Tag Archives: language

Things 122: Linda, Sledding Crow, Brand Promises as Modern Myths

Puzzle - The Linda Problem
I see this come up every few years, and get annoyed by it every time. Here’s a typical wording:

Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.

Which is more probable?

  1. Linda is a bank teller.
  2. Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

Most people get this wrong. Why?

Usually I follow up on a puzzle in the next edition, but this one is so annoying I’ll address it below, after these other things.

VideoCrow Sledding
The Atlantic has the perfect headline for this video: “Science Can Neither Explain Nor Deny the Awesomeness of this Sledding Crow.”

At the time of writing, their version of the video is down, but this one isn’t:

(Extended version with same amount of sledding but more corvid activity here)

LinkColour perception and language
Ever since reading 1984 I’ve been doubtful but curious about the extent to which language can influence the way we think or even perceive. In a brilliant couplet of articles about colour on Empirical Zeal, I found out about some really nice experiments that demonstrate a real (albeit small) effect, so I highly recommend reading both part 1 and part 2.

ComicMartin Zutis – Being
In a comic shop in Vienna I came upon a small self-published comic, ‘Being’ by Martins Zutis. Packed with surreal imagery and insights that float around the border between madness and brilliance, I particularly liked this observation:

The news reports we don’t question are myths.

Here’s a tiny snippet, or you can read a slightly longer extract here.

Martin Zutis - Being

Answer - The Linda Problem / Conjunction fallacy (see above)
Most people (85%, apparently) will answer that option 2 is more likely, “Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.”

At this point the person who set this problem usually laughs like a supervillain and points out that the probability of two things both being true must always be less than or equal to the probability of just one of those things being true. They will say this is a demonstration of the Conjunction Fallacy.

However, these people are wrong. What it actually shows is that if you choose to go against the cooperative priniciple in communication, people will misunderstand you so much that any attempt to isolate the Conjunction Fallacy is lost.

Consider a slightly different scenario:

Boris: I have two sisters. Alice is a bank teller. Eve is a bank teller and a feminist.
James: Oh, that’s interesting. Why do you think Alice doesn’t consider herself a feminist?
Boris: I didn’t say she wasn’t.

When I ask people where the mistake arose in this conversation, the surprisingly consistent judgement is that Boris was “being a dick”.

More formally, as noted in that article on the cooperative principle, we tend to implicitly assume that when someone is telling us something, they will narrow their focus to only that which is relevant. When Boris states that Eve is a feminist, this suggests this information is (for whatever reason) relevant, so the fact is was not noted for Alice strongly suggests she isn’t a feminist.

Some researchers then restate the problem by making it clear that option 1 is “Linda is a bank teller and may or may not be active in the feminist movement”, and still 57% of people think option 2 is more likely. But the assumption of relevance is still a confounding factor: the lead-in to the question is assumed to be relevant (when in fact it’s explicitly designed to be misleading), so I suspect people will be drawn to option 2 more because of this assumption (perhaps assuming they’ve misunderstood some part of the question) than because they misunderstand probability.

The Wikipedia article on the Conjunction Fallacy is much better than when I first reviewed it, covering these concerns and giving a much better demonstration of the fallacy in question.

(As an aside, I will note that I’ve often indulged in similar deviations from the cooperative principle for the sake of setting some kind of puzzle, although hopefully this is usually clear by context – for example, as I asked in Things 4, how far can a dog run into the woods?)

Things 113: Next Thursday, Learning to Cheat, Bullet Time

When someone says “next Thursday” on a Monday, which Thursday do they mean?

Tim Link
Playing a trading/smuggling game at the recent Sandpit event at the National Maritime Museum, I did something more evil than I knew I was capable of. That got me thinking about the ethics of lying, what games taught me about that, and exactly how rules-based games can enable people to learn about breaking rules. The post is illustrated with playing cards, since I had some to hand.

Two advantages of eBooks are that book size hardly matters, and you can easily link from one page to any other page. Now think about what this means for the choose-your-own-adventure genre. Jon Ingold found you could take a totally different approach, and produced a playable murder mystery that would be as tall as a house were it printed physically.

A nice way to remember confirmation bias:

Tolstoy: “The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.”

Bullet time

Things 91: Dresden Codak, i.e., Paths of Flight

In Things 48 (not yet blogged) I linked to an Aaron Diaz’s Dresden Codak update featuring 42 sharply observed 3rd-act plot twists, but recently realised that this may have misrepresented his work, which instead usually consists of astonishingly deft single-page stories revolving around simple but brilliant ideas.

Here’s 3 of my favourites to give you a much better idea of Diaz’s oeuvre:

Lantern Season:

Fabulous Prizes:

Girl vs Bear:

His blog on comic art theory is also well worth checking out if you are remotely interested in the art form.

During a characteristically interesting and varied conversation with Adam a few days ago, he suddenly revealed the following:

That reminds me of a really interesting thing I read in the Metro today – something like: 30,000 people… something. I can’t remember what it was, but it was really amazing.

Sometimes I want to ask things in Things that are even more obviously not what people might call Puzzles than usual, so in these cases I’m going to be more direct and call a question a Question. So here is a Question.

When it comes to arguments about the English Language I tend to side with the people saying “most people say it this way so that’s now correct” against those saying “this is the way some Victorian guy wrote in a book that it should be said so everyone doing otherwise is wrong”, but I do admit that some distinctions are worth holding against a tide of misuse, one example being that I would correct instances of “i.e.” and “e.g.” being used in one another’s stead where polite and possible.

Fortunately, this didn’t come up very often.

Then in 2010 something terrible happened. About 95% of all instances of “i.e.” that I read were incorrect and should have been “e.g.”, which is particularly silly as it reads as if the author believes a set of many elements (e.g. social networks) consists of only one (e.g. “i.e. Facebook”).

So my question is this: have you also noticed such a sudden rise in “i.e.” misuse, or have I just been unlucky and/or suffered from confirmation bias?

A while ago I realised you could collage time lapse photography of a flight path to obtain an image of a string of planes; I then realised you could do the same thing with video, but recognised that this was beyond my means to produce. Conveniently, GE have now done this:


Things 83: Balloon Cat, Wrinkly Toes, Fake English

A fantastically delayed double-take from a cat:

Douglas Adams had an interesting point which he never quite distilled down to a quotable nugget. The best I can find is this:

“… it’s worth remembering that the fictions with which we previously populated our world may have some function that it’s worth trying to understand and preserve the essential components of, rather than throwing out the baby with the bath water.”

This is taken from his 1998 off-the-cuff speech at Digital Biota 2, which is well worth reading in full (~8,500 words). In it he gives the example of Feng Shui; in the book ‘Mostly Harmless’ he has the following passage applying essentially the same argument to astrology:

Astrology [is] just an arbitrary set of rules. […] The rules just kind of got there. They don’t make any kind of sense except in terms of themselves. But when you start to exercise those rules, all sorts of processes start to happen and you start to find out all sorts of stuff about people. In astrology the rules happen to be about stars and planets, but they could be about ducks and drakes for all the difference it would make. It’s just a way of thinking about a problem which lets the shape of that problem begin to emerge. The more rules, the tinier the rules, the more arbitrary they are, the better. It’s like throwing a handful of fine graphite dust on a piece of paper to see where the hidden indentations are […] the graphite’s not important. It’s just the means of revealing their indentations.

So, I think that’s interesting.

Last Week’s Puzzle
Last week I asked why all street lamps aren’t at least partially solar powered.

My guess is that aside from the prosaic explanations of societal inertia and supplier convenience, solar panels would accrue dirt and lose efficiency over time, and cleaning street lamps is not practical. I note that solar-powered street furniture does exist but is usually short enough to be easily cleaned. More optimistically, there are now self-cleaning solar panels (although these are not designed for urban use).

This Week’s Puzzle
Most people have a vague idea of why fingers and toes go wrinkly after being in water for a long time – cell membranes, osmosis, water in skin, swelling, therefore wrinkles. What’s strange is how rarely this answer is followed up with the next logical question: why doesn’t that same reasoning apply to skin elsewhere on your body?

A song intended to sound like English to an Italian audience, with some pretty nifty choreography: