Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Why I Look Critically At Sci-Fi and Anime

This past January, after having done my Anime Mythbusters lecture for two years, I rewrote the introduction. For the first time, I addressed the reasoning behind doing such a lecture. While part of it was just for fun, and part of it was to teach good science, another reason that I do it is to remind people that there's a lot of bad science out there and that we take it for granted.

While obviously the lecture concentrates on the worst of the worst science (because it's just more fun to debunk), there's a lot of silly science out there that is just real enough that people actually buy it. Just because a show is fiction, doesn't mean we dismiss all the science in it as complete fiction; we don't reject gravity because we saw someone fall down a flight of stairs. We will probably question the physics if they jump off a building and walk away without a scratch, but there's an intermediate area in there that bad science can make it into the public consciousness.

And a new study in the UK backs that up.
• More than a fifth of adults believe light sabers exist.
• Almost 25 percent of people believe humans can be teleported.
• Nearly 50 percent of adults believe that memory-erasing technology exists.
• More than 40 percent believe that hover boards exist.
• Almost one-fifth of adults believe they can see gravity.
With so many people believing in fantasy technologies, it's no surprise that people can't understand just how poor of science Creationism, anti-vaccination, homeopathy, and the rest are.

This is why I do the lecture taking hundreds of hours of my time each year to prepare it. It's an introduction to critical thinking and skepticism on grounds that people aren't likely to find offensive. And at the same time, it's a reminder that science can be fun, without being bullshit.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Bus Bias

It's often hard to come up with examples to teach in class that aren't completely canned, so I'm going to keep a series running of things I've come across that I want to remember and share.

Today's topic: Selection Bias.

I live in St. Louis which has a decent mass transit system. It's composed of both buses and a railway. The rail system is fairly new and doesn't have great coverage, but it's slowly expanded in the past several year and is improving reaching a decent area of the suburbs. But from there, you'll have to use the buses.

For a long time, I haven't felt the bus system was too great. Not because the buses don't run on time or are in disrepair, but because I constantly see them "Off Duty". It seems much like the stereotype of road workers: They spend more time sitting around than actually doing anything.

There's a reason for this that I'll get to in a minute, but first, let's toss in the statistics. Over the past few weeks, while driving, I've kept track of buses that were on duty and off. Out of ~30 buses, only about 5 were on duty. That's only 17% on duty. So what's up with that other 83%? Does St. Louis really waste 83% of their buses to just drive around off duty?

Obviously not. There's something affecting my sample that's skewing my numbers pretty significantly. Namely, it has to do with where I drive. It just so happens that a good deal of my driving is on Brentwood Blvd and the surrounding areas. This is also the street on which the station is for all the buses. The result of this is that, as buses are going on duty to where their routes are, or coming off duty to return at the end of their shift, they'll be frequenting this area. All of the routes go through this area at those times, but only one is actually on duty because they have a route on that street.

Thus, my numbers come out wrong because they were formulated on a lack of understanding of the situation.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

This is news?

Apparently CNN thinks a bunch of idiots declaring that the end of the world is May 21st is somehow headline news.

It's an exceptionally sad story. It starts off describing Sheila Jonas, a woman who has ditched everything to to on a nationwide RV tour to tell people that the apocalypse is coming. Other members of the caravan gave away everything they owned. Others left behind families, wives and chidren, all because they were so conned by a "broadcasting ministry" known as Family Radio.

This station, which has a long reach, backs up their nonsense with "irrefutible proofs" which are nothing more than throwing numbers together and coming up with things that come out to whole numbers every once in awhile and assigning significance to such incidences. As (I hope) even my students could even tell you by now, just because you get something that looks conceivably plausible doesn't mean you've done anything right. But that's what Family Radio, and other fraudsters like Richard Hoagland do. Sadly, scientific and mathematical skills are so poor, that people are easily conned by it.

Come May 22, when they should be forced to admit they were wrong, they, of course, won't. They'll simply say they made a mistake, fudge some more numbers, and do it again. Such people are beyond reproach. They can and should be left behind. They should not be treated with respect and civility. They should be laughed at and mocked lest others fall for their crap.