Putting the burden of proof in the right place

Stumbled across this from G.K. Chesterton, in his book The Thing: Why I am a Catholic:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.


Also this link with a reference to John F. Kennedy using the Chesterton quote.


I was reading something today and something triggered my memory and I looked up this pearl of wisdom from St. Thomas Aquinas that I had forgotten.  It is going to be added to my decision analysis course syllabus:

Never deny, seldom affirm, always distinguish


What should we teach in college?

Lawrence Summers has an op-ed column in the NY Times about curriculum issues


Here’s my favorite part:

6. Courses of study will place much more emphasis on the analysis of data. Gen. George Marshall famously told a Princeton commencement audience that it was impossible to think seriously about the future of postwar Europe without giving close attention to Thucydides on the Peloponnesian War. Of course, we’ll always learn from history. But the capacity for analysis beyond simple reflection has greatly increased (consider Gen. David Petraeus’s reliance on social science in preparing the army’s counterinsurgency manual).

As the “Moneyball” story aptly displays in the world of baseball, the marshalling of data to test presumptions and locate paths to success is transforming almost every aspect of human life. It is not possible to make judgments about one’s own medical care without some understanding of probability, and certainly the financial crisis speaks to the consequences of the failure to appreciate “black swan events” and their significance. In an earlier era, when many people were involved in surveying land, it made sense to require that almost every student entering a top college know something of trigonometry. Today, a basic grounding in probability statistics and decision analysis makes far more sense.

Populations and samples

Here’s a nice article in the NYTimes:


Researchers at Pennsylvania State University tracked the body mass indexes of 19,450 students from fifth through eighth grade. In fifth grade, 59 percent of the children attended a school where candy, snacks or sugar-sweetened beverages were sold. By eighth grade, 86 percent did so.

The researchers compared children’s weight in schools where junk food was sold and in schools where it was banned. The scientists also evaluated eighth graders who moved into schools that sold junk food with those who did not, and children who never attended a school that sold snacks with those who did. And they compared children who always attended schools with snacks with those who moved out of such schools.

No matter how the researchers looked at the data, they could find no correlation at all between obesity and attending a school where sweets and salty snacks were available.

Think about what population the researchers are interested in.  Is the sample they chose a good sample?  Does the size of the sample make you more or less confident of the results.

Now consider a question they could be studying: are children who eat junk food more or less obese?  Think about whether their data can answer this?

They are doing something slightly different, though.  Can you articulate the result carefully?  If you were not careful, are there other ways to frame the result that are not supported by the data, but sound like they do?

Busy during break

42,000 young people (18 to 25 years old) showed up from January 2-5 in Atlanta for a conference at the Georgia Dome and parts of all three buildings of the Georgia Dome.  Here’s some local coverage from channel 11 and here’s a report from CNN (their building is right next to all the activity).

Passion 2012 was the conference.  I volunteered and worked as an usher on the floor of the Georgia Dome.  The students donated money to support organizations battling slavery around the world, and here in Atlanta.  $100,000 was donated to the city of Atlanta to help start a special victims unit of the police department.

Total amount raised during the four days?  $3,066,670.  Awesome.  And more coming with online giving.

Next year the plan is to take down the curtain they use for concert seating at the Georgia Dome.  That will make room for a lot more attendees.  I can’t wait.

Easy to take for granted

I can actually remember when there was no Internet.  Or even time-shared computers.  I carried around cards and paper tapes with holes in them.  (shudder)

This is an awesome website packed with all kinds of information about all the development that has taken place to move the internet to the place now where there is so much available on small devices that fit in your pocket.  I’m suddenly feeling older.