Monday, October 21, 2013

My phone is just as smart as you guys!

Dunning-Kruger Effect, the internet is your multiplier.

Anyone can search for anything, which makes knowing what to search for and how to interpret the results more important than ever. The comoditization of information increases the value of knowledge.

Early on in the most recent episode of The Big Bang Theory (season 7, episode 5, "The Workplace Proximity" *), Amy, Bernadette, and Penny are in Penny's apartment drinking wine and talking about Amy's temporary move to Caltech:

Amy: "I'm leading a study to see if deficiency of the monoamine oxydase enzyme leads to paralyzing fear in monkeys"

[Bernadette lets slip that she might have done that research with death row convicts, which she quickly denies because it would have been unethical.]

Penny: "Not many people know this, but the monoamine oxydase [mispronounced as "oxidize"] enzyme was discovered by a woman, Mary Bernheim.

[Bernadette and Amy are stunned.]

Penny: "That's right. My phone is just as smart as you guys."

And this captures a common confusion between knowledge and information. Note the pathologies illustrated in that vignette:

1. Who discovered MAO is irrelevant for the work Amy will be doing. Like Penny, many people pluck some vaguely related fact from the internet to interject into a discussion, in the illusion that they will appear knowledgeable. This behavior is becoming more and more common, especially with smartphones, but knowledge is a lot more than a simple collection of facts.

2. Penny searches for MAO because someone else brought up the topic. Without a framework of knowledge to integrate facts, people who depend on search don't know what to search for. In other words, the input for a meaningful search requires knowledge.

3. Even if Penny found useful MAO information, for example the mechanism by which it catalyzes the oxidation of monoamines and affects mood, she wouldn't be able to interpret the biochemistry and neuroscience involved. In other words the output of the search only gets meaning through knowledge.

Yes, I understand it's a joke. But this attitude that learning substantive material is passé, made unnecessary by the existence of search engines — an attitude that sadly can be found even among educators — is corrupting, corrosive, and counterproductive.

Without knowledge, information is useless. More people making knowledge-poor searches leads to more random facts being flung haphazardly into discussions; this makes having the knowledge to select and interpret the important facts more valuable than before.

Knowledge is power, the power to use information. Pity so few people know that.

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* Even though the general arc of the show has become a soap opera, there are still some good jokes in each episode, and the final joke in this one is among the best.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Digging too deeply into a Heisenberg (Physics not crystal meth) joke

Some days ago I saw and retweeted this joke:
Police officer: "Sir, do you realize you were going 67.58 MPH?
Werner Heisenberg: "Oh great. Now I'm lost."
Ok, it's a funny joke, provided you have a passing acquaintance with basic physics.

But here's my problem: a lot of people who kinda-sorta understand that joke have no idea what's really behind it. And that's a problem I've had for a while now with the "science fanclub that cannot do basic science" as I call them. (The people who think that Surely you're joking Mr. Feynman is a physics book and like to watch soap opera biographies of scientists, heavy on the drama, light on the actual science.)

[Added later] My problem with these people is that they perceive science as something that comes from authority and must not be questioned or further investigated by others. For example, they "know" that the position and the velocity of an elementary particle cannot be jointly determined with arbitrary precision; but when pressed about how they know that, they say something about "Cosmos" or mention a Richard Dawkins book (which of course would not cover this); they behave as acolytes to those they recognize as high priests of science, who – presumably – are anointed by a Council of Wise Ones. That's precisely the opposite of what gave science its success, the idea that anyone can question received wisdom and experiment or observation are the ultimate arbiters of correctness. [End of addition.]

A simplified form of Heisenberg's inequality, good enough for our purposes, is

$\qquad \Delta p \, \Delta x \ge h$

Going by orders of magnitude alone, assuming that the mass of Heisenberg plus car is in the order of 1000 kg, and noting that the speed is given to a precision of 0.01 mi/h, an order of magnitude of 10 m/s, with $h \approx 10^{-34}$ Js, we get a $\Delta x$ of the order of

$\qquad \Delta x \approx \frac{ 10^{-34} }{10 000} = 10^{-38}$ m.

That's a lot of precision to consider oneself lost. For comparison, the width of a typical human hair is in the order of 10-100 micrometers, or $10^{-5}$ to $10^{-4}$ m.

Yes, these numbers show how stupid it would be to use Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle for macroscopic observations. That's the joke; the fact that many members of the science-fanclub have no idea of the magnitudes involved but like to lord their science-fandom over others is part of my irritation.

I see this all the time in my job, with people who can't write Bayes's formula talking loudly about graphical models (should really be graphal models, BTW, since they are based on graphs, not graphics).