Beyond a Dream of Uncertainty

A few years ago, I wrote of a dream of uncertainty. Today I second this dream but also want something beyond it.

We live in a culture of takeaways. The quick “apply it right now” answer takes precedence over complications and open questions. So-called “scientific findings” (as presented on TED and elsewhere) are often tenuous, as the power pose example suggests. Science here is not at fault; the problem lies in the market for quick solutions (and everything feeding that market, from a gullible audience to an overhyped study).

Most of the time, both science and life  take time to figure out. Most of the time, any understanding, any progress, requires grappling with errors over many years.

On Andrew Gelman’s blog, Shravan Vasishth posted a terrific comment (worth reading in full) that concludes:

So, when I give my Ted talk, which I guess is imminent, I will deliver the following life-hacks:

1. If you want big changes in your life, you have to work really, really hard to make them happen, and remember you may fail so always have a plan B.
2. It’s all about the content, and it’s all about the preparation. Presence and charisma are nice to have, and by all means cultivate them, but remember that without content and real knowledge and understanding, these are just empty envelopes that may some fool people but won’t make you and better than you are now.

There was a reason that Zed Shaw wrote Learn Python the Hard Way and Learn C the Hard Way books. There is no easy way.

In this spirit, I continue to dream but do not only dream. I want a society that recognizes substance, that does not fall so easily for bad science. Along with that, I want more kindness, more willingness to see the good in others (while also disagreeing with them at times). But to help bring that about, I need to continue my own studies, pushing up against my own challenges and errors. So let this be a year of study, challenge, substance, and goodwill.

Leave a comment


  1. The biggest thing we can do to create a more educated and skeptical and questioning society is to provide a better education (as professors in universities). Specifically, a statistical education should be a central component. I did a lot of calculus and linear algebra in high school, but barely any statistics. I could have learnt everything I know (almost) right there in classes 11 and 12. Even if one starts in university, it’s vital to provide a quality statistics education to as many people as possible.

    • Thank you. I agree heartily about education and about statistics in particular. Statistics-lite will not do (yet it is prevalent). What I am starting to see (and did not see a decade ago) is the importance of statistics even to the humanities. Understanding what is known and not known–and the degree of certainty and uncertainty around research findings–can open up discussions in a range of fields. We’re in bad shape when people outside of the sciences either reject research wholesale (“How much can research tell us anyway”) or accept a study because it has been published and touted.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: