The Nonsense Math Effect

Kimmo Eriksson’s The Nonsense Math Effect (PDF) is a beautiful little demonstration of the widespread belief that presence of mathematical expressions implies better science.

In areas like sociology or evolutionary anthropology I found mathematics often to be used in ways that from my viewpoint were illegitimate, such as to make a point that would better be made with only simple logic, or to uncritically take properties of a mathematical model to be properties of the real world, or to include mathematics to make a paper look more impressive. […] If mathematics is held in awe in an unhealthy way, its use is not subjected to sufficient levels of critical thinking.

To discover how widespread this attitude is, Eriksson recruited 200 test subjects with a variety of Master’s degrees and PhDs. They were presented with two easily understandable abstracts from published research papers and asked to rank each paper’s quality. The twist was that Eriksson would randomly add another sentence to one of the papers, taken from a totally unrelated study, that makes no sense whatsoever in conjunction with the preceding abstract but sounds nicely mathematical:

A mathematical model (TPP = T0 − f T0 d2f − f TP df ) is developed to describe sequential effects.

Test subjects with a degree in mathematics, natural sciences, or technology appeared to correctly identify the nonsensical nature of this addition and tended to lower their ratings accordingly. However, a majority of participants from other fields (medicine, humanities, education, etc.) gave higher quality ratings to the manipulated abstracts!

Participants judged the quality of research as higher when the content included unintelligible elements, which arguably ought to detract from the quality.

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