Category Archives: Super Crunchers by Ian Ayres

Alternative Medicine and Statistical Validation

“The resistance to statistical evidence is even more pronounced with regard to ‘alternative medicine,’ a vast field that encompasses everything from herbal supplements to energy therapy to yoga…Many adherents and advocates of alternative medicine reject not only Western treatments but the Westernized notion of statistical testing. They sometimes claim that their practices are too ‘individual’ or ‘holistic’ to study scientifically and instead rely on anecdotes and case studies without adequate controls or control groups for comparison. I’m agnostic about whether alternative medicine is effective. But it verges on idiocy to claim that the effectiveness cannot be tested. If it really is important, as alternative medicine advocates claim, to take into account a larger set of information about the patient…then providers who do so should produce better results…When it comes to the back-end inquiry of finding out which treatments are effective, there is no East and West. I throw my lot with two past editors-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, Marcia Angell and Jerome Kassirer: ‘It is time for the scientific community to stop giving alternative medicine a free ride. There cannot be two kinds of medicine–conventional and alternative. There is only one medicine that has been adequately tested and medicine that has not, medicine that works and medicine that may or may not work.” (p. 229)


Statistics Go Beyond the Numbers

“One can crunch numbers and still have a passionate and caring soul. You can still be creative. You just have to be willing to put your creativity and your passions to the test to see if they really work.” (p. 215)

Using Statistics to Predict a Baby’s Due Date Beats Traditional Method

“Most doctors don’t even give the most accurate prediction of the due date. They still often calculate the due date based on the quasi-mystical formula of Franz Naegele, who believed in 1812 that ‘pregnancy lasted ten lunar months from the last menstrual period.’ It wasn’t until the 1980s that Robert Mittendorf and his coauthors crunched numbers on thousands of births to let the numbers produce a formula for the twentieth century. Turns out that pregnancy for the average woman is eight days longer than the Naegele rule, but it’s possible to make even more refined predictions. First-time mothers deliver about five days later than mothers who have already given birth. Whites tend to deliver later than nonwhites. The age of the mother, her weight, and her nutrition all help predict her due date. Physicians using the crude Naegele rule cruelly set up first-time mothers for disappointment.” (p. 209)

Statistical Thinking Versus Intuition

“The rise of statistical thinking does not mean the end of intuition or expertise…Increasingly, decision makers will switch back and forth between their intuitions and data-based decision making. Their intuitions will guide them to ask new questions of the data that non-intuitive number crunchers would miss. And databases will increasingly allow decision makers to test their intuitions–not just once, but on an ongoing basis.” (pp. 195-196)

Direct Instruction Teaching Method Invalidly Challenged By Michigan Study

“…Critics try to discredit [Direct Instruction] by arguing that DI causes antisocial behavior. At public meetings, whenever the possibility of switching to DI is mentioned, someone is sure to bring up a Michigan study claiming that students who are taught with DI are more likely to be arrested in their adolescent years. Here’s evidence, they say, that DI is dangerous. The problem is that this randomized study was based on the experience of just sixty-eight students. And the students in the DI and the control groups were not similar. In the end, the Michigan study is just window dressing. The education establishment is wedded to its pet theories regardless of what the evidence says.” (p. 164-165)

Data Mining Techniques May Threaten Traditional Jobs

“The rise of Super Crunching threatens the status and respectability of many traditional jobs…Following some other guy’s script or algorithm may not make for the most interesting job, but time and time again it leads to a more effective business model. We are living in an age where dispersed discretion is on the wane. This is not the end of discretion; it’s the shift of discretion from line employees to the much more centralized staff os Super Crunching higher-ups…Marx was wrong about a lot of things, but through a Super Crunching lens, eh looks downright prescient when he said that the development of capitalism would increasingly alienate workers from their work-product.” (p. 166-167)

Getting People to Accept Statistical / Data Mining Approaches

“There’s almost an iron-clad law that it’s easier for people to warm up to applications of Super Crunching outside of their own area of expertise. It’s devilishly hard for traditional, non-empirical evaluators to even consider the possibility that quantified predictions might do a better job than they can on their own home turf. I don’t think this is primarily because of blatant self-interest in trying to keep our jobs. We humans just overestimate our ability to make good decisions and we’re skeptical that a formula that necessarily ignores innumerable pieces of information could do a better job than we could.” (p. 150)