Friday, June 29, 2007

Misused Math

This morning, I received an anonymous comment on my post about farmers' markets and eating local. The post made from Alexandria, VA (Thank you SiteMeter!) at 3:30 AM Eastern Daylight Time links to a site that informs us of "which states are greener." The content doesn't have much to do with farmers' markets and would probably be better placed on my Live in the Northwest entry, but I checked it out anyway. It turns out that this site is a commercial supplier of solar panels called Hughes Solar Energy, that is based in... Alexandria, VA. It looks like this company is in the business of selling anything that could be remotely tied to solar power.

The section of the website referred to us offers a list all of the states and ranks them according to total carbon output. That metric is useful if you are an energy company marketing low carbon generators (like solar panels), but in terms of modifying individual behavior and identifying where meaningful mitigation can occur, it is useless. What you need to look at is per capita emissions. That number says something about where energy consumption can be improved. So I took 15 minutes to rearrange the data in a spreadsheet so you can see where we need to work the most at reducing emissions. It's also confusing that they order their information using the double negative of "Ranked Worst Pollution." This is the per capita data next to the information from Hughes Solar Energy, and here's a list where you can see which state is beating yours. What a surprise that the rankings nearly inverted! It seems as though high-density blue states use less carbon per capita than the rest of the country.

I remember in 8th grade I had to make a report about how statistics is misused by commercial entities. I think I focused on the Sylvan Learning Center's flawed comparison between American and Japanese school children's workloads and performance. If I were to wite this report over again, this solar energy company's clever (if not disingenuous) presentation of carbon emission data would be my topic!

This is not to say that buying a solar product from Hughes is a bad idea... I just don't like it when people mess around with data to serve their purposes. Okay - when other people mess around with data...

And don't forget how state emissions values can be altered due to geology. For a while, Mt. St. Helens spewed more carbon than all of the rest of the major polluters in Washington State combined!

4 comments:

Lary Brewer said...

I can appreciate your concern over the misused math relating to per capita carbon production. Your charts did in fact correctly place the worst offenders in their proper place. However you are somewhat shortsighted when you speak "in terms of modifying individual behavior and identifying where meaningful mitigation can occur" ask a person in Buford MT to walk to the corner grocery instead of taking the bus and he might reply "What bus? What store?. The efficiencies of dense population are easy to recognize when it comes to per capita carbon production, but it is hell on farming. Likewise manufacturing. One Kansas farmer producing 300 tons of carbon per year is acceptable considering he is feeding thousands of people. Personally, I'm appalled at the amount of heating oil the typical Anchorage family uses. Detroit carbon offenders might ask the rest of the country to build their own cars for a while. In presenting your charts to set the record straight, you committed the same sin. Misleading by omission. And finally, by using your misleading data to imply that somehow “bluestaters“are more environmentally friendly, shows bias. After all, it’s easy to be green if all you do is blog all day.

Larry Brewer

thomas said...

Hello again Larry. Since you are nice enough to set me straight on several of my posts, I thought I would humor you one last time.

I wrote:

"I just don't like it when people mess around with data to serve their purposes. Okay - when other people mess around with data..."

The strange thing is you actually identified the punchline: I manipulated the data to serve my own purposes.

And I certainly do not "just blog all day..." From my sitemeter, however it does seem as though you troll all day.

Anonymous said...

Well at least you are honest in one area. Interesting, when you agree with someone they are a blogger. But when they call you out and expose your bias, bad math, and data manipulation, they become trolls. So I've been called worse. Anyway, this fine morning I've was crunching video on one workstation across the room. Got bored and decided to look into this "phone charger" thing that seems to be going around. Have to admit I was skeptical from the beginning. Somehow ended up at your site. Ironically, the first thing I did was to check the temp of my charger and decided either the charger was dead or the phantom charger energy leak panic was BS. I think you know my conclusion. So now you better go unplug your toaster before it's too late!

Seriously, I'm as concerned about energy conservation as you are. Just I see over and over a lack of understanding about the scale of the problem and the "low order of magnitude" of some of the solutions. All of which are well intended I'm sure. But if unplugging the phone charger gives people the feeling that they are doing something to really address the issue they are kidding themselves. Like drinking a diet coke while eating a double cheesburger and fries.

I'll be back.

Larry Brewer

thomas said...

Fair Enough.

I retract my trolling accusation.

What are your favorite techniques for reducing energy consumption?