Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Margins of error

One of the most important things about learning some general critical thinking skills is that it keeps you from falling for bullshit.

Both kinds of bovine waste, actually; the kind that is created more or less by accident because the person in question is a nitwit, and the kind that is deliberately generated to mislead or misinform.

I'm uncertain which kind was being produced by Fox News's Greg Gutfield in the latest diatribe intended to convince everyone that climate change isn't happening.  Gutfield talks about the concept of "margin of error" with respect to temperature measurements, and then makes the following baffling statement:
So, those are called real truths.  The poetic truth is the chaos and the hysteria, because that plays to the media.  And it makes you feel so important.  And you get to punish America for being so successful by doing these stupid deals.  But if you read the facts about the high temperatures, about the reality of our past, it is all B.S...  If you asked them what the increase was, they wouldn't be able to tell you that every single year that there's an increase, it is within the margin of error, meaning it isn’t increasing.
This is... idiotic.

Here's an analogy.  Let's say that you have a bathroom scale that has an accuracy of plus or minus one pound.  You weigh yourself every day for two weeks, and here are the weights you record:
Day 1: 165.0 lbs.
Day 2: 165.9 lbs.
Day 3: 166. 8 lbs.
Day 4: 167.3 lbs.
Day 5: 168.0 lbs.
Day 6: 168.8 lbs.
Day 7: 169.5 lbs.
Day 8: 170.3 lbs.
Day 9: 171.1 lbs.
Day 10: 171.9 lbs.
Day 11: 172.6 lbs.
Day 12: 173. 4 lbs.
Day 13: 174.2 lbs.
Day 14 : 175.0 lbs.
At first, you're dismayed, and decide you need to lay off the KFC and Hostess Ho-Hos.  But then you notice that each day-to-day incremental change is less than a pound -- i.e., lower than the margin of error for the scale.

"Hallelujah!" you shout.  "I haven't gained any weight at all!  Pass the mashed potatoes!"

Actually, of course, you've gained ten pounds, and I doubt that anyone (including Greg Gutfield) would have any difficulty understanding that concept.  In more subtle cases, statisticians have finely-honed methods for analyzing such things as error bars, signal-to-noise ratio, and linear regression; trust me that if Gutfield had asked anyone who'd passed college statistics with a B or higher, he would have had his ass handed to him.  Of course, he didn't.  People like him don't want facts and logic, they are content remaining in the realm of emotion and kneejerk confirmation bias.

And the fact that he even makes such an argument, when in an analogous situation he would not, makes me suspicious that his is the second kind of bullshit -- deliberately created in a calculated fashion to mislead the gullible and ignorant.  Which is more and more what Fox News seems to specialize in.  They are clinging desperately to the mantra they've used successfully for decades, which is "liberal = bad, conservative = good."  Along with that comes a whole host of conservative talking points, including such tried and true gems as the War on Christians, Obama is a Secret Muslim Terrorist, Donald Trump is the Second Coming of Christ, and Climate Change is a Big Fat Lie.

Rile up the base.  If you do that, facts don't matter, because your listeners have stopped paying attention to anything but the spin.

[image courtesy of NASA]

Look, it's not that the liberals are without bias, or that I agree with everything they say, either.  Politically I'm pretty moderate, when I'm political at all, which is as little as I can manage.  But dammit, facts matter, and I am sick unto death of supposedly legitimate media sources like Fox lying to their listeners.

Especially in the case of climate change and the environment, because the stakes are way too high.

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