Nonsense maths

By Marcus Wilson 10/01/2013

This one has hit the blogs recently, but, since it’s quite amusing – and perhaps a bit disturbing – it’s worth a comment.

Kimmo Eriksson has recently published a paper on ‘The Nonsense Math Effect’. The study was conceptually very simple. It used two hundred participants, all of whom had postgraduate degrees, with the participants spanning the various fields of academic study, including maths, science, medicine, humanities, education and more. Each participant was given two abstracts to read (the same two abstracts for each participants – though see the catch below). For those who don’t know, an ‘abstract’ is a short summary of a piece of work – typically a couple of hundred words. The idea is that the reader can work out from the abstract whether it’s worth his while to read the full work, or to attend the presentation at the upcoming conference, etc. Participants were asked to rate on a scale of 0-100 how good they thought the work was, based on what they read in the abstract. Now, the abstracts weren’t in the fields of expertise of the large majority of the participants, meaning they were reading them without specialist knowledge.

But here’s the crucial catch. Half of the abstracts were doctored by adding a sentence at the end which included a maths equation in it. The sentence was taken from a different paper and was therefore entirely irrelevant. The aim was to see whether this sentenced changed the readers’ perceptions of the work.

And the results of the study? Those participants with a maths or science background weren’t impressed by the added maths. The overall score of the doctored abstracts dropped slightly, although the drop wasn’t statistically significant. However, those with backgrounds in humanities, social science and education were impressed by the addition of the nonsense maths, and rated the abstract more highly. (By the way, so did the medics, but that difference isn’t statistically significant because of the low numbers of medics participating.)

So maths impresses those that are not mathematically literate. Is this phenomenon only seen with maths, or is it more widespread – i.e. one is impressed by what one doesn’t understand? This might link to Dan Sperber’s "Guru Effect" as evidenced in many of our politician’s speeches, where sentences that are hard to understand sound impressive. 

Maybe I should start slipping some random social-science or education theory rubbish phrase into things I write so that the writing is viewed more favourably. This will elucidate the sentimental effect and related social discovering strategies.







0 Responses to “Nonsense maths”

  • This will elucidate the sentimental effect and related social discovering strategies.

    I saw what you did there 🙂

  • I’ve been suspicious that there is a bit of a tendency to treat papers with more rigorous maths as somehow more insightful. Sometimes it’s a bit odd that you can have some data that really isn’t difficult to interpret, and some simple data analysis suffices. Then someone at a seminar, or a referee, advises you to do something much more complex. Which, isn’t in itself a bad thing. But when the data is already pretty explicit, adding these extra layers of “rigour” never actually change the conclusions. I’m left wondering about the value of the exercise when it makes results easy to understand, less accessible to readers…

  • Nothing really new here. We all know that putting on a white lab coat, wearing spectacles and growing a beard (men only) and standing in front of a board or screen with a few simple chemical structures and a few simple mathematical symbols is a more effective way of advertising new formula whiter-than-white toothpaste, for example. We are so easily deceived that it is scary. Take the famous Milgram experiment, for example, in which the perception of authority – “The role of experimenter was played by a 31-year-old high school teacher of biology. His manner was impassive, and his appearance somewhat stern throughout the experiment. He was dressed in a gray technician’s coat” – was sufficient to make people do some ‘surprising’ things to a fellow human being. People are gullible, always have been, and always will be.