Archive for Language of science

"Significance", in 1885 and today

There's an ongoing argument about the interpretation of Katherine Baicker et al., "The Oregon Experiment — Effects of Medicaid on Clinical Outcomes", NEJM 5/2/2013, and one aspect of this debate has focused on the technical meaning of the word significant. Thus Kevin Drum, "A Small Rant About the Meaning of Significant vs. 'Significant'", Mother Jones 5/13/2013:

Many of the results of the Oregon study failed to meet the 95 percent standard, and I think it's wrong to describe this as showing that "Medicaid coverage generated no significant improvements in measured physical health outcomes in the first 2 years."

To be clear: it's fine for the authors of the study to describe it that way. They're writing for fellow professionals in an academic journal. But when you're writing for a lay audience, it's seriously misleading. Most lay readers will interpret "significant" in its ordinary English sense, not as a term of art used by statisticians, and therefore conclude that the study positively demonstrated that there were no results large enough to care about.

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Importance of publishing data and code

J.W. writes:

In connection with some of your prior statements on the Log about the importance of publishing underlying data, you might be interested in Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash, and Robert Pollin, "Does High Public Debt Consistently Stifle Economic Growth? A Critique of Reinhart and Rogoff", PERI 4/15/2013 (explanation in lay language at "Shocking Paper Claims That Microsoft Excel Coding Error Is Behind The Reinhart-Rogoff Study On Debt", Business Insider 4/16/2013). In sum, a look at the data spreadsheet underlying a really influential 2010 economics paper reveals that its results were driven by selective data exclusions, idiosyncratic weighting, and an Excel coding error [!].

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More journalists with reading disabilities

Or maybe this is about press-release writers who don't express themselves clearly. According to "Chemical in Tap Water Linked to Food Allergies", Drugwatch 12/7/2012 (emphasis added, here and throughout):

A new study in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology links high levels of dichlorophenols–chemicals used for chlorinating tap water–to a higher risk of food allergies. According to the study, people with higher levels of these chemicals in their urine have a greater risk of developing food allergies.

Out of the 2,211 people with high levels of dichlorophenols who participated in the study, 411 had food allergies and 1,016 had an environmental allergy, according to researchers.

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Psycho kids today

Kevin Dutton, "Psychopathy's Double Edge", Chronicle of Higher Education 10/22/2012:

[I]n a survey that has so far tested 14,000 volunteers, Sara Konrath and her team at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research has found that college students' self-reported empathy levels (as measured by the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, a standardized questionnaire containing such items as "I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me" and "I try to look at everybody's side of a disagreement before I make a decision") have been in steady decline over the past three decades—since the inauguration of the scale, in fact, back in 1979. A particularly pronounced slump has been observed over the past 10 years. "College kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago," Konrath reports.

As is all too often true for stories about results in social psychology — and especially stories about the Problems with Kids Today — this one is misleading in almost every particular.

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Dinosaurs, baboons, and science journalists

It is well known within organic chemistry circles that there is a very strong bias toward L rather than D homochirality in the structure of earth's organic compounds. A recent paper offered a speculation about a possible explanation of the bias:

If there was … right circularly polarized light with energy in the uv or higher irradiating the asteroid belt when the amino acids were present on a particle that later came to Earth, this could account for the small excesses of the L anantiomers seen in the &#x03B1-methyl amino acids.

And what did the PR/media machine do to make news out of this finding? The headlines ultimately mutated as far as this:

Claim: Advanced dinosaurs may rule other planets

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From wraith to smoking duck

I previously described the evolution of the Higgs Boson from Leon Lederman's "wraithlike presence throughout the universe that is keeping us from understanding the true nature of matter", perhaps bowdlerized by his editors from "the goddamn particle" to "the God particle", and onwards to Dennis Overbye's "kind of cosmic molasses […] that would impart mass to formerly massless particles trying to move through it like a celebrity trying to get to the bar".

Yesterday, the high-energy euphoria at CERN seems to have excited some really exotic metaphorical resonances, combining the elementary building-blocks of cultural cognition in ways not normally seen on earth.

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Neutral Xi_b^star, Xi(b)^{*0}, Ξb*0, whatever

Carl Franzen, "Big Bang Machine Discovers Brand New Particle", TPM IdeaLab 4/27/2012:

An entirely new type of particle has been discovered by scientists using the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), near Geneva, Switzerland.

The discovery of the new particle, called “neutral Xi_b^star baryon,” was made by the CMS experiment, one of six separate particle physics experiments running at the LHC. It was announced Friday by Symmetry Magazine.

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Neuroscience

Ferris Jabr reports on a press conference where neuroscientists try to come to terms with some of the problems in their discipline that we've covered over the past few years ("Neuroscientists: We Don’t Really Know What We Are Talking About, Either", Scientific American 4/1/2012):

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Novel illness name of the week

News is leaking out about DSM-5, the new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the central reference book of mental illnesses for the psychiatric profession, due to be published in May 2013. Journalists who have been delving into the details of its proposed new listings (it is up for comment by the medical community at the moment) are finding rich pickings in jargon-encapsulated official names for new mental conditions. I think my vote for new illness name of the week has to go to disruptive mood dysregulation disorder. This would be the new DSM-5 term for temper tantrums. Is your child (or indeed, your domestic partner) sicker than you thought?

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Gyromodels of everything

"Radical theory explains the origin, evolution, and nature of life, challenges conventional wisdom: Case Western Reserve theorist develops incomparable model that unifies physics, chemistry, and biology", Case Western Reserve press release 1/26/2012:

The earth is alive, asserts a revolutionary scientific theory of life emerging from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. The trans-disciplinary theory demonstrates that purportedly inanimate, non-living objects—for example, planets, water, proteins, and DNA—are animate, that is, alive. With its broad explanatory power, applicable to all areas of science and medicine, this novel paradigm aims to catalyze a veritable renaissance.

Erik Andrulis, PhD, assistant professor of molecular biology and microbiology, advanced his controversial framework in his manuscript "Theory of the Origin, Evolution, and Nature of Life," published in the peer-reviewed journal, Life. His theory explains not only the evolutionary emergence of life on earth and in the universe but also the structure and function of existing cells and biospheres.

In addition to resolving long-standing paradoxes and puzzles in chemistry and biology, Dr. Andrulis' theory unifies quantum and celestial mechanics. His unorthodox solution to this quintessential problem in physics differs from mainstream approaches, like string theory, as it is simple, non-mathematical, and experimentally and experientially verifiable. As such, the new portrait of quantum gravity is radical.

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Gelman and Picasso

I very much enjoyed Andrew Gelman's post "Bayesian statistical pragmatism" (4/15/2011) on his blog Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science. And one aspect of that post struck me as especially relevant to some recent LL discussions:

I am surprised to see Kass write that scientists believe that the theoretical and real worlds are aligned. It is from acknowledging the discrepancies between these worlds that we can (a) feel free to make assumptions without being paralyzed by fear of making mistakes, and (b) feel free to check the fit of our models (those hypothesis tests again! Although I prefer graphical model checks, supplanted by p-values as necessary). All models are false, etc.

I assume that Kass is using the word "aligned" in a loose sense, to imply that scientists believe that their models are appropriate to reality even if not fully correct. But I would not even want to go that far. Often in my own applied work I have used models that have clear flaws, models that are at best "phenomenological" in the sense of fitting the data rather than corresponding to underlying processes of interest–and often such models don't fit the data so well either. But these models can still be useful: they are still a part of statistics and even a part of science (to the extent that science includes data collection and description as well as deep theories).

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Straw men and Bee Science

If you followed my advice (in "Norvig channels Shannon contra Chomsky", 5/31/2011) and read all of Peter Norvig's essay "On Chomsky and the Two Cultures of Statistical Learning", you may have detected a certain restrained testiness in Norvig's response. The goal of this post is to give a bit of explanatory background, and to suggest why, on the whole,  I share Norvig's reaction.

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"Vampirical" hypotheses

Several readers have sent in links to recent media coverage of C. Nathan DeWall et al., "Tuning in to psychological change: Linguistic markers of psychological traits and emotions over time in popular U.S. song lyrics", Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 3/21/2011. For example, there's John Tierney, "A Generation’s Vanity, Heard Through Lyrics", NYT 4/25/2011.

[A]fter a computer analysis of three decades of hit songs, Dr. DeWall and other psychologists report finding what they were looking for: a statistically significant trend toward narcissism and hostility in popular music. As they hypothesized, the words “I” and “me” appear more frequently along with anger-related words, while there’s been a corresponding decline in “we” and “us” and the expression of positive emotions.

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