Mar. 6th, 2010

Rain Dogs

Mar. 6th, 2010 06:24 pm
thermalsatsuma: (Default)
Not a very promising start to the day. I woke up to the sound of rain at around seven o'clock and looking out of my window only confirmed my suspicions. Oh well. Into the study and lumie light on for the day.

Today's module was a very useful and interesting look at the principles of user interface design, with a digression into how to present information graphically. This involved reading an excellent essay by Stephen J Gould about how an understanding of statistics quite literally saved his life. If you have a few minutes to spare it's well worth a read.

One of my personal bug bears is the way that some people take an almost perverse pride in not understanding maths and statistics. To be fair, the situation is not helped by the way that certain sections of the media (as well as unscrupulous politicians) delight in willfully misusing statistics to mislead and frighten people. The classic example is for a newspaper headline to trumpet that such and such a thing 'doubles cancer risk' when the actual increase may be from one case in a hundred thousand to two cases. Ben Goldacre's 'Bad Science' contains many examples of this sort of thing.

Gould's essay points to the way that gut feelings trump intellectual knowledge and cold, hard figures. People are suspicious of the figures on climate change, for example, because it is very easy to pick a range of short term figures and graph them in a particular way, to try and argue any case that you choose. Understanding such things requires a bit more effort than can be fitted into a (in)convenient soundbite or snappy headline.

I was reminded of this clip of a particularly egregious buffoon who managed to get himself elected to the Texas school board (and has thankfully just been voted off) who said 'Someone has to stand up to these experts!' whilst fatuously quoting Stephen J Gould out of context. After all, what do these experts know with all of their fancy expertise, eh? Isn't it more important to just go with what you reckon about an issue? After all, you can prove anything with facts ...

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