BREAKING: Is there something we're missing here?

MONDAY, APRIL 23, 2018

The mind of the New York Times:
The New York Times and the Washington Post tend to dance a peculiar pas de deux.

From Monday through Friday, the Times is the far more interesting paper. On the weekends, though, the roles reserve. It seems to us that the Post produces much more interesting material.

That's largely because, on the weekends, the Times publishes work like this, on a regular basis.

The link transports you to a puzzling piece in yesterday's Sunday Review. It was written by Lindsay Crouse, "a senior staff editor for Op-Docs at The Times" who graduated from Harvard in 2006.

(And no, this isn't the actress.)

Crouse ran in last week's Boston Marathon, which took place in unusually cold weather. Apparently because of the weather, dropout rates during the race were apparently higher than usual this year.

We say "apparently" because Crouse presents no source for her various statistical claims about how many runners did, and did not, drop out during the race. But as she began her piece, this year's allegedly unusual dropout rates had her thinking, and leaning toward certain conclusions:
CROUSE (4/22/18): This year’s Boston Marathon, with its horizontal rain and freezing temperatures, wasn’t just an ordeal unfolding amid some of the worst weather in decades.

It was also an example of women’s ability to persevere in exceptionally miserable circumstances.
In good weather, men typically drop out of this race at lower rates than women do, but this year, women fared better. Why, in these terrible conditions, were women so much better at enduring?
To Crouse, this year's race constitutes "an example of women’s ability to persevere in exceptionally miserable circumstances." She says that, in the terrible conditions, women turned out to be "so much better at enduring."

Inquiring minds will want to know: how much better were women at enduring? Incredibly, these are the (unsourced) numbers which had Crouse writing this piece for the Sunday Review:
CROUSE (continuing directly): The results for Boston, one of the most competitive marathons in the world, were doleful this year: The winning times for both men and women were the slowest since the 1970s, and the midrace dropout rate was up 50 percent overall from last year.

But finishing rates varied significantly by gender. For men, the dropout rate was up almost 80 percent from 2017; for women, it was up only about 12 percent. Overall, 5 percent of men dropped out, versus just 3.8 percent of women. The trend was true at the elite level, too.
Those numbers don't seem hugely different. Adding to the foolishness, the headline on the piece says this: "Why Men Quit and Women Don't."

Let's assume Crouse's numbers are accurate. Overall, that means that 96.2 percent of women finished the race this year, versus a measly 95 percent of men.

That doesn't strike us as a very large difference. That said, Crouse says the opposite is normally true. She says that, in a more typical weather year, a lower percentage of men drop out.

Let's perform some math:

Based on the numbers Crouse provides, it would seem that, in 2017, 2.8 percent of men dropped out during the race, versus 3.4 percent of women. Putting that another way, 97.2 percent of men finished the race last year, versus 96.6 percent of women.

Whichever year we're looking at, the differences between women and men don't strike us as very large. The difference between 2017 and 2018 doesn't seem very large either.

But so what? At the New York Times, these minor differences led to a lengthy piece in the Sunday Review, one of the paper's most visible platforms, in which Crouse imagines various possible reasons for these allegedly meaningful outcomes.

Is there something we're missing here? Crouse's essay strikes us as maybe three steps beyond daft. But the work appeared in the New York Times, in the highly visible Sunday Review.

We truly wonder if lead exposure explains the state of the culture. For what it's worth, a somewhat similar piece appeared yesterday in the Post's Outlook section.

We'll try to get to that piece tomorrow or Wednesday. But Crouse's piece seems to make little sense. It's the kind of work which spills from the Sunday Times on a regular basis.

Has lead exposure eaten our brains? Do you have a better explanation?

Is there a name for this: Is there a name for the statistical hook Crouse employs here? To wit:

If you compare the percentages of men and women who dropped out, the difference can be made to seem rather large. But if you compare the percentages who didn't drop out, the difference will almost surely seem rather small.

Consider an exaggerated example:

In next year's marathon. 99.9 percent of women finish, compared to 99.8 percent of men. The numbers will seem very similar—unless you decide to compare the percentages who didn't finish, in which case you can say, with technical accuracy, that men dropped out at double the rate of women, or perhaps that twice as many men dropped out.

(In that scenario, 0.1 percent of women will have dropped out, versus 0.2 percent of men. That's twice as many!)

Is there a name for that type of statistical sleight of hand? Anthropologically speaking, does it tend to appeal to people who suffer from lead exposure?


  1. "Has lead exposure eaten our brains? Do you have a better explanation?"

    Lib-zombieism par excellence.

    1. You're flattering yourself, dear dembot: it'd take a major upgrade to teach you even the simplest trick.

      May I suggest a slight correction to your self-characterization: "Stupid, dumb, inane tautological troll comment, part 1."

  2. There is a way to determine whether the difference in the dropout rates is meaningful or not. You can do a statistical test to determine whether the two rates are so different that some factor is at play or whether they are essentially the same. You can also test whether this year's rates are substantially different from last year's.

    Instead Somerby assumes that the difference means nothing and that this essay is manufactured out of thin air.

    The biasing of judgment when you focus on the smaller percentage of dropouts compared to the number who remained in the race has been examined by folks like Kahnemann & Tversky. It isn't statistical sleight of hand but arises from the way people think about numbers. This is a subfield of cognitive psychology called judgment and decision making.

    Crouse is probably not doing this deliberately, as Somerby implies. The unusual weather would make it natural to focus on whether there were more dropouts than usual. But in general people are focused more on loss than on winning because we are risk aversive and seek to prevent loss. Kahnemann won a Nobel prize (in economics) for studying this kind of thing after his colleague Tversky died. Daniel Ariely is carrying on this tradition.

  3. Somerby asks: "Is there something we're missing here? "

    How can he expect an answer if he (1) doesn't read his comments, (2) stifles discussion by permitting spam to clutter up the comments section?

    Why is he so lazy he can't clean up this junk?

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  6. Here are two equivalent and accurate statements

    1. In the last 40 years, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen from .03% to .04% -- a 33% increase!

    2. In the last 40 years, the atmosphere has gone from 99.97% carbon dioxide-free to 99.96% carbon dioxide-free -- a negligible reduction.

    1. David, for low concentrations, the amount of infrared absorbed is proportional to the concentration of carbon dioxide. If the concentration rises from .03% to .04%, the infrared absorption increases 33%. It's irrelevant that the concentration of other gases has remained unchanged.

  7. BTW that type of statistical slight of hand might be called "innurerancy", which is a lack of appreciating differences in magnitudes.

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