Archive for the Bad Statistics Category

Bad Statistics and the Gender Gap

Posted in Bad Statistics with tags , , , on April 3, 2019 by telescoper

So there’s an article in Scientific American called How to Close the Gender Gap in the Labo(u)r Force (I’ve added a `u’ to `Labour’ so that it can be understood in the UK).

I was just thinking the other day that it’s been a while since I added any posts to the `Bad Statistics’ folder, but this Scientific American article offers a corker:

That parabola is a  `Regression line’? Seriously? Someone needs to a lesson in how not to over-fit data! It’s plausible that the orange curve might be the best-fitting parabola to the blue points, but that doesn’t mean that it provides a sensible description of the data…

I can see a man walking a dog in the pattern of points to the top right: can I get this observation published in Scientific American?




Grave Wave Doubts?

Posted in Bad Statistics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on November 1, 2018 by telescoper


I noticed this morning that this week’s New Scientist cover feature (by Michael Brooks)is entitled Exclusive: Grave doubts over LIGO’s discovery of gravitational waves. The article is behind a paywall – and I’ve so far been unable to locate a hard copy in Maynooth so I haven’t read it yet but it is about the so-called `Danish paper’ that pointed out various unexplained features in LIGO data associated with the first detection of gravitational waves of a binary black hole merger.

I did know this piece was coming, however, as I spoke to the author on the phone some time ago to clarify some points I made in previous blog posts on this issue (e.g. this one and that one). I even ended up being quoted in the article:

Not everyone agrees the Danish choices were wrong. “I think their paper is a good one and it’s a shame that some of the LIGO team have been so churlish in response,” says Peter Coles, a cosmologist at Maynooth University in Ireland.

I stand by that comment, as I think certain members – though by no means all – of the LIGO team have been uncivil in their reaction to the Danish team, implying that they consider it somehow unreasonable that the LIGO results such be subject to independent scrutiny. I am not convinced that the unexplained features in the data released by LIGO really do cast doubt on the detection, but unexplained features there undoubtedly are. Surely it is the job of science to explain the unexplained?

It is an important aspect of the way science works is that when a given individual or group publishes a result, it should be possible for others to reproduce it (or not as the case may be). In normal-sized laboratory physics it suffices to explain the experimental set-up in the published paper in sufficient detail for another individual or group to build an equivalent replica experiment if they want to check the results. In `Big Science’, e.g. with LIGO or the Large Hadron Collider, it is not practically possible for other groups to build their own copy, so the best that can be done is to release the data coming from the experiment. A basic problem with reproducibility obviously arises when this does not happen.

In astrophysics and cosmology, results in scientific papers are often based on very complicated analyses of large data sets. This is also the case for gravitational wave experiments. Fortunately, in astrophysics these days, researchers are generally pretty good at sharing their data, but there are a few exceptions in that field.

Even allowing open access to data doesn’t always solve the reproducibility problem. Often extensive numerical codes are needed to process the measurements and extract meaningful output. Without access to these pipeline codes it is impossible for a third party to check the path from input to output without writing their own version, assuming that there is sufficient information to do that in the first place. That researchers should publish their software as well as their results is quite a controversial suggestion, but I think it’s the best practice for science. In any case there are often intermediate stages between `raw’ data and scientific results, as well as ancillary data products of various kinds. I think these should all be made public. Doing that could well entail a great deal of effort, but I think in the long run that it is worth it.

I’m not saying that scientific collaborations should not have a proprietary period, just that this period should end when a result is announced, and that any such announcement should be accompanied by a release of the data products and software needed to subject the analysis to independent verification.

Given that the detection of gravitational waves is one of the most important breakthroughs ever made in physics, I think this is a matter of considerable regret. I also find it difficult to understand the reasoning that led the LIGO consortium to think it was a good plan only to go part of the way towards open science, by releasing only part of the information needed to reproduce the processing of the LIGO signals and their subsequent statistical analysis. There may be good reasons that I know nothing about, but at the moment it seems to me to me to represent a wasted opportunity.

CLARIFICATION: The LIGO Consortium released data from the first observing run (O1) – you can find it here – early in 2018, but this data set was not available publicly at the time of publication of the first detection, nor when the team from Denmark did their analysis.

I know I’m an extremist when it comes to open science, and there are probably many who disagree with me, so here’s a poll I’ve been running for a year or so on this issue:

Any other comments welcome through the box below!

UPDATE: There is a (brief) response from LIGO (& VIRGO) here.

Hawking Points in the CMB Sky?

Posted in Astrohype, Bad Statistics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on October 30, 2018 by telescoper

As I wait in Cardiff Airport for a flight back to civilization, I thought I’d briefly mention a paper that appeared on the arXiv this summer. The abstract of this paper (by Daniel An, Krzysztof A. Meissner and Roger Penrose) reads as follows:

This paper presents powerful observational evidence of anomalous individual points in the very early universe that appear to be sources of vast amounts of energy, revealed as specific signals found in the CMB sky. Though seemingly problematic for cosmic inflation, the existence of such anomalous points is an implication of conformal cyclic cosmology (CCC), as what could be the Hawking points of the theory, these being the effects of the final Hawking evaporation of supermassive black holes in the aeon prior to ours. Although of extremely low temperature at emission, in CCC this radiation is enormously concentrated by the conformal compression of the entire future of the black hole, resulting in a single point at the crossover into our current aeon, with the emission of vast numbers of particles, whose effects we appear to be seeing as the observed anomalous points. Remarkably, the B-mode location found by BICEP 2 is at one of these anomalous points.

The presence of Roger Penrose in the author list of this paper is no doubt a factor that contributed to the substantial amount of hype surrounding it, but although he is the originator of the Conformal Cyclic Cosmology I suspect he didn’t have anything to do with the data analysis presented in the paper as, great mathematician though he is, data analysis is not his forte.

I have to admit that I am very skeptical of the claims made in this paper – as I was in the previous case of claims of a evidence in favour of the Penrose model. In that case the analysis was flawed because it did not properly calculate the probability of the claimed anomalies in the standard model of cosmology. Moreover, the addition of a reference to BICEP2 at the end of the abstract doesn’t strengthen the case. The detection claimed by BICEP2 was (a) in polarization not in temperature and (b) is now known to be consistent with galactic foregrounds.

I will, however, hold my tongue on these claims, at least for the time being. I have an MSc student at Maynooth who is going to try to reproduce the analysis (which is not trivial, as the description in the paper is extremely vague). Watch this space.

New Polling Agency

Posted in Bad Statistics with tags , , on August 10, 2018 by telescoper

There is a new polling agency on the block, called DeltaPoll.

I had never heard of them until last week, when they had a strange poll published in the Daily Mail (which, obviously, I’m not going to link to).

I think we need new pollsters like we need a hole in the head. These companies are forever misrepresenting the accuracy of their surveys and they confuse more than they inform. I was intrigued, however, so I looked up their Twitter profile and found this:

They don’t have a big Twitter following, but the names behind it have previously been associated with other polling agencies, so perhaps it’s not as dodgy as I assumed.

On the other hand, what on Earth does ’emotional and mathematical measurement methods’ mean?

The Problem with Odd Moments

Posted in Bad Statistics, Cute Problems, mathematics with tags , , on July 9, 2018 by telescoper

Last week, realizing that it had been a while since I posted anything in the cute problems folder, I did a quick post before going to a meeting. Unfortunately, as a couple of people pointed out almost immediately, there was a problem with the question (a typo in the form of a misplaced bracket). I took the post offline until I could correct it and then promptly forgot about it. I remembered it yesterday so have now corrected it. I also added a useful integral as a hint at the end, because I’m a nice person. I suggest you start by evaluating the expectation value (i.e. the first-order moment). Answers to parts (2) and (3) through the comments box please!

Answers to (2) and (3) via the comments box please!


SOLUTION: I’ll leave you to draw your own sketch but, as Anton correctly points out, this is a distribution that is asymmetric about its mean but has all odd-order moments equal (including the skewness) equal to zero. it therefore provides a counter-example to common assertions, e.g. that asymmetric distributions must have non-zero skewness. The function shown in the problem was originally given by Stieltjes, but a general discussion can be be found in E. Churchill (1946) Information given by odd moments, Ann. Math. Statist. 17, 244-6. The paper is available online here.

Literary Bayesianism

Posted in Bad Statistics with tags , on July 3, 2018 by telescoper

I’m a bit busy today doing job interviews and other things, so I’ve just got time for a quick post to point out that there’s a nice polemical piece by David Papineau in the online version of the Times Literary Supplement recently called Thomas Bayes and the crisis in science. I get the print version of the TLS every week, largely for the crossword, but I think the online version of Papineau’s piece is public (i.e. there’s no paywall).

The piece touches on a number of themes I’ve covered on this blog over the years, in particular the widespread use of dodgy statistical methods in science. Here’s a little taster:

One of the great scandals of modern intellectual life is the way generations of statistics students have been indoctrinated into the farrago of significance testing.

I couldn’t agree more!

Hubble Constant Catch-Up

Posted in Bad Statistics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on May 2, 2018 by telescoper

Last week when I wrote about the 2nd Data Release from Gaia, somebody emailed me to ask whether the new results said anything about the cosmological distance ladder and hence the Hubble Constant. As far as I could see, no scientific papers were released on this topic at the time and I thought there probably wasn’t anything definitive at this stage. However, it turns out that there is a paper now, by Riess et al., which focuses on the likely impact of Gaia on the Cepheid distance scale. Here is the abstract:

We present HST photometry of a selected sample of 50 long-period, low-extinction Milky Way Cepheids measured on the same WFC3 F555W, F814W, and F160W-band photometric system as extragalactic Cepheids in SN Ia hosts. These bright Cepheids were observed with the WFC3 spatial scanning mode in the optical and near-infrared to mitigate saturation and reduce pixel-to-pixel calibration errors to reach a mean photometric error of 5 millimags per observation. We use the new Gaia DR2 parallaxes and HST photometry to simultaneously constrain the cosmic distance scale and to measure the DR2 parallax zeropoint offset appropriate for Cepheids. We find a value for the zeropoint offset of -46 +/- 13 muas or +/- 6 muas for a fixed distance scale, higher than found from quasars, as expected, for these brighter and redder sources. The precision of the distance scale from DR2 has been reduced by a factor of 2.5 due to the need to independently determine the parallax offset. The best fit distance scale is 1.006 +/- 0.033, relative to the scale from Riess et al 2016 with H0=73.24 km/s/Mpc used to predict the parallaxes photometrically, and is inconsistent with the scale needed to match the Planck 2016 CMB data combined with LCDM at the 2.9 sigma confidence level (99.6%). At 96.5% confidence we find that the formal DR2 errors may be underestimated as indicated. We identify additional error associated with the use of augmented Cepheid samples utilizing ground-based photometry and discuss their likely origins. Including the DR2 parallaxes with all prior distance ladder data raises the current tension between the late and early Universe route to the Hubble constant to 3.8 sigma (99.99 %). With the final expected precision from Gaia, the sample of 50 Cepheids with HST photometry will limit to 0.5% the contribution of the first rung of the distance ladder to the uncertainty in the Hubble constant.

So, nothing definitive yet but potentially very interesting in the future and this group, led by Adam Riess, is now claiming a 3.8σ tension between measurements of the Hubble constant from cosmic microwave background measurements and from traditional `distance ladder’ approaches, though to my mind this is based on some rather subjective judgements.

The appearance of that paper reminded me that I forgot to post about a paper by Bernal & Peacock that appeared a couple of months ago. Here is the abstract of that one:

When combining data sets to perform parameter inference, the results will be unreliable if there are unknown systematics in data or models. Here we introduce a flexible methodology, BACCUS: BAyesian Conservative Constraints and Unknown Systematics, which deals in a conservative way with the problem of data combination, for any degree of tension between experiments. We introduce hyperparameters that describe a bias in each model parameter for each class of experiments. A conservative posterior for the model parameters is then obtained by marginalization both over these unknown shifts and over the width of their prior. We contrast this approach with an existing hyperparameter method in which each individual likelihood is scaled, comparing the performance of each approach and their combination in application to some idealized models. Using only these rescaling hyperparameters is not a suitable approach for the current observational situation, in which internal null tests of the errors are passed, and yet different experiments prefer models that are in poor agreement. The possible existence of large shift systematics cannot be constrained with a small number of data sets, leading to extended tails on the conservative posterior distributions. We illustrate our method with the case of the H0 tension between results from the cosmic distance ladder and physical measurements that rely on the standard cosmological model.

This paper addresses the long-running issue of apparent tension in different measurements of the Hubble constant that I’ve blogged about before (e.g. here) by putting the treatment of possible systematic errors into a more rigorus and consistent (i.e. Bayesian) form. It says what I think most people in the community privately think about this issue, i.e. that it’s probably down to some sort of unidentified systematic rather than exotic physics.

The title of the paper includes the phrase `Conservative Cosmology’, but I think that’s a bit of a misnomer. I think `Sensible Cosmology’. Current events suggest `conservative’ and `sensible’ have opposite meanings. You can find a popular account of it here, from which I have stolen this illustration of the tension:

A chart showing the two differing results for the Hubble constant – The expansion rate of the universe (in km/s/Mpc)
Result 1: 67.8 ± 0.9 Cosmic microwave background
Result 2: 73.52 ± 1.62 Cosmic distance ladder

Anyway, I have a poll that has been going on for some time about whether this tension is anything to be excited about, so why not use this opportunity cast your vote?