The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Posts Tagged ‘statistics’

Skeptical Teacher Blog: 2012 in review

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 31, 2012

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

About 55,000 tourists visit Liechtenstein every year. This blog was viewed about 220,000 times in 2012. If it were Liechtenstein, it would take about 4 years for that many people to see it. Your blog had more visits than a small country in Europe!

Click here to see the complete report.

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Higgs Boson Lecture at Dragon*Con 2012

Posted by mattusmaximus on September 22, 2012

While at Dragon*Con 2012, I gave an incredibly well-attended lecture (standing room only!) on the recent “discovery”(?) of the Higgs boson and our modern theories of particle physics (known as the Standard Model).  The lecture was followed by a very fruitful Q&A session which was made all the more interesting because attending the lecture was an engineer who actually works on a detector at the Large Hadron Collider and a theoretical particle physicist!

I recorded the audio of the lecture in order to share it, and I have embedded that audio into the PowerPoint file I used for my lecture.  Enjoy! :)

The Higgs Boson – DC Lecture with Audio

Posted in philosophy, scientific method, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

The Higgs Boson, The “God Particle”, and the March of Science

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 14, 2011

You may have heard the recent news that physicists at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider may be narrowing their search for the Higgs Boson.  Here’s an update from The Guardian…

particle collision cern

A graphic showing traces of collision of particles at Cern. Photograph: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

We may have glimpsed the Higgs boson, say Cern scientists

Scientists believe they may have caught their first glimpse of the Higgs boson, the so-called God particle that is thought to underpin the subatomic workings of nature.

Physicists Fabiola Gianotti and Guido Tonelli were applauded by hundreds of scientists yesterday as they revealed evidence for the particle amid the debris of hundreds of trillions of proton collisions inside the Large Hadron Collider at Cern, the European particle physics laboratory near Geneva. …

Let me just put a few things into perspective here on this potential (and I stress potential) discovery.  First, the data are rather preliminary, and in order to say for sure that there is solid evidence for the Higgs Boson, there need to be more observations to help shore up the statistical analysis.  In particle physics, it is not uncommon to see the occasional “discovery” that eventually ends up being merely a statistical anomaly, so more data is better to weed out the anomalies.  This section of The Guardian article helps to clarify this point:

… Particle physicists use a “sigma” scale to grade the significance of results, from one to five. One and two sigma results are unreliable because they come and go with statistical fluctuations in the data. A three sigma result counts as an “observation”, while a five sigma result is enough to claim an official discovery. There is less than a one in a million chance of a five sigma result being a statistical fluke.

Gianotti and Tonelli led two separate teams – one using Cern’s Atlas detector, the other using the laboratory’s Compact Muon Solenoid. At their seminar yesterday one team reported a 2.3 sigma bump in their data that could be a Higgs boson weighing 126GeV, while the other reported a 1.9 sigma Higgs signal at a mass of around 124GeV. There is a 1% chance that the Atlas result could be due to a random fluctuation in the data. …

So, by these data, while the 2.3 and 1.9 sigma signals are interesting, they don’t really rise to the level of a solid observation (which, recall, is set at a standard of 3.0 sigma), much less an official discovery.

Also, by “narrowed the search” for the Higgs Boson, what the CERN physicists mean is that they may have narrowed down the energy range in which the Higgs Boson might exist.  So, long story short, while these results are of interest, don’t go popping those champagne corks just yet :)

The “God Particle”?

I don’t know about you, but I get kind of annoyed at all of this labeling of the hypothetical Higgs Boson as the “God Particle”.  I see it as the kind of mushing of religion into science that leads to all manner of philosophically-challenged kind of muddy thinking.  First off, depending upon how one defines God (assuming the standard monotheistic version of the Abrahamic god), which is usually defined as a supernatural being, you run into trouble by trying to find natural evidence for a thing which is supposed to be beyond nature.

Second, even if we did discover the Higgs Boson, what would that supposedly tell us about this God?  Presumably various armchair theologians argue that such a discovery would be evidence for their view of God (which also begs the question of whether or not it is evidence for one God versus another God).  The logic here simply escapes me, and it smacks of the usual “everything is evidence for God” kind of argumentation that passes the lips of too many religious people.  And this also brings up a potentially sticky question for the advocates of the “God Particle” label…

What if the Higgs Boson isn’t discovered, despite years of detailed searching?  Will these same armchair theologians suddenly give up their belief in their God because the supposed “Particle” which is his/her/its/their fingerprint upon the cosmos was never there to begin with?  Somehow I don’t think so, because these believers will merely rationalize away the lack of evidence for the “God Particle”.  It is in this sense that I find some people who try to stick the round peg of religion into the square hole of science to be particularly annoying: they want to use science as a method of “proving” their religious beliefs when they think it will work for them, yet they completely dismiss science when it works against them.  It’s simply “heads I win, tails you lose” argumentation, and it is both intellectually lazy and disingenuous.

What if we don’t find the Higgs Boson?  Science will march on…

This is the thing I really like about science: it never ends.  The process of scientific investigation never ceases to ask questions, formulate ideas, and test out those ideas.  I think it is entirely possible that in the search for the Higgs Boson, it will never be found; and what then?  What if we never find it?  Well, that’s when I think things will get really interesting, because that means that much of what we think we know about the Standard Model of physics could very well be wrong.  And that would mean that we need to start looking at things differently; this is, to me, the antithesis of dogmatic thinking, and it shows how science is, collectively, the best mechanism we have for stimulating open and free inquiry of the world around us.

Now don’t get me wrong – I would be quite excited if the Higgs Boson were discovered.  But I think I would be much more excited if it weren’t found.  That would certainly open up a lot more questions, wouldn’t it?

To science!  May it march ever onward…

Posted in philosophy, scientific method | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

More Media Fail and Silliness: Lunar Effect Babies

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 17, 2011

This week there’s been a story going around the media about a supposedly huge jump in births in a Sacramento hospital where “45 babies were delivered in 48 hours.”  Now that may or may not sound very unusual (it ends up it isn’t that strange – read on), but the really weird aspect of this is the claim made by the hospital officials with nary a skeptical thought:

“The human body is 80 percent water, after all. And, given that both menstruation and ovulation roughly follow a lunar cycle – occurring on a monthly basis – it doesn’t seem too far off to think that the moon could have a say in childbirth as well,” hospital officials said.

And, of course, the supposed mechanism for this “lunar effect”, as espoused by the hospital spokesman, is gravitational in nature:
According to the news release, the moon’s gravitational pull “can control a woman’s body” the same way the moon’s gravity controls tides.
*Cue spooky music…
Image courtesy of

First of all, the fact that 45 babies were born in 48 hours is not that significant.  Note the article states that there have been a total of 325,000 babies delivered at the hospital since 1937.  If you do the math, then this comes out to an average of about 12 babies per day – compared to the claim in the article (which basically averages out to about 22 or 23 babies in one day), this seems not very extraordinary because it shows that there was a weekend where the hospital had only double the average number of births!  100 times the average number of births would be statistically significant, but not 2 times the average.

Then there’s the stupid claim about the “lunar effect”.  Not only is this a bogus claim – click here to see why not – but it is also implausible from the standpoint of basic physics.  The hospital spokesman makes a common claim about the “lunar effect” being gravitational in nature, like the tidal effects on the Earth’s oceans.  However, if one takes a moment to work through the mathematics, this arguments falls apart pretty quickly.  For example, I perform the calculations for the tidal effects of the moon (whether it is full or not is irrelevant) on a person in my physics classes, and it ends up the tidal forces that act upon a person are stupendously small – about one-billionth the weight of a paperclip!  So whether or not you decide to wear a hat or use hair gel on any given day has more gravitational influence on you than does the tides from the moon!

That’s because the strength of the tidal forces that act on an object are proportional to the size of that object.  In the case of a large planet, like the Earth, the relative difference between gravity from one side of the planet to the other (this difference is the tide itself) is pretty big since the Earth is big.  But humans are so small on this size scale that the difference in gravity (tide) on us is miniscule.

So the next time you gaze upwards and see the full moon, appreciate it for all its beauty and wonder.  But don’t worry about it making you crazy; the failure of the media to accurately report science is a bigger threat of making you nuts ;)

Posted in astrology, mathematics, media woo, physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Media Fail & Lotteries

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 22, 2011

This past December 17th, I saw a headline in my local paper which stunned me with the level of irresponsibility it displayed.  Back then the Powerball lottery was getting a lot of attention because the jackpot was up to a potential $25 million, and when such numbers start getting thrown around, people’s critical thinking skills go right out the window.  And it doesn’t help when the media joins the chorus of unreason…

First, there is the fallacy that when the jackpots are high, more people play because they “feel lucky that they’re going to win the BIG one!”  Of course, when more people play the lottery it actually decreases the odds that any specific person will win, yet this doesn’t stop the gullible from scarfing up the lottery tickets.

Then, there’s this horrible headline:

Wanna win Powerball? Try these numbers

For 13 years, a red ball with the number “20″ printed on it has been whirling around with its numerical counterparts in an enclosed Powerball kettle waiting to potentially make someone a millionaire. That No. 20 red ball has made its way out of the kettle 49 times, the most of any of the numbered balls. No. 20 also is the second most common number on the five white balls that are selected in each Powerball drawing as well, behind 26 and ahead of 32, 16 and 42, a Daily Herald analysis of the numbers shows. …

This headline and the leading paragraphs of the article play directly into the gambler’s fallacy of “lucky numbers” – in reality there are no more or less “lucky” numbers.  In fact, the past performance of the lottery is in no way, shape, or form a predictor of the next random drawing of numbers.  The article cited above actually does attempt to be at least marginally responsible by interviewing a mathematician, though their discussion is buried in the article…

… While some gamblers may see that information as an edge, mathematicians and oddsmakers say it’s all just luck.

“The numbers and the pingpong balls have no memory,” said Jeff Bergen, a mathematics professor at DePaul University. “So whether a given number has come up once or twice or 10 times or never, it is no more or less likely to come up today than any other number.” …

Exactly.  Unfortunately, the “news” article quickly followed up the math professor’s advice with some anecdotes from believers in these supposed lucky numbers.  So how did the Powerball drawing in question go?  Here were the results of the Dec. 18th Powerball drawing:

04-11-19-33-43 and 14 as the Powerball

And remember, the so-called “lucky numbers” referenced in the article were 16, 20, 26, 32, 42, and 20 for the Powerball.  Not a single one of these numbers appeared in the drawing – NOT… ONE. So much for “lucky numbers.”
So how should one win the lottery?  Simple: by not playing it at all.  To sum up the best way of dealing with this foolishness, I like this comment which appeared in response to the article:
You have much better chances of most things than of winning the lottery–getting struck by lightning, dying in a plane or car crash, etc. The odds are astronomically low of winning the big prize. Invest that money instead, and you’d end up with far more in the long-term, even with the low interest rates.
As for the “news” paper which so irresponsibly reported this article, I can only say one thing…

Posted in mathematics, media woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

How to Always Pick a Winning Stock

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 21, 2010

This time of year, money is on a lot of people’s minds.  And especially with the crummy economy, it is REALLY on people’s minds.  Unfortunately, this is an environment which is ripe for various kinds of money-related scams.  In that spirit, I wanted to share with you all an excellent blog post by my skeptical colleague Phil Ferguson over at the Skeptic Money blog. It’s all about those schemes to “pick winning stocks” and whatnot; I can’t do it justice, so I’ll just pass along Phil’s post…

How To Pick Winning Stock Every Time – The Skeptics’ Way

Today I will show you how great stock pickers are able to find the winners – every time.  Now when you get a tip via a call or an e-mail from a broker you will know how they do it.  Now you can do it too.  If you use this same method you can guarantee a correct prediction on a stock.  With this system you can win every time.

I found this video from Darren Brown.  He calls it the system and I will stick with that name.  He uses it on horses but, I will tell you how to do it with stocks.  It is even better with stock because they can only go up or down.  It is so easy – it will blow your mind.  The same secrets apply to stocks as it does for horses.  Watch this video to see how it works.  Don’t skip ahead… YOU NEED to see how well this works. …

And yes, there IS an angle to this whole thing, but to see the angle read all the way through to the end of Phil’s post plus watch the accompanying videos.  However, for those of you who are a bit ADD, I’ll skip to the end:

… Someone had to win with each bet.  A stock picker can do the same thing.  They will call dozens, hundreds or even thousands of people.  They will tell half of the people that a given stock will go up and the other half will be told that the same stock will go down.  Those that lose never get called again.  The winners are called again and get a new stock tip.  So with just 16 people to start with a stock picker can get 4 in a row for one lucky person.  Now that person will do just about anything.  Even borrow money from friends.  They may or may not make money.  It does not matter to the broker.  Each time you buy or sell a stock, you make will make the broker money.

Now, when someone calls you with a hot stock tip, you will know what to do – RUN!

Posted in economics, mathematics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Prayer, Miracles, and Damned Statistics

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 7, 2010

We’ve all heard the line: There’s lies, damned lies, and then there’s statistics. The implication is that people can use statistics to deceive themselves and others.  But the opposite is also true: people often deceive themselves due to a stark ignorance of numbers & statistics (often referred to as innumeracy).

For example, at this time of year, at least in Christian circles, there is a lot of talk going around about prayer and miracles – usually in the guise of stories about supposedly “miraculous” healing.  And the media loves to give air time to these kind of anecdotal stories with nary a whiff of skepticism.  However, to its credit, ABC News did a segment recently with Elizabeth Vargas where she gave a fair amount of face-time to skeptic Michael Shermer.  Here are some excerpts from Shermer’s account of the interview at the really groovy SkeptiBlog…

Would I Ever Pray for a Miracle?

I really like how Shermer goes into the issue of large number statistics, confirmation bias, and believers counting the “miraculous hits” while discounting the enormous number of inevitable misses…

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in mathematics, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

“Toyota Terror” and Media Scare-Mongering

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 15, 2010

Yes, we’ve all been hearing in the media lately about how Toyota is issuing major recalls for many of its most popular vehicles, such as the Camry & Prius.  The problems, we are told, range from sticky accelerator pedals to brakes that don’t function properly.  In addition, the media have made a really big point of noting that the accelerator problem has likely led to a whopping 19 deaths over the last decade!!!  ZOMG!!!11!1

Errr… that’s it?  19 deaths in a decade?  Really, that’s the big news?  Not to sound cold & heartless, but this seems so like the making of a molehill into a mountain in an effort by the media to keep a story going, when it’s obviously well past its “sell by” date.  To get a little perspective, let’s take a look at this responsible article by NPR on this issue…

Most Auto Accidents Caused By Drivers, Not Defects

Driving a Toyota may feel pretty risky these days, given all the scary stories about sudden acceleration, failing brakes and recalled vehicles. But that feeling has a lot more to do with emotion than statistics, experts say. That’s because defective vehicles are almost never the cause of serious crashes.

“The whole history of U.S. traffic safety in the U.S. has been one focusing on the vehicle, one of the least important factors,” says Leonard Evans, a physicist who worked for General Motors for three decades and wrote the book Traffic Safety.

To Err Is Human

Studies show that the vehicle itself is the sole cause of an accident only about 2 percent of the time. Drivers, on the other hand, are wholly to blame more than half the time and partly to blame more 90 percent of the time.

A look at data on Toyotas from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration confirms this pattern. The data show that in the decade ending in 2008, about 22,000 people were killed in vehicles made by Toyota or Lexus, Evans says. “All these people were killed because of factors that had absolutely nothing to do with any vehicle defect,” he says.

During that same period it’s possible, though not yet certain, that accelerator problems in Toyotas played a role in an additional 19 deaths, or about two each year, Evans says. And even if an accelerator does stick, drivers should be able to prevent most crashes by simply stepping on the brakes, Evans says. “The weakest brakes are stronger than the strongest engine,” he says.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in mathematics, media woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Why So Much of Polling is B.S. — F**k You, Frank!

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 3, 2009

“The numbers don’t lie” goes an oft-quoted saying… and that’s true, for the most part.  Numbers don’t lie, but what does lie is the people who are reporting the numbers.  The recent brouhaha over health care reform in the United States has brought this fact about numbers & statistics into stark relief of late.  Most people, when they read a poll, don’t really think about the numbers all that much, or they are too innumerate to really understand what they’re reading – which is how so many are easily manipulated.  And oftentimes the polls are self-contradictory.

For example, look at this recent article – which is, refreshingly, a good example of critical thinking in the modern media – concerning the question of polling public opinion on health care reform…

Health care polls leave pols dizzy

Legislators hoping to learn what their constituents think about the issue — and how to vote to keep them happy — face a dizzying deluge of hard-to-reconcile data, some of which suggests that voters are more than a little confused, as well.

What to make of it, for example, when one poll finds that 63 percent think “death panels” are a “distortion” or “scare tactic,” and only 30 percent think the issue is “legitimate,” while another finds that 41 percent believe that people would die because “government panels” would prevent them from getting the treatment they needed?

Or when one survey finds that 55 percent of Americans support the public option, while another says 79 percent favor one — but also notes that only 37 percent people surveyed actually knew what “public option” meant?

And because there is such ambiguity in these polls, those with an agenda can usually cherry-pick whatever data they want to make a case for their particular argument.  Even changing the wording of a particular question just slightly can have a huge impact…

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in mathematics, media woo, politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

World’s Longest Basketball Shot?

Posted by mattusmaximus on September 23, 2009

Okay, I just couldn’t pass this one up… I saw this video today on Yahoo Sports where they claim to show recent footage of the world’s longest basketball shot. I’m a bit skeptical, because such videos have been released to the Internet before and many are found to be digitally altered or tweaked.  So it’s tough to take something like this at face value.

But I’m willing to be convinced – most especially because, if true, it’s a pretty damn cool feat!  And it does make sense that, given enough attempts, something like this could be done – there is, after all, nothing in the laws of physics which would prevent it.  With that, here are two videos showing the claimed shot…

So, my fellow skeptics, what do you think?  Real or fake?  Let the games begin!  :)

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »


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