Good Math, Bad Math

I know that I just posted a link to a stupid religious argument, but I was sent a link to
another one, which I can’t resist mocking.

As I’ve written about quite often, we humans really stink at
understanding big numbers, and how things scale. href="http://thebeachnotes.blogspot.com/2010/05/tragedy-on-college-campuses.html">This
is an example of that. We’ve got a jerk who’s about to graduate from a dinky
christian college, who believes that there must be something special
about the moral atmosphere at his college, because in his four years at the
school, there hasn’t been a single murder.

Yeah, seriously. He really believes that his school is special, because it’s gone four whole
years without a murder:

Considering that the USA Today calculated 857 college student deaths from 2000
to 2005, how does one school manage to escape unscathed? It’s certainly not
chance or luck. For Patrick Henry College, it’s in our Christian culture.

Critics mock us for our strict rules – like no dancing or drinking on campus,
no members of the opposite sex permitted in your dorm room, nightly curfew
hours – and the lack of a social atmosphere it creates. We have been the
subject of books (God’s Harvard), television shows, op-eds, and countless
blogs who rant against our brand of overbearing right-wing Christianity that
poisons society’s freedom.

Yet, what is the cost of students being able to “express” themselves? Is that
freedom worth the cost of drunk driving deaths, drug related violence, and
love affairs turned fatal?

There were 857 college student deaths in the five-year period from 2000 to 2005! Therefore,
any college where there weren’t any murders in that period must be something really
special. That christian culture must be making a really big difference, right?

Well, no.

According
to Google Answers
, the US Census Department reports that there are 2363
four year colleges in the US. So, assuming the widest possible distribution of
student deaths, there were 1506 colleges with no student deaths in a five-year
period. Or, put another way, more than 60% of colleges in the US went that five-year period
without any violent student deaths.

Or, let’s try looking at it another way. According to the census, there are 15.9 million
people currently enrolled in college. The school that, according to the author, is so
remarkable for going without any murders in the last four years? It has 325 students. Not
325 per class – 325 total.

In other words, among a group making up less than 2/1000ths of one percent of the college
population, there were no murders. Assuming that the distribution of violent deaths is perfectly
uniform (which it obviously isn’t; but let’s just keep things simple), given that there were
857 violent deaths in the student population as a whole, how many violent deaths
would you expect among the student body at his dinky christian college?

That would be a big, fat zero.

The fact that there were no violent deaths at his school isn’t remarkable,
not at all. But to a twit who’s incapable of actually understanding what
numbers mean, that’s not the conclusion to be drawn. It’s also not that the
violent death among college students is actually remarkably rare. Nor is it
that most college students will go through college without any
violent deaths on campus. No – according to a twit, with 857 violent
campus deaths over five years, the only reasonable conclusion is that
there must be something special about the ridiculous religious rules at his college
that prevented the great rampaging plague of violence from touching the students
at his school.

I actually spent five years as an undergraduate at Rutgers University in NJ. During that
time, there were no violent student deaths. (There was one death by alchohol poisoning; and there
was one drunk driving accident that killed four students.) But zero violent deaths.
Gosh, Rutgers must have been an absolutely amazingly moral university! And gosh, we had
all of those horrible sinful things, like dancing, and co-ed dorms!
How did we manage to go all that time with no violence?

It must have been the prayers of the very nice Rabbi at the Chabad house
on campus. Yeah, that must be it! Couldn’t just be random chance, right?

Ok, now let me stop being quite so pettily snide for a moment.

What’s going on here is really simple. We hear a whole lot about violence
on campus. And when you hear about eight-hundred and some-odd violent deaths on campus,
it sounds like a lot. So, intuitively, it sure seems like there must be a whole
lot of violence on campus, and it must be really common. So if you can go through your
whole time in college without having any violence occur on campus, it seems
like it must be unusual.

That’s because, as usual, we really suck at understanding big numbers and scale. 800 sounds
like a lot. The idea that there are nearly sixteen million college students is just
not something that we understand on an intuitive level. The idea that nearly a thousand
deaths could be a tiny drop in the bucket – that it really amounts to just one death
per 100,000 students per year – it just doesn’t make sense to us. A number like 800 is,
just barely, intuitively meaningful to us. One million isn’t. Fifteen million isn’t. And a ratio with a
number that we can’t really grasp intuitively on the bottom? That’s not going to be meaningful
either.

Bozo-boy is making an extremely common mistake. He’s just simply failing
to comprehend how numbers scale; he’s not understanding what big numbers really mean.

Comments

  1. #1 LawnBoy
    May 4, 2010

    There’s also the problem that 857 deaths does not mean 857 murders. Looking at the source of that stat (http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2006-01-24-campus-deaths-cover_x.htm), it includes suicides, accidents, illnesses, etc.

    The dumbosity is magnified.

  2. #2 mxh
    May 4, 2010

    “God’s Harvard?”… wow, either Harvard’s let itself go, or God doesn’t have the greatest choice in higher education.

  3. #3 ascendingPig
    May 4, 2010

    I don’t think the problem of conflating deaths with violent deaths was his stupidity. I think it was MCC’s misreading. Suicides, accidents, etc. could be prevented by the same Christian culture that the kid believes prevents murders.

    Actually, the fact that there were three deaths at Rutgers while MCC was there seems like a disproportionately LARGE share of deaths. MCC probably causes death.

  4. #4 tbell
    May 4, 2010

    We suck at big numbers and small numbers. We suck at statistics. We also suck at evaluating causal models, and we suck at understanding the implications of the statistics we do happen to assess correctly.

  5. #5 Nathan
    May 4, 2010

    You know, 800 really isn’t that hard of a number to conceptualize when it comes to students. I can picture an auditorium back at my undergrad that has a sign indicating a capacity of about that many. Similarly, I can estimate a rough minimum bound of 20 * 50 = 1000 four year colleges in the US. It’s really not difficult to imagine that auditorium full of students split across those 1000 colleges around the United States and realize that it’s not so unusual that my school didn’t get one.

    I don’t think this is an example of humans’ inability to conceptualize large numbers; I think this guy is just stupid.

  6. #6 Who Cares
    May 4, 2010

    Just to follow that line of thought the Netherlands must be one of the holiest places in the world with just one violent death at a school in the last 20 years or so (assumption violent means something that will get the offender jail time, not some accidental death).

    Does anyone know a trick or two to make it easier to understand big numbers?

  7. #7 Escuerd
    May 4, 2010

    Yet, what is the cost of students being able to “express” themselves? Is that freedom worth the cost of drunk driving deaths, drug related violence, and love affairs turned fatal?

    -some student from Patrick Henry College

    I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!

    -Patrick Henry

  8. #8 becca
    May 4, 2010

    Wow, people *are* bad with numbers…
    1) As LawnBoy points out, the 857 is total college student deaths, not violent deaths (ok, this is being bad with “categories” not numbers, but it’s obviously related)
    2) As ascendingPig points out, MCC’s time at Rutgers was pretty bad. Rutgers has ~27k students. Which is 0.17% of the 15.9 million. So, if there were three deaths at Rutgers during MCC’s tenure, that would be about twice the 1.5 deaths one would expect of a college that size (of course, there’s the apples and oranges factors of 2000-2005 deaths and ‘current’ college student population and the deaths @ Rutgers during MCC’s tenure- three different time periods, I think… but that’s most relevant if the growth of the Rutgers population over the years is dramatically different compared to the increase of the total student population. Which is possible, but I don’t have that data right now so I’ll set it aside…)
    3) Of course, MCC doesn’t describe *3* deaths, but *5* (usually four in a car crash + one of alcohol poisoning = 5, even for exceptionally small values of four)… which is of course even *more* suspiciously high. Clearly MCC causes a LOT of death.

    What I’d really like to see is the rate of sexual assault at PHC. IF it’s really free of “violent crimes” you’d expect it to be free of rape and sexual assault, no? Or does god not count those as violent crimes? And yet THOSE crimes, far from being 857/17 million type of rare, happen to more like 10-20% of women during their time in college. Ergo, one would expect at least 1.5-3 students at PHC (assuming 50% female population) to be the victims of that type of violent crime. Unless there really is something to the whole ‘christian rules prevent women from being sexually assaulted’ schtick. Or ‘christian culture prevents women from *reporting* being sexually assaulted’- but then we need to introduce proper statistical sampling reasoning, which is even harder than arithmetic.
    NB- I caught at least two numerical errors in drafts of my reply, ergo I’ve probably missed some. For the record- please point out any that you can find, but rest assured I include myself in that “people are bad with numbers” statement, despite my compulsive need to point out other’s errors.

  9. #9 mike
    May 4, 2010

    Mark,
    I can’t help but feel you’re picking on him.
    Sure he’s stupid, fits the bill of people you write about and makes a more-or-less common mistake. But his college and blog are of no consequence. Why not just single out a person who buys a lottery ticket?

  10. #10 george.w
    May 4, 2010

    I am sometimes considered a heartless person for dismissing the “if it saves only one life, it’s worth it!” trope. Not if you have to destroy living to save the life.

    News makes things seem more common. On the day of the Columbine shootings, about twenty-one thousand US public high schools… didn’t have a shooting.

  11. #11 CW
    May 4, 2010

    He really believes that his school is special, because it’s gone four whole years without a murder

    Actually, no. He really believes that his school is special and he thinks that these “number” things he stumbled across validate that belief.

    It’s “See? No tigers. It must be working!” reasoning.

  12. #12 rb
    May 4, 2010

    but don’t forget Patrick Henry is in VA, Va seems to attract campus murders

  13. #13 sep332
    May 4, 2010

    >It must have been the prayers of the very nice Rabbi at the Chabad house on campus. Yeah, that must be it! Couldn’t just be random chance, right?

    This is over the line. Conflating religion with innumeracy is unwarranted. Your irrationality is as much on display here as his.

  14. #14 Radoslav
    May 5, 2010

    Funny thing about sloppy thinking is that it almost always leads people to conclude what they wish to be true.

  15. #15 MPL
    May 5, 2010

    @9,

    Two good reasons:

    1) It would be worth writing up a response to an exceptionally dumb argument that, say, winning the lottery is totally possible (with new secret method).

    2) This particular error is a good illustration of a very common error in thinking.

  16. #16 Escuerd
    May 5, 2010

    sep332 @13:

    Fail.

    Mark is not conflating religion with innumeracy. He’s making fun of the kind of causal inferences the guy is making (which happen to be related to religion).

    Incidentally, MarkCC has pointed out several times on this blog that he is a theistic Jew (unless something’s changed since last time I read one of his comments on the matter). Something tells me that he does not conflate religion with innumeracy.

    Now please find something better to be concerned about.

  17. #17 Nemo
    May 5, 2010

    Either it’s possible to retrain one’s intuition, or some people’s intuitions are just different, because I never feel that the innumerate views expressed by so many are “intuitive” for me. (It’s the same with evolution — apparently I’m supposed to feel that creationism is more “intuitive”, but, I don’t, and I never have. In that case I tend to put it down to my learning about evolution when I was quite young, but I’ve been told (rather insistently) that I still should see that creationism is more “intuitive”, and I just don’t.)

    So, since I think MCC and I are both human, and we don’t seem to have this problem, I kind of object to the generalization that “humans stink at understanding big numbers”. Clearly a lot of them do, but also clearly, it doesn’t have to be that way.

  18. #18 Valhar2000
    May 5, 2010

    Nemo, you are not alone. I remember, when I was a young child, looking at the legs of the family’s dog, and comparing the joints on it to the joints on my legs, and noticing the similarity in the underlying structure. So, when I heard about Common Descent it made perfect sense to me, and it has kept on making more sense over the years.

  19. #19 Iany
    May 5, 2010

    Oh, ffs, I hate it when people missuse data that way.

    What did they even teach that boy at college?

  20. #20 Mark C. Chu-Carroll
    May 5, 2010

    @13:

    You completely misunderstand the point of my snide comment.

    You see, bozo-boy believes that the reason that there were no murders at his dinky little school must, somehow, be related to his religion.

    I’m a religious Jew. I’m mirroring his claim; he claimed that his christianity must be responsible for the fact that there were no violent deaths at his school over the last four years; so I’m claiming that it must be *my* religion that’s responsible for the lack of violent deaths during my time at my college. Why mention the Chabad Rabbi in particular? Because, frankly, I liked the guy. As a reconstructionist, I tend to have a problem with orthodox and chasidic Jews; we disagree on so much that’s important to us. And yet, despite our incredibly deep disagreements, he treated me with respect and kindness, while still acknowledging our disagreements. The other orthodox Rabbi on campus that I knew couldn’t be bothered to do that; he simply insulted me at every opportunity, while masking the insults behind a false joviality. So given a choice about which traditional rabbi to use an argument for why there were no violent deaths on campus in my time, I chose to use the guy who I liked.

    I’m absolutely not conflating religion and innumeracy. First, I’m religious, and I don’t think that I’m innumerate. Second, there have been no shortage of deeply religious mathematicians who are a bloody hell of a lot smarter than me. For one obvious example, Kurt Gödel, who was a deeply and profoundly religious christian. As I said in the last post, Gödel produced one of the most profound and important proofs in the history of mathematics – hardly the work of an innumerate.

    What I *am* doing is mocking idiots who use their religion as a shield against reality. The jerk who wrote the post that I mocked couldn’t be bothered to actually think through his idiotic argument. As I see it, there are really only two possibilities for the source of his error:

    (1) Either he’s so smugly certain of the superiority of his fundamentalist co-religionists over the rest of the country that he couldn’t even bother to spend a moment thinking about what the numbers mean.

    (2) He’s so damned poorly educated that he’s incapable of understanding what the population numbers compared to the violent death numbers actually mean.

    If you just run with intuition, and you never bother to think about what things mean, then you can make a mistake like that. Pretty recently, I wrote a post making fun of a liberal writer who I quite like, for making a mistake like that. (In his case, he guessed that there were thousands of airline flights in the US over the last decade, when there are, in fact, millions of flights per year.)

    If you actually bother to take a moment to think about the numbers, then it’s blindingly obvious how ridiculous the claim is. If you actually have a clue of what numbers mean, there’s simple no reasonable way that you could possible miss how ridiculous it is – so if he actually put a moments thought into what the numbers meant, then he’s got to be a fundamentally illiterate twit.

  21. #21 James Barton
    May 5, 2010

    I agree that the kid has totally fumbled the statistics, and his argument amounts to nothing. I agree that his argument should be exposed for the dross that it is.

    And I agree that this is your blog and you can say what you like on it, and that I didn’t have to read this and neither does anyone else. Moreover I am not offended, and even if I were, your right to free expression would be more important than that.

    But! You didn’t have to do that much name-calling. Even if he actually is a jerk, a twit, a bozo, &c, you could have attacked his argument without attacking him.

    Thank you anyway for the bloggin, keep up the good work :-)

  22. #22 Mark C. Chu-Carroll
    May 5, 2010

    @21:

    Allow me to summarize: “I don’t care, I have no right to complain, no one has been bothered, but I’m going to complain anyway”.

    You’ll excuse me if I don’t change the way that I write my blog in response to comments like that.

  23. #23 Tartagila
    May 5, 2010

    Look up the original blog. Turns out the college student is an “Associate Producer for Bill Bennett’s Morning in America” show. Considering the millions of $$$ his boss has lost in Vegas, a lack of numeracy just might be one of those conservative Christian traits

  24. #24 James Barton
    May 5, 2010

    @22:

    That’s not a complaint. It’s a suggestion. My list of things I’m not claiming is to avoid being straw-manned by people reacting to what they think I wrote, rather than what I actually wrote. I have assumed that you would like to educate with this blog; perhaps I am mistaken.

    My suggestion, to be clear, is that your articles would be more persuasive (not more correct) if you didn’t resort to attacking the people as well as the arguments.

  25. #25 Doug Little
    May 5, 2010

    My suggestion, to be clear, is that your articles would be more persuasive (not more correct) if you didn’t resort to attacking the people as well as the arguments.

    The concern is strong in this one!

  26. #26 NJ
    May 5, 2010

    …if you didn’t resort to attacking the people as well as the arguments.

    Have you been on the Internet before?

  27. #27 Mark C. Chu-Carroll
    May 5, 2010

    @24:

    And *my* suggestion is to take your concerns and keep them to yourself.

    Look, I’ve been writing this blog for around 4 years. I’ve had more than 4 million pageviews since I moved the blog to ScienceBlogs. I’ve had over 25,000 non-spam comments.

    Do you really think that you’re the first person who’s come along to smugly inform me of how much better I could do reaching my audience if I’d just change my writing style to fit your preferences?

    I write this blog for fun. I write it the way I want to write it. And no dumbass concern troll is going to accomplish anything except pissing me off. If you think that a blog like this would be better written in a different style, go ahead and start your own. That’s the great thing about blogs: anyone can write one, and anyone get people to read it if it’s any good.

  28. #28 Dylan
    May 5, 2010

    I think you are overlooking the fact that he says no murders, suicides, or VIOLENT CRIMES have been committed. You seem completely stuck on the word murders. I would love to see how the school matches up with the number of violent crimes committed on college campuses.

  29. #29 James Barton
    May 5, 2010

    @26:

    Haha :-) It’s a fair point. What’s more, I enjoy sites like “Sadly, No!” and “spEak You’re bRanes”, which provide amusement, but not discourse, by ridiculing people who publish things they disagree with.

    I think the difference is that there’s valuable intellectual labour in a blog like this; it’s not an attempt to be funny. I believe it would be more effective at teaching people to spot bad maths if there was less ridiculing of his unfortunate targets. Of course, it’s Mark’s blog and Mark’s choice.

  30. #30 eric
    May 5, 2010

    Critics mock us for our strict rules

    Fear not, young PHC scholar! Keep publishing articles like this, and before long critics will not be mocking you for your strict rules. (Oh, and @7 FTW)

  31. #31 Mark C. Chu-Carroll
    May 5, 2010

    @29:

    Most important point: who asked for your advice?

    Please, just shut up and cut the damned concern trolling. Like I’ve said multiple times in this comment thread: do you *really* think that you’re the first person to come along and preachily tell me what’s wrong with my writing? Do you *really* think that no one else has ever said something like that?

    Do you really think that in the four years I’ve been writing my blog, over the course of writing nearly 1000 posts, I’ve *never thought* about my writing style? That I’ve never considered the effects of my style?

    Do you really think that you’re saying anything that I haven’t heard before? Or do you really think that you’re so special and important that when *you* say it, it will suddenly make me decide to change the entire style of my blog?

    Get over yourself. This is the way that I’ve chosen to write. End of discussion.

  32. #32 Tomato Addict
    May 5, 2010

    Out of curiosity, I looked up the data:
    http://ope.ed.gov/security/GetOneInstitutionData.aspx

    There are no “on campus” crimes of any sort reported for 2006-2008. However, these are “self-reported” statistics, with no real way to gauge the quality of the reporting. Given that it is a small campus with strict rules, it seems like that mischief is more likely to occur off-campus.

  33. #33 Jim
    May 5, 2010

    Thanks for the information. it is sad that a college student doesn’t have basic numeric skills and critical thought.

  34. #34 sep332
    May 5, 2010

    @MarkCC, Thanks for the follow-up. I’m certainly not defending the guy’s reasoning. I think I might have gotten your snideness out of context.

  35. #35 mike
    May 5, 2010

    Let me describe a feeling that many commenters are getting at. The “bad math” in this post is somewhat vague.
    When I first started reading I thought it was going to be about the silly big number evolution argument. Then I saw it was about the general innumeracy of a kid from a small college on a low-traffic blog.
    If you ignore the religious aspect it wasn’t really clear why this post was written. Though, what was clear in the post was the religion of the school and the religious motivation of the kid.

    If Mark maintains that he is not writing about religious innumeracy, then I believe it. But as this post is written it appears that there exists a prejudice against religion. Specifically the parts about, “… stupid religious argument,… which I can’t resist mocking.”
    Also, I don’t think it’s a valid argument to say, “I can’t be prejudice against religion because I am myself religious.”

  36. #36 GL
    May 5, 2010

    The problem is that at jesus camp university they only teach stupid morality, not reality…. Or math.

  37. #37 mike
    May 5, 2010

    The problem is that at jesus camp university they only teach stupid morality, not reality…. Or math.

    Bigoted stereotypes like this seem consistent with the original post.

  38. #38 Felix
    May 6, 2010

    perhaps the problem arises because of the media’s graphic and exhaustive reports on spectacular incidents such as shootings at schools and colleges

    this leads innumerates (such as this guy) to picture such incidents as much more common than they actually are

  39. #39 Joni
    May 6, 2010

    Gaud, yet another mo-ron actually graduating.

    Anyone care to surmise what the state of this world will be like in 10 years.

    I realize there are exceptions to every rul, however I live in a college town and trust me, below average intelligence has been the norm.

  40. #40 CherryBomb
    May 6, 2010

    I don’t think this is a problem of being unable to grasp large numbers per se. I’ve never had any difficulty, it’s just a matter of multiplication and division. What I think it does show is that many people do lack an intuitive grasp of how probability works.

  41. #41 eric
    May 6, 2010

    Mike @35: If you ignore the religious aspect it wasn’t really clear why this post was written.

    Since MCC’s very first line says the post is about a ‘stupid religious argument,’ I can understand why ignoring the religious aspect might confuse you.

    Is this really that difficult to understand? Kid attributes perfectly normal statistical result to divine invervention because he doesn’t understand statistics.

    If the kid had said ‘we haven’t had a murder in four years! I chalk it up to daily showering’ that would be a stupid shower argument. Since he said ‘we haven’t had a murder in four years! I chalk it up to Jesus,’ that makes it a stupid religious argument.

  42. #42 Vicki
    May 6, 2010

    I know this is mostly about a horrible grasp of numbers, but should we be worried that a college student thinks it’s unusual that, in a population of a few hundred people, there aren’t any murders?

  43. #43 mike
    May 6, 2010

    @41 eric

    There are cases of United States senators budgeting not knowing the difference between a billion and a million or of entire school districts being funded by lottery profits but Mark chooses to write about the ramblings of a kid on a three month old personal blog. You may believe that this post is a good read because it exemplifies a common (but vague) problem in society, but one may credibly believe that the only reason Mark wrote this was to snicker at religious people. Also, to detail how this is a religious argument is to make the mistake that commenters are accusing Mark of making, that is conflating a bad math argument from a religious person with general religious innumeracy. It is not “religion” that made this argument, nor is the crux of the argument based on religion.

  44. #44 jackal.eyes
    May 7, 2010

    “… one may credibly believe that the only reason Mark wrote this was to snicker at religious people.”

    Except of course for the fact that Mark spends most of his time demolishing the kid’s math mistakes, and that Mark is himself religious. It must be hard maintaining that religious persecution complex in a country in which over 80% of the population identifies as Christian.

  45. I agree that the kid has totally fumbled the statistics, and his argument amounts to nothing. I agree that his argument should be exposed for the dross that it is.

    News makes things seem more common. On the day of the Columbine shootings, about twenty-one thousand US public high schools… didn’t have a shooting.

    And I agree that this is your blog and you can say what you like on it. But you didn’t have to do that much name-calling. Even if he actually is a jerk, a twit, a bozo, &c, you could have attacked his argument without attacking him.

    Thank you anyway for the blogging.

  46. #46 mike
    May 7, 2010

    @44 jackal.eyes
    This kid had no readership and nothing particularly unique or exemplary about his argument. He is by all means inconsequential. Sure Mark writes a lot against the argument, but why? Also, what does Mark’s personal religious views have to do with a possible prejudice?

    I don’t mean to pick at this but most of the comments are either anti-religious bigots or readers denouncing ‘name-calling.’

    Just compare this blog post to another one, say one from here. Mark previously writes about how United States social security is financially sustainable and not a ponzi scheme if benefits are a certain way, contrary to popular belief. That’s huge. Mark doesn’t shy away from politics but you couldn’t accuse him of trying to smear any particular group because the math speaks for itself and, more importantly, it is an interesting read.
    Of course, whether or not Mark intended it, I think this post is just red meat to religion-hating partisans, which is a likely a small portion of the readers as you pointed out in 44.

    And I’m not just writing this because Mark is talking about religion. Mark often writes about influential creationist authors and specific anti-evolution arguments but not in this case. Mark seems to be writing about an example of a religious person engaging in bad math, then he explains that it a common mistake. Does Mark mean that this is a common mistake among religious people in general or that religious schools generally give sub-standard educations? I don’t believe that is what Mark is saying nor do I believe that is the case, but it is unclear in this post and that deserves some criticism.

  47. #47 jamesclaims
    May 7, 2010

    It’s amazing that people continue to misconstrue this delightful little article even with such explicit sign posts concerning the tone like this: “Ok, now let me stop being quite so pettily snide for a moment.”

    Jeez, it’s a rant about someone using bad math (which is apparently an annoyance of this blog’s author) to justify some moral superiority that is simply non-existent. And who could resist tearing this kid a new one when the tagline on his blog is “Bringing candor, good will, and intelligence to the explosive world of blogs.” Come on, that’s just asking for a classic internet smackdown.

    Furthermore, holding Mark accountable for how other people choose to interpret his findings is unreasonable given how many people walk around on the internet and his clear intent. On top of that, I’m an atheist, and even I didn’t take this “red meat” to mean that Mark hates Christians. I just saw it as a take down of horribly bad math to justify self-righteous smugness and things like “not dancing prevents murder”. And as a mathematician and rational human being, I definitely enjoyed it very much. Take your concerned trolling over to Pharyngula, PZ’s readers will be more than happy to hear your comments there.

  48. #48 mike
    May 7, 2010

    @47 jamesclaims
    Yes, this post is delightful, but keep in mind that it is at someone else’s expense. What you call “classic internet smackdown” can be seen as bullying. Jeez, this kid only has one follower.

    And my criticism is about the post itself. The writing softly mixes religion and innumeracy with unclear intent. If I were new to this blog I would know that Mark famously writes about bad math in creationist arguments and in this case he is singling out a religious kid. The conclusion is obvious, whether or not Mark is religious himself.

    btw, Good Math, Bad Math is head and shoulders better than Pharyngula, even though it might not be apparent in this post. Maybe decency is the difference.

  49. #49 Brian
    May 8, 2010

    and that Mark is himself religious Self-loathing perhaps? C’mon our host, to his credit, attacks mathematical claims, religious or no, based on bad logic/reasoning. He has no axe to grind, that is, he is not antireligious, so it must be because he cares for the truth. Can’t fault that in my book.

  50. #50 dan
    May 8, 2010

    This reminds me of a interesting question brought up in John Allen Paulos’s Innumeracy (paraphrasing here):

    “There is a vaccine A which has been given to 8 people and resulted in no deaths. There is also a vaccine B which has been given to 32 people with one death. Assuming I have to take exactly 1 of the 2 vaccines, which should one take?”

    That problem’s answer is B because A just hasn’t been tested enough. (The actual math is in the book and is mildly delightful.)

    It appears the PHC student’s argument could be used to answer the question “Should a prospective college student worried about dying attend a large school with a death on record or a smaller school with no deaths on record?” As with the vaccine question, I’d guess that the larger school is in fact safer. Anyone wanna do the math comparing PHC with, say, Michigan?

  51. #51 eric
    May 10, 2010

    OT, but may be of interest to MCC and others; Steve Strogatz’s weekly math column in the New York Times this week is on Cantor. Link.

  52. #52 eric
    May 10, 2010

    Mike @48: If I were new to this blog I would know that Mark famously writes about bad math in creationist arguments and in this case he is singling out a religious kid. The conclusion is obvious, whether or not Mark is religious himself.

    MCC was sent this guy’s letter by a reader. That’s it – that’s the conclusion. No conspiratorial targeting of the religious need be hypothesized to explain this post.

    Perhaps you should read the first sentence of the post again; this is the second complaint you’ve made for which that sentence was relevant.

  53. #53 mike
    May 10, 2010

    @eric 52
    How is that a conclusion? I said the conclusion was obvious. Do you not understand what I meant or do you just want us to cease thinking by stating explicitly what our conclusions should be?
    I’m not accusing Mark of “conspiratorial targeting of the religious.” I at most accuse him of unintended insensitivities.

  54. #54 Stefan W.
    May 10, 2010

    Back on topic, I don’t see the headline being shown.

    800 incidents, 2600 schools – that aren’t such big numbers. You needn’t take the way over millions of pupils, and we don’t see, that that happened.

    On the other hand, we aren’t good at intuitive math at all – not even with small numbers. Yes – 17 < 35 or 9 > 5 is solvable intuitively, but I can’t solve 3+4 by intuition. For very small numbers, I know the result by training, for larger numbers I have to do the math. I can do rounding and estimating, but I suspect the blogger in this case did nothing at all. He did not even think about getting the numbers, but went directly from his fear – the christian rule-system might violate his freedoms – to the excuse: it has great benefits, and saves him from himself. “Despite what the Harvard student insuates, the rules at PHC are not Draconian. They are calculated to protect the student body and be flexible enough to look out for their best interests.” http://thebeachnotes.blogspot.com/2010/05/tragedy-on-campus-part-2.html

    Maybe he would’nt been able to do the math, if he had the numbers right in front of him, but I would have to do some math, given the numbers, to make a claim of ‘usual/unusual’.

    What I don’t get at all, is: Does christianity in the phantasy of Chris stop Christians from commiting crimes? I never heard christians from doing such claims. On the othter side – doesn’t the statistic speak of victims? So christianity protects christians from crimes? With other words: If you become a crime victim, that’s goods punishment for not being of the right religion? Some kind of judgement-day-praecox? God can’t wait punishing? And uses criminals as a tool of god?

    A moment, please! :) The criminal is a compliant tool of god. :)

    This person is not just a mathematical moron, he is even religiously not that bright. :)

  55. #55 eric
    May 11, 2010

    Mike @53I’m not accusing Mark of “conspiratorial targeting of the religious.” I at most accuse him of unintended insensitivities.

    You accuse him of “singling out a religious kid” – your exact words. Does singling out not mean some form of selected or targeted response?

  56. #56 mike
    May 11, 2010

    @eric 55
    One of my points is that many readers, maybe including you, conflate the innumeracy of an individual with that of religious people in general. The accusation is that Mark isn’t just explaining a single example of bad math but also hinting at a connection with religion in general. It would actually make sense for Mark to target just this one kid like how he targets Dembski, but this kid is no Dembski.
    As for ‘conspiratorial’, I never made that claim and I don’t think that word means what you think it means.

  57. #57 antonsingov
    May 12, 2010

    To be honest I found this post really unnecessarily nasty. Who cares if some guy thinks his school is great?

  58. #58 Vicki
    May 12, 2010

    As stated, the only answer to the Paulos question is “insufficient data.” OK, we know the death rates and the sample size. We don’t know what other side effects there are, what the vaccines protect against, or how effective they are. Sure, small sample, but if we also know that 18 people in the larger group still contracted what they were vaccinated against, that’s relevant. For that matter: if I have a safer vaccine against the common cold, and a more dangerous one against malaria, well, where am I going to be spending the next year? (For all I know, Paulos deals with all this, but that’s not what’s given here: good math includes making sure you’re reporting the relevant variables.)

  59. #59 ivy privy
    May 14, 2010

    I work at a university which recently suffered through a spate of student suicides, enough to get us some unwelcome national press. This can be written off a statistical fluctuation.
    But there may be more to it. recently a Yale student leapt to his death from the Empire State Building. So the problem is this: our campus is beautiful. But some other campuses, such as that of Yale are so ugly that suicidal students literally would not be caught dead there.

  60. #60 nisha
    May 19, 2010

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  61. #61 Vorlath
    May 22, 2010

    Sorry for being OT, but I was wondering if there is anyone out there that would entertain the resident crackpot concerning the halting problem. I wrote something up and would like to verify the terms I used and any glaring errors which will have to be there since everyone says I’m wrong. I wrote a paper on it where I want to make sure readers will at least understand what I describe.

    You can reach me at my blog or find my email in the about page and I’ll send it over. Thanks.

  62. #62 Jacolyte
    June 4, 2010

    From Chris’ blog: “Everyday I listen to people all across America voice their opinion on the issues facing America and its future.”

    Yet he doesn’t allow comments? The hypocrisy is so thick it makes me want to vomit.

  63. #63 Zuska
    June 7, 2010

    Hey Mark! I see that Whiney McWhinerson and all his concern troll buddies post comments here at your blog helpfully ‘splainin to you how to blog, too! Aren’t you lucky!!!!!

    Nicely done post.

  64. #64 Gordon Mohr
    June 22, 2010

    No doubt, this young undergraduate from a small school is drawing the wrong conclusion from his anecdotal impressions of school fatalities.

    But this does not make him a ‘jerk’, a ‘twit’, or a ‘bozo-boy’. Just mistaken on the numbers.

  65. #65 Passerby
    June 22, 2010

    I went to a different source for crime statistics in the US, violent crimes on college campuses: the FBI.

    Crime in Schools and Colleges: A Study of Offenders and Arrestees Reported via National Incident-Based Reporting System Data

    http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/schoolviolence/2007/

    The caveat section states explicitly that the crime rates are not indicative of trends on campus, but rather that the figures shown include improved data gathering over the course of the study, and not a national trend towards increasing violent crime on campus over time.

    In fact, violent crime in the US has declined in the recent years in most major cities, where many large urban colleges and universities are located. According to the FBI, crime risk migrated to smaller cities and rural areas, a trend that reflects criminal avoidance of a nationwide crackdown on organized/drug-related violence in major metropolitan areas.

    A more recent study on targeted violet crime attacks on campus:

    Campus Attacks: Targeted Violence Affecting Institutions of Higher Learning (April 2010)

    http://www.fbi.gov/publications/campus/campus.htm

    Preliminary statistics, Violent Crime in the US (May 2010)
    http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/prelimsem2009/index.html

    ‘Preliminary figures indicate that, as a whole, law enforcement agencies throughout the Nation reported a decrease of 5.5 percent in the number of violent crimes brought to their attention for 2009 when compared with figures reported for 2008. The violent crime category includes murder, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. ‘

    A general caveat on crime reported on college campuses: reporting is voluntary. Campus police departments may operate as stand-alone, or in tandem with, or are superseded in jurisdictional authority by city or metropolitan police precincts.

    Thus, the collection of crime data in the US for compiling statistical trends on campus is complicated, incomplete and should not be considered representative of all institutions of higher learning. Most reports containing campus crime data data will readily annotate figures and tables with caveats and cautionary statements.

  66. #66 Passerby
    June 22, 2010

    Like reply #64, I find the tone of this blog entry….somewhat pompous because you do not look at the larger picture, you merely assume the young man is either naive or stupid, or both.

    Statistics have been compiled on various aspects of socioeconomic status, lifestyle and crime for neighborhoods enriched in families that regularly participate in religious activities. Generally speaking, they are more affluent, tend to attract similar types, and feature less violence and petty crime that neighborhoods comprised of secular, nonpracticing families, cohabiting and single adults.

    They may be safer on principle because they practice social connectedness – they know, socialize and watch out for one another and therefore recognize strangers and may be proactive and conclusive in the control of factors known to be associated with violent crime (mental illness, substance addiction, depression and social isolation, truancy, etc).

    But what if this impromptu neighborhood crime prevention mentality also exists on small private Christian campuses? Might it possible that ‘collective community consciousness’ and proactive control of factors like depression, abnormal social behaviors, drug and alcohol use – could they reduce the risk of violent crime occurring in this setting?

    Maybe so. Worth considering perhaps.

  67. #67 christian college
    June 26, 2010

    I think you have provided a great guideline.

  68. #68 Vickie
    July 11, 2010

    The general population does not understand basic math or statistics. When I was pregnant with my 2nd child at age 37, the doctors treated me as if I were 67. They wanted me to do all sorts of tests because of the “highly increased rate” of certain birth defects. My master’s degree is in math and my husband has an electrical engineering degree. We looked at the numbers and realized that the tests had a higher chance of causing harm to the fetus than the chances of there actually being something wrong. Furthermore, if the test results indicated something was wrong, there was not a way to fix it during pregnancy anyway. So we opted for no testing.
    On a totally unrelated note: I am a strong Christian and there is nothing I hate more than Christians who speak/write in public without any math/science evidence. It makes the whole lot of us look ignorant.
    On another unrelated note: 99% of people I talk to think 50% more is the same as twice as much. I’d love to trade money with them all day!