Archive for scientific communication

“la formule qui décrypte le monde”

Posted in Books, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , on November 6, 2012 by xi'an

“It is only in the 1980s that the American mathematician Judea Pearl has shown that, by aligning hundreds of Bayes formulas, it was possible to take into account the multiple causes of a complex phenomenon.” (my translation)

As a curious coincidence, the latest issue of Science & Vie appeared on the day I was posting about Peter Coles’s warnings on scientific communication. The cover title of the magazine is the title of this post, The formula decrypting the World, and it is of course about… Bayes’ formula, no-one else’s!!! The major section (16 pages) in this French scientific vulgarization magazine is indeed dedicated to Bayesian statistics and even more Bayesian networks, with the usual stylistic excesses of journalism. As it happens, one of the journalists in charge of this issue came to discuss the topic with me a long while ago in Paris-Dauphine and I remember the experience as being not particularly pleasant since I had trouble communicating the ideas of Bayesian statistics in layman terms. In the end, this rather lengthy interview produced two quotes from me, one that could be mine (in connection with some sentences from Henri Poincaré) and another that is definitely apocryphal (yes, indeed, the one above! I am adamant I could not have mentioned Judea Pearl, whose work I am not familiar with, and even less this bizarre image of hundreds of Bayes’ theorems… Presumably, this got mixed up with a quote from another interviewed Bayesian. The same misquoting occurred for my friend Jean-Michel Marin!).

Among the illustrations selected in the journal as vignettes, the Monty Hall paradox—which is an exercise in conditioning, not in statistical reasoning!—, signal processing for microscope images, Bayesian networks for robots, population genetics (and the return of the musk ox!), stellar cloud formation, tsunami prediction, microarray analysis, climate meta-analysis (with a quote from Noel Cressie), post-Higgs particle physics, ESP studies invalidation by Wagenmakers (missing the fact that the reply by Bern, Utts, and Johnson is equally Bayesian), quantum physics. From a more remote perspective, those are scientific studies using Bayesian statistics to establish important and novel results. However, it would have been easy to come up with equally important and novel results demonstrated via classical non-Bayesian approaches, such as exhibiting the Higgs boson. Now, I understand the difficulty in conveying to the layman the difference resulting from using a Bayesian reasoning to support a scientific argument, however this accumulation of superlatives opens the door to suspicions of bias and truncated perspectives… The second half of the report is less about statistics and more about psychology and learning, expanding on the notion that the brain operates in ways similar to Bayesian learning and networks. Continue reading

L’Aquila: earthquake, verdict, and statistics

Posted in Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 25, 2012 by xi'an

Yesterday I read this blog entry by Peter Coles, a Professor of Theoretical Astrophysics at Cardiff and soon in Brighton, about L’Aquila earthquake verdict, condemning six Italian scientists to severe jail sentences. While most of the blogs around reacted against this verdict as an anti-scientific decision and as a 21st Century remake of Giordano Bruno‘s murder by the Roman Inquisition, Peter Coles argues in the opposite that the scientists were not scientific enough in that instance. And should have used statistics and probabilistic reasoning. While I did not look into the details of the L’Aquila earthquake judgement and thus have no idea whether or not the scientists were guilty in not signalling the potential for disaster, were an earthquake to occur, I cannot but repost one of Coles’ most relevant paragraphs:

I thought I’d take this opportunity to repeat the reasons I think statistics and statistical reasoning are so important. Of course they are important in science. In fact, I think they lie at the very core of the scientific method, although I am still surprised how few practising scientists are comfortable even with statistical language. A more important problem is the popular impression that science is about facts and absolute truths. It isn’t. It’s a process. In order to advance, it has to question itself.

Statistical reasoning also applies outside science to many facets of everyday life, including business, commerce, transport, the media, and politics. It is a feature of everyday life that science and technology are deeply embedded in every aspect of what we do each day. Science has given us greater levels of comfort, better health care, and a plethora of labour-saving devices. It has also given us unprecedented ability to destroy the environment and each other, whether through accident or design. Probability even plays a role in personal relationships, though mostly at a subconscious level.

A bit further down, Peter Coles also bemoans the shortcuts and oversimplification of scientific journalism, which reminded me of the time Jean-Michel Marin had to deal with radio journalists about an “impossible” lottery coincidence:

Years ago I used to listen to radio interviews with scientists on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4. I even did such an interview once. It is a deeply frustrating experience. The scientist usually starts by explaining what the discovery is about in the way a scientist should, with careful statements of what is assumed, how the data is interpreted, and what other possible interpretations might be and the likely sources of error. The interviewer then loses patience and asks for a yes or no answer. The scientist tries to continue, but is badgered. Either the interview ends as a row, or the scientist ends up stating a grossly oversimplified version of the story.