Wield Your Statistics

They’re tools.

Statistics without direction and velocity are useless. They’re a bag of balls, or a rack of bats, blunt as a hockey puck or flabby as an under-inflated football. Pick your own silly analogy, but remember this: having them is pointless if you don’t know how to use them.

We all handle them differently.

Batting Stance
NOBODY ELSE HANDLES A BAT LIKE KEVIN YOUKILIS

Among the many approaches for handling statistics, you’ll find one that makes you comfortable, but some essentials are common to all good writers: they face forward, adopt a comfortable stance, stare down the opposition, deliver with confidence, and know how to use spin.

My number is a good number.

Readers need to be told how your number compares to the range of possible numbers. The statistic by itself means nothing until you place it into context.

Half Glass

  • A full 50%
  • As high as 50%
  • Has improved to 50%
  • Proud to announce we have achieved 50%
  • At 50%, the perfect balance

My number is a bad number.

Except for experts in the field of your endeavor, your readers are at your mercy to interpret the value of the numbers you share. They count on you to guide them to an understanding of the importance of the evidence you present.

Half Glass

  • A mere 50%
  • As low as 50%
  • Has sunk to 50%
  • Regret to admit we have achieved only 50%
  • At 50%, an awful compromise

Real-life example.

Michelle Obama on her book tour is talking frankly about infertility. The news announcer putting Obama’s miscarriage and subsequent worries into context shared these facts:

  • Approximately 10% of American women between 18 and 45 who attempt to conceive, experience infertility to some degree.
  • The percentage is higher for African-American women.

I have no idea whether those numbers are higher or lower than I should have expected, and the announcer was no help. She could have used the statistics in any of several ways to help me understand.

MichellePregnant

Find the useless sentence.

Though these sentences are contradictory and entirely fictional, each serves a rhetorical purpose. Find the useless sentence and pledge to purge any like it from your work.

  1. Modern medicine and Americans’ overall health have reduced the infertility rate to 10% for American women, though sadly the rate is higher for African-Americans.
  2. Shockingly, the infertility rate for African-American women between 18 and 45 is higher than for women in many of the wealthiest African countries.
  3. The infertility rate has skyrocketed to 10% for all American women 18 to 45, even higher for African-Americans.
  4. 10% of American women between 18 and 45—more for African-Americans—who attempt to conceive, experience infertility to some degree.
  5. Though African-Americans lag behind by a few points, American women who wish to become pregnant have achieved a remarkable 90% fertility rate.

Revision—Rhetoric

Argument and Rhetoric are inseparable

Despite my pretense that they can be graded as separate categories, Argument and Rhetoric are as inseparable as fist and fingers. Just as I can’t describe a fist without speaking of tightly curled fingers, I can’t describe Rhetoric without explaining how it persuades readers to accept an argument. Even so, I try to grade the fingers and the fist.

The Style Aspect of Rhetoric

Example 1

Uncorrected Drafts suffer from imprecise language that inhibits interpretation.

[When read aloud, the following paragraph sounds like mostly comprehensible conversational speech, but viewed on paper, it is peppered with grammar trouble and peculiar phrasing that make comprehension very difficult.]

The NPR broadcast was very interesting and what surprised me is how the claims were accurately correct in my opinion. I would have never thought of how money can change so drastically in time. In the past, we were exposed to using gold as a currency, then to paper bills and now an electronic transaction. In today’s world, society does claim to use paper bills and coins for small matters, but at the same time we already progressed, using digital cash. A prime example, paying bills, in which society pays bills using a computer and that consist only information it’s seems surprising to know now how easily any amount of a transaction can be paid off or transferred. There is no physical money being involved. The closest idea that I can think of using paper would be is sending checks through the mail, but that’s highly rare nowadays.

[The highlights indicate every phrase that needs to be corrected. Red and purple are not particularly significant, but two colors are needed to call out individual phrases.]

Corrected Drafts make clearer statements that are easier to interpret.

The NPR broadcast was very interesting, and what surprised me was that the claims were correct in my opinion. I never realized that money had changed so drastically over time. In the past, we used gold as a currency, then paper bills, and now electronic transactions. Today, although we claim to use paper bills and coins for small matters, we have already progressed to digital cash. We pay our bills by computer; those transactions consist of information only. At any time, all or part of a bill can be paid off or transferred without any money being involved. The only way we use paper now is to send checks through the mail, but that’s highly rare nowadays.

Rhetorically Effective Drafts persuade readers to accept a premise.

The NPR broadcast told the story of money correctly. I was surprised to learn that money had changed so drastically over time. In the past, we used gold as a currency, then paper bills, and now electronic transactions, each time using a more abstract version of barter. Today, although we claim to use paper bills and coins for small matters, we have mostly eliminated those last physical objects in favor or digital cash. We pay our bills by computer using information only, nothing physical. At any time, all or part of a bill can be paid off or transferred without any paper or metal currency at all. The only way we use paper now is to send checks through the mail, but that’s increasingly rare.

Rhetorically Effective Arguments prove more complex theses.

The NPR broadcast told the story of money correctly. It illustrated that money, already an abstraction, has grown increasingly more abstract, as have our lives in general. Before money, we traded cows for corn, but transactions were limited to what one trader had that another trader wanted. With the advent of gold as a currency, trade flourished because the gold could represent cows or corn or any other valuable commodity. It was an abstraction, a symbol of needs fulfilled. Next paper bills, with no inherent value, represented gold. Now electronic entries in a bank branch database represent dollars, each step more abstract than the previous. Today, we don’t trade, use gold, or for the most part use currency: we pay our bills by computer using information only, nothing physical at all. Like the work we do (which increasingly is not physical labor but mental exertion) it’s no coincidence that our cows are also now abstractions. The closest we get to the animal is the shrink-wrapped meat ground and extruded so that it no longer looks like anything that lived.


Example 2

Uncorrected Drafts suffer from imprecise language that inhibits interpretation.

Money, money, money. The extremely complex and arguably fictional foundation of our economy. I always wondered growing up how did a piece of paper with some inscriptions and fancy images become the social fabric of our world? When you put a U.S dollar bill side by side to monopoly money you understand that one is worth something and the other isn’t. Although, monopoly money like “real” money is simply paper from our trees. Therefore, we must question, why is money valuable? Pre Colonial era we traded among each other valuables in which each person needed. We valued precious and rare metals or jewels such as diamond, gold and silver. We valued goods as currency and only cared about items which every colony needed. If a man had a pig but needed a cow he would search for that person that needed a pig and had a cow. This exchange of goods made perfect sense and never involved a paper bill and a complex system of valuing that bill. Money in its self has no real value to it, it isn’t rare and its not pretty. We the people make money valuable, we make the value “real”, but should we?

Corrected Drafts make clearer statements that are easier to interpret.

Money, money, money: it’s the extremely complex and arguably fictional foundation of our economy. I always wondered growing up how a piece of paper with some inscriptions and fancy images became the social fabric of our world. Even a child who puts a U.S dollar bill side by side to Monopoly money can understand that one is worth something and the other isn’t, even though “real” money—like Monopoly money—is simply paper from our trees. Is it because one is issued by the US government and the other by the Parker Brothers Company that makes one of them valuable? In pre-colonial times, we traded among each other valuables which every person needed. We valued precious and rare metals or jewels such as diamonds, gold, and silver. We valued goods as currency and only cared about items which every colonist needed. If a man had a pig but needed a cow, he would search for the person who needed a pig and had a cow. This exchange of goods made perfect sense and never involved a paper bill or a complex system of valuing that bill. Money in itself has no real value to it; it isn’t rare, and it’s not pretty. We the people make money valuable. We make the value “real”; but should we?

Rhetorically Effective Drafts persuade readers to accept a premise.

Despite its importance to all our lives, we have to admit money is a fiction. Children are right to wonder how pieces of paper with some inscriptions and fancy images run our world. They know but can’t grasp why one dollar bill can be traded for candy at the corner store while the other is worth nothing, except in Monopoly. What they do understand is that the houses in Monopoly aren’t real, but the money doesn’t seem so different from the bills we use for groceries. 

In our early history, we traded valuable things directly. If a man had a pig but needed a cow, he would search for the person who had a cow and needed a pig. This exchange of goods made perfect sense but was clumsy and sometimes impossible to manage. Substituting precious and rare metals or jewels for cows and pigs, we were able to trade with everyone, whether they had cows or not. Money in itself has no real value to it, but we agree to make it valuable for convenience. While it no longer represents gold, the money we use today has value only because it is issued by the US government and not the Parker Brothers Corporation.


The Argument Value of Rhetoric

Rhetoric Can Reveal or Hide Arguments

The fact that there is a giant ball of limestone sitting in the middle of the ocean somewhere still being claimed by someone who is deceased is unsettling to me. That is like me having 500 dollars and throwing it in the ocean. When the money washes up onto shore and someone picks it up, it would now be theirs. Nobody can just go pick up the giant ball of limestone and claim it.

This paragraph may contain a valid argument, but the language obscures it. The analogy misses the point of the story of the sunken fei. Nobody will ever retrieve that “money,” but its physical presence or absence is of no longer of consequence to its owner.

Let’s try a different analogy for the limestone disc at the bottom of the ocean. Donald Trump has created a value for his name. Unlike banks that pay huge naming fees to have NFL stadiums named for them, Trump can get developers to pay him millions to attach his name to a project. His name is not an object like the sunken fei. Its insubstantiality doesn’t matter at all. And neither could anybody steal it and be richer. If he’s a billionaire, it’s because he can sell his name for a billion dollars whenever he wants to.


Brevity and Clarity

Don’t Give Readers Time to Disagree

A first draft may contain many capable sentences that make reasonable individual points, but if they don’t transition well from one idea to the next, and if the goal of the argument is not identified in advance, readers are free to follow any path that distracts them and never arrive at the summit you want to guide them to.

1. The value of money is the mental reassurance of wealth.
2. One might question what mental reassurance of wealth has to do with money.
3. Simply it is the way we track value.
4. We are reassured that the money we have can purchase a curtain amount of things.
5. We place a value on money to keep track of things it can purchase.
6. The psychological or economic value of money may change with currency variations, but the money will always be worth something.
7. Over time, America’s relationship with the value of the dollar has evolved.
8. In the early 20th century, it granted a request from the French to convert their dollar assets into gold.
9. Granting that request gave the impression that the US dollar was weak.
10. The French believed that their money was worth more than the U.S. dollar.
11. The French wanted something they thought was worth having, so they asked for gold.
12. Even though the gold was worth no more than the equivalent value in US dollars, the French were not convinced that the dollars were “worth their weight in gold.”

First, combine the sentences for better effectiveness.
[1-6] Money reassures us of our economic wealth. While the volume of goods and services it can buy will change from time to time, knowing that we have enough to meet our needs is reassuring.

Then, provide the needed transition between the sections.
But even money can vary in value compared to other currencies.

Then, combine the conclusion sentences.
[7-12] When the French began to doubt the stability of the value of American dollars, they demanded the US convert their dollar holdings into gold.

Most of your individual claims can be made in a word or two so that the sentences provide their own internal transitions.


Sufficient Scholarship

Example 1

Over-reliance on Personal Perspective

So what makes these pieces of paper we call dollars have value? well because people in society decided to make it have value. This method of currency was created to make the trade of goods easier and faster to manage. After reading “The Island Of Stone Money” one can notice that the inhabitants of Uap had a similar system to the one we use today. Today technology has advanced so much that we can now digitally manage, distribute and hold our money through mobile apps and online websites. whether one prefers using credit cards, Pay Pal or bank apps a physical dollar is a place holder for that digital number on any of those digital outlets. Now comparing Uap’s method to our current method the people of Uap used the stones as their physical placeholder to replace their word. Essentially creating a word for product system. Whilst currently people are using a pixel for product system.

Rhetoric and Scholarship are inseparable in your case, MyStudent. You’re trying to thrive on observation and speculation alone, without bringing any evidence or support from the rich material at your disposal. You cite only the Yap, and you do so in a way that assumes your readers are all familiar with Milton Friedman’s article. They’re not. They haven’t listened to the NPR podcast. They have no idea what you’re talking about. They know only what you tell them. So tell them what you learned and help them understand.

 

Advertising Failure

Counterintuitivity in Medicine

Advertising Failure

By which we mean: “Announcing Where and When Failure has Occurred as a Method for Reducing Failure.”

The story of Doctor Kim A. Adcock’s approach to solving a problem in the radiology department at Kaiser Permanente in Denver reads like script background for one of those “procedural” TV shows such as CSI. We know who died (far too many) and we know who did it (doctors, sort of) but we’re not sure how to handle the evidence to make sure nobody gets killed next time.

Procedures that seemed reasonable to Kaiser in 1995 because they “had always been done that way,” turned out to be entirely unreasonable, with deadly consequences. And a solution that seemed impossible because of fear, turned out to be the best and most logical of solutions, and has saved countless lives.

Microsoft PowerPoint - EKA.RSNApressimages.2012.10.08.pptxMicrosoft PowerPoint - EKA.RSNApressimages.2012.10.08.pptx

[Caption above and below:Mammography images (from 2010, left; and 2012, right) of a woman in her forties with no family history of breast cancer who missed a year of screening and in the interval developed suspicious right upper out calcifications [ ] and a suspicious mass { }, both of which underwent biopsy, yielding invasive carcinoma.]

Microsoft PowerPoint - EKA.RSNApressimages.2012.10.08.pptxMicrosoft PowerPoint - EKA.RSNApressimages.2012.10.08.pptx

I read this story when it first appeared in 2002 and have cherished its insights ever since. Now 16 years later, I had to go find it to share it with this class. Since reading it, and other stories like it, I cannot look at statistics of any kind without wondering what they really mean. If the crime rate goes down, does that mean there is less crime? Maybe not. It might mean fewer people are reporting crimes.

For example, in New Orleans after Katrina, distrust of the police ran so high most citizens in some neighborhoods preferred to suffer crime in silence than to involve the police. The very first thought that came to my mind listening to that story was, “I’ll bet the crime rate has gone down in those neighborhoods” and not because there’s less crime. The mayor though, and the chief of police, can trumpet those statistics as if they’re doing a better job in those same neighborhoods.

But I digress. Before you read the article, “Mammogram Team Learns From Its Errors,” I want you to make predictions on a variety of factual situations that lend themselves to counterintuitivities. (I’m going to keep using this word until the rest of the world adopts it.)

Open the post Counterintuitive Predictions and react to the 50 claims by making a long Reply below the post. When you finish classifying the 50 claims, try to summarize the article you’ve never read based on the claims you find in the list.

Photo Source: Radiologic Society of North America RSNA


The Article

Against the possibility that we will some day be unable to access the original article at the New York Times, I reproduce here the contents:

”Every mammography program in the country should be doing something like this,” says Dr. Robert A. Smith, the American Cancer Society’s screening chief.

Very few do. In fact, what Dr. Adcock has created is a mirror image of American mammography as usual — an industry that remains deeply troubled 10 years after Congress set out to clean it up through its own experiment in medical regulation.

At the heart of Dr. Adcock’s experiment was his willingness to confront his doctors and focus on their skill in spotting tumors in the swirls and shadows of X-ray film, what experts call the hardest job in radiology. For the government, facing withering resistance from physicians, regulating doctors proved too politically risky. At the very moment in 1995 that Dr. Adcock was beginning to hold his doctors to the statistical fire, regulators were settling for a system that concentrated on the X-ray machines and the images they produced.

In that breach, a yearlong examination by The New York Times has found, the government has fallen far short of its pledge to ensure high-quality mammography for all. Here in Denver, Dr. Adcock has winnowed his team down to a few specialists. By contrast, most of the 20,000 doctors in the United States reading breast X-rays are generalists with limited training and practice in mammography. Many lack the skill needed to do so effectively, yet neither they nor their patients have the tools to find out who is good and who is not.

Keeping score, though, is not simply a matter of identifying and weeding out the worst practitioners. For Dr. Adcock and his admirers, the statistics offer a way to approach a more pervasive, and more elusive, problem that increasingly preoccupies the entire medical profession: the mistakes that, to varying degrees, all doctors make.

At Kaiser in Denver, the statistics anchor a regimen of continuous education that far outstrips the few hours a year the government requires. The Denver doctors are constantly analyzing their errors, searching for those meaningful patterns of shadow that they have missed, perhaps again and again.

The Denver group is not the first to use statistics to track doctor performance. A small but growing number of other mammography programs are beginning to keep score. Several states now publish individual doctors’ death rates for open-heart surgery. But seven years in, the Kaiser mammography group has perhaps gone as far as anyone in creating a statistical system for holding doctors accountable for their work.

Still, even many of Dr. Adcock’s admirers point out that he has achieved his success in the closed and relatively manageable confines of a health maintenance organization. They wonder if it can be replicated broadly, especially since the government has not fulfilled its promise of a national registry of cancer cases. At Kaiser, if a woman receives a breast cancer diagnosis, a doctor can find past mammograms and see if her case was missed. In the world at large, a doctor will often do a mammogram and never see or hear of the patient again.

In the end, though, the most delicate obstacle may be the doctors themselves. Doctors have been pushed a good distance from their traditional pedestals. But few have done so especially happily, and rare is the physician eager for the psychic roughing up that comes when the Denver doctors are forced to confront their mistakes.

Dr. Ken Heilbrunn, a Seattle radiologist who says he admires what Dr. Adcock has done, calls this the ”shame” factor, and manipulating it is the stealth ingredient of the Kaiser method. ”To really improve your skills,” he explains, ”you have to repeat this shameful moment over and over.”

It’s a tricky business, this question of the doctor’s image. Even today, Kaiser is reluctant to advertise its turnaround, and it would share only some data with The Times. Too many people still believe doctors walk on water, one official explained, so how can we brag about making fewer mistakes?

In wielding those mistakes, Dr. Adcock says he pledged from the first to avoid emotions and hold everyone accountable, including himself. After all, he says, ”it is easy for us to delude ourselves about the quality of our work.”

Setting a New Standard

The revolution began with a shot in the dark.

When several physicians complained about an apparent missed case in September 1994, Kaiser dealt with it in a typically ad-hoc way: the radiologist in question was encouraged to have another doctor double-read his films for a while. There was no reason to go further, Kaiser reasoned, since even experts make mistakes.

But soon after, the H.M.O. named a new radiology chief, Dr. Adcock, with a different approach, drawn from his personality and personal experience.

Five years before, Kaiser had hired Dr. Adcock for a variety of X-ray work. He had little grounding in mammography and a cautious, statistical turn of mind not entirely common in a doctor. In fact, he had thought about becoming a lawyer, and in medicine had sought out a specialty about as far removed from patients — and especially, he says, their blood — as possible.

Starting out at Kaiser, he had dreaded missing too many tumors. ”A good deal of what we do in radiology does not have the same sort of health implications,” he says. ”’With mammography, you’re looking for the opportunity to save a life.”

He devised a personal oversight system, using what are known as medical-outcome data, in which a doctor’s action is tracked to see how the patient fared.

Mammography, he felt, was well-suited to a statistical approach. Unlike, say, hip surgery, with its many gradations of success — is it the ability to walk, or run, with or without a limp? — the equation in mammography is fairly straightforward. The radiologist concludes that a woman appears to have cancer or not, and over time that judgment is proved right or wrong.

If mammography was the ideal medium, Kaiser was the ideal laboratory, since it already tracked its members. So when Dr. Adcock began his new job, he quickly homed in on his suspect employee. The doctor, it turned out, had not missed just one case; he had apparently missed a lot.

In taking the matter to his bosses, Dr. Adcock says now, he realized he was stepping into a running debate. He remembered the furor, and the mixed lessons, of the heart-surgery initiative in New York.

After the surgeons’ scores began appearing, the heart-surgery death rate had fallen by about 40 percent. Dr. Mark Chassin, a former New York State health commissioner, says hospitals were pressed to fix underlying problems. New Jersey and Pennsylvania have since begun their own listings.

Some researchers suggested, however, that other factors might have driven down the death rate. They questioned the soundness of the data. They warned that surgeons might be increasing their scores by avoiding higher-risk patients, a criticism that prompted the state to refine its system.

But where others saw controversy, Dr. Adcock saw opportunity.

”For me,” he recalls, ”it was a feeling of exhilaration that here at last was some aspect of medicine that could be measured and managed.”

He rechecked his numbers, then sat down with Kaiser officials, lawyers and public-relations people. They were worried about many things — negative publicity, malpractice claims, women turning away in skepticism. How many might die because they stopped getting tested?

But there was another danger they could not ignore. The radiologist had read 3,000 mammograms, and if Dr. Adcock was right, a dozen or so women he had said were fine in fact had breast cancer.

Making Tough Decisions

Finding those women was a huge job. The radiologist’s films had to be culled from the files and reread by several doctors.

They concluded that 259 women needed follow-up X-rays. Kaiser brought these women back in, gave biopsies to 30, and in the end, 10 women were found to have cancer, the H.M.O. says.

Word eventually reached The Rocky Mountain News, a local newspaper, which reported it as a front-page medical scandal.

In its defense, Kaiser said it had uncovered the situation through its own detective work. Steve Krizman, who edited the Rocky Mountain News’ coverage and later joined Kaiser as a spokesman, said he was skeptical enough about Kaiser’s assertion to mention it only briefly in the pieces.

”I thought, ‘That’s how they are trying to spin it,’ ” Mr. Krizman recalls.

But if the news media missed the broader story, some of the women involved did not.

At first, Ann Veenstra felt spun when she got a phone call asking if she would mind getting another mammogram. ”I felt something was wrong,” says Ms. Veenstra, an administrative assistant.

It felt especially wrong in her case. The mammogram had been her first, a baseline test at 40; she had not planned another for five years. When she turned up with cancer, she says, ”I was so very angry.”

But Kaiser explained how it had found her cancer, and she realized that after potentially killing her off, the H.M.O. may have saved her. ”After I got over my initial shock and anger, I appreciated that someone was checking and double-checking,” she says. ”It’s unbelievable to me this is not nationwide.”

Missed breast cancer is a leading malpractice complaint. But Kaiser was sued by just one woman, who eventually settled.

The radiologist, Dr. James A. Walsh, was crushed when Kaiser asked him to leave, his former colleagues say. He was 60, with two children in graduate school. ”It was a painful moment,” he said recently.

Dr. Walsh said he felt singled out for undue scrutiny and had been treated unfairly and unprofessionally. He said that an expert had found that only three of the missed cancers could be legitimately blamed on him, and that such an error rate fell within acceptable bounds.

”I think I was right and they were wrong,” he says.

The Kaiser official who headed the Denver affiliate’s quality-control program, Dr. Andrew M. Wiesenthal, says the treatment of Dr. Walsh was ”exceedingly fair.”

”We didn’t take any action until it was patently clear that he didn’t do this very well,” Dr. Wiesenthal says.

The Colorado medical board placed Dr. Walsh on probation, and he eventually moved to North Carolina. He says he attended numerous training programs and is now reading mammograms as a fill-in radiologist in four or five states.

”All the medical staffs I work for have no problems at all with my work,” he says.

Starting Fresh

Even with all the hubbub, Dr. Adcock’s bosses gave him a free hand to dig deeper.

”Jim Walsh was a lovely, lovely guy,” says Dr. Deborah S. Shaw, one of the radiologists on the team. ”But we knew this was the right thing to do.”

Which is not to say that the team did not feel wrenched by the firing, and by all the publicity. The doctors could not help but wonder who would be next.

Over the next few years, several more radiologists were fired or resigned in the face of concerns about their interpretive skill. Then Dr. Adcock spotted an even trickier problem. Nearly half the original 20 radiologists were reading far fewer mammograms than the others. They met the federal minimum of 480 a year, but with the others reading as many as 14,000, Dr. Adcock agreed with experts who say the government minimum is far too low.

Moreover, the low-volume doctors were not accumulating enough data to show if they were good. So he simply assumed they were not, and restricted them to other radiology tasks, like CAT scans.

How did they feel? Rather relieved, it turns out. Dr. John A. Siebert, for one, says mammography was monotonous, particularly since he might screen 200 healthy women before finding one cancer. An instructor once told him to pretend that each X-ray was his mother’s, but that trick, he says, went only so far. ”It’s sort of tedious,” he says. ”You have to sort of slap yourself to look at them.”

Others say they had trouble mustering — and holding onto — the intense yet relaxed concentration needed to find the more subtle tumors, what some of the Denver doctors call ”the Zen zone.”

”It was hard for me to get in the groove,” Dr. John W. Grudis says.

Improving Accuracy

In a dark basement room, Dr. Shaw takes a deep breath, clears her mind and begins the hunt for breast cancer. It takes her just minutes to stumble.

She sits facing a large machine shaped like a player piano that holds a reel of mammograms, and when she spins the films of a 55-year-old woman into view, she is riveted to a whitish spot in the shadows.

”This one cluster has my attention,” she says. ”I can’t tell you why, but it looks funny.”

She dictates instructions for the woman to return for further testing. But the biopsy finds only normal cells.

The doctors do not take these ”false positives” lightly, given the physical and psychic pain they can inflict on a patient. But there is a weightier side of the coin, the moment when a doctor finds a tumor that looks as if it has been around awhile. Then the question becomes, was the cancer visible on earlier films? If so, who read them?

”It’s a horrendous experience, just an explosion of emotions at once,” says Dr. Gerald L. Lourie, another team member. ”You know you are either going to be free as the judge says, ‘Not guilty,’ or you look and you know you just missed this one cold.”

What distinguishes the Denver team from most others is its systematic embrace of frequently occurring shame.

Once a year, Dr. Adcock also sends out lists of actual cancers missed, known as false negatives, so the doctors can pull the files and commit their mistakes to memory.

”That’s your boss telling you, ‘These are the ones that weren’t so hot,’ ” says one of the doctors, Richard A. Propper.

Last comes the toughest scrutiny of all. The doctors’ hits and misses and other statistical variables are displayed in brightly colored charts for all to see.

Mammography everywhere is a constant balancing of possible harm: between missing too many cancers and ordering too many needless biopsies. But the Denver doctors say their continuous scrutiny enables them to spot weaknesses in their work before they do inordinate harm.

Over time, they say, they have made an important discovery about why they miss some tumors. Breast cancer has many different shapes on an X-ray: a line of little white dots, perhaps, or a star-shaped blob known as architectural distortion. By testing and keeping score, the Denver doctors found that they sometimes obsessed over one type and neglected the others.

Today, the team’s accuracy is close to what experts say is the best mammography can offer.

Women have been told that mammograms can find 90 percent of breast cancer. But that figure stems from ideal conditions in research, and recent real-world samplings in two states show that doctors are finding just over 70 percent of the cancers in women who get regular exams.

Some clinics are doing much worse. Four of the six busiest centers in a study of screening in North Carolina are averaging about 65 percent. That is, they miss one cancer for every two they find. (Not all missed cancer can be blamed on the doctor; the X-rays might be poorly taken, and many tumors are simply too hard to see.)

The Denver team, stuck near 70 percent before it began its makeover, is now scoring 80 percent. By another measure, it is finding cancers at an earlier stage, allowing for earlier treatment. It did this without increasing the number of women it sends to biopsy. Just as critically, the group says, its team is consistently good, doctor to doctor. Women need not worry about having their X-rays read by a weak member of an otherwise strong team.

What that means, in the simplest terms, is that the Denver doctors are finding about 15 more cancers a year than they would have at their previous accuracy level. (Kaiser says it does not know if that improvement has affected its breast-cancer death rate.) In a country where 192,000 breast-cancer cases are diagnosed each year, that same increase in accuracy could mean finding upwards of 10,000 more annually.

Seeking a Better Way

Dr. Adcock is branching out. He has begun looking at outcome data for other radiology procedures, like breast biopsies, in which doctors can cause bleeding or miss the targeted cells.

And the news from Denver is starting to get around Kaiser’s loose nationwide confederation of H.M.O.’s.

”Kim Adcock is at the cutting edge of everything in radiology,” says Dr. William E. Drobnes of Kaiser’s Maryland affiliate, ”and I’m shamelessly trying to steal this.”

A similar effort is under way in British Columbia, and about 120 clinics in the United States, mostly in North Carolina and New Hampshire, are volunteers in a study designed to help doctors improve their skills.

Still, this is a revolution of small steps. Even at the nation’s leading cancer centers, doctors say they cannot do all Dr. Adcock has done.

Partly, it is that vast and inevitable well of psychic resistance. Equally important, few medical organizations can control information the way Kaiser can, as an H.M.O. that provides all of its patients’ care.

”Everybody would like to do this if they could. It’s a wonderful learning experience,” says Dr. David Dershaw, the mammography chief at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. ”But the search for false negatives is difficult, cumbersome and expensive.”

Sloan-Kettering does track false positives, and Dr. Dershaw says he is confident that his doctors, all trained by him, are highly skilled.

Still, he has never calculated their skill by tracking missed cancers. That would require contacting all the women who got negative mammograms — tens of thousands each year — to see if they later received diagnoses of breast cancer.

”I’ve been trying to reach one woman for three days,” Dr. Dershaw says. ”And I’m trying to give her the results of her biopsy. Just imagine what it would take to reach every woman who comes in.”

In pursuit of a better way, Congress a decade ago ordered the creation of a national cancer registry that radiologists could search for patient records. But the system remains a cumbersome and piecemeal hodgepodge of state archives.

The data are also difficult to interpret, especially for the many doctors reading just a few hundred films a year. Several years’ worth would be needed to be meaningful.

Some clinics are trying other approaches. A few have two radiologists read every X-ray independently; others are using novel computer programs that show promise in seeing some hard-to-find cancers.

Even so, when experts talk about doctors’ skills, the discussion almost always circles back to the conundrum federal officials wrestled with when they wrote the mammography rules a decade ago: How to improve quality without diminishing access to care. If doctors start dropping out of mammography because they score badly in tests or performance audits, where will women go?

The balancing act gets trickier and trickier. New research is stoking concern about doctors’ competency. At the same time comes anguished talk about doctors driven away by skyrocketing malpractice rates and shrinking reimbursement.

To some experts, the solution lies in a radical-sounding reorganization: centralized facilities across the country where large numbers of mammograms would be read by small teams of highly skilled, and presumably enthusiastic, experts. In the future, digital mammography, a recent and still-experimental innovation, could make sending films as easy as e-mail.

Which is remarkably similar to what they do in Denver. Call it the two-step mammogram. Women are still X-rayed at satellite offices, but the films are shipped to the central complex where Dr. Adcock’s six-member team works. This has also meant lower costs for a procedure that many radiologists see as a money-losing obligation.

For now, though, many people are banking on the federal government, hoping it will pay more attention to the doctors.

Legislation moving through Congress to extend the federal mammography rules would have the Institute of Medicine, an independent research group, study several matters, from doctor training to interpretive skill. Breast-cancer screening advocates are quietly pushing Congress to take strong steps, sooner. The American College of Radiology, which accredits the nation’s mammography doctors, says it would support a federal requirement for periodic competency drills.

Many experts, like Dr. Robert A. Schmidt of the University of Chicago, say that only a complete government overhaul can do the job, starting with financial incentives and ending with tools to assess doctor skill.

He is not holding his breath. ”There are lots of arguments you can make in deciding to do nothing,” he says. ”Even with the way mammography is now, you could still say you’re still doing more good than harm.”

Working as a Team

Even Dr. Adcock is wary of having the government police doctors’ performance. ”I could see that being counterproductive,” he says.

On the other hand, left to themselves, it is not clear how many doctors would do what Dr. Adcock did when his data turned on him.

The Denver doctors all have their own reading styles. Dr. Shaw likes to press her red-nailed fingers against the X-rays when she zeroes in on a problem spot. Dr. Geoffrey D. Friefeld burns through films at a torrid two-minute pace.

Dr. Adcock is a fretter. ”Oh boy, I hate it when that happens,” he said one afternoon last summer when he couldn’t make up his mind. ”This one is very hard to let go.”

Then his latest scores came in, and he really started to worry. He was dumping more X-rays into an ambiguous pile, having failed to decide if they showed cancer or not. Holding his charts, he said, ”I look at that and think, my goodness, have I forgotten how to read mammograms?”

He labored over the tougher cases, and even his body language — big exhales and slouching — seemed to show his concern. He thought about the radiologists he had exiled, including Dr. Walsh.

Then his volume began to slip as he spent more time on management duties, and he wondered: If his accuracy slipped, too, would he see it in his data? ”That was the hardest thing,” he says, ”knowing that I might not be able to tell.”

Late last year, his volume slipped below 200 a month, and as his colleagues watched his numbers drop, they feared the worst. If he did not stop himself, Dr. Shaw says, ”I would have had to tell him to.”

On Jan. 1, Dr. Adcock decided to stop reading mammograms. He did not want to burden the team with his workload, since the original group of 20 was down to 6. But he says he had a bigger obligation in bailing out of a task he had come to love: ”I’m protecting the patients against myself.”

Tips on Mammography Clinics

Dr. Barbara Monsees headed the expert panel that helped write the federal mammography rules. But when women ask her where to get a good mammogram, she does not tell them to look for the government seal of approval. ”I tell them to go to a place where people specialize in mammography,” she says.

Comparison shopping for mammograms is not easy. The government does not gather much of the information that experts say women need. Women in rural areas may have to travel long distances to find expert doctors. Some doctors may bristle at being grilled. Even high-technology radiology clinics in fancy neighborhoods may be staffed with doctors who do not have the training, experience or knack to read mammograms well.

Still, Kaiser in Denver is hardly the only place that offers high-quality mammography. Several experts offered these thoughts about how to find one of the others:

DO’S

Find a clinic where doctors read large numbers of mammograms, far beyond the 480 a year required by the F.D.A.

Insist on having your films read by the ”lead interpretive physician,” who oversees a clinic’s quality controls.

Look for doctors who did fellowships in mammography, or those who spend at least half their time reading mammograms. At the very least, seek out an enthusiast who goes to meetings and perhaps writes about mammography. (They show up on the Internet.)

Look for clinics where two doctors independently interpret every film.

Ask about ”medical audits,” which show if a doctor sends too many women for biopsies.

Use open-records laws to obtain a clinic’s inspection reports, which list violations and chart the image-quality test known as the ”phantom.” Look for a combined score of 12 or more. Beware of citations for equipment failures or missing ”QC,” or quality control records.

DON’T’S

Don’t press for an instant interpretation of your films. A day’s delay through ”batch” reading can maximize a doctor’s power of concentration.

Don’t put too much faith in a doctor being board certified in radiology. Many doctors passed before the late 1980’s, when mammography was added to the exam. In any case, the number of practice mammograms on the test does not reflect the rigors of real-world screening.

Don’t judge doctors by the lawsuits they have lost for misreading mammograms. Even the best doctors will miss some cancers.

Don’t put too much faith in promising but still experimental technologies like digital X-ray machinery and computer programs that look for cancers doctors might miss.

Don’t have your mammogram done on Mother’s Day, when many clinics offer free or discounted exams. These programs can swamp the doctors and rush the reading.

Counterintuitive Predictions

Counterintuitive Predictions

1. True or False. What occurs in the world is not always reasonable, logical, or right. Even so, it might be true. You’ll decide whether the Premises below are True or False.

2. Reasonable or Unreasonable. People act for reasons other than logic; among them sympathy, loyalty, hope, fear, vested interest, greed, and ineptitude. You’ll decide whether the Premises below are Reasonable or Unreasonable.

3. Right or Wrong. Decisions based on logic or reason can be ethical and moral, unethical or immoral. You’ll decide whether the Premises below are Good or Bad, Ethical or Unethical, Moral or Immoral.

Your Predictions

Before hearing about the Mammogram team at Kaiser Permanente Hospital or reading the associated article, respond in three ways to the Premises below.

First: declare whether the statements made appear to be True or False (you could also answer Likely or Unlikely).

Second: declare whether the statements appear to be Reasonable or Unreasonable (or if you prefer: Batshit Crazy, or Not Insane).

Third: Declare the statements’ moral or ethical position to be Good or Bad. (If the statement doesn’t permit a moral judgment, you could still pronounce it a Good thing, or fundamentally Just Wrong.)

Respond in three ways for each Premise.

1. Likely / Batshit Crazy / Bad
2. False / Reasonable / Good
3. Unlikely / Unreasonable / Wrong
4. True / Not Crazy / Right

Of course, in paradise, the Reasonable would always be True and Good, and the Crazy would always be Untrue, and universally recognized as Bad. But we know better, don’t we? At the end of class, return to your predictions. How many of your expectations were met?

The Article

Mammogram Team Learns from its Errors

The Premises

1. Women who find out how many cancers their doctors miss in routine mammograms stop getting mammograms.
2. Radiologists who perform mammograms are held accountable for the accuracy of their readings.
3. A doctor who finds hundreds of tumors in a year and a half, but who misses 10, is almost always fired.
4. Doctors who read only a few mammograms a month are removed from film-reading teams so that they read none at all.
5. Publishing the failure rates of radiologists improves their accuracy to the best the discipline can achieve.
6. The best technique for improving diagnosis accuracy has been adopted by almost no radiology departments.
7. Congress demands that radiologists be held accountable for their accuracy at detecting tumors in mammogram films.
8. The 20,000 US doctors who read breast X-rays are trained to do so; their accuracy is known and tested.
9. The medical profession accepts that, to varying degrees, all doctors make the same mistakes.
10. Doctors who do mammographies follow up with those patients to discover whether their diagnoses were correct.
11. Doctors appreciate knowing whether they missed actual tumors or misread the “shadows and swirls” of a mammogram as a tumor.
12. The “shame” of confronting an incorrect diagnosis is a valuable teaching tool for doctors who diagnose cancers from mammograms.
13. An accuracy rate of 80% in detecting cancers from mammograms is something to brag about.
14. The best doctor to head a radiology department is a squeamish physician who trained as a lawyer and prefers not to deal with patients “and their blood.”
15. Radiology can be tracked well statistically because patients either have tumors or they don’t.
16. When the director of the radiology department discovers a way to improve the accuracy of cancer diagnoses, his method is immediately embraced by hospital administrators.
17. When New York hospitals began to publish their surgeons’ heart surgery successes and failures, the death rate fell by 40%.
18. The falling death rate meant that heart surgeons were doing more careful work.
19. Hospitals that reduce their false diagnoses proudly advertise that they “make 20% fewer errors” than their competitors.
20. Publishing the error rates of mammography radiologists results in an uncertain but significant number of cancer deaths in women who avoid testing.
21. A radiologist who is known to have missed a tumor is likely to have missed a dozen out of 3000 he declared to be tumor-free.
22. Out of those 3000, when 250 were scanned again, and 30 were biopsied, 10 were found to have cancers he had missed.
23. Finding those 10 cancers was reported as a front-page medical scandal instead of a triumph of an enlightened new technique for avoiding missed diagnoses.
24. Many of the 250 women who were told they needed followup were angry.
25. Of the ten whose cancers were missed by the first doctor but discovered in followup screenings, most sued the hospital for malpractice.
26. The doctor who missed the 10 tumors felt he had been treated unfairly, that only 3 of the cancers could be blamed on him, and that his error rate was acceptable.
27. After being fired, he was hired as a fill-in radiologist in five states bordering North Carolina.
28. The radiologists on the terminated doctor’s team supported him, not the hospital, and resent having their work scrutinized and their failure rates published.
29. While some doctors read 14,000 films a year, and others fewer than 500, failure rates are very similar.
30. Doctors who read just 500 films a year get re-assigned to other work since their sample size is too small to determine their accuracy.
31. Doctors who are “fired” from film reading based on low volume are relieved to have the diagnostic responsibility taken from them.
32. Doctors would rather bring a patient back for a second look or a biopsy than miss a tumor.
33. Doctors are much happier to find evidence on the film of a cancer that has “been around for awhile.”
34. Routinely experiencing the shame of missed diagnoses in tests every four months builds confidence in radiologists.
35. Most hospitals send out lists of actual missed tumors or “false negatives” to their radiologists every year so they can study the films they misinterpreted.
36. The Kaiser Permanente department has learned to detect various “presentations” of tumors on film by studying films of actual missed tumors after the fact.
37. In North Carolina, for every two cancers radiologists find, they miss one.
38. If the results at Kaiser Permanente were replicated nationwide, better than 80% of cancers would be found and 10,000 more cancers would be correctly detected each year.
39. False positives are easy to track, but almost nobody tracks false negatives (missed tumors that show up in later mammograms).
40. There is no routine followup for women who, on the basis of their mammograms, are determined to be tumor free.
41. Holding radiologists to a higher standard of competency results in reduced access to quality care.
42. Making failure rates public increases the likelihood of malpractice claims, which in turn drives up insurance rates, which in turn drives good doctors from the field.
43. Having two doctors instead of one review every film improves accuracy and drives down costs.
44. A nationwide 70% effectiveness rate is considered the best that can be achieved practically and politically.
45. Government oversight of physician performance to standardize techniques nationally has actually reduced accuracy.
46. Dr. Adcock, who improved effectiveness in his radiology department by 25%, took himself off the team when his volume dropped.
47. The most conscientious doctors, who agonize over the presence or absence of tumors on every film, are by far the most effective.
48. When they have a choice, women are best served by the doctors who send the largest percentage of women for biopsies because they miss the fewest cancers.
49. The best indicator of whether a doctor is competent to read mammograms is the number of times she’s been sued.
50. A good day for mammograms is Mother’s Day, when many clinics offer free or discounted exams.

The Blind Summary.

When you finish classifying the claims for Truth/Reasonableness/Goodness, in one paragraph, try to summarize the article you have not read. Use the heading “BLIND SUMMARY.”

 

Revisions—Mechanical

Quotation Marks for Articles

UNCORRECTED
In the Milton Friedman’s piece The Island of Stone Money, I noticed an idea.

CORRECTED
In Milton Friedman’s piece, “The Island of Stone Money,” I noticed an idea.

Capital I
Quotation Marks for Articles

UNCORRECTED
When i came across the article by Milton Friedman named The Island of Stone Money I was intrigued.

CORRECTED
When I came across the article by Milton Friedman titled “The Island of Stone Money,” I was intrigued.

In-Text Citation, not parenthetical APA

Use in-text citation instead of the APA parenthetical method.

UNCORRECTED
Friedman also discussed an instance where the french technically owned some portion of gold. However, they never physically retrieved the gold, instead a deal was made with the U.S and was stored in a drawer on our homeland. (Friedman)

CORRECTED
In “The Island of Stone Money,” Friedman demonstrated the abstract nature of ownership with an anecdote in which the French took possession of some US gold not by physically retrieving it but by permitting the US to store it in a drawer labeled “France.”


Miscellaneous Grammar Corrections

1. Money only has value due to the fact that everyone wants it.
“Due to” means “caused by,” so your sentence would read:
Money only has value caused by the fact that everyone wants it.
You’d probably agree that a better version would be:
Money only has value because everyone wants it.

2. Money only has value because everyone wants it.
“Only” always modifies the word or phrase that follows it.
Your sentence, therefore, means: Money only has value. Which means the only relationship money has to value is that it has it. By that logic, money can’t earn value, lose value, find value, etc.
You’d probably agree that a better version would be:
Money has value only because everyone wants it.

3. Before people use to barter or trade for things they wanted.
The phrase for things often happened in the past is “used to.”
Your sentence, therefore, should be:
Before people used to barter or trade for things they wanted.

4. Before people used to barter or trade for things they wanted.
Your sentence needs a comma. If people used to barter at an earlier time, the comma follows Before:
Before, people used to barter or trade for things they wanted.
But since “used to” indicates clearly an earlier time, you’d probably agree a better version would be:
People used to barter or trade for things they wanted.

5. An example of this is trading cattle for different herbs, spices, or supplies.
Different from what?
An example of this is trading cattle for herbs, spices, or supplies.

6. Money however is a form of middle man.
When it interrupts a sentence, however is surrounded by commas.
Money, however, is a form of middle man.

7. Money, however, is a form of middle man.
Unless you’re going to distinguish between kinds or types or forms of middle man, you should avoid the words kind, and type, and form.
Money, however, is a middle man.


In Class Exercise

Use the Reply field to make one fluent sentence from this mess:

The softball game is cancelled due to the impending storm only threatening the different southern counties that are use to mild types of weather. Classes however will be held.

 

Not Because

Sentences that follow a negative verb with because create confusion for readers.

I don’t love you because you’re beautiful.

No man can safely say this to his girlfriend because she hears the negation first and doesn’t listen to anything else he says. Our readers, like the girlfriend, hear “I don’t love you,” and then believe what follows to be an explanation for our heartlessness.

We meant to say, of course, that we do love our girlfriend, but that she is special in many ways, only one of which is her beauty. But that’s not what we said. To make sure she listens to our entire declaration, not just the first four words, we need to revise our first draft:

Good: I love you, but not because you’re beautiful.

Good: I love you not just for your beauty.

BEST: I love you for your beauty and your generous heart.

Clearly (at least I hope it’s clear to you, gentlemen) the boldest, most specific, most straightforward claim, without negatives, is the best. And of these sentences, the best are those that eliminate the because altogether.


In Class Exercise

Copy these sentences adapted from student essays into the Reply field below and revise them for boldness, specificity, and directness. Replace negative verbs with positive verbs. (Example: replace didn’t resign with declined to resign)

1. Coats wasn’t fired because he was using a legal drug, marijuana, for a legitimate purpose for which he had a prescription. He was fired for violating workplace policy.

2. An employer isn’t able to fire a person who has anxiety because they are taking the correct medication to deal with the issue.

3. Employees don’t get fired for going out and having a few beers after work because alcohol is legal, but in Colorado so is marijuana.

4. Coats shouldn’t have been fired because he was trying to treat the pain he endured on a daily basis.

5. It’s not fair to discriminate against him because he was able to ease the pain of his multiple spasms by using marijuana.

6. Coats wasn’t harming anyone at his job because he was smoking marijuana but he was doing so on his own time and not at work.

BACKGROUND FOR 7-10: The director of the Secret Service ordered an internal review of its security procedures around the White House after a man armed with a knife who jumped the fence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on Friday night managed to make his way through the front door of President Obama’s home before being stopped, officials said Saturday.

7. Omar Gonzalez didn’t penetrate deep into the White House because of the swift actions of Secret Service agents.

8. The Secret Service isn’t being compelled to explain its actions because of the way it  responded to the breach of the White House, but how the breach occurred is under question.

9. Secret Service chief Julia Pierson won’t be fired because of her testimony before Congress yesterday. Her incompetence might cost her her job though.

10. Secret Service agents didn’t use deadly force against the intruder because he was carrying a knife with a 4-inch blade.

Why the Challenger Exploded

Why Challenger Exploded

In January, 1986, the solid booster rockets that were to launch NASA’s space shuttle Challenger into orbit suffered a catastrophic failure 73 seconds into the launch. All seven crew were killed in the disaster, most likely from the impact of their cabin striking the ocean below. The weather in Florida was very cold; ice had formed on the launch pad overnight, but the launch proceeded despite the known risk of low ambient temperatures, partly because of public interest in this particular launch. For the first time, a non-astronaut—”ordinary citizen” Christa McAuliffe—was a member of a shuttle crew. The nation was riveted.

The launch, most uncommonly, was broadcast live on TV. Millions of schoolkids watched as the events unfolded, including McAuliffe’s students, gathered in their classroom to celebrate their teacher’s accomplishment. For 72 seconds, they were jubilant, but then an explosion separated the boosters from the shuttle and the launch catastrophically failed.



The Common Explanation

The immediate cause of the explosion was the failure of O-Rings to contain the immense pressure of combustion within the rocket.


The complicated issue of causation

The answer to the question “Why did the Challenger Fail?” or its corollary question, “Why did Christa McAuliffe die?” is complicated, since no single cause can be isolated.

Several causes can be named, some distant, some immediate, some precipitating.
Among them:

  • The O-rings failed
  • The design required a warm ambient temperature at launch
  • NASA ignored warnings that the weather was too cold
  • The decision to send a civilian to space created pressure to launch
  • NASA was emboldened by the program’s success to take an unprecedented risk

A most unlikely explanation

One explanation very rarely heard is that the Challenger failed because of the way Romans decided to build their horse-drawn carts when Rome ruled most of the known world and could establish a global standard.

HorsesAss

Roman war chariots were built with wheels spaced 4 feet, 8-1/2 inches apart. The apparently arbitrary width was determined to be the width of two war horses’ rear ends yoked side by side to the chariot. The standard assured that horses would not pull a too-wide wagon through any opening wide enough only for them.

Before long, the much traveled and justly famous Roman roads developed deep grooves at the established separation, discouraging any other wheel spacings.

As England was part of the Roman Empire, English carts came to adopt the Roman standard to take advantage of the path of least resistance established by the ruts carved by Roman chariots.

Golden Chariot

When railroads first began to replace horse-drawn carts as the preferred mode of transportation for long journeys, the same cartwrights using the same patterns and tools as they used for carts, passed on the standard wheel spacing with which they were already familiar. By 1850, the 4 feet, 8-1/2 inch spacing had become known as the “standard guage” for railroad cars throughout the British Empire, including India, where the connection between Chariots and Railroads is obvious in the photo above.

Early railroads in America naturally adopted the odd but increasingly accepted English “standard gauge” as well. As more track was laid in England and America, deviation from the standard was a costly and foolish error for any investor in a new train line.

Train Tunnel

Tunnels were carved through mountains no wider than necessary to accommodate two trains passing one another, which limited not only the width but also the height of the cars or their cargo. The width of two Roman warhorse rear ends had come to dominate the widths of roads, then rails, then railcars, then tunnels, then what could be hauled in one piece by train through the mountains.

Solid Boosters

The solid rocket boosters that propelled many successful shuttle launches into space are enormous structures, as you can see by comparing them to the trucks following the shuttle conveyor to the launch pad.

When NASA awarded the contract for the design and construction of those boosters to the Morton-Thiokol Corporation of Utah, the die was cast for catastrophe. The boosters could have been built as a solid single piece, but those segments would never have made it through the tunnels they would have to have traversed through the Rocky Mountains on their way to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

So, they were built in sections, shipped in pieces, assembled in Florida, and wrapped by the now-infamous rubber O-Rings that failed so catastrophically on the day of the Challenger disaster.

Why did Christa McAuliffe die? Because of the width of a horse’s ass.