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.

winterkoninkje: shadowcrane (clean) (Default)

Hat tip to homasse:

Experimental evidence for precognitive ability

The paper, due to appear in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology before the end of the year, is the culmination of eight years' work by Daryl Bem of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. "I purposely waited until I thought there was a critical mass that wasn't a statistical fluke," he says.

It describes a series of experiments involving more than 1000 student volunteers. In most of the tests, Bem took well-studied psychological phenomena and simply reversed the sequence, so that the event generally interpreted as the cause happened after the tested behaviour rather than before it.

The alternative interpretation of this work is that the interpretation of previous studies as causation (e.g., typing a random selection of words causes improved recall of those words in a second task) is flawed. Technically all that has been found is that there's a typing-then-remembering correlation (in previous studies) and a remembering-then-typing correlation (in this study). Correlation does not imply causation; so even though the causative story is extremely plausible in the old studies and no non-precognitive causative story seems plausible in the current study, that doesn't necessarily mean that either causative story is correct.

For all the hard scientifical review the preprint is receiving, I'm surprised that this point hasn't been mentioned anywhere. IMO, refuting the standard causative story would be just as fascinating as supporting the precognitive story. It would imply that there are macro-scale quantum effects (e.g., where remembering words from a list and typing random words from that list are coupled), whereas it has long been believed that quantum effects only arise at scales too small to be detected by unaided human perception. If there really are macro-scale quantum effects, it seriously fucks with both physics and philosophy (to say nothing of psychology). Whichever way it turns out, it's still awesome.

Edit (2011.06.29): Here is an excellent examination of a lot of the debate this article caused.

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