11th bullet, multiple choice question, and last thoughts on the JSM

photo-on-8-4-13-at-3-40-pm1I. Apparently I left out the last bullet in my scribbled notes from Silver’s talk. There was an 11th. Someone sent it to me from a blog: revolution analytics:

11. Like scientists, journalists ought to be more concerned with the truth rather than just appearances. He suggested that maybe they should abandon the legal paradigm of seeking an adversarial approach and behave more like scientists looking for the truth.

OK. But, given some of the issues swirling around the last few posts, I think it’s worth noting that scientists are not disinterested agents looking for the truth—it’s only thanks to its (adversarial!) methods that they advance upon truth. Question: What’s the secret of scientific progress (in those areas that advance learning)?  Answer: Even if each individual scientist were to strive mightily to ensure that his/her theory wins out, the stringent methods of the enterprise force that theory to show its mettle or die (or at best remain in limbo). You might say, “But there are plenty of stubborn hard cores in science”. Sure, and they fail to advance. In those sciences that lack sufficiently stringent controls, the rate of uncorrected spin is as bad as Silver suggests it is in journalism. Think of social psychologist Diederik Stapel setting out to show what is already presumed to be believable. (See here and here and search this blog.).

There’s a strange irony when the same people who proclaim, “We must confront those all too human flaws and foibles that obstruct the aims of truth and correctness”, turn out to be enablers, by championing methods that enable flaws and foibles to seep through. It may be a slip of logic. Here’s a multiple choice question:

Multiple choice: Circle all phrases that correctly complete the “conclusion“:

Let’s say that factor F is known to obstruct the correctness/validity of solutions to problems, or that factor F is known to adversely impinge on inferences.

(Examples of such factors include: biases, limited information, incentives—of various sorts).

Factor F is known to adversely influence inferences.

Conclusion: Therefore any adequate systematic account of inference should _______

(a) allow F to influence inferences.
(b) provide a formal niche by which F can influence inferences.
(c) take precautions to block (or at least be aware of) the ability of F to adversely influence inferences.
(d) none of the above.

(For an example, see discussion of #7 in previous post.)

II. I may be overlooking sessions (inform me if you know of any), but I would have expected more on the statistics in the Higgs boson discoveries at the JSM 2013. Especially given the desire to emphasize the widespread contributions of statistics to the latest sexy science[i].  (At one point, I was asked about being part of a session on the five sigma effect in the Higgs boson discovery–not that I’m any kind of expert– by David Banks, because of my related blog posts (e.g., here), but people were already in other sessions. But I’m thinking about something splashy by statisticians in particle physics.) Did I miss? [ii]

III. I think it’s easy to see why lots of people showed up to hear Nate Silver: It’s fun to see someone “in the news”, be it from politics, finance, high tech, acting, TV, or, even academics–I, for one, was curious. I’m sure as many would have come out to hear Esther Duflo, Cheryl Sandberg, Fabiola Gionatti, or even Huma Abedin–to list some that happen to come to mind– or any number of others who have achieved recent recognition (and whose work intersects in some way with statistics). It’s interesting that I don’t see pop philosophers invited to give key addresses in yearly philosophy meetings; maybe because philosophers eschew popularity. I may be unaware of some; I don’t attend so many meetings.

IV. Other thoughts: I’ve only been to a handful of “official” statistics meetings. Obviously the # of simultaneous sessions makes the JSM a kind of factory experience, but that’s to be expected. But do people really need to purchase those JSM backpacks? I don’t know how much of the $400 registration fee goes to that, but it seems wasteful…. I saw people tossing theirs out, which I didn’t have the heart to do. Perhaps I’m just showing my outsider status.

V. Montreal: I intended to practice my French, but kept bursting into English too soon. Everyone I met (who lives there) complained about the new money and doing away with pennies in the near future. I wonder if we’re next.

[i]On Silver’s remark (in response to a “tweeted” question) that “data science” is a “sexed-up” term for statistics, I don’t know. I can see reflecting deeply over the foundations of statistical inference, but over the foundations of data analytics?

[ii] You don’t suppose the controversy about particle physics being “bad science” had anything to do with downplaying the Higgs statistics?

Categories: Higgs, Statistics, StatSci meets PhilSci

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5 thoughts on “11th bullet, multiple choice question, and last thoughts on the JSM

  1. anonymous

    The conclusion for a normative account is c; but might a descriptive modeler say a,b?

    • Anon: I am speaking of an adequate account for warranted inference, and so it is in that sense normative. But it should also correctly describe what follows from the premise. This gets to an equivocation I want to bring out; I’ll think about whether a modification of the question is in order.

  2. David Banks e-mails me that: “I wouldn’t have described JSM as a factory experience. It is more like 5 days of speed dating. I see hundreds of really nice people, we have a meaningful, personal, and important conversation that lasts for five minutes, and then I rush on to the next person.”
    That may be right; I’ve never experienced speed dating.

  3. Corey

    Some would say that for some F, option (b) provides a means to implement option (c).

    • Corey: So you’d circle (b) and (c)? Because i wrote this post quickly, I did not struggle to add all the qualifications that would be needed to avoid ambiguity, but I decided that leaving it this way would help to bring out the slipperiness of common assertions.

      Now one may add a means by which (b) helps to attain (c). But in practice the better solution might well be to block its entry in the first place. Suppose my desire to make money on a drug is allowed to influence my report of the data, so that untoward results are excluded or given low weight or the like. You don’t want me to claim my report of the drug trial is a warranted indication of the drug’s effectiveness in the trial. It would be better–wouldn’t it?– if I was prohibited from excluding or giving low weight to results I didn’t like. So an account that adheres to this prohibition should not be charged with naively assuming no biases could occur in the collection of data. One won’t see the biased report, thanks to much work in consciously blocking their entry.
      What bothers me is the charge (e.g., of N.S.) that frequentists naively assume no biases because he doesn’t find a formal niche to allow them to color the final report. I find that illogical. If he would retract this claim, I’ll be happy (reasonably).

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