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September 2007
October 2007

2007-09-18 »

Newflash: people can't do statistics

My two recent articles about climate change vs. objectivity and expensive gasoline got some rather more vigorous responses than what I'm used to.

The scariest responses I received were of the form, "panels of experts have analyzed the evidence, and they know a lot more about it than you or I do, so we should trust them."

Well, panels of experts have analyzed a lot of things. Here's a few experts who analyzed a huge set of scientific papers and found that most scientific papers are wrong. They hypothesize that this is because the people writing the papers are desperate to show that their work has uncovered something meaningful, so they twiddle with the statistics until they can discover something that seems mathematically significant.

Now ask yourself: if the most important assignment of your entire career was to determine, based on non-repeatable experimental observations (sensor readings over the last 100 years), whether global warming was real or not, and whether it was caused by humans or not... how honest would you be with yourself about the significance of your results?

Programmers have it easy. We may not know much either, but at least we know for sure that our trends don't follow 1000-year cycles.

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