Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: statistics

What’s going on here?

I’m a statistician, a numbers guy. Put a bunch of numbers in front of me and I’ll start analyzing them. Here are the numbers I have been puzzling over today:

Saskatchewan: number of new cases of COVID – 449 / number of people in hospital due to COVID – 311 / number in ICU – 65

Québec: number of new cases of COVID – 469 / number of people in hospital due to COVID – 321 / number in ICU – 94

The numbers are almost the same, yet the population of Québec is more than seven times greater than the the population of Saskatchewan. That means that COVID is seven times as big a problem in Saskatchewan. Why is that happening?

I think part of the answer appears when we look at the vaccination records. In Québec 73.3% of the population is fully vaccinated (two shots); in Saskatchewan the number is 61.5%. That seems like a pretty significant factor, especially considering that 75% of the infections and 80% of the hospitalizations are unvaccinated people.

Does that mean that the government led by François Legault is doing a much better job of handling the COVID crisis than the government led by Scott Moe? Both government have made vaccines readily available and made it as convenient as possible to find a nearby location to be vaccinated. They have urged people to get vaccinated.

Does it mean then that the folks in Québec are just a wee bit smarter than we are here in Saskatchewan?

I won’t venture an answer to those questions. I have probably stuck my neck out too far already in asking them. What do you think?

STATISTICS DON’T LIE

BUT HARDLY ANYONE UNDERSTANDS WHAT THEY SAY

Public opinion polls are not infallible. At best they give a snapshot of what people are thinking at the moment the polling agency spoke to them. At worst, the snapshot is poorly focussed and the results unreliable. Polling results are presented as being accurate within a certain range (±1.5% is about as good as it gets), 19 times our of 20. It is always possible that this poll is the one time out of twenty the sample was not representative and therefore the results are not to be trusted.

A provincial election took place here in Saskatchewan on Monday. A month ago, shortly after the election was called, a public opinion poll reported that support for the incumbent party was 27% higher than support for the main opposition party. Shortly before the election two other polls showed a difference of 18%, leading the opposition party to rejoice that it was on the verge of major gains. Now that the votes are in and counted we see that the incumbent party received 31% more votes than the opposition party (62% for the party in power, 31% for the main opposition party, the remainder split between an assortment of small parties).

What happened? I can’t answer for this particular case, but a lot of things can go wrong in gathering and interpreting statistics. For the results to be trustworthy one needs a sample that is representative and random and questions carefully designed to obtain a clear answer. The results need to be intelligently explained, something most media outlets don’t have the expertise to do.

There is a group of major polling companies in Canada whose results are generally reliable. They are Ipsos-Reid, Léger, Environics, EKOS and perhaps one or two others. The first Saskatchewan poll was produced by one of these companies. The two later polls were produced by smaller companies that do not have a history of producing remarkably reliable results. The stated confidence levels for these polls was ±3.9% and ±4.4%. Even with that generous margin of error, their predictions were far off the mark.

During a Saskatchewan election campaign 20 years ago, results of an opinion poll weree widely reported in the media shortly before the election. It was a poorly executed and poorly interpreted poll, but I believe it influenced the election results. One major flaw was that the results showed something like 35% of voters were undecided. This was compounded when those interpreting the results ignored that number, assuming that those people weren’t going to vote. This resulted in a definite edge for one party. But when you subtract a vary large group of respondents from the results, the margin of error balloons from ±1.5% to some stratospheric number.

That poll was an amateur effort by a small consulting company and should never have been published. In publishing those results the newspapers were showing that either they didn’t have a clue what they were doing, or they were deliberately interpreting the results to favour one party. Take your choice, I don’t know which it was.

Caveat Lector

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Image by Ahmad Ardity from Pixabay

Let the reader beware. These are my own contrarian views on the COVID-19 situation and not grounds to take things lightly. I am not a scientist or medical expert. Even if I am correct in what I say here, it still remains that elderly and infirm people are in danger and we need to take seriously the restrictions imposed by our governments for their protection.

With every communicable disease there is a point where enough people have developed immunity to it that health experts talk of herd immunity. That means that enough people are immune that there is almost no chance that one infected person can spread the disease to others.

That number varies according to how easy it is to catch the disease. Estimates for COVID-19 vary, but 70% seems to be a ball park figure. That is, once 70% of the population develops immunity, then there will be no more danger of an epidemic. Most epidemiologists are saying we cannot reach that level without a vaccine. I believe that development of a vaccine is urgent to protect the aged and infirm, because as many as 20% of them could die if they contract the virus.

What about the rest of the population? Do they have to wait for the vaccine before they can feel safe? What proportion of the population has already been exposed to the virus and developed immunity? No one knows. We are going on the assumption that the percentage is very low; but the only people being tested are those who display symptoms of infection by the virus or are known to have been exposed to it.

How many people have been exposed to the virus and shown no symptoms at all? We really don’t have a clue. I do have training in statistics and I would have confidence in the results of random testing of perhaps 1% of the general population. There is some talk of conducting such a study. What if it showed that 50% of the population has already been exposed to the virus and is now immune? That would mean that we are not too far from the number needed for herd immunity.

I have no more idea than anyone else where we are at in Canada. I believe there are more people who have contracted the virus than the present numbers indicate. If they were free to circulate during the first 14 days after contracting the virus they may well have spread it to others. But after that they are immune, even if they never showed any sign of sickness. Our whole medical system is in crisis mode right now, but it would help us to better understand the future if there were enough test kits available, enough personnel to administer them and enough lab time to analyse them.

Maybe that’s asking too much. Maybe we just have to wait and see how things play out in the coming weeks.

African Americans and the Bible

The January – February issue of Christianity Today carried an article entitled Black Bible Reading Endures. I would like to share some of the statistics and a couple of quotes from that article.

Twice as many African Americans as other Americans to say that Bible reading is crucial to their daily routine. They are twice as likely as white Americans to say that the Bible should be interpreted literally.

56% of African Americans believe the Bible is more important to the moral fabric of the country than the constitution. All other ethnic groups believe the constitution is more important.

What Bible do they read? 42% of black Americans read the King James Version, much higher than any other group.

These statistics, drawn from a couple of different sources, paint a picture of a large segment of the black population of the USA who are more dependent upon the Bible than other Americans.

Earon James, a black pastor, says “Traditional black preaching embraces the great narrative of Scripture, African American believers have historically not had the luxury of holding biblical propositions divorced from actual practice.”

Lisa Fields, founder of the Jude 3 Project, an online apologetics ministry for black Christians, says “In my experience, African American believers want the straight, unadulterated Word.  Often in evangelical circles, Bible study consists of lots of stories, with the Bible sprinkled in . . . but we don’t need apologies because something God has said sounds hard. Just give us the Word, there’s much grace to go with it.”

My thoughts: The King James version was carefully prepared to be read aloud so that all could understand, whether they could read or not. This version still has the strongest appeal to people who have historically not had access to much schooling. The simple words and powerful phrasing of this Bible touch the heart as well as the mind and are much easier to remember than other translations.

The appeal of the KJV seems to last for several generations among the descendents of such people The translations of recent years seem to be designed for effete Christians who want the hard parts taken out, as much as can be done without causing too much of a stir.

The right and wrong use of statistics

[This is an article I wrote a year ago for The Business Bulletin.]

A few weeks ago I went into a small town branch of the Royal Bank of Canada with a cheque received for some translation work. The cheque was in US dollars and I asked the teller to convert it to Canadian dollars, give me $80.00 in Canadian cash, $20.00 in US cash (to include in a card I was sending to someone in the US) and deposit the rest to my account. I received friendly and efficient service and left without thinking any complicated thoughts about what had transpired.

A survey firm called a few days later, asking me to rate different facets of that banking experience on a scale of one to ten. I told him I couldn’t do it. I do not look at other people as machines and mentally rate their performance on a scale of one to ten. That doesn’t make sense to me.

I suspect the bank intended to use the survey results for publicity purposes, informing the public of the great satisfaction rating of the Royal Bank of Canada. How can anyone trust such a poll when the respondents most likely just pick numbers out of the air so the questioner will let them get back to their work?

Sometimes it is important to consider what the statistics are actually measuring. Do statistics of traffic violations by province measure the driving habits of the population or the enforcement habits of the police? Statistics on charitable donations per capita show Saskatchewan near the top of the list and Quebec near the bottom. These stats come from the receipted donations claimed on income tax returns. Is it possible that Quebeckers are more generous in giving spontaneously without needing a receipt? Do statistics such as these shape our opinions of the people of each province?

I believe it was Mark Twain who stated that there were three kinds of lies: lies; d****d lies; and statistics. That being said, I am a strong believer in the usefulness of statistics — when dealing with inanimate objects that can be measured or counted. I took numerous courses in statistics in preparation for writing the Certified Quality Engineer exam. I worked for many years with the practical application of statistical analysis in a manufacturing setting and I am convinced that this is the most effective way of determining what is going on in an industrial process.

We first need to understand some basic principles. The sample to be measured must be chosen completely at random, there is a margin of error to be taken into account in each sample, and an average of one time out of twenty the sample will not be representative of the actual process. In a manufacturing setting, samples are taken at regular intervals. If one sample does not fall within the range established by preceding samples it may mean that the process has changed, or it may be the one time out of twenty when the sample was not truly representative of the process. The way to find out is to immediately take another sample. If this one falls within the limits established by earlier samples, it means the former sample was not representative. If measurement of the resample gives results close to the former sample it is time to sound the alarm, shut down the process and find out what has changed. Statistical methods have done wonders in tightening tolerances and reducing waste in industrial processes.

Statistical sampling of opinion is fraught with much more complexity. First off, you are dealing with opinions, which are subjective and not amenable to precise measurement. Secondly, it is hard to obtain a truly representative sample, many people might be unavailable or unwilling to participate. Thirdly, there is no way of telling if a one time poll falls on the side of the 19 times out of 20, or the 1 time out of 20. Fourthly, many polls are conducted with leading questions designed to elicit a certain type of response. Another complicating factor arises when a newspaper eliminates the no responses and no opinions and calculates a percentage using only the remaining responses. That can raise the margin of error into the stratosphere.

I could phone a few hundred people at random with the following question: “The beautiful flowers of Purple Loosestrife are no longer seen in Saskatchewan’s wetlands. Do you think this is due to: a) global warming; b) excessive use of pesticides; c) lack of pollination due to honey bee die back; or d) a dramatic increase in the number of Canada Geese?” Many people will have forgotten, or perhaps never knew, that Purple Loosestrife was deliberately eradicated ten years ago as an invasive species and will pick one of the answers supplied. I might come up with a statistic saying that 50% of Canadians believe that Canada Geese are destroying Purple Loosestrife in Saskatchewan, but such a result would be rubbish.

Too many surveys are conducted along similar lines, giving a choice of preselected answers on sensitive subjects such as abortion and gay marriage. Then the results are fed back to us as proof of what the majority of Canadians think on this particular topic. The newspapers report the results of these surveys with a slant that indicates that those of us who think otherwise are quite out of step with the times, perhaps even hinting that we are dangerous to the public good.

Such carefully manipulated polls are voices of the zeitgeist, pressuring us to think in the approved manner of our time. We should take a step back and look at what is really behind these polls, so we can think soberly and realistically. May we never be ashamed to express those sober and realistic thoughts, they may be a breath of fresh air for someone trapped in the stifling atmosphere of the zeitgeist.

We are men and women. It should not be possible for a propaganda machine to adjust and fine tune our attitudes as if we were machines.

We are not machines

A week ago I went into a small town branch of the Royal Bank of Canada with a $500.00 cheque I had received for some translation work.  The cheque was in US dollars and I asked the teller to give me $80.00 in Canadian cash, $20.00 in US cash and deposit the rest in my account.  (The $20.00 US was to go with a sympathy card for a young sister who was returning home, having just received word of her father’s death.)  I received prompt, friendly and efficient service and left without thinking any complicated thoughts about what had just transpired.

Yesterday I had a call from a survey firm asking me to rate different facets of that banking experience on a scale of 1 to 10.  I told him I couldn’t do it.  I am not a machine, I don’t look at other people as machines and go about mentally rating their performance on a scale of 1 to 10.  That just doesn’t make any sense to me.

I believe it was Mark Twin who stated that there were three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies; and statistics.  That being said, I am a strong believer in the usefulness of statistics — when dealing with inanimate objects that can be measured or counted.  I took numerous courses in statistics in preparation for writing the Certified Quality Engineer exam.  I worked for many years with the practical application of statistical analysis in a manufacturing setting and I am convinced that this is the most effective way of determining what is going on in an industrial process.

We first need to understand some basic principles.  The sample to be measured must be chosen completely at random, there is a margin of error to be taken into account in each sample, and one time out of twenty the sample will not be representative of the actual process.  In a manufacturing setting, samples are taken at regular intervals.  If one sample does not fall within the range established by preceding samples it can mean that the process has changed, or it may be the one time out of twenty when the sample was not truly representative of the process.  The way to find out is to immediately take another sample.  If this one falls within the limits established by earlier samples it means the former sample was not representative.  If measurement of the re-sample gives results close to the former sample it is time to sound the alarm, shut down the process and find out what has changed.  Statistical methods have done wonders in tightening tolerances and reducing waste in industrial processes.

Statistical sampling of opinion is fraught with much more complexity.  First off, you are dealing with opinions, which are subjective and not amenable to precise measurement.  Secondly, it is hard to obtain a truly representative sample, many people might be unavailable or unwilling to participate.  Thirdly, there is no way of telling if a one time poll falls on the side of the 19 times out of 20, or the 1 time out of 20.  Fourthly, many polls are conducted with leading questions designed to elicit a certain type of response.

For instance, I am sure I could compile impressive looking survey results if I were to phone a few hundred people at random with the following question: “The beautiful flowers of Purple Loosestrife are no longer seen in Saskatchewan.  Is this due to: a) global warming; b) excessive herbicide use; c) lack of pollination due to honey bee die back; or 4) a dramatic increase in the number of Canada Geese?”  Many people will have forgotten, or perhaps never knew, that Purple Loosestrife was deliberately eradicated ten years ago as an invasive species and will pick one of the answers supplied.

The results of such a survey would be rubbish.  Yet too many surveys are conducted along similar lines, giving a choice of pre-selected answers on sensitive subjects such as abortion and gay marriage.  Then the results are fed back to us as proof of what the majority of Canadians think on this particular topic.  The newspapers report the results of these surveys with a slant that indicates that those of us who think otherwise are quite out of step with the times, perhaps even hinting that we are dangerous to the public good.

Such carefully manipulated polls are voices of the zeitgeist,  pressuring us to think in the approved manner of our time.  Christians should be listening to a different voice, the voice of the Holy Spirit.  He will set us free to think soberly and realistically.  May we never be ashamed to express those sober and realistic thoughts, they may be a breath of fresh air for someone trapped in the stifling atmosphere of the zeitgeist.

We are men and women, not machines.  It should not be possible for a propaganda machine to adjust and fine tune our attitudes as if we were machines.

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