Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Archive for September 28th, 2020

Blowing in the wind, and not

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What I saw blowing in the wind along Pflugerville Parkway on September 19th was goldenrod (Solidago sp.). A couple of plants had already fully flowered on an undeveloped property but were close to the road and to some election billboards—illegally placed, of course—that made getting a decent background difficult. Thanks to my mat for letting me lie down in a briar patch to strain for good photographic angles. I’d had an easier time in Bastrop 13 days earlier when I photographed my first goldenrod flowers of the season:

The illegally placed election billboards I mentioned provide a lead-in to a thought for today. Suppose you’re trying to determine how prevalent a certain thing is in a given population. The science of statistics requires that you get a sample that’s random and also large enough to greatly reduce the likelihood of being unrepresentative (which occasionally happens just by chance, like being dealt a straight flush in poker). Unfortunately, many in the news media violate those principles by choosing to present only occurrences that support a certain ideology, while purposely not reporting occurrences, often much greater in number, that contradict that ideology.

Let’s concoct an example. Suppose I’m a member of the Green Eyes Party, and I claim that adults with green eyes are rich. I go out searching until I eventually find four wealthy people who happen to have green eyes, and I produce a lavish documentary about them. At the end I say: “See, it’s clear that adults with green eyes are wealthy.” In so doing, I violated the axioms of statistics—and fairness!—because I included only green-eyed adults who are rich; I didn’t include many of them; and I didn’t take into account the much larger number of green-eyed adults who aren’t rich.

So when you hear on the news or elsewhere that X is a common occurrence, or that there’s an “epidemic” of X, do your best to find out whether large-scale, properly gathered statistics show that X really is common. In unfortunately many cases you’ll discover that X is actually rare but seems common only because certain interests are heavily promoting it.

© 2020 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

September 28, 2020 at 4:34 AM

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