I made up some household spending data for 1,000 imaginary people, of whom half had suffered heart attacks and half had not. For each such person, I used a random number generator to create fictitious data in 100 spending categories.
These data were entirely random. There were no real people, no real spending, and no real heart attacks. It was just a bunch of random numbers. But the thing about random numbers is that coincidental patterns inevitably appear.
In 10 flips of a fair coin, there is a 46% chance of a streak of four or more heads in a row or four or more tails in a row. If that does not happen, heads and tails might alternate several times in a row. Or there might be two heads and a tail, followed by two more heads and a tail. In any event, some pattern will appear and it will be absolutely meaningless.
In the same way, some coincidental patterns were bound to turn up in my random spending numbers. As it turned out, by luck alone, the imaginary people who had not suffered heart attacks “spent” more money on small appliances and also on household paper products.
When we see these results, we should scoff and recognize that the patterns are meaningless coincidences. How could small appliances and household paper products prevent heart attacks?
A computer, by contrast, would take the results seriously because a computer has no idea what heart attacks, small appliances, and household paper products are. If the computer algorithm is hidden inside a black box, where we do not know how the result was attained, we would not have an opportunity to scoff. Gary Smith, “Computers’ stupditiy makes them dangerous” at Mind Matters News
Think what that means for all the stuff we hear in the media about what computer-based analyses have supposedly shown.
More from Smith, at your own risk of knowing more than you want to about what’s in the sausage of the information presented to us from approved sources:
The Paradox of luck and skill: If four work friends play a round of golf and one player is much better than the others, the winner is determined mostly by ability. If four of the top golfers in the world play a round of golf, the winner is determined mostly by luck.
We see the pattern!—but is it real? Patterns are not always a source of information. Often, they are a meaningless coincidence like the 7-11 babies this summer.
Podcasts: Catch Gary Smith discussing with Bradley Center director Robert J. Marks what AI can and can’t do:
Why was IBM Watson a flop in medicine? Last year, the IBM Health Initiative laid off a number of people, seemingly due to market disillusionment with the product.
Why an AI pioneer thinks Watson is a “fraud.” The famous Jeopardy contest in 2011 worked around the fact that Watson could not grasp the meaning of anything.
Can AI combat misleading medical research? No, because AI doesn’t address the “Texas Sharpshooter Fallacies” that produce the bad data.
AI delusions: A statistics expert sets us straight. We learn why Watson’s programmers did not want certain Jeopardy questions asked.
The US 2016 election: Why Big Data failed. Economics professor Gary Smith sheds light on the surprise result.
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