A New Twist on the Placebo Effect

A student brought this to my attention on Monday — as heard on NPR, the placebo effect is apparently getting stronger.

Well if you think about it, there’s a pill for everything these days, right?  The article suggests that people, when sick, go to the doctor, get a prescription, take a pill and get better (in general).  So maybe people are programmed to think they will get better?

But what does this mean to medical research?  What if a new medication significantly decreases, say, blood pressure — when tested against the placebo, will it fail?

Check out the article.

The Monty Hall Problem

Let's Make a Deal!

In class we discussed and debated the logic behind the ubiquitous “Monty Hall Problem“:

“Suppose you’re on a game show, and you’re given the choice of three doors:  Behind one door is a car; behind the others, goats. You pick a door, say No. 1, and the host, who knows what’s behind the doors, opens another door, say No. 3, which has a goat. He then says to you, “Do you want to pick door No. 2?” Is it to your advantage to switch your choice? (Parade Magazine, Whitaker 1990)

Here is a simulation and an explanation of the answer.

Statistics is So Hot Right Now

so hot right now
so hot right now

Here is an article from the NY Times entitled “For Today’s Graduate, Just One Word: Statistics” (dated August 5, 1009) highlighting the ever-growing field of statistics.  Organizations such as Google and IBM are looking for good statisticians as the demand for data analysis increases:

“We’re rapidly entering a world where everything can be monitored and measured,” said Erik Brynjolfsson, an economist and director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Digital Business. “But the big problem is going to be the ability of humans to use, analyze and make sense of the data.”

Another interesting quote in the article: “I keep saying that the sexy job in the next 10 years will be statisticians,” said Hal Varian, chief economist at Google. “And I’m not kidding.”

So you see, you can be nerdy AND cool.

Draw a Picture? (or, Check out this data on metal bands)

What is the first thing you should do when you encounter a mess of data?this is legit.

Draw a….what? (It’s in your notes…)

Draw a PICTURE. A distribution. A graph.

But statistics doesn’t just revolve around histograms, boxplots and scatterplots. Statisticians have (marginally) grown personalities over the years and realize non-statisticians need something tangible to understand data trends. Enter: Nathan Yau of FlowingData.com, a PhD candidate in statistics who makes use of his background in computer science to explore and visualize data.

Since the word “data” sounds so dull…like “widgets” in economics…let’s look at a few examples Yau took from reality:

Evidence of “data-visualization” tools is very commonplace these days and you’ll find that many popular websites mix humor and/or pop-culture into their infographics (The Onion has been doing it for years). 

Time Travel in Popular Film and TV
Movie Monster Comparison Chart

OR Make your own at Graphjam.com

Math in the Real World (or, I Know What I Did This Summer)

After almost two weeks in New Orleans this summer, I now excitedly carry in my pockets evidentiary examples, responses… just waiting for the the first person to ask that ubiquitous question all math teachers hear:  “When will I ever use this?”

I spent this time in the Crescent City working with several Not-for-Profit groups who partner with The Conservation Corps of Greater New Orleans.  The overarching goal of this umbrella organization is to teach and enable 16 – 24 year-olds who have either dropped out of school, spent time in the court system, or just want a new start with “environmentally restorative service projects” that ultimately lead to gainful employment in areas of societal need.

In the words of CCGNO:

“CCGNO programs take a service-learning approach to workforce development and community restoration. Our Corpsmembers play a central role in designing, proposing and implementing community service projects while learning skills that prepare them for careers in the emerging green economy. While promoting environmentally restorative practices, CCGNO programs seek to engage those young adults that have historically been disconnected from college and career opportunities.”**

So what did I do?  In a nutshell, I assisted Education Programs Coordinator Joey Kuchler and several program leaders in developing specific math curricula germane to their project needs.  For example, some of the Corpsmembers* will be learning construction so basic math skills are key.  (Fractions?  Yes, in construction you work with ruler readings to an eighth of an inch).  Other topics such as customary conversions, proportions and percents are just the beginning — remember triangles?  The Pythagorean Theorem and special right triangle calculations are often applied but trig ratios are especially necessary in construction math.

One morning, I accompanied Crew Leader Amber Parker of the Alliance for Affordable Energy to observe the weatherization process of an older New Orleans home.  Corpsmembers were not present but I had an inside look at the typical skills required to assess the needs of homeowners in the way of energy efficiency, and the math involved.  All windows and doors must be precisely measured (there’s your eighth-of-an-inch again) and after that, can you calculate what percent of each wall is window?  I do not have the background to detail what goes into this process next (it involves rating appliances, a tarp over the door with some blowing device, and something about negative/positive ions) but final calculations are made using software and ultimate energy needs are assessed, along with estimates of repairs and energy savings. 

[Side note: Those of you reading this who say, “Well who doesn’t know how to calculate percentages and use fractions?” should be thanking your math teachers right now.  Go ahead…I’ll wait….  Several Crew Leaders told me they were shocked as to how few Corpsmembers possessed even basic math skills.  Even those with GEDs and high school diplomas had almost no math skills, they said.  As a math teacher in Roswell, Georgia I can tell you with confidence that this lack of basic math skills is not confined to the educational system of Louisiana (elitists!) — I see these deficiencies every day!  Even with AP students!  Students fear the fractions, the word problems and the decimals so much that they avoid them (again, EVEN AP students) to the point they are innumerate.  But I digress.]   

My hope is to stay in touch with these dynamic leaders and follow the growth of the newest Corpsmembers in the programs.  Not only do I feel useful in this endeavor, I am, as I said, able to start the year fresh with better answers to students’ questions, even if they won’t believe me or listen.

 *Corpsmembers are the 16 – 24 year-olds participating in these programs.

**The Conservation Corps of Greater New Orleans recently received accolades in The New York Times in the article “New Orleans Program Links Green Jobs, Youth Development”