Statistically informed ideas on how to make the world work better.

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An Open Letter to Canada’s Health Minister

July 8, 2016


Hon. Jane Philpott, 

Minister of Health

House of Commons

Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1A 0A6

Dear Dr. Philpott,

I was very pleased to see that concerns of the medical research community are being expressed, and that you are convening a panel to explore next steps. There are many serious issues to be addressed. However, while I thank the writers of the original open letter for getting this process going, and while agreeing with the general sentiment of frustration expressed in that letter, I (and I suspect many others of members of the medical research community) do not agree with the specifics, and in particular with the suggestion to return to a system of face-to-face peer review. While I cannot claim to speak for others, I suspect that many signatories of the letter agreed with the frustration expressed more than the solution proposed.

Broadly, I would raise four points in response to the open letter. Read the rest of this entry »

Might societal acceptance of homosexuality drive it extinct?


The precise causes of homosexuality are not completely clear, but most scientists agree that there is a genetic component, perhaps 35% for gay men and about half that for lesbians. There is unlikely to be a single gene that makes people gay, but there may be some genetic variation that increases the probability of becoming gay, or is a necessary precondition but also requires a certain environment (e.g. intra-uterine). (I have written previously on why natural selection could produce homosexuality, counter-intuitive as that sounds.)

In any case, the simple fact of genetic variation associated with homosexuality means that natural selection can act on it, and this has a major and paradoxical implication. The more biological children of gay people, the more transmission of these genes, and the more gay people there are. The less biological children of gay people, the fewer gay people there will be in subsequent generations. But in what societies do gay people have the most biological children? Almost certainly those societies that forbid homosexuality, forcing gays to marry and have children. Modern societies with liberal social policies will likely see many gay couples adopting, but fewer having biological children. Over time, this means that societal acceptance of homosexuality might actually drive it extinct, or nearly so. Unfortunately, natural selection in this case will function such that every society will achieve, long-term, the opposite of what it wants. Read the rest of this entry »

The probability that God exists: A Bayesian perspective

Many people are very certain either that God exists or that (s)he does not. This post is based on the premise that, from an empirical perspective, such certainty either way is almost certainly unwarranted, but that a combination of statistical theory and the current state of scientific knowledge can shed substantial light on the probability. After all, there is a rather big difference between an agnostic who thinks there is a 1% chance God exists and one who thinks there is a 99% chance. Obviously, there is no way to calculate a precise probability, but there certainly are ways to establish a likely range. In a nutshell, I will show that, while all the scientific advances in the world cannot disprove God’s existence, the accumulating capacity to explain the world through science substantially diminishes the probability that God exists. Read the rest of this entry »

In support of women who speak out about sexual assault: a man’s perspective, and a call to arms


Image credits: Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images for Meet The Press and Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press

Like so many people, I have been upset by the stream of recent news stories on sexual assault: Bill Cosby, Jian Ghomeshi (a popular and seemingly pro-feminist radio host here in Canada), the University of Virginia story from Rolling Stone, several stories relating to violence against aboriginal women in Canada, and stories about the US military, to name just a few. Throughout this string of stories, I have felt admiration and support for the women who have come forward, but I have also wondered why not everyone comes forward, and why so many women waited so long to do so.

In the ensuing debate, many people (mostly women) have decried a culture that permits sexual assault, and a few people (almost exclusively misogynistic men) have defended the status quo and denigrated women, often through trolling and other unsavoury means. But there is a perspective that has been largely missing: that of the average man. Most men are not misogynists, and I would venture to say that most are actively against misogyny and do generally respect women. But the misogynists are loud, obnoxious, and everywhere on the internet. Most men shut up when the subject shifts to sexual assault, partly because it’s seen as a women’s issue, and partly because they are scared of saying the wrong thing and coming off as misogynists themselves, even when they are not.

But sexual assault is not a women’s issue, it’s a human issue. White people can see the injustice in how blacks are treated by the police, and adults can be against pedophilia. When something unjust happens to one person in our society, we should all be concerned. It is time for the large majority of men to speak out, and to support women. My hope in writing this piece is that it will be read by men, forwarded and posted by men, and discussed by men.

Read the rest of this entry »

Idea: How to stop sleazy media companies from screwing us on our bills

One of my co-workers has been complaining a lot recently that Bell, the internet/TV provider, has been intentionally messing up her bill for 3 months in a row. Everyone I know has at least one story like this, of being really screwed by some phone or TV company. It’s not that she’s being targeted, it’s that companies like this know they can wear consumers down if they make enough “errors.” Eventually, we don’t have time to fight, and if we don’t pay up, our credit rating suffers. So we give in. The company doesn’t even have to try to screw us individually – they can just build an imperfect system that tends to make errors in their favor.

Well, I have a permanent solution to this problem. The only leverage these companies have over us is our credit rating. But many people who have these problems have perfectly fine credit – like me, or my co-worker. If we chose not to pay our bills it wouldn’t reflect a risk of defaulting on a mortgage, our car payments, or a credit card. It would just reflect the fact that the phone company is awful and gave usa faulty bill.

Credit scores are generated by companies that have developed algorithms to predict the chances that someone will default on a payment. There is competition among consumer credit rating agencies to have the best prediction. Banks and used car salesmen need to know this risk so they can offer appropriate credit. So anyone who comes up with a better prediction algorithm could corner the market for credit scores.

Enter my idea: Non-payment of a cell phone bill of $500 – even though your normal bill is $45 and you regularly pay every other bill – is NOT a sign of any risk that you will default on anything else. It is a sign that the phone company screwed you. So, a more accurate credit score would not penalize people for not paying such bills. A credit score that took this into account could outperform other credit scores and become the industry standard. And at that point, the evil media companies would have no leverage to force us to pay, except to go to court. Going to court is expensive and difficult, and they would usually be at risk of losing. So they would be forced to stop screwing us if they want to be paid!

Note that consumers who refused to pay all their bills would still have worse credit scores. It’s just specific non-payment of one bill that would contribute nothing (or next-to-nothing) to the score. Obviously, a good algorithm would have a sliding scale (a continuous measure) for credit score decrement based on how aberrant the bill was, how often you didn’t pay (relative to other people), and so forth. So the system couldn’t really be abused by consumers in the other direction either. The effect would just be to shift the balance of power in a dispute to midway between the consumer and the company. The company can refuse service, the consumer can refuse payment, but there’s no strong external force limiting the consumer.

Unfortunately, this idea takes an entrepreneur to implement, someone to develop the new credit score and start up a company to sell it (or integrate it into existing companies’ algorithms). While I’m confident I could improve on the existing algorithms, I have other statistical questions that occupy my time, and I’m no businessman. So someone else will have to do this…

A strong, immediate impact of the demographic transition on human evolution?

This blog post is different than most others. I had a Eureka moment in the shower, and I just need to write the idea down so I don’t forget it, and to share it with potential collaborators so we can maybe develop it into a paper if it hasn’t been done already by someone else (a quick search in Google Scholar suggests no).

Over the last 150 years, many human societies have undergone what is known as the demographic transition, first dramatically reducing mortality rates and subsequently reducing fertility rates. In simple terms, your great-great-grandma had 15 kids and 3 lived. You will have one or two, and they will live. What is the impact of this change on human evolution? I think it could be profound, and here is why:

Read the rest of this entry »

XKCD on small risks

As always, xkcd comes through at the right moment. In support of my last post, here is why we shouldn’t worry too much about taking a baby out of a car seat for a few seconds while driving, or other miniscule risks:


Increased Risk

China should make us rethink our assumptions about democracy, effective government, and the will of the people

There is a section in one of my favorite books, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, where the idea of voting and democracy is being explained to villagers in the Belgian Congo in the run-up to the first elections there following independence from Belgium. The villagers are confused: how could it be possible that someone could win with only 51% of the vote? Shouldn’t everyone get together and discuss it, and arrive at a consensus? Doesn’t democracy mean that the opinions of almost half the population could be ignored completely?

This very reasonable response on the part of the villagers was eye-opening for me: for them, the problem with Western-style, majority rules, one person-one vote democracy is that it was not good enough at achieving the fundamental goal of democracy, namely a government that represents (and is responsive to) the will and the interests of the people – something they already had at the level of their village.

Of course, the challenges of governing a village – where a consensus can feasibly be reached – are quite different from those involved in governing a large, diverse nation. It brings to mind Winston Churchill’s famous saying, that democracy is the worst form of government in the world – except for all the others. But more importantly, it should encourage us to question whether Winston Churchill’s saying is still right, or will always be right.

Read the rest of this entry »

A guide to Quebec elections for people from elsewhere

***Note: I’m asking my Quebec friends to summarize their political views in the comments section, so others can get a sense. Check back later if you click on this before they’ve had a chance to post!***

Quebec is holding provincial elections next Tuesday, and politics here are quite interesting, so I thought I’d post a little summary for people who may not be from here. While the population here (~8 million) is smaller than that of my home state of Michigan (~10 million), there is a distinct sense of identity, and many people here consider Quebec to be essentially a separate country. In addition, Quebec is almost 1/4 of the Canadian population, so this feels more like a national than a provincial election. Combined with the unique local dynamics, politics are much more interesting here than they ever were in Michigan.

The primary interesting factor here is that, while people in most places fall along a left-right political spectrum, people here also fall along a sovereignist-federalist political spectrum. (Sovereignists think Quebec should be (or is) an independent country, federalists view it as part of Canada.) This complicates things enormously because, instead of two parties to represent the poles, there should be four. But a four-party system is unstable in most forms of democracy, so things get complicated…

Read the rest of this entry »

Idea: Oil spills, pipelines and negative externalities: insurance as a solution

I just posted on how we can use mandatory insurance on public works projects to guarantee the quality of the work. I’d like to briefly expand this idea to all major projects that have the potential to cause a large amount of public harm: oil platforms or tankers (think of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster), oil pipelines (think of the Enbridge spill in Michigan or the planned TransCanada and Enbridge pipelines from Alberta), nuclear power plants (think of Fukushima), and probably a host of others I haven’t considered yet.

The basic idea is to only grant permits for construction and operation when the operating company has purchased insurance from a stable, major, independent firm. In the event of a disaster, the insurance company would be forced to pay out damages for all costs relating to the disaster, with a relatively low threshold of proof. These damages would include contributions to government coffers for hard-to-quantify but nonetheless real harm, such as destruction of coral reefs, indirect economic effects, and so forth.

Read the rest of this entry »