Saturday, October 24, 2009

Bad math at Fox News

The other day I was working out and flipping channels, and I saw Fox News folks commenting about a recent poll that showed support for the public option in the health care debate. What struck me was that they were latching on to the fact that more of the respondents to the poll identified themselves as Democrats than as Republicans, and they claimed that this made the poll flawed. In fact, they specifically said that the poll should have sampled an equal number of Democrats and Republicans.

Nice sentiment, but bad math. The point of a poll is to figure out the popularity of an issue among the general population (or a specific subset of that population such as voting adults, or seniors, or such if that is the specific goal of the poll). If you believe that the poll should equally sample Democrats and Republicans, that is basically assuming that the percentages of Democrats and Republicans are equal, which they are not. Rather, the ratio in the poll of Democrats and Republicans, if done correctly, should approximately match the ratio in the target population, and this almost certainly is not 1:1, as the Fox commentators seemed to think.

I do not know whether the ratio reported in the poll does match the broader population; if it was off by a meaningful amount, then that would have been a sign of a potential flaw in the poll. But alas, Fox did not report this information, so I find myself strangely uninformed by their broadcast.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Obama wins the Nobel Peace Prize

This was a dumb decision by the Nobel committee. Really bad. It will only confirm the worst cynical accusations of political bias by the committee.

Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against Obama, and there are many things I like about him. But the fact is that he has not yet had any meaningful "peace" accomplishments. He's changed the tone of the debate, he's had great rhetoric, that's all well and good and in the right direction, but that's only a prelude to accomplishment, not an accomplishment itself.

I don't know if the committee was trying to reward those gestures - in which case it is premature and can be legitimately accused of fawning over the young presidency. Or perhaps it is trying to influence decisions such as how to proceed in Afghanistan, in which case it is truly political.

But without any concrete accomplishments to cite - just "hope" and "tone" - this debases the value of the peace prize as a neutral reward for making the world a better place. I really hate to say this, but this decision demonstrates the peace prize committee (physics/chemistry/medicine, so far, still appear untainted) to be far more politically oriented than they are supposed to be.

The smart thing here would be for Obama to turn down the prize, pointing out that he has not had any success yet that would warrant it. That would gently, gracefully (and diplomatically) chide the committee and I think Obama would actually earn a lot of credit for doing so. I'm not optimistic he will do so, though.