(click for a larger view)


This chart is my social commentary on the strange attack on Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt’s new SuperFreakonomicsbook. It seems a large chunk of people are worked up over a chapter in the book in which they look into alternate, controversial ways of solving the climate-change/global-warming/whatever-the-kids-are-calling-it-these-days problem.

At the eye of the storm are people accusing Dubner and Levitt of lies and misrepresentation in their book, particularly as it relates to their conversations with Ken Caldeira, a respected climate scientist working with Intellectual Ventures (possibly the most arrogantly named company ever).

Long story short: A blogger at Climate Progress claimed that Caldeira objected to his portrayal in the book and that Dubner and Levitt essentially flipped him off and left burning dog crap on his porch. Dubner responded that Caldeira read through two drafts of the chapter, correcting things he felt were wrong. Caldeira feels the authors worked in good faith and, while he may or may not agree with their conclusions, he feels their portrayal was fair.

What I find funny about the whole thing is the extent to which most people are blasting Dubner and Levitt even though they have explained repeatedly that they are not challenging the scientific status quo concerning climate change, that their reference to global cooling is a reference to finding ways to use technology to reverse global warming, which they unabashedly believe is happening. Their chapter looks at people working to solve the problem (you know, the problem of global warming which they believe is happening) who are working outside the “climate-change establishment”.

On a related note, Dubner has announced that he will change his name to Stephen Dubner-Yes-I-Believe-Climate-Change-Is-A-Problem.

But for the blasting of Dubner and Levitt and the (unconvincing, in my opinion) Brad DeLong’s “you should have let me write your book” post, no one can really give me a good reason to believe that they have a better grasp on the topic than Dubner and Levitt.

(Update: Greg Mankiw gives me reason to believe that Yoram Bauman has a better grasp on the topic and he seems disappointed. However, his back and forth with Steve Levitt amounted to “You may be technically right on the specifics, but the gist you gave was inaccurate.” I’m still struggling to try and reconcile that with the statements attributed to Ken Caldeira who, you may recall, previewed multiple drafts of the chapter. If he really did OK the overall scientific gist of the chapter, that strikes me as a pretty powerful authority.)

Up till now, I’ve stayed out of the climate change arena because I don’t have anything resembling an appropriate background for dealing with the topic. But the problem I’ve found is that people on both sides of the argument don’t really give a crap about credentials or scientific rigor.

What they care about is simply “Did this guy end up on my side of the argument?” If he did, he is a real honest to goodness scientist. If he didn’t, he is a hack, a washed up old know-nothing, a dishonest tool for religious environmentalism or a shill for the oil companies (depending on which side you’re on).

The reason I’m skewering the pro-climate-change side in this visual is because they seem to be much narrower in their orthodoxy. I’ve known extremely liberal people with graduate degrees in nuclear physics who get angry because no one wants to hear their solution to climate change (hint: it rhymes with buclear flower pants) due to the fact that the movement (from a political stand point) is dominated by long time environmentalists who spent their formative years fighting against nuclear power and don’t want to admit that they might have gotten that one wrong. (How is that for a run-on sentence?)

The “climate skeptics” side is often just as scientifically lackadaisical, but they’ll welcome anyone with open arms as long as they’re even remotely skeptical of any part of the political climate change agenda. They’ll accept anything including “climate change isn’t happening”, “man isn’t causing climate change”, “climate change isn’t a problem”, or (my favorite) “the solution isn’t (Kyoto/carbon tax/ethanol/hybrid car/whatever-my-political-enemies-like), the real solution is (fill-in-the-blanks-with-something-that-will-make-my-political-enemies-angry)”.

But, ultimately, I find the pro side to be more humorous because it is populated by approximately 30 actual scientists with knowledge in the field and millions of people with no scientific knowledge in the field who just like to feel smug about being all “scientific” while bashing other people who aren’t “scientific”.

And how do they determine who falls into which category? See the chart above.

I found this link from Instapundit, so credit where it is due.

You may have seen this visual of job loss across the country. It maps the job gains and losses in major metro areas across the country and, on the surface it seems pretty cool. Here’s October 2008.


As someone who really loves information visualization, I applaud the effort. But it’s wrong.

Let’s take a quick look at the legend. See if you can spot the problem.


Keen readers will notice the problem… whoever created this visual scaled only the diameter of the circle. The problem with this is what we can see below.


Here I took the “10,000” circle and duplicated it over 50 times within the “100,000” circle. If this visual were an accurate one, we would multiply the 10,000 circle ten times to get 100,000. That’s just the way these things should work.

Math Time! (skip if you don’t care)

The area of a circle is calculated with the equation:


Which means that when they increase the height of the circle by 10, they increase it’s area by 100. This means that instead of the numbers increasing the way they should, the small numbers end up looking REALLY small and the big ones look absurdly huge.

End of Math Time

I’m not trying to be an a**hole here. The idea behind the visual was a good one. But these things really do need to be accurate. Most people don’t know how to tell when a visual is in error and they end up with an incorrect impression from a poorly built infographic.

Space Junk And Visual Lies

October 14, 2009

A little while back, due to a collision between a dead Russian military satellite and a US commercial satellite, there was some noise about space junk because of the potential danger it posed to the International Space Stations and the Shuttle. The image that of space junk that became the icon of the problem is this image (click to enlarge):


I hate this image. Passionately.

The reason I hate this image is because it is probably the biggest visual lie I’ve ever seen. In his book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Edward Tufte has a concept called the “Lie Factor”. The “Lie Factor” judges the extent to which the data and the visual are out of sync.

Nothing could be more out of sync with reality than this image. While it imagines the appropriate number of objects circling the earth, it completely misrepresents the scale of those objects.

Space is unimaginably huge. While there are thousands of objects circling the earth, they range in size from a volleyball to a small school bus. If you do the calculations, the objects in this image range in size from Delaware to Tennessee.

Math Time! (skip if you don’t care)

In this image the diameter of the earth is about 1950 pixels. The real diameter of the earth is about 8000 miles. That means that every pixel is a shade over 4 miles.

The smallest piece of space junk in this image is about 10 pixels wide and 18 pixels tall and the largest one is about 24 pixels wide and 104 pixels tall. That gives the small objects an area of about 3000 square miles (about 30% larger than Delaware) and the large ones an area of 41,000 square miles (a shade smaller than Tennessee).

End of Math Time

To give an example of this exaggeration, let’s look at Angelina Jolie. (How’s that for a non sequitur?) Jolie has a freckle (beauty mark, mole, whatever) above her right eye.


Let’s say we’re concerned about people getting skin cancer, so we want to make a shocking graphic that we hope will help people remember to monitor skin markings for signs of melanoma. If we lied visually as much as the space junk photo, we would change a picture of Angelina Jolie from:




Imagine the Photoshop is done a shade better than I can do. The intention to do good and get people to realize the severity of melanoma is all well and good, but it doesn’t justify lying to people.

Granted, the space junk image holds the disclaimer that it is “an artists impression”. But that isn’t how people read these kinds of things and anyone who believes otherwise is, quite frankly, lying to themselves about the realities of human perception and belief. People see these images and they expect that they match reality in some way. Do a search for “space junk” to find out how many otherwise intelligent people have accepted this image as reality without a breath to admit how inaccurate it is.

This is not to say space junk isn’t a problem. I would have “solved” the problem of visual representation by portraying the space junk as a dot. A single pixel that can clearly indicate position instead of pretending to be a representation of size. Then, I would explain that, even though these objects are very tiny compared to the size of the space they’re in, this junk moves at thousands of miles an hour… making very small objects insanely dangerous.

You could effectively compare it to shooting a bullet into the air. A tiny piece of metal in a huge space can be really dangerous. People get that. There is no reason to portray the bullet as a 747.

I’m worried that even scientific people either didn’t recognize this problem or didn’t feel the need to speak up about it. Even people experienced in infographics didn’t say anything (see here, and here). (Side Note: I take particular pleasure is smacking down Wired magazine for putting up this graphic without even mentioning that it is an “artist rendering”. As a whole, they tend to be smug and irritating in the extent to which they dismiss anyone without technical or scientific expertise. Here they reveal that they are just as susceptible to junk science as the average Joe.)

There is an extent to which many people in scientific and technical journalism are content to give people the appropriate impression (“Space junk is a dangerous problem”) without providing them with the appropriate information. Or, to put the problem simply, they think the end justifies the means.

I take the view that truth in data is the highest importance. I’m frustrated in how lonely it is out here on my high ground.

Latest unemployment data has come out and the people who were claiming “ah, but job losses are slowing” were smacked down and sent to the corner to think about what they’ve done.

The unemployment rate was up .1%, from 9.7% to 9.8%. That’s not so bad, right?

To speak frankly, the unemployment rate tells so little of the story at this point that it’s hardly a useful metric. If you’re looking for a useful metric, start looking at the raw unemployment numbers.

The problem with the unemployment rate is that it doesn’t compare the employed with the unemployed. Instead, it compares people who are employed with those who don’t have jobs, but have looked for a job in the last 4 weeks”. This make a certain kind of sense; we don’t want to count stay-at-home dads or retired individuals as unemployed.

However, this means that an exodus from the workforce could mask the severity of the job situation. To illustrate, I’ve created a visual:


Let’s say we have 20 people in the workforce and 2 of them fit the technical definition for unemployed, which means that they’re actively looking for work. That gives us an unemployment rate of 10%.


Now, let’s say one of the unemployed people got tired of being unemployed and decided to go back to school. She has now removed herself from the labor force, so we don’t count her when we count unemployed people. Let’s also say that one of the employed people lost his job and instead of looking for a new one, he decided to simply retire.


As you can see we haven’t added any jobs… in fact we have fewer jobs than we did before. But we took a higher percentage of people out of the “unemployed” group than we did out of the “employed” group. It’s now 1 person unemployed and 17 people employed. We’ve “slashed” the unemployment rate to 5.5%.

This current job report is actually a perfect example of this. We lost 785,000 jobs this past month. That makes it the biggest month of job losses since March. But the number of people in the unemployed group rose only 214,000. This is because  we saw over twice that number simply leave the work force altogether.

If we took employment numbers for this month compared it to the labor force for last month, we would have an unemployment rate of 10.2%… almost a half a percent higher than the one we have!

I try to be an optimist, but it is hard to see this report as anything but a disaster. Furthermore, we are so far into the implementation of the stimulus, that I have a hard time seeing it as anything but a huge failure. I understand that only about 10% of the stimulus has actually been spent, but part of the point of the stimulus was to get money out into the economy in order to inject a little cash flow into the situation. That means that a huge part of the success of the stimulus relied on getting the money out in a timely manner.

I know that defenders of stimulus theory would object that it takes time to spend $800 billion and that you can’t spend that much very quickly without massive fraud. To which I reply: “Well, duh.” I think that’s a great argument against the stimulus and I wish they had brought that up back in February and March instead of bashing people like me for bringing that up back in February and March.

Back to the point, we have seen job growth in only one month out of the last 17. We need to stop focusing on the unemployment rate and start looking at raw jobs data. Only when we see the raw number of jobs start rising consistently can we be confident of economic recovery.

Note: To be fair, jobs tend to be a lagging indicator, but outside the stock market increases, I’m seeing little reason to be optimistic. And, quite honestly, the stock market seems to be very excited about absolutely nothing. It’s like they’re throwing a champagne party because the world hasn’t ended, neglecting the fact that it is still on fire.

After nearly two months of nothing, I figured I had to put something up. I’ve been tossing this idea around for a while looking for a metaphor that worked appropriately. I didn’t really push the metaphor of a household budget too far in the video because:

  • No one runs a household budget on $100 per month
  • Government does a lot of things that don’t correspond very well to household budgets
  • There is no good correspondence between mandatory spending and anything we budget for in real life.

But it is likely that you simply don’t care about the artistic matter of finding an appropriate metaphor and you only care about where the data came from.

Fair enough.

The data came from a couple of different places. First of all, the first data I’m using is a rough budget projection for 2017. This came from the CBO projection of President Obama’s budget extended to 2017. This is also where I got the federal reciept estimates I used to calculate how much we would have to decrease spending in order to balance the budget as well as the estimates for mandatory spending and interest.

For the purposes of the video, I combined what the CBO calls “mandatory spending” (which is mostly entitlement spending like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid) and interest payments on the national debt into a single “mandatory spending” amount because both these parts of the budget are automatic and neither of them can be changed through the normal budget channels.

The next piece of data is the distribution of spending according to agency. In order to estimate how much we would spend on various departments and agencies, I took the latest projected data from President Obama’s budget, which is for 2014. I then calculated that, if we split up spending proportionally the same way in 2017 as we do in 2014 we would end up with the money distribution you see in the video (give or take a few cents).

Then, for the part where I take away the money until the budget is balanced, I simply looked at the amount of money we would have left over after we take care of all the mandatory spending with the receipts we expect to have.

That number was:

Federal Receipts – Mandatory Spending = Money Left To Spend

The “Money Left To Spend” number came out to $427 billion in 2017. The Defense spending in 2017 is anticipated to be about $662 billion, so I got rid of everything except defense spending. Then I started shaving off parts of the defense department until I got to a number small enough to roughly equal $427 billion.

Using this web site as a guide and calculating the proportional spending between the 2010 budget and the 2017 one, I subtracted the entire intelligence budget and the Navy. Then I reduced “Defense Wide” spending by half (I figure with the Navy gone, we don’t need quite as much military support bureaucracy) and I added up the Army, Air Force and the reduced bureaucracy.

That number came to $447 billion. Which means that we’re technically still running a deficit, but it’s a really small one.

One thing I did not do was calculate out how much more we would have to cut if we pass health care reform. This is because the legislation is so fluid and malleable at this point, it seemed pointless to put it into a number that would just change in a couple weeks.

But, I can say this one thing with an enormous level of certainty (and I’ll even put it into bold so you know I’m really serious):

President Obama, despite his best intentions, will not sign a “deficit neutral” bill.

This is because entitlement programs always start out with the best intentions and with rosy predictions. They almost always fail to meet those predictions, costing far more than was originally estimated. The problem is that the programs go on auto-pilot and neither the president nor Congress can do a damn thing to pull back on the costs.

What can be done about this? My suggestion is one that would satisfy no one.

I think President Obama should refuse to sign any legislation that doesn’t have an expiration date on it. If health care reform is really as wonderful as he says it will be, this shouldn’t be a problem. People will adore it, burn incense to it, throw ticker tape parades for it. Voting it back into law would be like raising Abraham Lincoln from the dead and having him run for another term.

But the fact of the matter is that it will never as wonderful as President Obama claims, which is why it can’t have an expiration date. Once people have a benefit, changing the status quo away from that benefit is often politically impossible. Just ask George W. Bush when he tried to change the clearly broken Social Security system. Everyone agreed that it was broken, but no one could muster the political wherewithal to fix it. So they just left it broken.

This is, I believe, exactly what will happen with health care reform. But that part is just my opinion.

New York Times has a short group of blurbs on college advice from educators. Some of it is good, but some of it is shockingly bad.

Rabbit Trail: One professor tells students to read a good newspaper every day. He might as well tell students to check the typeset on their printing presses. If you want to make a point for someone to expand their horizons, tell them to actively seek out the opinions of those with whom they disagree and discover why they disagree or tell them to independently verify facts that they read in a news article once a week. Both these activities will expand your horizons far more than burying your face in a dead tree containing the collected daily writings of 400 people who voted for the same person in the last election.

Back to the point:

I thought the make-up of professors polled was fascinating. Out of 9 total professors, two of them were technical professors (biology and physics), and their advice is shoved down to the bottom of the page. If you considered “science” to be a single subject, it would have been as well represented as English, history or law. No engineering professors. No math professors either.

Here is the reason this kind of irks me: I got tons of terrible college advice from people who gave me some permutation of “expand your horizons”, “do what you like” or “follow your dream”. This led perfectly intelligent individuals I knew to spend $60,000 on an education so they could get perfectly hideous careers taking customer complaints for American Express.

Most of my college classes were fairly technical (mathematics, chemistry, computer science, physics, statistics). But I always kind of bristled at the fact that so many universities basically discriminate against students technical degrees. If you have a degree in something technical, the chances are you were forced to take a ton of humanities.

And I’m not talking English composition or public speaking classes, which every single person should take (or test out of) in order to be a functioning college degree holder. Every degree holder should be able to write in a manner appropriate for educated communication and everyone should be able to stand up in front of people and make some kind of speaking presentation. When I say “humanities”, I’m talking the often endless humanities, literature, history, and “society” classes that go far beyond basic proficiency.

Universities make technical students take all these humanities on the laughable premise that it will make them “rounded” individuals. On an informal survey of core curriculum at a half dozen major universities, a rounded individual takes twice as many classes in the humanities as he or she does in math and science.

What I am NOT saying is “humanities are worthless”. I’m an avid literature fanatic with enough books to take over one of the rooms in my house. What I AM saying is that a college education should be cost-effective. It is my opinion (and my advice to new college students) that students should make every effort to spend their time (and money) learning things that they can’t learn on their own.

If this survey is correct, students are paying $35,000 dollars for a private university (and ) on classes and fees this year. It is my understanding that out-of-state students to public universities are similarly priced. If a student takes a 15 hour workload (five 3-hour classes), they’re looking at about $3200 per class.

My guess is that most places have a core humanities curriculum that takes about 30-40 hours to complete. So, if you’re getting a science or engineering degree, you’re looking at about $30,000 – $40,000 to pay for classes that have nothing to do with your profession and (here’s the key part) are filled with things you could have figured out on your own.

Example: I took a survey of western literature and thought from the Reformation to the modern era. The key take away from that class on my side of things was the fact that the book we used had a wretched translation of “The Grand Inquisitor”, a portion of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s opus “The Brothers Karamazov“. I knew it was a wretched translation because I had read “The Brothers Karamazov” the previous summer (it remains to this day my favorite novel) and vital imagery was toned down because the translators had no respect for the intelligence of their readers. Of all of the authors assigned in that class, I’ve re-discovered all but one in my own leisure time.

In fact, most of the stuff we learned in order to secure the calligraphic document that got us jobs were things quickly forgotten after the final exam. I have since re-learned far more than I was taught because of:

As a contrast, how many people in the audience figured out fluid dynamics all by themselves because they were curious? Calculus? Organic chemistry? These are topics that are very difficult to get into simply by hitting up Wikipedia for some info.

Don’t even get me started on Social Science classes. I was lucky enough to take a gender class my final semester in undergrad. We had several biology students in the class who tried to patiently argue with the professor that men were more aggressive than women not because society taught them to be aggressive but because men have more testosterone. Our professor refused to believe them. One of them suggested that the professor should investigate societies of lab rats. He did not get a good grade.

Every gender class should be taught with an evolutionary biologist and a neuroscientist sitting in the back row trying not to laugh.

Maybe if I wasn’t still paying off tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, I wouldn’t feel this enormous resentment to the months I spent reading stuff I’d already read (or would read again when I wanted to) and talking about it in classes with 3 students who cared and 40 who didn’t. But the fact of the matter is that many students are going to college to get degrees to get jobs. For technical students, their progress is being slowed by humanities classes filled with readings they can do on their own time if they are so inclined.

Cool little piece on the best paying undergrad college degrees has this accompanying graph.

(Parts of the graph aren’t showing up very well on wordpress, so feel free to head over there to check it out.)

Best Undergrad College Degrees By Salary
Degrees Degrees
Annual pay for Bachelors graduates without higher degrees. Typical starting graduates have 2 years of experience; mid-career have 15 years. See full methodology for more.

If you’re thinking about choosing your major, my only advice has stayed the same over the years: Go as technical as you think you can handle.

Many employers assume that, if you have a technical degree they can teach you the other stuff. Very few of them assume that if you have a liberal arts degree they can teach you the technical side.