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Disaster in the making, and averted

According to the New York Times, I am unlikely to be a successful researcher in my chosen field of operations research. The reason? No, not due to an insufficient mathematical grounding, or a fuzzy understanding of methods of symmetry breaking for integer programs, but rather due to a social effect: I like to drink beer. I particularly like to drink beer with other academics. Here at the Tepper School, there is a Friday Beer group that goes out at the end of every week, and drinks.. yes.. beer. At OR conferences, I am likely to be found in the bar talking with friends (and adversaries!), and have often evaluated a conference on the quality of that bar and those conversations. In fact, as President of INFORMS, I took it as a platform that people should drink more beer together (actually, I advocated a stronger understanding of social capital, but it is a rather thin line). But the New York Times, via a Czech ornithologist, says that is a problem:

What is it that turns one scientist into more of a Darwin and another into more of a dud?

After years of argument over the roles of factors like genius, sex and dumb luck, a new study shows that something entirely unexpected and considerably sudsier may be at play in determining the success or failure of scientists — beer.

According to the study, published in February in Oikos, a highly respected scientific journal, the more beer a scientist drinks, the less likely the scientist is to publish a paper or to have a paper cited by another researcher, a measure of a paper’s quality and importance.

Oh no! I still have aspirations to be OR’s answer to Darwin and Einstein. Am I ruining my chances by partaking in the golden nectar? Is having my “conference preparation” be limited to checking out the brewpubs in the area fundamentally flawed?

Fortunately, there are people out there who spend time debunking such myths, and lithographer Chris Mack was on the job. In a brilliant piece of work, Chris provides an excellent summary of what can go wrong in statistical analysis. He sees a number of problems with the analysis:

  1. Correlation is not causation. Perhaps it is poor research that drives one to drink (as alluded to in the Time article), or there is a common factor that drives both (a nagging spouse or an annoying dean, perhaps).
  2. There aren’t many data points: just 34, and the r-squared value is just .5
  3. The entire correlation is driven by the five worst-performing, and heaviest drinking, researchers.
  4. It is likely those five are drinking with each other, messing up the independence assumption of linear regression.

So, as Chris says:

Thus, the entire study came down to only one conclusion: the five worst ornithologists in the Czech Republic drank a lot of beer.

Whew! That’s a relief. The next time operations research gets together with lithography, I owe Chris a beer.

Thanks to, ironically, my drinking buddy Stan for the pointers.

{ 3 } Comments

  1. Stephen Spear | March 25, 2008 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

    Then there is the case of the beer-drinking Norwegian Nobel prize winner!

  2. Michael Trick | March 25, 2008 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    For proof of that, check out some pictures of the party!

  3. Aurelie | March 31, 2008 at 11:36 pm | Permalink

    That post was just hilarious. Sadly, it also reflects the lack of judgment in many people tasked with analyzing data. The fact that all mediocre researchers in the study drank beer doesn’t mean that all researchers who drink beer are mediocre. (Aren’t you glad.) I think that Nassim Taleb makes a similar point early on in “The Black Swan” with a different example.