Archive for the ‘Bad science’ Category
Here’s a simple arithmetic question:
A bat and ball cost a dollar and ten cents. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?
(the vast majority of people respond quickly and confidently, insisting the ball costs ten cents; this answer is both obvious and wrong — the correct answer is five cents for the ball and a dollar and five cents for the bat)
Here’s another one:
In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake?
(your first response is probably to take a shortcut and to divide the final answer by half, leading you to 24 days. But that’s wrong — the correct solution is 47 days)
While we like to think (hope) that human beings are rational agents, studies such as the bat and ball question from Daniel Kahneman (a Nobel Laureate and professor of psychology at Princeton) can indicate the opposite: when people face an uncertain situation, they don’t carefully evaluate the information or look up relevant statistics. Instead, their decisions depend on a long list of mental shortcuts, which often lead them to make foolish decisions. These shortcuts aren’t a faster way of doing the calculation; they’re a way of skipping it altogether. Asked about the bat and the ball, we bypass our arithmetic and default to the answer that requires the least mental effort. We assume that intelligence is a buffer against bias, but a 2012 study suggests that, in many instances, smarter people are more vulnerable to these thinking errors.
Find out more about bias blind spots, anchoring bias, framing effects and “cognitive sophistication” in this interesting New Yorker article: “Why Smart People Are Stupid“.
Whitfield Diffie took the stand in Texas on Friday in the courtroom face-off between Newegg and “patent-licensing giant” (a.k.a. patent troll) TQP Development, who has sued hundreds of companies saying it has patented the common Web encryption scheme of combining SSL with RC4.
Enjoy this exchange:
Lawyer: “We’ve heard a good bit in this courtroom about public-key encryption, are you familiar with that?“
Diffie: “Yes, I am.“
Lawyer: “And how is it that you’re familiar with public-key encryption?“
Diffie: “I invented it.”
See the full Ars Technica article.
UPDATE: Newegg lost!?
On two occasions I have been asked “Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?“. In one case a member of the Upper, and in the other a member of the Lower, House put this question.
I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.
Passages from the Life of a Philosopher (1864)
Charles Babbage (1791-1871)
Last month I emailed my local MP, Jenny Willott (Lib Dem, Cardiff Central), regarding the Draft Defamation Bill and the ‘Leveson clause’ using The Libel Reform Campaign‘s Don’t kill the Bill. I received the following response this morning:
Ref: LS/TC/270313/Defamation Bill 2013
8th April 2013
Dear Dr. Crick,
Thank you for your email about the Defamation Bill.
The Defamation Bill is a hugely important piece of legislation that I strongly support. Over recent years, Britain has become a laughing stock as libel tourism has been on the rise and cases have been brought against various high profile scientists and journalists. This has to change, and as my party leader, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, made clear in a speech on civil liberties last year, libel reform is a very real priority for this government.
That’s why I have been disappointed that this Bill has been held up in the House of Lords by the Conservatives after Labour Peers tabled amendments to introduce the Leveson reforms. However, now that the three main party leaders have agreed the way forward to implement the Leveson reforms, the path is clear for the Defamation Bill to proceed.
As part of the deal between the parties, the Prime Minister announced to the House of Commons that the Government’s legislative programme would now be unblocked, including the Defamation Bill. The changes proposed by Leveson and the reforms in the Defamation Bill are badly needed, and I am pleased that we have now been able to agree a way that we can deliver both.
The right to freedom of speech is a cornerstone of our constitution, and the need to reform our 19th century libel laws is great. The proposals in the Defamation Bill will ensure that the threat of libel proceedings is not used to frustrate robust scientific and academic debate, or to impede responsible investigative journalism and valuable work undertaken by non-governmental organisations. Liberal Democrats have been at the forefront of the campaign for reform, and I am looking forward to the Defamation Bill completing its stages in the Commons in the next few weeks and becoming law.
Thank you again for writing, and please do not hesitate to contact me again if you have further concerns about this or any other issue.
MP for Cardiff Central
(from That Mitchell and Webb Look, Series 3 Episode 4)
Homeopathy is a type of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) that has been shown to be no more effective than placebo (a.k.a. the nocebo effect). Worryingly, it is available on the NHS (for reasons of “patient choice” rather than efficacy) and Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State for Health, has recently publicly supported homeopathy.
And then ask yourself: how does homeopathy work?
Oh dear: “51 percent of respondents…believe stormy weather can interfere with cloud computing.” bit.ly/Nx7o2Y
— Samuel Arbesman (@arbesman) August 29, 2012
According to a recent survey by Citrix*, many Americans appear to be utterly confused by cloud computing. While the cloud phenomenon is clearly taking root in our mainstream culture, there is still a wide gap between the perceptions and realities of cloud computing. While many use it, few understand it: 95% of people surveyed claimed they have never used the cloud, 22% admit that they have pretended to know what the cloud is or how it works. Nearly one third see the cloud as a thing of the future, yet 97% are actually using cloud services today via social networking, email, file sharing, banking and online shopping.
But the big stat is: 51% of respondents, including a majority of Millennials, believe stormy weather can interfere with cloud computing.
* FYI, Citrix is a software company that specialises in virtualisation, networking and cloud technologies, so you can see the potential angle of this survey; plus it was a relatively small sample size (c.1000).
In June, Chris Chambers and I started the Welsh Geek Manifesto Pledge, a declaration to send a copy of Mark Henderson‘s The Geek Manifesto to all 60 Assembly Members of the National Assembly of Wales.
Success! Yesterday, we received the final pledge and are collecting the donations. We are currently planning an event to maximise the impact of the delivery of the 60 copies of The Geek Manifesto to the National Assembly in Cardiff Bay (more details to follow shortly).
N.B. The Welsh Geek Manifesto Pledge followed the original Geek Manifesto Pledge for the 650 MPs in Westminster; there are open pledges in Northern Ireland (“Geekmanifulster”), Scotland (GeekScotland) and Australia (Geek the Vote).
Last week on the Linux Kernel Mailing List, a minor question was raised about the suitability of certain magic constants in the support code in the Linux kernel for Microsoft’s Hyper-V virtualisation environment. This was widely reported a week later. So how did a hexadecimal string cause so much offence? Well, it turns out that the constant passed through to the hypervisor was 0xB16B00B5, or in English, BIG BOOBS. And this was not an exception: when the code was originally submitted it also contained 0x0B00B135 (BOOBIES). While this looks to be a puerile joke, it could be potentially problematic because Azure (Microsoft’s cloud computing platform) may depend on this constant, so changing it could break things.
Even though the Linux kernel itself contains a fair amount of profanity, Microsoft swiftly apologised: “We thank the community for reporting this issue and apologize for the offensive string. We have submitted a patch to fix this issue and the change will be published in a future release of the kernel.” (in fact, the patch changed the string to its decimal representation: 2976579765). However, as Matthew Garrett notes on his blog, this can be easily attributed to straightforward childish humour (and the use of pseudo-English strings in magic hexadecimal constants is hardly uncommon; you can even generate hex poetry, if you so wish), but sniggering at breasts contributes to the continuing impression that software development is a boys club where girls are not welcome.
Further to The Geek Manifesto Pledge by Dave Watts, which has successfully pledged to put a copy of The Geek Manifesto on the desks of all 650 Members of Parliament, Chris Chambers and I have made the following pledge for science in Wales:
I will personally deliver 60 copies of The Geek Manifesto to the National Assembly for Wales, but only if 59 other people will help buy the books.
Chris, a psychologist/neuroscientist at Cardiff University, had already sent a copy of the book to our MP, Cardiff Central’s Jenny Willott. We met up for a beer a few weeks ago and resolved to send a copy of the book to all of the 60 Assembly Members in the National Assembly for Wales. We think this is an eminently achievable task and would present a great opportunity to reiterate the importance of science in the formulation of policy in Wales, especially in light of the publication of the Science for Wales strategy in March 2012.
Please sign the pledge and spread the word across Wales! We are currently planning how to maximise the impact of delivering 60 copies of the book to the National Assembly in Cardiff Bay.