Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Selecting and Confirming - A Fool's Errand

Read this story here.

Did you see the same pattern the author did? George P. Burdell, a man known for making significant patterns, didn't either. You are wise, too.

What you are witnessing in that article is a nationally distributed example of selection and confirmation bias, a fool's errand - looking for something that really is not there.

If you remove the outlier in each graph, the graphs pretty much no longer tell the story the columnist thought he was telling. This type of force-fit linear analysis does little for advancing critical insight. The first graph shows that there is no real favoritism being demonstrated. The columnist is just wrong. But so is Obama. No one (rich or poor) is really being helped significantly more than anyone else.

However, if you look at the last three graphs, the real story is that the stimulus is having little effect. There is virtually no response in unemployment and bankruptcy for stimulus dollars spent (at least up to the time this data is purported to represent); there is only a slight response to foreclosure rate.

So what happened? George and I can't judge the author's intention, but if I had to let my suspicions be made known, I would say the author went looking for a story, simplistically used linear analysis tools (which are highly sensitive to outliers), and found the story he wanted to tell. Unfortunately, he missed the real story that potentially demonstrates the greater policy implications.

We face a number of really important debates right now in this country. Obscuring clear thinking and true exploratory dialog will not be helped with this Fox correspondent's lack of rigor.

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