Saturday, March 3, 2012

Screen interactions to avoid wasting time

Sometimes the winning move is to make the game go away.

Like other scientists who appeal to a popular audience, Richard Feynman corresponded with a number of cranks; some of this correspondence is available in the book Perfectly reasonable deviations from the beaten track: The letters of Richard P. Feynman

On pages 129-134 of the hardcover, Feynman addresses a Mr. Y, who believes the "Physics establishment" to be wrong about relativity and he, Mr. Y, to be right. Mr. Y clearly knows very little physics.

On his second reply to Mr. Y, Feynman includes a problem, slightly modified from an undergraduate class, under the guise of clarifying the source of their disagreement. Once Mr. Y's next letter fails to answer the problem, Feynman excuses himself from the conversation by explaining that, without knowing what Mr. Y's theory predicts in that problem, there's no way to determine the source of their (Feynman and Mr. Y's) differences.

I was reminded of this story when, some days ago, I employed a similar screening device to avoid getting drawn into a lunchtime argument with an ignoramus. (Details and domain changed.)

Ignoramus: It's clear that we need to do Action 1 because the average of Variable X is increasing.

Me (thinking): Did Naan & Curry stop including Palak Paneer in the lunch buffet or have they just run out?

Ignoramus: Don't you agree that people who don't want to do Action 1 are anti-scientific?

Me: I was thinking... I'm not sure, but let me just get the details right: the average of Variable X is increasing, you say. How is that average computed, precisely? I mean, there are parts of Domain of Variable X that are volumes and parts of the Domain of Variable X that are areas. So, how does one compute an average over two domains with different dimensions?

(If you assert that Science is on your side, you'd better know what you're talking about. Otherwise, you're just parroting whomever convinced you last and it's a waste of my time to talk to you.)

Ignoramus: I don't follow.

Me: Well, if you have an average of $X_1$ per $m^2$  over Domain 1 and an average of $X_2$ per $m^{3}$ over Domain 2, how do you combine that?

Ignoramus: I don't know. Why is that important? Everyone agrees that the average of Variable X is increasing, except the anti-scientific. Are you anti-scientific?

Me: I have no opinion over a quantity that I cannot define. How are the averages of X/volume and X/area combined? They have different dimensions, so you can't add them.

Ignoramus: But everyone know that the average of Variable X is increasing.

Me: So, let me get this straight: you cannot define the quantity "average of Variable X" in a precise way, but you're sure it's increasing?

Ignoramus: I'm sure the experts know how to do that.

Me: But how can it be possible to average two quantities, one that is defined in X per square meters and one that is defined in X per cubic meters? That's a mathematical impossibility.

Ignoramus: But the experts agree.

Me: I just can't see how you can believe that a quantity is so important, have such strong opinions about its trend, the implications of that trend, and the people who disagree with those implications — and at the same time have no idea how the quantity is computed.

Ignoramus (sulking): All the experts agree.

Me: I cannot express an opinion over a quantity I don't understand. Perhaps someone who knows this matter better than you do will be able to explain it to me and then I'll be able to form an opinion.

This exchange captures the basic problem of the Ignoramus: a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. It also illustrates the power of screening questions to stop people from wasting my time.