Remembering the Death of the Office of Technology Assessment

This past week, Republican Presidential Candidate Newt Gingrich tried to position himself as the big pro-science candidate (or, at the very least, the big “pro-idea” candidate) [1]. He articulated a science fiction view for the U.S. federal space agency, NASA, in partnership with private aerospace corporations. The goal? Establish a permanent colony on the moon by 2020.

I find it a little sad that this is the same man who presided over the death of a valued federal agency – the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) – in 1995.  As part of Gingrich’s “Contract with America” [2] and during his ascension to power in the U.S. Congress, Newt and his fellow Republicans organized the de-funding (and thus dismantling) of this office.

OTA is described as follows:

The Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) was an office of the United States Congress from 1972 to 1995. OTA’s purpose was to provide Congressional members and committees with objective and authoritative analysis of the complex scientific and technical issues of the late 20th century, i.e. technology assessment. It was a leader in practicing and encouraging delivery of public services in innovative and inexpensive ways, including distribution of government documents through electronic publishing. Its model was widely copied around the world. [3]

It’s work is archived at Princeton [4].

According to entries in the Congressional Record, abolishing the OTA saved the United States . . . $15 million dollars per year. As Senator Ernest Hollings (D-SC) put it during budget deliberations in 1995:

It is easy to go campaign next year and say, “I am for economy, and I got rid of the Office of Technology Assessment. That is saving $15 million.” Come on. Two nights ago ABC reported on a particular misguided missile, $4 billion. You never heard this crowd that is fussing about $15 million–we took almost 2 hours in the Appropriations Committee trying to save $15 million or trying to sustain the need to know of the Members of this Congress. But they do not talk about that $4 billion. [5]

It’s interesting how the fights don’t change in our country. Political battles always occupy the same space coordinates, only displaced in their time coordinate.

Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) has blood on his hands when it comes to the death of the OTA. As he said in the same debate:

Mr. President, the Office of Technology Assessment is a luxury. It is something that would be nice to have if we had lots of money like we used to have. But we do not have the money that we used to have, and we have to look someplace to make cuts . . . The work the OTA does can be done by other agencies. I have had the OTA do work for me. They do fine work . . . But, Mr. President, we cannot have three luxury automobiles anymore . . . All we can have is the General Accounting Office and all we can have is the Congressional Research Service, which the congressional staff depends on around here to meet the requests of constituents at home and Members of the Senate. Our staffs depend on the Congressional Research Service. They did not depend on the Office of Technology Assessment. [5]

The short-sightedness of members of Congress astounds me, and it is largely independent of party although each party has its own special brands of anti-science. The money issue, however, is a universal weapon of mass destruction when it comes to science and basic research in the United States. That weapon sits so comfortably in the hand of every member of Congress that they do not hesitate to unleash it when they are under pressure to cut something from a budget.

Having unveiled some of the fight over OTA, what did Newt Gingrich have (if anything) to say about it? I have to admit – I couldn’t find a single thing, using only the web, that this man said about the OTA. I found plenty of articles or blog posts that report on Gingrich’s intentions based on interviews with his aides and associates from the 104th Congress (e.g. Ref. [6]). There is no doubt that, as Speaker of the 104th Congress, he was setting the agenda. There is also no doubt that Congress was looking to make cuts to government agencies, however small in cost, to demonstrate the seriousness of their intention to reduce the size and cost of government.

An office like OTA was designed to provide high-level assessments of the science behind different policy choices. An office like that would help now not only in issues like climate and energy policy, bit in assessing the feasibility and needs of science fiction space colonization plans for agencies like NASA. Without such a body, folks like Gingrich get to say what they want . . . and not have to worry about being assessed.

Next week, after Florida, the candidates will pander to another state. Florida has the so-called “space coast.” I suspect the moon plan will lie all but forgotten after their primary. I, however, will never forget the OTA and the need for sound science advising to inform national policies.

 

[1] http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/01/is-newts-moon-colony-fantasy-or-science-fiction/252147/

[2] http://www.house.gov/house/Contract/CONTRACT.html

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Office_of_Technology_Assessment

[4] http://www.princeton.edu/~ota/

[5] “Congressional Record: July 20, 1995 (Senate)” http://frwebgate2.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/TEXTgate.cgi?WAISdocID=Re267E/6/1/0&WAISaction=retrieve

[6] http://www.princeton.edu/step/seminars/previous/fall-2005/Mooneyreading2005No2Requiemforanoffice.pdf

Remembering the hits, forgetting the misses

Tim Tebow Demotivational Poster
OK, call me snarky. But the numbers don't lie: there is nothing remarkable about Tebow. This is a good lesson in remembering the hits and forgetting the misses. Graphic from Ref. 6.

[Author’s Note: After writing and posting this, the Broncos went on to face the New England Patriots in their final playoff game (the 18th of the Broncos’ season). The Broncos lost SPECTACULARLY, 10-45. This makes their record of wins/losses now to be 9/9, exactly 50% . . . the coin flip would have been just as good in determining the outcome of the Broncos’ season as the actual season. ]

Let me say that I have nothing against Tim Tebow. He seems like a fine young man. He’s certainly very religious; although, ironically, he behaves in a way strongly inconsistent with the teachings of the very person to whom he proclaims a public faith: Jesus. Recall that, according to the Bible, Jesus taught:

And when thou pray, thou shall not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou pray, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret . . . [Matthew 6:6 & 7]

The public reaction to Tim Tebow, however, is the pseudoscience gift that keeps on giving. As I discussed in my last post about him [1], he was hailed in the sports press with mixed reviews (both as a terrible quarterback and as an exciting quarterback). He  had captured media stardom with a combination of excessive public religiosity and “sudden comebacks” (more on that below). But overall his performance was statistically uninteresting. As I noted, the Broncos’ rate of winning 1, 2, 3, or 4 games in a row as “comebacks” followed a roughly exponentially decreasing trend (the rate of winning 2 in a row by comeback is half that of 1 in a row; the rate of 3 in a row is about half that of 2 in a row; etc.). Based on that trend, the Broncos were right on track for 4 comebacks in a row, whether or not Tebow was the QB.

Now that the Broncos have completed a lot more of the current season, we can really look at Tebow and see how he ranks up against the “greatest” quarterbacks in NFL history. Let’s see what we find.

First, we need some “great” quarterbacks. I want ones from the last 30 years, so that they are playing in the most modern context of American Football. Here is the opinion of Jason Whitlock at Fox Sports [2]:

  1. John Elway (Denver Broncos)
  2. Joe Montana (San Francisco 49’ers)
  3. Johnny Unitas (Baltimore Colts)
  4. Dan Marino (Miami Dolphins)

Based on my own knowledge of Football history, I wouldn’t disagree with these. Conveniently, Tebow and Elway play for the same team. I will ignore Unitas because of how long ago he played the game.

I am primarily interested in their QB stats in the first 2 years of play, to see whether Tebow is really an anomaly compared to the greats. What are the good stats? One men’s magazine article claims the most important QB statistics are:

The single most important statistic for judging quarterbacks is yards-per-attempt (YPA). This illustrates a player’s efficiency. Even though they are highly correlated, it is also important to look at completion percentage as well. This is more indicative of consistency and is not as related to the ability of receivers to run after the catch. Along with YPA and completion percentage, quarterbacks are successful if they do not turn the ball over. Again, everything is relative, so we must account for the total number of pass attempts. Interceptions per 500 pass attempts is a stat that is easy to compare. After those items, mobility is very valuable. [3]

Here are some stats [4].

Yards Per Attempt (YPA) in first two years

The first number is their first year of play, the second number is the second year of play. The errors are obtained by propagating the Poisson uncertainties on the Yards Gained by Passing and the Number of Attempted Passes.

  1. Elway: (6.4 +/- 0.4) and (6.8 +/- 0.4)
  2. Montana: (4.2 +/- 1.0) and (6.6 +/- 0.4)
  3. Marino: (7.5 +/- 0.5) and (9.0 +/- 0.4)
  4. Tebow: (8.0 +/- 0.9) and (6.4 +/- 0.4)

The numbers are very revealing. The error-weighted average of the “best QB” YPAs is (7.17 +/- 0.03), while Tebow has a YPA of (8.0 +/- 0.9) in year 1 and (6.4 +/- 0.4) in year 2. Unlike the great QBs, Tebow’s performance decreases in his second year (albeit with a large uncertainty on the YPA in his first year due to the few passes he got to throw in his first season). In Tebow’s second season, his is well below the average of the greats.

Interception Percentage (Interceptions per attempt to pass) in first two years

The first number is their first year of play, the second number is the second year of play. The errors are binomial.

  1. Elway: (5.4 +/- 3.6)% and (3.9 +/- 3.8)%
  2. Montana: (0.0 +/- 0.0)% and (3.3 +/- 3.0)%
  3. Marino: (2.0 +/- 2.4)% and (3.0 +/- 4.1)%
  4. Tebow: (3.7 +/- 1.7)% and (2.2 +/- 2.4)%

In general, great QBs have interception rates consistent with zero within the binomial errors. Tebow exhibits the most significant interception rate (in his first year). Compared to other great QBs, his rate is higher than 2/3 of the other three and in his second year is lower than all three. This is one place where Tebow superficially looks good, but when you take into account uncertainties it’s tough to really distinguish anything here.

Pass Completion Rate (Percentage)  in first two years 

The uncertainties are binomial. The first number is their first year of play, the second number is their second year of play.

  1. Elway: (47.5 +/- 6.5)% and (56.3 +/- 4.5)%
  2. Montana: (56.5 +/- 18.3)% and (64.5 +/- 4.5)%
  3. Marino: (58.5 +/- 4.9)% and (64.2 +/- 3.1)%
  4. Tebow: (50.0% +/- 11.0%) and (46.5 +/- 6.5)%

The great quarterbacks tended to complete passes at a rate better then 50/50; that is, better than flipping a coin and deciding whether the pass is completed based on complete chance. Elway is the exception, although he improved considerably in his second year. Two of the top 4 greatest quarterbacks achieved completion rates well above 50% by their second year (about 64% for Montana and Marino).  In all cases, the great quarterbacks IMPROVED their pass completion rate by their second year.

Tebow bucks the “trend of the greats” in a couple of ways. His performance WORSENS in his second year (albeit consistent with a flat performance within uncertainties) and it’s never better than flipping a coin. In fact, by his second year you could have flipped a coin every time he made a pass and have completed more passes by calling “HEADS!” than by letting Tebow’s pass actually decide whether completion occurs.

Summary

Is Tim Tebow a remarkable QB? Not really, according to empirical data. In two of the three major statistical categories, Tebow is not at or above the greatest recent quarterbacks; in the third, his ranking is indeterminate. His pass completion rate is no better than a coin flip, and in fact was WORSE this year. His interception percentage may be a bit smaller than others, but the uncertainties are large on all numbers presented. His Yards per pass attempt are unremarkable compared to the great quarterbacks. In two of the three stats categories, his performance worsened in his second year whereas the great quarterbacks improved.

Looking at the Denver Broncos total record, they played 17 games. Of those, they won 9 and lost 8. Their rate of winning games was slightly better than the rate of getting heads or tails in a coin flip. Certainly, considering just 17 such coin flips their performance is completely consistent the rates of heads and tails over many successive groups of 17 trials. They had one “streak” of 4 comebacks mid-season, which was then followed by 4 successive losses (which nobody seemed to call a “loss streak” initiated by Jesus’ displeasure with Tim Tebow). In fact, everything about the Broncos’ performance in 2011 is consistent with a sequence of coin flips, including “apparent streaks” of both wins and losses. This is all consistent with random numbers.

So I don’t see what all the fuss is about. Tim Tebow’s throwing arm is about as interesting as flipping a coin. If the fuss is about his religiosity, then the numbers suggest prayer isn’t helping him. But then, controlled studies of prayer also tell us that this practice confers no measurable benefits [5]. So, pretty much, this guy is uninteresting in both a secular and a religious sense.

I suspect that Tebow’s popularity is due more to the problems that we, as humans, have with data. We remember the hits (the Denver Broncos won 4 games in a row, by comeback, with Tebow as QB) and forget the misses (the Denver Broncos lost 4 games in a row, with Tebow as QB). That is why it is always important to evaluate a situation not based on personal biases (e.g. liking Tebow because he prays in the end zone) but on empirical evidence. The evidence says he’s not a great QB. Maybe, with more practice, Tebow will improve. I hope so, since he seems like a nice guy. But a nice guy is not necessarily a great QB.

[1] http://steve.cooleysekula.net/blog/2011/12/17/the-tebow-distribution/

[2] http://www.askmen.com/top_10/sports_100/135_fitness_list.html

[3] http://msn.foxsports.com/nfl/story/the-10-greatest-qbs-of-all-time

[4] http://www.pro-football-reference.com

[5] http://articles.latimes.com/2006/mar/31/science/sci-prayer31

[6] http://www.buzzfeed.com/treyc/tim-tebow-crying-motivational-poster-uw5

 

Sanctimonium Santorum, once thought extinct, reappears

Many years ago, I commented on the seeming extinction of the species Sanctimonium Santorum [1]. Like many species that were previously believed to be extinct, there has been a sudden and unexpected reappearance of this odd species. However, as I commented then,

In government, there are limited resources. There are only 100 Senate seats in the United States. From each state, there are only 2. Two candidates who vie for control of those seats are naturally in competition, and the forces both within and without the candidates’ spheres of control shape who will win the seat. It’s sociological natural selection. Often, many species of candidate appear for the scant seats, and only one can succeed. Many of the species wither and die; others seek the Presidency.

So it seems that this species, thought dead, has chosen to seek the Presidency. Here are some of my old observations of Senator Santorum:

Here’s a goodie from Senator Santorum in 2006, regarding the moral code of scientists who want to study the behavior of human stem cells. Enjoy.

[1] http://steve.cooleysekula.net/blog/2006/11/07/test-184/