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Folk Numeracy & Middle Land

Why our brains do not intuitively grasp probabilities, Part 1
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Have you ever gone to the phone to call a friend only to have your friend ring you first? What are the odds of that? Not high, to be sure, but the sum of all probabilities equals one. Given enough opportunities, outlier anomalies — even seeming miracles — will occasionally happen.

Let us define a miracle as an event with million-to-one odds of occurring (intuitively, that seems rare enough to earn the moniker). Let us also assign a number of one bit per second to the data that flow into our senses as we go about our day and assume that we are awake for 12 hours a day. We get 43,200 bits of data a day, or 1.296 million a month. Even assuming that 99.999 percent of these bits are totally meaningless (and so we filter them out or forget them entirely), that still leaves 1.3 “miracles” a month, or 15.5 miracles a year (continue reading…)

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Wronger than Wrong

Not all wrong theories are equal
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In belles lettres the witty literary slight has evolved into a genre because, as 20th-century trial lawyer Louis Nizer noted, “A graceful taunt is worth a thousand insults.” To wit, from high culture, Mark Twain: (continue reading…)

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The Feynman-Tufte Principle

A visual display of data should be simple enough to fit on the side of a van
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I had long wanted to meet Edward R. Tufte — the man the New York Times called “the da Vinci of data” because of his concisely written and artfully illustrated books on the visual display of data — and invite him to speak at the Skeptics Society science lecture series that I host at the California Institute of Technology. Tufte is one of the world’s leading experts on a core tool of skepticism: how to see through information obfuscation.

But how could we afford someone of his stature? “My honorarium,” he told me, “is to see Feynman’s van.”

Richard Feynman, the late Caltech physicist, is famous for working on the atomic bomb, winning a Nobel Prize in Physics, cracking safes, playing drums and driving a 1975 Dodge Maxivan adorned with squiggly lines on the side panels. Most people who saw it gazed in puzzlement, but once in a while someone would ask the driver why he had Feynman diagrams all over his van, only to be told, “Because I’m Richard Feynman!” (continue reading…)

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The Physicist and the Abalone Diver

The difference between the creators of two new theories of science reveals the social nature of the scientific process
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Consider the following quotes, written by authors of recently self-published books purporting to revolutionize science:

“This book is the culmination of nearly twenty years of work that I have done to develop that new kind of science. I had never expected it would take anything like as long, but I have discovered vastly more than I ever thought possible, and in fact what I have done now touches almost every existing area of science, and quite a bit besides … I have come to view [my discovery] as one of the more important single discoveries in the whole history of theoretical science.”

“The development of this work has been a completely solitary effort during the past thirty years. As you will realize as you read through this book, these ideas had to be developed by an outsider. They are such a complete reversal of contemporary thinking that it would have been very difficult for any one part of this integrated theoretical system to be developed within the rigid structure of institutional science.” (continue reading…)

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