23 October 2012

Mitt Romney - Iran's way to the sea is Syria. On what planet?

During the 3rd presidential debate on Monday, 22 October 2012, Mitt Romney told the viewers that Syria is Iran's way to the sea. That claim is wrong.

Presidential debates are held to enable the viewer to make up her/his mind about which candidate to vote for. They are an opportunity to asses the candidates' knowledge and to get an insight into what and how they think.

In the last of the three presidential debates in preparation for the presidential elections of 6 November 2012, which was held on 22 October 2012, the two candidates, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, talked about foreign policy. One of the subjects was Syria.

This is part of what Mitt Romney said:
Well, let’s step back and talk about what’s happening in Syria and how important it is. First of all, 30,000 people being killed by their government is a humanitarian disaster. Secondly, Syria is an opportunity for us because Syria plays an important role in the Middle East, particularly right now.

Syria is Iran’s only ally in the Arab world. It’s their route to the sea. It’s the route for them to arm Hezbollah in Lebanon, which threatens, of course, our ally, Israel. And so seeing Syria remove Assad is a very high priority for us. Number two, seeing a — a replacement government being responsible people is critical for us. And finally, we don’t want to have military involvement there. We don’t want to get drawn into a military conflict.
Did you see anything odd about this? Did you spot it?

It is the first two sentences in the second paragraph:

Syria is Iran’s only ally in the Arab world. It’s their route to the sea.

Who is an ally of whom is open to interpretation, but it seems that not everyone agrees with Romney's assessment that Syria is Iran's only ally in the Arab world. Wikipedia does not agree, for example.

This is not as harmless as it may sound. In foreign policy, it is important to know who is an ally of whom, in order to avoid mistakes when creating and implementing that policy. One does not want to alienate one's own allies by endorsing or rejecting the wrong countries.

In the second sentence, Romney claims that Syria is Iran's route to the sea. Romney is a Mormon. Mormons deal with planets outside of our solar system, such as the planet Kolob. There are therefore two possibilities:

1. Mitt Romney was talking about a different planet
2. Mitt Romney is ignorant as to the geography of our own planet

Which one do you think it is?

In order to help you with your choice, look at the map above. Here is a direct link to the Mitt Romney's declaration: see (Direct links do not always work. Romney's declaration can be seen at 16 minutes 19 seconds into the video).

18 October 2012

Mitt Romney's 'binders full of women' were not what he claims

Mitt Romney's story about "binders full of women" has had quite an impact on the Internet. There is a slight problem with it however: it is not true. A nice example of why evidence matters.

The first thing I had to think of when Mitt Romney told the story about the 'binders full of women' was what is arguably the best sitcom ever made, the unsurpassed 'Yes, (Prime) Minister'. In the fifteenth episode, 'Equal Opportunities', the Minister of Administrative Affairs Jim Hacker, decides that he wants to implement a 25% quotum of women in top government jobs. His permanent secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby, is appalled and successfully derails the plan.

There is, however, one woman the Minister can promote: under-secretary Sarah Harrison. Unfortunately for the Minister, she doesn't appreciate being patronised and being part of a 25% quotum and refuses the offer: 'And thank you. I know you both mean well.'

How is this relevant to Mitt Romney's story? It seems to express what he really thinks, and what his real intentions are.

It turns out that the story Mitt Romney told us is inaccurate. He did not ask anyone to bring him some women, it was the other way around, the women came to him.

A non-partisan organisation known as MassGAP (Massachusetts Government Appointments Project) was founded under the leadership of the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus (MWPC) in 2002, before the gubernatorial election. The organisation approached the campaigns of Shannon O'Brien and Mitt Romney and asked them to:

(1).“Make best efforts” to ensure that the number of women in appointed state positions is proportionate to the population of women in Massachusetts
(2). Select a transition team whose composition is proportionate to the women in the Commonwealth
(3). Meet with MassGAP representatives regularly during the appointments process.

According to MWPC, both campaigns committed to the process. Before Romney came to power, women comprised approximately 30 percent of appointed senior-level positions in Massachusetts government. This went up to 42 percent in the beginning of his tenure, and then went down to about 25 percent, which is lower than before and after Mitt Romney's time as governor.

As a consequence, it seems that the story as Mitt Romney told it is largely wrong. It also does reveal that Mitt Romney is not particularly interested in women. How else can we explain his claim that he had to ask for women? How is it even possible that (almost) no qualified women were part of his campaign?

Furthermore, what is the meaning of the "flexibility story"? It seems to indicate that he expects women to not only work full-time jobs but to take full-time care of their children as well. Is this man really the man who intends to help rectify the appalling claims and aspirations of his fellow Republicans?

In the New Testament, women are treated as lowly underlings. They are expected to serve men, and to keep quiet. Jesus leads by example with respect to this principle. St. Paul is is quite explicit as well. For example:

1 Corinthians 11
11:8 For the man is not of the woman: but the woman of the man.
11:9 Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.

It seems that Mitt Romney is not lying when he talks about his religion. He is doing exactly what his god tells him to. In the face of all his lies, it is refreshing to learn that he is able to tell the truth, even if this is rare.

He scares me silly.

21 February 2012

When common sense is senseless: the Monty Hall Solution

In the previous article, I presented the Monty Hall Problem, a famous problem in elementary probability, based on "Let's make a deal", a television game show of years gone by. If you haven't read that article, what follows is likely to make little sense. It would therefore probably be better to read that article before continuing to read this one.

As a reminder, here is a video clip presenting the game and the problem:

The player has two options: switch to the other closed door or stay with her/his original choice. What should he/she do to maximise her/his chances of winning? There are three possible answers:
  1. Switching increases the chances of winning
  2. Staying with the original choice increases the chances of winning
  3. It makes no difference at all
It turns out that most people think it is a silly question and that option 3, it makes no difference at all, is the correct answer common-sense dictates. If you have chosen this option, you have a lot of friends.

And, you know what? It is indeed the correct answer for some people. So far the good news for common sense.

And now the bad news: while it is the correct answer for some people, it is not the correct answer for you!

Now, think of it. How can this be? This makes no sense at all, does it?

You are left with two choices. One door hides a goat, the other hides a car. If you stay with your original choice, door 3, you will win either a car or a goat. That's one chance in two of winning the car, yes?


Should you switch, you end up with the same possibilities: the door hides either a car or a goat. Again, one chance in two of winning the car, yes?


As a result, you have one chance in two if you stay, and you have one chance in two if you switch. Clearly, option 3, It makes no difference at all, is the correct choice, yes?


As I said, this option is perfectly valid and the right choice for some people, but again, it is not the right choice for you.

Well then, what is the right choice for you?

It turns out that option 1, switching increases the chances of winning, is the right choice for you.

Is your head starting to spin? Take heart, what I said is perfectly true, it isn't complicated and while it isn't common sense, it does make perfect sense.

First of all, let's see what happens if you switch in the example we started in the previous article. The player decides not to switch and stays with her/his first choice:

After confirming the player's choice, the host opens the corresponding door:

Wrong choice. The player did not follow the advice, and lost. The car was behind door 2. See?

Of course, as you have probably guessed, there is more to the story than this. What about an explanation, for example? Who says I did not manipulate the conditions and the player to make it just so? The answer is, of course, that I did indeed manipulate the example to make the point as clearly as possible. However, this does not mean that the advice was wrong.

Let's look at the previous game once more. Remember, first, there are three closed doors. Two conceal a goat, one conceals the coveted car:

The player, who wants to win the car, must now choose one of the three doors:

Hence, the player has one chance in three of choosing the door with the car. One way to look at this problem is to look, not only at the choice one makes, but also at the choices that one does not make:

By selecting door 3, the player also chooses not to select doors 1 and 2. This means that the player has two chances in three of losing the car, i.e. the probability of losing the car is twice as high as the probability of winning the car.

Another way of describing this situation, is that the probability that the car is behind one of the doors in the rectangle, is two in three, whereas the probability that the car is in the stand-alone square is one in three, or half the probability of the rectangle.

But now, the host magnanimously opens one of the two doors in the rectangle to reveal a goat:

Nothing has changed, except that one door which was previously closed, is now open. The likelihood that the car is behind one of the doors in the rectangle is still  two in three. The likelihood that the car is behind door 3 is also still one in three.

But, we now also know that door 1 does not hide the car. This means that the likelihood that the car is behind door 2 is now twice as high as the likelihood that it is behind door 3, since we can safely discard door 1.

In other words, switching is the adviseable option, since that increases one's chances from one in three to two in three. Winning is not guaranteed when switching, however. It is still possible to lose, but it is more likely that one will win.

Very few people are able to find out the correct solution. As I wrote before, the vast majority of people think that switching or staying makes no difference at all. They are wrong, but that is what common sense tells them.

Common sense helps us stay alive in nature, by helping us decide when to run from a lion who wants to eat us, and when not to waste energy running from a full-bellied lion who merely wants to sleep. In more complex situations however, common sense can easily lead us astray.

This problem is a very simple one, yet almost nobody solves it correctly, because it is so counter-intuitive. Welcome to the land of "conditional probabilities". Here, the probability of an event is not only dependent on an existing situation, but also on what happened before.

This is why I wrote that, for some people, switching or not switching would make no difference at all. Who are these people? The people who walked into the room, only to see one open door and two doors closed and who were therefore unaware of what occurred before. For them, the probabilities of having the car behind door 2 or door 3 are equal.

After seeing the above explanation, many people still refuse to accept the solution. Maybe you are one of them (or not). While problems involving probabilities can often be very complex, the Monty Hall problem is not, and this has an advantage. It is actually possible to enumerate every single possible case for this problem.

Consider this: there are three starting possibilities. The car can be behind door 1, door 2 or door 3. Then, the player can select one of those three doors, leading to nine possibilities (three times three). Furthermore, the player can either stay with her/his choice or switch, two possibilities that lead to eighteen possible combinations in total (three times three times two):

If you only count nine lines, you are -of course- correct. However, don't forget that there are two columns: nine switches and nine stays. That makes eighteen combinations in total.

Although it is probably more boring than watching paint dry, it may be interesting to study each of the 18 cases while they are being played out. To this end, please view the video I uploaded to YouTube:

Since the player cannot know whether he/she should switch or stay, the best strategy is to switch, as the table shows. Switching means that the probability of winning is twice the probability of winning when not switching.

It is really hard for humans to wrap their heads around the Monty Hall Problem. This is, however, not necessarily the case for other animals. Pigeons, for example, do a lot better [2].

I wrote this article as a warning.

The Monty Hall Problem shows us that common sense is not to be trusted. Yes, it can lead us to the correct solution when we face a problem. Unfortunately, it can also lead us to the wrong solution. In other words, it makes no sense to trust common sense or "instinct", as the Monty Hall Problem very clearly demonstrates.

Another warning can be seen in the way I treated this problem: a good skeptic always investigates a problem. In spite of popular belief, skepticism is not about denying what others take at face value. Skepticism is about investigating whatever comes our way. Sometimes, this is very easy, such as for the Monty Hall Problem.

Sometimes, it gets a lot more complicated, but whatever the case may be, the skeptic does his utmost to look at a situation from all angles, to investigate all the possibilities and only then does he/she to come to a tentative conclusion that is itself always open for correction, modification or refutation.

The attitude of the skeptic is the attitude of the doubter, the scientist, not that of the quack or the religionist. As a result, the skeptic must be prepared to be ridiculed by the quack and the religionist, for they will use the skeptic's doubts against her/him to fool the public into believing that the skeptic is an idiot, and many people will fall for this.

The skeptic has but one weapon against this: evidence. Quacks often like to compare themselves to Galileo or other famous scientists who were first ridiculed or even put to death for their seemingly preposterous theories. However, they forget one important element.

For Galileo to become world-famous and part of the bedrock of science, he needed one element the quack and the religionist do not have: the evidence to back up the claim, evidence that shows he or she is right.

Quacks and religionists are not interested in such sordid details as "evidence", and that is why they are almost always wrong, often quite terribly so.

The Monty Hall Problem has a very interesting and controversial history. However interesting, the history of the problem is not really relevant to the problem per se and since Wikipedia [1] has an excellent page on this, I will not talk about it here.

Jeffrey S. Rosenthal is one of Canada's best-known experts on probability and statistics. At the time of the fraud scandal at the Ontario Lottery and Gaming corporation, he was often in the news, because he was the expert called in to investigate the then-alleged fraud.

Not only has he written a hilarious and very interesting book, called Struck by Lightning: The Curious World of Probabilities, in which he talks about the Monty Hall Problem, he also has written an article [3] on the problem, which can be downloaded from his personal website.

[1] Several authors, Monty Hall Problem, Wikipedia, retrieved 20 February 2012
[2] Walter T. Herbranson, Julia Schroeder, Are Birds Smarter Than Mathematicians? Pigeons (Columba livia) Perform Optimally on a Version of the Monty Hall Dilemma, Journal of Comparative Psychology, 2010, Vol. 124, No. 1, 1-13
[3] Rosenthal, Jeffrey S. (2005a). "Monty Hall, Monty Fall, Monty Crawl".Math Horizons: September issue, 5–7. Online reprint, 2008

Fine print:
 I have written this article on my personal "authority" as a computer programmer and skeptic. Any errors, inaccuracies, omissions or other flaws are therefore mine, and mine alone. While I have done my best to be as accurate as possible, this article is nevertheless open to correction, modification or refutation. Please do not hesitate to comment or send me an e-mail if you think something is wrong. I will do my utmost to reply to every comment or message within a reasonable amount of time. Please consult a properly qualified professional before using any information in this and any other of my articles.

This page was last updated on 21 February 2012

20 February 2012

When common sense is senseless: the Monty Hall Problem

How often have you heard this: "It's just common sense"? Probably far more often than you care to remember. Common sense is often seen as a sort of innate intuition that leads us to the correct conclusions only a moron would deny.

However, as I will show in this and the following article, common sense can also lead us to the wrong conclusions, indicating that common sense is not to be trusted.

Consider the following problem. In this problem, a player is offered the chance of winning a car. The player is presented with three closed doors. One door is hiding a car, the two other doors are hiding a goat. The trick is to select the door hiding the car.

How the game is played can be seen in the following video clip on YouTube:

Now, let's look at each step separately as far as we can. First, the player is confronted with the three closed doors. He or she has no idea where the car is, every door has an equal chance of hiding it.

The player, who has no idea where the car is, selects a door. Unless the player has a preference or is superstitious, this is a completely random choice:

The host of the game, who knows where the car is, must now open one of the two other doors and reveal the goat behind that door. He/she will not reveal the car. This means that the car is either behind the closed door previously chosen by the player or behind the other closed door. The host graciously offers the player a chance to change her/his mind and switch to the other door.

The player has now two options: switch to the other closed door or stay with her/his original choice. What should he/she do to maximise her/his chances of winning? There are three possible answers:
  1. Switching increases the chances of winning
  2. Staying with the original choice increases the chances of winning
  3. It makes no difference at all
Did you figure it out? Write it down, so you remember what you chose. Don't cheat! I'll wait. Answer in the next article...

Fine print:
 I have written this article on my personal "authority" as a computer programmer and skeptic. Any errors, inaccuracies, omissions or other flaws are therefore mine, and mine alone. While I have done my best to be as accurate as possible, this article is nevertheless open to correction, modification or refutation. Please do not hesitate to comment or send me an e-mail if you think something is wrong. I will do my utmost to reply to every comment or message within a reasonable amount of time. Please consult a properly qualified professional before using any information in this and any other of my articles.

This page was last updated on 21 February 2012

11 February 2012

MS Wars - Hope, Science and the Internet

David Suzuki in 2009
I just finished watching the documentary MS Wars: Hope, Science and the Internet, presented by the indomitable David Suzuki in the CBC's "The Nature of Things" series.

I loved this documentary. The issues involved are intense, painful and devastating for patients, and fascinating for science. All the issues were presented in a fair and balanced non-sensationalist and non-conspiratorialist way.

I would have liked to see a more rigorous explanation of *why* anecdotal evidence is so low on the evidential scale, on what the placebo effect really is, since the patients interviewed clearly had not an inkling of understanding, but I also realise that it is darned hard to explain this to the general public. I've been trying for years to do exactly that, and I'm just not succeeding. That pains me, but reality is often painful, and that's not a valid reason for denying it.

While this is not limited to "liberation therapy" specifically, the documentary also clearly showed what the potential is for damage by non-scientific ways of thinking in combination with social media.

"What's the harm?" asks someone. The harm -or the benefit, as the case may be- is, what we will see 20, 30 years or a century from now, when we see how many people have been helped by this non-cure (we already know for a fact that "liberation therapy" is not a cure) and how many have been harmed.

Unfortunately, as the documentary shows, even without knowing the benefits yet, we already know part of the harm: the hopefully temporary derailment of genuine research and the search for therapies that work.

In my opinion, this documentary demonstrates that we need better education. People should learn from the youngest age possible why scientists do what they do and how they do it. These rules have not been created by lazy bureaucrats and selfish politicians who enjoy torturing people.

These rules have been established by scientists to protect themselves against drawing false conclusions and as a way to ensure that science and medicine are not contaminated with the seemingly plausible but utterly false and harmful.

This is the only way to keep the heroic medicine and quackery of the past from harming us again.

While this documentary is necessarily superficial in its explanations because of time constraints, it does a masterful job at pointing out the issues and explaining why they matter while not -even for an instant- forgetting the deeply human aspects of the tragic situations that bring people to irrationality.

The documentary can be watched online on the CBC's website.

This page was last updated on 14 February 2012

30 January 2012

Welcome to the House Of Quack

For millennia, humanity has lived in ignorance and fear for just about anything and everything. Like any animal, we lived in holes, in nests, largely unprotected from both the environment and predators. The world must have seemed a terrifying place in those days. Earthquakes, volcanoes, thunder and lightning, disease that struck without warning, hunts that went well, hunts that went no so well, it is a chaotic and unpredictable environment out there.

Just as is now still the case for our non-human fellow primates, we spent most of our time looking for food, fighting off competitors and predators and procreating.

With the advent of agriculture and its gradual improvement, that all started to change and a privileged few could be liberated from the daily chores and pay more attention to the world and how it functioned. In the beginning, these were the shamans and druids and medicine men, spending all their time looking for explanations, predictions and cures. Later came the priestly classes and the gods they taught us to worship.

Superstition in general and religion in particular should therefore not be dismissed as merely primitive and stupid. They were our first -though worst- attempts at explaining the world around us, and therefore they deserve at least some attention. Via philosophy, they brought us science.

These early methods to explain and adapt the world to our satisfaction didn't work very well, and more enterprising individuals started looking for natural ways to explain the world, rather than supernatural ones. We owe a lot to these pioneers of science. Doubtless the best-known of these are the ancient Greek scientists of around 2,000 years ago.

Then came religion's revenge. Christianity destroyed much of what had been achieved and replaced it with superstition, often enforced under the threat of death. Europe especially regressed to a pre-scientific stage of development, until some people finally became brave enough to stand up to religious tyranny, and a new enlightenment chased away the dark ages.

The results were astounding. In about 400 years' time, humanity grew from an arrested culture into a culture of achievement and new discoveries started to follow each other up at an ever more rapid pace. From a culture in which everything was done by hand we changed into a culture of mechanical devices and electronics. Life expectancy more than doubled and we discovered how the universe really functions and that deities of any type were not needed.

And yet, religion and superstition are now coming back with a vengeance. The signs of a new endarkenment age are everywhere. Primitive iron-age myths are being repackaged by snake-oil salespeople and alternologists and preachers and experts with impressive titles and certificates printed on the home printer that would never even have existed if they got everything their way.

Superstitions of all types could be -and often are- seen as a source of innocent amusement or harmless fun, but that is not what they are. These practices have their darker side and credulous people are not getting proper treatment, suffer and even die as a result. Children are being brainwashed, terrorised, mutilated and killed. All for the benefit of the bank accounts of the ruthless quacks exploiting the gullible, the vulnerable and the desperate.

In my own inner circle, I see people and even an entire family being destroyed by belief in the easy non-solutions of alternology. I see the quacks circling them, eager to relieve them from any money they may have, scurrying away like frightened cockroaches when that money seems to have disappeared, hurrying back when there is new bait. Looking around in your own inner circle, dear reader, will almost certainly reveal the same thing.

The Internet is a fantastic communication tool, but great benefits are accompanied by great dangers. The Internet offers charlatans, quacks, alternologists, conspiracy theorists, religionists and other nincompoops and snake-oil salespeople a cheap and easy pool in which to spread disinformation and fish for new prey.

Past experience has shown us that censorship and prohibition do not work. What remains is education about the nature of evidence, and why it is important. This is where the House Of Quack comes in.

The House Of Quack will select superstitions, medical quackeries and myths, study them, and separate fact from fiction. It will show you what the evidence is and why it is important.

Please enjoy the House Of Quack!

This page was last updated on 14 February 2012