Patterico's Pontifications

5/10/2008

Yikes! and Other Thoughts on Rural America

Filed under: 2008 Election — DRJ @ 5:51 pm

[Guest post by DRJ]

ABC’s Jake Tapper wonders how badly the presumptive Democratic nominee will get shellacked in West Virginia. Answer: Insiders say by 30 points. Yikes!

If that’s not bad enough, Tapper also posted this blog entry that summarizes Bill Clinton’s message to rural Americans as “Obama and the media are laughing at you and think you’re stupid!!!” Yikes!! again.

Obama has a problem with white voters and both Bill and Hillary Clinton’s rhetoric exacerbates that problem. Tapper notes that this may be keeping Pelosi and Dean up at nights. (Maybe they should consider Ambien.) I doubt it’s doing the Obamas much good either, but I’m increasingly convinced that Hillary is staying in the race to hurt Obama and position herself for 2012. I wonder if Jake Tapper agrees:

“So what purpose does it serve for him to barnstorm a state like West Virginia and tell rural voters that Obama and his elitist political/media cabal allies are mocking Appalachia?

He’s using the kind of language Democrats typically use against Republicans — as in, stuff you say when you don’t want voters to vote for the other guy under any circumstance.

This is tough stuff to walk back from.”

The priceless part is seeing reporters use the kind of language to describe Democrats that they typically reserve for Republicans. That’s tough stuff to walk back from.

– DRJ

Obama Will Won’t Talk to Ahmadinejad

Filed under: 2008 Election — DRJ @ 3:04 pm

[Guest post by DRJ]

LittleGreenFootballs addresses whether Obama really meant “he wouldn’t” when he said “he would” talk to Iran’s Ahmadinejad.

In a New York Times article, Susan E. Rice, an Obama adviser (who may be on her way out given Obama’s track record with advisers), stated that his position had been “distorted and reframed.” She said that Obama never said he would have “initiated contacts at the Presidential level” with rogue states like Iran.

But LGF recalls that he did:

“The problem is, Barack Obama did say he’d meet with Iran unconditionally, in front of a lot of people, at the CNN/YouTube Democratic debate last July.

He was specifically and directly asked if he would meet with the leader of Iran (and the leaders of several other “so-called rogue states”) without preconditions, in the first year of his presidency, and his answer was, “I would.”

Video at the LGF link.

– DRJ

Yet Another Error in That Article About DNA, Cold Hits, and Statistics

Filed under: Crime,Dog Trainer,General — Patterico @ 1:52 pm

I have noticed a third error in the L.A. Times article on DNA, statistics, and cold hits. The article said:

Typically, prosecutors rely on FBI statistics to estimate the rarity of a particular DNA profile in the general population. This calculation is known as the Random Match Probability.

The chance that two unrelated people will share the same 13 markers can be as remote as 1 in a quadrillion — a number with 15 zeros. Because the match in Puckett’s case involved only 5 1/2 genetic locations, the chance it was coincidental was higher but still remote: 1 in 1.1 million.

Even placing aside the issue of database searches, it is incorrect to say that “the chance it [the match in Puckett's case] was coincidental was . . . 1 in 1.1 million.” Even if no database had ever been used, this would be an incorrect statement. It is an example of a statistical fallacy known as the “Prosecutor’s Fallacy.” (For detailed discussions of the Prosecutor’s Fallacy and ways that numbers can be misrepresented by English formulations, read here, here, and here.)

It’s important to emphasize that my complaint has nothing to do with the fact that a database search was used. It is true that the article goes on to explain that Puckett’s attorney thought this number misrepresented the probabilities because the match was made through a database. But that is irrelevant to the particular complaint I am making here about the Prosecutor’s Fallacy. Even if the match had not been made through a database, it would be incorrect to say that 1 in 1.1 million represents the chance that the match to Puckett was a coincidence. (I predict that this paragraph of my post will be the one most widely ignored by the comments this post is likely to generate.)

This is a hard concept to explain, and it has much less to do with the actual math than the way that the math is expressed in English.

A simple example makes the point. Let’s say the odds of winning the lottery are 1 in 100 million. That makes it close to certain that you won’t win if you buy only one ticket.

Now assume you bought one ticket and you won. Your jealous friend says that the chance of your numbers matching being a coincidence was 1 in 100 million. By phrasing the probabilities this way, your friend is saying that it was close to certain that you would win. When you say “the chance that this event resulted from a coincidence are 1 in a 100 million” you’re saying the event was almost certain to happen.

Your friend’s statement is very similar to the way the L.A. Times article phrased the probabilities — and it is an example of the Prosecutor’s Fallacy. By using the formulation “the chance of this match being a coincidence are 1 in 100 million” the speaker is taking extremely low odds and making them sound extremely high. What your friend should have said — and what he meant to say — was this: “the chance you’d win was 1 in 100 million.”

Now:you want a real coincidence? This very distinction recently cropped up in the news — and the L.A. Times covered it, and temporarily showed some hint of understanding it. In an article about a Ninth Circuit decision regarding prosecutorial error in characterizing the meaning of DNA results, the L.A. Times discussed the distinction in this way:

The error stemmed from the prosecution expert wrongly conflating two very different mathematical probabilities: The probability that the crime scene evidence matched a person selected at random from the population and the probability that the defendant was guilty.

This formulation is confusing because of the use of the word “guilty” as an imprecise shorthand for the phrase “the person who donated the crime scene DNA.” Still, this shows that the reporters — one of whom, Jason Felch, co-wrote last Sunday’s article on the Puckett case — understand the distinction, or at least show the capacity to understand it.

The original article from last Sunday, about the Puckett case, mis-expresses the concept at another point, but blames it on the prosecution:

Puckett insisted he was innocent, saying that although DNA at the crime scene happened to match his, it belonged to someone else.

At Puckett’s trial earlier this year, the prosecutor told the jury that the chance of such a coincidence was 1 in 1.1 million.

Did he really? Or did the reporters mischaracterize what the prosecutor told the jury? I don’t know. If the prosecutor actually expressed the odds that way, he raised an appeal point for the defense based on the Prosecutor’s Fallacy. But I’m not convinced the error wasn’t the reporters’, given that they gave the same misleading description elsewhere in the article.

(I should note that Eugene Volokh caught this iteration of the error in his previous post on this topic. But because the error is attributed to the prosecutor in this quote, I didn’t notice that the reporters themselves had made the exact same error elsewhere in the article.)

I do know this: the paper has continued to describe random match probability in this misleading way. In an article published yesterday — after the publication of the article describing the case about the Prosecutor’s Fallacy — the deck headline reads:

A long-time scientific controversy centers on how to calculate the probability that such a match would be the result of coincidence.

This is wrong. Granted, it’s hard to express the concept in a headline. But this formulation presumes that you have a match, and you’re talking about the probability that it is the result of a coincidence. Using our lottery example, it would be like saying: “the controversy centers on how to calculate the probability that a particular person having won would be the result of coincidence.” That is not what random match probability addresses. It addresses instead the frequency with which a particular profile appears in a population of unrelated individuals. The database adjustment in question addresses the probability that, if a database is composed of individuals unrelated to the person who donated the crime scene DNA, a database search will nevertheless result in a match to the crime scene DNA.

Again, saying “you had a 1 in 100 million chance of winning” is not the same as saying “the chance your victory resulted from a coincidence is 1 in 100 million.”

This is not trivial. It is important, because people need to understand that the random match probability is not the chance that the defendant is innocent, or (put another way) that it is a coincidence that he is sitting in the defendant’s chair.

It is important to be accurate about these concepts, and the L.A. Times — probably in an admirable effort to simplify them — keeps mucking them up. Which is, coincidentally (?!), the same thing they accuse the courts of doing.

Now, I feel for the reporters. In writing my posts critical of the article, I have myself at times used formulations that are either unclear or do not precisely represent the statistics involved. I have had to write more than one update clarifying my position or removing language I feared might be inaccurate. (God help me, some commenter might even make me do so with this post!) Expressing these concepts in clear, precise, and accurate English is, as I said yesterday, like walking a tightrope.

To me, this illustrates the fact that people can be easily misled by these concepts — which illustrates the need to be extra careful when you’re a major newspaper with a Sunday circulation of over 1 million, writing about the concept on the front page of your Sunday edition.

And, it illustrates the point that when you make these mistakes, it’s important to admit them. I’ll be writing the paper about this error as well (I already wrote them about the first two errors two days ago, in an e-mail I reproduced here). I hope they get around to correcting the errors prominently, given the prominence given to the original article.

Novak: Michelle Obama Vetoes Hillary for VP

Filed under: 2008 Election — DRJ @ 1:50 pm

[Guest post by DRJ]

Robert Novak claims Obama supporters are convinced Hillary Clinton is not in the running for Obama’s Vice President because she’s been vetoed by Michelle Obama. If that’s true, does that mean the Obamas will be co-Presidents?

Novak also suggests growing support for Ohio Governor Ted Strickland to be picked as Obama’s running mate:

“A footnote: Support is growing in Democratic ranks for Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland as vice president. He would bring to the ticket maturity (66 years old), experience (six terms in Congress) and moderation (rated “A” by the National Rifle Association). He is very popular in Ohio, a state Republicans must carry to elect a president.”

Novak also remarks on the disorganized McCain campaign and notes McCain’s surprising selection of a campaign chairman with a dismal record.

– DRJ

Myanmar Exports Rice as Citizens Starve (Updated)

Filed under: International — DRJ @ 1:37 pm

[Guest post by DRJ]

Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, sustained devastating damage from Tropical Cyclone Nargis that may have killed over 100,000 people. Myanmar leaders have refused to allow aid from the US and today’s LA Times reports that Myanmar is continuing to export rice while it feeds its citizens the remnants of spoiled food products.

The government also confiscated initial UN aid shipments, causing the UN to suspend further shipments although it now says the shipments will resume.

This is a horrible situation and, given the antipathy at home and abroad to U.S. military intervention, there’s nothing we can do.

UPDATE 1: The Pentagon has announced that one aid shipment will be allowed. A US spokesman hopes it will lead to permission for more assistance.

UPDATE 2: Myanmar’s junta is now distributing aid with generals’ names plastered on the boxes in an effort to turn the relief effort into propaganda for the junta. Elections scheduled for today went forward in all but the hardest hit areas, and pictures of the leaders handing out aid packages is running continuously on state-run television.

– DRJ

If I Were a Democrat …

Filed under: 2008 Election,Politics — DRJ @ 1:12 pm

[Guest post by DRJ]

If I were a Democrat, here’s what I would be thinking:

1. Hillary is more electable. She has garnered more votes in large states that will be important in the general election – states like Ohio, California, and New York. In addition, she has been stronger with white voters in states like Indiana, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

However, Hillary has strong negatives. As a Clinton, she has already alienated a sizable percentage of the electorate. In addition, her nomination – even if it occurs according to Party rules – will seem like a betrayal to young voters and black voters who may punish the Democratic Party for years to come.

2. Obama has won more votes and pledged delegates and denying him the nomination seems unfair and discriminatory.

However, Obama’s wins have come primarily in caucus states and in states with large African-American populations. Some of those states may vote Republican in the general election. He also has his share of negatives from Jeremiah Wright, William Ayers, etc. Thus, Obama has problems because Hillary has won the important Democratic states and she may be more electable.

Many Democrats are urging Hillary to end her campaign and endorse Obama or accept a VP slot. On the surface, both seem like solutions to the Democrats’ concerns but I don’t think they are. Getting Hillary out of the race or to accept a lower slot lets Democrats sweep these concerns under the rug but it doesn’t make them go away.

– DRJ

Another Obama Advisor Leaves Campaign

Filed under: 2008 Election — DRJ @ 12:42 pm

[Guest post by DRJ]

Robert Malley, an “informal Middle East advisor” to Barack Obama, has left the campaign after a British newspaper asked him about meetings with the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas.

Obama is particularly sensitive on the subject of Hamas after the Hamas Prime Minister endorsed Obama for President. The US government lists Hamas as a foreign terrorist organization.

Without knowing more about the nature of Malley’s contacts with Hamas or whether he has been an advocate for the organization, this seems like an overreaction on the part of the Obama campaign. Either Obama is getting advice from people who hold extreme views or he’s spineless when it comes to standing up for his advisors. Neither option is encouraging.

– DRJ

Latino Groups Sue Texas Democratic Party

Filed under: 2008 Election,Politics — DRJ @ 12:32 pm

[Guest post by DRJ]

LULAC of Texas and the Mexican-American Bar Association of Houston have sued the Texas Democratic Party in federal court claiming the Texas Two-Step primary/caucus process unfairly dilutes Hispanic votes by allocating them fewer delegates than the votes alone would yield:

“Texas Democrats distribute the state’s 193 delegates using both a primary and a caucus, but the distribution favors state Senate districts that had high voter turnout in the most recent presidential and gubernatorial elections. That meant that on March 4, predominantly Hispanic districts, in which turnout was low in 2004 and 2006, got fewer delegates than others, particularly urban, predominantly black districts. Latino districts generally favored Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton; black districts favored her rival, Barack Obama.”

The groups also allege the Democratic Party failed to seek clearance required by the U.S. Justice Department for the process. The lawsuit does not seek to unseat the Texas delegation. Democratic Party leaders responded that Texas delegates would not be finalized until the June Convention and groups are free to argue their claims until then.

I’m not impressed with caucus systems because they seem to favor entrenched interests, but obviously many states and both parties use caucuses. The two-step process used by Texas Democrats seems especially difficult and strange, but maybe that will change because of this election.

– DRJ


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