Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Lecture 6

I mentioned David Aldous's blog post Presenting probability via math puzzles is harmful.

Someone says to you: "I have two children one of whom is a boy"? To assess the probability that both are boys we must make assumptions about what the speaker really means, and what other things he might have said in other circumstances. You might like to read David Aldous's twins example:

In casual conversation with a stranger in the next airplane seat, you ask "do you have children?" and the response is "yes, two boys". Based on this, what is the chance that the two boys are twins?

Aldous argues that the probability is very close to $0$, because most people, if asked this question, would mention having twins if that were the case. We should not abandon common sense when doing maths problems. He gives this example:

"If you ask a politician in government "has unemployment gone up?" and they answer "long-term unemployment has gone down" then you can be fairly confident that short-term unemployment has indeed gone up!"

Here is some interesting reading for you about the law courts and conditional probability.
  • A formula for justice
    Bayes' theorem is a mathematical equation used in court cases to analyse statistical evidence. But a judge has ruled it can no longer be used. Will it result in more miscarriages of justice?
  • Court of Appeal bans Bayesian probability (and Sherlock Holmes)
    In a recent judgement the English Court of Appeal has not only rejected the Sherlock Holmes doctrine shown above, but also denied that probability can be used as an expression of uncertainty for events that have either happened or not.
  • Prosecutor's fallacy
    The prosecutor's fallacy is a fallacy of statistical reasoning, typically used by the prosecution to argue for the guilt of a defendant during a criminal trial. 

I told you that an alternative name for Simpson's paradox is the Yule-Simpson effect. Udny Yule (a Fellow of St John's College, and a lecturer in statistics at Cambridge) appears to be the first person to have commented on this phenomenon (in 1903). Coincidentally, David Aldous (mentioned above) was also an undergraduate and Fellow at St John's (1970-79).

Example 6.7 was artificial, so it would be easy to see what was happening (women predominated amongst independent school applicants and women were more likely to gain admission.) In the Wikipedia article Simpson's paradox you can read about more practical examples. One of the best-known real-life examples of Simpson's paradox occurred when the University of California, Berkeley was sued for bias against women who had applied for admission to graduate schools there.

I once extracted data from Cambridge University Tripos results to show that in each of certain set of carefully selected subjects (including Engineering, English, ...) women were more likely to obtain Firsts than men, but that men were more likely to obtain Firsts when results over all subjects were combined. This sounds paradoxical. However, it happened because some subjects award greater percentages of Firsts than do others. But also some subjects are relatively more popular with women.