29 November 2021

Do you know what time it is ?

Claire asks Tiffany "Do know what time it is?"
Tiffany looks around at an old-fashioned clock sitting on the sideboard which shows that the time is 6.56. 

"Yeah, it is four minutes to 7," says Tiffany.
Following Tiffany's glance, Claire says, "Oh, that clock doesn't work. It always shows 6.56. So you are mistaken."
Tiffany looks at her mobile phone and says "Oh yeah, well my mobile phone says it is in fact 6.56 at the moment. So I was not mistaken, and I did know the time."
(Adapted from Bertrand Russell, Human Knowledge: Its scope and limits, 1948)

Does Tiffany have a legitimate claim to "knowing" the time after viewing the stopped clock? 
If the time was 6.56, and Tiffany believed it was, and justified that belief by reading the clock, does she have knowledge? 
The notion that knowledge is 'justified, true belief' suggests that she does. Perhaps we ought to change the definition of knowledge? How would you change the definition?


31 December 2020

Be who you are


Be who you are --
no-one else can be.

Become who you can --
no-one else can do.




To be what we are,
and to become what we are capable of becoming,
is the only end of life.

Robert Louis Stevenson




Be who you are and say what you feel
because those who mind don't matter,
and those who matter don't mind.

Dr Seuss

31 October 2020

From impossible to improbable: small step or giant leap ?

Proposition: Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon is a hoax.
Impossible? Improbable? 
Is the difference a small step or a giant leap
Follow this cryptic journey from steps on the moon to the bowels of Christ fuelled by parsnips! 
Hang on tight!

Faith: The idea that moon landings are a hoax is simply ludicrous. They moon landings happened, the evidence is incontrovertible.

Skip: What is that evidence?

Faith: This article tells and shows how photographs taken by NASA's reconnaissance lunar orbiter reveal human footprints on the moon.

Skip: OK, but the photographs could be fakes. Or maybe NASA actually landed a mechanical lunar rover on the moon that has two wheels on each side with boots in place of tyre treads, and it was set to "walk" around a bit. Voila! Footprints.

Faith: Aww, come on, that's just stupid.

Skip: Stupid, yes. But possible?

Faith: No way. They have soil and rocks that they brought back from the moon that are not found anywhere on earth.

Skip: Well, that one's easy to challenge. The rocks are found on earth. They're in NASA labs. How can we be sure they are not elsewhere too? Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. And besides, have you seen these rocks? Are you a geologist? Can you confirm that they absolutely cannot be of this earth?

Faith: No the experts have made this judgment. I trust the experts.

Skip: Sure, I trust experts too. But I also know that it is sometimes wise to ask for a second opinion. Experts do not always get it right, and often disagree. Indeed, it's almost certain that for any expert opinion, you will be able to find another expert who disagrees.

Faith: Oh this is silly. The theory that the moon landings are a hoax is simply impossible.
Skip: I'm not asking you to admit that there were no moon landings, or no humans walked on the moon, or even that they are a hoax. I'm asking you whether you might be wrong about man walking on the moon?

Faith: While I acknowledge the points you are making, they 'doth butter no parsnips with me' 😂

Skip: Let me respond to your 17th century idiom about buttered parsnips with a quote from the same century called Cromwell's rule: 'I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken?'  
Faith: What?
Skip: Cromwell's rule says that anyone who is 100% adamant about their view is in trouble for two reasons: (a) they might be wrong and (b) they are blind to this possibility.
Faith: Ah, OK, I think I can see that. That the moon landings are a hoax is highly improbable rather than impossible. 
Skip: Yes, exactly. It's a small step with enormous implications.
Faith: But you have to make a giant leap to get over the remaining problem. Your view presents an absurdity, namely that the impossible is not possible at all? 😂 

Induction is the glory of Science, and the scandal of Philosophy
   -- C.D. Broad, Commemorative Address at The Bacon Tercentenary, (1926)

Words are but wind that do from men proceed;
None but Chamelions on bare Air can feed;
Great men large hopeful promises may utter;
But words did never Fish or Parsnips butter
   -- John Taylor, Epigrammes (1651)
 I never made a mistake in my life.
I thought I did once,
but I was wrong.
  -- attributed to Charles M. Schulz, creator of Peanuts

29 October 2020

Excuse, pardon, or forgive others ?

If a person is pushing past others in a pub on their way to the bar or to the toilet, the one passing through may say to those they bump into, "excuse me" or "pardon me."

The speaker in this context is asking to be excused or pardoned for a minor infraction, bumping into or brushing past others and endangering or even manifesting a beer spill. 
While it is technically a question, it is typically offered more as a declarative statement: the bumper expects to be excused or pardoned. In fact, to not excuse or pardon someone who commits a minor infraction like this, especially after they've asked to be excused/pardoned would be considered rather rude.
Sometimes, the one that says "excuse me" or "pardon me" is the bumpee, the one who has been bumped. S/he is minding their own business drinking a beer, and someone bumps into them without saying anything and their beer spills. An irate bumpee might bump the behavior of the bumper by saying "excuse me?" or "pardon me?". In this context, the words are asked as a question, but are offered as a gentle rebuff to the perceived rudeness of the bumper. It is something along the lines of "don't you think you might say something to excuse/pardon yourself rather than just bump your way through?"

In this beer-spill sense, excusing and pardoning someone is synonymous. The request to be excused or pardoned is little more than a politesse. And the request from the bumpee for an "excuse me?" or "pardon me?" is little more than a reminder to the bumper of the need for this politesse.
What about the situation where the bump causes something more catastrophic than a beer spill? It might be an oil spill with economic, financial and ecological consequences. Or a blood spill which could be a literal physical injury, or maybe something more emotional as in matters of the heart.

13 August 2020

Do prayers get results ?

 Two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness.

One of the guys is religious, the other's an atheist.

The two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer.

The atheist in a fleeting moment of vulnerability says "Look, it's not like I don't have actual reasons for not believing in God. It's not like I haven't ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from camp in that terrible blizzard and I was totally lost and I couldn't see a thing and it was 50 below and so I tried it. I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out 'Oh God if there is a god I'm lost in this blizzard and I'm gonna die if you don't help me now.'"

In the bar the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled: "Well then you must believe now" he says "after all here you are alive."

The atheist just rolls his eyes: "No man, all that happened was a couple of Inuit happened to come wandering by and they showed me the way back to camp."

(From David Foster Wallace, Commencement Speech, Kenyon College, 2005, https://youtu.be/OsAd4HGJS4o?t=161)


Does the atheist's experience in the blizzard prove that prayers are answered or not?

How can the same experience mean totally different things to the atheist and the believer?  

Is it possible that belief, meaning & interpretation actually precede the evidence?

23 July 2020

History - irrelevant, false, true ?

A brand new school opens freshly painted doors to welcome its first students to their first classes.

An enthusiastic history teacher, Anne Akronism, arrives to face her first students in her first class ever. 

In her defence, she considers that she is not simply teaching history, but helping to make history.

She arrives to find three adolescent boys sitting in a row, all have their heads bowed down, each is reading a book. 

She is a bit surprised to observe that the covers of the three books are exactly the same.

"Morning boys," says the teacher. "Enjoying your book?"

"Yes Ma'am" the three say in unison as they look up.

She gasps. The three boys are dressed quite differently - one has tattoos on his arm, the one next to him has a prominent crucifix around his neck, and the third is dressed in a neat-preppy way - but the three appear to be physically identical: same eyes, same nose, same hair, same height, same build.

29 June 2020

Practical uncertainty - believe less, be less certain

Entrance to Centre Court, Wimbledon
Believe less.
Be less certain.

Or rather, 
believe this one certainty:
there is always more to learn.

Learn well from your mistakes.

Your wins are nothing.
Self-aggrandizement from wins,
is a card-house
founded on luck.

Your losses are learning opportunities,
personal pain is the powerful teacher.
Lose that opportunity,
you lose everything!

Ask questions,
and pay attention.

Nurture conversations, dialogues, discussions, and even debates,
but aim for discovery rather than destination,
pursue exploration rather than exposition.

Better to question
than to answer.

18 June 2020

No news is good

The Caribbean Sea is justifiably famous for its well over 7000 idyllic islands

They are the very definition of paradise: you are free to lie in a hammock under a coconut tree or swim in the aquamarine sea.

However, the picture of paradise hides a dirty, little secret - life here ain't perfect.

The Brothers Cay, in the southern part of the Caribbean off the coast of Colombia, is named for two brothers who died in unfortunate circumstances many years apart over a century ago.

The first to die was a young boy, a toddler, killed by a falling coconut. This threw the island into mourning for some weeks. And for months afterwards, mothers and others would encourage everyone to not linger under dangerous coconut trees. 

02 June 2020

Philosophy is a sandbox: get in & play !

Virtually everyone is aware of the trolley problem in philosophy: a run-away trolley/streetcar/tram is going to kill four people, but you're standing by a switch and you have the capacity to redirect the tram to another track where it will kill one person - do you pull the switch? 

The 'trolley problem' is a staple of philosophy - and it is an example of staple method used in philosophy - the thought experiment.

Or put another way, 'what if' questioning. Or to put a fancy term on it: hypotheticals.

Philosophy then, is a sandbox. It is a place for grownups to play with ideas, concepts, hypotheticals, thought-experiments (e.g., in software development). 

18 May 2020

A psychokinetic paradox?

Professor Cecily P Science is confident that people can know the outcomes of future random events, a so-called 'psi' effect.

The study of 'psi' or the power of mind over matter, of consciousness over the physical world, has been explored at length in psychology, often within a sub-field known as para-psychology. One of most famous labs studying psi is PEAR: Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research.

Cecily is keen to run an experiment to show that people can predict outcomes of coin tosses at a rate better than chance.

She explains her hypothesis to a graduate student, Laizee Bumm, and asks him to conduct the study for her. However, Laizee is a research assistant with other priorities. He does what she asks, but makes up the data to save himself time.

He generates random data for 100 people guessing a thousand coin tosses each. The results from the random-number generator "show" that 50% of the guesses (of the fake respondents) are right, and 50% are wrong.

In actual fact though, the results from the random-number generator happen to show that people correctly guess 501 out of 1000 coin tosses.

This result it should be noted, happens to be in line with previously reported studies of the psi effect: 'The effects that the volunteers accomplish are very small, but amazing. The operators are roughly altering one bit in 1,000,' explains Michael Ibison, a British mathematical physicist who has come to work for a year at PEAR after stints at Siemens, IBM, and Agfa. 'That means if you had a coin toss, psychokinesis could affect one of those coin tosses if you tossed a thousand times.'  Van Bakel 1994, Wired


Do the final results of this study by Cecily and Laizee provide evidence of a psychokinetic effect? 

Why? Why not?

If Laizee's data are fabricated using a random number generator, doesn't this mean the observed results were the outcomes of random events?

If Cecily's expectations were supported, doesn't this mean that she has proved her point that people can know the outcomes of future events? Didn't she got the result she expected?

13 December 2019

What is truth?

1. The Truth is... a riddle

What is something that humans seek, and don't know it when they see it?

The answer is the truth!

2. The Truth is... not known

Humans want to know the truth, 
but they don't know it when they see it.

(C.f. Jacobellis v Ohio 1964 in which the judge declined to define hard-core pornography, but famously said "I know it when I see it".)

The conundrum about knowing truth is captured in the idea of knowledge as justified true belief

It is said that we know something to be true if 
(a) we believe it to be true, 
(b) we have justification for our belief, and 
(c) it is true.

We can build towards knowledge 
with beliefs and justifications, 
but we fail unless it's true.

And how do we "know" if it's true? Whether something is true, is unknown. 


22 October 2019

Do you believe in God(s): Yes, No, or Other?

"Do you believe in God (however you choose to define that entity or those entities)?" 

A dichotomous version of this question would allow only "Yes" or "No" as responses. But doesn't this create a false dichotomy?

In particular, if I respond "No", someone might respond, "Ah, so you believe there is no god".  

But that's not what I'm saying at all. I'm merely saying that I do not hold a belief in God. That is not the same as saying I hold a belief that there is no God(s).

There is some ambiguity in the original version of the question "Do you believe in a god?"

One version is "Do you hold (or have) a belief in God?" To which I can legitimately respond, "Yes" or "No".
The other version is: "Does God exist?" To which a more nuanced response may be justified.

16 October 2019

Democracy: a declining faith ?

Democracy - a declining faith

While we deify the concept of democracy, it appears to have lost much of its shine. The magic of democracy has diminished as a number of numbers show.

The declining faith in democracy is illustrated in the marked reductions in voter turnout observed over the last 50 years in Australia and elsewhere in the world. Political scientist Simon Tormey in a 2016 lecture at Parliament House reports that while voter turnout varies from vote to vote, the general tendency is that we are becoming "reluctant voters".

21 September 2019

Degrees of desire

The three degrees of desire:
  • I'd like to be rich
  • I want love
  • I need air
The three degrees for dealing with desire:
  • gratitude: I am grateful for the riches I have received
  • detachment: I accept the love that is offered
  • nirvana (not needing): one day, I will stop grasping for air

07 September 2019

Puzzling views on life

Two inconsistent views about life

1. My life is nothing and supremely unimportant

2. My life is a great and glorious event

In short, life is nothing and nothing is great!


So, paradox, doublethink, conundrum, or something else?

Paradox: a logical contradictory statement: 'this statement is false'

Doublethink: "Holding contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them": "War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength" 1984, George Orwell

Conundrum: a riddle whose answer is or involves a pun or unexpected twist: "People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day." Winnie the Pooh, A.A. Milne

27 April 2019

My mistake

Life is long
... if you are lucky.

Making mistakes is inevitable,
learning is not!

Mistakes are made for lack of reflection*, but
learning is achieved only on reflection.

A daily practice:

Today, I made a mistake. I was wrong. I erred. 

What were the mistakes I made today?

What - if anything - could I do to avoid making such mistakes again?

* My mistake... only some mistakes result from lack of reflection! To repeat, 'making mistakes is inevitable'

10 January 2019

Getting it right by being uncertain

Certainty for humans is like a flame is to a moth.

Blind instinct takes us there, but we may well get burnt.

We might get more things right in this world if we were a little less certain about everything.

How can we avoid the trap of certainty?

The wrongs of the righteous

There's no lack of certainty in the world, and lots of evidence that despite that certainty, we're wrong!

13 October 2018

Marketing is plain sailing

Marketing is easy, but only if you really understand it.

And most people do not.

Most people think that marketing is powerful, that it can make people do things that they would not otherwise do.

We have a long history of being scared of such things - like hypnosis, subliminal messaging, hard sell salespeople, etc.

But just because we're scared of the bogeyman doesn't mean that he exists! Subliminal advertising was debunked decades ago - but many still believe it.

08 October 2018

Science corrections - replication is much more important than retraction

(The original article appears at The Conversation under the title "Retraction of a journal article doesn't make its findings false.").
The American Medical Association recently retracted six papers co-authored by food consumption and psychology researcher, Brian Wansink, in three of its journals. These studies include two showing that large bowl sizes encourage us to eat more, and that shopping when hungry leads us to buy more calorie-dense foods.
A prolific academic researcher, Wansink has provided many thought-provoking ideas about the psychology of food consumption through more than 500 publications which have been collectively cited more than 25,000 times.
His research has shown that people will eat a lot more from a bottomless soup bowl; they will eat more from larger portions, even if it is stale popcorn or food served in a dark restaurant; and they will eat less if a portion is made to appear larger using visual illusions.
Retractions are a permanent means by which journals endeavour to preserve the integrity of scientific literature. They are typically issued for some form of misconduct, but it does not necessarily mean the results are false.

20 August 2018

The blame game: sports, alcohol, violence, and research

A raft of headlines reported on a fascinating finding that linked State of Origin matches to a spike in domestic violence.

For instance, the SBS report ran the headline "Study exposes 'clear' Origin link to DV" (where DV is domestic violence).

Big story because basically, the data showed that between 6pm on State of Origin night to 6am the following morning, domestic violence increased by 40%. Incidentally, non-domestic violence (blokes beating up other blokes) went up by 70% as well.

Despite this sobering result, the media have leapt on this story, and spun a long drinking yarn. Specifically, they have drawn conclusions about the involvement of alcohol in all of this - even though alcohol consumption is not directly observed in the original study in any way.

29 July 2018

To do: nothing

"Just don't do it."

Just do nothing.

Ethics is the philosophy of action. So part of its domain surely therefore includes, the philosophy of inaction.

And this is a defence of doing nothing.

But there's so much to be done!

How can I defend inaction in a world with so many inequalities and injustices that plague our lives?

My answer? For precisely that reason! Precisely because so many are raging at inevitable inequalities and injustices which will forever plague our lives.

18 May 2018

Glorious food, inglorious super-marketing bastards & the obesity crisis

Blaming supermarkets for obesity is a little like chopping down a tree we are standing on. Or like tying our bootlaces together so we don't trip up on them.

"No wonder we have an obesity epidemic" the article announces as an introduction to "the nutritionist's eye-opening video post to Faceback".

Sure is eye-opening - if you have never been to a supermarket before.

Or eye-opening if you have been, but didn't notice the end-aisle displays because you were headed into the aisles which are filled to the brim with stuff that most nutritionist's would find to be equally awful.

No wonder we don't make any progress on obesity when we continue to run stories like this.

This kind of story about the evil of supermarkets is popular because it is an awesome cover story. It allows us to completely shift the responsibility to someone else.

Every parent has heard it: "He made me hit him."

Supermarkets, like siblings, are easy targets.

But supermarkets don't even make the products that people are so angry about. And if people are so damn angry, why are they still buying the stuff?

We're listening to the righteous leaders, while the masses (excuse the pun) are right behind waving their packet of chips and saying how they are right behind their nutritionist friends.

What about the good that supermarkets do?

Supermarkets have replaced the old family-run corner store groceries.

We've lost a way of life, rather like horses, carts and buggy whips. The wheel turns, and it does so because it generates something good.

Modern supermarkets give us access to an enormous range of food stuffs of excellent quality at a good price. Oh, and lots of choice!

And so many good things that supermarkets have done to support healhier life-styles. Supporting activities for local schools, introducing and supporting organic and other specialised food ranges, giving fruit away to the kids as they walk around the supermarket.

The reason why we don't talk about the good is simple. It ain't a story.

Are we serious about tackling obesity? If so, there is no "us" and "them." Sure supermarkets want to make a profit, and we want good food - meaning both good for you and just plain yummy even if not good for you - and we want it cheap.

We both individually and jointly contribute to the problem of obesity.

Time for us to make up our minds. Do we want to solve obesity?

Yes? Well then we need to make changes. And it's not about just one side or the other, but both sides together. Obesity is a community problem, one that consumers and marketers need to work on together.

Pointing fingers at the other side is like junk-food -- it has a really satisfying mouth-feel in the moment, but isn't doing us any good.

30 March 2018

Don't lie if you want the Easter bunny to visit

The Easter bunny is apparently a German innovation and brings painted eggs, candy and even presents to children who have been good.

What a delicious irony! A fiction to encourage honesty along with other good behaviour.

Meanwhile, neither parents nor clerics tell their respective flocks that there is no "bunny" in any of the stories about Jesus' death and resurrection.

We are not told that the word Easter commemorates a pagan goddess, Eostre. Or at least, might do if St Bede's account of Eostre is not a lie as at least some scholars contend!

What a web we weave,  when we practice to deceive.

Does it matter if we lie? Well, how do I know when to believe?

The Bible (to stay with the Easter theme) would have us believe that Jesus was crucified on Friday and resurrected on Sunday.

Is it true or is it a lie? That's an awful lot of consequences if that is a lie!

But let's back up a little. Let's start by being a little clearer about what we mean by lying.

04 February 2018

The truth about eternal life is... we don't know!

We like to believe that our beliefs come from good solid reasons. 

But given that we selectively choose evidence to reinforce what we already believe suggests otherwise (i.e., the confirmation bias).

We only question our beliefs when evidence comes up to suggest it just ain't so. 

Or so I like to believe... but maybe that simply ain't so!

Even in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence, the human mind remains remarkably resistant to doubt.

Consider Leon Festinger's fascinating work on a group who believed that the world would end on December 21, 1954. How would they deal with the evidence that their predictions of the date were wrong - assuming they were wrong?

28 January 2018

What is truth?

La Vérité sortant du puits armée de son martinet pour châtier l'humanité
  • The truth is very often not knowable
  • The truth is that many beliefs are formed without knowledge
  • The truth is that people claiming to know the truth are generally deluded
  • The truth is that a fiction can be powerful (think placebo, nocebo, etc.)
  • The truth is that truth may not be a supreme virtue
  • The truth is that what works, practical wisdom, may be all that matters

14 September 2017

Facebook & fast-food - superficially satisfying, but bad for you

Social media is to human connection what junk-food is to human nutrition.
Facebook like fast-food is convenient, it meets a desire, is superficially satisfying, it even offers some of what we need (connection or calories respectively), but by and large and in the long run, it is not all that good for us.
Look at the change in the fundamental unit of community — the family. Today, one in five children are raised in a home where the other biological parent is absent.
Some still see the nuclear family, mum dad and 2.5 kids, as the ideal. But the ideal community unit had already gone the way of REAL hamburgers and real food.
Prior to the nuclear ideal, the extended family lived together, providing a community that supported and sustained them all.
Even now, grandparents have time for kids that parents do not. But now the grandparents have their place and we have ours. We live our lives apart: each child in their own room, each parent may even have their own house. And the grandparents? Live elsewhere.
even though it's not good for me!
Mmm? I may be lovin’ it, but I am pretty sure it’s not good for me.
What is good for me? I’m not sure, but it seems more like when I live in a community, a village, surrounded by say 10–20 people whom I know and trust.
Facebook with 500 or more so-called “friends” cannot replace my village, the people I know and trust.
And trust should not be confused with like. All humans are flawed, and there may be things that I might not like about someone, but that does not mean I am not able to trust them. Trust means I know the person, I know her or his limitations, I know of the contexts in which I might trust them to do the right thing and which ones where they might not.
They are not even necessarily dear friends, I don’t even necessarily like them so much of the time. Rather, I know them, and can trust — as in rely — on them to behave in certain ways.
Uncle Frederic might be an odd-bird, a bit of a bore at social gatherings, still a bachelor and frankly, we can understand why. Nonetheless, he is good with the kids, and they love him, and at a pinch, he could be called in to take Cathy out for a talk and a soda as she wrestles with life as an adolescent.
Just as fast food has supplanted simple, real food cooked at home from scratch, so Facebook and the other online copy-cats have supplanted community created at heart in the home.
A “like” from some 500 or more of my Facebook “friends” may give me a little frisson of pleasure, but a more limited gesture of friendship is difficult to imagine. Pressing a thumbs-up symbol, and then moving on to the next image in a continuously changing stream of images and words is hardly much display of friendship let alone commitment.
The problem is that convenience is king in so many things. We love quick-fixes. And fast food and Facebook offer just that.
Unfortunately, what we want is not necessarily what we need. And what we need — healthy food, exercise, and making time and space for our village, some of whom are frankly a pain in the butt — is bloody hard work.
So we don’t bother. We choose the junk option, the quick-fix, the one that sets off the pleasure centre in our brain. We hear a ping on our phone and leap to look: someone likes me!
That’s not good, that is sad.
To feed your body, you need to eat well. To feed your soul, you need to connect well.

09 August 2017

Data bites: confusing cross-tabulations

Some recent research from a sample of 957 members of PureProfile's Australian panel showed that people who classified themselves as "Early Birds" were two times more likely than "Night Owls" to earn over $70k per annum.

Specifically, 23% of Early Birds earned over $70k p.a. vs just 11% of Night Owls.

Does that mean that 23% of those who earn $70k+ are Early Birds and 11% are Night Owls?

Nope. If that were true, that leaves two-thirds (66%) of $70+k earners who are neither Early Birds nor Night Owls.

Does the result mean that there are more Early Birds than Night Owls earning above $70k per annum.

Not necessarily.

If the Night Owls are far more numerous than Early Birds in the total sample, then it is quite feasible for there to be more Night Owls who earn $70k+ even while Early Birds are two times more likely to earn $70k+ than Night Owls.

Making this error is very easy - unfortunately - and even downright confusing in some situations. Here's an example that can seem particularly confounding.

PureProfile's research showed that in the Australian population, men are more likely to be Early Birds than women. About 56% of men are Early Birds compared with just 45% of women (see yellow shading in table below).

However, when we turn the result around so it expresses the proportion of Early Birds (and Night Owls) who are male vs female, we may be surprised to see that 50% of Early Birds are women and 50% are men. (In actual fact, there are slightly more women who are Early Birds than men as we will see in a moment).

Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaat? How can that be?

The problem is one that often confronts us when we do crosstabulations. A crosstabulation (often shortened to crosstab) is simply breaking down the frequency of responses on one variable by groups (in this instance, the groups are male and female).

People tend to get confused because they see the first result (56% of males are Early Birds), and think that this is equivalent to saying that 56% of Early Birds are males.

But this simply ain't so.

Let's break this example out. First, here's the raw counts in each cell. In this sample, there are 945 males who are Early Birds - or 945 Early Birds who are male if you prefer. It is the same thing!

And note that there are slightly more women who are Early Birds than men: 951 women vs 945 men.

The proportion (or per cent) of males who are Early Birds depends on the total number of males there are in the column.

The proportion of Early Birds who are male depends on the total number of Early Birds there are in the row.

So, in a nutshell, there are 945 males who are Early Birds. This represents 56% of the total number of males (column %), but just a fraction under 50% of the total number of Early Birds (row %).

The key takeout is this. Whenever a percentage is being reported, take note of the base. Are you looking at the % of the column (in which case the sum of the column is 100%) or the % of the row (in which case the sum of the row is 100%).

Understanding this distinction is important - and surprisingly often misunderstood. Here's one extreme example to highlight the problem.

Nearly 100% of sexual assaults are perpetrated by males but that does not mean that all males (or even a high percentage of males) are molesters/rapists - thankfully.

However, that doesn't stop many parents, airline policies and even national news anchors from treating all men as potential molesters. Most molesters are male, but most men are not molesters. Again, thankfully.

Drawing this conclusion, and worse, enacting policy based on this result reflects a gross misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the statistics. And it happens to lead to inappropriate stereotyping of a lot of good men. If interested, you can read more about this case here.

How to minimise the danger of this error?

Whenever reporting a percentage, be very clear about what is the base, ie x% of what? Quite simply, % of men is not the same as % of Early Birds.

Meghan Trainor - it's all about the base!

If you're preparing crosstabulations (crosstabs), I generally recommend (and myself, generally present) column percentages only. That way, you know you're always comparing the % of column 1 to the % of column 2.

But what goes into the column and what goes into the row? Generally, we try and put the Causal factor into the Column, and the Result into the Row. As sex is generally decided many years before we begin to decide whether we like to get up early or stay up late, sex is the cause (put it into the column) which is thought to determine the result, namely, whether or not you are an Early Bird.

If you do want to swap it around (and see what proportion of Early Birds are female vs what proportion of Night Owls), swap the row and column variables and rerun your crosstabulation. That way, you are still reading column percentages. (It can still be confusing, but hopefully less so).

And practice. Swap the rows and columns, see if which makes most sense.

Above all, do not mistake the per cent of the column to be the same as the per cent of the row.

01 June 2017

Sharing wisdom: reflections on the road to the country for old men

M.C. Escher
Not everyone is lucky enough to journey into the "country for old men" (and women). And even among those who are lucky enough to reach old-age, not all learn as much from the journey as they might. Some arrive at the destination having missed the journey.
Growing old is inevitable, growing up is optional.

Is practical wisdom valuable?

Even in a society which is increasingly technical and technological, there is some sense that wisdom is a worthy goal, a knowledge worth attaining. Adapting the words of Aristotle in Nichomacean Ethics only a little, we can see that his observation applies still today:
"Although the young may be experts in geometry and mathematics [and technology and computers] and similar sorts of knowledge, they nonetheless lack practical wisdom. Such wisdom is gained from experience which the young do not possess, for experience is the fruit of years." (adapted from Nichomachean Ethics 1142a).
So even while we may rely on our children, our grand-children or both to help us download apps to our mobile phone, to show us how to connect our "smart" television to Netflix and how to stream music through Spotify to our tablet and other devices, there is still a place for wisdom.