Data Skeptic

May 08 2020 44.4k

The Data Skeptic Podcast features interviews and discussion of topics related to data science, statistics, machine learning, artificial intelligence and the like, all from the perspective of applying critical thinking and the scientific method to evaluate the veracity of claims and efficacy of approaches.

Very Large Corpora and Zipf's Law
Jan 18 2019 24 mins  
The earliest efforts to apply machine learning to natural language tended to convert every token (every word, more or less) into a unique feature. While techniques like stemming may have cut the number of unique tokens down, researchers always had to face a problem that was highly dimensional. Naive Bayes algorithm was celebrated in NLP applications because of its ability to efficiently process highly dimensional data. Of course, other algorithms were applied to natural language tasks as well. While different algorithms had different strengths and weaknesses to different NLP problems, an early paper titled Scaling to Very Very Large Corpora for Natural Language Disambiguation popularized one somewhat surprising idea. For many NLP tasks, simply providing a large corpus of examples not only improved accuracy, but it also showed that asymptotically, some algorithms yielded more improvement from working on very, very large corpora. Although not explicitly in about NLP, the noteworthy paper The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Data emphasizes this point further while paying homage to the classic treatise The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences. In this episode, Kyle shares a few thoughts along these lines with Linh Da. The discussion winds up with a brief introduction to Zipf's law. When applied to natural language, Zipf's law states that the frequency of any given word in a corpus (regardless of language) will be proportional to its rank in the frequency table.

The Louvain Method for Community Detection
Oct 12 2018 26 mins  
Without getting into definitions, we have an intuitive sense of what a "community" is. The Louvain Method for Community Detection is one of the best known mathematical techniques designed to detect communities. This method requires typical graph data in which people are nodes and edges are their connections. It's easy to imagine this data in the context of Facebook or LinkedIn but the technique applies just as well to any other dataset like cellular phone calling records or pen-pals. The Louvain Method provides a means of measuring the strength of any proposed community based on a concept known as Modularity. Modularity is a value in the range that measure the density of links internal to a community against links external to the community. The quite palatable assumption here is that a genuine community would have members that are strongly interconnected. A community is not necessarily the same thing as a clique; it is not required that all community members know each other. Rather, we simply define a community as a graph structure where the nodes are more connected to each other than connected to people outside the community. It's only natural that any person in a community has many connections to people outside that community. The more a community has internal connections over external connections, the stronger that community is considered to be. The Louvain Method elegantly captures this intuitively desirable quality.

Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus
Oct 05 2018 31 mins  
In this episode, our guest is Dan Kahan about his research into how people consume and interpret science news. In an era of fake news, motivated reasoning, and alternative facts, important questions need to be asked about how people understand new information. Dan is a member of the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale University, a group of scholars interested in studying how cultural values shape public risk perceptions and related policy beliefs. In a paper titled Cultural cognition of scientific consensus, Dan and co-authors Hank Jenkins‐Smith and Donald Braman discuss the "cultural cognition of risk" and establish experimentally that individuals tend to update their beliefs about scientific information through a context of their pre-existing cultural beliefs. In this way, topics such as climate change, nuclear power, and conceal-carry handgun permits often result in people. The findings of this and other studies tell us that on topics such as these, even when people are given proper information about a scientific consensus, individuals still interpret those results through the lens of their pre-existing cultural beliefs. The ‘cultural cognition of risk’ refers to the tendency of individuals to form risk perceptions that are congenial to their values. The study presents both correlational and experimental evidence confirming that cultural cognition shapes individuals’ beliefs about the existence of scientific consensus, and the process by which they form such beliefs, relating to climate change, the disposal of nuclear wastes, and the effect of permitting concealed possession of handguns. The implications of this dynamic for science communication and public policy‐making are discussed.

Click Through Rates
Aug 24 2018 31 mins  
A Click Through Rate (CTR) is the proportion of clicks to impressions of some item of content shared online. This terminology is most commonly used in digital advertising but applies just as well to content websites might choose to feature on their homepage or in search results. A CTR is intuitively appealing as a metric for optimization. After all, if users are disinterested in some content, under normal circumstances, it's reasonable to assume they would ignore the content, rather than clicking on it. On the other hand, the best content is likely to elicit a high CTR as users signal their interest by following the hyperlink. In the advertising world, a website could charge per impression, per click, or per action. Both impression and action based pricing have asymmetrical results for the publisher and advertiser. However, paying per click (CPC based advertising) seems to strike a nice balance. For this and other numeric reasons, many digital advertising mechanisms (such as Google Adwords) use CPC as the payment mechanism. When charging per click, an advertising platform will value a high CTR when selecting which ad to show. As we learned in our episode on Goodhart's Law, once a measure is turned into a target, it ceases to be a good measure. While CTR alone does not entirely drive most online advertising algorithms, it does play an important role. Thus, advertisers are incentivized to adopt strategies that maximize CTR. On the surface, this sounds like a great idea: provide internet users what they are looking for, and be awarded with their attention and lower advertising costs. However, one possible unintended consequence of this type of optimization is the creation of ads which are designed solely to generate clicks, regardless of if the users are happy with the page they visit after clicking a link. So, at least in part, websites that optimize for higher CTRs are going to favor content that does a good job getting viewers to click it. Getting a user to view a page is not totally synonymous with getting a user to appreciate the content of a page. The gap between the algorithmic goal and the user experience could be one of the factors that has promoted the creation of fake news.

Spam Filtering with Naive Bayes
Jul 27 2018 19 mins  
Today's spam filters are advanced data driven tools. They rely on a variety of techniques to effectively and often seamlessly filter out junk email from good email. Whitelists, blacklists, traffic analysis, network analysis, and a variety of other tools are probably employed by most major players in this area. Naturally content analysis can be an especially powerful tool for detecting spam. Given the binary nature of the problem ( or ) its clear that this is a great problem to use machine learning to solve. In order to apply machine learning, you first need a labelled training set. Thankfully, many standard corpora of labelled spam data are readily available. Further, if you're working for a company with a spam filtering problem, often asking users to self-moderate or flag things as spam can be an effective way to generate a large amount of labels for "free". With a labeled dataset in hand, a data scientist working on spam filtering must next do feature engineering. This should be done with consideration of the algorithm that will be used. The Naive Bayesian Classifer has been a popular choice for detecting spam because it tends to perform pretty well on high dimensional data, unlike a lot of other ML algorithms. It also is very efficient to compute, making it possible to train a per-user Classifier if one wished to. While we might do some basic NLP tricks, for the most part, we can turn each word in a document (or perhaps each bigram or n-gram in a document) into a feature. The Naive part of the Naive Bayesian Classifier stems from the naive assumption that all features in one's analysis are considered to be independent. If and are known to be independent, then . In other words, you just multiply the probabilities together. Shh, don't tell anyone, but this assumption is actually wrong! Certainly, if a document contains the word algorithm, it's more likely to contain the word probability than some randomly selected document. Thus, , violating the assumption. Despite this "flaw", the Naive Bayesian Classifier works remarkably will on many problems. If one employs the common approach of converting a document into bigrams (pairs of words instead of single words), then you can capture a good deal of this correlation indirectly. In the final leg of the discussion, we explore the question of whether or not a Naive Bayesian Classifier would be a good choice for detecting fake news.

[MINI] Sudoku \in NP
Nov 10 2017 18 mins  
Algorithms with similar runtimes are said to be in the same complexity class. That runtime is measured in the how many steps an algorithm takes relative to the input size. The class P contains all algorithms which run in polynomial time (basically, a nested for loop iterating over the input). NP are algorithms which seem to require brute force. Brute force search cannot be done in polynomial time, so it seems that problems in NP are more difficult than problems in P. I say it "seems" this way because, while most people believe it to be true, it has not been proven. This is the famous P vs. NP conjecture. It will be discussed in more detail in a future episode. Given a solution to a particular problem, if it can be verified/checked in polynomial time, that problem might be in NP. If someone hands you a completed Sudoku puzzle, it's not difficult to see if they made any mistakes. The effort of developing the solution to the Sudoku game seems to be intrinsically more difficult. In fact, as far as anyone knows, in the general case of all possible examples of the game, it seems no strategy can do better on average than just random guessing. This notion of random guessing the solution is where the N in NP comes from: Non-deterministic. Imagine a machine with a random input already written in its memory. Given enough such machines, one of them will have the right answer. If they all ran in parallel, one of them could verify it's input in polynomial time. This guess / provided input is often called a witness string. NP is an important concept for many reasons. To me, the most reason to know about NP is a practical one. Depending on your goals or the goals of your employer, there are many challenging problems you may attempt to solve. If a problem you are trying to solve happens to be in NP, then you should consider the implications very carefully. Perhaps you'll be lucky and discover that your particular instance of the problem is easy. Sudoku is pretty easy if only 2 remaining squares need to be filled in. The traveling salesman problem is easy to solve if you live in a country where all roads for a ring with exactly one road in and out. If the problem you wish to solve is not trivial, or if you will face many instances of the problem and expect some will not be trivial, then it's unlikely you'll be able to find the exact solution. Sure, maybe you can grab a bunch of commodity servers and try to scale the heck out of your attempt. Depending on the problem you're solving, that might just work. If you can out-purchase your problem in computing power, then problems in NP will surrender to you. But if your input size ever grows, it's unlikely you'll be able to keep up. If your problem is intractable in this way, all is not lost. You might be able to find an approximate solution to your problem. Good enough is better than no solution at all, right? Most of the time, probably. However, some tremendous work has also been done studying topics like this. Are there problems which are not even approximable in polynomial time? What approximation techniques work best? Alas, those answers lie elsewhere. This episode avoids a discussion of a few key points in order to keep the material accessible. If you find this interesting, you should next familiarize yourself with the notions of NP-Complete, NP-Hard, and co-NP. These are topics we won't necessarily get to in future episodes. Michael Sipser's Introduction to the Theory of Computation is a good resource.

The Computational Complexity of Machine Learning
Nov 03 2017 47 mins  
In this episode, Professor Michael Kearns from the University of Pennsylvania joins host Kyle Polich to talk about the computational complexity of machine learning, complexity in game theory, and algorithmic fairness. Michael's doctoral thesis gave an early broad overview of computational learning theory, in which he emphasizes the mathematical study of efficient learning algorithms by machines or computational systems. When we look at machine learning algorithms they are almost like meta-algorithms in some sense. For example, given a machine learning algorithm, it will look at some data and build some model, and it’s going to behave presumably very differently under different inputs. But does that mean we need new analytical tools? Or is a machine learning algorithm just the same thing as any deterministic algorithm, but just a little bit more tricky to figure out anything complexity-wise? In other words, is there some overlap between the good old-fashioned analysis of algorithms with the analysis of machine learning algorithms from a complexity viewpoint? And what is the difference between strategies for determining the complexity bounds on samples versus algorithms? A big area of machine learning (and in the analysis of learning algorithms in general) Michael and Kyle discuss is the topic known as complexity regularization. Complexity regularization asks: How should one measure the goodness of fit and the complexity of a given model? And how should one balance those two, and how can one execute that in a scalable, efficient way algorithmically? From this, Michael and Kyle discuss the broader picture of why one should care whether a learning algorithm is efficiently learnable if it's learnable in polynomial time. Another interesting topic of discussion is the difference between sample complexity and computational complexity. An active area of research is how one should regularize their models so that they're balancing the complexity with the goodness of fit to fit their large training sample size. As mentioned, a good resource for getting started with correlated equilibria is: Thanks to our sponsors: Mendoza College of Business - Get your Masters of Science in Business Analytics from Notre Dame. - A fun, affordable, online learning tool. Check out their Computer Science Algorithms course.

Apr 21 2017 26 mins  
No reliable, complete database cataloging home sales data at a transaction level is available for the average person to access. To a data scientist interesting in studying this data, our hands are complete tied. Opportunities like testing sociological theories, exploring economic impacts, study market forces, or simply research the value of an investment when buying a home are all blocked by the lack of easy access to this dataset. OpenHouse seeks to correct that by centralizing and standardizing all publicly available home sales transactional data. In this episode, we discuss the achievements of OpenHouse to date, and what plans exist for the future. Check out the OpenHouse gallery. I also encourage everyone to check out the project Zareen mentioned which was her Harry Potter word2vec webapp and Joy's project doing data visualization on Jawbone data. Guests Thanks again to @iamzareenf, @blueplastic, and @joytafty for coming on the show. Thanks to the numerous other volunteers who have helped with the project as well! Announcements and details If you're interested in getting involved in OpenHouse, check out the OpenHouse contributor's quickstart page. Kyle is giving a machine learning talk in Los Angeles on May 25th, 2017 at Zehr. Sponsor Thanks to our sponsor for this episode Periscope Data. The blog post demoing their maps option is on our blog titled Periscope Data Maps. To start a free trial of their dashboarding too, visit Kyle recently did a youtube video exploring the Data Skeptic podcast download numbers using Periscope Data. Check it out at Supplemental music is Lee Rosevere's Let's Start at the Beginning.

[MINI] Feed Forward Neural Networks
Mar 24 2017 15 mins  
Feed Forward Neural Networks In a feed forward neural network, neurons cannot form a cycle. In this episode, we explore how such a network would be able to represent three common logical operators: OR, AND, and XOR. The XOR operation is the interesting case. Below are the truth tables that describe each of these functions. AND Truth Table Input 1 Input 2 Output 0 0 0 0 1 0 1 0 0 1 1 1 OR Truth Table Input 1 Input 2 Output 0 0 0 0 1 1 1 0 1 1 1 1 XOR Truth Table Input 1 Input 2 Output 0 0 0 0 1 1 1 0 1 1 1 0 The AND and OR functions should seem very intuitive. Exclusive or (XOR) if true if and only if exactly single input is 1. Could a neural network learn these mathematical functions? Let's consider the perceptron described below. First we see the visual representation, then the Activation function , followed by the formula for calculating the output. Can this perceptron learn the AND function? Sure. Let and What about OR? Yup. Let and An infinite number of possible solutions exist, I just picked values that hopefully seem intuitive. This is also a good example of why the bias term is important. Without it, the AND function could not be represented. How about XOR? No. It is not possible to represent XOR with a single layer. It requires two layers. The image below shows how it could be done with two laters. In the above example, the weights computed for the middle hidden node capture the essence of why this works. This node activates when recieving two positive inputs, thus contributing a heavy penalty to be summed by the output node. If a single input is 1, this node will not activate. Universal approximation theorem tells us that any continuous function can be tightly approximated using a neural network with only a single hidden layer and a finite number of neurons. With this in mind, a feed forward neural network should be adaquet for any applications. However, in practice, other network architectures and the allowance of more hidden layers are empirically motivated. Other types neural networks have less strict structal definitions. The various ways one might relax this constraint generate other classes of neural networks that often have interesting properties. We'll get into some of these in future mini-episodes. Check out our recent blog post on how we're using Periscope Data cohort charts. Thanks to Periscope Data for sponsoring this episode. More about them at

Detecting Pseudo-profound BS
Jan 15 2016 37 mins  
A recent paper in the journal of Judgment and Decision Making titled On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit explores empirical questions around a reader's ability to detect statements which may sound profound but are actually a collection of buzzwords that fail to contain adequate meaning or truth. These statements are definitively different from lies and nonesense, as we discuss in the episode. This paper proposes the Bullshit Receptivity scale (BSR) and empirically demonstrates that it correlates with existing metrics like the Cognitive Reflection Test, building confidence that this can be a useful, repeatable, empirical measure of a person's ability to detect pseudo-profound statements as being different from genuinely profound statements. Additionally, the correlative results provide some insight into possible root causes for why individuals might find great profundity in these statements based on other beliefs or cognitive measures. The paper's lead author Gordon Pennycook joins me to discuss this study's results. If you'd like some examples of pseudo-profound bullshit, you can randomly generate some based on Deepak Chopra's twitter feed. To read other work from Gordon, check out his Google Scholar page and find him on twitter via @GordonPennycook. And just for fun, if you think you've dreamed up a Data Skeptic related pseudo-profound bullshit statement, tweet it with hashtag #pseudoprofound. If I see an especially clever or humorous one, I might want to send you a free Data Skeptic sticker.

The Hunt for Vulcan
Dec 04 2015 41 mins  
Early astronomers could see several of the planets with the naked eye. The invention of the telescope allowed for further understanding of our solar system. The work of Isaac Newton allowed later scientists to accurately predict Neptune, which was later observationally confirmed exactly where predicted. It seemed only natural that a similar unknown body might explain anomalies in the orbit of Mercury, and thus began the search for the hypothesized planet Vulcan. Thomas Levenson's book "The Hunt for Vulcan" is a narrative of the key scientific minds involved in the search and eventual refutation of an unobserved planet between Mercury and the sun. Thomas joins me in this episode to discuss his book and the fascinating story of the quest to find this planet. During the discussion, we mention one of the contributions made by Urbain-Jean-Joseph Le Verrier which involved some complex calculations which enabled him to predict where to find the planet that would eventually be called Neptune. The calculus behind this work is difficult, and some of that work is demonstrated in a Jupyter notebook I recently discovered from Paulo Marques titled The-Body Problem. Thomas Levenson is a professor at MIT and head of its science writing program. He is the author of several books, including Einstein in Berlin and Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist. He has also made ten feature-length documentaries (including a two-hour Nova program on Einstein) for which he has won numerous awards. In his most recent book "The Hunt for Vulcan", explores the century spanning quest to explain the movement of the cosmos via theory and the role the hypothesized planet Vulcan played in the story. Follow Thomas on twitter @tomlevenson and check out his blog at Pick up your copy of The Hunt for Vulcan at your local bookstore, preferred book buying place, or at the Penguin Random House site.

Mining the Social Web with Matthew Russell
Nov 07 2014 50 mins  
This week's episode explores the possibilities of extracting novel insights from the many great social web APIs available. Matthew Russell's Mining the Social Web is a fantastic exploration of the tools and methods, and we explore a few related topics. One helpful feature of the book is it's use of a Vagrant virtual machine. Using it, readers can easily reproduce the examples from the book, and there's a short video available that will walk you through setting up the Mining the Social Web virtual machine. The book also has an accompanying github repository which can be found here. A quote from Matthew that particularly reasonates for me was "The first commandment of Data Science is to 'Know thy data'." Take a listen for a little more context around this sage advice. In addition to the book, we also discuss some of the work done by Digital Reasoning where Matthew serves as CTO. One of their products we spend some time discussing is Synthesys, a service that processes unstructured data and delivers knowledge and insight extracted from the data. Some listeners might already be familiar with Digital Reasoning from recent coverage in Fortune Magazine on their cognitive computing efforts. For his benevolent recommendation, Matthew recommends the Hardcore History Podcast, and for his self-serving recommendation, Matthew mentioned that they are currently hiring for Data Science job opportunities at Digital Reasoning if any listeners are looking for new opportunities.

Jackson Pollock Authentication Analysis with Kate Jones-Smith
Aug 29 2014 49 mins  
Our guest this week is Hamilton physics professor Kate Jones-Smith who joins us to discuss the evidence for the claim that drip paintings of Jackson Pollock contain fractal patterns. This hypothesis originates in a paper by Taylor, Micolich, and Jonas titled Fractal analysis of Pollock's drip paintings which appeared in Nature. Kate and co-author Harsh Mathur wrote a paper titled Revisiting Pollock's Drip Paintings which also appeared in Nature. A full text PDF can be found here, but lacks the helpful figures which can be found here, although two images are blurred behind a paywall. Their paper was covered in the New York Times as well as in USA Today (albeit with with a much more delightful headline: Never mind the Pollock's [sic]). While discussing the intersection of science and art, the conversation also touched briefly on a few other intersting topics. For example, Penrose Tiles appearing in islamic art (pre-dating Roger Penrose's investigation of the interesting properties of these tiling processes), Quasicrystal designs in art, Automated brushstroke analysis of the works of Vincent van Gogh, and attempts to authenticate a possible work of Leonardo Da Vinci of uncertain provenance. Last but not least, the conversation touches on the particularly compellingHockney-Falco Thesis which is also covered in David Hockney's book Secret Knowledge. For those interested in reading some of Kate's other publications, many Katherine Jones-Smith articles can be found at the given link, all of which have downloadable PDFs.

5 • 1 Ratings

Jorge48 Jul 12 2020
Amazing technical discussion about Data Science, it's history and outlook, industry anecdotes and great tips for professionals.