The 90% (Bullshit) Factor

A Tweet that showed up yesterday mused that about 90% of statistics are made up. I laughed, but it’s probably about right. Well, not made up, exactly, but highly and selectively doctored.

Reading the Tweet coincided with a book purging project which led me to pick up the well received 1982 book, Betrayers of the Truth: Fraud and Deceit in the Halls of Science, by two prominent science journalists, William Broad and Nicholas Wade. It is at once entertaining and serious. Along the way, the work of the likes of Galileo, Newton, the chemist John Dalton and American physics Nobelist Robert Millikan are raked over the coals. Data that’s too good to be true, experiments that after many efforts could not be replicated by even the best scientists, simple fudge factors applied with abandon, etc.

And then I tripped over my all-time favorite, which I used to use in seminars, when discussing the real (messy) world of science and innovation. The Austrian monk Gregor Mendel is widely acclaimed as the “father of modern genetics.” But he is also a poster child for questionable data. Though he has his defenders, one detractor wrote a brief essay, “Peas on Earth,” that appeared in a professional journal:

“In the beginning there was Mendel, thinking his lonely thoughts alone. And he said: ‘Let there be peas,’ and there were peas and that was good. And he put the peas in the garden saying unto them ‘Increase and multiply, segregate and assort yourself independently,’ and they did and it was good. And now it came to pass that when Mendel gathered up his peas, he divided them into round and wrinkled, and called the round ‘dominant’ and the wrinkled ‘recessive,’ and it was good. But now Mendel saw that there were 450 round peas and 102 wrinkled ones; this was not good. For the law stateth that there should be only 3 round for every wrinkled. And Mendel said unto himself ‘Gott in Himmel, an enemy has done this, he has sown bad peas in my garden under the cover of night.’ And Mendel smote the table in righteous wrath, saying ‘Depart from me, you cursed and evil peas, into the outer darkness where you shalt be devoured by rats and mice,’ and lo it was done and there remained 300 round peas and 100 wrinkled peas, and it was good. It was very, very good. And Mendel published.”

Love it!

Maybe one of the good side effects of the Web is that the proliferation (tsunami) of absurd data (a/k/a utter bullshit) will lead to a general increase in skepticism. Very few things are what they seem, regardless of their imprimatur (think of Wall Street and its battalions of MIT-Stanford-Harvard-Chicago PhD mathematicians). The caution light should be permanently yellow.

(NB1: The book is also replete with instructive sagas like that of Ignaz Semmelweis. With childbed [puerperal] fever claiming up to 30 percent of mothers’ lives in even the best European maternity hospitals, Semmelweis was able to virtually eliminate it in his own clinic simply by having doctors wash their hands in a chlorine solution before examinations and procedures. Alas, Semmelweis had an all-time low EQ, and was abrasive beyond measure; moreover, at a volatile time, his political views were on the fringe. Hence his work was ignored out of hand, and tens of thousands of lives were unnecessarily lost over the following three decades—Semmelweis died in restraints in a mental institution in 1865. Once more we observe that science in the real world strays from “just the facts, ma’am” more often than not—and personal style almost always matters more than one would imagine.)

(NB2: Another book I grabbed was The War of the World, by the renowned British historian Niall Ferguson. It recounts in all too vivid detail the unmatched human violence of the better forgotten 20th century. On the “true facts” dimension, Ferguson at one point calls into question the sacred notion that a few brave Spitfire pilots held off the German horde. There is no disputing or diminishing the pilots’ remarkable bravery, yet Ferguson points out that at the beginning of the Battle of Britain the RAF had more fighter aircraft and many more trained pilots than the Germans, and was out-producing the Germans in terms of new aircraft by a ratio of about 3 to 1. Britain’s estimates of German pilot strength were off by a factor of 7, Ferguson reports. Um, so much for statistical accuracy; and, hey, nobody ever accused my all-time hero Churchill of being less than a great actor.)