Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Blowing in the wind, and not

with 33 comments

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

33 Responses

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  1. Unfortunately statistics can be easily manipulated to tell whatever story they are designed to tell. I think a lot of people are beginning to find this out right now. Fabulous photos as always Steve.


    September 28, 2020 at 5:30 AM

    • In the American school system in recent years there’s been a healthy (in my opinion) push to include a greater knowledge of statistics in the mathematics curriculum. Unfortunately (says cynical me), as the schools don’t even inculcate a good knowledge of basic arithmetic in many students, I’m afraid statistics will be just one more thing that most kids come away from school not understanding.

      A good introductory course on statistics should include examples of some common ways in which statistics can be misunderstood and misused. For example, most people don’t understand how a margin of error works, nor do they understand that occasionally the value being sought falls outside the margin of error.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 28, 2020 at 7:30 AM

      • I believe the system nowadays doesn’t want people to understand!


        September 28, 2020 at 8:20 AM

        • Sounds like you may be as cynical as I am.

          Steve Schwartzman

          September 28, 2020 at 11:11 AM

          • I am afraid I have questioned everything since a very young age. (I drove my parents mad!) So this year has been particularly exhausting. Just watched Ron Paul on YouTube and it does me good to hear someone else asking the same questions as me.


            September 28, 2020 at 3:40 PM

            • Questioning is good. I didn’t know you’d be aware of Ron Paul over there.

              My years as a math teacher has predisposed me (or brought out an inherent predispositon) to try to separate what is true from what isn’t.

              Steve Schwartzman

              September 28, 2020 at 5:26 PM

  2. That’s OK Steve, promote all the unrepresentative goldenrods you want. It may be my favorite party this year.

    Robert W Smith

    September 28, 2020 at 6:57 AM

    • Wittily said! I think you’re onto something: maybe you need to found a new party called the Favorite Party.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 28, 2020 at 7:39 AM

  3. The sorry political drivel drove you to photograph a single stalk when the best aspect is a panorama of golden color.


    September 28, 2020 at 7:38 AM

    • A clever observation! Actually as we drove around on September 19th I was making mental notes of any fields we saw with good numbers of goldenrod plants that hadn’t yet flowered. The idea was (and still is) to go back after 2–3 weeks in hopes of finding the kind of panorama you mentioned. The most recent one I photographed was last fall, and it was more than three hours away from home:


      Steve Schwartzman

      September 28, 2020 at 7:50 AM

      • Oh, too bad. Ample fields of goldenrod in flower are plentiful here in the Finger Lakes.


        September 29, 2020 at 9:41 AM

        • There have been good ones in Austin, too. It varies by year. It’s still too early to tell how 2020 will turn out for goldenrod colonies in this area.

          Steve Schwartzman

          September 29, 2020 at 11:51 AM

  4. Beautiful photos of one of my favorite fall plants. Coincidentally, I found well-developed goldenrod in Brazoria County and in the Big Thicket this weekend. Most weren’t yet in full bloom, but their cheery yellow was nice to see. I did notice one difference between Big Thicket goldenrod and these; it’s nearly impossible to get a nice, sky-blue background among longleaf pines.

    Your example reminded me of one of the best-known aphorisms involving truth and statistics: “Figures lie, and liars figure.” The Quote Investigator took that one on in a very entertaining post.


    September 28, 2020 at 7:59 AM

    • I take it you won’t be cutting down any pine trees to get a view of the sky. You’ve reminded me of last fall at the Marathon Oil property in your neck of the woods when I used some pine trees to frame a seaside goldenrod:


      That’s a good Quote Investigator article you linked to. We no longer generally use figures to mean ‘numbers,’ and so we’ve lost the original arithmetical reference in the locution to figure that…., meaning ‘to calculate, determine, conclude, decide, assume,’ as in “I figure that our neighborhood store won’t be able to reopen.”

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 28, 2020 at 10:53 AM

      • Those are glorious photos. I’ve gone back to that site a couple of times, but wasn’t able to get in. There was construction of some sort going on all around it, both road and otherwise, and the gates were locked and the entrances blocked. I tried getting information from the Texas City parks department, without success, but didn’t pursue it with more than a couple of phone calls. I ought to go back out there one evening and see if things are open again.


        September 30, 2020 at 7:32 AM

        • It’s too bad you couldn’t get back in to that property. I’m still glad you could tell me what kind of sunflower and goldenrod those plants were.

          Steve Schwartzman

          September 30, 2020 at 2:01 PM

  5. You worked hard to obtain the beautiful photo of the wind-swept goldenrod, Steve. Your task was to avoid the annoying election billboard, which in turn sparked the review lesson on the correct use of statistics.

    Peter Klopp

    September 28, 2020 at 8:40 AM

    • Even with my mat I did get a couple of dewberry prickles in my skin. I’ve long been annoyed by the way people running for office put up their signs on undeveloped properties without asking the owners’ permission. My train of thought from there was that politicians often put forth claims that turn out not to be backed up by the facts.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 28, 2020 at 10:58 AM

  6. I like it that you are reminding us all to check our sources rather than blindly believe what we are told. The answers, and the goldenrod, they are a blowin’ in the wind.


    September 28, 2020 at 8:48 AM

    • I had an enlightening experience some years ago when I decided to follow up on a footnote in an article. Footnotes are intended to show that there’s evidence for what the author has just asserted, but in that case I found that the original source said something different from what the author asserted. More recently I came across an example of someone putting forth a claim and saying that snopes.com had investigated it and confirmed it; however, it turned out that snopes.com had done no such thing. There are a lot of liars out there.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 28, 2020 at 11:04 AM

      • And there are ever more liars, the deeper we look. All the more reason to keep looking, and to look ever-deeper.


        September 29, 2020 at 2:59 AM

        • But what I probably find the most discouraging is that even after a lie has been exposed there are people who still keep asserting that lie. Probably the most flagrant example I ever saw was on a television show a couple of decades ago in which a political operative was being interviewed in connection with a proposed bill in Congress. The guy said that passage of the bill would mean X, where X was some terrible consequence that I no longer remember. The interviewer, however, had done his research: pulling out a copy of the proposed bill, he read aloud the relevant passage, which clearly did not call for baleful consequence X. In spite of that, during the remainder of the interview, the political operative claimed another two times that passage of the bill would lead to the horrible X.

          Steve Schwartzman

          September 29, 2020 at 4:13 AM

      • Oh boy, the gall of it all. If only their pants were on fire so we could see them coming.


        September 29, 2020 at 7:07 AM

  7. And here I thought I was just going to read about goldenrod! Very clever tie in.


    September 28, 2020 at 3:29 PM

    • Because I no longer work as a math teacher, I occasionally use this platform to get the word out about mathematical concepts. The illegal election billboards suggested my comments, which I feel need to be taken to heart in this crazy year.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 28, 2020 at 5:23 PM

  8. The Goldenrod portraits are beautiful, and full of positive feelings, even if so much of what’s happening around us isn’t right now. I’ll be happy to see those billboards and posters go away next month. I was raised by a research chemist so I don’t tend to be taken in too easily by the kind of “information” you talk about above. 🙂


    September 28, 2020 at 7:06 PM

    • Yellow strikes me, too, as such a positive color. I wonder whether we react that way because yellow is the color of the sun, which directly or indirectly supports most life on earth.

      I can see where being the child of a research chemist would put you in good stead when it comes to “information.”

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 28, 2020 at 8:12 PM

  9. This green-eyed non-rich person thinks your images are lovely! The blue sky with the golden yellow is so cheerful! Stats make my head swim and my brain dim. Not unlike most maths! 😀


    September 29, 2020 at 10:18 AM

    • Ah, what a coincidence that you have green eyes. I’m glad they approve these cheery goldenrod pictures, but sorry to hear those eyes are linked to a head that swims and a brain that dims when math comes along.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 29, 2020 at 11:55 AM

  10. I am always excited to see goldenrod this time of year. Happily, I am seeing more of it in the orchard since we let the pecan orchard go wild the last two years! I think I’ve mentioned before, that it is the state flower of Nebraska, where I was born.

    I truly enjoy your math and grammar lessons. I’m a green-eyed girl that is rich in nature and all things connected with the outdoors. I often think the best of what I’ve learned in life came from my parents about the harsh realities of life – don’t trust what you hear or are told, find out for yourself! Study and research what you do not know or understand. Figure things out with common sense, and be open to everything, but with caution. It’s served me well.


    October 1, 2020 at 6:03 AM

    • Like you, I’m excited to see goldenrod at this time of year, but unfortunately the chiggers were also excited to see me in a field yesterday photographing more goldenrod, and now I’m paying the itchy price. It’s good to hear you’ve had more goldenrod these last two years. Enjoy it.

      You’ve put it very well in calling yourself “rich in nature.” Your comment about finding out the truth for yourself reminds me of the advice from four decades ago that some people applied to international relations: “Trust but verify.” Being open to everything, but with caution, has served you well, indeed.

      Thanks for letting me know you enjoy the insights into language and math.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 1, 2020 at 8:31 AM

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