Thursday, May 23, 2013

Congressional Math

Innumeracy is a serious problem in this country, especially when it afflicts our elected representatives. The phenomenon manifests itself in lots of ways, some of them deadly. Here is one from this morning.

Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn was on Morning Joe today, dismissing the idea that Congress would have to help his state through the recovery from the tornado disaster. Existing FEMA funds would cover it, he said. No problem with that, nor with his opinion, voiced a few minutes later, that it should be up to Oklahomans to decide whether to regulate the construction of storm shelters in new buildings. It's what he said next that was the problem. The exchange begins at about the 5:00 point of this clip.

"If you're living in that area of Moore, in Oklahoma, the likelihood of being hit by another tornado is about zero, in terms of odds." The interviewer tries to correct him, explaining that being hit by tornadoes twice in fourteen years doesn't affect the odds of being hit again, but Coburn doubles down, finishing up by saying "You need to check your statistics class."

I find this astonishing, not because I expect members of congress to be good at math, but because I expect them--especially those from western states--to be good at gambling. Has Coburn played games with dice? Does he really think that rolling snake eyes once makes it less likely to happen again? I suppose that even experienced gamblers believe such things, but that is where we should hope for better from the people who are throwing billions and trillions of our dollars at real and imagined problems.

There is a joke about a corporate executive who asks the odds of being on an airplane with a bomb, and is given a number, one in a million. He then asks what are the odds of being on a plane with TWO bombs, and is told one in a trillion. "Great," he says. "From now on I'm taking a bomb with me wherever I travel." Perhaps the Senator will want to make the country safer by urging us all to follow that strategy.


  1. I believe (from his official website) that you are expected to refer to him as "Dr. Coburn".

    According to his Wikipedia page, he has a B.S. in Accounting from Oklahoma State University, where he was one of the Top Ten seniors in the School of Business. His M.D. (with honors) is from the University of Oklahoma. I would think his scientific chops are well above the median in the U.S. Senate.

    On another note, he has pledged not to run for re-election when his current term expires in 2016.

  2. I have a tee shirt that has these words on the front, and nothing else:


    Someone should give Dr. Coburn one of these, with a note saying "Read On, and On, until it sinks in."

  3. When I hear idiocy like this I wonder--- does Coburn KNOW he's wrong and says it as a thing one says as a politician
    (like when I say `I know you can all prove this by induction')
    or does he actually believe it?

    1. That is a good question. My guess is he knows it isn't true, but it is political populism, spouting unscientific folk nonsense to be one of the people -- when it serves his political purpose, which is in this case to pooh pooh the need for government regulation. But it is also possible he really believes it -- he sounds convincing in the video, but of course that is how politicians make a living.

    2. He probably believes it. It's a very common error known as the gambler's fallacy.

      Politicians may lie about their views on creationism or climate change because those are considered matters of opinion, but they're unlikely to feign an inability to straight-up grasp abstract logic because intelligence is such a universally valued trait. Even anti-intellectuals pride themselves on being smart in a folksy kind of way.

  4. Not to be off topic, but Moore has actually been hit by 3 significant tornadoes in the last 14 years!