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The Problem With Math Is That It Makes People Seem Smart

2012 November 29
by Eric Horowitz

In 1996 physicist Alan Sokal succeeded in getting a unique article published in the journal Social Text. The article was titled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” and it was unique because it was complete gibberish. Known as the Sokal Hoax, it was a crowning moment for pretense-haters everywhere.

While journal editors have managed to avoid similar public shamings of late, a Swedish researcher named Kimmo Eriksson decided to investigate whether academics are in fact impressed by things they don’t understand, even if those things are nonsense. Specifically, Eriksson wanted to see how people with research experience judged abstracts containing a nonsense math equation (pdf):

Participants were presented with the abstracts from two published papers (one in evolutionary anthropology and one in sociology). Based on these abstracts, participants were asked to judge the quality of the research. Either one or the other of the two abstracts was manipulated through the inclusion of an extra sentence taken from a completely unrelated paper and presenting an equation that made no sense in the context. The abstract that included the meaningless mathematics tended to be judged of higher quality. However, this “nonsense math effect” was not found among participants with degrees in mathematics, science, technology or medicine.

Obviously it’s distressing to see research-savvy people base their judgments on nonsense, but beyond that there are two ways to spin the deeper meaning of the findings. The positive spin is that because math is judged to add quality, people will be motivated to learn and use mathematics. The negative spin is that math improves judgments of quality because it suggests the mastery of a difficult skill that people want no part of. In this case math has been shut out to the point that an equation is strictly a signal rather than something to be understood and evaluated.

The potential to develop this kind of hands-off attitude toward math is one reason it’s important not to let elementary school kids take on a “math is not for me” identity. It’s fine if a kid decides not to become an engineer, but it can be problematic if you’re so uncomfortable with math that you develop faulty heuristics to use when you have to deal with it.
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Eriksson, Kimmo (2012). The nonsense math effect Judgment and Decision Making, 7 (6), 746-749

2 Responses leave one →
  1. December 1, 2012

    Interesting study! Reminds me of the “seductive allure of neuroscience explanations” paper. http://neuroskeptic.blogspot.com/2009/01/critiquing-classic-seductive-allure-of.html

    I wonder about a general mechanism of being “allured” by “technical” elements I don’t understand, and what contextual variables might influence this effect.

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