July 2009

Percentage of Americans who believe

in God 80% (a)
that Barack Obama was born in the United States of America 77% (b)
in Heaven 73% (a)
in Hell 62% (a)
that openly gay persons should be allowed to serve in the military 59% (f)
in the devil 59% (a)
that these numbers add up to 100% (except for rounding) 54% (c)
Darwin’s theory of evolution 47% (a)
that all of the Old Testament is the “Word of God” 37% (a)
in witches 31% (a)
in reincarnation – that they were once another person 24% (a)
that all of the Torah is the “Word of God” 14% (a)
that Barack Obama is a Muslim 11% (e)
that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in JFK’s assassination 10% (d)
  1. Harris Interactive
  2. The Daily Kos
  3. Steve Kass
  4. CBS News
  5. Pew Research
  6. The Washington Post

A few minutes ago, I tried posting a comment in response to the article “OMG! Driving while texting might soon be illegal” on the Christian Science Monitor web site. Just like this I did:

 Contrary to your reporting, the recent study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute did not conclude that "drivers are 23 times more likely to have an accident if texting while driving." The study data revealed an association between texting and sudden braking, swerving, or unintentional lane changing, but not between texting and having an accident. See http://stevekass.com/2009/07/28/texting-while-driving/

I wasn’t expecting the pithy retort:

You are posting comments too quickly. Slow down.

Headlines today, all citing the same study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute:

From the press release for the study (emphasis mine):

In VTTI’s studies that included light vehicle drivers and truck drivers, manual manipulation of phones such as dialing and texting of the cell phone lead to a substantial increase in the risk of being involved in a safety?critical event (e.g., crash or near crash). However, talking or listening increased risk much less for light vehicles and not at all for trucks. Text messaging on a cell phone was associated with the highest risk of all cell phone related tasks.

From a New York Times article containing further detail about the VTTI study (emphasis again mine):

In the two studies, there were 21 crashes and 197 near crashes — defined as an imminent collision narrowly avoided — from a variety of causes, including texting. There were also about 3,000 other near crashes that were somewhat easier for the truckers to avoid, the researchers said. There also were 1,200 unintended lane deviations.To determine how the events compared to safer conditions, the researchers compared what occurred in the dangerous situations to 20,000 segments of videotape chosen at random.

In the case of texting, the software detected 31 near crashes in which the cameras confirmed the trucker was texting, though no actual collisions occurred. In the random moments of videotape, there were six instances of truckers’ texting that did not result in the software detecting a dangerous situation.

I couldn’t find the study data on the VTTI web site, but I found some PowerPoint presentations and other documents about the study. None of them quoted a “crash risk.” The increased risks were for “crash/near crash” incidents. The numbers quoted by the Times make it pretty clear that “crash/near crash” included crashes, near crashes, “other near crashes” and unintended lane deviations, because that’s the only way the odds ratio comes out to 23:


Do I think texting while driving is a bad idea? Yes. Do I think you’re 23 times more likely to have an accident while texting than while not texting? I don’t know. The VTTI study suggests not, and it might suggest the opposite: while texting, you’re less likely to have an accident (but more likely to brake, swerve, or change lanes unintentionally). I can’t say whether the study suggests either of these things with statistical significance, because I don’t have the data, but it does seem to be the case that the study subjects, when texting, were more likely to swerve or slam on their brakes, but not crash.

I can think of some possible reasons for this, too: if you’re texting, you’re probably not sleeping (sleeping being a significant risk factor for actual crashes, but probably not for swerving and braking), and if you’re texting, you might know you’re creating a dangerous situation and be more prepared to swerve or brake suddenly.

If a sentence is short enough to be a headline, it isn’t true.

A headline on blog.aflcio.org says “CEOs Get One-Third of All Pay.” Not surprisingly, it’s flat-out false. The group of Americans “getting” all this money isn’t CEOs. It’s everyone earning more than the Social Security wage base, currently $106,800, according to the AFL-CIO blog’s second-hand source, a Wall Street Journal article. (Google’s cache has the full article, which the WSJ site won’t show you unless you register.)

Credit to the WSJ for drawing attention to data that could support an argument for payroll taxes on higher wages. (I don’t know what the WSJ’s editorial stance on taxes is; I just know they tend to be on the other side of most issues from me, but they usually do their homework more thoroughly than most media outlets.)

The data suggest that the payroll tax ceiling hasn’t kept up with the growth in executive pay. As executive pay has increased, the percentage of wages subject to payroll taxes has shrunk, to 83% from 90% in 1982. Compensation that isn’t subject to the portion of payroll tax that funds old-age benefits now represents foregone revenue of $115 billion a year.

I don’t know why the WSJ decided that if you’re earning a lot of money, you must be an executive. Maybe it has to do with who they perceive as their readership. (Personally, I’m not this “highly paid” nor am I an executive, but that’s not relevant to the argument.)

I no idea what fraction of All Pay this country’s CEOs earn, but now I know it’s less than a third.

[Thanks, Lucinda, for sharing this article.]

There’s a lot of buzz in the news about the proposed surtax on the rich to finance health care. Some of the articles have localized their reports (Analysis: Millionaires tax could take combined Ohio rate to 54%) by quoting the highest federal+state+local marginal tax rate on individuals in their state, but misidentifying what the figure is.

If there’s a word that means “to sensationalize by lying, especially when shielded by a masthead; most frequently used in numerical contexts” I don’t know it, so I’ll coin one: vulpigerate. It’s vulpigeration to leave out the important words highest and marginal.

For the record, the highest marginal combined tax rate varies by state, and for 2009 earnings, it’s typically between 40% and 50% for a single-filer. The proposed surtax is 5.2% on all but (haha) the first $1,000,000 of adjusted gross earnings, and this pushes the maximum marginal rate to between about 45% and 55%. (This is assuming that no changes in federal and state rates are also forthcoming. I apologize for any lack of due diligence. I promise I’m not vulpigerating.)

Short of publishing vulpigeratory headlines and articles, some outlets have decorated their articles with misinformed quotes, or they’ve opened the door to innumerate comments from angryreaders.

For the record, here’s a little spreadsheet that shows the story for New Jersey. (We’re in the top 10 for highest marginal combined tax rate. Yay!)

Have a nice day.