I’m about to cover quite a lot of ground, albeit briefly, including but not limited to: Danielle Steel, Ben Goldacre, gambling, stupidity, critical thinking, the success rate for treating mental health problems (but not really), the suicide rate of Indian farmers (Eeek! Really!), booker prize gender bias (pffft), and, to bring us full circle (and because I like circles) Danielle Steel again. I should add that it might be handy to know before we begin, for reasons which will become obvious, whether you have a pair of testicles dangling between your legs, so if you’re not sure please check now. Ready? Good. Wash your hands and make yourself comfortable.
Danielle Steel Is Still Writing!
Let’s start with Danielle Steel. According to the Wikipedia page bearing her name Danielle Steel is currently the best-selling author alive and the fourth best-selling of all time. Her books have sold a staggering 800 million copies, have been translated into 28 languages, and 22 of them have been adapted for television. Whether you enjoy her books or not (I don’t happen to read them because they’re not my thing) her success as a writer is beyond question. Danielle, who apparently celebrates her 66th birthday next week, has been writing since she was 19 years old. And for those of you with testicles dangling between your legs (you have checked, right?) get this: Danielle Steel is still writing!
Ben Goldacre Changed My Life!
Okay, more on Danielle Steel later. But first this: Ben Goldacre changed my life! Maybe you’re already familiar with Ben’s Goldacre’s book, Bad Science (or maybe you’re not), but it made me begin to question some of what we’re asked on a daily basis to believe. It’s not the only book that has contributed to this, I’ve read several others since (there’s no shortage of them) but it started me out on questioning a lot of what I might otherwise take for granted. Not that I previously considered myself to be gullible, of course. I believe my past history has shown me to not be completely stupid — I’m reasonably well educated and have successfully held down a string of technical jobs in which I’ve largely been respected, and I know how to programme a DVD recorder.
Gambling & Stupidity!
Some people are in fact stupid. Eeek! I was listening to a radio programme a few years ago in which the subject was gambling, and during the discussion the person being interviewed talked about the need to warn the public that gambling can be addictive. The interviewer then asked, “But surely you’d have to be stupid not to know that gambling is addictive?” to which the person replied – without skipping a beat – that a lot of people are in fact stupid. I admired him for not skipping that beat. He’d thought about this. He stated it as a simple fact.
Think about it. If we take the view that a lot of people are stupid then the world we observe starts to make more sense, doesn’t it? But who are we to judge who are the stupid ones, and aren’t we all capable of behaving stupidly at times? Aren’t we all capable of being wrong, of basing our opinions on flawed data, of not understanding what the data is telling us? Sometimes it’s not the data that’s at fault, perhaps it’s just our perception, which is far from fool proof. We’re only human, after all. Still, somehow we get through the day without making complete fools of ourselves. Mostly.
Critical Thinking & The Success Rate For Treating Mental Health Problems (not really!)
On to mental health problems (but not really). I want to make you think, and this is from a critical thinking podcast from The Critical Thinker Academy that I listened to a couple of years ago. Ready? Okay. Suppose Doctor Jones has a 90% success rate in treating patients with mental health problems. Let’s assume for this example that these results can be checked and confirmed as accurate: two weeks after treatment 90% of patients report an improvement in their condition. The podcast presenter then asks, does this evidence support a conclusion that Dr Jones’s treatment is causally responsible for the improvement in their condition? In other words, does it show that his treatment make them better? What do you think? Would you send your relative to Doctor Jones?
The podcast reports that when students are asked this question about causal responsibility about a third of students believe that yes, the evidence does support the conclusion, while about two-thirds believe the evidence doesn’t support the conclusion. The two-thirds are correct (you knew this didn’t you) because correlation does not imply causation; there may be some other factor involved in the correlation. The presenter suggests, however, that if members of the public were surveyed they might give a stronger response supporting causal responsibility for the improvement in condition. (Well, let’s not forget, a lot of people are in fact stupid.)
The podcast then goes on to ask whether the evidence even supports correlation. Eeek! Does the fact that there is a 90% success rate prove a correlation between Dr Jones’s treatment and the improvement? In other words, if you go to Dr Jones for treatment are you statistically more likely to see an improvement than if you don’t seek treatment. Here most students believed the evidence did support some kind of correlation with more than half thinking the correlation is — or is close to — 90%, in other words that you’re 90% more likely to see an improvement if you go to see Dr Jones. What do you think? Would you send your relative to Doctor Jones?
You probably guessed (because you’re not in fact stupid) that the evidence does not support any correlation at all. Eeek! How so? Because we’re only looking at part of the story, the confirming evidence, and there is no disconfirming evidence available. What we need to know in addition to Dr Jones’s success rate is how many people show an improvement after two weeks without going to see Dr Jones. If, for example, that figure was also 90%, then there would be no correlation at all. If, for example, it was 80%, then there would be a weak positive correlation of 10%, which is certainly much smaller than 90%, isn’t it. Having only half the information, the confirming evidence about Dr Jones’s success rate, is a form of confirmation bias, and confirmation bias, as we can see, can lead to incorrect conclusions.
The Suicide Rate Among Indian Farmers (Eeek!)
Let’s talk for a minute about the suicide rate among Indian farmers. I know it’s not a very nice subject, but stick with it and you’ll see where I’m going. In a BBC debate on food prices one person angrily challenged another with the following: “Several million farmers in India have killed themselves in recent years because they couldn’t make a living. I would like you to go to the widows and say to them, should the prices have been higher or lower?” Dramatic stuff, and I’m sure you can understand why. Several million Indian farmers have killed themselves. Eeek! That’s a very large number. I find it shocking, don’t you? Shocking.
Now, the BBC radio programme More Or Less looked into this claim and it turns out that the man who made it, who was speaking from memory, was probably out by a factor of 10. There is a unit used in Asian countries called a Lakh which represents 100,000, and it’s often written thus: 1,00,000, so it’s thought the man making the claim confused his Lakhs with his millions. The actual figure, from public records, is a figure of around 270,000 going back to (an arbitrarily chosen) 1995. Well, he may indeed have been out by a factor of 10, but I’m thinking that 270,000 is still a lot of dead Indian farmers. It’s tragic. The number might have been wrong, but the sentiment is right. Right?
As More or Less went on the reveal, there are a lot of farmers in India. According to figures from 2010 when 19,000 farmers killed themselves, the rate of suicide among Indian farmers was about 7 per 100,000. I know, it’s still sickening to think about, isn’t it. I’m thinking that other guy should still have to face the widows and ask about food prices. But hold on to your testicles. Remember Doctor Jones? We only have half of the evidence. There’s an important piece of information that we’re missing, and it’s this: the rate of suicide among the general population in India in 2010 was about 15 per 100,000. In other words, the rate of suicide among Indian farmers was about half the rate in the general population. Eeek! Seen in that context, with that additional information, doesn’t it paint a quite different picture? Was the guy even right to be angry?
Booker Prize Gender Bias (Pffft)
Here’s something else. Back in 2010 in an article in the Guardian about women’s work being pushed to the margins, the author (no testicles, trust me) includes the statement that “in 41 years of the Booker prize the jury has been male-dominated 30 times. There have been 28 male winners and 15 female winners.” This implies a bias in the selection of male winners by the male dominated juries, which is consistent with the tone of the article, and I have to say it’s reasonable, in the absence of any contrary factors, to assume that men and women write equally well and that the number of male and female winners should in an ideal world be close to equal. With me so far?
But hold on to your testicles. I went back through the list of winners and, allowing for joint winners on a couple of occasions, the percentage of female winners was, by my reckoning, 36.6%. This appears to support the perception of a bias, doesn’t it. But I also worked out the percentage of shortlisted books, from which the judges had to choose the winner, that were written by women and came up with, by my reckoning, 37.1%. If these figures are accurate, and they should be about right if my maths is up to it, then the percentage of books written by women and selected as winners by the male-dominated juries matched the percentage of books by women that were shortlisted to within one percent. So now where is the bias? I think it’s gone. I think the male-dominated juries can hold their heads high in mixed company. What do you think? That’s not to say there aren’t questions to be asked. For instance, why are books by women under-represented in the shortlist? Are there more books written by men to begin with? Are the books by men simply better? Is there a bias elsewhere in the process? Unfortunately, without further information it’s impossible to draw any conclusions.
Danielle Steel Is Not Happy!
Let’s close the circle and return to Danielle Steel, the best-selling author alive and the fourth best-selling of all time. Danielle, I’m sorry to say, is irritated. She is. She’s so irritated that she had to write about it on her blog in a post titled, “Are you still a brain surgeon?” The cause of her irritation is those of us with testicles. Eeek! Okay, perhaps not all of us, but some, and exclusively those with testicles as it appears those with a vagina are exempt. The cause of Danielle’s irritation is people with testicles turning up at events and asking, “Are you still writing?” Apparently people with testicles have been saying this to her since she was 35 (she’s about to hit 66, remember) and in that time only people with testicles have ever said it. That’s right. In thirty years no-one with a vagina has ever said this to her, and after all these years it’s driven her to become irritated. Actually, I’m not entirely convinced, necessarily, that no-one with a vagina has said this to her over the years, it’s possible that Danielle has simply forgotten them if they have, memory can be selective like that sometimes, but this is her story and I have no evidence to the contrary.
But it’s not merely that simple. Danielle finds this question insulting because writing is her job, you see. After 800 million copies, translated into 28 languages, and with 22 adapted for TV, this — she tells us, rightly — is her job. This is her work. This is how her family eats. Eeek! But there’s more. Danielle goes on to say that the question is an immediate put-down. Yes. She believes that when people with testicles say this to her, what they are really saying is that what she does is not very important. Indeed. They say this, she reasons, because they are very uncomfortable with her success. In fact, she thinks they are very annoyed by it.
So only people with testicles, or some of them at least, are uncomfortable with and angered by her success and have to put her down, and no-one with a vagina. Which could still be a coincidence, I suppose. Why they should feel uncomfortable with her success, why they should be angry about it, why they should feel the need to put her down, and why they should choose to do so by walking up to her and asking, “Are you still writing?” is not something that’s entirely clear to me. I mean, I have testicles and I don’t think I would ever say that to her. If I felt the way these people feel, if I felt that what she does is unimportant, if I felt uncomfortable with her success (whatever that means), if I felt annoyed by it, I would probably just avoid her at parties (assuming I could even get close to her anyway) and find someone with a vagina who is far less successful to insult.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I think it’s a bit of a leap from “Are you still writing?” to “I am putting you down because I think what you do is unimportant and I am uncomfortable with and angry at your success.” And I can’t help wondering what would happen if, at the next event, someone with a vagina were to walk up to her and say, “Hey, Danielle. Are you still writing?” Would this crossing of the gender line change her perception of the entesticled ones in some way, or would this person with a vagina simply have something horribly wrong with her, like an urgent need for a sex change operation?
But Danielle’s perception here, apart from being just one person’s experience, is only half the story. What we don’t know is whether there are writers with testicles (or even without) who are approached by people with a vagina who ask them, “So, are you still writing?” Without knowing this we can feel sympathy for Danielle, insulted so, but we can make no real judgment about people with testicles, can we? For the record, I have been approached at events by more than one person with a vagina who has asked, “Hey, Bob, are you still writing?” And I don’t recall ever being asked that by someone with testicles. I will admit, though, that I’m no Danielle Steel, and writing is not how my family eats (Eeek!) or Pot Noodles would be an extreme luxury in our house.
Danielle Steel Is Still Writing!
So, Danielle Steel is still, still, still writing, everyone, writing very well from what I gather, and her success as a writer is beyond question. For that she has earned the respect of us all, including those of us with testicles. So please, guys, if you run into Danielle Steel show her the respect she deserves, and don’t be a vagina.