Monday, August 31, 2009

Doggerel #196: "Anomaly"

Welcome back to "Doggerel," where I ramble on about words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

"Anomaly" is one of those 25 cent words that probably sees much more use than warranted. It's used to describe oddities, outliers, statistical clustering, individually unlikely events, and counter-intuitive results. Someone aware of statistics, some relevant science, and various tricks people can use to fool themselves might end up thinking "anomaly" means "everyday boring event."

Most so-called "anomalies" I hear about from parapsychologists, alties, and so on are exactly that boring. Anecdotes don't control for well-known alternative causes. Many statistical "anomalies" are well within the realm of chance, or the result of overzealous data mining: They essentially tilt their heads and squint as they look at many, many angles until they see something, rather than comment on their original hypothesis.

Many successful scientific theories are counter-intuitive to our middle world brains. We can easily fool ourselves. Someone who understands those things often knows an explanation for many things less knowledgeable people would consider odd. When dealing with parapsychologists, Creationists, alties, and so forth, I end up groaning when they point out a well understood or easily explained fact and treat it like a mystery. That's why I often find woo itself boring: There's nothing new or mysterious to look at. I have to entertain myself with figuring out how best to explain why I'm so unimpressed, and how to get that explanation to stick in my adversary's head.

1 comment:

Valhar2000 said...

This post is anomalous!