business statistics

Statistics in Popular Media

Statistics are powerful weapons. Marketers and politicians weld them well when the situation demands it. Unfortunately, this skill often results in misinformation and sometimes, downright lying.

How Statistics Are Misused

One way they deceive is by confusing the scientific process. Statistics summarize experiments and studies to get at the conclusions. But, they are not synonymous. A study is a situation in which data are observed. The investigator cannot control for everything that may influence the results.

An experiment is a controlled situation−ideally. A good experiment has a randomly selected representative sample along with a control group. It is big enough to be meaningful. It is also conducted double-blinded. Neither the researchers nor the participants know what group they are in.

Marketers may use studies and report the results like experiments. The problem with this scenario is that one cannot find causation with studies, only correlation. Yet, when journalists/marketers pick up on these stories, that line is blurred.

Cherry Picking the Results

Another devious tactic involves the results. Don’t like what the study or experiment shows? Throw it out! With over a million papers published yearly, you’re likely to find something you like better.

I’m not suggesting all papers are examples of good science. Stinkers get through each year. Just ask Andrew Wakefield or Gilles-Eric Séralini.

Spotting the Fraudsters

There’s one surefire way to spot a liar fraudster. They break a cardinal rule of science. You probably see this whopper all the time. And it’s so blatantly false. Whenever you read or hear someone claim that something is scientifically proven,  you’re being had.

Science is provisional. This means, according to Merriam-Webster, “existing or accepted for the present time but likely to be changed.” In science, there is no truth with a capitol T.

Some people may find this statement uncomfortable. It’s not meant to be. Rather, this is an accurate assessment of what science is. Don’t be afraid of it. Ignorance is not always bad. The late Richard Feynman offers sage advice.

“I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.”

So, the next time a marketers tries to sell his scientifically proven best widget, give him a dose of Mark Twain and tell him,

“A man is never more truthful than when he acknowledges himself a liar.” Chris DR

photo credit: Numbers And Finance via photopin (license)

water pollution

How Humans Have Impacted the Environment

The other day, I wrote about a study that concluded that forces other than climate change are impacting the environment. I’d like to revisit it in light of another study by the Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE).

Underestimating Land Use Impacts

The researchers reviewed about 700 life cycle assessment studies. These analyses considered the impact of land use on ecosystems. They concluded that these assessments have underestimated the effects humans have on the environment. Considering that these assessments help dictate public policy, there is a real danger that that authorities do not have the proper information to make decisions.

Underestimating a risk means that it may continue unabated. Moreover, it could lead to other problems and create a cascading effect. Natural processes like reforestation which could alleviate carbon emissions with carbon sequestration are hampered.

Immediate Problems versus the Future Issues

Climate change has become the poster child for the environmental movement. However, the planet faces grave dangers from land use that have nothing to do with global warming. Those are the risks that could cause greater harm in a more immediate way.

Because the dialogue about climate change focuses on the future, we may ignore the problem outside our window. We focus on carbon emissions at the expense of polluting our rivers. Just ask the EPA.

Somehow, we need to extract the politics from the environment. It is, after all, by far the greatest source of pollution. We need to act to protect the environment just for the sake of the environment.

Other factors that we can’t control influence climate change too. That is why we need to set boundaries around what is feasible for us to do. The immediate problems of water and air pollution are things we can fix now. The environment should not have to endure another Animas River disaster. Chris DR

photo credit: Plastic bottles and garbage on the bank of a river via photopin (license)

Compounding the Problems with Renewable Energy

No matter what form, energy production has costs. From a fire to a coal-burning power plant, bad accompanies the good. It’s a fact of life. The costs are unique to the form of energy. Renewable energy sources are no exception.

All Lives Matter

Unfortunately, wildlife is often the causality. I wrote about this earlier when I discussed the varying reports of bird losses associated with the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System and wind turbines overall.

The numbers are staggering. With the former, estimates put the losses at 28,000 birds—for one plant. The US Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that wind turbines take upward of 440,000 birds per year. These figures use present-day capacity.

Putting It in Perspective

According to the US Energy Information Administration, coal provided about 39 percent of the electricity in 2014. Natural gas came in next at 27 percent, followed by nuclear power at 20 percent. Renewable energy sources made up the balance at 13 percent.

Of that number, wind energy fueled 4 percent of the nation’s electricity needs. Solar power provided less than one percent. Despite what the popular media would have you believe, renewable energy lags well behind fossil fuels and nuclear energy.

Many tout wind power as the renewable of choice, citing its potential. Let’s look at what that means for wildlife. First, let’s set aside solar energy effects for the moment. Second, let’s assume that fossil fuels and nuclear won’t go away forever. Finally, let’s consider the bold move of 75 percent of our electricity from wind turbines.

If you crunch the numbers, you’ll see that this figure is 18.75 times the wind energy we get now. Assuming present-day technology and its foibles, we’re talking upward of 8,250,000 birds killed per year by turbines. How long do you think bird populations will survive with those losses?

The Takeaway Message

My point is not to trash renewable energy sources. I, for one, think we should explore nuclear energy again. What I am suggesting is the red flags are there and waving furiously. We need to re-examine our current technology to examine these issues.

Remember, one of the ecological risks of climate change is a loss of biodiversity. Losing over 8 million birds a year would have an impact. To put it into further perspective, current annual bird losses from wind turbines are twice that of the Exxon-Valdez spill and the Deepwater Horizon disaster—combined. And that’s not the only consequence.

While bees have received much of the attention, birds are also major pollinators. They are important seed dispersal agents too. Bird losses, therefore, can have far-reaching effects. These impacts don’t even consider the consequences on bat populations. Before we get too excited about wind energy, let’s consider what’s on the line. Chris DR

photo credit: _MG_8631-16.jpg via photopin (license)

pine forest

It’s Not Just Climate Change

pine forestThe way that popular media reports it, you’d think every environmental problem is about climate change. News flash, folks; there are a lot of other issues negatively impacting the world around us. A study from the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid in Spain offers a good example.

Other Human-Caused Environmental Problems

Researchers investigated changes occurring in the Hoyocasero pine forest on the Iberian Peninsula. It is of ecological importance because of the abundance of rare Mediterranean species. Using dendroecological analysis, the team found that climate change impacts were not evident. Rather they identified changes in pH and nutrients caused by human manipulation of soil and vegetation causing the declines in the forest.

These findings are significant because they draw attention to other environmental issues which have taken a back seat to the hot-button issue of climate change. Just because climate change exists does not negate the other pressing problems with serious consequences.

Habitat Degradation

If you want to see the effects of habitat degradation first-hand, look no further than native tallgrass prairies in the United States. Less than one percent of native prairies remain in several states, including Illinois, Ohio, and Iowa. Look at wetlands for an equally bleak picture. The country has lost over half of the 221 million acres of wetlands that existed in the 1600s.

I’m not suggesting we ignore climate change. Rather we need to recognize the immediate dangers around us. Loss of habitats are the proverbial dominoes, with cascading effects on wildlife, flooding, tourism, water quality, air quality, to name a few.

It is unfortunate that the public consciousness has shifted from the environment around us. It is unconscionable that environmentalism and its issues have becomes so politicized that we fail to act. It is tragic.

John Muir once said,

“God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods. But He cannot save them from fools.”

Truer words may never have been spoken. Chris DR

photo credit: Pinus parviflora (Japanese White Pine) via photopin (license)