Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Statistics Fail

image found here. source?
History suggests that if you rescale, shift, and truncate two time series, it's usually quite easy to make them look very similar. This does not mean anything at all, it's simply fishing***. The graphic is suggesting that the US is following Japan into economic deflation, which would be bad. However, this is showing a subset of inflation data (food and energy*) compared on an annual percent change scale* which is shifted by 12.5 years** and truncated before 1989/2001**, and suggesting they are somehow the same. Yeah, right.

* possibly arbitrary.
** almost certainly arbitrary.
*** Statistical jargon alert: "Fishing" is a word for the practice of looking at your data in so many different ways that you eventually find an association simply by chance, and then reporting that association as if it was what you were looking for in the first place. See also: bullshit, cheating, lying, multiple comparisons.

Found on NYT, but the source of the graphic is not clear. I sure as hell wouldn't put my name on it.
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Sunday, November 7, 2010

Issac Asimov on The Relativity of Wrong

A link from Terrence Tao's blog (hat-tip!) sent me to this article by Issac AsimovThe Relativity of Wrong. The whole article is great, and it contains a quote I especially like and have used a time or two. I think I had forgotten the where first read it, so I'm glad to be reminded of the source. I have quoted the relevant part below, with my favorite part in bold.
The young specialist in English Lit, having quoted me, went on to lecture me severely on the fact that in every century people have thought they understood the universe at last, and in every century they were proved to be wrong. It follows that the one thing we can say about our modern "knowledge" is that it is wrong. The young man then quoted with approval what Socrates had said on learning that the Delphic oracle had proclaimed him the wisest man in Greece. "If I am the wisest man," said Socrates, "it is because I alone know that I know nothing." the implication was that I was very foolish because I was under the impression I knew a great deal.

My answer to him was, "John, when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.
Good stuff. Go read it.
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Saturday, November 6, 2010

Science Fail #2

This Science Fail shtick is harder than I realized. Apparently really good fails don't just grow on trees, and it took me much longer than expected to turn this up. For entry #2 I delved into this short SCIAM news article mentioning a historical climate warming event. Fortunately for me, most any mention of "climate" these days is very likely to bring out the worse in people.

"Without people there to destroy the vegetation in building houses and killing the animals for food,the plants would get very large and so would the animals. The larger the animals had to get to reach the top of the plants, the more the CO2, and both plants and animals put off a great amount of heat. From the large pools of oil and coal, we know that there were places where there was a lot of plants and a large number of animals - like at a watering hole. So that tells me that if you want to cut down on CO2 build up - don't let a lot of plants and a lot of animals hang out together." (link to source, currently comment #12)

The fun part is, the trolls and pundits are going hard at each other in the comments, so this might not even be the worst fail to be found there. I chose this one because it is not overtly political, and it is fails on so many levels. Where to begin? Zoology fail, Biology fail, Ecology fail, Geology fail, time-scale fail ... It's all good. 

Finally, a shout out to my friend NS at Science and Math Defeated. Thanks for the link, and back at ya!

See Science Fail #1.
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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Anti-Anti-Science Chatbot

Have you ever participated in a near endless online discussion with someone who has their own definition of science and reason?


Do you happen to have some computer programming skills?

If you answered yes to those, it may have occurred to you to write an automated program to automate replies to bad arguments. I have certainly thought about it more than once, but I don't have the right set of programming skills to carry this off very well, nor do I have the time for that sort of fun. Fortunately, someone else does.

Nigel Leck, a software developer by day, was tired of arguing with anti-science crackpots on Twitter. So, like any good programmer, he wrote a script to do it for him.
The result is the Twitter chatbot @AI_AGW. Its operation is fairly simple: Every five minutes, it searches twitter for several hundred set phrases that tend to correspond to any of the usual tired arguments about how global warming isn't happening or humans aren't responsible for it.

Now before this turns into the wrong argument, this post isn't about AGW one way or the other, or any specific point of disagreement. Solving real problems requires than people communicate honestly with one another, and automated replies do nothing to create real communication. Someone will create an "auto-bot" sending automated messages to tie up the "anti-bots" (assuming this hasn't happened already), and anti-anti-bots to tie-up the anti-bots and ... ... you get the idea. Pretty soon people won't be in the loop at all, and people just won't communicate.

The XKCD webcomic recently presented a different take on a similar problem with SPAM. If you have enough bots creating comments, and all comments must pass a filter of being "Constructive and Helpful", you effectively filter out all the people who are not capable of constructive comments as well. MFA.

XKCD: Constructive

In the comments on the Chatbot article, someone starts slinging the words "ad hominem" around without really knowing what it means. This might be another good response to program into the Chatbot.
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