Nonsense from the NY Times

They write:

In four of the last five calendar years, [Warren Buffett] has underperformed his own benchmark, the S.&P. 500 with dividends, often by significant margins. (In 2011, his return of 4.6 percent beat the benchmark by 2.6 percentage points.) In addition, data provided by Morningstar shows that he underperformed the average stock mutual fund investor in four of the five years.)

By contrast, in the previous decades, he had underperformed the S.&P. only six times. Mr. Mehta said his calculations showed that given such a long period of outperformance, there is only a 3 percent chance that the recent stretch of underperformance was a matter of bad luck. [emphasis added]

You don’t need to know anything about finance, Warren Buffett, or Mr. Mehta’s calculations to be able to sniff this out as total nonsense. How? Because there is absolutely no way that this writer for the NY Times, or any other mortal, could know the a priori probability that some force other than luck has started affecting Warren Buffett’s work roughly 5 yrs ago, in such a way that would cause his performance to change in the way that it has. And you’d have to know this in order to make the quoted claim.

More simply: in many cases you can be almost certain that a statement is bogus when it takes the form “based on this evidence, there is an x% probability that some force other than luck is involved.” The exceptions are cases where, prior to seeing the new evidence, you would have been able to say a) what the probability of some cause other than luck being involved (this is often very difficult) and b) what the probability of observing the new evidence would be, given that cause.

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Healthcare.gov username requirement

Here it is: “The username is case sensitive. Choose a username that is 6-74 characters long and must contain a lowercase or capital letter, a number, or one of these symbols _.@/-”

Usually my passwords consist only of commas and dollar signs, so I guess I’ll have to think of a new one for this site.

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Not knowing what the word “mock” means

Washington Post (specifically columnist Dana Milbank) gives us an example:

The most remarkable thing about the Supreme Court’s opinions announced Monday was not what the justices wrote or said. It was what Samuel Alito did.

The associate justice, a George W. Bush appointee, read two opinions, both 5-4 decisions that split the court along its usual right-left divide. But Alito didn’t stop there. When Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg read her dissent from the bench, Alito visibly mocked his colleague.

Ginsburg, the second woman to serve on the high court, was making her argument about how the majority opinion made it easier for sexual harassment to occur in the workplace when Alito, seated immediately to Ginsburg’s left, shook his head from side to side in disagreement, rolled his eyes and looked at the ceiling.

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Double-counting?

In a blog post entitled “’Double-Counting’ Canard Quacks Again,” Paul Van de Water, a fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, wrote the following, arguing against the criticism that there is double-counting in the dual claims that Obamacare both reduces the federal budget and helps the medicare trust fund:

[Obamacare critic Charles] Blahous claims the Congressional Budget Office’s cost estimate for the health reform law “double-counts” a considerable portion of the law’s Medicare savings.  By subtracting these savings, Blahous asserts that — contrary to CBO — health reform increases the deficit.

But there’s no double-counting involved in recognizing that Medicare savings improve the status of both the federal budget and the Medicare trust funds.  The outlooks for the budget and for the Medicare trust funds are two different things; some changes in law may affect one and not the other, but other changes affect both.

CBO estimates that health reform will modestly reduce the federal budget deficit.  The Medicare actuary says that health reform will extend the solvency of the Hospital Insurance trust fund by eight years.

That’s no different than when a baseball player hits a home run: it adds to his team’s score and also improves his batting average.  Neither situation involves double-counting.

[then Van de Water gets into how the CBO scoring of the Obamacare -- which is what led to accusations of double-counting -- is consistent with historical CBO scoring. This is an issue that is totally irrelevant to whether there is double-counting, and a hint that Van de Water is trying to deflect attention from his core argument.]

Bad analogy. The batting average improvement and the team’s score increase are distinct benefits, and the total utility from the sum of the 2 benefits is greater than the utility from either one individually. The suggestion that the 2 claims about Obamacare should be regarded as describing separate benefits, and by implication that the total utility is greater than the utility of either one individually, does not seem true at all.

It’s as if I tried to trumpet my decision to start taking the subway rather than a taxi to work every day (except Fridays, when I’ll keep taking taxis) by saying “My decision benefits me in 2 ways! My taxi slush fund will have an extended solvency, and in addition, my personal spending will be reduced!” This is clearly double-counting. Switching a Medicare trust fund for a taxi slush fund, and switching the U.S. government’s budget for mine does not make it any less so.

h/t Ezra Klein

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Innumeracy at CNN

On the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case:

“There’s a huge chance that this is not Zimmerman’s voice,” said Primeau, a longtime audio engineer who is listed as an expert in recorded evidence by the American College of Forensic Examiners International. “As a matter of fact, after 28 years of doing this, I would put my reputation on the line and say this is not George Zimmerman screaming.”

Owen, a forensic audio analyst who is also chairman emeritus of the American Board of Recorded Evidence, also said that he does not believe the screams come from Zimmerman.

Software frequently used to analyze voices in legal cases shows a 48% likelihood that the voice is Zimmerman’s. At least 60% is necessary to feel confident that two samples are from the same source, he said Monday on CNN. That means it’s unlikely the screams came from Zimmerman, Owen said.

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Obama must not believe that insurance companies act in their own self-interest

From the NYT:

Mr. Obama said that the compromise would take the Catholic institutions out of the equation by relieving them from either paying for coverage for contraceptives or providing any referral to their employees for the coverage. Instead, insurance companies would be required to pay for the contraceptives, and to arrange it. The insurers will agree, the White House said, because it is more expensive for them to pay for pregnancies than to pay for contraceptives.

If “the insurers will agree,” what is the point of the law? Wouldn’t they already be giving out free contraceptives if doing so reduced their costs? The Obama administration is saying: we are forcing insurers to take action X. They will happily oblige, because it is in their best interest anyway. This is paternalism, but it is an especially weird form of paternalism where the party being condescended to is actually said to fully understand the benefit of acting in accordance with the will of the paternalistic party. So the implication is that the party being condescended to (the insurance companies) are being completely irrational, since they refuse to act in (what they correctly understand to be) their own best interest unless forced to. Or am I missing something?

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Challenge for my brother

Defend this idiotic article from (your favorite writer) Lee Siegel:

http://campaignstops.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/14/whats-race-got-to-do-with-it/

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Bob Wright Makes a Bad Argument

He says:

But in backing up its claim that the Pentagon research budget has “a remarkable record of success,” the Times provides evidence such as this: “The Navy, which started budgeting for research in 1946, counts 59 eventual Nobel laureates among the recipients of its financing.”

Nobel laureates were getting cranked out at exactly the same rate before 1946 as after. So weren’t we taxpayers getting a better deal before 1946, when they did their Nobel-worthy work without our help?

Wimbledon champions have been generated at a constant rate too. Does that mean that Roger Federer’s father’s paying for his son’s tennis lessons has contributed nothing to professional tennis?

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Iowa Caucuses

I bet Rick Santorum will win (posted before the caucuses start).

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Wrong Again

It has been a long time since I’ve enjoyed being proven wrong as much as I did in the comments section of this blog post about genetics (& Kobe Bryant) by Razib Khan. And since a belief I held so firmly (although briefly) was proven wrong (in my opinion):

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp/2011/12/a-mediocre-mans-great-son-a-great-mans-mediocre-son/

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