Precise answers to the wrong questions

I’ve been doing Serious Research lately and haven’t had much energy for blogging. I’m actually starting to remember that blogging gives me more energy (like exercising) if I can get myself to kick off the virtuous cycle when I don’t feel like it — so perhaps I’ll be posting more actively in the near future. Anyway, I tore myself away from my textbooks and equations this morning in order to share this brilliant quotation with you:

“An approximate answer to the right question is worth a great deal more than a precise answer to the wrong question.”

 – John Tukey

Tukey was a statistician, probably best known for the fast Fourier transform algorithm he co-developed. (Wikiquote indicates that this particular line is actually in Super Freakonomics where it is attributed to Tukey, while they have a direct source which reads: “Far better an approximate answer to the right question, which is often vague, than an exact answer to the wrong question, which can always be made precise.”)

The beauty of this quotation? I got it from a Christian apologetics blog. Yes, folks, religious apologists: those people who insist that their specific deity is somehow the answer to all possible questions because their ancient books say so, regardless of what the preponderance of scientific evidence or logical analysis might say. They just wanted to remind us that it’s better to say “I don’t know yet” and keep examining reality than to be devoutly certain but misguided. … Oh wait, no — that’s what we keep telling them.

Perhaps they would have done better to ponder this third sourced statement on Tukey’s Wikiquote page:

The combination of some data and an aching desire for an answer does not ensure that a reasonable answer can be extracted from a given body of data.

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  1. It is a very good quote, although I must admit I have a love of precision.

    I also absolutely love the quote at the end of the post.

  2. This reminds me of the billboard a church put up last summer:

    There is no God
    Don’t believe everything you hear

    They were totally doing our work for us, there. The Ohio Atheists put up exactly the same billboard last month, and I wonder if the irony was lost on the church that originally put it up.

    You’ve found another religious group trying to take the very idea we want them to understand and use it as apologetics. It’s amazing that their heads don’t explode from the cognitive dissonance.

  3. Very nice — keep energized by blogging!

  4. Carl de Malmanche

     /  July 15, 2012 at 11:20 pm

    “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” 🙂

    If there was no search, why get up in the morning?

    IF you find god… here’s what comes next: “what comes next?”.

    As Aleister Crowley has stated “?!?”
    (every question, answered, creates new questions)

    Blogging is cathartic. Gets the crap from the stewpot, where it takes up valuable space and focus, and puts in the void were it can do it’s own thing. Free the Meme.

    The correct question then, is like the farmers cow in the field – is it safe? How much meta-information is required to form a suitable uncertainity? What is the nature of the validation which we accept an answer is correct? (what proofs do we define as being the level of proof required, and how can we prove those assumtions are valid in this or any other situation.)? What is an acceptable burden of doubt? Is a solution is available (cheese) to a situation (hunger) is that enough? (trap/no trap 🙂 )

    PS- Still looking at the DJIA number thing. ATM teaching the to “read” the written/virtual numbers (as opposed to Cardinal numbers). Playing with Forex as practice system, made a few grand over the last month, just trying to get the hang of the control systems. Will get to developing the information side (ie setting up some testing) shortly. Just figured an update was due.

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