I’m a mathematics teacher, and I have some arithmetic problems for you to solve.

1. Mitt drives to the beach and back.

Q. Mitt Romney drives 50 miles from his home one of his homes to the beach and back one summer, with or without a dog on the roof. He averages 50 miles an hour on the way out, and he averages 10 miles an hour on the way back. What was Mitt’s average speed on the road?

A. It was 16-2/3 mph¹, but Mitt’s campaign insists he’s no slowpoke and that he averaged 30 mph. (They also say the trip explains his tan.)


2. “Going Dutch” with Mitt.

Q. You and Mitt Romney have lunch together at Chick-fil-A. The bill is $15, and he only has a $10 bill, so he pays 2/3 of the bill. Later, you have dinner together at the country club, and the bill is $300. He puts in $100, and this time you pay 2/3 of the bill. Are you even-Steven?

A. Of course not, but Mitt says you are, because he paid 1/3 once and 2/3 once.


3. Mitt Sees Red.

Q. In the four squares below, about what percentage of the area overall is red?


A. About 10%. Certainly way less than half. Mitt disagrees. He says the percentage of red is over 75%, and he surprises you by providing actual details instead of saying he has a secret calculation that solves the problem and comes out the way he wants it to. He says there are three 100% red squares and one 5% red square, for an average of 305%/4 or about 76%. Ann tells you to stop giving him a hard time.


Earlier today, the Romney campaign website posted a letter from PriceWaterhouseCoopers “PWC” LLP summarizing the Romneys’ tax returns for the years 1990-2009. The carefully-worded letter² states that

The average of the annual “effective federal personal income tax rates” as computed based on the returns as prepared during the period is 20.20%.

PWC computed each year’s “effective federal personal income tax rate” as instructed by the Romneys.

As you requested, we compute each annual “effective federal personal income tax rate” as total taxes owed divided by adjusted gross income as shown on the federal income tax returns as prepared.

First of all, the Romneys’ “adjusted gross income” (AGI) may be less than what most of us think of as simply “what the Romneys made.” For example, the expenses of carrying on a trade or business (such as dressage) can be deducted from total income. The Romneys’ tax rate on their total income is lower than that on their adjusted gross income. Maybe a little, maybe a lot.

More importantly, however, is how Mitt and Ann instructed PWC to compute a number they could call an “average.”

Despite appearances, no one has said that the Romneys paid 20.20% of their adjusted gross income in federal income taxes during the period 1990 – 2009. They probably paid less.

The 20.20% figure is not the Romney’s federal income tax rate for income they earned during the period 1990 – 2009. It’s the average of 20 separate annual rates. Mathematically, it’s a weighted average of their annual rates.

If you think the average of 20 annual rates is the same as the 20-year average annual rate, you’re wrong. By that flawed logic, Mitt averaged 30 mph, you and he are even-Steven for splitting meals, and the colored squares in the picture above are 75% red. Go away.

Further blurring the issue, the campaign today also posted a letter from Brad Malt, the “trustee of the Romney’s [sic] blind trust,” about Mitt’s taxes. Malt tries to say that PWC calculated something that it didn’t calculate.

Regarding the PWC letter covering the Romneys’  tax filings over 20 years, from 1990 – 2009:

Over the entire 20-year period, the average annual effective federal tax rate was 20.20%.

Malt omitted two short and crucial words: of the. PWC did not say that Romneys’ average annual effective federal tax rate was 20.20%. They said that if you average the 20 separate effective rates on their 20 federal tax returns, you get 20.20%. It’s a silly thing to calculate, but it’s what the Romneys told them (and presumably paid them) to do.

The Romneys’ overall tax rate might have been lower than 20.20%. It might have been higher, too, but given the outrage over the relatively low rates they pay compared to working Americans, if it were higher, he’d have said so. And Mitt won’t release his tax returns. We can only assume the worst.

If you value the truth, vote for Barack Obama on November 6, 2012.

¹ Let’s figure it out. Mitt drove a total of 100 miles. It took him 1 hour (50 miles at 50 mph) to drive the first half of the trip and 5 hours (50 miles at 10 mph) to drive the second half. He drove a total of 100 miles in 6 hours, so his average speed was 16-2/3 miles per hour.

² The letter is signed personally, in blue, by PriceWaterhouseCoopers LLP, because why wouldn’t they sign it? Corporations are people.

2 Responses to “Mitt’s Arithmetic Problem”

  1. David Levine Says:


    I think you missed one. Reading the letter, from PWC about charitable donations, I propose a new math problem.

    Mitt Romney has $3 in his pocket. He generously gives $1 to a down-and-out dressage competitor. What percentage of his money did he give? According to Mitt, he gave 50% because he is computing his percentage by dividing his donation by his ADJUSTED assets.

    Even better if he gave $2, he would have given 200%. That’s so much more than the 110% that most coaches ask of their players.

  2. CTo Says:


    I love your 200% suggestion. Since when the money paid to churches can also be compared or considered as tax? Isn’t it true buying your way to the heaven a business or for profit activity, assuming all money contributed to church does not generate more profit for the church…Does the church now have elected officers who are not gender, age, faith, racial, and class bias?

    Who is in-charge or managing the organization, may I ask?

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In today’s New York Times, Ross Douthat opines that

a lack of contraceptive access simply doesn’t seem to be a significant factor in unplanned pregnancy in the United States. When the Alan Guttmacher Institute¹ surveyed more than 10,000 women who had procured abortions in 2000 and 2001, it found that only 12 percent cited problems obtaining birth control as a reason for their pregnancies. A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study of teenage mothers found similar results: Only 13 percent of the teens reported having had trouble getting contraception.

If this makes any sense to you at all, imagine the same argument against requiring seat belts in cars as a way to reduce the number of highway fatalities:

Unavailability of seat belts simply doesn’t seem to be a significant factor in highway fatalities in the United States. When the XYZ Institute examined more than 10,000 highway fatalities, it found that in only 12 percent of the cases was no seat belt available to the deceased. A recent Centers for Accident Prevention study of highway fatalities found similar results: Only 13 percent of passengers killed in traffic accidents were in seats not equipped with a working seat belt.

Or the same argument against just about anything useful that should be readily available:

Unavailability of public waste bins simply doesn’t seem to be a significant factor in the litter problem in the United States. When the XYZ Institute interviewed more than 10,000 people who threw trash on the streets, it found that in only 12 percent of them did so because they couldn’t find a waste bin. A recent Centers for a Cleaner America study of littering found similar results: Only 13 percent of people who littered did so more than 20 yards from a public waste bin.

¹ According to the latest Guttmacher survey, released this month, and based on 2008 data, the rates of pregnancy, abortion, and births among teens in the United States are all at historic lows. According to the report, “A large body of research has shown that the long-term decline in teen pregnancy, birth and abortion rates was driven primarily by improved use of contraception among teens.”

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News this week of an Adderall shortage, and this report, which draws into question the widely-held belief that methamphetamines cause brain damage and cognitive impairment, prompt me to rescue an old statistical parody I wrote (and posted on my now-moribund Drew web page) in 2003, a few years before I had this soapbox. The news links above are also well worth visiting.

Cocaine’s brain effects might be long term [“news”]

Insulin’s metabolic effects might be long term [parody]

BOSTON, March 10, 2003 (UPI) — Cocaine and amphetamines
might cause slight mental impairments in abusers that
persist for at least one year after discontinuing the
drugs, research released Monday reveals.

MADISON (NJ), March 16, 2003 — Insulin might cause metabolic
disorders in abusers that persist for at least one year after
discontinuing the drug, research released Monday reveals.

However, experts outside the study said the findings were inconclusive
and pointed out although cocaine has been widely abused for decades,
impaired cognitive function is not seen routinely or even known to exist in
former abusers.

"Overall, the abusers were impaired compared to non-abusers on the function of attention and motor skills," Rosemary Toomey, a psychologist at Harvard
Medical School and the study’s lead investigator, told United Press International.

“Overall, the abusers were impaired compared to non-abusers
on tests of sugar metabolism,” Rosemary Toomey, a psychologist
at Harvard Medical School and the study’s lead investigator,
told United Press International.

Previous studies have yielded inconsistent findings on whether
cocaine abuse led to long-term mental deficits. Some studies found
deficits in attention, concentration, learning and memory six months
after quitting. But a study of former abusers who were now in prison
and had abstained from cocaine for three years found no deficit.

Few studies have looked at the long term effects of insulin
abuse, although doctors and scientists generally believe
the drug is harmful. One study of former abusers who
were now in prison and had abstained from insulin for
three years found a higher than normal death rate.

To help clarify these seemingly conflicting results, Toomey’s team,
in a study funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, identified
50 sets of male twins, in which only one had abused cocaine or
amphetamines for at least one year. Amphetamine abusers were
included because the drug is similar to cocaine and could have the
same long-term effects on the body.

To address the lack of careful studies, Toomey’s team, funded by
the National Institute on Drug Abuse, identified 50 sets of male
twins, in which only one had abused insulin for at least one year.

Most of the pairs were identical twins, meaning they share the exact
same genetic pattern. This helps minimize the role biological
differences could play in the findings and gives stronger support to the
mental impairments being due to drug abuse.

Most of the pairs were identical twins, meaning they
share the exact same genetic pattern. This helps minimize
the role genetic differences could play in the findings and gives
stronger support to the impairments being due to insulin abuse.

The abusers, who averaged age 46 and had not used drugs for at least
one year, scored significantly worse on tests of motor skills and
attention, Toomey’s team reports in the March issue of The Archives
of General Psychiatry.

The abusers, who averaged age 46 and had not used
insulin for at least one year, scored significantly worse
on tests of sugar metabolism, Toomey’s team reports in
the March issue of The Archives of General Metabolism.

The tests all were timed, which indicates the abusers have
"a motor slowing, which is consistent with what other investigators
have found in other studies," Toomey said.

The tests all were performed after fasting, which indicates the abusers
have “an impaired metabolism unrelated to diet, which is consistent
with the consensus in the medical community,” Toomey said.

Still, the abusers’ scores were within normal limits and they actually
performed better on one cognitive test, called visual vigilance, which
is an indication of the ability to sustain attention over time. This
indicates the mental impairment is minor, Toomey said. "In real life,
it wouldn’t be a big impact on (the abusers’) day-to-day functioning
but there is a difference between them and their brothers," she said.

The finding is significant, she added, because given that the study subjects
are twins and share the same biological make-up, they would be expected
to have about the same mental status. This implicates the drug abuse
as the cause of the mental impairment.

The finding is significant, she added, because given that the study
subjects are twins and share the same biological make-up, they would
be expected to have about the same metabolic status. This
implicates the drug abuse as the cause of the impairment.

Among the abusers, the mental test scores largely did not vary in
relation to the amount of cocaine or amphetamine used. However,
on a few tests the abusers did score better with more stimulant use.

Among the abusers, poorer test scores were consistently associated
with increased levels of insulin abuse. Among the heaviest abusers,
not one scored better than his non-abusing twin.

"The results seem to me to be inconclusive," Greg Thompson,
a pharmacist at the University of Southern California’s
School of Pharmacy in Los Angeles, told UPI.

“The results seem to me to be conclusive,” Greg Thompson,
a pharmacist at the University of Southern California’s
School of Pharmacy in Los Angeles, told UPI.

This is "because both twins are within a normal range
(and) sometimes the cocaine-abusing twin did better than the
non-abusing twin and sometimes not," Thompson said.

This is “because almost without exception, only the non-abusing
twin is within a normal range (and) the insulin-abusing twin did
worse than the non-abusing twin,” Thompson said.

In addition, cocaine has been abused by millions of people, going
back as far as the 1930s and before, he said. "You’d think you’d be
seeing this as a significant clinical problem and we are not," he said.

In addition, insulin has been abused by millions of people,
and poor sugar metabolism among former insulin abusers
has been reported by physicians going back as far as the 1930s
and before, he said. “This is a significant clinical problem,” he said.

Of more concern to Thompson is the effect stimulants such as Ritalin,
which are used to treat attention deficit disorder, are having on
children. "This would be a much bigger problem I would think if
it’s true stimulants impair cognitive function," he said.

Of more concern to Thompson is the effect daily insulin injections
are having on children. Insulin is commonly prescribed to control
diabetes (frequent urination, weight gain, and fatigue syndrome).
“Many of these children will become former insulin abusers, and
poor sugar metabolism will be a major healthcare issue for
them in the years to come,” he said.

"Before I’d worry about the 46 year-old abuser, I’d want to know about the
3 year old being treated for ADD (attention-deficit disorder)," Thompson said.

“Before I’d worry about the 46 year-old abuser, I’d want to
know about the 3 year old being treated for diabetes,” Thompson said.

One Response to “Maybe That Wasn’t Your Brain on Meth”

  1. Terri Says:

    Yea I just realized I can read your blog in 75 degree sunshine! Happy me thanks you!

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It is utterly ridiculous. I have a home in Los Angeles and Palm Springs, and California is famous for high taxes, yet we don’t pay anything close to what I will be paying.

So says Tod Abrams, in a peevish, petulant portrayal of his property tax plight from yesterday’s New York Times.

Toddfoolery, I say. Or, because it can apparently now be spelled with one d, todfoolery. Toddfoolery or todfoolery is foolish nonsense from someone named Tod(d).

This Tod, eerily paralleling last year’s plaintive Todd, is perturbed that “his monthly real estate taxes are poised to surge by more than 400 percent over the next several years.”¹ In 2018, the “unbelievable deal” Tod’s been getting on property taxes will have run its course.

Todfoolery the first. “Unbelievable,” as opposed to “utterly ridiculous,” is no exaggeration.

When he bought a condo at the Orion for $1,575,000 in 2007, Tod’s property taxes were $35.26 [sic] a month. He now pays $373.73/month. In 2018, the estimated tax bill will be $1,629/month (tax-deductible).

None of this was unknown to Tod. The Times discreetly hinted as much by titling its article “421a Tax Exemption: Don’t Say You Didn’t Know.” To be fair, Tod didn’t say he didn’t know about all this. He just said it was utterly ridiculous.

Todfoolery the second. “California is famous for high taxes”

Granted, I’m from New Jersey, where property taxes are high, but $1,629/month doesn’t seem like a lot of property tax for a $1.5M condo. Not that I own a $1.5M condo. Maybe it seems like more to someone from California.

California may be “famous for high taxes,” but any such fame has to do with personal income taxes, not property taxes. Property taxes in California are famous, though. They’re famous for Proposition 13, which keeps them low compared to many other states.

Todfoolery the third and fourth. “don’t pay anything close to what I will be paying”

Q: What does Tod pay in California property tax, anyway, and is it “anything close” to the $1,629/month he won’t be paying in New York in 2018 (because he’s selling his place), which he says it’s not?

A: On his Los Angeles home alone, Tod pays $13,500/year, or $1,125/month in property taxes, and yes, this isanything close” to $1.629/month.

Todfoolery the fifth. “over 400 percent”

The anticipated New York property tax increase is 336%, which is definitely not “over 400 percent.”²

Todfoolery the sixth. “slashed”

Poor Tod, as we learn from Times reporter Julie Satow, is selling his Orion condo (at left).

Tod, “who has relocated to Los Angeles³ to be closer to his son and for work, has already slashed the price three times…”

He’s “slashed the price three times.” The quotation marks indicate that this is a real quote from the Times article, but scare quotes are also in order for “slashed,” or perhaps “three.”

Tod initially listed his place for $1,950,000. After three weeks, he shockingly abandoned hope for a 24 percent-in-four-years profit — despite the recent housing boom — and he (Slash #1) relisted his condo for $1,695,000. Slash #2  saw the listing price plummet from $1,695,000 to $1,645,000, or almost three percent. Three percent! Slash #3 saw the price plunge nearly 4.3 percent further, to $1,575,000.

Shower scene music from Psycho, from

As much as I love the Times, which is a lot, its Real Estate section, and especially the “let’s feel sorry for people who might not make a six-figure profit on that third residence they bought a very few years ago” articles, especially those that use wrong and misleading numbers in a bid to garner (whose?) sympathies, gets on my nerves. Sometimes it makes me spitting mad.

¹ Where several is seven. This may be a new Times record for the length of time over which something is reported to surge. The previous record appears to have been set in 2006 when the Times reported a “43.1 percent surge over six years.”

² The anticipated increase is $1,629 – $373.73 = $1,255.27, which can easily be seen to be less than four times $373.73.

Note also that if gasoline prices were to fall from $4/gallon to $3/gallon, it would be wrong to report that they had “surged by 75%,” whether the price drop happened in a day or took place over seven years.

The New York Times Manual of Usage and Style ought to explain how to calculate percentages if it doesn’t already. It does, after all, explain the similar problem with the phrase “times smaller.”

³ Tod “relocated” to the Los Angeles home he’s owned continuously since 2002.

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The Soda Police are getting noisier lately, but their concern for public health is a subterfuge. When it comes down to brass tacks (and I doubt brass’s slight lead content is going to kill you when used judiciously in plumbing, by the way), the S.P. don’t care most about the public health or about overweight kids at risk for diabetes and heart disease. They’re hell-bent on demonizing soda, especially soda made by Big Food and sold by the Big Chain Store and Restaurant Corporation.

Demon or not, it probably won’t hurt Americans to drink less soda on average than we do now. It will definitely help the environment if we drink less of anything that comes in individual single-use containers — even water — if there’s an environmentally friendly alternative already in place.

Here’s a simple two-part proposal to bring back running water.

BBRW Part 1. Require public water fountains everywhere.

Schools, parks, subway stations, airports, shopping centers, offices, stores, and more. We already require a lot of things, sensible and otherwise, so the means is in place. Require enough of them so no one has to wait in line. These water fountains (bubblers in Wisconsin and parts of New England) should have good water pressure, and they should be designed so they can fill up a bottle, too — or there should be some faucets for that. Simply making it possible to fill a personal water bottle in an airport — and yes, you can carry one through security so long as it’s empty — will reduce heart disease.

No flow restrictors, either; use spring-loaded knobs to conserve. (I’m not going to say a word about those infrared hand-wavy travesties.) Restrictors belong in kitchens and showers, if anywhere. It doesn’t need to take ten minutes to deliver half a cup of water. ADA compliant, but otherwise basic and solid. Call me nostalgic, but I like porcelain-coated cast iron.

Room-temperature, pure water is already available from every municipal water system. Only a little effort makes it ubiquitous. (If you’re afraid it will give you cancer, carry your own personal PET-free container full of home-purified water.)

BBRW Part 2. Require water to be available everywhere soda is available, for less.

If a restaurant offers a meal that includes soda, require it to offer the same meal with the same size tap water for less money. Less by at least half the restaurant’s own à la carte price for the included soda. Except during water emergencies, require restaurants to offer tap water when patrons are seated.


Stop the endless debates over soda vs. fruit juice, sugar versus high-fructose corn syrup, artificially-sweetened beverages vs. sugary ones, and aspartame vs. stevia extract. Bring back running water.

One Response to “Bring Back Running Water”

  1. Jenne Says:

    Right on, Dr. Kass! as a mommy (read: permanent entourage) of a 2 year old, I’m astonished how many public-funded places either don’t have water fountains, or have faulty ones. And getting a cup of water from a retail establishment often involves complicated gyrations, as the standard is selling you a bottle of water.
    Bring back the water fountain, and have a tap on it for cups/bottles! Yes!

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Year after year, thousands of Americans are devastated to discover that their community has been stricken by a disease cluster. Some rare and frightening disease of unknown cause has visited their community like a plague. Residents are afflicted at rates many times the national average.

Despite years of study, billions of dollars, massive lawsuits and at least two Hollywood movies, little progress has been made towards understanding, let alone preventing, disease clusters.

The general public continues to suspect and blame environmental causes, especially chemicals with names that are hard to pronounce. The real reason for most disease clusters is likely something else.


Yes, math. Look at this map.

Click for full US map

This map shows the 2009 rate of aleatorum gravis, an emerging and debilitating disease that currently affects only one American in 5,000. In some communities, however, the disease is rampant. Counties with rates more than five times the national average are shaded in red, and those with more than twice the national rate are shown in the darkest shade of green. [Click on the image or here for the full U.S. map.]


Clusters of a. gravis are concentrated in the nation’s heartland, especially Nebraska and neighboring states. Why? If you wanted, you could look for and find potential causes alarmingly close to each cluster. A gas pipeline, a chicken farm, a power plant, a landfill. Or you could have a lawyer look for you.

Look as hard as you want, but the fact is that the cause of these disease clusters is mathematics. There is no such thing as a. gravis. The map shows the result of randomly giving each U.S. resident the disease with a 1-in-5,000 chance. (Mathematica notebook and links to population and geographic data files available on request.)

Math, indomitable math, caused these clusters.


Cases of non-communicable disease come in clusters just by chance. So do bags of M&Ms that have more blues than average, but it’s hard to drum up fear about them. Randomness and uniformity are not the same thing.

By chance alone, some counties will end up with higher rates of any randomly-occurring disease than other counties. The Central Limit Theorem proves it. Which counties is anyone’s guess, but because of the Law of Large Numbers (not subject to repeal), small counties are more likely than large ones to end up with unusually high (or low) rates. Sanity check: When was the last time you read about a disease cluster the size of a large city, as opposed to a census tract, county, or neighborhood?


Do some diseases have non-random environmental causes? Sure. Cholera, to give a famous example. That’s why local and national governmental agencies like the CDC and the National Cancer Institute take reports of disease clusters seriously. But the good scientists there also understand the math, and I trust their advice about public health policy more than what I hear on the local newscast, on Oprah, or from yet another celebrity non-scientist.

Reminder: John Snow was a scientist. (He also drew a map to make his point, which was a darn good idea.)

By the way, you don’t even have to be in a red county to jump on the bandwagon of fear and woo. You can still decide your neighborhood is a disease cluster (when it’s not), get everyone riled up, and make a scary video. Or you can write for a shameful woo-purveying media giant. For free. Specifically, the one behind the recent stench of pseudoscience in the air about disease clusters, and who’s getting no link from here. If the miasma theory of disease were true, scientists would be dropping like flies from what they read.

Pseudoscience and pandering to unjustified fear waste society’s resources and sidetrack scientists from research that might make the world a better and less scary place.

3 Responses to “Math Causes Disease Clusters”

  1. Rene Najera Says:

    Thank you for this. It’s exactly what I wanted to say in the follow-up to the “scary video”. I just got sidetracked by anti-vaccine matters. Thanks again.

  2. Deb Leddon Says:

    Your piece on ‘clustering’ due to math artifact/defect?, above is quite interesting. Could you please send the notebook with associated data files mentioned above to me?

    Would like to take a look. Thaks very much for your time and this offer,


  3. Math 131 Thursday, October 30 | Jeff Morford's Current Courses Says:

    […] interesting blog post by Kass can be found at Why are rural counties more likely to have higher incidences of the […]

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The American Stroke Association is having a conference in Los Angeles (near Hollywood) this week. The disease-ridden news coming out of that conference is full of numbers, so reporters are cooking up bigger-than-usual batches of scare.

Yesterday’s stroke news was an unjustified scare about stroke and younger people.

Today’s stroke news: “Is The Oscar Ticket to Heart Attack, Stroke?

Public domain image (Source: Wikimedia Commons)Public domain image (Source: Wikimedia Commons)Public domain image (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

According to a recent study by UCLA researchers, 7.3% of 409 Oscar nominees for best actor or actress since 1927 had strokes, according to public records, a number senior study author cautions is “sure to be an underestimate.” Scary?

ABC News wants their article to be scary, so they imply a wrong answer to the questioning headline with this wrong statistic: “The lifetime risk of stroke in the United States is roughly 2.9 percent, according to a 2010 report from the American Heart Association.” Oscar nominees’ higher-than-7.3% stroke rate is now officially scary. It’s several times the average!

Except that it’s not. The 2.9% figure ABC quotes is wrong. The number 2.9% does appear in the American Heart Association report, but it’s not the lifetime risk of stroke among Americans. It’s the prevalence of (having had a) stroke among American adults, young and old combined — the percentage of Americans who had had a stroke before the data-gathering took place, not who will have a stroke before they die. Many of the 97.1 percent who hadn’t had a stroke when surveyed will have a stroke later in their lives.

According to the same AHA report, stroke accounted for about 137,000 deaths in 2006, or one of every 18 deaths in the United States in 2006. One out of 18 is more than 5%, and that’s just the stroke deaths. The lifetime risk of stroke must then be at least 5%, and it’s probably a lot higher. Only about 1 in 6 strokes is fatal, so the lifetime incidence of stroke could be as high as 30%. In any case, it’s considerably higher than 2.9%, the figure ABC gives.

So. The real news is “Like Other People, Actors Sometimes Have Strokes.” In fact, that’s more or less what the authors of the study set out to say. They wanted to increase public awareness about stroke prevention. When famous people get this or that disease, the general public’s awareness of the disease increases (at least for a while), and those who go to big disease conferences may want more visibility for the specific disease they study.

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In scary news today: Stroke Patients Getting Younger, Stroke Rising Among Young People, and so on.

Apparently some researchers reported that some number went up recently, and the number that went up had something to do with stroke and something to do with 15-44 year-olds.

Sounds like a good excuse for a rousing chorus or two of Fire in the Theater! Obesity! Diet Soda! You’re Gonna Die!, no?


The number reported to have gone up recently is not the total number of strokes among 15-44 year-olds, nor is it the rate (per 10,000 people, for example) of strokes among people that age.

The number that went up recently is the rate of strokes in 15-44 year-olds as a fraction of all hospitalizations for that age group. Not an easy quantity to conceptualize. But when a quantity is hard to conceptualize, you aren’t automatically allowed to grab a “you may pretend it’s something else.” pass and lie with impunity. (Do these same journalists give up and write “Boxer” if they can’t spell “Feinstein”?)

Maybe the stroke rate among 15-44 year-olds is not going up.

It could be that hospitalizations of 15-44 year-olds for reasons other than stroke are going down. Maybe hospitals are more and more likely to list multiple reasons for hospitalization than in the past. Maybe many former headaches are now deemed strokes (thanks to the proliferation of imaging tests). Either of these trends would make the numerical rate of stroke diagnoses per 10,000 hospitalizations go up without reflecting an increase in stroke.

Maybe a lot of things. Maybe the rate of stroke is going up among young people. Which might be scary. Or not. It’s possible more and more diagnoses of stroke are insignificant — no worse than a bad headache. Just because “stroke” sounds scary doesn’t mean there can’t be innocuous kinds of stroke.

Unfortunately we don’t know from today’s irresponsible scramble to turn numbers into fear.

One Response to “Hey, Let’s Scare People with Numbers!”

  1. Steve Kass » Diseases, and Numbers, and Bears! Oh, My! Says:

    […] stroke news was an unjustified scare about stroke and younger […]

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A theretofore charming day, spoiled in the blink of an eye, because I caught sight of the link “David Brooks: Obama’s Very Good Week” in the Times. Brooks isn’t known for sarcastic titles, and it’s been nobody’s good week in Washington. A $25,000,000,000 tax windfall (yes, 25 billion) for the richest 0.3% (yes, less than one third of one percent), and DADT, in particular.

I clicked, but I didn’t read the article. I’m trying hard not to read everything from start to finish that I know in advance will be crazymaking. I wasn’t about to backslide with the likes of Brooks, so I applied the How To Read a Ross Douthat Article approach.

The HTRaRDA approach is this: Type Control-End (preceded by SINGLE PAGE, if available) to reach the bottom of the article, and then read the last screenful. Do not pass Go! You will discover the offensive conclusion without wading through the invidious, lame, emetic screensful that invariably, insidiously, precede it.

Unfortunately, sometimes the insidious run-up extends into that last screenful, and it did today. It was impossible to ignore, because it included numbers.

Warning: The David Brooks quote below is a lie.

According to the most recent Gallup numbers, 67 percent of independents and 52 percent of Democrats support extending all the tax cuts.

Warning: The David Brooks quote above is a lie.

It was painful to follow up on this quote, but I’m still holding onto the belief that it would have been worse to have read Brooks in toto.

On December 1, Gallup reported that “Forty percent [of Americans] want Congress to maintain the tax cuts for everyone, while 44% support setting limits on how much of wealthy Americans’ income is eligible for the lower rates.” In particular, 18% of Democrats preferred keeping the tax cuts for everyone (when offered two alternatives: setting limits or letting the cuts expire entirely). Those can’t be the “most recent Gallup numbers” to which Brooks refers, because 18 doesn’t equal 52, even with rounding. (Maybe at the Times it does, but not on my blog.)

Here are the actual Gallup numbers to which Brooks refers. Over the past weekend, Gallup asked this question: “Suppose that on Election Day you could vote on key issues as well as candidates.  Please tell me whether you would vote for or against a law that would do each of the following.  Would you vote for or against a law that would extend the federal income tax cuts passed in 2001 and 2003 for all Americans for two years?” Fifty-two percent of the Democrats, 67% of independents, and 85% of Republicans surveyed said they would vote for such a law.¹

Quiz. Given three choices similar to those before Congress (A. extend cuts for all; B. extend cuts but only up to a dollar limit for the wealthy; C. let tax cuts expire), Democrat’s least preferred option is to extend all the tax cuts. (Breakdown: 18% answered A, 21% answered C, and 55% answered B). Is it fair to say that 52 percent of Democrats support extending all the tax cuts?

The correct answer is NO.

Kudos to Gallup for the careful and precise phrase to describe the option before Congress: “limits on how much of wealthy Americans’ income is eligible for the lower rates.”

Shame on Brooks for vulpigerating.

¹ I apologize for previously calling the Republican party the “Party of No.” I should have more precisely called them the “Party of No, except when it will make the rich richer.”

One Response to “And in Third Place, with 52% of the Vote…”

  1. Galen Workman Says:

    Our faculty resident in Wig schooled us in how to read newspapers, this during the height of the Vietnam press release wars and false new stories. Eric said he always skipped the two lead stories in the paper. Those were the ones with the built-in hype and spin. If you didn’t try to digest those lumps, then you could get a good sense of what was really going on in the world without raising your blood pressure.

    This isn’t quite the same as your method of reading suspect articles, but it may be a supplement to your guide to readers.

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The major news organizations still can’t describe the tax cut proposals correctly.

Fact: The Democratic proposals that Senate Republicans killed today would have extended Bush tax cuts for all taxpayers (often called everyone, though poor people aren’t included).

Under the now-dead proposals, the tax cut extension would have been capped at $250,000 or $1,000,000 of income, but all taxpaying households would see lower taxes. The Bush tax cuts, which are about to expire, have no cap.

High-income taxpayers (often called rich people) would have received the biggest tax cut under these Democratic proposals. Republicans rejected the proposals because it’s not enough for them that the richest people receive the biggest tax cuts. The Republicans want the richest people to receive even bigger biggest tax cuts.

The Republicans also opposed the proposals because they were Democratic proposals. Also because they were proposals, and the Party of No opposes everything.

All this despite public sentiment that the Bush tax cuts should continue only for households earning less than $250,000, an idea no one is proposing.

As far as I can tell, no one has sought public opinion on the actual current proposals. I can’t understand or explain why CBS and other polling organizations continue to ask people about proposals that aren’t and have never been under consideration.

Here’s a sampling of today’s descriptions of the tax cut proposals, all of which are wrong, or at best misleading. The news outlets might as well say that the Democrats proposed extending the Bush tax cuts for White families.

CNN “The votes sought to extend the Bush tax cuts for families making under $250,000 and $1 million, respectively.”

Wall Street Journal “The Senate voted 53-36 to reject an attempt to initiate debate in the chamber on a measure that would have extended lower tax rates for individuals who earn less than $200,000 and couples earning less than $250,000.”

New York Times “The Senate on Saturday rejected President Obama’s proposal to extend the Bush-era tax breaks for all but the wealthiest taxpayers, sealing a triumph for Republicans who have long called for continuing the income tax cuts for everyone.”

Associated Press “Senate Republicans have blocked legislation allowing taxes to rise on Jan. 1 on people earning more than $1 million.”

Bloomberg “The U.S. Senate failed to advance a Democratic proposal to extend Bush-era income-tax cuts for families earning up to $250,000.”

2 Responses to “Senate GOP Rejects Democratic Proposal Extending Bush Tax Cuts for White Families”

  1. Galen Workman Says:

    Thanks for the reminder of the fact that EVERYONE was included in today’s proposals… which weren’t rich enough for the deficit conscious Republicans.

  2. Steve Kass » And in Third Place, with 52% of the Vote… Says:

    […] to Gallup for the careful and precise phrase to describe the option before Congress: “limits on how much of wealthy Americans’ income is eligible for the lower […]

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