Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Proof by authority

Aristotle and Dennis Lindley

There are several ways to prove that you are right. One is by reasoning, another is by authority. News media these days prefer the latter. Here is a recent example.

Professor Dennis Victor Lindley, 80, well-known statistician from University College London, is a prankster or in search of fame. He just launched this formula:

M is the ideal age to get married. Y is the age you start looking for a partner. X is the age you intend to stop looking. e is 2.718281828..., an irrational constant only second to pi in fame.

An example. If you intend to look for the right one from 18 to 50 you should get married at 30, since 18 + (50 - 18)/2.718281828 = 29.8.

The idea is very simple, for every year you plan to look for a partner wait about 0.37 years, or four and a half months. In the example above, 32 years searching time gives 32 x 0.37 = 11.8 waiting time. So, if you start at 18, get married at 29.8.

Does the professor believe in his formula. I would hope not. Does he justify it? If he does, it is not reported in the media.

Is it a joke or a demonstration of stupidity? I go for the first. The use of e is the clue. The precision given by it and that it should crop up in a formula of this kind.

I don't think the professor's prank does mathematics any good. People in general have a distorted view of the subject already and the formula makes it worse, not better.

Mathematical thinking can clarify things as mathematician John Allen Paulos demonstrates in his column Who's Counting and books.


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