Lies, damned lies, and public trust

When I was a child, my grandfather blew my mind with a bit of basic probability and statistics. If you play the lottery, he explained, you might as well just play the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. Your chance of winning will be exactly the same as with any other particular combination of numbers. I was astonished and incredulous at first, but then I thought it through, and had to admit, of course, that he was right.

Now, years later, I am not so sure anymore.

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Unskilled and unaware of it

Have you heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect? It’s an interesting psychological insight about how people’s actual knowledge and skill aligns with their perceived knowledge and skill.

People who are not very skilled at a particular task find it very hard to understand the level of skill needed to do that task well. As a consequence, they fail to recognise a truly skilled practitioner when they see one, and they tend to overestimate their own skill. As a people get better at a particular skill, they also get better at accurately estimating how good they are at it. This is true for a wide range of skills and knowledge areas, including grammar, logical thinking, and even humour. It was first described in a 1999 paper by Kruger and Dunning entitled Unskilled and Unaware of it.

Now, here is the problem.

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“I am interested in data visualisation.” – “Great! Try this cupcake.”

Imagine the following situation. You are at a party and chat with someone you’ve just met. You start talking about what you do and what you are interested in. You say something like “I like statistics, and especially how it applies to solving biological problems.” The person you are talking to smiles brightly and then says: “Fantastic! Have you tried braiding your hair?”

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Say it in a sentence

I recently came across this very awesome site called “lol my thesis”. The site challenges people to summarise the content of their dissertation in one sentence. The one-word thesis summaries range from the somewhat surprising (“Irish cultural history is defined, before and after, by one school teacher’s crazy lifelong dream of becoming a martyr, because druids.“) to the somewhat less surprising (“If you take an obscure mathematical object and encode it into another obscure mathematical object, the result is an obscure mathematical object.“) to the somewhat depressing (“We will never know what a long dead writer wanted us to know about his work.“) Reading the entries on lol my thesis reminded me of a rather traumatic experience I had as a young grad student. 

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