On Alien Intelligence

A quick but thought provoking interview with Michael Shermer, founder of the Skeptics Society.  Whether you believe there is alien intelligence in the universe or not, the interview delves into the thought experiments behind the belief and the nature of science itself.

One statement by Shermer really made me think:

… all science is a signal-to-noise problem.

This is the essence of science, I think.  All the experiments, theories and questions asked and performed by scientists boil down to discerning the signal (proof, fact, truth, what-have-you) from the noise (falsehoods, untruth, etc).  From this, you can derive a distinction between pseudoscience and true science.

From NOVA.


On Bias and Statistics

I found this to be a really cool and non-intuitive use of statistics.

During WWII, statistician Abraham Wald was asked to help the British decide where to add armor to their bombers. After analyzing the records, he recommended adding more armor to the places where there was no damage!

This seems backward at first, but Wald realized his data came from bombers that survived. That is, the British were only able to analyze the bombers that returned to England; those that were shot down over enemy territory were not part of their sample. These bombers’ wounds showed where they could afford to be hit. Said another way, the undamaged areas on the survivors showed where the lost planes must have been hit because the planes hit in those areas did not return from their missions.

Wald assumed that the bullets were fired randomly, that no one could accurately aim for a particular part of the bomber. Instead they aimed in the general direction of the plane and sometimes got lucky. So, for example, if Wald saw that more bombers in his sample had bullet holes in the middle of the wings, he did not conclude that Nazis liked to aim for the middle of wings. He assumed that there must have been about as many bombers with bullet holes in every other part of the plane but that those with holes elsewhere were not part of his sample because they had been shot down.

Great lesson in making sure you’re trying to solve the right problem.

Via The Endeavor