Cordial Deconstruction

Observations from our shared single objective reality in a materialistic, naturalistic, & effectively macro-deterministic universe.

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Posts Tagged ‘The Amazing Meeting’

Cordial Deconstruction of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s SIUE Talk

Posted by Karl Withakay on December 8, 2011

EDIT 12-12-11  I encourage you to read the comments at the end of this post, including one by Neil deGrasse Tyson himself!  Based on some of the constructive comments and criticisms I’ve gotten here and on Facebook, I’m backing off on the average criticism a bit, but I am leaving it in the post for the purpose of integrity and not pretending like I didn’t say something I did say.

Some of my friends and I went to see Neil deGrasee Tyson speak at SIUE last night (12-7-11).  His talk was very somewhat similar (~25% the same) to his keynote address given at TAM 9 from Outer Space last July, and he made a couple of statements (one of which was repeated from TAM9) that I thought were worthy of a little Cordial Deconstruction.

I know it seems disingenuous to preface a criticism of someone by stating how much you like them, but I’m still going to preface this with the statement that I’m a big fan of Neil deGrasee Tyson, and relish every opportunity to hear him speak, but I did have  problems with a couple of the things he said last night.

An Average Mistake

Dr. Tyson went through a series of slides showing statements made by various people that demonstrate a lack of understanding of science and or mathematics, but his criticism of one of the statements was not very well thought out, in my opinion.  I don’t remember the exact quote, but the essence of the statement was “half of all students are below average”, and Dr. Tyson’s criticism was that this statement was so definitively self obvious as to not require stating.  He said that it was kind of the whole point of average, and that half of any sample would always be below average since average represents the middle.  I know Dr. Tyson understands the concepts of median, mean, and mode, but in spite of that, he apparently didn’t think through his criticism of the statement in that slide.  He made the same point at TAM9, and he apparently hasn’t revised it since then.  It’s just not correct to say that half of any set will always be below average.

Before I can go any further, we have to determine what someone means when they say average.  The most common use of that term is in regards to the arithmetic mean, which is when you add up all the values and divide by the number of values.

I’ll use a simple hypothetical situation with math simple enough to be done without a calculator.  Let’s say I administer a ten question exam to ten students.  Nine students score a perfect 10, and one student scores a perfect 0.

The mean score is 9 ((9*10+0)/10).  In this example using mean for average, 1 student (10%) of the sample scored below average, and 9 students (90%) scored above average.

Sometimes, one might be referring to the median value when they use the term average.

From Wikipedia:

 “Median is described as the numerical value separating the higher half of a sample, a population, or a probability distribution, from the lower half”

By definition would seem to fit Dr. Tyson’s statement.

However, I see two problems here.  Firstly, while it may not be technically incorrect to intend median when referring to the average value, the typical understanding of what is meant by average is the arithmetic mean.  In my opinion, in order to avoid confusion, the use of the word average with general audiences should usually be restricted to refer to the arithmetic mean, and one should say median when they mean median.

The other problem is that even median doesn’t always result in half of a given sample being below average.

Also from Wikipedia:

“At most, half the population have values less than the median, and, at most, half have values greater than the median. If both groups contain less than half the population, then some of the population is exactly equal to the median.”

In the above example, when following the rules used to determine the median value, it comes out to be 10.  Using median for average, 10% of the students are still below average, while 90% are average, and nobody is above average.

There are other things that one could intend when using the term average, such as mode, but these uses would be even more uncommon and really need to be specified when intended.

Initial Mistake

Dr. Tyson also made what in my opinion, was an even grosser misstatement regarding the New Horizons probe to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt.  (To clarify, it was unquestionably a factual misstatement; it is my opinion that the severity of this misstatement is larger than that of his comment about averages.)

He stated that New Horizons was the fastest thing we had ever sent anywhere, and it would eventually overtake the Voyager probes as the most distant man made objects from the Earth.  This is factually incorrect, though there is a grain of truth at the heart of this statement.

While it is true that the New Horizons probe achieved the highest launch velocity of any craft so far, left Earth faster than any other mission or probe, and had the highest initial solar escape trajectory, it neither has the record for highest maximum velocity (the Helios probes hold that distinction), nor is it traveling faster than Voyager 1.  While New Horizons had a higher initial velocity than Voyager 1, Voyager’s velocity was boosted by gravitational slingshots with outer planets to a higher final velocity than New Horizon’s, and New Horizons will never overtake Voyager 1 as the most distant man made object form the Earth (or Sun).

Footnote Acknowledgement of Personal Fallibility

Normally, when I Deconstruct something, I like to be able to review it several times, so I can be sure my Deconstruction is valid, and I am not missing something that would invalidate my criticisms, but the talk last night was live, I can’t review a video of it, and I didn’t take any notes. (Notes would only help me remember things I noticed at the time and would not allow me to look for things that I may have missed anyway.)  As a result, this post was written based on my recall and understanding of what Dr. Tyson said last night (and last July), and is therefore subject to various limitations that could leave me in error in regards to my Deconstruction of the two points discussed in this post.  I therefore acknowledge the possibility that I may have misheard, misunderstood, or improperly recalled the points put forth by Dr. Tyson, and I could be off base on one or both of my criticisms, which is one of the reasons why I allow commenting on my posts, and I invite any relevant commentary anyone might have to add.


Posted in Criticism, Science, Space, TAM | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 10 Comments »

Off to TAM9!

Posted by Karl Withakay on July 13, 2011

I wasn’t able to post last week as I got invited to Cardinals game at the last minute Wednesday, pushing Halo night to Thursday, which is my usual blogging night.

This week, I will be attending The Amazing Meeting in Las Vegas (if you don’t already have tickets, too bad- it’s sold out!), and will be unable to post again this week.

Posted in The Amazing Meeting, This Blog | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

My Take on the Dawkins Interview at TAM8

Posted by Karl Withakay on July 13, 2010

This past weekend I has the pleasure of attending The Amazing Meeting 8 in Las Vegas with my friend Polite Scott.  It was, of course, amazing.  The keynote speaker was famed British evolutionary biologist, ethologist, and author Richard Dawkins.  Instead of giving a keynote address, Dawkins was interviewed Bob Costas style by JREF president D.J. Grothe.  While I kind of missed a formal keynote address, I enjoyed the interview very much.  I always enjoyed the casual, intimate interview format of Later with Bob Costas; it allowed for a more personal interview, and this interview was very similar.

Although there was much of interest in the interview, sometimes it’s the little things that leave the biggest impact.  My friend Polite Scott, for instance, tweeted the following after the interview:

Enjoyed Richard Dawkins’ session at TAM8, but was even more impressed to learn @DJGrothe is a comic book fan #TAM8

The thing that really caught my attention was Dawkins’ use of personal pronouns for non-specific, gender neutral references.  Depending on how you look at it, the English language is either gender biased or at least gender specific.  In German, for instance, the word sie can mean she, they, or even you (singular or plural), but in English, gender in pronouns implies actual gender.  Consider the following sentence:

Talk to your doctor about what he would choose for his family.

Fifty years ago, if you were addressing a crowd of people, this is how you would have phrased that statement without giving it a second thought, and it wouldn’t have even been seemed that gender biased since most people’s doctors would have been men.  Indeed, most people would still phrase it that way without a second thought.  Since the sexual revolution, there have been a couple of different alternative ways of dealing with gender when using pronouns in non-specific contexts.  One way is to use both masculine and feminine pronouns at the same time as in:

Ask your doctor what he/she would choose for his/her family.

It’s certainly inclusive, but it’s terribly awkward.  Another common choice is to use plural pronouns for non-specific references as in the following:

Ask you doctor what they would choose for their family.

This has always seemed to me to be the more elegant solution, but I admit I have had a hard time following it, mostly due to the influence of my tyrannical high school English teacher who insisted on using masculine pronouns for non-specific references.  (He was and older, conservative teacher at a conservative Lutheran high school )

Dawkins’ interview demonstrated a third option that had never previously occurred to me.  When he used pronouns for non-specific references, Dawkins used feminine pronouns.  He would have phrased the example phrase thusly:

Ask your doctor what she would choose for her family.

At the same time, this phraseology is both inclusive in its own way and thought provoking.   Every time he used a feminine pronoun for a non-specific reference, it made me think of how women might feel when people use masculine pronouns instead.  If you’re an English speaking, Christian, white male in the United States, you might not realize or care how non-inclusive our language and society can be.  On the other hand, sometimes I wonder if this is one of the reasons behind the various English only attitudes in this country.  Maybe some people realize how non-inclusive our country can be, and they don’t want to end up with the short straw at some time in the future.  Maybe they don’t see how it can be any other way other than society being focused on one particular language and culture, and they want to make sure it’s their culture that dominates.

This past weekend in Las Vegas, one man gave a hint to an admittedly receptive (fairly liberal) audience of approximately 1,300 people that maybe it doesn’t always have to be that way.  Think about it the next time you use a pronoun in a non-specific context.

Posted in Critical Thinking, English Language, Inclusivity, Richard Dawkins, TAM, The Amazing Meeting, Thoughtful/Random Observation | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

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