Tag Archives: mathbabe

OKCathy

This week’s Aunt Pythia column features Cathy O’Neil’s take on what questions online daters ought to have to answer in their profiles:

How sexual are you? (super important question)
How much fun are you? (people are surprisingly honest when asked this)
How awesome do you smell? (might need to invent technology for this one)
What bothers you more: the big bank bailout or the idea of increasing the minimum wage?
Do you like strong personalities or would you rather things stay polite?
What do you love arguing about more: politics or aesthetics?
Where would you love to visit if you could go anywhere?
Do you want kids?
Dog person or cat person?
Do you sometimes wish the girl could be the hero, and not always fall for the hapless dude at the end?

I gotta say, thinking back to when I was single, during the second Clinton administration, I don’t think these are the questions I personally would most want to ask of my prospective dates.

On the other hand, I think the questions provide a near-perfect portrait of Cathy!  So let me offer my own suggestion:  maybe profiles shouldn’t have any answers.  Maybe they should just have questions.  And you contact the person whose questions you’d like to answer.

What would your questions be?

 

 

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My other daughter is a girl

I like Cathy’s take on this famous probability puzzle.  Why does this problem give one’s intuition such a vicious noogie?

It is relevant that the two questions below have two different answers.

  • I have two children.  One of my children is a girl who was born on Friday.  What’s the probability I have two girls?
  • I have two children.  One of my children is a girl.  Before you came in, I selected a daughter at random from the set of all my daughters, and this daughter was born on Friday.  What’s the probability I have two girls?

 

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Why “I don’t know” doesn’t read as macho

Great post from Cathy about the need to be able to assert uncertainty in a, well, assertive way.  Why is this so hard?  Why do we find people trustworthy when they say, with complete confidence, “Here’s your answer?”

One reason must be that in some contexts, confidence really does correlate with knowledge; people who truly know nothing about a subject are (hopefully) more willing to express uncertainty about it.  So when we hear someone answer a question with “I’m not sure,” we have to carry out some inferential computation:  do we think they’re saying that because they’ve never thought about the question, or because they’ve thought enough about the question to understand that it’s actually difficult?

I don’t have an answer to this conundrum, but I do have an extremely scientific infographic that I hope will illustrate the issue.

Image

 

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In defense of Nate Silver and experts

Cathy goes off on Nate Silver today, calling naive his account of well-meaning people saying false things because they’ve made math mistakes.  In Cathy’s view, people say false things because they’re not well-meaning and are trying to screw you — or, sometimes, because they’re well-meaning but their incentives are pointed at something other than accuracy.  Read the whole thing, it’s more complicated than this paraphrase suggests.

Cathy, a fan of and participant in mass movements, takes special exception to Silver saying:

This is neither the time nor the place for mass movements — this is the time for expert opinion. Once the experts (and I’m not one of them) have reached some kind of a consensus about what the best course of action is (and they haven’t yet), then figure out who is impeding that action for political or other disingenuous reasons and tackle them — do whatever you can to remove them from the playing field. But we’re not at that stage yet.

Cathy’s take:

…I have less faith in the experts than Nate Silver: I don’t want to trust the very people who got us into this mess, while benefitting from it, to also be in charge of cleaning it up. And, being part of the Occupy movement, I obviously think that this is the time for mass movements.

From my experience working first in finance at the hedge fund D.E. Shaw during the credit crisis and afterwards at the risk firm Riskmetrics, and my subsequent experience working in the internet advertising space (a wild west of unregulated personal information warehousing and sales) my conclusion is simple: Distrust the experts.

I think Cathy’s distrust is warranted, but I think Silver shares it.  The central concern of his chapter on weather prediction is the vast difference in accuracy between federal hurricane forecasters, whose only job is to get the hurricane track right, and TV meteorologists, whose very different incentive structure leads them to get the weather wrong on purpose.  He’s just as hard on political pundits and their terrible, terrible predictions, which are designed to be interesting, not correct.

Cathy wishes Silver would put more weight on this stuff, and she may be right, but it’s not fair to paint him as a naif who doesn’t know there’s more to life than math.  (For my full take on Silver’s book, see my review in the Globe.)

As for experts:  I think in many or even most cases deferring to people with extensive domain knowledge is a pretty good default.  Maybe this comes from seeing so many preprints by mathematicians, physicists, and economists flushed with confidence that they can do biology, sociology, and literary study (!) better than the biologists, sociologists, or scholars of literature.  Domain knowledge matters.  Marilyn vos Savant’s opinion about Wiles’s proof of Fermat doesn’t matter.

But what do you do with cases like finance, where the only people with deep domain knowledge are the ones whose incentive structure is socially suboptimal?  (Cathy would use saltier language here.)  I guess you have to count on mavericks like Cathy, who’ve developed the domain knowledge by working in the financial industry, but who are now separated from the incentives that bind the insiders.

But why do I trust what Cathy says about finance?

Because she’s an expert.

Is Cathy OK with this?

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Cathy O’Neil is killing it

Some great recent posts from Mathbabe, the funniest and pissed-offiest “math, the universe, and everything” blog on the tubes:

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