How to Fool Experts

Even experts get fooled by bogus statistics on occasion. Add an irrelevant equation to your next letter to the editor or email solicitation and you might impress someone who should know better thanks to the Nonsense Math Effect.

A Swedish social psychologist and mathematician asked people with doctorates and master's degrees in a variety of disciplines to read abstracts from real journal articles then rate the research. Half read the actual abstracts, the others, abstracts doctored with an irrelevant mathematical equation.

Let's review who fell for the superfluous stat:

73%  in education and other fields

62% in the social sciences or humanities

42% in math, science and technology 

I'm not sure which finding is more distressing.  The ones for the education crowd, perhaps those teaching math, or the last group. In terms of signficance, only the first two groups upgraded the nonsense math.  The STEM crowd didn't show any statistically significant preferences but they did tend to downgrade the bad math. 

True the participants didn't actually read the study and to be fair they might not have judged either article as superior. This is simply their impression based on a small amount of information but I recall some study saying most professionals only read the abstracts and not the article.  

I'd love to see him replicate this study with people not accustomed to reading abstracts or better yet, replicate it with a news article instead of a journal abstract - and recruit experts and others.

In any event The Nonsense Math Effect is still a timely issue as our attention spans and smart phones shrink. If even the super geeks amongst us get awestruck by a few mathematical notations then is there any hope for the rest of us? 

Read more about it from my media crush Carl Bialak aka The Numbers Guy at the WSJ who reported on this curious study in his column.

Read the study for free. It's short:.   

Kimmo Eriksson. The Nonsense Math Effect. Judgment and Decision Making, vol. 7, no. 6, November 2012, pp. 746-746.


Sarah said...

This is fascinating and hilarious and scary all at the same time. To think you can bolster your arguments just by throwing some irrelevant nonsense math in there -- good to know I guess! Thanks for sharing!

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Yes if you try it yourself let me know! Tread carefully stats can kill a conversation.