Rubin Vase Reporting

Jesse Singal had an interesting post in his (subscriber only) newsletter this week about a some articles promoting an Amnesty International report that ran under the headline “Amnesty reveals alarming impact of online abuse against women“.  I was intrigued because I love dissections of survey data, and this didn’t disappoint. He noted some inappropriate extrapolations from the results (the Mozilla article claimed that data showed women were harassed more than men online, but the Amnesty survey didn’t survey any men and thus has no comparison), and also that the numbers were a little lower than he thought. Overall in 8 countries, an average of 23% of women had experienced online harassment, with an average of 11% saying they’d experienced online harassment more than once.

This statistic struck me as interesting, because it sounds really different depending on how you phrase it. From the Amnesty article:

Nearly a quarter (23%) of the women surveyed across these eight countries said they had experienced online abuse or harassment at least once, ranging from 16% in Italy to 33% in the US.

If you reverse the language, it reads like this:

“Over three quarters (77%) of the women surveyed across these eight countries said they had never experienced online abuse or harassment even once, ranging from 84% in Italy to 67% in the US.”

Now it is possible those two paragraphs sound exactly the same to you, but to me they give slightly different impressions. By shifting the focus from the positive responses to the negative, two reporters could report the exact same data but give slightly different impressions.

While reading this, all I could think of was the famous Rubin Vase illusion. If you don’t recognize the name, you will almost certainly recognize the picture: 

It struck me as a good analogy for a certain type of statistics reporting, enough so that I decided to give it a name:

Rubin Vase Reporting: The practice of grounding a statistic in either the positive (i.e. % who said yes) or negative (i.e. % who said no) responses in order to influence the way the statistic is read and what it appears to show.

Now of course not every statistic is reported this way intentionally (after all you really do have to pick one way to report most statistics and then stick with it), but it is something to be aware of. Flipping statistics around to see how you feel about them when they’re said in the reverse can be an interesting practice.

Also, I have officially updated my GPD Lexicon page, so if you’re looking for more of these you may want to check that out! I have 19 of these now and have been pondering putting them in to some sort of ebook with illustrations, just for fun. Thoughts on that also welcome.

What I’m Reading: April 2019

Familiar topics in this Nature article, but a good title….the Four Horsemen of the Reproducibility Crisis. P-hacking, low power, publication bias and HARKing (oh my!).

Given my ongoing interest in YouTube search results, I found this profile of the YouTube CEO quite fascinating.

A little late to the party, but I loved the WaPo “Mueller Book Report” take.

Related to the two above, a Twitter thread about which videos about the Mueller report got recommended the most by YouTube.

This article debates the current assertion that religious affiliation is going down, and caused a lot of discussion in an email group I’m part of this week. The basic argument seems to be that the rise of the “no affiliation” label is coming mostly by way of those who previously claimed to be religious but reported they never went to church, so the core of religious sentiment remains unchanged. I’ll admit I’m unconvinced by this. The underlying paper suggests that religious behavior (going to church, etc) are holding steady among the religious, which goes counter to the idea that the label-without-participating people are the only ones who left. If they were, we’d expect to see the remaining religious people engaging in MORE religious behavior, as the lower tier wouldn’t be bringing down the average any more. Still, it isn’t wrong to point out that the typical “nones are on the rise!” story may have been oversold.

The Calling Bullshit guys posted that there’s a new entry in to the field of bullshit studies: Bullshitters, who are they and what do we know about their lives? This clever paper asked people about themselves, then asked them about their knowledge levels for 16 statistical/mathematical techniques. 3 of them (Proper Number, Subjective Scaling and Declarative Fraction) were fake. The study was done on teenagers in 9 countries. Findings: boys are much more likely to bullshit than girls in all countries, high socioeconomic status kids were more likely to bullshit than lower SES kids in all countries, immigrants are sometimes more likely to bullshit, sometimes not depending on the country, the US and Canada are huge bullshitters. Bullshitters were more to rank themselves as good in other things (popularity, mathematical ability) and interestingly, more likely to give “right” answers when asked how they would solve a problem. For example, when asked what they’d do if their cell phone broke, they say they’d first consult the manual rather than “push all the buttons to see if it turns back on”. Now to note: all countries studied were WEIRD, but still an interesting paper.

 

 

When Bad Stats Mean Good Things

As someone who has to pay attention to blood/infectious disease issues for work, I’m on a couple email lists that report current issues. I got one of these this week that really caught my eye, with a headline that stated that the incidence of hemophilia appears to be going up.

Since hemophilia is a genetic disorder, I was curious why this would be. Clicking on the article, I was surprised to find that the researchers actually believe this is a positive development caused by getting a better handle on HIV and infectious disease standards. For those unfamiliar with hemophilia, it’s a disorder that impacts your blood’s ability to clot. Though in some rare cases women can some forms of it, the disorder is almost exclusively found in men. Men with this require blood transfusions frequently, and thus were impacted when HIV in the 80s before blood and blood donors were screened with the standards we use today. Ryan White, whose case prompted many of the legal protections we have for people diagnosed with HIV today, was one such case. The first person I knew who had HIV (Norm Cataract) was another such case. He was a friend of my parents and dedicated the last few years of his life to giving public talks about how HIV was acquired and trying to reduce fear. It’s hard to remember now, but in the late 80s there was a lot of misinformation about HIV floating around, and with no treatment available it was met with a lot of hostility. I’ve never forgotten Norm’s bravery in fighting for understanding and right information. It’s a shame he didn’t live long enough to see HIV become more manageable disease.

Anyway, now that HIV is more manageable, the blood supply is cleaner, and hemophilia is a less risky disease. The less risky it is, the more likely hemophiliacs are to actually live and have children, which given the genetic nature of the disease means there will be more hemophiliacs. In other words, despite the negative connotations of “rates going up”, this is all a good thing.

A couple other examples of “bad” stats hiding good things:

  • More wounded veterans. Previously more men died on the battlefield or shortly thereafter due to a lack of medical care in the field, now 90% of men wounded in battle survive.
  • Smoking rates (possibly). Working in a cancer hospital, I have a lot of coworkers who (pretty understandably) dislike smokers. I like to remind them that smoking rates are very high among recovering addicts, so we don’t always know if the smoking was a bad choice or a good choice. Smoking isn’t healthy, but I think we can all agree it’s better than heroin.

I don’t have a clever name for this, but I’d be open to suggestions!

McDonald’s: 46 Years Later

A few years ago, James mentioned his idea for a “Follow-Up Gazette“, a news outlet that would report “All the things we found out later”. I loved this idea, particularly the thought of it having a science section. I think about this concept often, as it fascinates me how often we assume that we will never see things differently than we do right now.

I was thinking about this again this past week, because our drive to NYC and back meant I ended up eating some form of fast food 3 days in a row. We even stopped at McDonald’s AND Burger King in the same 48 hour timeframe, which is something I haven’t done in a long time. It reminded me of an article someone posted on Twitter recently: a Time magazine feature on McDonald’s written in 1973.

Written just over 2 decades after Ray Kroc joined McDonald’s and started its upward trajectory, the article is an interesting look at how complaints about McDonald’s have morphed in the last 5 decades. Now that critical statements about McDonald’s have become an industry of their own, its interesting to see how  the initial complaints hold up. The article is 9 pages long, so I’m going to take this page by page. Lets take a look, shall we?

The article starts out pretty well, much the way an article about fast food would today, with this quote:

The next few paragraphs recite the key stats about McDonald’s business, most of which have obviously changed since then. It’s notable that the whole idea of mega corporations seemed much newer, as the numbers that seem sensational and the reach of McDonald’s seems more novel. The article talks about their sign reading “12 Billion Hamburgers sold”, I remember a kid noting that they’d stopped tracking around 99 billion.

Page 1 Rating: Holds up, if no longer novel. Stats were accurate at the time they were reported, though would be less impressive now.

The next section starts off with an interesting complaint: that customers don’t get “discretion”.

This is followed by a few paragraphs about worker standardization, high turnover, tedious conditions, and machines taking human work…pretty current complaints. They also mention “Hamburger University”, which is apparently still around.

They then drop in an interesting tidbit about the dress code:

Page 2 Rating: Mostly holds up. Fast food restaurants are so ingrained in our culture that I’m not sure I’ve heard anyone complain about the lack of menu choices in a while. You basically know what you’re getting. Worker complaints are still being made, though the dress code has apparently loosened substantially.

Page 3 kicks off with a quote from a pop sociologist about McDonald’s, claiming that it shows America is all about blandness and sterilization, and that we’re too responsive to advertising. Then comes this paragraph, which I found fascinating:

Scurvy? You can eat it without teeth? That’s a fresh take. Of course this article was prior to the obesity crisis, so they “these seem like a bad idea nutritionally” folks didn’t have much to go on.

The architectural blight charge was also interesting, and not one I’d heard before. The rest of the page talks about about the appeal of McDonald’s (you know what you’re getting, food comes fast) and the cheap price. You know, pretty much all the things people still like about it today.

There is an interesting tidbit about how McDonald’s responded to inflation rampant in the early 70s (raised prices less than others) and the trivia that McDonald’s makes its money on the fries.

Page 3 Rating: Mixed. The nutrition complaints are wrong in details, but their spirit is now widely accepted as true. The architecture concern seems to have passed, the positives are pretty much the same.

Page 4 kicks off with an amusing quote that I somehow doubt many people would say today:

In 2019, it’s both hard to imagine someone feeling this way AND finding many towns without a McDonald’s. I checked out some brand loyalty ratings, and 5 Guys is the only burger place that ranks nationally. Its interesting that while McDonald’s didn’t retain its brand loyalty, it helped change the culture enough that it and places like it still have a home.

Page 4 Rating: An interesting snapshot of the history. Those of us who grew up with these corporations already in place can’t always conceptualize that these places were once the “new thing”.

The end of page 4 and beginning of page 5 cover Ray Kroc, and his now famous issues with the McDonald’s brothers, though it doesn’t dwell on them much before moving on. They highlight his foresight in serving the suburbs (other fast food places focused on cities) and his subsequent marketing directly to children. This ranges from the obvious (Ronald McDonald as a mascot) to the less obvious (leaving napkins and straws out on the counter so children could get them).

Of course this marketing innovation has caused most of their problems for the last few decades, as more people have blamed them for increasing youth obesity and violating bans against advertising to minors.

Page 5 Rating: A little cringe-worthy.

The next section wraps up the kids marketing and then moves in to some standards that seem almost quaint in retrospect. They talk about how Ray Kroc demanded everything be clean, and used to inspect stores to make sure they were as clean as possible. While most McDonald’s I’ve been in aren’t horrible, I think the idea that they’re supposed to scrape gum off the walkways out front has gone by the wayside. McDonald’s as a paragon of high standards is an odd thought.

Page 6 Rating: Quite the throwback

Page 7 is interesting, as it talks substantially about McDonald’s dedication to charity work and the terms of their licensing agreements. While it appears the franchisee deal is still largely the same (though with a lower percentage of the profits going to corporate headquarters), it doesn’t appear the requirement to do charity work has kept up. In fact the recent controversies with McDonald’s have seemed to center around how much charity work they actually do. I couldn’t find many hard numbers about the franchisee charity work, so I’m a little mixed on this.

Page 7 Rating: Not enough data

Page 8 has some more interesting data about what it took to open a McDonald’s franchise. I was interested to find out that anyone who put up more than half the money for a franchise was actually required to work there. There’s an interesting anecdote about a former cop named Lee Dunham who opened a McDonald’s in Harlem and took on the local gangs to keep the store running. Apparently he ended up giving a bunch of gang members jobs. I Googled him and found a glowing obituary from 2011, praising his work with the community, much of which started with his McDonald’s stores.

Page 8 Rating: Glad to see this one turned out well.

Page 9 has some interesting commentary about McDonald’s expansion, particularly in to Europe. I loved this paragraph:

I’d shake my head at that, but I’m pretty sure I actually went to the McDonald’s on the Champs-Elysees. It has a marble sculpture in the middle, as one does. I also took refuge in one in Bucharest Romania after a particularly harrowing overnight ride on the train.

It continues to talk about Kroc’s aggressive plans for expansion, wondering if he can keep it up with new competitors on the horizon. Page 10 concludes with a final moment from Kroc, saying that every day was a new Broadway show.

Page 9  and 10 Rating: Good. McDonald’s expansion continued in this country until 2015, the first year in its history it closed more stores than it opened.

Overall impressions: Overall the article didn’t fair too badly, though it’s interesting to see how our norms have changed since it was written. Large multinational corporations are a standard (if not always well loved) part of our society now, and while McDonald’s survives it no longer inspires much brand loyalty in the US. However, it is still one of the most recognized brands in the world, and allegedly the golden M is more recognized than the cross.

Within the overall correctness though, it’s interesting to note that not everything has held up. Scurvy is not the big nutritional concern, workers are not really known for being the most well trained. Many previously novel things like cleanliness regressed to the mean.

Of course there’s an interesting bias in reading an article like this at all….we’re interested in articles like this solely because the growth continued and the business survived. If Time had run an article on another juggernaut that fizzled, I wouldn’t be looking it up.

One way or another, its interesting to see how people a few decades ago saw things, and to think about how our thinking may change 50 years from now about things we think today. What will fall by the wayside, what will normalize and what will prove true are always interesting questions.

On that note, I’m going to go get a hamburger.

 

Gender Ratios at Public Events

I’m out of town this weekend indulging in a very non-stats related hobby: pro wrestling.

Those of you who follow such things will know that this is WrestleMania weekend and it’s in New Jersey/just outside of NYC this year, and just so happens to coincide with my husbands birthday. Convenient.

Given the throngs of wrestling fans converging on one spot, there were quite a few other shows put on by other groups looking to capitalize on the crowds. One such show was a New Japan pro wrestling/Ring of Honor joint venture held last night at Madison Square Garden.

We went to this one, and I was interested to note it had one of the more lopsided gender ratios of any event I’ve been to. I’ve mentioned previously that I have a habit of counting such things, and last night was no exception. Normally I like to estimate the ratio of mono-gender groups, but despite all my looking I never found a women only group at this event.

I ended up switching to the number of women I could see in each row – rows were about 15 to 20 seats each. Rows almost always had 2 to 3 women in them. I never found a row with 4 women. I’d estimate the ratio at 7 to 1 male to female.

Other notes:

  • There were more women in the expensive seats than the cheap seats. I’d never explicitly noted uneven distribution of gender before, but I’ll watch for it from now on.
  • The gender ratio changed as the place filled up. When we first got there it was probably closer to 10 to 1, but more women showed up the later it got.
  • Men with long hair were a major confounder. When I count rows from far away I’m mostly looking at hair first, but I had to proceed slowly here.

Obviously those first two bullet points emphasize that this is a male dominated fandom, which I’m sure is not surprising to anyone. This was not a show aimed at the more popular or mainstream fan, but the “willing to tolerate half the show being announced in Japanese” type fan.

Tonight I expect the gender ratio to be more even, as WrestleMania has a broader spectrum of appeal and their women’s division is currently on FIRE. I’ll report back with my estimate tomorrow. Go Becky Lynch!

Update: The gender ratio at Wrestlemania ended up being about 4 or 5 to 1 male:female. Interestingly, the “extra” women were almost entirely younger girls, mostly there with their dad. One ahead of us walking in was even fully in costume (as Bailey), carrying a replica title belt and started trying to lead the “Woooooooooooo” cheer on the escalator. I think the strategy of pumping up their women’s division is paying off.

Two Minor Points on Viral Graphs

There’s been a couple graphs trending on Twitter this week, and a couple of people have made sure to pass them on to me (thank you!). Both of them are trends over time for two of the hottest topics you can discuss: sex and religion.

The first was this one from the Washington Post, and shows the percentage of people not having sex is steadily increasing. The most stunning chart was this one:

Of course your eyes immediately go to the right of the chart. It’s rather stunning that the percent of those not having sex in their 20s is twice as high as those not having sex in their 50s. A lot has been written about that right part of the graph and the sudden change in 2008 when the economy crashed/iPhone debuted, but I’ll admit the sudden dip and jump around 1998 caught my eye. What happened?

Well, as someone in their teens at that time, I have a guess. That was right when the Bill Clinton impeachment hearing was happening, and there was a large national debate about oral sex, and whether that counted as sex. Is it possible that having the definition so nationally debated changed the way young people answered the question temporarily? I may be wildly off on that, but it’s certainly an odd hiccup.

Next up, the latest GCS data shows that those saying they have no religious affiliation has surpassed those saying they are Evangelical in the US:

This is the first time “no religion” has surpassed all the other groupings, though to be fair 4 of those are just different groups of Christians.

As I looked at this graph, I was interested in how relatively stable Black Protestant has been….until I saw 1970. Did they really have about 14% of the population then suddenly drop to 8 or 9% then stay there for almost 5 decades? That seems unlikely.

I couldn’t figure out what happened there until I realized that 1970 appears to be the year Evangelicalism started to spike. I couldn’t find any specifics, but I am guessing that there was some reshuffling around what denominations were considered “Black Protestant” and which were considered “Evangelical”. When I did my post on religious classifications a few months ago, I noted that churches with “Baptist” in the name could be counted as Evangelical, Black Protestant or Mainline. My guess is it took a bit to get that sorted out on the GCS.

Anyway, no idea if I’m right on either of these theories, but I like to look at parts of the graphs that don’t get all the attention. Sometimes you can get interesting insights in to the data gathering process by looking at the parts that aren’t under scrutiny.

 

GPD Lexicon: Broken Record Statistics

Today’s addition to the GPD Lexicon is made in honor of my Dad.

It will come as no surprise to anyone that after years of keeping up this blog, people now have a tendency to seek me out when they have heard a particularly irritating statistic or reference during the week. This week it was my Dad, who heard a rather famous columnist (Liz Bruenig) mention on a podcast that “even conservative New Hampshire is considering getting rid of the death penalty”. He wasn’t irritated at the assertion that NH is looking to get rid of the death penalty (they are), but rather the assertion that NH was representative of a “conservative state”.

You see while NH certainly has a strong Republican presence, it is most famous for being a swing state and has actually gone for Democrats in every presidential election since 1992, except for the year 2000. Currently their Congressional delegation is 4 Democrats. Their state legislature is Democrat controlled. Slightly more people (3%) identify as Democrat or lean that way than Republican. The Governor is a Republican, and it is definitely the most conservative state in New England, but calling it a conservative state on a national level is pretty untrue. Gallup puts it at “average” at best.

What struck me as interesting about this is that New Hampshire actually did used to be more conservative. From 1948 to 1988, a Democrat only won the Presidential election there once. From 1900 to 2000, the Governor was Republican for 84 out years out of the century. In other words, it wasn’t a swing state until around 1992 (per Wiki).

It’s interesting then that Liz Bruenig, born in 1990, would consider NH a conservative state. NH has not been “conservative” in nearly her entire life, so what gives? Why do things like this get repeated and repeated even after they’ve changed? I’ve decided we need a word for this, so my new term is Broken Record Statistics:

Broken Record Statistic: A statistic or characterization that was once true, but is continuously repeated even after the numbers behind it have moved on.

In the course of looking this up btw, I found another possible broken record statistic. If you ask anyone from New Hampshire about the blue shift in the state, they will almost all say it’s because people from Massachusetts are moving up and turning the state more blue. However, the Wiki page I quoted above had this to say “A 2006 University of New Hampshire survey found that New Hampshire residents who had moved to the state from Massachusetts were mostly Republican. The influx of new Republican voters from Massachusetts has resulted in Republican strongholds in the Boston exurban border towns of Hillsborough and Rockingham counties, while other areas have become increasingly Democratic. The study indicated that immigrants from states other than Massachusetts tended to lean Democrat.” The source linked was a Union Leader article (“Hey, don’t blame it on Massachusetts!”) name but no link. Googling showed me nothing. However, the town by town maps do indicate that NH is mostly Republican at the border.

Does anyone know where these numbers are coming from or the UNH study referenced?