Gloom, Despair, Email Spoofing, And Kahan’s Science Literacy Paper

Somebody spoofed my Yahoo email address which I use for ordering, registrations and the like. Sent hundreds of emails to my contact list yesterday.

Now I ordinarily run Linux, which you will all agree is superior to all other operating systems. But for the past few days, because of work, I had to log on to a Windows machine. I checked my email on that machine. It was after this that I was spoofed, hacked, or scammed. Whatever you call it, it was a pain in the keister.

This happenstance in time is what we statisticians call a curious coincidence. It could be that Windows, notorious as it is for being leakier than a canoe made of screen doors, allowed some villain to sneak in and steal my password. Or it could be that some clever fellow guessed this password, which I humbly admit was magnificently complicated. Or it could be something else.

That’s probability for you: not enough information to say for certain. And I want to say for certain so I know to whom or to what to direct my cursing.

So I was already in a petulant mood when I got a tweet from Paul Matthews ‏(@etzpcm) asking me to look at the paper “The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risk” by somebody with the name of Danny Kahan, who looks to be a lawyer. At least he sits in a law department.

The paper is a poll, a survey of the kind telemarketers, politicians, and in increasing number, sociologists run. You know what I mean. A bunch of questions asked of hapless citizens, the results fed into a needlessly complicated statistical analysis which produces grand theorizing all “proved” with wee p-values. The kind of thing we review on this blog ad nauseam.

Science literacy. Just what is that? This question? “The government interferes far too much in our everyday lives.” Well, that’s one of their questions. I wonder how the responses would be if they asked this after hearing Nanny Bloomberg’s plan to steal the (liquid) candy from the hands of New York City’s babies.

Nah, by “literacy” (numerical) they mean the ability to answer gotcha questions like this:

In a lake, there is a patch of lilypads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake?

Sure it’s easy (for us superior beings). But admit it, Danny boy. How many of you and your authors got these zingers right without blinking or thinking? Tell the truth. Your mother might read this blog.

Funny thing. They asked only two questions about how the climate works. Imagine that. Science literacy about climate change fully discerned by asking “Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?” and “How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun?” That’s the beauty of theory, friend, which Dan and company provide in great heaps. All kinds of verbiage about the “science comprehension thesis” versus the “cultural cognition thesis”. Golly.

Here’s the main finding:

As respondents’ science-literacy scores increased, concern with climate change decreased (r=−0.05, P=0.05). There was also a negative correlation between numeracy and climate change risk (r=−0.09, P<0.01).

Just look at those publishable p-values! But wait. What’s that? As people’s so-called “science-literacy” increases, their concern about climate change decreases?

Look. The “r” means linear correlation, and here is a number of a size that we scientists “trivial”, “vanishingly small”, or “Are you kidding?” The effect is nearly non-existent. Remember: this correlation is in this sample of survey respondents. Replication would almost certainly show that this effect vanishes like reason at the New York Times editorial office.

Ah geez. Just skip it. The whole study is based on a fallacy. A citizen can not know which goes around which, the Earth or Sun, and still know the truth of the statement “The government should stop telling people how to live their lives.” He can be as wrong as can be about how lasers work (another question asked) and still know the lunacy of this statement: “Government should put limits on the choices individuals can make so they don’t get in the way of what’s good for society.”

This just goes to show you how useless science knowledge is to most folks, but how important political and moral knowledge is. Would the world really be a better place if all were made to swear to the belief that the Earth orbits the sun? Sure it’s a simple fact, but how useful is it to the average man? Except in answering questions on surveys like this, not much.

And so we end with the non sequitur: O science! Where are you! Why have you left us!


  1. DanielD

    Well, the email spoofing is not necessarily entailing that the password was stolen or guessed. It simply means that somebody got your email address which is public and set it as displayed “from” in her spam machine.
    For the matter at hand, following your writing is an education for me. I have bought your book and I feel guilty for not reading it through yet.
    The paper reviewed is indeed cr*p research.

  2. TMI

    I had an easy password in the early days; 1-1-1-1.

    I’ve since changed to a much more difficult password. Eleven-eleven.

  3. ES

    I’ve been thinking about this “Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?”-question as a measure of how “enlightened” ordinary citizens are. Fact is, in a relativistic system, as well as in a Newtonian one, the frame of reference is chosen arbitrarily. Thus, it is, strictly speaking, just as wrong to claim that the Earth goes around the Sun as to claim the opposite. Scientifically speaking, neither revolves around the other, they just move relative to each other. The “Earth around Sun” model happens, then, to permit a simpler description of everything we think we know about the celestial bodies. The “Sun around Earth” model, however, happens to be a simpler description to an observer of the Sun (situated, as he were, on our Earth).

  4. Doug M

    The sun goes around the earth every day. I am a fixed point in the universe, and the unviverse revolves around me.

    Acutally, the universe slowly drifts away from me, and that makes me sad.

  5. SteveBrooklineMA

    When I was a kid, and there were 4 channels on TV available, I watched Hee-Haw ’cause it was the best thing on. Now, I have come to appreciate it! I find myself singing where o where from time to time. Thanks for posting!

  6. BobN

    Interesting discussion of this over at Lucia’s rankexploits blog. She takes Steve Easterbrook to task for saying the results show scientific literacy and concern with climate change are uncorrelated after PaulM noted to Steve that the results showed there was actually a negative correlation. Of course, Steve E, being the pompous git that he is, goes all ballistic via Twitter.

    Anyway, Lucia and some others are insisting that it is wrong to call the factors “uncorrelated” unless r=0.0. While I’ll concede there may be a very few scientific fields where such negligible correlations make a difference (Lucia cited Statistical Mechanics), but for most fields, and particularly a soft field like sociology, it seems perfectly fine to say that r values of <0.1 means the variables are uncorrelated.

  7. JH

    Keylogger?! Your employer is watching you.

    Briggs, I think you must like grading. I hate grading! Reading those papers is like grading students’ projects…

  8. JH

    Replication would almost certainly show that this effect vanishes like reason at the New York Times editorial office.

    Don’t be so certain!

  9. DAV


    Matt’s books certainly aren’t very clear. When I put them down on something I have to keep moving them to read what ever is behind them. It’s no surprise that you haven’t been able to read through the one you’ve purchased.


    You should randomly alternate it with 1234 to keep the hackers on their toes.

    I get all of my mail using Outlook with the exception of GMail which I download from my phone. Never had an account hacked but then I do have a firewall, virus checker and whatnot. I’ve had more concentrated though unsuccessful attacks on my linux name server box. Are you sure Yahoo wasn’t hacked directly?

  10. JH


    Let {(x,y)}={(0,0), (1,5), (3,9), (5,5), (6,0)}. Five pairs of (x,y) where y = -(x-3)^2 + 9.

    The sample Pearson correlation coefficient r between x and y is 0. Note that y is generated using the above quadratic function. My example demonstrates that r=0, yet the variable x and y are quadratically correlated, just not linearly correlated. So it’s wrong to conclude that x and y are “uncorrelated” even if r = 0. (The sample correlation coefficient r measures the strength of a LINEAR relationship. )

    I think I gave another similar example somewhere on this blog before.

    If one understands how the Pearson correlation coefficient is defined mathematically, the above point will be trivial … statistical thinking is in no way cookbook thinking.

  11. William Sears


    Either I did something wrong or an earlier comment of mine was trapped in a spam filter.

  12. Briggs

    William Sears,

    Seems to have disappeared. Sorry about that.

  13. Milton Hathaway

    If a lilypad is 6″ across, and there are at least two in a “patch”, my lake is 3200 miles across. I now have lillypads to spare, so I am selling carbon credits.

    Did I pass the literacy test?

  14. William Sears

    I’ll try again. Along the lines of our favorite topic there is this.

    As to the specific topic in your post, I do not think that it is possible to test for scientific literacy in a short quiz. Each specialist will have different ideas as to what constitutes common scientific knowledge and will be surprised that other (different) specialists do not share this knowledge. This reminds me of a conversation that I had with a colleague a number of years ago. He was complaining that many of his students did not know the formula for the area of a triangle. Being in a devilish mood I drew a triangle with labeled sides a, b, and c and asked him for the formula for the area. He was not amused. Very few people have committed to memory the general formula for this case even though it has been know since the time of the ancient Greeks.

  15. ezra abrams

    you are in the curious position of criticizing others for notbeing logical and rigorous enough, while you yourself say silly things.
    quote”Government should put limits on the choices individuals can make so they don’t get in the way of what’s good for society.”
    you seem to dissaprove of the idea that gov’t should limit peoples choices (hard to tell – you could be sarcastic here)
    no compulsory vaccination
    no compulsory testing before getting a drivers license
    silly you, you are no better then those you criticize

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