Build Your Own Baloney Detector

A tool-kit for avoiding being fooled

Friday, December 14, 2012

Are These the Right Statistics?

Not all statistics are created equal. And not all statistics are right for analyzing a given problem. I’m reminding of that today, in the wake of the latest mass shooting. While I have not intention of weighing in on the gun control debate (seriously, I don’t know the right statistics to say much, so I’d be dishonest to try), I do want to warn everyone about what statistics we pay attention to in the coming days and weeks. In particular, I’ve already seen a lot of statistics about violent crime in this country and how it’s down. Which is true, of course. But it’s not necessarily the right set of statistics for mass-shooting prevention. Those statistics include a majority of things that are not mass shootings: robberies, fights, domestic violence, and so forth. And while I can’t say that mass shootings have different root causes and enabling factors than these crimes, I suspect that they do. (If I’m wrong, I’d like to see an analysis that shows that we can lump them all together, anyway.) That being the case, looking at the bulk statistics where the mass-shootings are a small minority probably won’t give us a lot insight into these shootings.

So what should you do? Ask yourself whether you think that the data presented are what you really need to reach the conclusions suggested and, if you can, complain if not.

posted by John Weiss at 19:33  

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

I’ve Discovered Something Revolutionary!

One of the biggest flags of someone talking nonsense is when they claim to have discovered something revolutionary that no one else has found before. Of course, every new thing has to be discovered at some point, but it’s always worth asking yourself whether the person who found it was who you would expect.

For example, many crackpots will claim to have discovered a revolutionary new scientific theory, in spite of having little or no training as a scientist. This doesn’t mean that they might not have an insight, but it sure is a serious flag. In any given field of science, many scientists are spending much of their lives (more than the 40 hours a week that they nominally work, in fact) thinking about their subject. They certainly can’t have every possible insight or find every useful way of looking at the universe, but with all of that time, odds are in favor of any major discoveries coming from that community. So when the revolutionary discovery comes from someone outside the field, be wary.

It’s also worth remember that most scientific and engineering breakthroughs really aren’t revolutionary. If you think carefully about it, most things are incremental: small steps forward all add up to major progress, but it isn’t just one person or team in one fell swoop that makes the advancement. It’s a community of people over a long period of time. And even when there’s an apparent breakthrough, it’s often been anticipated by other teams. Usually, other teams were competing for the same objective. Most major ideas in science or in technology come out of their eras when people were thinking about certain things that led them to those ideas. It’s seldom just one person who has the entire idea by themselves.

For example, Newton may have invented the Calculus, but so did Leibniz, it appears. Newton’s laws of motion were distinctly discussed in Galileo’s work, although perhaps less clearly and certainly with less result. Newton’s law of universal gravitation was being considered by other contemporaries like Hooke, Wren, and Halley, although they couldn’t show that it yielded the right planetary motion. Most parts of Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity were being toss around by other physicists before he published. (Einstein himself was not an outsider, either. He was a patent-clerk, but he was also a physicist who simply couldn’t find another job at the time.)

So when someone claims to have discovered something revolutionary, be skeptical. Be skeptical when it’s an abstract discovery that asks for nothing from you — apart from you attention — and be extra skeptical if they want money or something else.

posted by John Weiss at 14:41  

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