Measured Thinking: Reasoning with Numbers about World Events, Health, Science, and Social Issues

Interdisciplinary Studies 100-00, Fall 2012

An Arguments and Inquiry First-Year Seminar

Neil Lutsky

Olin 111, x4379, Course Office Hour: Mondays, 1:30-2:30

“the cognitive skill to distinguish among hope, faith, possibility, probability, and certitude
are potent weapons in anyone’s political survival kit and can be applied in all areas of life and society.”

-Robert Kuhn, American Scientist, September, 2003

This course addresses one of the signal features of contemporary academic, professional, public, and personal life: a reliance on information and arguments involving numbers. This presence of numbers suggests, in turn, that we need to be able to evaluate quantitative evidence thoughtfully and critically, and to employ quantitative skills to their best advantage to contribute to society. This seminar is designed to help you strengthen these abilities and to learn more about the role of quantification in contemporary discourse.

In this course, we will work together to identify general rules or principles that may help guide our understanding and evaluation of a wide variety of claims about the world. Some of what it will take to do so will require a modest introduction to statistics and research methodology--and we will pursue that background when necessary--but most of what we need will involve sharp and attentive thinking about how quantitative information is generated, summarized, evaluated, and represented. What I hope this course will show you is that developing the habit of thinking intelligently about quantitative claims is vitally important, not that difficult, and highly rewarding.

This seminar is one of Carleton's Arguments and Inquiry Seminars for first-year students. As such, it is intended to contribute to your understanding of the nature of scholarship and argument in academia and to your consideration of what it might mean to take a liberal arts approach to learning. Both of these goals are closely related to the general spirit of the Measured Thinking seminar (and to a specific reading and discussion on 10/5), and we will also join with our colleagues from around the college later this term (see 10/26 in the syllabus) to consider issues associated with liberal arts learning in conjunction with the convocation that day. Measured Thinking also counts as a Quantitative Reasoning Encounter (QRE) and as a Writing Rich (WR) course. That means we will pay special attention to both quantitative reasoning and writing this term. In fact, at its heart, this course is intended to help you strengthen your ability to construct sound and principled written arguments using quantitative evidence. In addition to my assistance, you will have a student Writing Consultant, Zachary Levonian (, available to help you.

Your grade in Measured Thinking will be largely dependent on your diligence as a student. You should attend class regularly (despite the early hour), complete readings and assignments on time, demonstrate that you have paid close attention to instructions, and participate thoughtfully in class discussion. If you are diligent as a student, I would expect to see the quality of your work improve over the course of the term. This ought not to be a course in which you will have to worry about grades. Just do the work, pay attention, participate, learn, and have some fun.

Seminar Books

Blastland, M., & Dilnot, A. (2009). The numbers game. New York: Gotham.
Brandt, A. M. (2007).  The cigarette century. New York: Basic.
Hemenway, D. (2004).
Private guns public health. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Miller, J. (2004). The Chicago guide to writing about numbers. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Tufte, E. (1997). Visual and statistical thinking. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press.


Standard Class Meeting Schedule: Monday/Wednesday, 8:30-9:40, and Friday, 8:30-9:30, Olin 102-104

Monday, 9/10, 8:30-9:20: Why study quantitative reasoning? IDSC 100 Entrance Examination!

Wednesday, 9/12: Got numbers? Using and estimating numerical information.

Paulos, J. (1988).  Innumeracy: Examples and principles, pp. 3-14.
Gawande, A. (2007).  Better: A surgeon’s notes on performance, pp. 51-69, 169-200.
Weinstein, L., & Adam, J. A. (2008).  Guesstimation: Solving the world's problems on the back of a cocktail napkin, pp. xiii-9.

            [Introduction to Numbers We Should Know assignment]

Friday, 9/14, 8:30-9:40: Finding and evaluating quantitative information. [Kristin Partlow, Carleton Reference Librarian, Library 306].

Miller, J. E. (2004).  The Chicago guide to writing about numbers, pp. 1-31, 53-79, 220-238. 

Monday, 9/17: Representing numbers in words and comparisons; An introduction to writing with and about numbers; Structuring a paper; Properly attributing sources.  

Blastland, M., & Dilnot, A. (2009).  The numbers game, pp. 12-30.
Miller, J. E. (2004).  The Chicago guide to writing about numbers, pp. 1-31, 53-79, 220-238. [Review]

Carleton College.  Academic honesty in the writing of essays and other papers, pp. 2-23. [Print out, read, bring to class]

Wednesday, 9/19: Means of summarizing numbers with integrity and questioning summaries knowledgeably.

           [Numbers We Should Know paper due (bring 3 copies)]

Blastland, M., & Dilnot, A. (2009).  The numbers game, pp. 59-77.
Gould, S. J. (1985).  The median isn’t the message, 6 pps.

Friday, 9/21: Graphic knowledge.

Tufte, E. (1997).  Visual and statistical thinking, pp. 1-31.

Monday, 9/24: Even more graphic knowledge; Strengthening NWSK papers.

             [Numbers We Should Know paper reviews (bring 2 copies)]    

Cohen, I. B. (2005).  The triumph of numbers, pp. 158-177.
Ramage, J. D., Bean, J. C., & Johnson, J.  (2007)  Writing arguments, pp. 109-121.

Wednesday, 9/26: Measurement and counting: Generating numbers and meaning.

Blastland, M., & Dilnot, A. (2009).  The numbers game, pp. 1-11, 78-95.
Henshaw, J. M. (2006).  Does measurement measure up?  pp. 37-54.
Rivlin, G. (2006).  In vino veritas?  The New York Times, 3 pp.

Friday, 9/28: Reflection: What might it mean to take a liberal arts approach to learning?.

            [Numbers We Should Know revised paper due in Olin 111]

Giamatti, A. B. (1983).  The earthly use of a liberal education, pp. 118-126.

Monday, 10/1:  Data in argument: A public health case study. 

Hemenway, D. (2004).  Private guns public health, pp. xi-78, 79-151.

Wednesday, 10/3: Data in argument:  Structuring comparisons.

            [Introduction to Evaluating Hemenway's Arguments assignment]

Hemenway, D. (2004).  Private guns public health, pp. 152-226.
Blastland, M., & Dilnot, A. (2009).  The numbers game, pp. 161-181.

Friday, 10/5: Background for the class final project: Are bicycle helmets good for cycling? [Visit by Griff Wigley]


Monday, 10/8:  The oddities of a life of chance: An introduction to risk and probability.

Blastland, M., & Dilnot, A. (2009).  The numbers game, pp. 31-40, 41-58, 96-110.
Taleb, J. (2005).  Fooled by randomness, pp. xxxix-42.

Wednesday, 10/10: Applying probability to test hypotheses.

            [Evaluating Hemenway's Arguments  paper due (bring 2 copies)]

Miller, J. E. (2004).  The Chicago guide to writing about numbers, pp. 40-52.

Friday, 10/12: No Class (given required convocation of 10/16).  

Monday, 10/15: Midterm Break.

Wednesday, 10/17: Smoking, quantitative argument, and public health.

Brandt, A. M. (2007).  The cigarette century, pp. 1-129, 130-207.     

Friday, 10/19: Smoking, quantitative argument, and public health.

            [Introduction to Final Project assignment]

Brandt, A. M. (2007).  The cigarette century, pp. 211-445, 449-505.

Monday, 10/22: Correlation and regression.

Best, J. (2004).  More damned lies and statistics, pp. 37-42.
Blastland, M., & Dilnot, A. (2009).  The numbers game, pp. 183-192.

Wednesday, 10/24: Quantification and research design.

Wootton, D. (2006).  Bad medicine: Doctors doing harm since Hippocrates, pp. 1-26, 259-268.  
Blastland, M., & Dilnot, A. (2009).  The numbers game, pp. 182-192.
Kolata, G. (2008). Searching for clarity: A primer on medical studies, 4 pp.

Friday, 10/26: Summarizing research quantitatively.

            [Required A&I Convocation: Sherry Turkle, MIT ,"Necessary Conversations"]]

Turkle, S. (2006).  Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other, pp. 1-20.  

Monday, 10/29: Summarizing research quantitatively; Understanding quantitative claims in the health literature.  

Ioannidis, J. P. A. (2005).  Contradicted and initially stronger effects in highly cited clinical research,
            pp. 218-228.
Taubes, G. (1995).  Epidemiology faces its limits, pp. 164-169.

Saul, S., & Berenson, A. (2007). Maker of Lipitor digs in to fight generic rival, 2 pp.

Wednesday, 10/31: Health literacy.

Gigerenzer, G., Gaissmaier, W., Kurz-Milcke, E., Schwartz, L. M., & Woloshin, S. (2008).  Helping doctors and patients make sense of health statistics, pp. 53-96.
Kent, D., & Hayward, R. (2007). When averages hide individual differences in clinical trials.  American Scientist, pp. 60-68.

Friday, 11/2.
Quantitative approaches to sports.

Moskowitz, T. J., & Wertheim, L. J. (2011).  Scorecasting: The hidden influences behind how sports are played and games are won, pp. 7-30, 136-167.

Monday, 11/5: Final project groups. Educational Assistant Kate Stinebaugh.

Wednesday, 11/7: Numbers in the news. Visit by Professor Nathan Grawe.

Goldacre, B. (2005).  Don’t dumb me down, The Guardian, 4 pp.
Blastland, M., & Dilnot, A. (2009).  The numbers game, pp. 132-149.

Friday, 11/7: The psychology of numbers. Visit by Professor Mija van der Wege.

Dehaene, S. (1997).  The number sense, pp. 13-40, 64-88.
Peters, E., Vastfjall, D., Slovic, P., Mertz, C. K., Mazzoceo, K., & Dickert, S.  (2006). Numeracy and decision making,  pp. 407-413.

Monday, 11/12: Sampling and polling.

Blastland, M., & Dilnot, A. (2009).  The numbers game, pp. 111-131.
Newport, F., Sand, L., & Moore, D.  (1997).  How are polls conducted? 6 pps.

Wednesday, 11/14: Summing up.

Abelson, R. (1995).  Statistics as a principled argument, pp. 1-14.
Blastland, M., & Dilnot, A. (2009).  The numbers game, pp. 193-194.

            [Final Project presentations]