Humanities Scholars Baffled By Math

Via the Wall Street Journal:

In the latest study, Kimmo Eriksson, a mathematician and researcher of social psychology at Sweden’s Mälardalen University, chose two abstracts from papers published in research journals, one in evolutionary anthropology and one in sociology. He gave them to 200 people to rate for quality—with one twist. At random, one of the two abstracts received an additional sentence, the one above with the math equation, which he pulled from an unrelated paper in psychology. The study’s 200 participants all had master’s or doctoral degrees. Those with degrees in math, science or technology rated the abstract with the tacked-on sentence as slightly lower-quality than the other. But participants with degrees in humanities, social science or other fields preferred the one with the bogus math, with some rating it much more highly on a scale of 0 to 100.

Specifically, 62% of humanities and social science scholars preferred the paper with the irrelevant equation, compared with 46% from a background of mathematics, science and technology.

This is a significant result, and I hope the experiment is repeated and replicated. It is all well and good for humanities and social science scholars to mostly eschew the use of mathematics in their work. But if humanities scholars begin to take work more seriously simply for the inclusion of (faux-) mathematics without themselves understanding the mathematics, then maybe it’s time for humanities and social science scholars to increase their mathematical and statistical literacy so as not to be so easily tricked by faux-mathematical rigour.

And this isn’t just a case of not understanding the equation — it seems like a nontrivial chunk of humanities and social science scholars have quite an inferiority complex. That should be a great embarrassment; there is nothing inherently inferior about the study of the human condition, or its (mostly non-mathematical) tools.

Last year, I wrote:

Well-written work — whether in plain language or mathematics — requires comprehensible explanations and definitions, so that a non-specialist with a moderate interest in the subject can quickly and easily grasp the gist of the concepts, the theory, the reasoning, and the predictions. Researchers can use as complex methods as they like — but if they cannot explain them clearly in plain language then there is a transparency problem. Without transparency, academia — whether cultural studies, or mathematics, or economics — has sometimes produced self-serving ambiguous sludge. Bad models and theories produce bad predictions that can inform bad policy and bad investment decisions.  It is so crucial that ideas are expressed in a comprehensible way, and that theories and the thought-process behind them are not hidden behind opaque or poorly-defined words or mathematics.

But in this case, I think the only real solution is mathematical and scientific literacy.

On the other hand, prestigious mathematics journals have also recently been conned into publishing papers of (literally) incomprehensible gibberish, so it is not like only humanities and social science scholars have the capacity to be baffled by bullshit.

29 thoughts on “Humanities Scholars Baffled By Math

  1. ‘have an inferiority complex’?
    understatement of the year. Until every politician, degree, career structure & renumeration stops descriminating way past what makes any sense (you can get science funding for trivia, face it) why would that change?

  2. It may be that social scientists find mathematics more sophisticated than verbal models, maybe because of the “success” of mathematics in economics (especially after the 1970s — a little embarrassing for me, I can get through the maths in, for example, Hicks’ Capital and Time, but I’m having trouble understanding the models in Lucas’ papers on monetary theory).

  3. No doubt that Mathematics is bullshit, but, then again, so is the written word. It’s just a matter of degree.

    Reality is NOT assessable through the intellect, so no matter the vehicle, the end result is a personal or group reality [i.e., an agenda]. Otherwise, almost everybody would agree with everybody else about everything.

    For example, if you gathered your closest ten million friends out on a large field and had them look up at the moon, most would recognize it as the moon. Why would that be? No thinking involved.

    Ask them a question that would require some degree of critical thinking and you will get ten million different answers.

    • Reality is NOT assessable through the intellect, so no matter the vehicle, the end result is a personal or group reality [i.e., an agenda]. Otherwise, almost everybody would agree with everybody else about everything.

      This is a point brought up as early as Weber. Any study of the facts is geared by one’s priors (or theory).

    • It’s puzzling that a physician seems to have little respect for peer review and the other disciplines of real science and applied science.

      • Yeah, thank God there are still some of us who don’t buy into the total bullshit that masquerades as a health care system in this country.

        DG, do you believe it is only the banking system/government that is completely corrupt?

        Do you believe I should just prescribe drugs for everybody [like the system tells you should do] or should I actually try to figure out what’s wrong with my patients? Should I do test after test after test simply because their potential diagnosis [codes] trips the appropriate procedural codes?

        See, the problem is that even in places like this, people still do not get it.

        • Imp, who imposes the “codes”, the fee limits, and other barriers to the physician’s providing optimal care for the patient? Isn’t it insurance companies, in league with government, in legal conspiracy to shortchange the “customer” and fleece the public? So, you ask an excellent rhetorical question, to which the answer is NO — I do not believe that “it is only the banking system/government that is corrupt”!

        • Imp: My reply below could/should be extended to name other private-government corrupt conspiracies besides banking and healthcare: education, alternative energy, housing, agriculture, “justice”, and retirement among others — all involving the federal government exercising unconstitutional powers.

    • After rereading your Jan 06 posts above, I have two new/revised responses.

      My late brother was a distinguished mathematical physicist who, among other groundbreaking projects at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, worked on medical research in conjunction with the JH Medical staff at Baltimore. My impression is that no one participating in the research considered mathematics to be BS.

      A philosophy sub-“discipline” called Post Modernism (or some such label) got media attention when Hillary Clinton became the darling of the Democratic media and the Women’s Movement. Their ethics, well exemplified by Hillary’s contempt for truth, recognized no innate right & wrong in human affairs, only individual subjective choices. Some claimed that there is no reality. I trust your comments don’t place your philosophy with theirs. As a medical layman, would I be out of line to posit that a practicing Post Modernist could not function as a practicing physician?

      • The problem with innate right and wrong, truth, reality and the like is that they presume the existence of gods or some other transcendental and absolute framework, that is, faith in the religious sense. But people who claim access to knowledge of absolute truth, morality, and reality are generally unable to prove the validity of their knowledge other than by the ‘proof’ of superior force. Distrust of such absolute knowledge was well known in the ancient world, but it has become curiously associated with certain late 20th-century philosophers, hence ‘postmodernism’.

        This is not to say that Mrs. Clinton believes in anything but power.

        • Anarc: I should have addressed my post — math and medicine — to Dr. Imp. On innate right and wrong, surely we can agree that there are some clear differences — independent of religion, in fact common to most of them — in ethical (preferable) ways to treat our fellow humans; truth vs. falsehood, for example.

  4. speaking of baffling with bullsh*t…

    “the world price of gold is set by machines…meanwhile, complex systems generate unexpected connections and forms of order…the Internet is the most complex distributed high speed system ever put in place on this planet”

  5. i still havent read sheldrakes book but in now listening to his response starting around 34 mins in I realise that this guy is really, really smart. that’s what is so nice about smart people. dumb people like me can understand them because they are so clear

    • Alister, if someone appears really “smart,” it might just be that they can pontificate the current take on things with great skill. Tomorrow, or the next day, they might seem like a total dufus.

      Wisdom, on the other hand, is realizing that there is nothing to understand, that Reality is right in front of us, always accessible without mathematical formulas to complicate or computers to capitulate; no translators, educators, elucidators, prognosticators, orators, or contributors necessary; it’s not on sale at Mal-wart, or Sears, or available at the mall; it can not be lied about, distorted, contorted, or mis-reported; it is that which gives us our very essence, that which is present before our birth and remains after our death.

      We might take great joy and revel in our ignorance of that which is always changing, and, as well, take solace in that which is … .

  6. Quandl is a collaboratively curated portal to over 2 million financial and economic time-series datasets from over 250 sources. Our long-term mission is to make all numerical data on the internet easy to find and easy to use.

  7. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. So don’t ask scholars in humanities to learn a little math in order to evaluated proposals with mathematic content. I find, as a humanist, that it is best to ask the experts. So I ask mathematicians to help me evaluate mathematics in the social scientists, and I invariably find that mathematicians have very low estimates of the mathematical ability of social scientists.

  8. I am hearing from associates that primary/elementary/junior school teachers are having difficulty teaching because of students accessing the internet and questioning their learning. The Bafflers of Bullshit will be caught out eventually.

  9. “Higher education” in the US (and elsewhere?) has a serious and worsening problem — or better described as outbreaks* of our cultural and political degradation: public funding (politicians using others’ money to buy votes) of tuition produces graduates unfit for employment, institutions loaded with faculty who cannot/do not teach anything useful, and a lot more public debt. Worse, we are inculcating “political correctness” (truth subordinated to propaganda), revisionist history, “diversification” (racial/ethnic disunity), and disrespect** for STEM (science, technology. engineering, mathematics) disciplines.

    * We still have pockets of world-leading academics.

    ** US students continue to fall lower in international ranking in STEM skills.

    • In the U.S., and, I suppose, elsewhere, a major function of the education industry, and especially of its ‘higher-education’ sector, is to serve as a class filter. This role often runs strongly athwart such tasks as the provision of information and inculcation of competence, much less anything so ethereal as the search for truth and beauty and all that.

      One might see this as yet another religion, one more way of floundering about in the void, were it not for the fact that some people, by chance, have actually learned how to do significant things like vaporize whole cities in the twinkling of an eye. These practices have often arisen within that same education industry, and are dangerous; we cannot count on its general incompetence to save us from the bad results of floundering.

    • Perhaps people should take a step back and ask the simple question, “What is the purpose of education?”

      If you look closely, you will find that it is basically a jobs training program that doesn’t work very well anymore because there aren’t too many good jobs left. The system, therefore, fails the vast majority, by necessity. That way you can blame the job paucity on ignorant people.

      The last thing that the system wants is an “educated” population. Keep’em barefoot and pregnant, on food stamps, welfare, alcohol, drugs, junk food, TV,…

      • Anarc & Imp: Times and circumstances — including supply and demand — change. In the US before WW2, higher education was largely “class filter” jobs training for boys and “Mrs. degrees” for girls. At the end of WW2, women had learned to work outside the home, and the “GI Bill” boosted supply of undergrad men to fill jobs to meet exploding demand for civilian products and services. Everyone prospered, but the next two generations grew spoiled and lazy. So did education — see my Jan 06 @10:30 post above.

        Now many of our best jobs have moved overseas, and many of the remaining are filled by foreign workers educated and trained here. In my high tech oil-gas and healthcare suburb of Houston, I see a lot of well-dressed South Americans and Indians. In Austin it’s Asians. [What’s it like in Silicon Valley, Cambridge and Research Triangle?] Regrettably, young African-Americans and Mexican-Americans are held back by politically imposed cultural and public education discrimination [see imp’s last paragraph above].
        So “What is the purpose of education?” According to Marx, Hitler, Alinski and Obama, it’s purpose is to serve the state by turning out (1) workers per state quotas and (2) brainwashed/compliant citizens (TOP-DOWN). But we must not give up on education to motivate and help people to support self, family and society, and to become responsible stewards of democratic government (BOTTOM-UP).

        • Most concepts of education seem to be top-down: it is an activity organized, promoted, and carried forward by a hierarchy of educators who impose their knowledge, true and false and in between, on a passive-receptive body of students. This model is then held to be equivalent to learning. It is certainly more secure and convenient for the state to have education than for people to be running around learning whatever they want in whatever way seems to work for them, and it also enables credentialism, which seems to be crucial to the large bureaucracies of the government, the corporations, and other state institutions.

  10. Humanities Scholars Baffled By Math

    Friday (4th Jan) Morning the BBC’s Today Programme held a discussion regarding the seeming inconsistency of the UK’s productivity output ;s devastation from the expected; the basis of the discussion was based on the Bank of England’s Discussion Paper No. 38 Estimation of short dynamic panels in the presence of cross-sectional dependence and dynamic heterogeneity .

    This Paper was published in Dec 2012 for the period 1992 Q1 to 2011 Q3. Hence, a Paper striving to interpret the present and provide guidance for the future was utilising a period that ended more than 12 months ago. The Paper’s output was to: “use historical decompositions to examine the determinants of recent output growth in each country. This exercise demonstrates that failure to take cross-sectional dependence into account leads to highly misleading results.”

    In layman terms it was seeking to try and prove what we already know; that the a-causal comfort that is created by complicated linearity is not the same as the anti-causal reality of complex inter-connected systems that display characteristics such as equifinality. Hence, the application of linear mathematics (even when wrapped in a charade that purports to represent non-linearity) to try and determine the reality of the non-linear world is flawed. As Azizonomics points out: It is crucial that ideas are expressed in a comprehensible way, and that theories and the thought-process behind them are not hidden behind opaque or poorly-defined words or traditional mathematics.” The BBC took the “discussion” Paper and then allowed the participants (experts) to answer whatever question they felt comfortable with from their own perspective (the ABC acknowledge, bridge, comment) rather than it being a sensible discussion for the man on the Clapham omnibus. Such debates must have the capacity to encourage the audience to question the underpinning logic, as happens in some other countries; the public broadcaster should have the capability to create a ‘big picture’ that is understandable and can hold the experts ‘feet to the fire’ rather than as we too often find – just another rambling discussion between experts; who seemingly have little expertise when it comes to understanding the systemic nature of this often wonderful complexity.

  11. Pingback: Humanities Scholars Baffled By Math | My Blog

  12. Pingback: UM scholar appointed editor-in-chief for psychology magazine | Bonus Republic

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