The newsletter of Royal Statistics Society included a regular column entitled "Forsooth!" highlighting statistical gaffes from media reports (here is their installment from May 2013). Laurie Snell obtained permission from longtime RSS News editor Frank Duckworth to reproduce some of their entries in Chance News.
When Chance News became a Wiki in 2005, readers continued the tradition by submitting their own Forsooths. Appearing below is a compilation of Favorite Forsooths, 2005-2012. We are very grateful to Margaret Cibes for extracting these and carefully organizing them by topic, providing a ready resource for instructors who wish to include them in their classes. Margaret would like to dedicate this project to the memory of Laurie, who passed away in 2011.
In keeping with that dedication, here is a link to One in a Million— Remembrances of Laurie Snell (1925–2011) , written by Dan Rockmore for the Notices of the AMS, October 2012. In a passage that seems especially appropriate here, Dan quotes Claudia Henrion, who co-taught several Chance courses with Laurie at Dartmouth:
Many people think of mathematics as something done alone, tucked away in an office with pen, paper, and now computer. But as Laurie Snell exemplified, it can also be a life filled with community, friendships, generosity and playfulness. These qualities all came together in his development of the Chance course, where he combined the theory of mathematics with people’s everyday lives: events in the news, sports, gambling, and medicine.
Resource for Instructors
Chance News 1 – Chance News 87
Within each category, Forsooths are listed in chronological order, as submitted.
(Links to the original Chance Wiki issues provide citation details.)
Ambassador Newton: “Well, so far, six candidates out of 6,000 have been killed. That's .001 percent, and it's not at all clear that all of those cases involved the election.”
Ad for Peperami sausage: “Ingredients: Pork (108%), Pork Fat, Salt, Spices, Glucose, ....”
Company’s response to an inquiry: “The weight of the raw meat going into Peperami exceeds the weight of the end product because the recipe loses moisture, and therefore loses weight, during the fermentation, drying and smoking process.”
“Four million ... heard it. Ten percent remember it. One percent of those matter. One percent of those do something about it. That's still - he does the math - four people."
“The waitress coyly asked if they wanted change of the two twenties Kiley laid down on a thirty-two-dollar tab.
‘No, we’re fine.’
‘That’s a twenty percent tip, Mom.’
‘I’m feeling generous.’"
“Clearly, any product with a large user base is going to throw up some problems. Dell, for example, is shipping almost 40m PCs a year, so even if 95% of its users are happy, there could still be 6m or so with significant gripes.”
“USA Today has come out with a new survey: Apparently three out of four people make up 75 percent of the population.”
“France. The state statistics agency estimates that there are 3.8 million employed workers of foreign origin in France, representing 8.4 per cent of the total workforce of 25.4 million.”
"[A] Public Policy Polling survey released Thursday found that Gingrich's favorable rating with GOP voters has dropped 27 points in the last month--from 52 percent to 38 percent."
“Thursday is the least productive day for finance workers, research has found. The start of the week is the best time with 18 per cent claiming they were most productive on a Monday.”
“The BBC remains just ahead of commercial radio in the UK, with a 67% share of all listeners compared with 64%.”
“In terms of platform use trends among the respondents, 53% cited Windows as their primary technical computing platform, with Linux following closely at 51%.”
"Two years ago the sausage roll was the number one snack, but is now in second place with 53% of sales."
“I think we’re in trouble. …. Look at the difference between the top 1 percent and the bottom 95.”
News alert (corrected 20 minutes later): "With just under 40 percent of the precincts reporting, Romney was leading with 78 percent of the vote, followed by Gingrich with 31 percent, Rick Santorum with 13 percent and Ron Paul with 7 percent."
“Waiting time for foot surgery down by 500%.”
“Alcohol is now 49% more affordable than it was in 1978.”
“The All England Club said yesterday the men's champion will receive $1.170 million and the women's winner $1.117 million -- a 4 percent increase for both in British currency.”
”At St John's Wood station alone, the number of CCTV cameras has jumped from 20 to 57, an increase of 300 per cent.”
“NOAA's heating degree day forecast for December, January and February projects a 2 percent warmer winter than the 30 year average.”
“The car population went up 10 per cent over the 1997-2004 period, while daily car trips more than doubled, rising 23 percent.”
“The UK has seen an 8000% increase in fake internet banking scams in the past two years, the government's financial watchdog has warned .... The amount stolen is still relatively small but it is set to go up by 90% for the second year running.”
"The Times' leader of 28 February tells us that taking regular doses of certain vitamins 'can actually increase the risk of mortality by five per cent.' Since the ‘risk of mortality' is already 100 percent this is very worrying."
A 2008 table showed a student:faculty ratio falling from 10:1 to 8:1 during the period Fall 1998 to Fall 2006, with a stated percent change of -25%.
"In the last five months, according to the Federal Reserve Board, the money supply in the United States has increased by 271 percent. It has almost tripled."
“Duke Energy customers voiced their concerns on Thursday night about a planned 13.5 percent rate increase. Under the plan, people with an average monthly bill of 100 dollars a month would go up about 18 dollars.”
“I must write again about the misleading adverts by GMPTE in the papers re the Congestion Charge. In their latest round of propaganda they state there will be a 10 per cent increase in bus services. With 10 councils in Greater Manchester this works out at a one percent increase per council. If Stockport’s bus companies run 200 buses in the morning peak, a one per cent increase will give two extra buses; is that what you want?”
“Of the US Fortune 500 companies, 84 percent now have women on their boards: in the UK among the directors of companies in the FTSE 100, only 9 percent are women.”
(Hint: If every FTSE 100 company had 11 board members, one of whom was female, what percent of these companies would have a female board member? What percent of all board members would be women? On the other hand, if 84% of F500 companies had a female board member, and every board had 20 members, what percent of all board members would be women?)
“The number of motorists willing to pay to travel on Britain's roads is falling, a survey out today reveals. More than one in four drivers were will to pay to use city centre roads in 2002, but that figure fell to just 36 per cent in 2005, a study for the RAC said.”
“The IOC Coordination Commission were told that 80 per cent of the land had already been acquired. London Mayor Ken Livingstone added that he was hoping that, by the time the public enquiry starts at the end of next month, four-fifths of the land would have been acquired.”
“Now 78% of female veterinary medicine students are women, almost a complete turn-around from the previous situation.”
“We were eleven people obtaining those 30.000 millions. I want the 11% that corresponds to me.”
"[W]hile the majority of students who enter doctoral programs have the academic ability to complete the degree, on average only 50-60 percent of those who enter doctoral programs in the United States complete their degrees."
“Brian Kelly, the editor of U.S. News, said more than 50 percent of the presidents, provosts and admission deans who were sent the annual survey of colleges’ reputations continued to fill it out. ‘We think the vast majority of presidents and academics are still supporting the survey,’ he said.”
“Strokes have tripled in recent years among middle-aged women in the U.S., an alarming trend doctors blame on the obesity epidemic. Nearly 2-percent of women ages 35 to 54 reported suffering a stroke in the most recent federal health survey, from 1999 to 2004. Only about half a percent did in the previous survey, from 1988 to 1994.”
“Roughly one-third of all eligible Americans, 64 million people, are not registered to vote. This percentage is even higher for African-Americans (30 percent) and Hispanics (40 percent).”
Source 1: “[P]eople with gum disease have a 25 percent greater risk of heart disease than those with healthy gums.”
Source 2: “Researchers have found that people with periodontal disease are almost twice as likely to suffer from coronary artery disease as those without periodontal disease.”
"The New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) is probably one the most challenging. The NY Regents might be a little bit more challenging; Massachusetts, the MCAS, may also be. But [the NECAP] is in the top 2 or 3% of the most challenging state assessments."
“The AMA is for Obama’s health plan, but only 29% of doctors belong to the AMA, so 71% are opposed to Obama’s health plan.”
"About 21% of American Children will see at least two live-in partners of their mothers by the time they're 15. And an additional 8% will see three or more."
“12%: The percentage higher for searches of the word ‘guacamole’ in Wisconsin than in Pennsylvania.
“5%: The percentage higher for ‘baba ganoush’ searches in Pennsylvania than in Wisconsin.”
“In theory, if you were to buy 50 tickets and your neighbor bought one, neither of you would have a better or worse chance of winning, We like to say it only takes one ticket to win."
“In addition, a person's odds of becoming obese increased by 57 percent if he or she had a friend who became obese over a certain time interval. If the two people were mutual friends, the odds increased to 171 percent.”
Presenter [University Challenge, BBC2]: "In statistics, in data which are binomially distributed, individual values may be placed in one of two mutually exclusive categories such that the sum of the probabilities of occurring in the categories is what value?"
Answer given: "Unity"
Presenter: "No, it's one, or a hundred percent."
"Probability -- the chance, or likelihood, of a certain/particular event occurring which can be expressed as a quantitative description, often ranging from 0 (rare event) to 1 (common event)."
“Up to 69 you have a one in six chance of getting cancer. After 70 it drops to one in three.”
Interviewer: “You told these men in Houston that a cure was, in a memorable phrase, 100% possible.”
Response: “Possible. Is that a guarantee?”
”One can't really say anything meaningful about probability without actual data.”
"Is there one New Yorker in a hundred who knows what the morning line is? (It’s the track oddsmaker’s estimate of how the public will bet each horse in a race, expressed in probabilities like 3/1 or 7/2.)"
Newspaper report: “Statistically, there's a 1 in 3,200 chance someone could be hit by one of the 26 objects...expected to crash into Earth's surface [in September].”
Headline: "NASA warns: Look out below! There's a 1 in 3,200 chance a piece of satellite will hit you.”
“Strangely, DNA experts are required to give probabilities for their evidence of matching; fingerprint expert[s] are forbidden to.”
“Texas beats Ohio State in their opening game of the season [Saturday Sept 10 2002]. The sportscasters … observed that of the 14 teams who have previously played in the championship game [at the end of each season] 5 have suffered an earlier defeat. ‘Thus,’ they conclude, ‘Ohio State can still make it to the championship game, but their chances are now less than 50%.’"
“British experts studied more than 17,000 children born in 1970 for about four decades. Of the children who ate candies or chocolates daily at age 10, 69 percent were later arrested for a violent offence by the age of 34. Of those who didn't have any violent clashes, 42 per cent ate sweets daily.”
“Here is the rub: Apple is so big, it’s running up against the law of large numbers. Also known as the golden theorem, with a proof attributed to the 17th-century Swiss mathematician Jacob Bernoulli, the law states that a variable will revert to a mean over a large sample of results. In the case of the largest companies, it suggests that high earnings growth and a rapid rise in share price will slow as those companies grow ever larger.”
"It is ridiculous to believe that the legal profession has to get involved with the complex parts of statistics. The statistics of gambling uses the frequency approach to statistics, and that is straightforward. The reasoning involved with Bayes is more complex and we cannot expect juries to accept it."
Weather“Glasgow's odds [on a white Christmas] had come in at 8-11, while Aberdeen was at 5-6, meaning snow in both cities is considered almost certain.”
“[Researchers at the University of Washington] found people in Seattle didn't have much of a grasp for what the probability forecast [of rain] really means, but found the numbers helpful in planning their day.”
Unlikely events“He tried his best--but in the end newborn Casey-James May missed out on a 48 million-to-one record by four minutes. His father Sean, grandfather Dered and great-grandfather Alistair were all born on the same date -- March 2. But Casey-James was delivered at 12.04 am on March 3 ....”
“Everybody trips on stairs at some time or other. It has been calculated that you are likely to miss a step once every 2,222 occasions you use stairs, suffer a minor accident once in every 63,000 uses, suffer a painful accident once in every 734,000, and need hospital attention once every 3,616,667 uses.”
Risk of dying“In the US, those in the poorest households have nearly four times the risk of death of those in the richest.”
“You’re more likely to die in a fire in Strathclyde than anywhere else in the country.”
“Individuals who are 50-59 years-old and from the poorest fifth of the population are over ten times more likely to die than their peers from the richest fifth.”
Fifty-fifty chances“This summer there's about a 50 per cent probability that there will be above normal temperatures for much of Britain and Europe.”
Perfect predictions“Events like this send a shiver down the spine, but the math behind strange coincidences shows that most people simply have a poor grasp of statistics. The odds against meeting someone else at a party with your birthday are not 365 to 1. In a room with just 23 people, the chances that two of them will share the same birthday are better than even.”
“Hey, how many people do you need to have in a room to guarantee the chance that at least two of them would have the same birthday?”
“I don’t know. Three hundred sixty-four.”
Gambling“Well, fairer in the sense that everyone's got an equal chance, but not fair in the sense that, well, it is literally a lottery.”
“There are now more overweight people in America than average-weight people. So overweight people are now average. Which means you've met your New Year's resolution.”
“Ministers define child poverty as children living on less than 60% of median income, adjusted for composition of the household. The median is the halfway point between the nation's highest and lowest income.”
“Two quantities were almost equal on average, according to … the study’s lead author: the fraction of MHC genes shared, and the woman’s number of extra partners. In other words, if the man and woman had half the genes in common, the woman would have on average nearly half a lover on the side.”
“The other kind of variable is called a quantitative variable in which numbers are used to order or to represent increasing levels of that variable. The simplest example of a quantitative variable is a dichotomous variable such as sex or genre, where one category is seen as representing more of that quality than the other. For example, if females are coded as 1 and males as 2, then this variable may be seen as reflecting maleness in which the higher score indicates maleness. The next simplest example is a variable consisting of three categories such as social class, which may comprise the three categories of upper, middle and lower. Upper class may be coded as 1, middle as 2 and lower as 3, in which case lower values represent higher social statuses. These numbers may be treated as a ratio measure or scale. Someone who is coded as 1 is ranked twice as high as someone who is coded as 2 giving a ratio of 1 to 2.”
“A separate opinion poll yesterday suggested that 50% of obese people earn less than the national average income.”
"The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that the U.S. will add 15.3 million new jobs between 2008 and 2018, and a whopping 15 out of 30 jobs with the most projected openings and vacancies will pay wages that are above the national median wage for all workers in the United States."
“The most important statistics in football are wins and losses and whether or not a team can outscore his opponent.”
SurveysSurvey question: “Is Snape good or bad? Yes or No?" As of June 7, there were 33 (29%) votes for "No."
“Women are more likely than men to have academic partners (40% of female faculty in our sample versus 34% of male faculty). In fact, rates of dual hiring are higher among women respondents than among men respondents (13% versus 7%). This means that couple hiring becomes a particularly relevant strategy for the recruitment and retention of female faculty.”
"Responses (29,760) to a survey of American public and private high-school students:
- "30 percent said that they had stolen from a store within the past year.
- "42 percent said that they sometimes lie to save money.
- "64 percent said that they had cheated on a test during the past year.
- "26 percent admitted that they had lied on at least one or two questions on the survey.
- "93 percent said that they were satisfied with their personal ethics and character.
- "77 percent said that when it comes to doing what is right, I am better than most people I know.”
"On another occasion, Bailey and other staffers spent hours voting repeatedly to manipulate a television opinion poll on Palin’s decision to reject part of the federal government’s economic stimulus funding."
“In a study involving 11,000 patients hospitalized for nearly four dozen ailments, researchers found that, across the board, women reported suffering pain more acutely than men did. …. The patients were asked to self-report their pain – in most cases to a female nurse.”
“While the study tracked just under 400 babies, the researchers said the results were statistically significant because it relied on weekly questionnaires filled out by parents.”
“'There's virtually nothing or any conclusion that anyone could draw from 500 samples,' said a USDA spokesman.”
"You can prove any silly hypothesis by running a statistical test on tons of data."
Causation“If you play golf, you could be adding five years to your life. A new study shows that the death rate for Scandanavian golfers is 40% lower than for those who don't golf. The reason may be simple: Golfers walk, spend time outdoors, and developing social relationships. …. Researchers have not ruled out the possibility that golfers simply live healthy lives in general, but they believe that the game itself does have health benefits.”
“[The researcher] said the familiar LSU fight song… slowed down their decision-making performance for a longer time than even a standard ringtone."
"The relationship between an area's income and mortality is so striking," the report says, "that on average, every $10,000 increase in an area's median income appears to buy its residents another year of life."
"[A] former Colorado Springs state senator ... once claimed, 'I don’t know whether we need a bill on teen pregnancy because statistics show teen pregnancy drops off significantly after age 25.'”
“[The] ballad ‘Someone Like you’ … has risen to near-iconic status recently, due in large part to its uncanny power to elicit tears and chills from listeners. …. Last year, [scientists] at McGill University reported that emotionally intense music releases dopamine in the pleasure and reward centers of the brain, similar to the effects of food, sex and drugs. …. Measuring listeners' responses, [the] team found that the number of goose bumps observed correlated with the amount of dopamine released, even when the music was extremely sad.”
Cleveland Clinic doctors Marc Gillinov and Steven Nissen describe a study by Wayne State University researchers who rated the smiles of 230 baseball players who played before 1950 based on pictures in the Baseball Register. Then they looked to see how long the players lived on average: No smile, age 73; partial smile, 75. Those with a full smile made it to 80.
Regression"[A] boss taught his twenty-something[-old] trainees ... how to conduct a 'two-handed regression'": "When a scatter plot failed to show the significant correlation between two variables that we all knew was there, he would place a pair of meaty hands over the offending clouds of data points and thereby reveal the straight line hiding from conventional mathematics."
British Medical Journal, v. 336, p. 244: "Much of the data on overweight people and obesity are limited, equivocal and compromised."
A1. "Most Trials are unethical because they are too large."
A2. "Small Trial are unethical."
B1. "A significant result is more meaningful if obtained from a large trial."
B2. "A given significant P-value is more indicative of the efficacy of a treatment if obtained from a small trial."
B3. "For a given P-value, the evidence against the null hypothesis is the same whatever the size of the trial."
"The potential public health benefits are huge" according to Dr. Paul M. Ridker, lead author of a controlled study of Crestor versus, a statin drug used to lower the risk of heart disease, versus a placebo.
One doctor’s reaction: "It's a breakthrough study. It's a blockbuster. It's absolutely paradigm-shifting."
Another doctor’s reaction: Crestor "can cause potentially serious kidney toxicity that is not seen with other cholesterol-lowering drugs, and it is the only drug of its type that caused rhabdomyolysis, a life-threatening adverse muscle reaction...there is no medical reason for you to be taking Crestor when there are three safer drugs on the market for reducing cardiovascular events."
"Experts disagree over the issue, with some saying there is no proof light drinking harms the baby, while others believe the evidence is inconclusive."
"[My kids' science-fair] experiments never turned out the way they were supposed to, and so we were always having to fudge the results so that the projects wouldn't be screwy. I always felt guilty about that dishonesty ... but now I feel like we were doing real science."
"The mechanics of the ghostwriter’s job are fairly simple, [an anonymous ghostwriter] says. Early on, a medical-communications agency and its pharmaceutical-company sponsors will agree on a title for an article and a potential author, usually an academic physician with a reputation as a 'thought leader.' The agency will ask the thought leader to 'author' the article, sometimes in exchange for a fee. The ghostwriter will write the article, or perhaps an extended outline containing the message the company wants to transmit, and send it along to the physician, who may make some changes or simply sign it as written and submit it to a journal, usually scrubbed of any mention of the ghostwriter, the agency, or the pharmaceutical company. [The ghostwriter] says he rarely even sees the published articles he writes."
"When I was in NYC I went to this party by group of Japanese bio-scientists. There, one guy told me about how the biggest pharmaceutical company in Japan did their statistics. They ran 100 different tests and reported the most significant one. (This was in 2006 and he said they stopped doing this few years back so they were doing this until pretty recently…) I’m not sure if this was 100 multiple comparison or 100 different kinds of test but I’m sure they wouldn’t want to disclose their data…"
"[A researcher] has been funded in part by the U.S. government’s Monty Python-esquely named Office of Research Integrity’s Research on Research Integrity Program."
Studies"I study the case histories of all lightning fatalities. Often, if people had gotten inside 5 or 10 minutes earlier, they would be alive."
"[M]ale participants tended to perform worse on a cognitive task …following the mixed-sex interaction compared to the same-sex interaction. …. Also, this effect was even stronger when the male participant reported higher attraction to the opposite-sex person they [sic] were interacting with. …. It should be noted that there was evidence that women's cognitive performance did tend to decline after mixed-sex interactions if they reported having a relatively strong goal to impress the opposite-sex other."
"There has always been a question about just how much of a forecasting mechanism markets are. Hence the saying that stocks have correctly predicted 15 of the past nine recessions."
An article describes two brands of athletic wear that are claimed to optimize performance: “A lot of these products are a sort of merchandized superstition. …. [A French surfer states,] ‘But if wearing the thing makes you think you feel or perform better, who cares?’”
"Persons with higher numeracy rely more on the numerical information depicted in the graph, whereas persons with lower numeracy seem to be confused when they are guided towards these numbers."
"[A] recent peer-reviewed study found that early-voting states received more federal dollars after a competitive election — so long as they supported the winning candidate.""Biostatistics vs. Lab Research" (3.5 minute cartoon video depicts conversation between biostatistician and lab scientist).
Nicholas Taleb wrote, "My classical metaphor: A Turkey is fed for 1000 days—every day confirms to its statistical department that the human race cares about its welfare 'with increased statistical significance'. On the 1001st day, the turkey has a surprise."
Article states, "Drivers 85 and older still have a higher rate of deadly crashes than any other age group except teenagers."
Online blog provided "Patience of Mobile Web Users" chart.
GENERAL QUANTITATIVE REASONING
Arithmetic“Of Italy's 151 Series A players, 52 are non-white, with Inter fielding 19, Juventus 12, AC Milan 13, AS Roma 12 and Udinese 10. Messina has eight.”
“With the [CT] state economy in the tank, this is the year of givebacks. .... [S]tate Rep. Terry Backer ... says the general public often is not aware that state legislators earn a base salary of 28,000 dollars per year for a part-time job with a pay rate that has been frozen for nine years."On principle, Backer says he does not want to give up a day's pay to be in solidarity with the state employee unions. 'I would rather take the 40 dollars and donate it to the food pantry in my town than do some baloney solidarity thing,' Backer said."
Logic“Q. How many punnets [a small light basket or other container for fruit or vegetables] of strawberries are eaten each day during the Wimbledon tournament? Is it (a) over 8,000, (b) over 9,000 or (c) over 10,000?”
“[Hanson is the l]argest aggregates producer in the world and 3rd largest in the USA.”
Big numbersOn the subject of congestion on the London Underground, “last year 976 million of us used the tube."
"This costs about a billion dollars. I'm not going to say how many zeros after it, but it's a lot."
Newspaper report: "Irene's bill in Vermont could top half-billion dollars."
Twice and other factors"Britain has been basking in the early onset of spring with temperatures almost twice as warm as the same time last year."
"Phew! Twice as warm as Corfu … It's not often we put Corfu in the shade weatherwise, especially at this time of the year. But while the Greek holiday spot could only manage a paltry 8C [46F] yesterday, Britons basked in the sun as temperatures reached 16C [60F] yesterday."
"'We're off by a factor of a lot.'--Tony Miller, founder of Carol.com a company that hoped to sell about 200 healthcare policies a month but after eight months sold but a total of 160."
"If you do not have so many players, what can you do? There are 95 registered Brazilian players in the Championship League, 94 French players and 45 English players. When you have twice as few players as other countries it is difficult."
"Retail sales figures in the US on Wednesday were almost twice as bad as had been expected."
“Retail sales figures in the US on Wednesday were almost twice as bad as had been expected.”
Units of measure"One primary school in East London has a catchment area of 110 metres."
"If we can increase IQ by three to four points in the whole population, we can have fewer children at the low end and more Einsteins at the high end."
Extrapolation and trends
“The current rate of shrinkage [in 2005] they calculate at 8% per decade; at this rate there may be no ice at all during the summer of 2060.”
“Mr. Romney started Bain Capital in 1984 with an initial fund of about $40 million. During the fourteen years he ran it, Bain Capital's investments reportedly earned an annual rate of return of over 100 percent, potentially turning an initial investment of $1 million dollars into more than $14 million by the time he left in 1998.”
Mathematics"The explanation rests in a mathematical formula created by the baseball analyst Bill James and introduced in the 1980 Baseball Abstract. James determined that the record of a baseball team could be approximated by taking the square of team runs scored and dividing it by the square of team runs scored plus the square of team runs allowed. Because of its similarity to the geometric method for determining the sum of the angles in a right triangle, he called it the Pythagorean theorem."
“After two months of trying to crack the code – a process that involved factoring two huge prime numbers – Mr. Moody says he succeeded in July.”