Thursday, January 31, 2013

Critical Thinking Thursdays: Correlation, Causation and the Silliness That Ensues

Note: I was going to post this last Thursday, but it didn't really happen.  I ended up spending much more time away from home than I'd anticipated, and by the time I got back I was entirely too braindead to construct this post.  Besides, I'm glad I waited, because I woke up this morning to find this delightful graphic in my Facebook feed from my favorite page, I Fucking Love Science.
Now I have something to talk about today!

You can probably spot the problem with this statement, even if you're not familiar with logical fallacies.  There's an issue here with correlation (things that happen at the same time) and causation (one thing happens because of the other thing).

This problem crops up in a lot of places.  The human brain is trained to find patterns -- it's a survival instinct that helps to keep us alive -- but sometimes we find patterns that aren't actually there, or draw the wrong conclusions from patterns that do exist.

In this case, the causation is reverse:  Birthdays don't make you live longer.  Living longer, by definition, enables you to have more birthdays.

There are several other ways that correlation and causation can get screwed up:

  • Reduction Fallacy:  The assumption that a single event was caused by a single factor, when in reality multiple factors are all partially responsible.  Unfortunately, life is rarely simple, so this happens a lot.  After a school shooting, for example, you'll get people saying, "This happened because of guns!" or "This happened because of mental health issues!" or "This happened because of violence in the media!" In reality, all of those factors may be at play -- and many more could also be responsible.  It's very rare that complex problems are ever caused by a single root issue.  
  • Bi-Directional Causation: When A causes B, but B also causes A.  So, for example, imagine a bank account that gains interest.  The more money in the bank, the more interest it earns.  The more interest it earns, the more money in the bank.  If left alone, this causes a sort of "chicken or egg" feedback loop.  
  • Spurious Relationship:  A and B are both caused by a third factor, C.  One of my favorite examples, courtesy of The Flying Spaghetti Monster:  A shortage of pirates causes global warming!  After all, as the pirate population decreases, global warming increases!  Of course, this is probably due to one or more outside factors, such as global industrialization, that cause both things to occur.  Of course, not all examples of this are so silly.  
  • Affirming the Consequent:  The format for this is, "If P, then Q.  Q, therefore P."  In other words, if one thing were to happen, Q would be the consequence; since Q has happened, P must have caused it.  This is related to the reduction fallacy above in that it assumes that Q can only be caused by a single factor, therefore P must have happened.  Here's a (cynical) example:  "If Mary screws her boss, she'll get a raise.  She just got a raise, so she must be sleeping with her boss." 
  • Denying the Antecedent:  This is the inverse of the above.  This one says, "If P, then Q.  Not P, therefore not Q."  So for example, "If I were rich, I'd be happy.  Since I'm not rich, I'm not happy."  This sort of neglects that you could be made happy by anything else.  
There are other iterations, but they're all pretty similar.  The trick to figuring out the correlation/causation issue is to do a bit of investigating.  Things that seem obvious at first may not be so simple in reality, and making assumptions about them can lead you to try and solve problems in all the wrong ways.  After all, you can't really solve a problem if you don't know the real cause of it.  

Always ask yourself, "Could this have been caused by anything else?  Is there some other element that could be behind all of this?  Is it possible that the causation is actually inverted?"  

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Critical Thinking Thursday: Movie Magic and the Power of Editing

Today, I want to talk a little bit about "movie magic," and especially about how the power of editing can make things appear different than how they really are.  This is a trick that's used for everything from movies to televised magicians and even the nightly news, and recognizing it in advance can help you keep a clear head any time you see something outlandish on a screen -- be it Criss Angel, Fox News or a YouTube video.  

What You Have to See to Believe

Humans are visual creatures.  Although we have four other senses that provide us with valuable information, our eyes are the thing we rely on the most. Take just a moment to appreciate how amazing the human eye really is.  This complex little organ takes in light, which then travels to your brain, which sorts through the light, converts it into images and assigns meaning to those images.  The simple act of reading these words on the screen is an impressive feat of nature's engineering.  We've evolved these eyeballs -- and the brains that go with them -- for milennia.  Cameras, on the other hand, have only been around for a few centuries, and motion-capture cameras have been around for just a few generations.  There are people alive today who were born in a time when there were no videos -- and now everybody can take a video with a device that fits into their pocket.  It's awe-inspiring.  

Now that we've got that out of the way, here's the thing about human brains.  Our brains are pretty much conditioned to believe that they can trust the information delivered by our eyes.  If we see something, our default state is belief.  Questioning that belief requires effort -- critical thought, in other words.  So if you're fooled by the things you see, it doesn't mean you're stupid.  It just means that your brain is having a hard time keeping up with these rapid changes in technology. 

Ways That Cameras Can Lie

There are a lot of ways that a camera can lie to you, and a lot of different applications for those lies.  Here are a few examples:  
  • Shooting multiple takes.  For example, a television psychic approaches a man on the street and says, "Excuse me, is your wife named Mary?" and the astonished man says, "Why, yes, she is!"  What the audience doesn't know is that the psychic approached a dozen other people and asked that same question; this gentleman is the only one who said yes.  Since all of the unsuccessful attempts were cut, the psychic looks more successful than he really is. 
  • Editing footage together.  A person on a reality TV show wins a storage unit.  You see the auctioneer cut off the lock, signifying that the unit hasn't been tampered with.  The winner walks inside, opens a box, and finds a priceless antique.  What you don't see?  Between the shot of the lock being broken and the winner walking inside, the camera is shut off and the camera crew places the valuable item inside to be "discovered."  When it's edited together, it appears that the item was there all along.  This was one of the very first "magic" tricks ever done with a camera.  The concept of an item appearing out of thin air was, at the time, inconceivable, and it fooled a lot of people.  Things don't just spontaneously appear in real life.  But they can and do in film, where a shot could have taken hours or even weeks to put together.  
  • Cutting and cropping.  Like the picture above, you can take anything and make it look like something else by zeroing in on one small part of it.  The ability to focus and crop a photograph is one of the things that makes photography an artform, an expression of the person behind the camera, rather than just 'real life.'  But never forget that everything you see could have been manually put together or cut in a way that creates a reporting bias.  
  • Post-production editing.  In the old days, people needed to do this sort of thing in a dark room.  Today, we have Photoshop.  However you do it, the premise is the same: you change a photograph or video after it's been shot to look different.  For example, you can airbrush a model to make her appear thinner.  You can combine human features with animals to create were-people.  Or you can use your iPhone to insert ghosts into cell phone pictures.  
  • Claiming that natural events are supernatural.  This one doesn't even require editing -- just viewers who don't understand cameras.  Have you ever seen those photographs that supposedly have "spirit orbs" or other such things?  What the photographer isn't telling you is that those floating balls of light are actually just dust particles that are reflecting light into the camera lens.  
There are tons more tricks -- from using a green screen to computer-animated special effects -- and of course out-and-out faking (for example: the "stranger on the street" is actually a paid actor).  Here's what's important for you:  Don't trust anything you see on TV without thinking critically about it!  

Ask yourself whether some or all of these techniques could have been used on the footage you've seen.  Ask yourself whether the things you see seem plausible or if they seem to go against what you know about the rest of the world.  Determine whether there is any external way to validate a claim being made in a video you're watching.  For example: Are there other videos from other people that show the same thing?  Can you talk to a real witness who saw it happen?  Is there a paper trail or other history that backs up what you're seeing?  Is there any reason why the footage should have been faked?  

Not everything you see on TV is a lie, but learning how to spot a forgery is a good task to keep in your arsenal of critical thinking skills. 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

An Elegant Solution to Restaurant Portion Sizes

So, eating out is a bit of a landmine.  We're coming up on the 5th step of our "Real Food" eating challenge, and it's going to be the hardest yet -- no fast food, no deep-fried foods, eat out only on weekends.  Eating out is a big problem for us.  There's a few reasons we do it so often.   One of the most common reasons we end up going out is "dinner failure" in the house.  Either I cook something that turns out to be inedible (a sadly frequent side effect of kitchen experimentation) or the kitchen is such a mess that I have no dishes in which to cook or serve food (a frequent side effect of dating a guy with ADHD who forgets chores), so we end up making an emergency run to Taco Bell.

Other times, we just get bored or restless in the house.  When you work from home, you get really sick of looking at the inside of that home, and it can be hard to think up new things to do with yourself that don't involve eating.  Ironically, I've started shopping -- and enjoying shopping! -- more since becoming a conscious non-consumer.  Sometimes we'll get bored at the house and head out to wander through the aisles at the Good Will or a pawn shop.  Still, those outings rarely seem to occur without food showing up somewhere, and it's a big problem.

Anyway, we're going to work on curbing this habit.  For one, it wrecks the bank.  For another, it's much more difficult to keep an eye on your health when eating out.  Even if you're not interested in losing weight, you should get in the habit of checking nutrition information at restaurants, because it's always way worse than you'd expect.  You would be shocked to discover just how many calories are in certain foods.  You think you're doing yourself a favor by ordering a salad, but that salad may have more calories than a hamburger.

Part of the problem is that restaurants and fast food joints like to load up their entrees with huge quantities of sodium, sugar and fat to cover up for the fact that their food is actually tasteless.  If you don't have high-quality ingredients, just smother them in fat!  That'll make 'em taste good!  The other problem is portion distortion: The amount of food you're served is usually way more than you need to be eating.

The easiest way to cut your calories when eating out is to just not eat as much food.  But then, this causes its own set of problems.  Sure, you can get half of your entree boxed up before it even comes out to you -- but are you going to eat it?  Is it going to fester in your refrigerator for weeks?  And yeah, you can share everything with your significant other, but eventually you're going to get sick of always eating the same thing.  And just throwing away perfectly good food is certainly not an attractive option.  So, what do you do?

David came up with this smart solution.  This is the simplest, most elegant solution to this problem.  Are you ready?

Step one:  Order your food.
Step two:  Box up half of it.
Step three:  Give your box of fresh leftovers to the first homeless person you see on your drive home.

No, you're not going to be solving world hunger any time soon by doing this.  But, it makes you feel good knowing that somebody's going to have dinner tonight.  You're not contributing to quite so much food waste.  And, hey, maybe knowing that your food is going to someone else -- and may be the only thing they eat all day -- will give you just enough motivation to choose a healthier entree.

(Note:  Feeding the homeless is actually illegal in some cities, so, y'know, do this at your own risk.  But I can safely say, if there's one thing I'll never regret being arrested for, it'd be feeding a homeless guy.  Just saying.)

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Critical Thinking Thursday: Statistics Mean Nothing

Today's Critical Thinking Thursday post is a bit late as I was busy learning an important lesson:  Always check the oven before pre-heating it.  I had left something in it previously and completely forgotten about it.  I didn't notice this until turning on the oven to pre-heat for a pizza....and copious amounts of smoke began billowing from the oven.  Oops.  We retreated to Buffalo Wild Wings until the smoke cleared -- hence the late post.

Anyway, today I want to talk about this graphic:

I saw this kicking around on Facebook and it's a beautiful example of the way you can twist statistics around to say basically anything you want.  So, let's go step-by-step and see how you can critically examine this, shall we?

  • First off, let's check that the figures are even accurate.  Since the graphic doesn't site a source for any of these numbers, we'll have to check them manually.  When searching, you'll want to find a website that doesn't have its own agenda (for obvious reasons), so we'll want something with some objective credibility.  
  • Let's take a look at that 195,000 figure first.  First off, the data is 10 years old.  Second, the actual causes of death are "failure to rescue, bed sores, postoperative sepsis, and postoperative pulmonary embolism".  So now we have that figure explained a bit more clearly.  
  • Now, the assault rifle figure.  It took some digging to find the primary source on this one, but it looks like it's from the FBI. (Interestingly, based on the FBI data, the figure quoted for knives is actually very low -- the figure quoted here is 1,694 for stabbing deaths).  
  • The 12,000 drunk driver fatalities appears to be from this site here, which offers an average (not the exact figure).  
OK.  Now that we've found the source of each figure, let's look at a few interesting things about how the data is compiled and represented, shall we?
  • By specifically choosing assault rifles, the graphic down plays the severity of gun violence in general.  According to the CDC, firearms account for 31,347 deaths.  Of these, according to the FBI, 12,664 were homicides.  The others could range from accidents (children handling guns, hunting accidents) to suicides.  
  • This means that gun homicide (in general) is actually more dangerous than drunk driving.  Someone with a different political stance could make a different graphic using exactly the same sources and come to that conclusion -- more gun murders happen annually than drunk driving deaths.  
  • Incidentally, according to the CDC, the total number of vehicle fatalities (not just drunk drivers) is 34,485, which is still higher than the total number of firearm fatalities.  Therefore, someone could, again, take the same data and make a new graphic showing that cars are more dangerous than guns (but the margin is much narrower).  
The point of all this isn't to take a side one way or the other about gun control.  The point is to show that this graphic -- which seems very straightforward -- presents its figures in a way that supports the point it wants to make.  This is the dangerous thing about statistics:  On their own, they don't actually mean anything.  The numbers have to be interpreted.  As you can see, different people can take the exact same data and extrapolate completely different interpretations from it.  

So the next time you're faced with a graphic or statistic, I invite you to take a few extra minutes to think critically about it before sharing.  Ask yourself:  Where are they getting these numbers?  Are they accurate?  Is the source reputable?  If you look at the data yourself, do you get a different interpretation?  How many other ways can those numbers be interpreted? 

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Week Three: A Whole Bunch of New Foods

As I think I've mentioned, we're doing the 14 weeks of 100 Days of Real Food mini-pledges (although I'm not quite doing them in order).  At the end of each week, we the goal is to add on the next challenge while continuing the first (or at least slightly modifying the first to make it long-term accessible).  Week one ("eat two fruits or vegetables with every meal") was pretty easy, and I've continued doing it since without too much trouble.  I've mostly displaced a lot of grains with vegetables (opting for veggies as a side or base instead of pasta or rice, for example, or wrapping things in lettuce instead of eating it on bread).  

Week two was a bit more of a challenge:  Don't drink any sweetened beverages.  I mostly succeeded at this.  I drank a latte instead of a mocha at the coffee shop, and I had a 100% juice when I somehow ended up at Jamba Juice while out shopping.  Mostly I've just been drinking a lot of water, and I like it that way.  I did stumble twice.  The first time, I ended up at a fast food-style Greek restaurant.  After paying for my drink, I discovered that they didn't have any unsweetened iced tea (my go-to drink for fast food places) so I got stuck with the house-made lemonade.  Oh well.  The second time, David bought us an agua fresca (de fresas) at the market, and the person selling it didn't speak enough English to confirm whether it had sugar in it.  So the jury's still out on that one (but from the taste, I'm assuming "yes." And let me just say - it was delicious). 

Today was the day to buy groceries for weeks three and four.  One of those challenges is super easy -- "Buy nothing low-fat or fat-free."  The rationale being that when food manufacturers artificially remove fat, they often replace it with sugar and chemicals.  For the most part the only thing I had to avoid buying "light" was dairy.  I still don't have a good source for raw milk (or even local milk) but I did get some organic whole milk, so that's a start.  

The other challenge is more fun:  Eat two new whole foods per week.  I actually went slightly over and got six new foods instead, because I'm an over-achiever.  Here are the foods I got -- along with a bit of fun information about them.  


A semi-aquatic plant in the Brassica family (along with broccoli and cabbage), watercress was one of the first leafy vegetables to be eaten by people.  It goes back at least as far as ancient Greece, and it's mentioned in the Talmud.  Apparently it also makes up a primary part of a swan's diet.  Nutritionally, it's a power-house:  iron, calcium, iodine, folic acid, and vitamins A and C as well as antioxidants.  It's also been reported to have some medicinal qualities, including as a diuretic, expectorant and digestive aid, and it's rumored to have some anti-carcinogenic properties.  

Because it's so delicate, you have to eat watercress pretty much as soon as you get it home.  You can eat it raw or cook it.  It tastes sort of spicy and a little bitter, almost like mustard greens, but the flavor is much more mild.  When you cook it, the flavor mellows and picks up a flowery hint.  


The local Asian market has an amazing selection of fresh fish.  David's always very excited about picking them out because he'd always thought he didn't like fish -- until he had some real fresh fish.  After surveying our options, we ended up bringing home a milkfish, which are native to the Indian and Pacific oceans and spend some time in swamps and estuaries before heading back to the sea.  Ours -- like pretty much all other milkfish you'll find sold -- was farm-raised.  They live on a diet of algae and invertebrates and make up an important part of the diet for people in the Philippines.  

If you're looking for recipes, it may help to search for their other common names, "bangus" or "chanos chanos." When preparing these guys, be careful of the bones as these are very bony fish.  There are about a billion different ways to cook and eat it, but pan-frying seems to be one of the most popular.  Here's some more information about cooking them.  

Lotus Root

The root -- or, actually, the sunken stem -- of the aquatic lotus blossom.  Lotus plants have a long, somewhat sacred history in Asia, especially in Buddhist countries, where it's a symbol of purity.  The root is commonly used in varying types of cuisines.  

They're a great source of fiber, and they also provide thiamin, vitamin B6, potassium, phosphorous, copper and manganese.  They also have about 27% of your necessary vitamin C.  Here's a few tips for preparing them.  

I had this once in a pho and fell in love with it, though I had absolutely no idea what it was and didn't find it again until discovering it at the Asian market.  It has a flavor and texture somewhat similar to jicama, and it plays well with others in soup.  The easiest way to prepare it is to peel and slice it, then boil it in vinegared water to remove some of the tannins that lend bitterness to it.  After boiling for a minute or two, you can pull it out to use as a crunchy ingredient, or you can keep boiling it and put it in soup.  

Flax Seed

Cultivated as far back as ancient Egypt, flax used to be an extremely common clothing fiber.  Some evidence suggests flax was spun and worn in pre-historic times, dating back to 30,000 B.C. The seeds are eaten as-is or made into oil.  

These things are chock-full of fiber and omega-3s as well as a whole slew of nutrients: thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin B6, folate, vitamin C, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and zinc.  There's some research that suggests it might play a role in reversing diabetes, high cholesterol and cancer, but the jury's out on just how accurate all that is.  

So what do you do with this stuff?  First, you can mix it into things, like yogurt or muffin batter.  Lots of people like putting them in smoothies.  You can also pound it down into a flour-like substance and use it in various baked goods.  The easiest way to do that is to grind it in a coffee grinder.  

Mung Beans

These little guys are native to India, but they're grown throughout Asia and the southern U.S.  They can be cooked and eaten or sprouted.  Cooked, they can be substituted for lentils in most dishes. 

They're packed with fiber and vitamin C, and they're also a good source of protein, thiamin, niacin, iron, magnesium, and a bunch of other things.  

Before we went to the Asian market today, we stopped off at Pho Saigon.  While we were eating our lunch, we got to musing about just how yummy bean sprouts are, and it made me think I needed to buy some mung beans and sprout them myself.  I'm curious to try them cooked.  


During the Middle Ages, this was one of the  most popular and common green vegetables eaten.  My vegetarian friends have been riding me to try this stuff since forever, so I'm finally giving in.  

This humble vegetable is another of the brassicas, closely related to cabbage.  It's high in beta carotene, vitamin K, vitamin C and calcium.  It's also rumored to have some cancer-fighting properties.  

You can eat it cooked or raw.  I hear you can dehydrate it into a delicious chip, so I'll be trying that.  It can also be mixed into things or even snuck into smoothies.