How Technical Sounding Nonsense Can Boost Your Career Prospects

| Thu Dec. 27, 2012 8:07 PM PST

Is a research paper in the social sciences more impressive if it contains some impenetrable math? Kimmo Eriksson, who made a mid-career move from pure mathematics to cultural evolution and social psychology, had a hunch that it might. So he did a test. He recruited a bunch of volunteers with either masters degrees or PhDs to read abstracts of two actual papers that had been previously published. Half the group got the original abstract, while the other half got the abstract with this sentence added:

So what did he find? Reviewers were asked to rate the quality of the research on a scale of 1-100, and it turned out that when the reviewer had a degree in a tech-related area, the addition of the nonsense equation had no effect. In fact, it reduced their rating of the abstract slightly. But if the reviewer's degree was in the humanities, social sciences, medicine, or education, the added math raised their rating of the abstract significantly. Eriksson comments:

The experimental results suggest a bias for nonsense math in judgments of quality of research. Further, this bias was only found among people with degrees from areas outside mathematics, science and technology. Presumably lack of mathematical skills renders difficult own critical evaluation of meaningless mathematics....It may also be that people always tend to become impressed by what they do not understand, irrespective of what field it represents—much in line with the "Guru effect" discussed by Sperber (2010). The scope of the phenomenon is a question for future research.

The chart on the right shows how participants rated the abstracts with the added math compared to the original mathless abstract. The full paper is here.

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