Reprinted in full from Kids Prefer Cheese:

The nonsense math effect

Kimmo Eriksson, Judgment and Decision Making, November 2012, Pages 746–749

Abstract:  Mathematics is a fundamental tool of research. Although potentially applicable in every discipline, the amount of training in mathematics that students typically receive varies greatly between different disciplines. In those disciplines where most researchers do not master mathematics, the use of mathematics may be held in too much awe. To demonstrate this I conducted an online experiment with 200 participants, all of which had experience of reading research reports and a postgraduate degree (in any subject). Participants were presented with the abstracts from two published papers (one in evolutionary anthropology and one in sociology). Based on these abstracts, participants were asked to judge the quality of the research. Either one or the other of the two abstracts was manipulated through the inclusion of an extra sentence taken from a completely unrelated paper and presenting an equation that made no sense in the context. The abstract that
included the meaningless mathematics tended to be judged of higher quality. However, this “nonsense math effect” was not found among participants with degrees in mathematics, science, technology or medicine.


There is a chapter in Evolve, Part 2: Incentives in which Ethan Fisher and Chuck Silberman have a conversation on this very topic. That topic being? The abuse of mathematics by a great many disciplines (most of which are the social science variety). I’ll post an excerpt in just a moment…

-JD Cross