Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Power of Math

A column in today's The Wall Street Journal demonstrates the power of math.  Or, to put it bluntly, how to baffle people with mathematical bullshit.

Carl Bialik recounts a study in which people with graduate degrees were randomly assigned to read versions of a scientific abstract in which one version ended with an irrelevant mathematical formula. Read the column.  Very interesting.

As you might expect, folks who got the "mathy abstract" judged it to be of higher quality.

The biggest suckers? Those with degrees in "Other," which included education.  The next biggest suckers were those from the humanities (who probably don't know math) and social scientists (who often think they know math).  The least impressed came out of the math, science, and technology fields.

We've known this for some time, the importance of baffling people with bullshit.  Math, strong visuals, vivid anecdotes, all of these act as heuristics or mental shortcuts to help us make a quick -- though not necessarily accurate -- judgments. Politcians, talking TV heads, salesmen, pretty much everyone knows this.  You'd be hard pressed to find a professional communicator who is not only aware of this shared perceptual bias but who also takes advantage of it.

For myself, from now on I will insert irrelevant mathematical formulas in all my conversations and writings because, dammit, I need all the help I can get.

Oh, by the way:  Tpp = To-fTod2-fTpdf.

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