What I’m Reading: June 2017

Happy Father’s Day folks! As summer approaches I’m probably going to be blogging just once a week for a bit as I fill my time with writing papers for my practicum/vacation/time on the beach. Hopefully some of those distractions will be more frequent than others. I figured that means it’s a great time to put up some links to other stuff.

First up, after 12 weeks of doing my Calling Bullshit read-along, I got a chance to interview the good professors for this piece for Misinfocon. Check it out! Also, they got a nice write up in the New Yorker in a piece about problems with big data. I have to say, reading a New Yorker writer’s take on a topic I had just attempted to write about was definitely one of the more humbling experiences of my life. Whatever, I was an engineering major, y’all should be glad I can even string a sentence together (she said bitterly).

I don’t read Mother Jones often, but I’ve seen some great stuff from them lately calling their own team out on the potential misuses of science they let fly. This piece about the World Health Organization’s decision to declare RoundUp a possible carcinogen raises interesting questions about certain data that wasn’t presented to the committee making the decision. It turns out there was a large study that suggested RoundUp was safe that was actually not shown to the committee, for reasons that continue to be a bit murky. While the reasons may or may not be valid, it’s hard to imagine that if that had been Monsanto’s data and it showed a safety issue anyone would have let that fly.

Speaking of calling out errors (and after spending some time mulling over my own) I picked up Megan McArdle’s book “The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well is the Key to Success“. I just started it, but in the first few chapters she makes an interesting point about the value of blogging for development: unlike traditional media folks, bloggers can fail at a lower level and faster than regular journalists. By essentially working in public, they can get criticism faster and react more quickly, which over time can make their (collective) conclusions (potentially) better. This appears to be why so many traditional media scandals (she highlights the Dan Rather incident) were discovered and called out by bloggers. It’s not that the bloggers were more accurate, but that their worst ideas were called out faster and their best ones could more quickly rise to the top. Anyway, so far I’d recommend it.

This post about how the world-wide rate of population growth is slowing was interesting to me for two reasons: 1) I didn’t actually know the rate of growth had slowed that much 2) it’s a great set of charts to show the difference between growth and rate of growth and why extrapolation from visuals can sometimes be really hard.

I also learned interesting things from this Economist article about world wide beer consumption. Apparently beer consumption is falling, and with it the overall consumption of alcohol. This seems to be driven by economic development in several key countries like China, Brazil and Russia. The theory is that when countries start to develop, people immediately start using their new-found income to buy beer. When development continues, they start becoming more concerned about health and actually buy less beer and move on to more expensive types of alcohol. I never thought about this before, but it makes sense.

On a “things I was depressed to learn” note, apparently we haven’t yet figured out the best strategy for evacuating high-rises during fires. Most fire safety efforts for high rises are about containing and controlling the blaze, but if that fails there’s not a great strategy for how to evacuate or even who should evacuate. You would assume everyone should just take the stairs, but they point out that this could create a fluid mechanics problem for getting firefighters in to the building. Huh.

This post on why women are underrepresented in philosophy provides a data set I thought was interesting: percent of women expressing interest in a field as a college major during their freshman year vs percent of women receiving a PhD in that field 10 years later, with a correlation of .95. I’d be interested to see if there’s some other data points that could be worked in there (like % of women graduating with a particular undergrad degree) to see if the pattern holds, but it’s an interesting data point all on its own. Note: there’s a small data error in the calculations that I pointed out in the comments, and the author acknowledged. Running a quick adjustment I don’t think it actually changes the correlation numbers, which is why I’m still linking. Update: the author informs me he got a better data set that fixed the error and confirmed the correlation held. 

5 thoughts on “What I’m Reading: June 2017

  1. I’m the author of the post on the underrepresentation of women in philosophy. Thanks for the link, and thanks for pointing out that mistake! I was able to obtain the full dataset from the Higher Education Research Institute, so I didn’t have to rely on their publications anymore, which is a good thing because they round everything to only one decimal place so the ratios I calculated before were sometimes imprecise. This also takes care of the mistake you pointed out since I’m now working directly with the number of students of either sex who declared their intention to major in a field. I updated the spreadsheet and the post and the correlation actually went up a little.


    • Interesting! I updated the post to reflect this.

      I’ll admit that correlation surprised me a bit, both because of how high it was and because I’d never seen it before. I was an engineering major so I’ve heard plenty of “women are underrepresented” discussions, but I don’t think I have seen an attempt at controlling for preference like that. I’m a big advocate for getting more girls interested in math/science fields, but it’s hard to change anything if you don’t correctly identify the issues involved. Not sure why that seems to be considered controversial.


      • As I explain in the post, I was also surprised by the correlation. I expected it to be high, but not that high. I think it’s controversial because it suggests that discrimination isn’t a major factor in the underrepresentation of women in philosophy and many important people in the field have invested a lot in the narrative that it was.


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