Here, for example, Tierney writes about someone who says, “in some circumstances it’s better to drive than to walk. . . . If you walk 1.5 miles, Mr. Goodall calculates, and replace those calories by drinking about a cup of milk, the greenhouse emissions connected with that milk (like methane from the dairy farm and carbon dioxide from the delivery truck) are just about equal to the emissions from a typical car making the same trip. . . . Michael Bluejay, who’s done some number-crunching at BicycleUniverse.info, says that walking is actually worse than driving if you replace the calories with food in the standard American diet and if the car gets more than 24 miles per gallon. . . .”
This is interseting to me because these guys are making a classic statistical error, I think, which is to assume that all else is held constant. This is the error that also leads people to misinterpret regression coefficients causally. (See chapters 9 and 10 of our book for discussion of this point.) In this case, the error is to assume that the walker and the driver will be making the same trip. In general, the driver will take longer trips–that’s one of the reasons for having a car, that you can easily take longer trips. Anyway, my point is not to get into a long discussion of transportation pricing, just to point out that this seemingly natural calculation is inappropriate because of its mistaken assumption that you can realistically change one predictor, leaving all the others constant.
As we like to say, it’s a great classroom example.
P.S. More here (also see discussion in the comments below).