The Mad Biologist’s Rule of Base Ten Numbers and Abstinence-Only AIDS Non-Prevention Programs

Actually, the Mad Biologist’s Rule of Base Ten Numbers is a pithier way of describing how certain numerical estimates or quantities are chosen based on little or no evidence. For example, when asked what an appropriate sample size is, someone will often respond, “ten.” Of course, it might very well be that either nine or eleven are, in fact, the appropriate sample sizes, but we have a tendency when making shit up to focus on numbers divisible by five or ten, or, if we’re dealing with really large quantities, increasing the quantities ten-fold (i.e., moving from 100 to 1000).

To give a policy-related example, a piece of proposed legislation that I’ll be discussing in the future, the STAAR Act, proposes to fund ten centers that deal with antibiotic resistance, at a total amount of $15 million. Let me explain the process by which these numbers were reached:

  1. Drop trousers.
  2. Shove hand up own ass.
  3. Manually extract shit.
  4. Repeat often as necessary.

The reason I put this so, erm, succinctly is that there’s been no actual estimate of how many centers are needed or what a functional budget for each center should look like. What if, to address the problem, we need nine centers, each with a budget of $2.83 million?* These numbers are pulled out of…let’s call it thin air (for the children’s sake)
Which brings me to abstinence-only AIDS non-prevention** programs. By way of Jill at Feministe, I came across this post by Beth Frederick about the theopolitical conservatives opposition to PEPFAR, the U.S.’s international anti-HIV program, unless at least 33% of prevention funds go to support abstinence-until-marriage programs. Frederick writes:

Furthermore, the 33% of funds set aside is a completely arbitrary number. It could have easily been 99% if Congress would have gone along with it in 2003.
At the time, when amendment author Rep. Joe Pitts (R-PA) called for the earmark, he couldn’t really explain why it should be 33% – just that it should be there. My guess is that he thought it was one part of the A-B-C prevention message, and since it’s one letter of the first three in the alphabet, it should get one third of the funds. But, really, who knows?

When it comes to policy, always be suspicious ‘clean’ numbers.
*There are other, more fundamental problems, but these ridiculous numbers are one problem.
**Abstinence-only programs should be called non-prevention programs since they don’t work.

This entry was posted in Education, Funding, Mathematics, The War on Science. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Mad Biologist’s Rule of Base Ten Numbers and Abstinence-Only AIDS Non-Prevention Programs

  1. PhysioProf says:

    I’m seeing a confusion of two independent issues.
    First, is how you decide the allocation of limited resources to competing meritorious projects. Frequently, the cost of developing a good estimate of how to most efficiently allocate resources far outweighs the benefit of having such an estimate. In these common cases, pulling numbers our of our asses works perfectly well.
    Second, is how you decide the allocation of limited resources to fuckwitted projects that have no hope of furthering stated goals. This is easy: you allocate none.

  2. GKras says:

    In electronics, the first iteration of a design will often have “placeholder” component values that are powers-of-ten, and if the design works the first time, there they remain. Upon seeing a device populated with these “binary components” (get it? just ones and zeroes), you know that the design did not go through a lot of iterations. That doesn’t really tell you much about the quality, but it does show that the engineer(s) didn’t put a lot of time on it, so it may be worth checking for suboptimal characteristics. This applies to schematics too. And, for historical reasons, 4.7, as in 4.7kΩ, is considered a “binary value” too, just like 1, 10, 100, 1k, 10k, 100k, etc.

  3. Sophie Hirschfeld says:

    Abstinence only programs kill people. Because they aren’t teaching people what they really need to know … how to prevent disease … it becomes killing through negligence. If it is wrong for a person to kill a dependent by not feeding them, leaving them in filth, and not giving them a way to get nourishment, then it is wrong to kill people through not informing them of how to take care of themselves and even going so far as to misleading them about things to prevent disease.
    On a side note: it is theorized that the base ten comes from the number of fingers we have. The Babylonians used a base 12 system (some call it a base-60, because it really blended the 10 and the 12 in different ways). They used their finger segments (between their knuckles), then, to count on, excluding their thumbs.
    Aaaannnnd … ladies and gentlemen, that was my brain wandering off in left field somewhere. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.

Comments are closed.