I recall a mathematics professor using an HL Mencken quote to describe a particularly intractable physics puzzle:
"Explanations exist. They have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem - neat, plausible, and wrong."
(I'm certain that the abovementioned professor paraphrased Mencken, but thanks to the power of the internet we can get the quote right).
Three discussions I had over the past week brought this idea to mind, and have me reflecting on the limits of intuition and of statistics, both professionally and recreationally:
- A discussion of the defensive ability of New York Mets shortstop Wilmer Flores
- Predictions on future success of Mets pitcher Carlos Torres
- A discussion on the AV Installation Nightmares Facebook group on the merits of plastic cable ties as opposed to hook-and-loop straps to bundle category cable.
What do the above have in common? All are, to some of us, important questions. None are within our ability to intuitively answer. What it comes down to, in the end, is almost a question of epistemology: how does one know that an assertion is true?
We know things today. Gathering data is a skill at which we have become quite adept. One high-profile example of this is in election predictions: there has always been a great deal of polling and data gathering before elections. In recent years it's become possible - even easy - to gather data from wide areas over years, make comparisons, and see which correlations appear stable over time. This lead, for example, to several statistics-based analysts (ie, Nate Silver of "538" and Wang of the Princeton Election Consortium) to predict the last Presidential and midterm election with nearly frightening accuracy. More traditional pundits relying on fewer numbers but more experience and intuition ran into one of Mencken's neat, plausible, and wrong explanations.
|Warmups at CitiField, Queens NY|
- Ties fastened too tightly can deform the precisely-manufactured cable, increasing crosstalk between pairs
- It's very easy to accidentally overtighten, especially if fastening many of them
- BICCSI standards recomment against using nylon or plastic cable ties
- A white paper from Valens Semiconductor (maker of the chipset at the heart of HDBaseT transport systems) recommends hook-and-eye straps.
AV professional William Bloomquist had what looked like a data-driven argument against. His point:
- Many people use nylon ties without a problem.
- There are no failure statistics detailing how many failures are caused by compression caused by overtightened cable ties.
Do you see the key difference between this analysis and the above discussion on relief pitchers? We can very precisely analyze pitching because we have very precise data; Pitch f(x) is in all major league ballparks and measures every single pitch in every major league game. THis is not so for cable failures; if video doesn't pass on one cable it gets re-terminated, re-re-terminated, and perhaps replaced without anybody performing a post-mortem or a root-cause analysis on the failure. There's no pitch f(x) database listing all of the cable failures across the industry on which we can perform analysis, no decades of polling.
|Hook-and-eye cable straps, detail.|
I applaud people like Bloomquist for being prudent and insisting on statistics to back up our choices. Sometimes one needs to take a step back to understand which data is available and the limits of real-world statistical analysis. This has given me food for thought, but at the end of the day I'll still be requesting hook-and-eye straps to bundle category cable