A colleague saw me in the hallway recently and quipped "I love standard errors!" He was referring to a report we'd both recently read that cited survey data but didn't provide any standard errors. We were both good enough at math to realize that the differences were almost surely not statistically significant.
Once your eyes stop rolling about what constitutes humor to a pair of data nerds, the point of his comment is important for anyone who works with survey or sample data to understand. Numerical estimates take on artificial precision if you don't apply the basic mathematics of sampling. And this math can get a bit more complicated when you aren't looking at the whole sample but at a subset.
Everyone knows this intuitively. If I roll a pair of dice 1000 times, you're a lot more confident that the dice aren't loaded than if I roll the dice 10 times. The mistake that a lot of people make is that they don't realize the same logic applies to subsets of a sample. Even if you have a sample of 500 respondents and an estimated sampling error of 4.5%, a subsample of 50 respondents has a correspondingly high sampling error. (For the mathematically inclined, the standard error of the second quantity will be SQRT(10) = 3.16 larger, or 14.05%.)
All this is relevant to the recently released KATU/Survey USA poll on fluoridating Portland's water supply.
One thing in the story immediately caught my eye.:
When you break down the votes by race, there's a huge difference. Forty-two percent of white voters say they’d vote yes, but only 30 percent of black and Asian voters agree. What’s more, 9 percent of Hispanic voters support fluoridation (72 percent said no.)
I've been working with public opinion data for a long time, and I'm used to seeing substantial differences between racial and ethnic groups. But I can't think of an instance where I have seen differences these substantial, and groups organized in this way (typically, Whites and Blacks anchor opposite ends and Hispanics are in the middle).
Could this be true? Why would Hispanic support be in the single digits while Black, White, and Asian support was between 30 and 45%? Did this have something to do with where Hispanics live, what media they access, what groups they are listening to?
Ah. Wait. The answer is a lot simpler than that. The Latino number is almost certainly wrong, and is a result of a particularly bad roll of the survey sampling dice by Survey USA.
Last week Multnomah County and Street Roots released their second annual report on homeless deaths in Multnomah County. The report found that 56 Portlanders died last year while experiencing homelessness. 2012 yielded nine more deaths than the 47 reported deaths from 2011. The causes of death were numerous, drug overdoses, beatings, suicides, freezing to death, and cardiac heart failure just to name a few. The evidence points to greater hardships on those experiencing homelessness and greater challenges than in years past; the news isn’t good, especially for a progressive city that prides itself on its ability to care for the most vulnerable.
One of the most troubling things about the report is how little we know about the people who died. We don’t know who their families were, what they were like, what their stories were, or what their struggles where. In most cases, we barely even know their names and ages; the dead are reduced to abstract numbers and statistics staring back at us from a bland white page. It’s like they aren’t even human.
How did we get here?
In his famous work on how ordinary people become capable of carrying out horrendous acts of evil, Dr. James Waller argues in “Becoming Evil,” that the first step of committing evil is turning a group of people into the “other,” and drawing distinctions between yourself and other people groups, viewing them as less than equal, not even human sometimes. When we view people as “other” or different than us, it becomes much easier to marginalize them, treat them differently or inferior, and even in some cases, commit heinous acts of evil against them. Viewing someone as “other” dehumanizes them, taking away their dignity. Waller’s point is that we often label different groups of people consciously and sometimes unconsciously. Rather than seeing Portlanders, we see people as poor, illegal, homeless, or “different.” In doing so it becomes easier for us to passively and actively marginalize people and support public policies that also marginalize them.
I confess I unintentionally contribute to the dehumanization of the homeless among us all the time. When I see someone with a sign or asking for money on the street I pretend I don’t see them, or can’t hear them. By failing to acknowledge their existence I contribute to their dehumanization. When I do give them money, I do so as quickly and as impersonally as possible, less I’m actually forced to interact and see and feel their humanness and discover it’s no different than my own.
I suspect I’m not alone.
Update: 5/17/13, 8:55AM: In what has to be the WEIRDEST way to conduct legislative business (I hesitate to use the word "professional" here, because well, it just isn't),the Republicans announced on FACEBOOK (yes, you read that right) that they're not happy with the proposal. And the Governor says now that any PERS deal that the GOP might have wanted to get is now dead, persumably because the GOP were too busy digging their heels in to come to the table
I don't know when this happened, but apparently the Republican caucus in the Oregon Legislature decided that Oregonians were really hoping they'd act exactly like Republicans at the federal level.
Because really, the federal level style of GOP obstructionism is exactly what we all want for Oregon, right?
After today's very rosy revenue forecast, Governor Kitzhaber pleaded for the Democrats and Republicans to sit down and reach a compromise on PERS and taxes.
The Democrats, cheering today's forecast, were ready to sit down and talk.
The Republicans, essentially ignoring the forecast in their comments, pouted. And Ted Ferrioli (R-John Day) basically stamped his feet, said nothing about the good revenue forecast and dug in his heels on PERS and "job creation" (which is GOP dog whistle for tax cuts).
The nut of the issue: The GOP were demanding more PERS cuts beyond the $455 million already passed by Democrats and signed by Kitzhaber. Democrats appeared willing to consider another $400 million in PERS cuts, but Republicans needed agree to eliminate about $200 million in tax breaks that benefit wealthier Oregonians.
But this new updated forecast basically gives the Dems the needed revenue to balance the budget without having to slash PERS or get more revenue from ending tax breaks.
Republicans say "no deal". They want their marbles and they want them NOW.
This leaves us with the distinct possibility of a protracted legislative session that will cost taxpayers more money.
Oh...and if that weren't bad enough, the Republicans are taking hostages until they get what they want on PERS, too.
David Sarasohn, The Oregonian:
This week, the Oregon House of Representatives overwhelmingly renewed the state's health provider tax, the one that gets the state about twice as much from the feds as the providers pay. Senate Republicans, reportedly, plan to refuse to pass it unless Senate Democrats agree to deeper cuts in PERS.
If you're going to take hostages, you might as well take sick ones.
Yeah. The GOP really don't want Oregonians to vote for them.
By Jody Wiser of Portland, Oregon. Jody runs the citizen watchdog group, Tax Fairness Oregon. Previously, she contributed "The enormous tax break for the rich hidden in Measure 84".
Yet again, in the name of “jobs,” legislators have an idea for how to take personal income taxes and give them to business. There’s a new idea nearly every session (pdf) for how to enrich business in the name of jobs.
This year could be "Industrial Land Readiness". Legislators are being convinced that it is now the state’s responsibility to get land ready for industrial development. Under SB 246A, the state could pick up 100% of the cost of everything from buying land to putting in streets, gutters and water lines. Land development has always been a responsibility of land owners, developers, businesses, counties and service districts – this bill would shift the responsibility to the state.
How will the state pay for it? By returning ½ the personal income taxes of employees who work on the improved properties.
How will the state do its own jobs with only ½ as much income? By firing teachers, home health workers and state troopers I suppose. Magically thinking says that another welfare bill for business will fix everything. Meanwhile, our kids sit in classrooms with 50 other students using 20-year-old science text books.
It’s time to give legislators a piece of your mind about this. Please sign this petition we’re co-sponsoring with BlueOregon. We’d love to be able to deliver to each legislator a list of constituents from their own district saying “NO on SB246A, the Industrial Land Readiness bill.”
To the Oregon Legislature:
Please say no to big business tax giveaways. The "Industrial Land Readiness" program is nothing but a tax subsidy that will drain funding from schools and vital services. We urge you to oppose SB 246A.
This petition is sponsored by BlueOregon and Tax Fairness Oregon. By signing, you agree to receive email updates from BlueOregon and Tax Fairness Oregon about this petition and other critical issues. (You may always unsubscribe, of course.) Learn more.
By Frank Erickson, MD, of Pendleton, Oregon. Frank is a Radiologist from Pendleton, who toured with the Mad As Hell Doctors in 2011 through eastern Oregon. He has served as a Radiation Safety Officer in the Navy and practiced as a Board Certified Diagnostic Radiologist since 1986. His interests are focused on maximizing health care outcomes for his patients who he now sees as all of us through his participation in Physicians for a National Health Program and Health Care for All Oregon.
In the run-up to garnering support for HB 2922, the universal coverage health care reform bill for Oregon this session, I sponsored a public showing of The Healthcare Movie in Pendleton last month. One of the attendees told me her personal story of how the current health care arrangement is endangering her life. A woman, call her Maggie - looked to be in her mid-40's with medium build. She was ambulatory, had clear speech and full understanding of her condition, which made hearing about it all the worse.
Maggie described having hypertension and a thyroid condition that require meds which she has not been able to take for the last five months, since none of the local primary care providers will take her as a patient and refill her prescriptions. The free clinic did not help. She asked if I knew of anyone who might help her, so I named local health care providers I knew personally who I thought were qualified to take her on. Maggie had tried each of their offices - one of them attended her church.
One by one she said she had been turned down - not accepting new patients or some other excuse due to inability to pay/no insurance aside from Medicaid. She said her blood pressure was 182 over 119, taken at the fire station (free), and she was afraid of having a stroke. (These numbers place her in the Hypertensive Crisis range.) In a whisper, she told me her income – totally inadequate for the roughly $400 monthly prescription bill (she has additional conditions which complicate her prescriptions). She is aware of and has taken all the usual non-prescription precautions, like lowering her salt intake. She takes her health seriously; she is personally responsible; she simply cannot afford to get what she needs and has no means to relocate to another area where someone might accept her as a patient.
Maggie feels trapped. Her next stop may be the Emergency Room. She is a walking medical time bomb, and she knows it. There was fear in her eyes. I have never more acutely felt the need for a basic universal health care system than when I was hearing her story. This case in particular, and all the other medical horror stories and bankruptcies due to medical incidents that have become common, keep pegging my frustation meter. We simply must change our current pay-or-die non-system as soon as possible. We are losing and harming people like Maggie every day while the debate goes on.
Call your legislators. Support HB 2922 and hcao.org.