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Reverse-engineering Chinese censorship

This recent paper written by Gary King, Jennifer Pan, and Margaret Roberts explores the way social media posts are censored in China. It’s interesting, take a look, or read this article on their work.

Here’s their abstract:

Existing research on the extensive Chinese censorship organization uses observational methods with well-known limitations. We conducted the first large-scale experimental study of censorship by creating accounts on numerous social media sites, randomly submitting different texts, and observing from a worldwide network of computers which texts were censored and which were not. We also supplemented interviews with confidential sources by creating our own social media site, contracting with Chinese firms to install the same censoring technologies as existing sites, and—with their software, documentation, and even customer support—reverse-engineering how it all works. Our results offer rigorous support for the recent hypothesis that criticisms of the state, its leaders, and their policies are published, whereas posts about real-world events with collective action potential are censored.

Interesting that they got so much help from the Chinese to censor their posts. Also keep in mind a caveat from the article:

Yu Xie, a sociologist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, says that although the study is methodologically sound, it overemphasizes the importance of coherent central government policies. Political outcomes in China, he notes, often rest on local officials, who are evaluated on how well they maintain stability. Such officials have a “personal interest in suppressing content that could lead to social movements,” Xie says.

I’m a sucker for reverse-engineering powerful algorithms, even when there are major caveats.

Women not represented in clinical trials

September 26, 2014 13 comments

This recent NYTimes article entitled Health Researchers Will Get $10.1 Million to Counter Gender Bias in Studies spelled out a huge problem that kind of blows me away as a statistician (and as a woman!).

Namely, they have recently decided over at the NIH, which funds medical research in this country, that we should probably check to see how women’s health are affected by drugs, and not just men’s. They’ve decided to give “extra money” to study this special group, namely females.

Here’s the bizarre and telling explanation for why most studies have focused on men and excluded women:

Traditionally many investigators have worked only with male lab animals, concerned that the hormonal cycles of female animals would add variability and skew study results.

Let’s break down that explanation, which I’ve confirmed with a medical researcher is consistent with the culture.

If you are afraid that women’s data would “skew study results,” that means you think the “true result” is the result that works for men. Because adding women’s data would add noise to the true signal, that of the men’s data. What?! It’s an outrageous perspective. Let’s take another look at this reasoning, from the article:

Scientists often prefer single-sex studies because “it reduces variability, and makes it easier to detect the effect that you’re studying,” said Abraham A. Palmer, an associate professor of human genetics at the University of Chicago. “The downside is that if there is a difference between male and female, they’re not going to know about it.”

Ummm… yeah. So instead of testing the effect on women, we just go ahead and optimize stuff for men and let women just go ahead and suffer the side effects of the treatment we didn’t bother to study. After all, women only comprise 50.8% of the population, they won’t mind.

This is even true for migraines, where 2/3rds of migraine sufferers are women.

One reason they like to exclude women: they have periods, and they even sometimes get pregnant, which is confusing for people who like to have clean statistics (on men’s health). In fact my research contact says that traditionally, this bias towards men in clinical trials was said to protect women because they “could get pregnant” and then they’d be in a clinical trial while pregnant. OK.

I’d like to hear more about who is and who isn’t in clinical trials, and why.

Categories: modeling, news, rant, statistics

Christian Rudder’s Dataclysm

September 16, 2014 16 comments

Here’s what I’ve spent the last couple of days doing: alternatively reading Christian Rudder’s new book Dataclysm and proofreading a report by AAPOR which discusses the benefits, dangers, and ethics of using big data, which is mostly “found” data originally meant for some other purpose, as a replacement for public surveys, with their carefully constructed data collection processes and informed consent. The AAPOR folk have asked me to provide tangible examples of the dangers of using big data to infer things about public opinion, and I am tempted to simply ask them all to read Dataclysm as exhibit A.

Rudder is a co-founder of OKCupid, an online dating site. His book mainly pertains to how people search for love and sex online, and how they represent themselves in their profiles.

Here’s something that I will mention for context into his data explorations: Rudder likes to crudely provoke, as he displayed when he wrote this recent post explaining how OKCupid experiments on users. He enjoys playing the part of the somewhat creepy detective, peering into what OKCupid users thought was a somewhat private place to prepare themselves for the dating world. It’s the online equivalent of a video camera in a changing booth at a department store, which he defended not-so-subtly on a recent NPR show called On The Media, and which was written up here.

I won’t dwell on that aspect of the story because I think it’s a good and timely conversation, and I’m glad the public is finally waking up to what I’ve known for years is going on. I’m actually happy Rudder is so nonchalant about it because there’s no pretense.

Even so, I’m less happy with his actual data work. Let me tell you why I say that with a few examples.

Who are OKCupid users?

I spent a lot of time with my students this summer saying that a standalone number wouldn’t be interesting, that you have to compare that number to some baseline that people can understand. So if I told you how many black kids have been stopped and frisked this year in NYC, I’d also need to tell you how many black kids live in NYC for you to get an idea of the scope of the issue. It’s a basic fact about data analysis and reporting.

When you’re dealing with populations on dating sites and you want to conclude things about the larger culture, the relevant “baseline comparison” is how well the members of the dating site represent the population as a whole. Rudder doesn’t do this. Instead he just says there are lots of OKCupid users for the first few chapters, and then later on after he’s made a few spectacularly broad statements, on page 104 he compares the users of OKCupid to the wider internet users, but not to the general population.

It’s an inappropriate baseline, made too late. Because I’m not sure about you but I don’t have a keen sense of the population of internet users. I’m pretty sure very young kids and old people are not well represented, but that’s about it. My students would have known to compare a population to the census. It needs to happen.

How do you collect your data?

Let me back up to the very beginning of the book, where Rudder startles us by showing us that the men that women rate “most attractive” are about their age whereas the women that men rate “most attractive” are consistently 20 years old, no matter how old the men are.

Actually, I am projecting. Rudder never actually specifically tells us what the rating is, how it’s exactly worded, and how the profiles are presented to the different groups. And that’s a problem, which he ignores completely until much later in the book when he mentions that how survey questions are worded can have a profound effect on how people respond, but his target is someone else’s survey, not his OKCupid environment.

Words matter, and they matter differently for men and women. So for example, if there were a button for “eye candy,” we might expect women to choose more young men. If my guess is correct, and the term in use is “most attractive”, then for men it might well trigger a sexual concept whereas for women it might trigger a different social construct; indeed I would assume it does.

Since this isn’t a porn site, it’s a dating site, we are not filtering for purely visual appeal; we are looking for relationships. We are thinking beyond what turns us on physically and asking ourselves, who would we want to spend time with? Who would our family like us to be with? Who would make us be attractive to ourselves? Those are different questions and provoke different answers. And they are culturally interesting questions, which Rudder never explores. A lost opportunity.

Next, how does the recommendation engine work? I can well imagine that, once you’ve rated Profile A high, there is an algorithm that finds Profile B such that “people who liked Profile A also liked Profile B”. If so, then there’s yet another reason to worry that such results as Rudder described are produced in part as a result of the feedback loop engendered by the recommendation engine. But he doesn’t explain how his data is collected, how it is prompted, or the exact words that are used.

Here’s a clue that Rudder is confused by his own facile interpretations: men and women both state that they are looking for relationships with people around their own age or slightly younger, and that they end up messaging people slightly younger than they are but not many many years younger. So forty year old men do not message twenty year old women.

Is this sad sexual frustration? Is this, in Rudder’s words, the difference between what they claim they want and what they really want behind closed doors? Not at all. This is more likely the difference between how we live our fantasies and how we actually realistically see our future.

Need to control for population

Here’s another frustrating bit from the book: Rudder talks about how hard it is for older people to get a date but he doesn’t correct for population. And since he never tells us how many OKCupid users are older, nor does he compare his users to the census, I cannot infer this.

Here’s a graph from Rudder’s book showing the age of men who respond to women’s profiles of various ages:

dataclysm

We’re meant to be impressed with Rudder’s line, “for every 100 men interested in that twenty year old, there are only 9 looking for someone thirty years older.” But here’s the thing, maybe there are 20 times as many 20-year-olds as there are 50-year-olds on the site? In which case, yay for the 50-year-old chicks? After all, those histograms look pretty healthy in shape, and they might be differently sized because the population size itself is drastically different for different ages.

Confounding

One of the worst examples of statistical mistakes is his experiment in turning off pictures. Rudder ignores the concept of confounders altogether, which he again miraculously is aware of in the next chapter on race.

To be more precise, Rudder talks about the experiment when OKCupid turned off pictures. Most people went away when this happened but certain people did not:

new-conversations

 

Some of the people who stayed on went on a “blind date.” Those people, which Rudder called the “intrepid few,” had a good time with people no matter how unattractive they were deemed to be based on OKCupid’s system of attractiveness. His conclusion: people are preselecting for attractiveness, which is actually unimportant to them.

But here’s the thing, that’s only true for people who were willing to go on blind dates. What he’s done is select for people who are not superficial about looks, and then collect data that suggests they are not superficial about looks. That doesn’t mean that OKCupid users as a whole are not superficial about looks. The ones that are just got the hell out when the pictures went dark.

Race

This brings me to the most interesting part of the book, where Rudder explores race. Again, it ends up being too blunt by far.

Here’s the thing. Race is a big deal in this country, and racism is a heavy criticism to be firing at people, so you need to be careful, and that’s a good thing, because it’s important. The way Rudder throws it around is careless, and he risks rendering the term meaningless by not having a careful discussion. The frustrating part is that I think he actually has the data to have a very good discussion, but he just doesn’t make the case the way it’s written.

Rudder pulls together stats on how men of all races rate women of all races on an attractiveness scale of 1-5. It shows that non-black men find their own race attractive and non-black men find black women, in general, less attractive. Interesting, especially when you immediately follow that up with similar stats from other U.S. dating sites and – most importantly – with the fact that outside the U.S., we do not see this pattern. Unfortunately that crucial fact is buried at the end of the chapter, and instead we get this embarrassing quote right after the opening stats:

 

And an unintentionally hilarious 84 percent of users answered this match question:

Would you consider dating someone who has vocalized a strong negative bias toward a certain race of people?

in the absolute negative (choosing “No” over “Yes” and “It depends”). In light of the previous data, that means 84 percent of people on OKCupid would not consider dating someone on OKCupid.

Here Rudder just completely loses me. Am I “vocalizing” a strong negative bias towards black women if I am a white man who finds white women and asian women hot?

Especially if you consider that, as consumers of social platforms and sites like OKCupid, we are trained to rank all the products we come across to ultimately get better offerings, it is a step too far for the detective on the other side of the camera to turn around and point fingers at us for doing what we’re told. Indeed, this sentence plunges Rudder’s narrative deeply into the creepy and provocative territory, and he never fully returns, nor does he seem to want to. Rudder seems to confuse provocation for thoughtfulness.

This is, again, a shame. A careful conversation about the issues of what we are attracted to, what we can imagine doing, and how we might imagine that will look to our wider audience, and how our culture informs those imaginings, are all in play here, and could have been drawn out in a non-accusatory and much more useful way.

Wife beating education for sports fan and everyone else

Do you know what I am doing this morning? I’m glued to ESPN talk radio, which is 98.7FM in the NYC area, although it is a national station and can be streamed online as well.

Here’s a statement you might be surprised to hear from me. In the past decade, sports talk radio has become the best, rawest, and most honest source of information about how our culture condones and ignores violence against women, not to mention issues of race and homophobia. True fact. You are not going to hear this stuff from politicians or academics.

Right now I’m listening to the Mike & Mike program, which has guest Jemele Hill, who is killing it. I’m a huge fan of hers.

The specific trigger for the conversation today is the fact that NFL football player Ray Rice has been indefinitely suspended from playing now that a video has emerged of him beating his wife in the elevator. Previously we had only gotten to seen the video of her slumped body after he came out of the elevator with her. The police didn’t do much about it, and then the NFL responded with a paltry 2-game suspension, after which there was such a backlash (partly through sports radio!) that the commissioner promised to enact a stronger policy.

Questions being addressed right now as I type:

  1. Why didn’t the police give Rice a bigger penalty for beating his wife unconscious?
  2. Why didn’t the NFL ask for that video before now? Or did they, and now they’re lying?
  3. What does it say about the NFL that they had the wife, Janay Rice, apologize for her role in the incident?
  4. What did people think it would look like when a professional football player knocks out a woman?
  5. Did people really think she did something to deserve it, and now they are shocked to see that she didn’t?
Categories: news

Friday morning reading

I’m very gratified to say that my Lede Program for data journalism at Columbia is over, or at least the summer program is (some students go on to take Computer Science classes in the Fall).

My adorable and brilliant students gave final presentations on Tuesday and then we had a celebration Tuesday night at my house, and my bluegrass band played (didn’t know I have a bluegrass band? I play the fiddle! You can follow us on twitter!). It was awesome! I’m hoping to get some of their projects online soon, and I’ll definitely link to it when that happens.

It’s been an exciting week, and needless to say I’m exhausted. So instead of a frothy rant I’ll just share some reading with y’all:

  1. Andrew Gelman has a guest post by Phil Price on the worst infographic ever, which sadly comes from Vox. My students all know better than this. Hat tip Lambert Strether.
  2. Private equity firms are buying stuff all over the country, including Ferguson. I’m actually not sure this is a bad thing, though, if nobody else is willing to do it. Please discuss.
  3. Bloomberg has an interesting story about online PayDay loans and the world of investing. I am still on the search for someone who knows exactly how those guys target their ads online. Hat tip Aryt Alasti.
  4. Felix Salmon, now at Fusion, has set up a nifty interactive to help you figure out your lifetime earnings.
  5. Felix also set up this cool online game where you can play as a debt collector or a debtor.
  6. Is it time to end letter grades? Hat tip Rebecca Murphy.
  7. There’s a reason fast food workers are striking nationwide. The ratio of average CEO pay to average full-time worker pay is around 1252.
  8. People lie to women in negotiations. I need to remember this.

Have a great weekend!

Categories: musing, news

Student evaluations: very noisy data

I’ve been sent this recent New York Times article by a few people (thanks!). It’s called Grading Teachers, With Data From Class, and it’s about how standardized tests are showing themselves to be inadequate to evaluate teachers, so a Silicon Valley-backed education startup called Panorama is stepping into the mix with a data collection process focused on student evaluations.

Putting aside for now how much this is a play for collecting information about the students themselves, I have a few words to say about the signal which one gets from student evaluations. It’s noisy.

So, for example, I was a calculus teacher at Barnard, teaching students from all over the Columbia University community (so, not just women). I taught the same class two semesters in a row: first in Fall, then in Spring.

Here’s something I noticed. The students in the Fall were young (mostly first semester frosh), eager, smart, and hard-working. They loved me and gave me high marks on all categories, except of course for the few students who just hated math, who would typically give themselves away by saying “I hate math and this class is no different.”

The students in the Spring were older, less eager, probably just as smart, but less hard-working. They didn’t like me or the class. In particular, they didn’t like how I expected them to work hard and challenge themselves. The evaluations came back consistently less excited, with many more people who hated math.

I figured out that many of the students had avoided this class and were taking it for a requirement, didn’t want to be there, and it showed. And the result was that, although my teaching didn’t change remarkably between the two semesters, my evaluations changed considerably.

Was there some way I could have gotten better evaluations from that second group? Absolutely. I could have made the class easier. That class wanted calculus to be cookie-cutter, and didn’t particularly care about the underlying concepts and didn’t want to challenge themselves. The first class, by contrast, had loved those things.

My conclusion is that, once we add “get good student evaluations” to the mix of requirements for our country’s teachers, we are asking for them to conform to their students’ wishes, which aren’t always good. Many of the students in this country don’t like doing homework (in fact most!). Only some of them like to be challenged to think outside their comfort zone. We think teachers should do those things, but by asking them to get good student evaluations we might be preventing them from doing those things. A bad feedback loop would result.

I’m not saying teachers shouldn’t look at student evaluations; far from it, I always did and I found them useful and illuminating, but the data was very noisy. I’d love to see teachers be allowed to see these evaluations without there being punitive consequences.

What can be achieved by Data Science?

This is a guest post by Sophie Chou, who recently graduated from Columbia in Computer Science and is on her way to the MIT Media Lab. Crossposted on Sophie’s blog.

“Data Science” is one of my least favorite tech buzzwords, second to probably “Big Data”, which in my opinion should be always printed followed by a winky face (after all, my data is bigger than yours). It’s mostly a marketing ploy used by companies to attract talented scientists, statisticians, and mathematicians, who, at the end of the day, will probably be working on some sort of advertising problem or the other.

Still, you have to admit, it does have a nice ring to it. Thus the title Democratizing Data Science, a vision paper which I co-authored with two cool Ph.D students at MIT CSAIL, William Li and Ramesh Sridharan.

The paper focuses on the latter part of the situation mentioned above. Namely, how can we direct these data scientists, aka scientists who interact with the data pipeline throughout the problem-solving process (whether they be computer scientists or programmers or statisticians or mathematicians in practice) towards problems focused on societal issues?

In the paper, we briefly define Data Science (asking ourselves what the heck it even means), then question what it means to democratize the field, and to what end that may be achieved. In other words, the current applications of Data Science, a new but growing field, in both research and industry, has the potential for great social impact, but in reality, resources are rarely distributed in a way to optimize the social good.

We’ll be presenting the paper at the KDD Conference next Sunday, August 24th at 11am as a highlight talk in the Bloomberg Building, 731 Lexington Avenue, NY, NY. It will be more like an open conversation than a lecture and audience participation and opinion is very welcome.

The conference on Sunday at Bloomberg is free, although you do need to register. There are three “tracks” going on that morning, “Data Science & Policy”, “Urban Computing”, and “Data Frameworks”. Ours is in the 3rd track. Sign up here!

If you don’t have time to make it, give the paper a skim anyway, because if you’re on Mathbabe’s blog you probably care about some of these things we talk about.

Categories: data science, news
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