Archive for The language of science

How to turn one out of five into three out of four

Towards the end of last year, there was a bit of a fuss in the UK about the role of alcohol in hospital costs. Thus Sarah Knapton, "Three in four people in A&E at weekend are there because of alcohol: 70 per cent of people are admitted to emergency units at the weekend as a result of drinking", The Telegraph 12/21/2015 — illustrated with the rather atypical picture on the right.

And there was plenty of other coverage, e.g. "Alcohol-related A&E cases rise to 70% of workload at weekends", Daily Mail 12/21/2015; Mike Doran, "Alcohol responsible for up to 70% of all A&E admissions as experts renew minimum unit price calls", The Mirror 12/21/2015; Annalee Newitz, "Drunk people account for 70% of weekend emergency room visits in UK city: Drinking binges are now a scientifically measurable phenomenon", Ars Technica 12/22/2015.

But there's just one little wrinkle: the actual rates that the study found (of alcohol involvement in weekend emergency-room visits) were more like 20%. So how did the journalists get from "one in five" to "three in four"? Well, basically in the same way that we're allowed to conclude that in 1986, the rate of space-shuttle explosions was one per week. After all, there was one week in that year (the last week of January) when there was an explosion. And in the cited study, there was one weekend hour (2:00-3:00 a.m.) when a bit over 70% of the patients were measured with a non-zero breath alcohol content.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (8)

Positivity?

Christiaan H Vinkers et al., "Use of positive and negative words in scientific PubMed abstracts between 1974 and 2014: retrospective analysis", BMJ 2015:

Design Retrospective analysis of all scientific abstracts in PubMed between 1974 and 2014.  

Methods The yearly frequencies of positive, negative, and neutral words (25 preselected words in each category), plus 100 randomly selected words were normalised for the total number of abstracts. […]

Results The absolute frequency of positive words increased from 2.0% (1974-80) to 17.5% (2014), a relative increase of 880% over four decades.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (12)

Nicholas Wade's DNA decoded

Today's xkcd:

Mouseover title:  "Researchers just found the gene responsible for mistakenly thinking we've found the gene for specific things. It's the region between the start and the end of every chromosome, plus a few segments in our mitochondria."

For background, see "The hunt for the Hat Gene", 11/15/2009.

Comments (7)

Replicability vs. reproducibility — or is it the other way around?

The term reproducible research, in its current sensewas coined about 1990 by the geophysicist Jon Claerbout.  Thus Jon Claerbout & Martin Karrenbach, "Electronic Documents Give Reproducible Research a New Meaning", Society of Exploration Geophysics 1992 [emphasis added, here and throughout]:

A revolution in education and technology transfer follows from the marriage of word processing and software command scripts. In this marriage an author attaches to every figure caption a pushbutton or a name tag usable to recalculate the figure from all its data, parameters, and programs. This provides a concrete definition of reproducibility in computationally oriented research. Experience at the Stanford Exploration Project shows that preparing such electronic documents is little effort beyond our customary report writing; mainly, we need to file everything in a systematic way. […]

The principal goal of scientific publications is to teach new concepts, show the resulting implications of those concepts in an illustration, and provide enough detail to make the work reproducible. In real life, reproducibility is haphazard and variable. Because of this, we rarely see a seismology PhD thesis being redone at a later date by another person. In an electronic document, readers, students, and customers can readily verify results and adapt them to new circumstances without laboriously recreating the author's environment.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (11)

Statistical cognition in the media

Bianca Nogrady, "Music preferences reveal your inner thoughts", ABC Science 7/23/2015:

There is a clear link between people's cognitive styles and the type and depth of emotion they prefer in music, say researchers.

Their work, published today in PLOS ONE, shows people who are more empathetic — have a greater ability to identify, predict and respond to the emotions of others — are drawn to more mellow, sad, poetic and sensual music, such as R&B, adult contemporary and soft rock.

However people with more analytical tendencies (called 'systemisers') go in the opposite direction, seeking punk, heavy metal, avant garde jazz and hard rock.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (16)

Wendiceratops

Sasha Harris-Lovett, "Meet Wendiceratops, a horned dinosaur unlike any other", LA Times 7/8/2015:

Move over Indominus Rex – scientists have discovered a previously unknown dinosaur in Canada that's cooler than any “Jurassic World” creation. And it’s real.

The creature, a member of the family of horned dinosaurs, was an older cousin of Triceratops that lived about 79 million years ago. Like Triceratops, it had horns emanating from its face and head, along with a bony beak that it used to shred plants before eating them. […]

The story begins with professional fossil hunter Wendy Sloboda, who spotted something that appeared to be a dinosaur bone sticking out of a steep hill in southern Alberta, Canada, in 2010.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (16)

The Insular Islands

The most recent xkcd has the mouseover title

I just learned about the Slide Mountain Ocean, which I like because it's three nouns that sound like they can't possibly all refer to the same thing.

But it gets better — the extended Slide Mountain Ocean story line, known as the Omineca Episode,  includes the Bridge River Ocean, the Intermontane Superterrane, and my personal favorite, the Insular Islands (which star in the next chapter, the Coast Range Episode).

Comments (5)

Brain wiring and science reporting

People have been asking Language Log (well, at least one somewhat off-topic commenter asked once) whether we have a view about the recent study alleging sex differences in brain wiring by Ragini Verma and colleagues. Language Log does not really regard this as a linguistic story, but keeps an eye on such neurophysiological topics for their occasional implications for language and the way it is implemented in the brain, and also on the language in which such science is reported. The study has been (of course) wildly overhyped, with newpaper stories around the world talking about men's and women's brains being wired completely differently (guys, you have tons of front-back wiring to aid you in spear-chucking and direction-finding; gals, you have oodles of left-right cross-connections to aid you in gossiping and domestic multi-tasking; that sort of thing). For a short, sharp, and well-informed critique of the way ideology (and philosophical error) warps the press interpretation of brain-scan results, take a look at the letter by Rae Langton and John Dupré in the Guardian, submitted by two excellent British philosophers with interests in both the biology and ideology of the relations between the sexes. They call the press coverage of this study a "deterministic fairy-tale" that is "bad for men and women, bad for science, bad for us all."

Update: A fuller version of the Langton/Dupré letter with discussion can be found on Brian Leiter's blog, and there is more here on Language Log here and here.

Comments off

Prestigious nonsense, tendentious frames

Kimmo Ericksson, "The nonsense math effect", Judgment and Decision Making 7(6) 2012:

In those disciplines where most researchers do not master mathematics, the use of mathematics may be held in too much awe. To demonstrate this I conducted an online experiment with 200 participants, all of which had experience of reading research reports and a postgraduate degree (in any subject). Participants were presented with the abstracts from two published papers (one in evolutionary anthropology and one in sociology). Based on these abstracts, participants were asked to judge the quality of the research. Either one or the other of the two abstracts was manipulated through the inclusion of an extra sentence taken from a completely unrelated paper and presenting an equation that made no sense in the context. The abstract that included the meaningless mathematics tended to be judged of higher quality.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (19)

Not really one of my favorite products, actually…

From my inbox:

Comments (11)

Diving deeper into the metaphorical molasses

My column in Sunday's Boston Globe is on a popular topic here at Language Log Plaza: the multitudinous metaphors spun to explain the Higgs boson discovery to a non-scientific audience. Metaphors noted by Mark Liberman in his two posts on the subject (from divine wraiths to smoking ducks) make cameos in the column as well, and I dig a bit deeper into the history of describing the Higgs field as "cosmic molasses."

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (7)

Keith Chen, Whorfian economist

Language Log has been asked more than once to comment on an unpublished working paper by Yale economist Keith Chen that is discussed in various online sources, e.g. here and here, and most recently David Berreby's post at Big Think. Briefly, Chen's paper alleges that a certain simple grammatical property of languages correlates robustly with indicators of profligacy and lack of prudence, as revealed in the speakers' lack of concern for their financial and medical prospects. Language Log does not really want to comment on an unpublished working paper about language by a non-linguist that is not written for publication and has not had the benefit of serious critical attention from academic referees. But neither does it want to disappoint its readers by clamming up. So I will make a few remarks about Chen's work, and the journalistic reporting that it is beginning to attract. I will not be very rigorous; but as I will explain, it is too early for that.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

What we believe in

Faye Flam, "‘Belief’ in evolution? It may be the wrong word", Philadelphia Inquirer 6/27/2011:

When the contestants in the Miss USA pageant last week were asked whether evolution should be taught in schools, many volunteered that they either "believed" or "didn't believe" in the concept.

"I don't believe in evolution," said Miss Alabama. "They should teach both sides since some people believe in evolution and some people believe in creation," said Miss Arizona. "It's something people believe in," said Miss Florida. "I believe in evolution … and I like to believe in, like, the big bang theory," said Miss California, who won the crown.

Faye quotes some people who think that talk about believing in things confuses science with faith. She also quotes some people on the other side, including me.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (70)