Friday, February 10, 2012
Dickens--Zing! Kahneman--Zing!! Winter--Zing!!!
1. Where the Dickens Did We Get That Phrase?
“Cute as the dickens” describes my dog Sarah pretty well. But why do we say that?
“What the dickens--?” (my mother's phrase) is obviously a way of asking “What the devil?” without mentioning the devil, but again—why?
These questions never occurred to me until this year’s big Charles Dickens birthday started a tsunami of smart-aleck headlines. Bruce found one of them and brought it to the bookstore to use for a display. (SORRY--no pictures today--technical difficulties!)
So how did this popular author’s name come to be substituted for one so very, very unpopular? If you already know the answer, go to the head of the glass. (Steve, that will probably be you.) It had nothing to do with Charles and something (I hesitate to say “everything,” because who knows?) to do with Shakespeare. And, knowing him, don't you suppose he borrowed it from somewhere else? Be that as it may, February 7 was the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens.
2. I Was of Two Minds
This is embarrassing, but if Daniel Kahneman can confess errors in his thinking, who am I to sweep mine under the rug? The morning after my most recent post, I looked back at it and saw with a shock that I had introduced egregious errors into the story of business failure rates. I correctly reported Kahneman’s 35% success statistic, but then in my commentary somehow converted that to a 35% failure rate, effectively cutting the statistical failures in half! It was as if, at the same time I was passing on figures showing that two-thirds of new businesses fail in the first five years, I couldn’t quite believe it and softened the bad news, reinterpreting and misinterpreting, unconsciously, the very clear data, making it look as if only a third (which seemed like a lot to me) failed in that period. Having introduced one error, I went on to compound it in another sentence. It’s fixed now. I think I’ve eliminated the errors. But please check me.
Okay, bad enough, but that isn’t the whole story. Yesterday I got an e-mail from my sister, asking for clarification in the post previous to the one I’d found errors in, and—sure enough!—I’d done something similar there. In my discussion of regression to the mean, I had both golfers doing better on the second day! It should have been only the golfer who did poorly the first day who did better the second, the one who did well the first day doing less well the second day. Again, I think my unconscious mind did not want to accept the statistical truth and was rejecting regression to the mean! Unconsciously I was perfectly willing to see improvement in the one golfer’s game but was not willing to see deterioration in the score of the other. I wanted to think he was “better” than that, not merely lucky on the first day.
When I found my mistakes on business failure rates, my first inclination was to berate myself for making errors in simple math (percentages and subtraction). I should never try to breeze through numbers, I told myself, and should always proof-read such material several times over. Numbers are my nemesis! Then my sister pointed out the other error, and it was like a lightning bolt. My problem wasn’t math! My problem was that the statistical evidence is so counter-intuitive that even when I believed it and wanted to tell others about it, I didn’t want to accept it fully myself! No wonder these errors are so persistent!
Kahneman says of himself that while he is very aware of certain common errors in statistical thinking, it will never be “natural” to him to see the correct version first, that he will always have to be vigilant and correct his original thinking. So I sigh, make my corrections, and tell myself that I’m in good company....
3. Winter, Having Neglected Us Recently, Makes Another Appearance
At least, that’s what the forecast says. Already temperatures have dropped. Will we really get three days of snow? And what then? Cold and snow make winter more expensive (heat, plow) and more hazardous (slippery roads and sidewalks), but in the bigger picture we need the cold and snow cover. Without snow’s mulching effect, the ground would freeze too far down. Without cold, trees would bud out too early.
To every thing, there is a season, and snow and cold serve purposes both of nature and man here Up North. It's snowing and blowing like the dickens up here today!
Apology: If you need to contact me in the next few days, try phone instead of e-mail. Yes, more of those pesky technical difficulties to be addressed....