Suicides and "The Policy"

For those of you who aren't aware, the LDS church instituted a policy regarding LGBT families back in November. One of the major criticisms of this policy is it could potentially increase the suicide rate of LGBT Mormons. And recently, some numbers have been thrown around about the number of LGBT Mormon suicides since the policy was instituted.  I haven't fact-checked these, but as of January 23, the numbers I've seen were around 32.

I don't understand the policy, and I don't particularly want to defend it, but I do believe in statistics. The number of suicides alone is not enough to say that the policy has caused any change in suicidal behavior. We need to compare to the number of LGBT Mormons who would have done the same if there were no new policy announced.

We can't actually know what would have happened, but we can estimate it.  Ideally, we'd have data on LDS LGBT suicides rates, but I couldn't find anything quantitative.  So let's assume that most of these cases are Americans, and the average suicide rate in the US is 0.0211% per year, or 0.00451% of the population in the same 78 day period. The church reports around 6,466,267 members in the United States. This means that, if Mormons are typical in their suicide rate (which they seem not to be), there should be around 285 Mormon suicides in that same time period. Around 3.4% of the adult population identify as LGBT, so that takes the estimate down to about 10 suicides.

All these numbers come from Wikipedia, so I'm using questionable sources, but I didn't want to put too much time into this. But with this very loose estimate of suicide rate, it seems there would be a tragic increasea 220% increase.  That seems a little too large to be believable to me.

We could mirror stats on Jewish LGBT youth to help account for the fact that LGBT folks in religious communities are more likely to attempt suicide.  Along these lines, if we assume there are 219,853 LGBT Mormons and that they are four times more likely to commit suicide than national average, that would put our estimate closer to 40 suicides in the same time rangethis would mean that there was actually a decrease in the suicide rate since the policy was enacted.  This may not be as surprising as it sounds, since there was significant backlash against the policy, so LGBT Mormons may have actually received a surge of support from friends and family.

The point I'm trying to make is that it is very, very difficult to make any causal attributions in this case (or in general).  Suicide is incredibly sad regardless of cause, and I also mourn that any person could feel rejected by their religion.  We must take steps to help prevent suicide, and we must be loving and welcoming members of our respective communities.  But part of knowing what steps to take is to get real data on what's happening, not just jumping to the worst conclusions.  Big changes require strong evidence.  And probably lots of hugs in the meanwhile.


HDF5: where have you been all my life?

Nathaniel introduced me to HDF5 around the winter holidays (because, yes, that's the kind of thing we talk about while on vacation), but I just started using in in earnest this past week via h5py.  I may never go back to plain text data storage if I can help itwe'll see if I can convince you too.

This is a script that simulates a big matrix off random data, writes in both formats, and reads from both formats.  The syntax is similar for both.

To compare h5py against plain text, I ran the above (plus timing code added in) 100 times with different random data.  Here are the average results.

plain text
9.44 sec
0.0634 sec
7.94 sec
0.0051 sec
row access
3e-5 sec
6e-4 sec
col access
1e-6 sec
0.016 sec
file size
239 MB
77 MB

If your data is small enough or you need to access almost all of it repeatedly, plain text files might still be good for you.  I usually sample rows from large datasets that eat memory like chocolate cake. So for almost everything I do, h5py is the clear winner.


A letter to potential Trump supporters

Dear potential Trump supporter,

Let me introduce myself: I'm a politically moderate American citizen.  I know that I am moderate because I went to an incredibly liberal college and am a graduate student at a reasonably liberal university.  Meanwhile, the church that I attend is strongly conservative—this means I regularly witness both sides of the political spectrum.  I do not belong to a political party, and all I want (politically) is for the leadership of this country to make the United States of America the best country it can be.

The reason I am writing to you today because we are allies in this.  If you are considering supporting Trump in 2016, you see some appeal in his call to "Make American great again!"

In my opinion, none of the leading presidential candidates are great this year.  Clinton's lack of honesty is particularly upsetting, if unsurprising for a politician.  But I would vote for her over Trump, and I want to explain why.

It all comes down to fear.  I know that the recent terrorist attacks have been frightening, and that the idea of an influx of refugees can be unsettling to some, but we cannot be afraid of change.  The world has always been constantly changing, and the real challenge is not to resist change straight out, but to use it to shape our world for the better. All of our ancestors have felt fear and weathered change—from the men and women of the Revolutionary War to displaced Native Americans, from 1960s Civil Rights Movement activists to the refugees of far too many wars.  Change has shaped our history and shaped us as individuals.  Look back on your life and notice that your proudest moments most likely come from working hard and having the courage to overcome your fears—so too with our country.

My main objection to Trump as a political candidate is that he sensationalizes this fear and uses it to gain media attention and support.  Instead of encouraging us to have courage and find real, lasting solutions, he fans the flame of fear, then claims that he is the one to take it away with proposals that isolate large swaths of the population.  This is not the dynamic I want to have with my President.  I don't mind brutal honesty—in fact, that's one of the things I admire about Christie—but it is not acceptable to isolate citizens and make them feel uncomfortable in their own country.  How would you feel if your religion or ethnicity were singled out in a negative way?  We need a leader who is honest and can solve difficult problems without resorting to pointing fingers at demographic groups, especially not vulnerable ones like recent immigrants and refugees.

Some of my ancestors came over from England before the Revolutionary War and others were more recent immigrants from Poland—but all of my ancestors were immigrants to America.  Some sought religious freedom as they crossed the Atlantic Ocean as Protestants or as they walked across the Great Plains as Mormon pioneers—they were religious refugees in their day.  How can America be great if we treat the modern equivalents of our ancestors with disdain?

So here is my plea to registered Republicans and Democrats alike: don't make me choose between Trump and Clinton.  I would love to see a candidate I can support with confidence.  Better yet, I want to vote with regret, knowing that either candidate would "do our country proud," just in different ways.  But as it stands, it looks like I will vote with a different kind of regret, knowing that neither candidate can push our country toward the excellence it so rightfully deserves.

I don't want to see America revert to some old greatness.  I want it to continually improve, becoming greater and greater with time, just as individuals should strive to be better with each passing day.  That doesn't mean indulging in new ideas without thought, nor does it mean retrenching to some idealized past.  We need to find the path that balances old and new, conservative and liberal, and just and merciful to make America not just great, but exceptional.

A registered voter