Epistemology omnibus

February 22, 2008

This omnibus post collects draft fragments that are associated with the economy of attention and the sociology of science and expertise.

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Democracy omnibus, part 1/2

February 9, 2008

This post collects some ideas that I had originally planned to develop into posts but have given up for the time being on fleshing them up completely.

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Looking back, looking ahead

February 6, 2008

This post is aimed at serving as something of a self evaluation of the first 6 months of this blog, and a statement of intent for its future.

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While I have been contemplating filling a much needed void in the blogosphere with my own humble contribution, the immediate trigger for this blog is a set of threads in Tim Lambert’s blog, Deltoid: 1, 2, 3.

Those three threads discuss a paper by David Kane, in which he purports to prove that there is a mathematical contradiction in the 2004 paper by Roberts et al. in the Lancet discussing mortality in Iraq before and after the 2003 US-British invasion.

There are apparently a few scientists among the readers and the commenters of Deltoid, and they proceeded to address Kane’s paper. Most of the commenters consider Roberts et al. credible and were critical of Kane’s paper. Kane’s paper is weak on its substance (namely, Kane thinks that having a sample point with very high mortality – Fallujah – indicates that the mean mortality may be very low), and so it is only natural to try to address this weakness.

The problem is that Kane had what he presented as a mathematical argument proving his point, so he could claim that what seemed to his critics as a weakness of substance is nothing but a failure of their own intuition. In his first few responses in the comments he would even claim that his critics’ position is equivalent to stating that 2+2=5.

However, Kane’s mathematics are even weaker than his substance. This may seem surprising, since his substance seems to be wholly without merit. However, while his substantantive claim makes grammatical sense, his math does not – it is a complete mess. His entire mathematical argument is jibberish.

My attempts to make this point (commenting under the name “Sortition”), stating exactly why he does not make sense, never got any substantive responses from Kane. He was apparently honestly mistaken and truly believed that his arguements were correct. It seems that he gradually began to understand that his thinking may be not quite rigorous, but was unwilling to follow through and withdraw his paper and retract his conclusions until further consideration of his arguments.

This was only to be expected. Kane is ideologically committed to his conclusions, and has a personal stake to boot.

The more surprising thing was that I found it hard to get any attention from commenters who were critical of Kane. They were apparently as unaware as Kane was that Kane’s mathematical argument was entirely false, and my claims that it was were not considered credible. In my frustration, I wrote to Tim Lambert, making my point in an e-mail, and suggested that a professional statistician could make a valuable contribution to the issue. I got no response.

This called for radical action – and Pro Bono Statistics is the outcome.

In the following posts I hope to deal with many issues. One would be to point, once again, where Kane goes terribly wrong. More generally I intend to deal with statistics, as a theory, and as applied to real world issues. Even more generally, I intend to deal with other things that I think need dealing with but are not being dealt with satisfactorily, either in the mass media, or in blogs.