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Study: Math scares everyone, even physicists
by Brooks Hays
Exeter, England (UPI) Nov 11, 2016

'Pavlovian approach' may bias information sampling
London (UPI) Nov 11, 2016 - Most research looking at how and why people sample information focuses on "confirmation bias," the idea that people self-select information that confirms what they already believe.

But new research suggests there are other factors at play, including deep-seated evolutionary factors. In a new study published in the journal PLOS ONE, scientists present the "Pavlovian approach" as another explanation for bias in information sampling.

The Pavlovian approach is the idea that people select items and information associated with a reward.

The new theory's name is an allusion to the famed experiments designed by Ivan Pavlov, who showed one could induce canine salivation simply by ringing a bell; the dogs had been trained to associate the bell with food.

In the new experiment, researchers recruited 30,000 people to play a card game on their smartphones. Players were asked to pick between two stacks of cards, the goal being to select the stack with the most high cards. A correct selection earned points -- points the players could use to sample cards from each stack during the next go-round.

Scientists built a model to determine the ideal way to play the game. They then compared the computer model's optimal game-play decisions to the more then 3 million decisions logged by study participants.

Their analysis showed players were biased by where and how they sought information based on their past success. In other words, how they chose to spend points to sample cards and which stacks they chose to sample were biased by rewards experienced during previous go-rounds.

The model also proved that these biased decisions were irrational based on the logic of the game.

Scientists suggest these biases may be explained by early human ancestors and the decisions about where to hunt and seek shelter, about whether to stay put or go. The natural threats faced by early humans may have forced decision makers to select the most valuable alternative first, and then reconsider as new information became available.

These evolutionary behaviors may explain modern biases, researchers suggest.

Math is hard, even for physicists. New research suggests physicists are less likely to lend their focus to theories underpinned by complex mathematical details.

The findings -- detailed in the New Journal of Physics -- are compelling because they suggest a "fear," or at least an avoidance, of math is prevalent even among scientists well-trained in high-level mathematics.

"We have already showed that biologists are put off by equations but we were surprised by these findings, as physicists are generally skilled in mathematics," study co-author Andrew Higginson, a researcher at the University of Exeter, said in a news release.

The new study and resulting hypothesis is based on analysis of 2,000 papers published in a leading physics journal. The researchers tallied citations of previous studies in each paper. They found studies with an abundance of mathematical equations on each page were less likely to be referenced in new papers.

Researchers suggest the disconnect is a problem of communication, not knowledge or skills. Therefore, the solution is language. Authors of the new study recommend physicists find ways to better communicate complex math -- find ways to explain what complicated mathematical formulas mean.

The math aversion of physicists isn't exactly fear in the traditional sense; many may simply be trying to save time and avoid confusion.

"Physicists need to think more carefully about how they present the mathematical details of their work, to explain the theory in a way that their colleagues can quickly understand," said co-author Tim Fawcett, who is also an Exeter researcher. "It takes time to scrutinize the details of a technical article -- even for the most distinguished physics professors -- so with many competing demands on their time scientists may be choosing to skip over articles that take too much effort to digest."

Whether the aversion is explained by fear or time-management, the lesson is the same for physicists as it is for schoolchildren. Restricted access to mathematical ideas isn't good for anyone.

"Unfortunately, it seems valuable papers may be ignored if they are not made accessible," Higginson said. "As we have said before: All scientists who care about the dialogue between theory and experiment should take this issue seriously, rather than claiming it does not exist."

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