Thursday, January 24, 2008

The princess and the outlier

In my continuing effort to eff the ineffable (consciousness), I today stumbled on an article by Jaron Lanier with the intriguing title "Death: The skeleton key of consciousness studies?" It's written in an entertaining manner with little in the way of technical jargon. Lanier makes some interesting points, but what struck me was the following piece near the beginning:
There is a popular story about a princess who complains that she cannot sleep comfortably because of a single pea buried under layers of mattresses. That pea is consciousness in the sciences.

To consider consciousness by itself is entirely undemanding. It is a pea. There is nothing to describe. An attempt to account for it in context, however, forces the construction of ever shifting, elaborate adventures of thought.

What a temptation it is to dispose of this erratic data point. That is what any first year student of statistics would be taught to do.
Excuse me? I was enjoying the metaphor until that last bit!

At this point I'm tempted to launch into an extended discussion of statistical approaches to outliers. Or an outraged defense of statisticians against the notion that we teach first year students to casually discard data points that seem aberrant. But I think I'll put it on my to-blog list. That's one more pea under my matress!

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