Saturday, February 01, 2014

When in doubt, bet the null

Shore up our confidence there, Miami Herald

The sewage czars of South Florida have got your backside on Super Bowl Sunday.

Their mission: To make your toilet bowl flush properly during the big game.

So many people use the john just during halftime and after the game that water pressure at Miami-Dade County’s three wastewater treatment plants can drop to fearfully low levels.

Sigh. You can either head straight for the nice list of "Super Bowl legends" at or you can reason it through on your own:

Do a lot of people watch the game?

Do a lot of people watch the ads?

Do a lot of people watch the other stuff?

Given that the entire Sunday spectacular will involve reasonably large amounts of football, advertising, and other stuff, all interspersed in pretty predictable ways, why would there be a non-normal distribution of toilet flushing during halftime?

To hear Snopes tell it, "rumors of the havoc wreaked by widespread simultaneous toilet flushing after popular broadcast events" go back to the days of Amos 'n' Andy on the radio. So does Snopes' version of the associated null hypothesis: Srsly, so few people can hold it until the end of a 15-minute broadcast that Western Civ is endangered by the mass flushing?

OK, fine: A memo released Friday does appear to have said that the water and sewer department "will monitor consumption and may have to make an audible call and add another pump to the system at each plant to compensate for the decrease in pressure." But before finding a frontpage home for the ensuing lame plays on sports terminology, you might ask why the memo was issued in the first place. Are the water and sewer folks actually worried, or are they trying to head off silly phone calls in advance before they go home for the weekend? It's as handy an idea for the desk as it is for the lab: When in doubt, bet the null.

"Fearfully low levels" is actually a testable hypothesis yearning to breathe free: What's a "fearfully low" level, how does it compare to normal, how often does it happen in association with what. When the story doesn't bother to answer those, the copy editor is justified in calling for a reality-based rewrite. If you feel the need to sate your audience's alleged desire for endless reams of trivia about a pseudo-event, there's no reason not to tell them something that's actually interesting.

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