MCAT CARS Asks: Can Statistics Be Used to Predict Behavior?


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CARS 75: MCAT CARS Asks: Can Statistics Be Used to Predict Behavior?

Session 75

Using our CARS skills, Jack Westin and I tackle this TOUGH practice passage and learn about how social physics can be used to predict human behavior. Join us!

Jack Westin joins us once again. Catch his free training sessions and his YouTube videos that answer most questions that students come across when they study for the MCAT. Check out our channel premed.tv for more fun videos as well! Of course, you should go check out all our other podcasts on Meded Media, if you haven’t yet.

Listen to this podcast episode with the player above, or keep reading for the highlights and takeaway points.

[02:52] General Advice

Today’s passage is vividly describing something. Most of the time, students don’t really care about what they’re reading. They’re just thinking about their score or how they’re going to get the answer correct.

This can lead to a lot of wrong conclusions. They read an answer choice and they’ll interpret it in a way that fits in with what they want. Instead, you want to be objective and read it for what it’s truly saying. For harder articles, this is not easy to do because sometimes we’re not sure what they’re saying. So we end up guessing. We make it seem like what we want it to say.

So be careful. Be aware of it. Slow down. Take one sentence at a time. Allow that to understand the next sentence. Don’t just let your mind wander and guess what’s happening.

'Be aware of what's going on and not ignoring the author.'Click To Tweet

Link to article:

https://www.realclearscience.com/2019/07/10/can_physics_be_applied_to_society_286658.html

In Isaac Asimov’s novel Foundation (1951), the mathematician Hari Seldon forecasts the collapse of the Galactic Empire using psychohistory: a calculus of the patterns that occur in the reaction of the mass of humanity to social and economic events. Initially put on trial for treason, on the grounds that his prediction encourages said collapse, Seldon is permitted to set up a research group on a secluded planet. There, he investigates how to minimise the destruction and reduce the subsequent period of anarchy from 30,000 years to a mere 1,000.

Asimov knew that predicting large-scale political events over periods of millennia is not really plausible. But we all do suspend this disbelief when reading fiction. No Jane Austen fan gets upset to be told that Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy didn’t actually exist. Asimov was smart enough to know that such forecasting, however accurate it might be, is vulnerable to any large disturbance that hasn’t been anticipated, not even in principle. He also understood that readers who happily swallowed psychohistory would realise the same thing. In the second volume of the series, just such a ‘black swan’ event derails Seldon’s plans. However, Seldon has a contingency plan, one that the series later reveals also brings some surprises.

Asimov’s Foundation series is notable for concentrating on the political machinations of the key groups, instead of churning out page upon page of space battles between vast fleets armed to the teeth. The protagonists receive regular reports of such battles, but the description is far from a Hollywood treatment. The plot, as Asimov himself stated, is modelled on Edward Gibbon’s book The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-89), and a masterclass in planning on an epic scale for uncertainty. Every senior minister and civil servant should be obliged to read it.

Psychohistory, a fictional method for predicting humanity’s future, takes a hypothetical mathematical technique to extremes, for dramatic effect. But, for less ambitious tasks, we use the basic idea every day; for example, when a supermarket manager estimates how many bags of flour to put on the shelves, or an architect assesses the likely size of a meeting room when designing a building. The character of Seldon was to some extent inspired by Adolphe Quételet, one of the first to apply mathematics to human behaviour. Quételet was born in 1796 in Ghent in the Low Countries, now Belgium. Today’s obsessions with the promises and dangers of ‘big data’ and artificial intelligence are direct descendants of Quételet’s brainchild. He didn’t call it psychohistory, of course. He called it social physics.

The basic tools and techniques of statistics were born in the physical sciences, especially astronomy. They originated in a systematic method to extract information from observations subject to unavoidable errors. As the understanding of probability theory grew, a few pioneers extended the method beyond its original boundaries. Statistics became indispensable in biology, medicine, government, the humanities, even sometimes the arts. So it’s fitting that the person who lit the fuse was a pure mathematician turned astronomer, one who succumbed to the siren song of the social sciences.

Quételet bequeathed to posterity the realisation that, despite all the vagaries of free will and circumstance, the behaviour of humanity in bulk is far more predictable than we like to imagine. Not perfectly, by any means, but, as they say, ‘good enough for government work’. He also left us two specific ideas: l’homme moyen, the ‘average man’, and the ubiquity of the normal probability distribution, better-known as the bell curve. Both are useful tools that opened up new ways of thinking, and that have serious flaws if taken too literally or applied too widely.

[04:36] Paragraph 1, Sentence 1

In Isaac Asimov’s novel Foundation (1951), the mathematician Hari Seldon forecasts the collapse of the Galactic Empire using psychohistory: a calculus of the patterns that occur in the reaction of the mass of humanity to social and economic events.

Jack says:

When students get a hard article, they tend to overestimate how we should really pay attention to. You could be a genius and you could still have this problem. Read slowly so you can catch on to it and it will help you understand the next sentence.

It’s important to establish a strong foundation now and not halfway through when you’ve pretty much guessed the wrong stuff and you’re now lost in the passage.

'Always read the very first sentence slowly because you never know how difficult the article will be.'Click To Tweet

So let’s break this down line by line. It’s a novel. Anything in Italics is usually a piece of work, or a piece of art or a movie. In this case, it’s the name of the book. The mathematician, Seldon, forecast or predicted the collapse of the Galactic Empire using psychohistory.

And then they’re describing what psychohistory is. So Seldon is forecasting the end of this empire using a calculus of the patterns that occur in the reaction of the mass of humanity to social and economic events. If you read this slowly, just understand how people react to different environments or events.

In a way, Seldon is predicting the end of an empire using the way people react to different events.

[10:02] Paragraph 1, Sentence 2

Initially put on trial for treason, on the grounds that his prediction encourages said collapse, Seldon is permitted to set up a research group on a secluded planet.

Jack says:

He’s put on trial for treason. He was just trying to predict the collapse. And now they’re saying because he’s predicting, he’s encouraging the collapse.

[11:05] Paragraph 1, Sentence 3

There, he investigates how to minimise the destruction and reduce the subsequent period of anarchy from 30,000 years to a mere 1,000.

Jack says:

The author is saying how Seldon is trying to reduce the damage of the collapse.

[12:03] Paragraph 2, Sentence 1

Asimov knew that predicting large-scale political events over periods of millennia is not really plausible.

Jack says:

Now the author is talking about the author of the novel and saying that we can’t predict these things.

[12:32] Paragraph 2, Sentence 2

But we all do suspend this disbelief when reading fiction.

Jack says:

The author of the article is saying that we don’t really care about that when we’re immersed in a book.

[12:48] Paragraph 2, Sentence 3

No Jane Austen fan gets upset to be told that Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy didn’t actually exist.

Jack says:

If you’re a good writer, you can figure out how to get your audience really involved.

[13:34] Paragraph 2, Sentence 4

Asimov was smart enough to know that such forecasting, however accurate it might be, is vulnerable to any large disturbance that hasn’t been anticipated, not even in principle.

Jack says:

The author is saying that Asimov knew when you’re forecasting, you can’t predict outbreaks and other stuff that may happen that might disrupt that forecast.

'Keep in mind, to get the big picture as you're reading. You don't want to just get into the details.'Click To Tweet

You have to be immersed in what you’re reading. But at the same time, you have to be thinking why they’re talking about this. Why is the author bringing this up?

Maybe the theme that connects paragraph 1 and 2 is forecasting, be it a novel or whatever it is.

[14:45] Paragraph 2, Sentence 5

He also understood that readers who happily swallowed psychohistory would realise the same thing.

Jack says:

The author is saying that Asimov knew that the readers would understand that we can’t really forecast for that long.

[15:17] Paragraph 2, Sentence 6

In the second volume of the series, just such a ‘black swan’ event derails Seldon’s plans.

Jack says:

Previously, we’re told that forecasting is vulnerable to a disturbance and then we’re told her in the second book that there was a large disturbance. We’re talking about Seldon’s plans and certainly, they’re not going the way they’re supposed to go. The author is calling this a black swan.

So now you’re responsible as a reader to understand what a black swan is. If you read that too quickly, you’re lost. But we associate black swan to some kind of disturbance in the forecast. It’s something that happens that alters the conclusion of the forecast.

[16:29] Paragraph 2, Sentence 7

However, Seldon has a contingency plan, one that the series later reveals also brings some surprises.

Jack says:

In the novel, Seldon, the mathematician has this contingency plan for this black swan event. He’s basically creating these ways out of the prediction in case it falters or it goes the wrong way.

[17:05] Paragraph 3, Sentence 1

Asimov’s Foundation series is notable for concentrating on the political machinations of the key groups, instead of churning out page upon page of space battles between vast fleets armed to the teeth.

Jack says:

The author is talking about the book and what Asimov is focusing on – the political machines.

[17:55] Paragraph 3, Sentence 2

The protagonists receive regular reports of such battles, but the description is far from a Hollywood treatment.

Jack says:

This sentence is just reemphasizing the same thing for the first sentence.

[18:14] Paragraph 3, Sentence 3

The plot, as Asimov himself stated, is modelled on Edward Gibbon’s book The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-89), and a masterclass in planning on an epic scale for uncertainty.

Jack says:

The book is related to what they did and what Asimov did in Foundation.

[19:13] Paragraph 3, Sentence 4

Every senior minister and civil servant should be obliged to read it.

Jack says:

The author is saying that if you’re a servant or a senior minister, you should read this book. You could say this is the author’s point of view. The planning part of an epic scale for uncertainty is still related to both. But in terms of masterclass, it’s the author’s opinion.

[19:50] Paragraph 4, Sentence 1

Psychohistory, a fictional method for predicting humanity’s future, takes a hypothetical mathematical technique to extremes, for dramatic effect.

Jack says:

We’re diving into what psychohistory is.

[20:14] Paragraph 4, Sentence 2

But, for less ambitious tasks, we use the basic idea every day; for example, when a supermarket manager estimates how many bags of flour to put on the shelves, or an architect assesses the likely size of a meeting room when designing a building.

Jack says:

It’s fictional but the author is trying to blend into what we do in normal life.

[21:04] Paragraph 4, Sentence 3

The character of Seldon was to some extent inspired by Adolphe Quételet, one of the first to apply mathematics to human behaviour.

Jack says:

We have a new name which Seldon is modeled after.

[21:38] Paragraph 4, Sentence 4

Quételet was born in 1796 in Ghent in the Low Countries, now Belgium.

Jack says:

A little history on the guy.

[21:47] Paragraph 4, Sentence 5

Today’s obsessions with the promises and dangers of ‘big data’ and artificial intelligence are direct descendants of Quételet’s brainchild.

Jack says:

The author is connecting this person from 1796 and making him more applicable today with the big data and AI. This is such a big jump.

“This is the challenge of CARS. You're reading something that you would have probably never read if it wasn't for this test.”Click To Tweet

So you’re supposed to keep track of everything. Students think they have to look for things and figure things out and solve the problem. It’s just listening. It’s a conversation. It could go anywhere at any time. Just keep track of how things flow.

Moreover, don’t think you have to rush on test day. You don’t want to read in this detail when you’re on your own. But that doesn’t mean you have to rush through it. You never want to rush through the read. 

'The reading part is where you want to spend most of your time.'Click To Tweet

The questions are quick if you can read well. The problem with students is they read very quickly because they feel like they’re going to waste time or lose time. And then when they get to the questions, they’re lost. They have no idea what to look for, where it is and how to answer it. Alleviate that by reading in a relaxed manner. Read with purpose. But don’t just pause and dwell for 30 seconds. You don’t have that luxury and you don’t need that on this test anyway.

'Figuring out how to read is hard enough. But making yourself believe that you have to rush through it makes it almost impossible.'Click To Tweet

So first, figure out how to read. Then over time, you’re not going to have this issue. You’re going to be able to finish on time and finish the questions on time.

[26:20] Paragraph 4, Sentences 6-7

He didn’t call it psychohistory, of course. He called it social physics.

Jack says:

We’re given a name for Quételet’s brainchild. So we’re transitioning from the book idea to Quételet’s idea.

[26:55] Paragraph 5, Sentence 1

The basic tools and techniques of statistics were born in the physical sciences, especially astronomy.

Jack says:

Now we’re on the history of statistics.

[27:09] Paragraph 5, Sentence 2

They originated in a systematic method to extract information from observations subject to unavoidable errors.

Jack says:

More history of statistics.

[27:27] Paragraph 5, Sentence 3

As the understanding of probability theory grew, a few pioneers extended the method beyond its original boundaries.

Jack says:

We’re getting more history about how statistics grew.

[27:43] Paragraph 5, Sentence 4

Statistics became indispensable in biology, medicine, government, the humanities, even sometimes the arts.

Jack says:

More statistics and where it’s being used and how it’s indispensable so it’s important.

[27:58] Paragraph 5, Sentence 5

So it’s fitting that the person who lit the fuse was a pure mathematician turned astronomer, one who succumbed to the siren song of the social sciences.

Jack says:

Lit the fuse is an idiom which means starting the thing. In this case, he was a mathematician turned astronomer. And the first sentence tells us that statistics was born out of astronomy. “Succumb to the siren” means you’re attracted to something.

The most important sentence here is the second one, “they originated from a systematic method to extract information from observation subject to unavoidable errors.” This is basically psychohistory. You’re predicting things where you might have errors. It’s very similar to psychohistory. And we just now call it statistics.

[29:08] Paragraph 6, Sentence 1

Quételet bequeathed to posterity the realisation that, despite all the vagaries of free will and circumstance, the behaviour of humanity in bulk is far more predictable than we like to imagine.

Jack says:

Lots of big words here. But don’t worry about it. Focus on the part that really makes sense where Quételet is saying that our behavior is predictable.

[30:33] Paragraph 6, Sentence 2

Not perfectly, by any means, but, as they say, ‘good enough for government work’.

Jack says:

It’s the prediction of behavior. It’s not perfect but it’s good enough.

[30:47] Paragraph 6, Sentence 3

He also left us two specific ideas: l’homme moyen, the ‘average man’, and the ubiquity of the normal probability distribution, better-known as the bell curve.

Jack says:

We have the average man and the bell curve.

[31:08] Paragraph 6, Sentence 4

Both are useful tools that opened up new ways of thinking, and that have serious flaws if taken too literally or applied too widely.

Jack says:

The last paragraph is talking about predictability and behaviors being predictable. But if you try to use it too much, then it falls apart.

[31:50] Main Idea

Statistics can tell us more about human behavior. Even though there may be errors, they can help us. And the way the author got to this point was starting it off by some random novel. Then he transitions the idea of the novel, psychohistory, to statistics.

Keeping track of the dates, the novel was back in the 1950s but he referenced things that came from the 1700s and then compared to Quételet’s idea who’s also from the 1700s.

You can also assume that the birth of statistics and the ideas of prediction were from the 1700s. That’s the relationship the author is trying to build here. These things can be found in our past and they’re relatable to us today as well as in novels and books.

Links:

Meded Media

Check out our YouTube channel on Premed.tv

Jack Westin

Jack Westin’s YouTube videos

Link to article:

https://www.realclearscience.com/2019/07/10/can_physics_be_applied_to_society_286658.html

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