Actual give and take in comments seems so rare – glad it’s appreciated :) I started my blog in part to learn and strengthen my half-baked ideas. Thanks for the vote of confidence!

      The hard part is that there are so many other non-market forces out there. We complain about the ‘oil club’, but environmentalists keep new oil sources from starting up. Then there is doing business with Persian Gulf nations. And part of it is simply that oil (even at $115/barrel) is still cheaper than anything else.

      And oil itself isn’t scare, but ‘cheap oil’ is. You’ve heard conspiracies about big oil “finding a well, then capping it to keep prices high.” Well, that’s partially true. Some wells are more expensive than others, and aren’t worth drilling unless oil is expensive. It’s simple and complex at the same time.


      April 21, 2008 at 3:25 pm

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