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.
Here's a bit more detail about the irrelevant equation:
This reminds me of what Yeats wrote in 1930 to his son's (imaginary) schoolmaster:
Teach him mathematics as thoroughly as his capacity permits. I know that Bertrand Russell must, seeing that he is such a featherhead, be wrong about everything, but as I have no mathematics I cannot prove it.
Yeats was over-optimistic about the power of mathematics to prove Russell wrong, I think, but he was right to see that unilateral conceptual disarmament is a bad move.
A similar effect exists in other cases where prestigious nonsense impresses those who don't understand it very well — Eriksson's bibliography includes Deena Weisberg et al., "The seductive allure of neuroscience explanations", Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience (20) 2008, discussed in "Blinded by neuroscience", 6/28/2005, and "Distracted by the brain", 6/5/2007.
By the time such dimly-understood techno-stuff makes it into the popular press, the effect is often systematic misinterpretation rather than mere awe — especially when publicists (or researchers themselves) encourage it. Daniel McKaughan and Kevin Elliott put an oddly positive spin on such effects in "Voles, Vasopressin, and the Ethics of Framing", Science 7 December 2012:
Recent discussions about the biological determinants of behavior in voles provide an opportunity to reflect on how scientists can frame information in ways that are both illuminating and responsible.
By modulating the density and distribution of vasopressin receptors in specific regions of the brain, scientists can get ordinarily “promiscuous” montane voles to behave more like “monogamous” prairie voles. By the time this research was reported in the popular media, it had become a story about the discovery of a “gene for” “monogamy,” “fidelity,” “promiscuity,” or “divorce” in humans.
Consider the major frames we identified in the media coverage of this research: (i) “genetic determinism,” the idea that a single gene controls even complex social behaviors such as sexual monogamy; (ii) “triumph for reductionism,” the suggestion that soon we will understand love in terms that refer exclusively to physics and chemistry; (iii) “humans are like voles,” a parallel allowing wide-ranging extrapolation; (iv) “happiness drug,” the idea that applying lessons learned from this research to biotechnology efforts could save a relationship or marriage; and (v) “dangers of social manipulation,” which has led to stories about trust sprays of potential use to the military, department stores, politicians, and stalkers.
These frames, albeit crude and oversimplified, can help members of the public understand how research relates to broader social trends, issues, and debates. By paying close attention to the dominant frames used in highly publicized cases like this one, scientists can take advantage of these strengths while preemptively highlighting their potential weaknesses. For example, to correct a common source of misunderstanding in the “humans are like voles” frame, experts could emphasize that ordinary usage of terms such as “monogamy” can differ substantially from their technical applications in biology. (Spending 56% of the time with one's spouse, 19% of the time alone, and 25% of the time copulating with strangers would not qualify as monogamous by ordinary human standards.)
For some further details on neurotransmitters and pair-bonding in voles and men, see "'Cause after all, he's just a vasopressin receptor", 9/5/2008. And combining the rhetorical force of neurotransmitters and mathematical formulae, we present "The Agatha Christie Code: Stylometrics, serotonin, and the oscillation overthruster", 12/25/2005.