31 Dec 2012

Math envy

31 Dec 2012 02:22 am
winterkoninkje: shadowcrane (clean) (Default)

I have often derided those who are susceptible to math envy. Y'know, the idea that math=intelligence. This utter foolishness leads to the simultaneous fear and awe of anyone who throws math around, as if the presence of mere symbols and equations demonstrates the clear superiority of the author's throbbing, bulging,... intellect. This utter foolishness leads, therefore, to authors who feel the need to add superfluous "mathematics" to their writings in order to demonstrate that their... intelligence measures up that of their colleagues.

Well, turns out, someone finally got around to doing a study on math envy: Kimmo Ericksson (2012) "The nonsense math effect", Judgment and Decision Making 7(6). As expected, those with less training in mathematics tend to rate utterly irrelevant "mathematical content" more highly than its absence. Lest anyone start feeling smugly superior, however, I'll note that I've seen this effect most strongly in those who should know better, i.e., those with just a little mathematical training. This includes, for example, computer scientists who are not formal theoreticians. Not to name names, but I've read more than one NLP paper that throws in some worthless equation just to try to look more worthwhile. (These papers are often fine, in and of themselves, but would have been better had they not succumbed to math envy.)

As Language Log points out in their coverage, this isn't limited just to math. Some people also have brain-scan envy and similar afflictions. That's definitely worth watching out for, but IME people seem more aware of their pernicious effects while being blind to math envy.

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