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Michael Smithson
Michael Smithson
Michael Smithson is a Professor in the Psychology Department at The Australian National University. He has written 6 books, co-edited 3, and published more than 120 refereed articles and book chapters. His research interests focus on how people think about and respond to unknowns.


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May 23, 2015 8:17 pm
After a year of preparation and hard slog, together with my colleague Gabriele Bammer, I’ve prepared a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) on Ignorance. The MOOC is based on my work on this topic, and those of you who have followed my blog will find extensions and elaborations of the material covered in my posts. Gabriele’s contributions focus on the roles of ignorance in complex problems. The...  Read More
Oct. 16, 2013 11:38 pm
Recently Henry Roediger III produced an article in the APA Observer criticizing simplistic uses of Impact Factors (IFs) as measures of research quality. A journal’s IF in a given year is defined as the number of times papers published in the preceding two years have been cited during the given year, divided by the number of papers published in the preceding two years. Roediger’s main points are...  Read More
Aug. 25, 2013 10:49 pm
One of my earlier posts, “Making the Wrong Decisions for the Right Reasons”, focused on conditions under which it is futile to pursue greater certainty in the name of better decisions. In this post, I’ll investigate settings in which a highly uncertain outcome should motivate us more strongly than no outcome at all to seek greater certainty. The primary stimulus for this post is a recent letter...  Read More
Aug. 12, 2013 12:25 am
I’ll indulge in a bit more shameless advertising here, but it’s directly relevant to this blog. First, I’m one among several plenary speakers at what’s billed as the First Global Conference on Research Integration and Implementation (8-11 September). As the entry webpage says, the main goal is bringing together everyone whose research interests include: understanding problems as...  Read More
Jul. 31, 2013 7:43 pm
A Few (More) Myths about “Big Data” Following on from Kate Crawford’s recent and excellent elaboration of six myths about “big data”, I should like to add four more that highlight important issues about such data that can misguide us if we ignore them or are ignorant of them. Myth 7: Big data are precise. As with analyses of almost any other kind of data, big data analyses largely...  Read More
Jul. 31, 2013 7:41 pm
Sad, but true—I’ve been off blogging since late 2012 because I was writing a book (with Ed Merkle) under a contract with Chapman and Hall. Writing the book took up the time I could devote to writing blog posts. Anyhow, I’m back in the blogosophere, and for those unusual people out there who have interests in multivariate statistical modelling, you can find out about the book here or here .  Read More
Oct. 22, 2011 8:32 am
There is a long-running love-hate relationship between the legal and statistical professions, and two vivid examples of this have surfaced in recent news stories, one situated in a court of appeal in London and the other in the U.S. Supreme Court. Briefly, the London judge ruled that Bayes’ theorem must not be used in evidence unless the underlying statistics are “firm;” while the U.S. Supreme...  Read More
Sep. 28, 2011 8:08 am
Back in late May 2011, there were news stories of charges of manslaughter laid against six earthquake experts and a government advisor responsible for evaluating the threat of natural disasters in Italy, on grounds that they allegedly failed to give sufficient warning about the devastating L'Aquila earthquake in 2009. In addition, plaintiffs in a separate civil case are seeking damages in the...  Read More
Sep. 13, 2011 7:36 pm
By now it’s all over the net (e.g., here ) and international news media : Tilburg University sacked high-profile social psychologist Diederik Stapel, after he was outed as having faked data in his research. Stapel was director of the Tilburg Institute for Behavioral Economics Research, a successful researcher and fundraiser, and as a colleague expressed it, "the poster boy of Dutch social...  Read More
Sep. 10, 2011 11:30 pm
It’s coming up to a year since I began this blog. In my usual fashion, I set myself the unrealistic goal of writing a post every week. This is only the 37 th , so I’ve fallen short by a considerable margin. On the other hand, most of those posts have been on the order of 1500 words long, for a total of about 55,500 words thus far. That seems a fair whack of the keyboard, and it’s been fun too. ...  Read More
Aug. 13, 2011 8:48 pm
I started this post in Hong Kong airport, having just finished one conference and heading to Innsbruck for another. The Hong Kong meeting was on psychometrics and the Innsbruck conference was on imprecise probabilities (believe it or not, these topics actually do overlap). Anyhow, Annemarie Zand Scholten gave a neat paper at the math psych meeting in which she pointed out that, contrary to a...  Read More
Aug. 10, 2011 9:26 pm
Hi, I’m back again after a few weeks’ travel (presenting papers at conferences). I’ve already posted material on this blog about the “ignorance explosion.” Numerous writings have taken up the theme that there is far too much relevant information for any of us to learn and process and the problem is worsening, despite the benefits of the internet and effective search-engines. We all have had to...  Read More
Jul. 8, 2011 9:26 pm
From time to time I receive invitations to contribute to various “encyclopedias.” Recent examples include an entry on “confidence intervals” in the International Encyclopedia of Statistical Science (Springer, 2010) and an entry on "uncertainty" in the Encyclopedia of Human Behavior (Elsevier, 1994, 2012). The latter link goes to the first (1994) edition; the second edition is due out in 2012....  Read More
Jul. 2, 2011 8:00 pm
The title of this post is, of course, a famous quotation from Edmund Burke . This is a personal account of an attempt to find an appropriate substitute for such a plan. My siblings and I persuaded our parents that the best option for financing their long-term in-home care is via a reverse-mortgage . At first glance, the problem seems fairly well-structured: Choose the best reverse mortgage...  Read More
Jun. 22, 2011 1:29 am
In my previous post I attempted to provide an overview of the IPCC 2007 report’s approach to communicating about uncertainties regarding climate change and its impacts. This time I want to focus on how the report dealt with probabilistic uncertainty. It is this kind of uncertainty that the report treats most systematically. I mentioned in my previous post that Budescu et al.’s (2009) empirical...  Read More
May 30, 2011 3:13 am
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) guidelines for their 2007 report stipulated how its contributors were to convey uncertainties regarding climate change scientific evidence, conclusions, and predictions. Budescu et al.’s (2009) empirical investigation of how laypeople interpret verbal probability expressions (e.g., “very likely”) in the IPCC report revealed several problematic...  Read More
May 19, 2011 1:33 am
“Don’t pay any attention to the critics—Don’t even ignore them.” ~ Samuel Goldwyn When I first started exploring ignorance and related topics, it occurred to me that not-knowing has a passive and an active voice. To be ignorant of something is the passive voice—Ignorance is a state. Ignoring something is an action. I want to explore various aspects of ignoring in this and perhaps some...  Read More
May 8, 2011 12:54 am
There seems to be a widespread intuition that if we use a well-reasoned, evidence-based approach to making decisions under uncertainty then we’ll make the right decision most of the time. Sure, we’ll make some bad calls but the majority of the time we’ll get it right. Or will we? Here’s an example from law enforcement. Suppose you’re the commanding officer in a local police jurisdiction, and you...  Read More
May 1, 2011 6:33 pm
For the past 34 years I’ve been compelled to teach a framework that I’ve long known is flawed. A better framework exists and has been available for some time. Moreover, I haven’t been forced to do this by any tyrannical regime or under threats of great harm to me if I teach this alternative instead. And it gets worse: I’m not the only one. Thousands of other university instructors have been doing...  Read More
Apr. 14, 2011 11:17 am
A recent policy paper by Frank Bannister and Regina Connolly asks whether transparency is an unalloyed good in e-government. As the authors point out, the advent of Wikileaks has brought the issue of “e-transparency” into the domain of public debate. Broadly, e-transparency in government refers to access to the data, processes, decisions and actions of governments mediated by information...  Read More
Apr. 5, 2011 7:26 pm
Any blog whose theme is ignorance and uncertainty should get around to discussing delusions sooner or later. I am to give a lecture on the topic to third-year neuropsych students this week, so a post about it naturally follows. Delusions are said to be a concomitant and indeed a product of other cognitive or other psychological pathologies, and traditionally research on delusions was conducted in...  Read More
Mar. 29, 2011 12:16 am
My stepfather, at 86 years of age, just underwent major surgery to remove a considerable section of his colon. He’d been under heavy sedation for several days, breathing through a respirator, with drip-feeds for hydration and sustenance. After that, he was gradually reawakened. Bob found himself in a room he’d never seen before, and he had no sense of what day or time it was. He had no memory of...  Read More
Mar. 22, 2011 6:55 pm
Books such as Nicholas Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness and the psychological literature on our mental foibles such as gambler’s fallacy warn us to beware randomness. Well and good, but randomness actually is one of the most domesticated kinds of uncertainty. In fact, it is one form of uncertainty we can and do exploit. One obvious way randomness can be exploited is in designing scientific...  Read More
Mar. 14, 2011 10:14 pm
Recently a colleague asked me for my views on the social and psychological functions of innumeracy. He aptly summarized the heart of the matter: “I have long-standing research interests in mathematics anxiety and adult numeracy (or, more specifically, innumeracy, including in particular what I term the ‘adult numeracy conundrum’ – that is, that despite decades of investment in programs to raise...  Read More
Mar. 4, 2011 10:56 pm
Most of the time, most of us are convinced that we know far more than we are entitled to, even by our own commonsensical notions of what real knowledge is. There are good reasons for this, and let me hasten to say I do it too. I’m not just referring to things we think we know that turn out to be wrong. In fact, let’s restrict our attention initially to those bits of knowledge we claim for...  Read More
Feb. 25, 2011 6:56 pm
On August 18 th , 1913, the ball of a roulette wheel at Le Grand Casino of Monte Carlo landed on black 26 consecutive times. During this streak a betting frenzy ensued as a growing crowd staked increasingly large amounts on red. They believed that the ball was “due” to land on red. They lost and the casino reaped a large reward, thanks to Gambler’s Fallacy (GF). GF is well-known and yet it...  Read More
Feb. 8, 2011 5:26 pm
There are well-understood formal frameworks for decision making under risk, i.e., where we know all the possible outcomes of our acts and also know the probabilities of those outcomes. There are even prescriptions for decision making when we don’t quite know the probabilities but still know what the outcomes could be. Under ignorance we not only don’t know the probabilities, we may not even know...  Read More
Jan. 30, 2011 6:55 pm
Among the sacred cows of Western culture is the notion that the more information and knowledge we have, the better decisions we’ll make. I’m a subscriber to this notion too; after all, I’m in the education and research business! Most of us have been rewarded throughout our lives for knowing things, for being informed. Possessing more information understandably makes us more confident about our...  Read More
Jan. 23, 2011 4:27 pm
I have to hand it to Professor Daryl Bem. He has produced what some commentators have referred to as a publicist’s dream: A scientific paper to be published in a flagship journal of his discipline ( Journal of Personality and Social Psychology ) that involves the supernatural and sex. To quote from the abstract, “Data are presented for 4 time-reversed effects: precognitive approach to erotic...  Read More
Jan. 16, 2011 4:38 pm
The recent floods in the states of Queensland and New South Wales have affected many of us in Australia, if not directly then as a result of impacts on our families and friends. We’re no strangers to natural disasters. Droughts, floods, heat-waves, bushfires, destructive storms, and (in the northern coastal parts) cyclones are part and parcel of life even for many urban Australians. My wife and I...  Read More
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