Whaddya know?

I was noticing an article in the Atlantic by Rebecca Rosen – On Nuclear Weapons as Units of Measurement. The gist of the article was that you can’t really compare meteor explosions (like the one over Chelyabinsk) to a nuclear weapon. Of course that lady is mistaken: the blast and thermal effects are similar. No ionizing radiation, but blast and thermal are the main killers. The only reason the explosion (about 500 kilotons) didn’t level Chelyabinsk was its high altitude, probably over 100,000 feet. She is mistaken because she doesn’t know anything about the subject, and relied on info from atomic historian Allen Wellerstein – who also knows nothing. He managed to misunderstand a Sandia report that concluded that the Tunguska explosion was less powerful than thought – but only because the rapid downward motion of the fireball made the explosion more effective at causing ground damage than expected. So Wellerstein only got it backward. Nobody’s perfect.

But then, what do people know? What do people in public life know? What do specialists know outside their speciality? And while we’re at it, what about all the things they know that aren’t so?

I think that native smarts is important, but so is knowledge. We know that the average voter has what you might call a shallow grasp of detail – for example, most of them can’t find Afghanistan on the map. Only a bit more than half know that the Earth goes around the Sun in a year. And so on. But what the people who run the show? My impression is that they aren’t much better.

The practical question is what people in various jobs know, and what extra knowledge would make them better at those jobs. Next, is it even possible to substantially increase their level of knowledge? I tend to rant about biologists who don’t know anything about evolutionary genetics, but the problem is general. Professional historians give the Bancroft Prize to some liar who claimed that guns were rare in colonial America. Maybe they were liars too, but I’ll bet that sheer ignorance played a role.

I certainly don’t have the data to be sure about this, but my medium-strong personal impression is that this is getting worse.

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46 Responses to Whaddya know?

  1. James Thompson says:

    Many psychologists don’t know much. Not just because psychology has a bit of a difficulty knowing anything, but mainly because the snappy lie travels faster than the plodding truth. For example, a flawed study on 16 brain scans was touted as exposing the myth of general intelligence. It received glowing attention from newspapers. Many debunked the study, including me, but my blog gets a small (but very select) audience. So, ignorance flourishes, because the rewards of repeating a groundless observation (momentary attention from others, and commonly some approval) are greater than the demands of detailed examination which only bring grudging approbation from the few that can understand the methodological flaws in the original.

  2. spandrell says:

    Hey, you can only stuff so much in a human brain.
    And in my experience IQ is very distinct from having a basic sense of how things work. Or having the sense to shut up when you don’t know. I wouldn’t say it’s cleanly correlated, but you it’s often the smartest people who say the stupidest things.

  3. NothingToLose says:

    I bet she’ll listen.

  4. Florida resident says:

    Educationrealist, very decent and smart teacher, who has “West Hunter” in his Blogroll list, see
    has this comment:
    “And please. Can we stop pretending? Trigonometry, chemistry, physics, and calculus are utterly non-essential for success in the real world. They are only essential for signaling to colleges that the student is a smart cookie, and as Ron Unz and Chris Hayes both point out, the value in that varies based on the student race and family SES (including where Mom and Dad went to school).”
    Sad, sad situation.

    • teageegeepea says:

      Have you been reading Andrew Gelman’s response to Unz on meritocracy?

      • Florida resident says:

        Dear teageegeepea !
        Yes, I have, but I consider Unz’s follow-up much more convincing:
        Unz’s “admitting-my-mistakes” is just his sarcasm about Gelman, Mretz and “NB” .
        Your F.r.

      • gcochran says:

        Some of it. Clearly Ron was wrong about the numbers in the Math Olympiad. The percentage Jewish was never as high as he thought, and not nearly as low in recent years as he thought. We hear this from people deep in the bowels of the math olympiad. The percentage has certainly gone down, by about a factor of two: reasons? The coming of the Asians, high intermarriage and low birth rates among secular Jews, and perhaps changes in career interests. Finance tempts people.

        The problem with the last-name analysis, Weyl analysis, is twofold. First, it’s noisy. That’s not so serious if you have a big sample. The second is that you don’t know how accurate it is: you find the number of people named Cohen etc and multiply by the inverse of the fraction of Jews that are named Cohen etc, but the fraction you use may not be quite right. The fraction can change over time, mainly because of intermarriage. But you might be able to use it to estimate relative numbers – use it on the PSAT sample, then on Harvard, Ron didn’t do this. He relied on Hillel’s numbers for Harvard, which evidently come from nowhere at all. Saying that everyone else uses them is no defense.

        The claim is that if you do use last-name analysis on both data sets, the Jewish fraction at Harvard is not particularly surprising. Could well be: I haven’t done it myself. Moreover, PSAT thresholds vary by state, and are in general higher (by something like a third of a standard deviation) in those states that happen to contain most of the American Jewish population. That’s certainly true, I’ve looked at them myself.

        Next point is that, almost entirely, Harvard selects students from those foolish enough to apply, not from a random sample. Harvard doesn’t have agents who fan out and seize promising students. It might be that a higher fraction of those students applying to Harvard are Jewish than in the general population of students with similar qualifications. Considering their concentration in the Northeast, this is likely.

        I had pretty high test scores, long ago, and I got letters from many colleges, including Harvard, But I didn’t want to go there: it was more than an hour’s drive from home, it was expensive, and I thought that on the whole they were a bunch of damn fools. Re-examining that question after several decades, I still think so. We draw a lot of our ruling class from the Ivies, and they are in general quite worthless. I don’t think they were that bad in 1900 or 1920, but they were certainly have been in the last third of the 20th century and in this century.

        Ron Unz’s analyses have often been incorrect. There’s no super-Flynn effect operating on Hispanics, for example. I wish there were. Vioxx didn’t kill 500,000 Americans – more like 30-40,000, which was bad enough.

      • Ron Unz says:

        GCochran: Clearly Ron was wrong about the numbers in the Math Olympiad. The percentage Jewish was never as high as he thought, and not nearly as low in recent years as he thought. We hear this from people deep in the bowels of the math olympiad.

        Well, if you’re basing your claims on the Mertz journal article, that’s factually incorrect. As I had already pointed out in my response, on p. 1253 Mertz et all summarized their ethnic findings in a table, determining that 26 of the 1988-2007 Math Olympiad winners were Jewish, based on exhaustive biographical research. My own figure was 23, based on spending a few minutes glancing at their names. So my casual surname analysis was off by 13%, which surprises me not in the least. See http://www.ronunz.org/2013/02/13/unz-on-meritocracy-response-to-prof-gelman-on-jewish-elite-overrepresentation/

        As for all the other points, I covered them both in my original text, and later in my more recent responses, so won’t bother doing so yet again. The whole topic is pretty open-and-shut.

        • gcochran9 says:

          You said “For example, among Math Olympiad winners, white Gentiles scarcely outnumbered Jews during the 1970s, and held only a three-to-two edge during the 1980s and 1990s, but since 2000 have become over fifteen times as numerous”

          The last part is clearly incorrect.

          Using different methods to estimate the Jewish fraction of National Merit finalists than you do find the Jewish fraction at Harvard is likely to give you an incorrect ratio – evidently a good deal higher than the real one. It makes no sense to argue that ‘everyone uses Hillel numbers’. it is better to compare apples and apples.

          A more careful treatment would weaken your argument. Differences in the PSAT thresholds in different states makes a difference, one that would weaken your case, since they’re higher than average in the states where you find most Jewish kids, but you ignore that. Jews are concentrated in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states, states that contribute a disproportionate fraction of Harvard student, Massachusetts most of all. Adjusting for this would weaken your case – and you don’t adjust for it.

          it would not particularly surprise me if admissions officers favored Jews over non-Jewish whites. But you haven’t shown that the fraction of Jewish student admitted to Harvard is materially different than the Jewish fraction of high-achieving students applying to Harvard, partly because there’s no public info on who applies, as far as I know.

    • Florida resident says:

      Reading the comment by Dr. Cochran is respectfully acknoledged.
      Your F.r.

  5. observer says:

    Any time you have to grasp more information than you can process as an individual, knowledge turns into a social problem and not a raw intelligence problem. Because you don’t have time to review every fact or theory yourself, you need to rely on someone else to do so. Then you determine the truth of the claim based on the apparent trustworthiness of the person or institution making it. Your own knowledge is therefore unavoidably vulnerable to expert liars or pretenders who can signal that they have thoroughly verified their claims without actually doing so. (Professors are especially skilled at doing this.) An autistic genius’ average girlfriend might be less vulnerable to these than he is by virtue of her superior ability to read people.

    The social basis of knowledge is most problematic when it comes to political or politicized issues where the ‘experts’ have a natural bias or can be paid to lie. Consider a citizen who is more informed and intelligent than 95% of the populace but who is not an expert in climatology, economics, or genetics. Is it actually possible for him to give a knowledgeable response to questions like: will Keynesian policies fix the country, is global warming real, are stupidity and violence and wage gaps the fault of inadequate education or genetics? The simple fact is that he doesn’t have enough information to reliably answer these questions himself. Instead he has to filter out the obvious falsehoods and then decide which expert or set of experts seems more trustworthy. Does he trust Krugman, or does he trust Taleb, or is there some third position? Are mainstream climatologists telling the simple truth or have they been invaded by hippie terrorists from Greenpeace? Many suburbanites who read expert opinions on social issues would completely reverse their views if they had to teach in a ghetto high school for a single year, because their trustworthy sources are lying or making stuff up. But of course they never even visit such places for a single day; they’re easy targets for fake experts.

    • misdreavus says:

      “Are mainstream climatologists telling the simple truth or have they been invaded by hippie terrorists from Greenpeace?”

      I’m not completely sure about the former, but the latter is most _certainly_ not true.

      It seems most of the motivated lying being done today about climatology is being funded by precisely the same culprits responsible for public misinformation about the dangers of tobacco usage in previous eras — moneyed interests and big business.

      • observer says:

        Funny, I was kind of thinking both of were probably true–and the big business shills certainly exist. Even suits and hippies can tell the truth by accident.

        Whatever the case, I don’t know a thing about climatology. I’m just playing the epistemological version of the ‘who, whom’ game.

      • amac78 says:

        Hippie terrorists from Greenpeace invading mainstream climatologists? No, not that straw man; the field suffers from more banal handicaps. Consider Eisenhower’s farewell warning, just substitute “environmental” for “military.” Don’t underestimate the corrosive effects of groupthink, fortified by careerism. And while there are some very smart, adept, and intellectually-honest mainstreamers, alas, that doesn’t necessarily describe those with the highest media profiles.

        For a balanced look at the field, I’d suggest starting with “lukewarmer” Lucia Liljegren’s blog The Blackboard.

    • An excellent summary. Few of us could prove even the simplest bits of science without drawing heavily on the work of others, and the general knowledge of those we were explaining things to.

      There are more people. Therefore it is hugely likely that there are both more stupid people, and more smart people, in absolute numbers. Percentage – we don’t know, though the Flynn effect suggests the floor is rising. Which matters more, the modal intelligence or the upper extreme? What may matter more than either is a character issue – the honesty to self-correct and/or the humility to be corrected. The stereotype is that smart people are worse at that, but that is not my experience.

      I was given advice years ago: “If you cain’t be told, you cain’t be taught.”

  6. Rob King says:

    “The trouble with folks is not so much their ignorance as its knowing so many things which ain’t so” (Josh Billings, attr)
    Part of the resason is that science–all of it– is proundly counter-intutive. In physics this is not just the weirdness fo QM or GR. Even teaching Newtons laws required me get kids to unlearn a lot of folk physics. Ok, then after 20 years or so you have unlearned the folk stuff and relearned the current state of play in a field and you are quite smart, with an intuition–in that field–that you can now rely on. Then you see something whose implications you don’t like you dont like–that evolution by natural selection applies to human brains for example. Now your intuitive sense is seriously misleading because what worked in one field does not carry over. Worse, in fact, because if you knew that you didnt know at least you would know something. Look at what smart folk like Martin Rhees, John Polkinghorne, Roger Penrose, Lawrence Kruass or Paul Davies say when they stray out of their comfort zones.

  7. thrasymachus33308 says:

    Both named individuals are working off the “Jews are smart” bias and the “it’s rude to question a Jew” bias. Jews are smart, but their intelligence works more towards convincing other people they are right than actually being right. They have promoted the idea they form a sort of intllectual priesthood which to question is blasphemy.

  8. James Thompson says:

    Agree with Observer. We have to rely on the opinions of others, until we can turn to the matter ourselves, and that is time consuming. As an expert witness I have to keep writing “this is outside my area of expertise”.

  9. The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

    Professional historians give the Bancroft Prize to some liar who claimed that guns were rare in colonial America.

    It they had read The True History of the American Revolution by Sydney George Fisher they would have known that the British tried to confiscate Patriot guns and that the Patriots were busy confiscating guns in Loyalist hands. That suggests there were plenty of guns around, at least during the 1770s.

    I sometimes think that human history consists mainly of increases in bureaucratic complexity designed to hide the truth from the average person.

  10. Jaim Jota says:

    Wellerstein seems to be saying that it is wrong to measure the effect of a meteor in units of atomic explosions or kTons. You will agree that the explosive force, the velocity or speed of reaction, the evolution of heat, etc are all critical factors. The altitude or the distance, the atmospheric conditions, etc all affect the final effect. In case of the meteor, the effect was an increase of air pressure to about 10 MPa – which may have been uncomfortable for a minute but the damage was caused by flying broken glass. Ignorance would have been to compare the meteor’s effect with the Hiroshima bomb, not the opposite.

    • gcochran says:

      The effect was almost exactly like setting off a 500-kiloton bomb at very high altitude. The explosion really was far powerful than the Hiroshima bomb (about 16 kt). If it had exploded at 1000 feet instead of ~100,000, Chelyabinsk would be one with the dust of Nineveh and Tyre.

      Wellerstein somehow misunderstood the Sandia report to say that meteor explosions are significantly less effective at causing damage than a similar-energy nuclear blast, but it’s the other way around. Of course they have to be at low enough altitude, but Tunguska was.

      • jb says:

        The asteroid appears to have struck at an extremely shallow angle, and one thing I am curious about is what would have happened if the angle had been steeper. It seems to me it might have made it much closer to the ground before exploding, but that’s just a gut sense, and I haven’t seen anyone addressing this. The question is of interest because I think it would catch people’s attention if we could say that this particular asteroid, not some hypothetical asteroid that might strike next year, was in fact big enough to have destroyed a city had the angle of impact been different.

      • bbtp says:

        I don’t know about you guys, but I think it’s cool when a physicist-anthropologist quotes Kipling by way of Norman Davies.

      • Violet says:

        “If it had exploded at 1000 feet instead of ~100,000, Chelyabinsk would be one with the dust of Nineveh and Tyre.”

        Isn’t it the main problem with reporting meteors as equivalents of nuclear bombs? A meteors can explode at an unknown altitude (or distance) from target while nuclear bombs would always imply the explosion at a target location.

        My understanding of it is similar to earthquakes. A 9.0 (moment magnitude) earthquake can certainly release a lot of energy. But, at around 300- 400kms away from epicenter, it shouldn’t even matter.

        If we simply compared amount of energy release, we are missing out on the implication of “distance” factor (even if we keep the rate of energy release the same). No?

  11. The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

    I was noticing an article in the Atlantic by Rebecca Rosen – On Nuclear Weapons as Units of Measurement. The gist of the article was that you can’t really compare meteor explosions (like the one over Chelyabinsk) to a nuclear weapon. Of course that lady is mistaken: the blast and thermal effects are similar. No ionizing radiation, but blast and thermal are the main killers. The only reason the explosion (about 500 kilotons) didn’t level Chelyabinsk was its high altitude, probably over 100,000 feet.

    Perhaps the intent here is to kill the association between evil nuclear weapons and meteors that might impact the Earth in the minds of the general public, so they won’t agitate for something to be done about meteors that might impact the Earth.

    Perhaps they fear the dilution of the global warming disaster message.

  12. Conan Of Briain says:

    “I was noticing an article…”
    You, sir, have impeccable diction.

  13. Dan says:

    NASA reported that the Russian meteor’s and Asteroid DA14’s trajectories were in opposite directions.

    The vectors of these two objects, the asteroid and large meteor, appear statistically independent.

    What are the odds of this coincidence, of two celestial events like these happening on the same day?

    • rightsaidfred says:

      Interesting, but the odds of one stable orbiting and some two unstable orbiting celestial objects coming into proximity is modestly finite.

      • Dan says:

        The odds of this coincidence are literally far less than one in a million.

        The naive calculation is based on two like celestial events that independently occur once in a hundred years occurring on the same day:

        1/(365*100)^2 = 1/1332250000

        That is one in a billion.

      • rightsaidfred says:

        This is a little different since we’ve got returning orbital matter. I suggest it is a type of birthday problem, where we’re looking for the number of “years” that pass until two wandering asteroids have the same “birthday”; a birthday here is when they flyby the Earth.

        One article I read said we can expect a flyby by an NS14 type object every 40 years. I’ll assume we can be expect an impact from a smaller Ural meteor every 40 years. This gives us a 16,000 day “year”, and with a Taylor expansion I get a 99% probability of there being a coincident “birthday” after 271.8 (!) “years”, or roughly 10,000 of our years.

        So we can expect an event like this once every 10,000 years.

      • rightsaidfred says:

        Dan, your calculation is for two objects that fly by once and never again.

        But if the asteroid belt is “birthing” objects every 40 years that will fly by the Earth at some random time in 40 years, then the odds change dramatically.

        The continuous onslaught is key. Maybe someday one of these objects will finally get rid of our political foes.

  14. dave chamberlin says:

    “I certainly don’t have the data about this, but my medium strong personal impression is this is getting worse.”

    If the human world is many multiples more complex than it was just a generation ago and we aren’t any smarter than our parents than is stands to reason it is getting worse. Let me put it another way….If the known human world is the volume of a box and the dimensions of that box are human poulation (Length) complexity of modern society (width) and known science (hieght) and the supposed experts talking about what’s in that box are just salesmen who by determination rather than qualification got themselves ahold of the podium of public opinion than it is logical to assume wes’ in a heap o trouble.
    But you personally Cochran can have fun and build a loyal blogdom by filling the niche of turning the emporers into nudists.

  15. Jaim Jota says:

    Something seemed to hit from behind the Cheliabinsk meteor. If you think it is fake, erase. http://h2oreuse.blogspot.co.il/2013/02/the-cheliabinsk-meteor-hit-by-fast.html

  16. Calculus says:

    Hi, i’m new here. I’m commenting about the previous topic, assuming that you probably mostly respond in your newest thread.
    I read this: ” Gould disliked anything that suggested that selective pressures could result in human behavioral differences”
    It’s a big shock for me as i assumed that Gould knew it is much easyer to make things different than to make them identical. Irrespective of a selective pressure. It’s second principle of thermodynamic: the loss of information is ineluctable and it takes lots of energy to counteract this tendancy. In an evolutionary perspectice, the price to pay to keep things (genomes or behaviors) ABSOLUTELY identical from generations to generations, would be a waste (it’s impossible anyways, but organisms might not know it’s impossible), and Nature obviously compromised by the only reallistic thing to do: keep things ALMOST identical which in time, can only make them different. This doesn’t invalidate Gould’s punctuated equilibrium and anyways Gould himself said that fluctuations occured during period of stasis. That these fluctuations do not translate into significant morphologic or behavioral changes during a period of stasis is possible, but they are there. The slightest perturbation in this forever unstable system, like a change in selective pressure, and these underjacent fluctuations would immediately amplify into new species or behaviors. So, how could Gould imagine that human behaviors would stay the same? it’s already very difficult without any external perturbation, but with the different selective pressures that comes with different environments from Africa to Postglacial Europe, it’s plain impossible.

  17. Jim says:

    Treating the successive flybys as a Poisson process with a mean waiting time beween successive events of 40 years and defining a simultaneous flyby as successive flybys separated by less than one day I calculate a mean waiting time of approximately 585,000 years from simultaneous flyby to the next.

    • rightsaidfred says:

      Jim, your calculation would be for successive flybys if you chose one in advance.

    • rightsaidfred says:

      Maybe better:
      “mean waiting time… from simultaneous flyby to the next.”

      This would be a flyby on the same day in the 40 year cycle; like asking “what are the odds of a dual approach on one particular day in a 14,600 day year?”

      My calc was for any flyby; “what are the odds of a flyby on any day, not specified in advance?”

      I initially calculated for a probability of .99. I should have calculated for .5, which gives 5750 years between likely flybys.

  18. Jim says:

    My calculation is for the mean waiting time at any moment to the next simultaneous flyby. It only
    assumes that we have a Poisson process with a waiting time of 40 years and that a “coincidence” is defined as two succesive events of the Poisson process separated by less than 1 day. The exact time of each “flyby” is the time of closest approach to the Earth assuming the object at that time is within the limit required to qualify as a flyby. That is a strict definition of “coincidence” but these objects are moving so fast that I assume they only spend a few hours within the limiting distance.

    • rightsaidfred says:

      Well, Jim, I set it up and ran it your way…and got your answer.

      Good call.

      In my model, I was looking for returns on the same day in a “meteor year”. But I also need the returns to be in the SAME meteor year to have a simultaneous flyby. Thus the odds go up, and it is more cosmic than I first suspected under these parameters.

      So I’m off to change the conditions. I suspect we are visited by the smaller Ural meteors more often, maybe even by a factor of 10. This would cut simultaneous visits down to 53,000 years or so.

  19. Jim says:

    I too would guess that flybys occur more frequently than a 40 year waiting time implies. Also of course meteor groups, perhaps coming from a breakup of a comet, could greatly increase the number of “simultaneous” flybys.

  20. Anthony says:

    I keep encountering people who’ve taken “critical thinking” classes (and sometimes even teach them), who have insufficient knowledge in almost any field to actually engage in any critical thinking, except to apply their folk-epistomological biases to any situation at hand, and reach the same answer that HuffPo spoon-fed them. No style of thinking, “critical” or otherwise, will give you right answers if you don’t have enough knowledge to think about.

  21. Dan says:

    Treating the successive flybys as a Poisson process, we get:



    P is the probability
    k = the number of times the rare event occurs
    λ= the rate per unit time
    t= the time interval over which the k rare events occur


    1. The Chelyabinsk meteor and the 2012 DA events are statistically similar events.
    2. These events occur roughly every 100 years.
    3. Our unit of time is 1 hour.

    1 / ([100 * year] / [1 * hour])
    = 0.0000011415525


    = 0.00001826484

    ([e^-0.00001826484] * [0.00001826484^2]) / 2
    = 1.6679914E-10

    So, the odds of any particular 16 hour interval experiencing 2 of these rare events is about:

    1 / 1.6679914E-10
    = 5.9952347E9

    1 in 6 billion

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