What’s the value of an equation? This study appears to show that, to academics who don’t use much mathematics, any equation can be impressive — no matter what the equation says, and whether or not it adds any clarity or knowledge to a situation:
“The Nonsense Math Effect,” Kimmo Eriksson, Judgement and Decision-Making, Vol. 7, No. 6, November 2012, pp. 746–749. (Thanks to investigator Mark Dionne for bringing this to our attention.) The author, at Mälardalen University in Västerås, Sweden, explains:
“Although potentially applicable in every discipline, the amount of training in mathematics that students typically receive varies greatly between different disciplines. In those disciplines where most researchers do not master mathematics, the use of mathematics may be held in too much awe. To demonstrate this I conducted an online experiment with 200 participants, all of which had experience of reading research reports and a postgraduate degree (in any subject). 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.”
Here is some detail from the study:
BONUS: An essay about this, by Kevin Drum.
BONUS: Professor Eriksson mentions, on his web site, a soon-to-be-published paper on a very different topic that seems likely to draw some attention:
Kimmo Eriksson (in press). Autism-spectrum traits predict humour styles in the general population. To appear in Humor: International Journal of Humor Research.