Monday, July 26, 2010

Beast Gets Statistical Significance Wrong

Statistical or Practical Significance, Hank?Uncanny X-Men: The Heroic Age by Matt Fraction, Whilce Portacio,
Steve Sanders, and Jamie McKelvie, Marvel Comics (2010)


In the wake of the major "Second Coming" event, the return of Hope, thought to be the mutant messiah, has resulted in the appearance of at least five new individuals with the X-gene across the globe. Or at least that's the theory. After all, correlation is not causation.

Why is this important? Well, there hasn't been a single mutant birth since the "M-Day" event, and for the past several years mutantkind has been living in fear at the prospect of its own extinction. As Molly mentions above, the return of Hope (the first mutant technically born after M-Day) and the appearance of these five new mutants could signal a potential resurgence of the species.

In response to this, Beast tells Molly that, as a scientist, he is skeptical. After all, there were only five mutants. Compared to the mutant birth rate before M-Day, a mere five mutants is inconsequential. He refers to this as being "statistically insignificant."

I'm surprised to see such a renowned scientist fumble the concept of statistical significance. When economists, statisticians, scientists, etc. say that something is "statistically significant," they mean that the results they observe are extremely unlikely to have occurred by mere chance. Even if the results are small, they can still be statistically significant.

In this case, what we're testing is whether the appearance of these five new mutants was just pure coincidence, or whether it was actually caused by some event (i.e. the return of Hope). There is really no way to get a firm answer on this. As readers, we pretty much know that Hope was responsible. But it's a bit harder to prove empirically that it wasn't coincidence.

Nevertheless, this is not what Beast was referring to. He was referring to the number of mutants, which is not what statistical significance actually is.

In actuality, Beast made a common mistake, which is to mix up statistical significance with practical importance. Beast was implying that whether or not Hope actually caused the birth of these five new mutants, it didn't have any real implication yet, since five mutants is a relatively small number compared to the current mutant population and the previous birth rate.

The funny thing is that it's even too soon to tell whether it has any practical significance as well. It's been a matter of days since "Second Coming" ended. It is highly likely that given some more time, the X-Men would find some more mutants on the radar. I know scientists are supposed to be skeptics, but I'm truly shocked to see Beast be so dismissive about this. And I'm stunned to see him blame his empirically-trained mind for the phenomenon.

Maybe Hand McCoy should enroll as a continuing ed. student in the local college and re-take statistics.

17 comments:

RJ Moore II said...

Given the aggressive nature of mutant adaptation, any of them is both statistically significant and practically significant. There have been individual mutants who can control solar systems full of molecules.

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