Pharyngula

Some days, I think other people must be aliens. Or I must be. For instance, there’s a lot of noise right now about this article analyzing the future of information and media that, if you read the comments, you will discover that people are praising to an astonishing degree. I looked at it and saw this graph:

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And my bullshit detector went insane. It’s supposed to be saying something about where people are and will be getting their information, but there’s no information about where this information came from, and it’s meaningless!

Way back in high school, I had this excellent chemistry teacher, Mr Thompson, who taught me the only worthwhile stuff I got out of my science classes in those years. He was really big on thinking — I know, a real radical — and he didn’t have us simply plug-and-chug through basic chemistry problems, he forced us to work out why we were doing what we were doing. For instance, he did simple things like make us put away our slide rules (that’s how long ago this was) and pencils and think through a problem, getting a ballpark estimate in our heads for the magnitude of the answer, and then we’d work through the details of the solution. (Come to think of it, using slide rules was a real advantage for this kind of reasoning.) We were always doing back-of-the-envelope estimates for problems he’d throw at us.

The other thing he did was introduce us to unit analysis. If we thought we had a way to figure out the answer, forget the numbers for a minute, just work through the units and see that it actually makes sense. If you’re trying to figure out grams/liter of a solution you’re making, and when you work out the units and discover it’s coming out liters/mole, you know you’re doing it wrong.

Simple, basic stuff. You ought to have absorbed this into your bones in grade school if you want to be a scientist.

So look at that graph. The X axis is years, which is OK, even if the inconsistency of the intervals is extremely annoying. But what are the units of the Y axis? What’s being measured? I have no idea. I presume it’s a stacked percentage of something, but that’s unclear. Information produced? Absorbed? Thrown at a wall and forgotten? What kind of information? It’s all lumped together and unspecified. Could we have some units, please? And can you really categorize a single unit of information that applies appropriately to what comes from a newspaper and what comes from a social networking site?

The other data we’re missing is a source and methodology. If it’s saying that someone in 2009 is getting 10% of their “information”, nebulous as that means in this context, from blogs, how was that determined, and where are the raw data that was used to compile this chart?

Surprise — there isn’t any. This whole chart was built out of some guy’s impressions. There are no numbers and no sources and no measurements were made. It puts up a colorful pretense of being quantitative, but there’s nothing but vapor and handwaving there. Mr Thompson would have been horrified.

And then this imaginary data is used to extrapolate imaginary trends into an imaginary future and make unbelievable predictions, which everybody seems to believe. I really don’t get it. If a student put this kind of garbage on my desk, I’d at least draw big red X’s across the pages and slap an “F” on it; I’d be tempted to set it on fire, throw it in my trash can, and piss on it. You cannot build plausible predictions from garbage data.

So, I must be an alien, because no one else seems to be expressing visceral disgust at this kind of nonsense, except for Larry Moran, who probably is also an alien. I’ll have to see how many extraterrestrials are lurking in my comments section now.


The graph has been much improved.