February 11, 2021

The Slow Poison of Innumeracy

It was made painfully apparent, in the wake of the election fraud legal arguments and the thumb-sucking articles "explaining" them, that this country (probably the entire world) has a big problem with math. Simple addition can be an issue, but the real problem in the case of the 2020 election was piss-poor understanding of probability, statistics, and data sanitation.

My day job involves data, and lots of it. My education involved a lot of case studies of "this is bad data, and this is why it is bad." Including cases of deliberate fraud and how to spot it.

So much of modern life involves statistics it really ought to be a graduation requirement for high school. It's not that hard--anyone who can play poker can calculate basic statistics--and doesn't require a lot of foundational math prerequisites.

"Four out of five dentists recommend". Remember that ad? Left out, because it would spoil the surprise, were things like

  • How many dentists total were surveyed? Five? Statistical analysis is not very useful on a sample size less than a thousand. (Nobody tell "Dr." Jill Biden, proud author of a "thesis" with a sample size of ... two.)
  • What was the question(s) asked in the survey? If it was "would you recommend your patients chew BrandX gum if they are going to chew gum, or that they suck-start a 12 gauge shotgun?" I can pretty much see how the wording might, possibly, skew the results. And I'd want a word with Dentist #5, to clarify a few things.

So we had the situation where the general public didn't understand the arguments being made for the presence of vote fraud. Apparently Trump's counsel, Giuliani, also didn't understand and wanted to focus on the dead voter phenomenon. (Exists, but not at the volume that caused the problem). It was all too arcane and too complicated to put on a bumper sticker, but still real enough to get us where we are today (screwed).  Let's not do this again, shall we? Here are some warning signs that need to be beaten into people's heads, so they start screaming if it happens again.

  • Votes, like deaths, are cumulative. The numbers only go UP. Corpses don't revive, votes don't migrate like lemmings from one column to the other. If a mistake was made in counting...start from the beginning and do it right this time. (Rember all those alien invasion movies where the scientists realize the Big Rock is slowing down, and everyone gasps in sudden realization that it is really a Big Spaceship? Yeah. Everyone should have gasped at the vote changes this point.)
  • Voters, even in an excited state, can only vote in one place. Furthermore, in a given population of x inhabitants, of whom y% are eligible to vote, seeing any number OVER 100% for y should trigger red flashing lights, sirens, and Kevin Bacon trying to stop a crowd panic. 100% is MathSpeak for "all of them." You cannot have more than "all of them." (This needs to be made into a simple graphic for the GameStop hedge fund short-sellers, now that I think about it...)
  • Further, and edging into sociology, the United States has never had an election where 100% of eligible voters voted. EVER. So this is bogus from the start, and should have triggered an investigation or at least a Momentum Transfer Event (a.k.a. hitting the machine with a stick to make it work).
  • (More sociology) Voter patterns are also resistant to change. They can vary a bit. But... if Candidate A (who sports a flamboyant blond poof), running for re-election and who gets more votes than last time, loses to Candidate B (who can get out of the escape room/basement if given all the hints) who gets even more votes than Adored Former Candidate C, for no reason anyone can see... where are those extra votes coming from? "A" votes increase, in the same state. "B" (party) votes increase, from the same state. Even though most people admit "B" is the dead fish handshake of politics, not like the glowing aura of "C". Maybe more people voted? But why for "B" and not for "C"? A huge percentage change suddenly appears, never seen before. Unless there was an invisible Mongol Horde that moved to that state with nobody noticing, where did the extra voters come from?

We need some Combat Accountants. Or really aggressive math teachers.