Lies, damn lies and statistics

Niagara Falls, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas

I’ve been stopped at the border by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) before. A group of us went on pilgrimage to Toronto to see Group of Sevenpaintings. On the way back, Jennifer proved to be of special interest. She cooled her heels so we all cooled our heels.

Leaving the Bahamas, I didn’t realize the banana I’d tucked in my backpack needed to be declared. While the customs official searched my carry-on bags and ticked me off about the fines for smuggling, my other bag—the one with the dangerous contraband—sailed right through.
Just kidding. I’m a very law-abiding citizen.
Detentions at the border may not be up, but news stories about them certainly are. It’s another case of journalistic innumeracy. When people talk about “fake news,” it’s because they no longer trust what media tells them, and this is because reporters frequently don’t ask the salient questions: How good are the numbers? How biased is the source? How significant is the deviation?
Not all border crossings are swank. This is the approach to Top of the World Border Crossing between Alaska and the Yukon. You need to check the hours before you show up.
When I was twenty, I could tuck a dime into my bikini and stroll across the Rainbow Bridge. (This is a real place, BTW, and not a metaphor for pet mortality.) I’ve crossed the US-Canadian border countless times since then. My body has loosened and border security has tightened in equal measure.
But my experiences are anecdotal evidence. To make a valid argument from them, they need to be supported by fact. Since 2009, we’ve needed a passport or equivalent to cross the US-Canada border. That’s a fact that supports my impressions.
All educated people know that a coin toss always has a 50% chance of coming up tails. However, after a string of bad tosses, our guts tell us that our luck has to change soon, that it’s time for the coin to fall our way.
It’s the job of our civilized, reasonable, educated minds to remind our unruly hearts that probability is immutable. However, casino gambling is a $70 billion/year industry in America. That’s a sign that we don’t do a very good job of thinking rationally.
Bahamians are tea-drinkers. My first cup of real coffee in a week, in suburban Boston.
At times, our lack of factual literacy has public-policy repercussions. For example, in 1996, we passed the Church Arson Prevention Act and created the National Church Arson Task Force in response to a wave of black church fires. But as Michael Fumento said at the time, this was a false crisis based on bad data supplied by an advocacy group.
As sentient citizens, we have a moral duty to seek truth. No tools are unbiased, so use some from either side. Better yet, use them from the other side, a trick a lobbyist friend once suggested to me. On the left, there is FiveThirtyEight, on the right, the Heritage Foundation. Read them both, and everything in between. Or, at least read something, and do it with a skeptical mind.

Frozen beauty

Thin sheet ice at the harbor in Baltimore, MD. (Photo courtesy of Emerson Champion.)
The Great Lakes are a continuous channel of fat parts (the lakes) and straits (the Niagara, St. Lawrence and St. Mary’s Rivers and the Straits of Mackinac). A sort of inland sea, they contain 21% of the world’s surface fresh water by volume. Because they are huge and deep, they never fully freeze, and they even have small tides.
We all know that lake water starts to freeze at 32° F. The salty ocean’s freezing point is more like 28° F., but of course the ocean is vast (even vaster than Lake Ontario) so at our latitude it only freezes around the edges.
Orange peel ice developing on the Patapsco River shipping channel in Baltimore, MD. This is brackish water in a shallow cove. (Photo courtesy of Emerson Champion)
Still, the Great Lakes form some features usually associated with sea ice. Ice hummocks and pressure ridges, pancake ice, grease ice (which is basically ice soup), and ice stuck fast along the shores with open channels, or leads, are all features of both sea and Great Lakes ice. As long as the lakes don’t freeze, they also have the same drift ice that one sees on the ocean.
Ice balls on the shore of Lake Michigan. These are caused by rolling surf.
Ice coverage on the Great Lakes reached 85.4% on Feb. 18, making this the second winter in a row that it has exceeded 80%. That’s the first time that’s happened since the 1970s. As usual, Lake Ontario is the slowest to freeze; as of yesterday, it was at near-record levels, being 82.6% covered.
Pancake ice looks like blood platelets and is a common enough formation on Lake Ontario. Sometimes the edges build up enough that the pieces look like kettles.
This much ice is highly unusual. But this is the second cold winter in a row, and the lake never fully warmed up last summer.
Flow ice near Brooksville, ME.
In terms of comfort, it’s difficult: Buffalo is recording its coldest February in the 145 years in which records have been kept, and the whole northeast has been buried in snow. Ice is, of course, beautiful, but we’re all starting to look forward to the grey, rotten ice that heralds Spring.
Fast ice is ice that’s stuck on the edges of open water.
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.