Math-induced blindness

Math is like a foreign language to many people, and this can make it both intimidating and impressive to outsiders. A study (pdf) recently published in the journal Judgment and Decision Making by the Swedish scholar Kimmo Eriksson finds that people educated in fields outside of math and science may be holding math in “too much awe”. To the study’s participants, he showed them two abstracts of published research papers, one of which had been modified by inserting a sentence containing a mathematical expression, but which had nothing to do with either paper. Participants were asked to rate the quality of the research on the basis of the abstracts. Those coming from fields outside math, science, and medicine tended to give a higher rating to the “nonsense math” abstract.

Eriksson explicitly refers to the Sokal Hoax in his report, but points out that where the Sokal Hoax was meant to uncover anti-science pretensions, this study shows that intimidation by math can change judgements of quality in research. What’s alarming is that this bias is not towards a poorer rating, but towards a higher one, which means that one could not just get away with deliberate obfuscation but even profit from it. Sadly, that shouldn’t surprise too many of us….

(Via Language Log)


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