One of my goals in life is to get a letter published on the Opinion pages of
the Kansas City Star on a regular basis. They don't like to publish from any one
writer more often than once a month. So far I've had mixed success, but I
thought it would be interesting to post all of these letters on my website, both
the ones that got published and the ones that didn't. I tried to note which
efforts were successful and which were not, but I may not be 100% accurate.
The letters to the editor are limited to 150 words and I always appreciated
the challenge of making a persuasive argument in such a small space.
Unfortunately, that tended to make the letters a bit simplistic. There's no room
for nuance in 150 words, so the writing tends towards a more polarized view of
the world than I would like.
I am also including other submissions of a more lofty nature, such as the "As
I See It column," (which has a much more generous 450 word limit), application
to serve on the Editorial Board Advisory Panel, and application to serve as a
Midwest Voices columnist. All these have been unsuccessful, but I will keep on
Dates are approximate.
- Not published. Charles Krauthammer has absolved BP from most of the
blame in the Gulf oil spill (Opinion, 6/1/2010). The spill was caused not by
carelessness, but rather by "perfect storm engineering lapses."
Mr. Krauthammer pins much of the blame on federal regulators. Being regulated
gives you a blank check for stupidity. You can make all the mistakes in the
world and then blame them all on the government.
The others sharing blame in Mr. Krauthammer's bizarre world are the
environmentalists. They kept us from drilling in the Pacific, the Atlantic,
and the Arctic. Apparently, we'd have fewer spills if we drilled in more
Don't worry, Mr. Krauthammer. We'll be fine once Sarah Palin and all your
friends in the "Drill, Baby, Drill" Party get back in power. More drilling
with less regulation is just the recipe we need to prevent future
I tried again a week later with another letter along the same lines, but more
general in scope. It also was not published.
I submitted a letter to the editor a week ago, and it looks like you
weren't interested in publishing it. That's okay. I understand there are a lot
of good letter writers competing for a limited about of space.
I did revise the letter substantially, and thought that you might find the
revised letter more worthy of publication. Thanks for your consideration.
The massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has conservatives all worried.
They're not worried about the environment, but rather that the general
incompetence of BP may lead to calls for more restrictions and regulations on
big oil. They have a strategy, though.
First, deflect the blame from BP. Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer
has described BP's mistakes as "perfect storm engineering lapses" as if this
accident only occurred through a Rube Goldberg chain of events. Tea party idol
Rand Paul characterized criticisms of BP as "un-American" (the B stands for
British, by the way) because "sometimes accidents happen."
Second, shift the blame to government. Why the government? If government fails
to fix this mess (a mess they didn't make), then you might as well just get
rid of all those "ineffective" government rules and regulations.
If this deception succeeds, expect more drilling, less oversight, and routine
- Not published. Amidst all their whining about the mainstream media,
conservatives have failed to notice a comic strip that promotes support for
our military and respect for religion: Doonesbury, drawn by Gary Trudeau. One
of the main characters, B.D., served in Viet Nam, and the two Gulf Wars. In
2004, B.D. lost a leg in combat, and Mr. Trudeau has chronicled his difficult
recovery and that of another wounded Gulf War veteran, Toggle.
Another long running character, Reverend Scott Sloan, has been promoting
religion since 1972. Two months ago, Mr. Trudeau introduced a new character: a
military chaplain who has dealt with the problems of sexual harassment in the
military and with the complexities of having to minister to soldiers with a
wide range of religions.
God bless Gary Trudeau. He is living proof that conservatives don't have a
monopoly on the love of God and country.
- Charles Krauthammer praises President Obama for his troop
surge in Afghanistan (Political back-and-forth creates consensus, March 15,
2010) but then incorrectly states that this is a continuation of the George
Bush course of action. The Bush policy in Afghanistan, after the first year of
fighting, was a policy of neglect. We are spending hard earned American lives
today to reestablish our authority over regions of Afghanistan that were
established in the early fighting but then frittered away by Mr. Bush as he
diverted our troops and our attention to Iraq. President Obama ordered this
troop surge not as a continuation of some master plan but rather as a reversal
of the neglect of the previous administration. Mr. Krauthammer would like you
to think otherwise because he wants to cover up the incompetence of the Bush
policy in Afghanistan.
- See Steve, Cathy, and Nicholas -- Steve's
letter about the U.S. Census (created 2010-03-23)
- Not published. To the critics of global warming: you have been
successful recently in tearing down support for global warming. But what do
you propose to put in its place, or than fear, uncertainty, and doubt? There
are only three serious alternatives to global warming: it is not happening; it
is caused by something other than carbon dioxide emissions; or it will cause
less damage than the cost of remediation.
Each alternative has serious problems. No fair citing whichever alternative is
convenient at the time, as they can't all be true simultaneously. Tell us
which alternative you really believe and publish supporting data in a
peer-reviewed journal. An editorial in the Wall Street Journal doesn't cut it.
And be sure to include the password to your private email accounts and
disclose all of your financial records.
Until you can do that, I'll stay on the side of the proponents of global
- I think this got published. Brit Hume gets criticized for his
comments about Buddhism and Christianity and Michael Gerson ("Intolerance of
religion is still intolerance" 1-8-2010) believes that this criticism is an
example of religious intolerance?
In Saudi Arabia, travel visas were denied to Jews. Switzerland has outlawed
the building of mosque minarets. In Afghanistan, Christian converts were
threatened with the death penalty. This is the true face of religious
The criticism of Mr. Hume is an illustration that in America, you and I are
free to practice any religion and criticize any religion. Brit Hume can advise
Tiger Woods to stop practicing Buddhism and convert to Christianity, so it's
only fair that others can advise Brit Hume to stop proselytizing Christianity.
The words may be harsh, but nobody was physically harmed. Get down on your
knees, Mr. Gerson, and pray that America continues to allow this type of
- Not published. So the right-wing is cheering because Chicago has
lost their bid for the 2016 Olympics and jeering because our president has won
a Nobel Peace Prize. Why do conservatives hate America?
- Not published. It was exciting to see all the research being funded
at KSU, KU, MU, and UMKC through the Obama stimulus package ("Uncle Sam's
Science Lesson", September 29, 2009). Your article failed to note, however,
that these universities truly earned this money. The projects described in
this article were reviewed by independent scientists and found to be superior
to hundreds of other competing research proposals.
This merit-based process is in sharp contrast to Sarah Palin's "Bridge to
Nowhere" and other political patronage projects. Those projects are funded
because politicians are willing to sell their support in a controversial area
to obtain funding for local projects that they can brag about during their
re-election campaigns. This is nothing less than legalized bribery with
taxpayers being forced to pay the bribes.
We researchers have to prove ourselves through peer-review. Why don't "pork
barrel" projects undergo the same level of scrutiny?
- This didn't get published, probably because it was too sarcastic. I
still think it is funny. The Republicans didn't get equal time to respond
to the President's speech to school children, but if they did, it would
probably go something like this.
We support President's Obama's call for harder work at school, but we
respectfully disagree with him on several important issues. We urge him to
make our schools safer by supporting the constitutional right for students to
carry concealed weapons in their classrooms. Criminals would think twice about
stealing construction paper and glue sticks if they knew that they might face
a classroom full of pistol-packing kindergartners. We also encourage greater
discipline in our schools, with stress positions, sleep deprivation, and
waterboarding for students caught in the hallway without a pass. Finally, we
object to the government sponsored death panels that President Obama is
proposing for school nurse offices throughout the country.
- Submitted (unsuccessfully) for the "As I See It" column. When I was
a graduate student in a Statistics program in the 1980's, I was talking to a
young faculty member in Mathematics who had recently emigrated from the Soviet
Union. He pointed out that while there were many famous mathematicians in the
USSR, there were no statisticians. The reason, he said, is that the Communists
didn't like Statistics because the data may contradict state policy.
Thank goodness we have an open society here in the United States, I thought at
the time, rather naively. I've learned as I've gotten older that many U.S.
politicians hate Statistics for the same reason the Communists hated
Statistics. It's like the fabled ostrich that sticks its head in the sand at
the first sign of danger. If you can't see it, it can't harm you.
Proof of this has appeared yet again in the revelation that the National
Highway Traffic Safety Administration canceled research on the safety of cell
phone use while driving (Politics First, Safety Second, July 21, 2009). The
research wasn't canceled because of budget limitations. It wasn't canceled
because the research was silly and trivial. It was canceled because certain
members of Congress did not want the research to influence efforts of state
legislatures to limit or ban cell phone use while driving.
While some research had already shown the dangers of cell phone use, the
proposed research would have provided nationwide estimates of the number of
crashes and the number of deaths associated with this practice. Why would you
not want to know this information? The only reason I can think of is that if
there is no data on the cost in economic terms and the cost in lost human
lives, then legislatures might make a decision in ignorance that would be
different from the decision made with solid data. A famous U.S. statistician,
Frederick Mosteller, got it right when he said "It is easy to lie with
Statistics, but it is easier to lie without them." The political suppression
of research is not limited to this particular example. You should read Chris
Mooney's excellent book, The Republican War on Science, to see dozens of
recent examples of similar abuses. The ostriches are not confined to the
Republican party, as there are plenty of Democratic examples of suppressed
research as well.
If we have to write laws to address the tough issues about teenage pregnancy,
global warming, AIDS prevention, and health care reform, we can't base those
laws just on emotions and anecdotes. We need cold hard numbers that only
serious research can provide. There is a risk in conducting this research
because it might contradict a cherished and closely held belief. But we are
better off as a nation by shining the light of Statistics on those beliefs
rather than clinging tightly to those beliefs in the darkness.
- I think this got published, but I'm not sure. Ralph McFillen
(Letters 7/13) offers up the use of words like "Supreme Being" in state
constitutions as evidence that the United States is a Christian nation.
Ignoring the implicit insult of Jews, Muslims, and others, the whole concept
of a Christian nation is meaningless. Christians themselves can't agree on
issues like abortion, the death penalty, gay marriage, or immigration reform.
Our nation could adopt just about any policy it liked and still claim to
profess Christian values.
I'm all for a nation that espouses the racial justice of Reverend King and
Mother Theresa's compassion for the poor in third world countries. But the
people who claim we are a Christian nation have a different agenda. Their
narrow version of Christianity has vilified gay people, promoted a reckless
war in Iraq, and derided empathy as the eighth deadly sin. I'd rather have
atheists running our country than those types of Christians.
- Unsuccessful application for the Editorial Board Advisory Panel. I
submit so much stuff to the editorial pages of the Kansas City Star that I
thought it would make sense to apply to join the Editorial Board Reader
The editorial pages of your paper are the first thing I read every morning and
I always make it a point to read those columnists who viewpoints I despise the
most, as it keeps me on my toes to read stuff I don't agree with then try to
understand why I don't agree with that. They usually don't change my mind, but
they often provide me with an appreciation of what the other side has to
I'd love to join this panel because I've always wanted to meet Maureen Dowd.
What, you mean she doesn't write her columns here in Kansas City? Darn. I'm
going to apply anyway, if only to get the chance to set Thomas McClanahan
straight. He's one of those despised columnists that I always make the effort
I'm a lifelong Democrats, but I'm flirting with joining the Republican party
this year because in Kansas the Democratic primaries are boring and the
Republican primaries are exciting. I'd be the ultimate RINO, though, as I am
liberal on most viewpoints. I do take a more conservative stand on economic
issues, though, partly from my experience teaching in a College of Business in
I am a professional statistician, and while many people think that it a boring
job, it's the most fascinating job there is. I get to work with people on the
cutting edge and have helped produce research that that gets published in
prominent research journals. I am also the author of two major websites about
Statistics, StATS (Steve Attempt to Teach Statistics), and the P.Mean website.
I've also written a book, Statistical Evidence, that, sad to say, has not sold
as well as those Harry Potter books.
A good friend told me that I'm the funniest statistician that they have ever
met, and while I'm not sure that is a compliment, I do try to write with a
light sense of humor. I also think that a lot of political dialog on both
sides of the fence is too mean spirited. It turns out that you can go far in
politics by attacking the personal qualities of your opponents rather than
talking seriously about the issues. I'm not a big fan of Sarah Palin's
politics or Mark Funkhouser's administrative skills, but they both serve as an
example of how nasty the political discussions have become.
You wanted five brief summaries of editorial ideas, and I just submitted an
example to this email account of one: the suppression of research at the
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Another article on the
viciousness of the personal attacks (see above) would certainly be high on my
list. The other three articles are more difficult, as the best examples I
could come up with are stale because they are based on old news. I'd love to
write an editorial about George Tiller, but the time for that editorial is
long past. But hey, Dick Cheney will find a way to get back in the news and
inspire me to write something more about torture.
I would like to talk about the rush of development in Leawood and other
suburbs of Kansas City. It seems that every square inch of 135th Street from
State Line to Metcalf is slated for yet another unneeded bank, dry cleaner, or
other commercial development. I like seeing the horses and the corn fields
along these stretches. The property is very valuable and we don't want to lose
out on important tax revenues that these commercial enterprises bring in.
Still, there has to be a way to slow things down and spread things out.
School board races have become increasingly important because of the desire of
some conservatives to limit student reading lists and meddle in the teaching
of biology. It's not a good time to talk about this now, but an editorial
along those lines is needed closer to election time. I have a son entering
second grade in the Blue Valley School District, and while evolution and
controversial books are not in his near future, those issues will be very
important as he gets older.
I used to work at Children's Mercy Hospital, so another editorial area near
and dear to my heart is anything related to the health and safety of our
children. I realize that's a bit vague, but I know the people who try to put
these kids back together when they are in a car accident and a poorly fitting
seat belt cuts into their spleen. There's a passion among pediatricians,
especially those who work in the ER, about keeping our kids safe. I'm not a
doctor, but I do understand these issues well because I have collaborated on
so many research publications with these doctors.
I hope this helps. If you are interested in my application, I can be reached
at [Phone number deleted] both days and evenings. I work out of my house,
[address deleted]. Oh by the way, both of my houses in the Kansas City area
have had those highly flammable cedar shakes. The next time that a similar
house burns down in a development that restricts roofing materials, I want to
give those homeowner's associations a piece of my mind.
Good luck with selecting your panel. I'm sure you have a lot of good
applicants. I'd be thrilled if you selected me, but if I don't get the job,
I'll keep sending letters to your editorial page.
- I think this got published. The pro-torture branch of the
conservative movement won't give up. Jonah Goldberg has put a perverse new
twist on the debate ("History Badly Misread" Thursday, May 7, 2009). Torture
won't erode our character, he says, if we keep it secret. In other words, if
you waterboard someone in a forest and no one is around to hear it, it really
The conservatives shrieking about the lack of checks and balances in a
filibuster proof Senate can't see the problem with this? The reason we don't
want our government to torture terrorists in secret is that such a government
will eventually find a way to torture you and me in secret as well.
Thomas Jefferson understood the need for limits on government power far better
than today's conservatives. He said "When the people fear their government,
there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty."
- I can't recall if this got published, but in retrospect, maybe Mr.
McClannahan was a better predictor of the future than I was. In a fit of
wishful thinking that would make Tinkerbell blush, Thomas McClanahan claims
that Obama's popularity has peaked and the Republicans are on the rebound (Obama's
Big-government Express is Losing Steam, March 29, 2009). We shouldn't
underestimate the well-documented ability of Democrats to snatch defeat from
the jaws of victory. Right now, though, Republican popularity is dropping
faster than the economy and there is no end in sight.
The Republicans are in free fall because their message, less government,
conflicts with the public's perception that this economic disaster was caused
by lax government regulation. McClanahan's intellectual ancestors wrote in
1933 criticizing Roosevelt's massive government spending plans, and they were
just as wrong then as McClanahan is today. If Republicans insist on promoting
solutions from the Herbert Hoover School of Economics, they'll be rewarded in
2012 when they win as many states as Alf Landon did in 1936.
- Submitted (unsuccessfully) for the "As I See It" column. Your
article "Science Finds an Ally in Obama" (page B1, Monday, March 2) extols the
virtues of research, but does not go nearly far enough. As a professional
statistician, I have had the pleasure of working with research scientists in
many different disciplines, and these people are truly wonderful to work with.
Researchers are extremely industrious, working far harder than I ever could.
There are no "banker's hours" in the scientific community. I've tagged along
as a scientist made a special evening trip to the lab just to make an extra
infusion in their cell line. I've gotten emails well beyond midnight from
scientists needing feedback from a just finished a research proposal (I never
admit that I am playing FreeCell when I get these messages). I've had to
schedule some of my meetings as early as 7am to accommodate medical
professionals who see a full slate of patients during normal clinic hours. I
did draw the line at a researcher who suggested a Saturday morning meeting. No
one is taking my Saturday morning cartoons away from me.
Researchers are highly altruistic. They see problems and want to fix them. I
have countless examples of this, but one is particularly memorable because I
am so squeamish. I was working with a doctor investigating the use of
ultrasound during kidney biopsies to make them safer and less painful. One of
the biggest benefits that he was able to demonstrate was the reduction in the
number of biopsies that had to be redone. I cringe at the thought of a needle
going into my kidney. I can't imagine getting it done and then having the
doctor say, whoops, we didn't get enough tissue, do you mind if we do it
Researchers also have a refreshing sense of humility. A true scientist knows
that ideas aren't valid just because they were thought up by someone who gets
paid to do a lot of thinking. To be worth anything, research hypotheses have
to be proven with cold hard data. When the data points in a different
direction, researchers swallow their pride and abandon their cherished
hypotheses. I've seen this happen many times and it is not pleasant. It's
worse than simply admitting a mistake because it does not happen in private.
Scientific progress requires that negative findings be publicized to prevent
others from going down the same blind alley. It takes a truly humble person to
admit in a research publication that they had a great idea, but when it was
carefully tested it proved to be totally wrong.
We need more research. I do have a conflict of interest here--more research
means more people seeking my services for data analysis. But any objective
analysis of research funding should recognize its benefits. Research projects
require lots of labor and the jobs produced are high quality jobs. But more
than this, research leads to saved lives and better quality of life. Research
scientists are truly the unsung heroes of our country.
- This got published. You can't compare Harry Truman and George W.
Bush (Will Bush�s presidency rebound in history like Truman�s?). Truman
volunteered to serve during World War I but Bush avoided service in the
Truman endured vicious slurs from Joseph McCarthy as being soft on Communism.
Bush slurred his opponents as being soft on terrorism.
Truman oversaw the creation of the United Nations and NATO. He relied on a UN
mandate to support the Korean War. Bush bypassed the UN and NATO and instead
relied on a small handpicked coalition to support the war in Iraq.
Truman fought aggressively for civil rights, labor unions, and national health
insurance. He was honest and ethical in all his dealings, and lived by the
motto "The buck stops here." Truman was everything that Bush is not. If you
want to compare Bush to any former president, compare him to Nixon.
Charles Burright has dire predictions about what will happen now that the
presidency and both houses of Congress belong to a single party (Letters,
November 14, 2008). He says we�ll see negative job growth, large federal
deficits, a very severe depression, and dependence on foreign oil. Gee, that
sounds a lot like what we�re seeing today. The Post Office is awfully slow.
Are you sure that letter wasn�t written in 2000 and was really referring to
Bush and the Republicans?
- This was my unsuccessful attempt to serve on the Midwest Voices panel
for 2009. Please accept my application for the Midwest Voices columnist
for 2009. I've applied in past years without success, but maintain my sunny
optimism that I can offer a unique and interesting perspective to the
editorial pages of the Kansas City Star.
I have always loved the editorial pages of newspapers. As a child, I would
read this section right after the comics. I especially loved the humorous
little nuggets that were offered by ordinary people contributing letters to
the editor. Several years ago, I took it as my civic responsibility to get one
letter published per month in the letters to the editor column of the Kansas
City Star. I've had only sporadic success in this endeavor, but I've learned
that a successful letter is concise, focuses on a single point, and is written
and submitted before the news becomes stale. One or more of my letters in the
Kansas City Star got me an invitation to the Kansas City Diversity Coalition,
but alas I have been too busy to attend many of the meetings.
I also contribute regularly to the web. I have my own website,
and just started an email newsletter, The Monthly Mean. I am a regular
contributor to the Chance News Wiki (www.dartmouth.edu/~chance/chance_news/news.html).
I've also made a few minor editing changes to Statistics entries at Wikipedia.
I publish regularly in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. I have over 70
publications and four of these publications have won major awards.
I wrote a book about critical thinking for medical professionals (Statistical
Evidence in Medical Trials: What Do the Data Really Tell Us, published by
Oxford University Press), that has sold well, but not quite as well as those
Harry Potter books. I'm just getting started on a second book about case
studies in research ethics that will use a graphic novel format.
In short, I am a prolific writer. Some of this writing is very technical, and
some less so. I take great pride in being able to explain complex concepts in
easily understood language.
If I were to write a series of opinion pieces for the Kansas City Star, I
would focus how politics is influenced by science in general and statistics in
particular. Many political controversies (stem cell research, the current
economic crisis, evolution versus intelligent design, and health care reform
to name a few) cannot be debated fairly without an appreciation for the
scientific and statistical issues that underpin them, but we can't abandon
these issues to be decided solely by the science and statistics geeks like me.
I'm a firm believer in the H.G. Wells quote that "Statistical thinking will
one day be as necessary for efficient citizenship as the ability to read and
It's dangerous to pigeonhole people, but if I have to pigeonhole myself, my
political persuasions can best be summarized as liberal on social issues and
conservative on economic issues. I am 52 years old, a white male, and live in
Leawood, Kansas. Until a few months ago, I regularly commuted to my job on the
Missouri side of the state line in the Medical Research Department of
Children's Mercy Hospital. Prior to that I worked in a government research lab
(the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) and taught in the
College of Business at Bowling Green State University. Now I am an independent
consultant and spend most of my time working from my sofa. I'm also trying to
spend more time with the six year old boy that my wife and I adopted from
Russia in 2004.
Some possible column topics (with draft opening paragraphs) are
- "Whatever happened to the flat tax?" The Republicans used to promote a flat
tax as a way to simplify the convoluted tax code, but this has been all but
forgotten in the recent debates. Maybe it is time to rethink this proposal.
Here are some practical steps to implementing a simpler and fairer tax system.
- "Our morbid fascination with medical diagnostic tests" Doctors and their
patients are in love with diagnostic tests, sometimes to the point of
irrationality. An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association
shows an extreme of this irrationality. Millions of women in America with a
hysterectomy have been given a pap smear. The pap smear is intended to
diagnose cervical cancer, but it is extremely hard to get cervical cancer if
you don't have a cervix. Why would so many women get such a worthless
- "Good economic regulations/bad economic regulations" The current economic
crisis was caused by insufficient regulations and failure to enforce existing
regulations. We do need more regulations in the economic arena, but we have to
be careful to enact the right regulations.
- "The rising tide of anti-intellectualism" George Bush is not stupid, and he
is far smarter than most of the people who call him stupid. He has degrees
from Harvard and Yale. Even if he was only an average student there, an
average student at Harvard or Yale is still quite smart. George Bush, though,
was smart enough during his political career to deny his intellectual side. A
quote from Peggy Noonan shows just how much Bush's intelligence was
downplayed. "Mr. Bush is the triumph of the seemingly average American man.
He�s not an intellectual. Intellectuals start all the trouble in the world."
- "Media bias is a good thing" I have a brother-in-law who belongs to the
"Attila the Hun" wing of the Republican Party. I love him the same way that
Joe Biden said he loved John McCain in the vice-presidential debate. My
brother-in-law regularly sends a broadcast email to everyone he knows with
links to media stories about how awful things are. These media outlets include
Catholic World Report, Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society,
Ignatius Insight, National Review Online, National Right to Life Committee,
and the Thomas More Law Center. Many of his friends and relatives roll their
eyes and delete these messages unread, but I try to read every single one.
This list is intended to give you an idea of the types of columns that I might
write, but I certainly would want to be able to react quickly to breaking news
Here's a sample column: "Don't let Statistics rule your life."
There's an old joke that there are three types of people in the world: those
who can count, and those who can't. I'm a professional statistician, so I hope
I can count. I love working with statistics. The patterns they form are
magical at times. Still, I have to admit that statistics are often overused
Statistics do not determine your destiny like some Greek oracle. If you are a
single parent, some people would say "woe unto your children" and quote a
tsunami of statistics to back up their case. The truth is that all children
have an uphill battle. The hill is steeper in a single parent home but most
kids find a way to survive, no matter what the obstacles.
You can fill out a bubble form with a series of "strongly disagree" to
"strongly agree" questions to find out your Myers-Briggs category (I'm an INTJ).
You may think that those four letters mean something profound and important.
In reality it is as lousy an indicator of personal temperament as your
astrological sign (I'm a crab).
Three scientists with resumes as thick as phone books have found a statistic
that peers into your soul. Amazingly, it can reveal your hidden prejudices and
biases. You classify a mix of words and faces as (1) "White European" or
"good" versus (2) "African American" or "bad." If you do this composite task a
lot faster than when the composite groups are (1) "African American" or "good"
versus (2) "White European" or "bad" then you show "a strong automatic
preference for European American compared to African American." Try it
yourself at implicit.harvard.edu.
Does this test really work or does it compute a number as meaningless as your
score on "Guitar Hero"? Our own Lewis Diuguid has written favorably about this
test, but John Tierney of the New York Times has noted strong dissents in the
research community. As for me, I could be a racist, but I'm not letting myself
get indicted by a number calculated at a Wii wannabe website.
Our society (I include myself here) idolizes numbers from the college football
BCS ratings to the Dow Jones Industrial Average. You should always remember
that you aren't defined by your statistics. Your IQ, your cholesterol level,
or your adjusted gross income are all useful numbers, but at best they can
only serve as a crude approximation to reality.
- I think this got published. Charles Burright has dire predictions
about what will happen now that the presidency and both houses of Congress
belong to a single party (Letters, November 14, 2008). He says we�ll see
negative job growth, large federal deficits, a very severe depression, and
dependence on foreign oil. Gee, that sounds a lot like what we�re seeing
today. The Post Office is awfully slow. Are you sure that letter wasn�t
written in 2000 and was really referring to Bush and the Republicans?
- I think this got published. Let�s stop talking about Sarah Palin�s
family and start talking about her politics. She represents a triumph of the
purists over the pragmatists in the Republican Party. The purists are most
worried about social issues like gay marriage and stem cell research. The
pragmatists worry more about economics and foreign policy.
John McCain used to be a pragmatist, but no longer. He could have selected
someone with outstanding foreign policy experience such as Colin Powell,
Condoleezza Rice, or Joe Lieberman. He didn�t because they all flunked the
litmus test on social issues mandated by the purists.
If you believe that our public schools should teach abstinence-only sex
education and offer equal time for creationism, then Sarah Palin is an
outstanding selection. Those of us more concerned with Osama Bin Laden and
Vladimir Putin than with condoms and evolution think otherwise.
I don't think this got published. If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, then
Kathleen Parker must be from the twilight zone. In a column commenting on
Barack Obama�s call for responsible fatherhood, she claims that problems with
the nuclear family can be traced to efforts to curb domestic violence and to
collect overdue child support (Demonizing Men Doesn�t Bring Home Absent Dads
6/23). Apparently the wife-beaters and dead-beat dads are just suffering from
low self-esteem and if we stopped berating them so harshly for their bad
behavior, they would flock back home and recreate the perfect two parent
As a man, I�m all for ending the demonization of my gender. But let�s not
pretend that men are frail creatures who are powerless to resist the
overzealous stereotyping of feminist advocacy groups.
I don't think this got published. Thomas
McClanahan (Opinion, March 9, 2008) argues falsely that unions are monopolies.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unions represent 12% of employed
wage and salary workers. A true monopoly, such as Microsoft, typically
controls 90-95% of the market.
In some states (Missouri, but not Kansas), unions have monopoly powers in that
they can compel non-union employees at a given company to pay dues. This is a
very weak monopoly, however, since workers have the right to find a similar
job in a company without a union.
Unions have become the favorite whipping boys for conservative columnists, and
the unions themselves are partly to blame because of several high profile
corruption cases. But those of us today who benefit from a 40 hour work week,
a minimum wage law, and restrictions on child labor should thank labor unions
for fighting for good working conditions.
I think this got published. Hurry up and buy that
Toyota Prius, Mr. Diuguid (�To compete, Detroit needs to heed consumers�
Op-Ed, January 8). I just bought one and it is an engineering marvel. It gets
great mileage by storing energy from the braking system and by shutting down
With my old car, hearing the engine cut out at a red light was bad news. Now
it means I�m keeping another dollar from OPEC�s greedy clutches. And when I
brake for a jaywalking squirrel, I�m saving a life and saving the environment.
My Prius has a backup camera, GPS, Bluetooth, a six CD changer, and a spot for
my iPod. I�m in geek heaven.
While others are struggling to get their first generation of hybrids out the
door, Toyota is using third generation technology in the 2008 Prius. Detroit
should be very worried.
This letter was in response to an article in Skeptic
magazine. I don't think I ever submitted it, but if I did, it did not get
published. Sidney Zion (Skeptic, Vol. 13, No. 3) repeats a commonly cited
criticism of the EPA report on second hand smoke that the EPA changed the
confidence level for their study from the conventional 95% to 90%. This is a
classic example of reframing an argument in different terms to suit your
First, it is worth noting that there is nothing magic about a 95% confidence
level. There is no empirical support for using this level instead of a 90%
confidence level or a 99% confidence level. A discussion of the appropriate
confidence level should represent a careful weighing of the consequences of a
false positive finding versus a false negative finding, but researchers will
reflexively choose the 95% confidence level because that is what everyone else
chooses. I call this the lemming school of statistics.
There is some value in respecting existing research norms, even if they are
not based on a rational foundation. But the EPA report did indeed conform to
the existing research norm. The EPA conducted a hypothesis test at a very
lemming-like alpha level of 5%. A 5% hypothesis test normally corresponds to a
95% confidence interval.
The difference is that the EPA set up a one-sided hypothesis and in this
special case a 5% alpha level corresponds to a 90% confidence interval. When
comparing two treatments, a two-sided hypothesis will examine whether changes
occur in either direction (the first treatment is superior to the second
treatment or the first treatment is inferior). But a two-sided hypothesis is
inappropriate here. The EPA decided to test whether passive smoke exposure
increased the risk of lung cancer and wisely ignored the possibility that this
exposure could decrease the risk. There is no scientifically plausible reason
to believe that exposure to passive smoke has any protective qualities, nor is
it in the EPA mandate to search for environmental exposures that are
There is a fierce debate in the research community over when to use one-sided
versus two-sided hypotheses, and the critics of the EPA report could have
cited some viewpoints in that debate. They didn�t because framing it as a
confidence level question (should you use a 90% level or a 95% level) makes it
look like the EPA is lowering the threshold of evidence. If you approach it
from a different frame (should you use a one-sided or a two-sided hypothesis),
the choice made by EPA seems much more rational.
This got published. After it appeared, I got a hate
letter sent to my address that said I wasn't really a Christian. As
someone who complained about Chet Hanson's first "Midwest Voices" column, I
have to respond to his second column where he characterized critics like
myself as "secular progressives." I am a proud Methodist, Mr. Hanson, and
there is a compelling religious argument in favor of a strong separation of
church and state.
We need this separation because many who argue for a greater role for religion
in government also claim that certain religions aren't really true religions.
They treat a devout Mormon like Mitt Romney as if he were part of some bizarre
cult and assert that Christians who believe in evolution are actually
I trust secular progressives to respect my religious freedom more than I trust
the religious right. When someone tells you that America is a Christian
nation, watch out because they probably also define Christianity so narrowly
as to leave you on the outside.
This got published with rather cute title "Man up,
book clubs." The article on the domination of book clubs by women (Arts
and Entertainment, 5/13/2007) offers an unfair stereotype of men. As a rare
male participant in a book club, let me offer an equally unfair stereotype of
the typical book club selection: "A young girl, intelligent beyond her years,
rebels against a well-meaning but tragically flawed mother. A crisis arises.
Angry words are exchanged. A wise friend intervenes. Mother and daughter learn
to love one another and rejoice in their differences." It's like one big Cathy
comic--all talk and no action. Not every book is this bad. As I said, it's a
Men do indeed read. We read graphic novels, horror, science fiction--books
with action. If all your book club choices are mawkish "coming of age"
stories, try something different like "300" by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley, a
book drenched in testosterone.
This got published. If anyone wonders why the
federal government is so inefficient, they need to read the commentary by
Health and Human Services Secretary, Michael Leavitt (Opinion, January 15,
2007) about recent efforts to reform the Medicare prescription drug plan. In a
twisted logic that could only come from the Halliburton School of Economics,
Mr. Leavitt argues that current provisions preventing the U.S. government from
negotiating volume discounts for Medicare drugs are actually benefiting our
senior citizens. The only ones benefiting from the current restriction are the
drug companies. Their inalienable right to full retail prices in the Medicare
market was bought and paid for by their lucrative campaign contributions to
the Republican Party.
An unsuccessful submission to the "As I see it"
column. After my recent encounter with Mr. Donovan
about my U.S. Census letter, I regret being so critical here. Kansas
City Star reader representative Derek Donovan is "chagrined" when readers cite
Wikipedia ("Wikipedia is hardly authoritative on any subject" 12/31/2006). His
criticisms of Wikipedia are accurate, but they lack perspective. As the
creator and editor of a large web site, I regularly link to a wide range of
resources. Wikipedia is a very good resource if you use it carefully.
Mr. Donovan worries about inaccuracies that are introduced (sometimes
deliberately) by anonymous contributors. This can sometimes be a problem, but
the Chronicle of Higher Education tells a story of an academic researcher who
deliberately introduced errors into about a dozen different articles. All the
errors were discovered and corrected in three hours, and the researcher
received a polite note asking him to refrain from such mischief.
Mr. Donovan also claims that Wikipedia spends too much of its time and energy
on frivolous topics like Britney Spears. Why don't you poll the Kansas City
Star readers and ask them if your paper has spent too much of its time and
energy covering Britney Spears?
On Wikipedia, the cost of extra storage is negligible. The fluff coverage in a
web based resource does not reduce the amount of coverage of serious topics. A
newspaper, in contrast, has to pay dearly for each page of newsprint. How many
serious articles have been left out because the Kansas City Star wastes its
limited space on idiotic things like a daily Astrology column?
Wikipedia does have its problems. Don't accept facts from Wikipedia (or any
information source) without a critical examination. Wikpedia does a better job
with scientific topics than it does with politics. If you're worried about the
integrity of a Wikipedia page, review the discussion in the associated "talk"
page or even take a peek at previous versions of the Wikipedia entry.
Unfortunately, Mr. Donovan has already concluded that Wikipedia is an "abject
failure" and warns Wikipedia advocates not to send angry emails. A reader's
representative who doesn't want to get angry emails? If you really feel this
way, Mr. Donovan, I think you chose the wrong job.
This was my unsuccessful attempt to join the Midwest
Voices 2007 columnists. I would like to be considered for the 2007 Midwest
Voices panel of writers. I don't want to write about politics per se. You
already have quite a few people who do this well. I want to write about how
our world is changing because of new scientific discoveries and medical
breakthroughs, and what it means in a practical sense.
Many hotly debated scientific and medical findings are at the heart of recent
political controversies, such as global warming, the teaching of evolution,
end-of-life decisions, and abstinence-based sex education. While most people
don't need to develop a formal scientific expertise, they do need some
critical thinking tools to evaluate the claims made by the scientific experts.
Developing a bit of scientific savvy is critical to becoming an informed
I do have some unique qualifications that make me well suited to write about
these topics. I am a statistician who works at Children's Mercy Hospital, so I
have broad first hand experience with a wide range of medical research. I am
the author of a book, Statistical Evidence in Medical Trials, published by
Oxford University Press. This book takes complex concepts in Statistics and
explains them at a level that a typical health care professional can
understand. I am the creator and editor of the StATS (Steve's Attempt to Teach
Statistics) web pages. There are over a thousand pages on this site covering a
wide range of topics. There is some very technical material in these pages but
also a wealth of material that is accessible to the general public. Finally, I
have given numerous talks and lectures about research.
You asked about my political persuasions. I have used the term "yellow dog
Democrat" to describe myself before, but perhaps I must confess that I am
liberal on social issues and conservative on economic issues (but not quite
Milton-Friedman-conservative, bless his soul).
Both liberals and conservatives have abused science, of course, and I don't
mind pointing that out. But I'm afraid to say that the current batch of
Republicans worship at the altar of bad science. It as bad as Chris Mooney
claims in his book, The Republican War on Science, and perhaps even Mooney is
Other biographical details: I am 50 year old white male, once widowed and now
remarried. My first wife was also a statistician and we met in a statistics
class. (How romantic, you must be thinking!) My second wife is a pediatric
cardiologist at Children's Mercy Hospital. We have a four year old boy
(Nicholas) that we adopted from Russia in 2004. I have lived in Maryland,
Iowa, Ohio, and since 1996 in Kansas (Shawnee and Leawood).
You asked for a sample column of 400 words as well as suggestions for
additional topics. I have included a draft of one possible column and the
opening paragraph or two from a few other possible column topics.
Abortion is only abortion.
A Missouri legislative panel made headlines when the Republican majority
inserted language into a report boldly asserting that abortion was partly to
blame for illegal immigration. The argument is that freely available abortion
has decreased the supply of U.S. labor and illegal immigrants have rushed in
to fill the void.
This isn't the first time that someone has made a far-ranging claim about the
social effects of abortion. Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, authors of the
runaway best seller, Freakonomics, staked out an equally bold claim from the
opposite side. In chapter 4, they lay out the theory that abortion had led to
fewer unwanted children and the deficit in these unwanted children led to a
surprising reduction in crime in the 1990s.
Both claims are highly speculative, of course, but I must admit that I am more
disappointed in Levitt and Dubner. They are experienced researchers, so they
must have seen plenty of unfounded and unsupportable research claims.
There's nothing wrong with speculating about the social effects of abortion.
The effects most certainly range broadly and deeply. It's also important to
understand the true causes of important social trends like immigration and
crime. The problem is to state your beliefs with bold certainty, as if the
case were as obvious as the rising and setting of the sun.
These folks are amateurs dabbling in social statistics, a difficult area where
you can't replicate your results and where you can't run a parallel control
group. You can indeed make sense of social statistics, but only if you
approach the data with a sense of humility and caution.
There's an air of intellectual dishonesty behind these claims as well. If
abortion is indeed murder, then pointing out that it is also responsible for
the rise in illegal immigration hardly seems necessary. It's like charging
Charles Manson with vandalism because of the graffiti splashed all around the
If government should not be allowed to interfere with the most private and
personal decisions of a woman, then respect for that privacy makes any
speculation about rises or falls in the crime rate seem petty and trivial.
The two sides on the abortion debate have been throwing boulders at each other
for decades, and the public opinion has not changed dramatically in all that
time. So I don't think that things will change that much when they start
tossing pebbles instead.
1. A layperson's guide to scientific controversies. I was listening to a
podcast of a debate between a proponent of evolution and a proponent of
intelligent design, and one of the questions asked by the audience was exactly
what I had been pondering for a while. Both speakers had impressive
credentials and cited technical scientific data to support their view point.
What hope is there, asked the audience member, for someone like me to sort out
these arguments when I don't have the scientific background or experience that
you two have? [This column will go on to discuss some simple rules to
distinguish the experts from the pretenders.]
2. Scientists lack humility. In 1998, Dr. Judah Folkman released results of a
mouse experiment that startled the world. He showed a novel approach for
fighting cancer, not by attacking the cancer cells themselves but by
restricting the growth of blood vessels that supply the tumor. The technical
term for this is angiogenesis, and by blocking angiogenesis, you can keep the
tumor from getting nutrition and removing waste products. The media hype was
astounding (one scientist was quoted as saying that cancer would be cured in
two years), but Dr. Folkman showed rare humility when he said "I'm flattered,
but it's only mice. If you have cancer and you're a mouse, we can take good
care of you." This level of humility is lacking in most scientists,
particularly scientists working on stem cell research. [This column will go on
to discuss the overhyped claims that are common in medical research as well as
the media's problems with covering these stories fairly.]
3. When can a conservative trust a liberal information source (and vice
versa). I have a brother-in-law who loves to debate politics and religion. He
always takes an aggressively conservative stand. Often he will cite a
"liberal" source, such as the New York Times to support his arguments. He
doesn't trust most of what is published in these liberal sources, but he will
still cite them when they make a point in his favor. His rationale is when a
liberal source cites data supporting a conservative cause, they only do it
grudgingly because the facts are too overwhelming to ignore. I suppose I do
the same thing myself, but with the politics reversed. But this is a dangerous
approach to take for several reasons. [This column will go on to discuss the
problem with "cherry picking" facts and offer some advice to look a data both
supporting and opposing your claim with an equal degree of skepticism.]
4. So you want to be a research guinea pig. Eight volunteers were paid $3,500
to test a new drug, TGN1412, which was a promising candidate for treating
diseases like arthritis and multiple sclerosis. This drug was in the early
stages of testing, having shown promising results in animal experiments. This
experiment was the first attempt in humans to establish a reasonable dosing
range. Five minutes into the study, one patient took off his shirt,
complaining about fever. It got worse for this patient and for five others.
They started vomiting and convulsing, had difficulty breathing and complained
of horrible pain. They lost consciousness and were eventually admitted to the
Intensive Care Unit fighting for their lives. What about the other two
patients? They were the ones fortunate enough to get a placebo injection.
[This column will go on to discuss how research protections are limited and
the questions you need to ask before you volunteer for a research study.]
5. As bad as the tobacco company lawyers. By the mid 1960's, pretty much
everyone had figured out that smoking causes cancer. There wasn't any single
research study that tipped the balance, but the cumulative weight of evidence
gradually overcame any resistance. During all this time, and for several
decades afterwards, the tobacco companies and their lawyers fought vigorously
by highlighting every little flaw and pointing out every little inconsistency
in the research studies. They turned nitpicking into an art form. The tobacco
companies' rationale, I suppose, was that as long as they could maintain some
level of doubt and uncertainty, it would keep sales up and regulators at bay.
There's a new group at work that's just as bad as the tobacco company lawyers.
I call them the statistical nihilists. These statistical nihilists have set
themselves in battle against scientific ideas like global warming that they
find unpalatable for political reasons, and if they are able to sow enough
uncertainty and doubt, they hope to keep the regulators at bay. [This column
will go on to discuss the tactics of these nihilists: discredit all research,
create false controversies, and take genuine scientific debate out of
Thanks for taking the time and trouble to review my material. If you need to
reach me, email is best [email deleted]. My home telephone number is [phone
number deleted] and my work telephone number is [phone number deleted].
Not published. The Kansas City Star set a horrible
example in a description of a paranormal investigation of the James Farm in
Kearney, Missouri (A spiritual session with Jesse, Oct 23, 2006). By writing
about a psychic's claim of conversing with spirits in a light hearted and
uncritical tone, the Star has abandoned its watchdog role.
While some psychics are well intentioned people, their field has been overrun
by charlatans and criminals. Sylvia Browne, for example, pleaded no contest to
charges of investment fraud and grand theft. The operators of the Miss Cleo
Psychic Hotline were ordered by the FTC to pay $500 million in restitution for
deceptive advertising, billing, and collection practices.
The numerous well documented cases of fraud makes it imperative that the Star
take an aggressive stance that questions the motivations of anyone who claims
to converse with dead people. It may be that the psychic in this article has
pure and honorable motives, but there have been too many well documented cases
of deceit and fraud to trust anyone in this field.
I don't think I ever got around to submitting this,
and I still haven't gotten around to switching to the Republican Party. But
I'm not really a procrastinator. I give up! I'm joining the Kansas
Republican Party. I've watched too long from the Democratic sidelines as the
Republicans selected unqualified candidates over capable opponents during
their primaries. Not always, but regularly enough. The last straw was the
recent primary win by John Bacon, a school board candidate who does not
recognize the scientific consensus on evolution.
When the Republicans choose a bad candidate, it does enhance the election
prospects of the Democrat, but sometimes the unqualified Republican ends up
winning in the general election too.
So hello, Republicans! I'll work to insure that the conservatives that you
nominate are competent conservatives. I wonder--if I had done this in 2000,
would we have John McCain in the White House today?