A New Year Miscellany – Part One

Many good old techniques still work well

Politicians, advertisers and PR people love using statistics – whether accurate or not – because they believe they add credibility. The problem is that over-use, or a record of outright distortion, can detract from a claim’s credibility.

We all remember – before misleading advertising legislation – assertions about how many dentists use particular toothpaste brands and older industry people will remember the Camel ad campaigns suggesting that “three (unnamed) independent survey companies” proved that most doctors preferred Camel cigarettes. Similarly, as an example of endorsements ,Ronald Reagan didn’t use statistics – just lent his name to Chesterfield cigarettes which he gave to all his friends for Christmas according to his ads for the company.

Now a recent Nature Human Behavior paper (van der Linden, Leiserowitz and Maibach) suggests “Scientific agreement can neutralize the politicization of facts”  and that evidence-based statistics combined with credible endorsers can be very effective even in contested debates such as climate change.

The paper says (initially a bit discouragingly) that: “Several recent studies have found that the more education conservatives have, the less likely they are to accept scientific findings about climate change, suggesting a motivated reasoning effect. This has led to the concern that attempts to increase public knowledge might exacerbate political polarization on the issue. Yet, most prior studies have been correlational, which leaves the most important question unanswered: Does communicating climate change facts cause issue polarization?”

“We sought to answer this question with a large nationally representative experiment involving 6,301 Americans. Consistent with the motivated reasoning account, before we provided respondents with any information, we found evidence that higher educated conservatives were more likely than higher educated liberals to underestimate the scientific consensus on climate change. However, as part of a randomized experiment, we exposed half of the sample to a simple scientific fact (derived from by NASA) – “97% of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused global warming is happening”.

The critical finding from the survey was that both higher educated liberals and conservatives adjusted their estimates of the scientific consensus on climate change upward in the direction of the actual scientific norm (97%). “Moreover, the consensus message reduced polarization between higher educated liberals and conservatives by nearly 50%: the gap between higher educated liberals and conservatives shrank from about 16 percentage points before exposure.”

“In other words, we found that communicating a simple fact about the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change did not reinforce political polarization. Quite the opposite: communicating the scientific consensus helped neutralize partisan motivated reasoning and bridge the conservative-liberal divide, at least on this key fact. These findings proved robust across ideology and education levels and build on our prior work illustrating that perceived scientific consensus acts as a ‘gateway’ to other key beliefs about climate change.”

What impact the approach would have on Australian conservatives or News publication pundits and readers is moot but the blog rather liked the authors observation that “If 97 percent of the cardiologists you saw said you were about to have a heart attack, you’d pay attention.” And we can be confident that 97% of them wouldn’t be recommending Camels.

Productivity puzzles

One of the great economic puzzles of recent decades has been summed up in the observation that productivity advances can be found everywhere except the statistics. An Economist (9 December 2017) Free Exchange column suggests the problem might well be in the technologies we believe are making us more efficient.

The column is based on a recent essay by the Bank of England’s Dan Nixon and a 2007 paper by Sinan Aral and Erik Brynjolfsson of MIT and Marshall Van Allen of Boston University. The latter says that there is a “U-shaped pattern associated with multitasking and productivity.” In essence, which Nixon also suggests, there is an initial sugar hit followed by a downturn which stems from distraction.” The Economist columnist says: “As economists search for explanations for sagging productivity, some are asking whether the inability to focus for longer than a minute is to blame.” Nixon compiles a mass of evidence that distractions impact on work, reduce workers’ IQ and teaches them to “lose focus and seek distractions.”

As the columnist –  midway through their article remarks – this blog will resume after you check your notifications.

It is happening here too

The blog has been reading the neurosurgeon, Henry Marsh’s, two books – Do No Harm and A Life In Brain Surgery – which the blog’s friend John Spitzer lent it. The descriptions of actual brain surgery are not for the squeamish and nor are the descriptions of the gradual destruction of the UK National Health Service.

Marsh writes: “governments fear that putting up taxes or insurance premiums (the latter not a hassle for Australia’s conservative governments) will lose them the next election. So instead…a small fortune is spent on management consultants who subscribe to the ideology that marketization, computers and the profit motive will somehow solve the problem. The talk is all of greater efficiency, reconfiguring, downsizing, outsourcing and better management. It is a game of musical chairs where…the music is constantly being changed but not the number of chairs. The politicians seem unable to admit to the public that the health-care system is running out of money, I fear the NHS, a triumph of decency and social justice, will be destroyed by this dishonesty. The wealthy will grab the chairs and the poor will have to doss out on the floor.”

Ironically, as regular Private Eye reading indicates, much of the money would be there if it hadn’t been wasted on re-organisations and disastrous IT projects. Moreover, the same destructive forces are undermining not only UK and Australian health systems but also a wide range of other services (of which more in Miscellany Part 2 in a week or so).

Christmas trees

For many years the blog has always believed the claim that Christmas trees were introduced to the UK (and thus ultimately to us) by Prince Albert (husband of Queen Victoria and demon lover). Yet apparently it was Queen Charlotte (wife of George III) who introduced the Christmas tree to Windsor Castle in 1800. A useful bit of knowledge for some future trivia quiz if nothing else.