Figures Don’t Lie

But liars can figure.

 “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.” – Mark Twain

Carl Bialik aka the Numbers Guy, writes in this weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal that “Many people, including holders of graduate degrees, professional researchers and even editors of scientific journals, can be too easily impressed by math. A mathematical model (Tpp=T0 – fT0d2r – fTpdf) is developed to describe sequential effects.

“Did that second sentence make the first more persuasive?” Bialik asks rhetorically. “It did for most participants in a recent intriguing experiment whose result suggests people often interact with math in a way that isn’t very logical. Other research has shown that even those who should be especially clear-sighted about numbers—scientific researchers, for example, and those who review their work for publication—are often uncomfortable with, and credulous about, mathematical material. As a result, some research that finds its way into respected journals—and ends up being reported in the popular press—is flawed.”

I have long suspected that many experts, particularly of the self-proclaimed variety, use esoteric mathematics as kind of a mumbo-jumbo idol to bolster their opinions and bamboozle us pedestrians. That at least has been recognized in the courtroom for the past 20 years (See Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, 509 U.S. 579 (1993)) 

Economics is a fertile discipline for this kind of obfuscation. I recall the scene in the movie A Beautiful Mind where mathematician John Forbes Nash tests our a formula and has an eureka moment that Adam Smith was wrong. As it happens, Hollywood, which never misses a change to discredit what doesn’t fit in with its left-wing fantasies, was wrong. That never happened. Economists make some valid observations and construct theories that fit facts, mostly in the past as it happens. Few of them are based upon pure mathematics. It is unlikely that human behavior will ever be reduced to a differential equation, however complicated it might be.

Here’s a link for Bialik’s article.

The study by Kimmo Eriksson that Bialik cites is here

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