Spark 29

Weird Math and Human Behavior

Fall Semester, 2019

Syllabus for Fall, 2019


Jack L. Vevea (
(Please note that this is a special email address for this class; I will not monitor it after the conclusion of the class. My regular email is
Social Science and Management Building 306a

Office hours:

Wednesdays 2:00-4:00 (or by appointment) except September 4 and September 11. Instead, those weeks' office hours will be held Tuesday, 3:40-5:00.


(209) 658-1706 (but email is usually a much quicker way to reach me)


There is no textbook for this course. Readings will be available as links from this syllabus.

Meeting times:

We will meet Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1:30 to 3:20 AM in GLCR 120.

Course description:

In this seminar, we examine numerical oddities that affect and sometimes distort humans' interactions with the world. Examples include strange behavior rooted in our misunderstanding of probability, distortions in our memory that actually improve the accuracy of memories, misleading graphical protrayal of data, and questions about causation. The semester concludes with a debate about the mathematics and ethics of racial profiling.

Course learning outcomes:

In the class, you will:
  • Learn about life at a research university: how to ask and answer questions:
    Learn about the scientific method and how to establish causal relationships
  • Develop critical thinking skills:
    Learn to think critically about numerical information presented in arguments.
  • Learn about explanatory and persuasive communication:
    Write response memos to assigned readings; present in class a summary of a paper or other source relevant to a current topic; prepare for and engage in a culminating debate.
  • Expand your cultural and global awareness by engaging with differences:
    Study mathamatical and ethical arguments relevant to racial profiling.
  • Develop skills useful in citizenship and contributing to the public good:
    Develop an awareness of fallacies and pitfalls in numerical reasoning that assists you as a citizen who must make data-based decisions about the world.
  • Prerequisites:

    Spark seminars have no prerequisites. Enrollment is limited to first year students.


    Grading will be based on a combination of written assignments, class presentations, class participation, and participation in the culminating debate. Weekly writing assignments will count for 40% of your final grade; your in-class presentations will count for 30% of your grade; attendance and participation will count for 15%; and participation in the final debate will count for 15%. Students who visit the instructor's office hours at least twice will receive a 10% bump on their weakest evaluation component.

    Important exception: Any student who misses more than 50% of the classes when role is taken will receive a failing grade in the class, regardless of his or her performance on other components.

    These components make up the final grade in the following manner. First, each component gets a grade point value: A+ = 4.3, A = 4.0, A- = 3.7, B+ = 3.3, B = 3.0, B- = 2.7, and so on. The weighted average of the grade points from the four components determines your final grade. The following table shows the mapping of grade point averages to letter grades:

    Grade Point Range Letter Grade
    GPA > 4.25 A+
    3.75 < GPA < 4.25 A
    3.50 < GPA < 3.75 A-
    3.25 < GPA < 3.50 B+
    2.75 < GPA < 3.25 B
    2.50 < GPA < 2.75 B-
    2.25 < GPA < 2.50 C+
    1.75 < GPA < 2.25 C
    1.50 < GPA < 1.75 C-
    0.75 < GPA < 1.50 D
    GPA < 0.75 F

    Academic Integrity

    Students should be familiar with University policies on academic integrity. You will find relevant information here.

    In the overall context of that policy, the following information is specific to this class: You may work with study partners as you read and react to readings, but the written work you submit should be entirely your own.

    Students with Disabilities

    UC Merced has a variety of services available to accommodate students with disabilities. Information is available here. If you require accommodations for any component of the class, please contact the instuctor as soon as possible.

    How to submit homework assignments

    You should submit writing assignments through CatCourses. After you navigate to the CatCourses page for this course, click on the "Assignments" button in the list on the left. Then, click on the link to the specific assignment you are submitting. Make sure to combine everything into one document because CatCourses will allow only one file. That file must have a .doc, .docx, or .pdf file extension (no .odt, .zip, .pages file extensions). All deadlines are at 11:59 PM on the due date, and the CatCourses system will not accept submissions after that time.

    Course Outline

    August 29
    Initial class meeting: introduction, using the class web page. How to read a scientific article. Introduction to library resources.

    Readings for this week:

  • a Huffington Post article on how to read a scientific paper;
  • an article on how to read a journal article written from the perspective of a specialist in nursing;
  • a similar article from the perspective of an engineer.
  • Assignment (to be uploaded to CatCourses by 11:59 PM on 9/7/2019): Write a paragraph on each of the following topics:

  • What is the typical structure of a scientific paper?
  • Summarize the advice on how to read a paper presented in the three readings.
  • There is disagreement among the three readings on at least one point. How do they disagree? Who do you think is right? Why?
  • The following article on stereotype threat will be used in discussion during Tuesday's class. You do not need to read this paper in advance.
    September 3-5
    Simpson's paradox. (Short class on September 5.)
    Please read and be prepared to discuss this paper for Tuesday's class.

    Assignment (to be uploaded to CatCourses by 11:59 PM on 9/14/2019):

    Use search techniques demonstrated in class to identify another paper (i.e., not the one that was assigned reading for Tuesday) that explains and demonstrates Simpson's paradox. Then write a paragraph on each of the following topics:

  • Present sufficient information to identify the paper (ideally, author, source, title, and doi).
  • Summarize a Simpson's paradox example that was presented in the paper. What was the outcome of interest? What appeared to be true for that variable before a second variable was taken into account? What was the second variable that reversed the conclusion when it was used to disaggregate the data?
  • Did the paper present a formal statistical test similar to the one in the Berkeley graduate admissions paper? If so, what test statistic was used, and what was the conclusion?
  • Describe an aspect of the paper that you found difficult to understand.
  • Here is a guess the correlation application that we will use in class on Thursday.

    September 10-12
    Honest and dishonest graphics.
    Here is a link to some examples of bad graphics presented in class on Tuesday.

    Here is a link to the graph of Napoleon's advance and retreat in the war of 1812, discussed in class on Thursday.

    Here is the URL for the spurious correlations page that appeared in Ari's presentation.

    Assignment (to be uploaded to CatCourses by 11:59 PM on 9/21/2019):

    Revisit the "bad graphics" link above. In addition, read this chapter contributed by a class member from last year. Then:

  • Identify at least one example of a graph that you consider to be bad for one or more of the reasons we have discussed;
  • Copy the graph into your document (or, if you cannot copy it, provide a URL);
  • Explain what is wrong with the graph; and
  • Describe how you would present the same information graphically in a way that is not misleading.
  • (Just to be clear, the graph you use for this assignment should not be one that was presented in class or in the chapter.)

    September 17-19
    Scientific method. The role of statistics in creating knowledge.
    The following hyperlinks on statistical basics and statistical significance will be used in class this week. Please note that the first link contains some inaccuracies.

    Assignment (to be uploaded to CatCourses by 11:59 PM on 9/28/2019):

    It is time to use your search skills to acquire information about a topic (rather than, say, read an assigned paper). With that in mind, identify at least one source that tells you who Karl Popper was and what his major contributions to scientific method were. Then write a reading response that addresses the following points:

  • What information did you find about Popper (supply citation, URL, etc.)
  • How did you find it?
  • What is inductive reasoning and why did Popper devalue it?
  • What is falsification, and why is the possibility of falsification important for science?
  • What is something that you found difficult to understand about Popper's work?
  • September 24-26
    Bayes' theorem and Bayesian statistics.
    This link is the editors' introduction to a special issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science dealing with the replication crisis. Read the article; then select another full-length article from the same issue of the journal and read it. (By full-length, I mean to exclude brief responses to other articles. By all means, if you read an article that has a response, read the response too; it will be elightening.)

    Write a reading response (due 10/5) that addresses the following:

  • What is the main point of the article?
  • How do the authors of the article support that point?
  • Do you find the paper convincing? Why, or why not?
  • What is something you found difficult to understand in the paper?
  • Here is a visual guide that will help you navigate to the special journal issue used in this week's assignment.

    Here is the random dot stereogram we discussed in class last week. We'll be working with this example again on 9/26.

    Here is the virtual whiteboard work from 9/24 showing the logic of Bayesian statistics.

    Here is a youtube video on Bayesian resoning that we will view in class on 9/26.

    October 1-3
    The replication crisis.
    October 8-10
    The base rate problem.

    On Tuesday, we viewed a video of a talk that Kahneman delivered at Google in 2015. (If you need to refresh your memory, you can find the talk by searching for "kahneman google" or "kahneman thinking fast and slow". It's the one for which the length is 1:02:27.) Write a viewing response that addresses the following points:
  • What does Kahneman mean by "system one" and "system two"?
  • Does he actually believe that these are physiological systems?
  • Discuss the relationship between "system one" and Bayesian reasoning.
  • Give an example from the talk of a case where system one is altered by experience.
  • List something that you found hard to understand in the talk, or something that was said that you disagree with. If you chose to list something hard to understand, describe your best guess at what was meant. If you chose something with which you disagree, explain why you disagree.
  • October 15-17
    Bayesian shrinkage as an aid to memory.
    On Tuesday, Adam presented information about this paper on Bayesian use of categorical information as a memory aid. In addition, this paper, describes experiments similar to the dot-in-circle task we did as a class exercise, and here is a link to the paper that reports on a similar investigation using a rhesus monkey.

    Write a read the second and third papers, and write a reading response that addresses the following points:

  • In the Huttenlocher, Hedges, and Duncan paper, how did participants appear to organize the space in the circle?
  • What evidence supports that finding?
  • In the Merchant paper, how did the researchers collect data from the rhesus monkey? (Clearly, the monkey did not locate dots by drawing them; so how were responses obtained?)
  • How did the monkey appear to organize the space?
  • What is something that you found difficult to understand in one of the papers?
  • This assignment is due October 26, 2019.

    October 22-24
    Bayesian shrinkage as an aid to memory (continued).
    October 29-31
    In-groups and out-groups.
    Here is a link to a seminal paper by Tajfel about humans' tendency to discriminate against outgroups.
    Write a reading response (due November 9) that addresses the following points:
  • How did Tajfel create ingroups and outgroups?
  • How did the identification of these groups appear to affect human behavior?
  • Describe at least one example of similar behavior that you have observed in the real world.
  • What is something you found difficult to understand in the paper?
  • Please note: we will also discuss this paper later in the week. You should read it, but no reading response is required.
    November 5-7
    Topics to be determined by class.
    Tuesday: interesting numbers and patterns.
    Thursday: Mandella effect.
    November 12-14
    Racial profiling.
    Here are links to two articles written by political conservatives about the use of racial profiling as a tool to combat terrorism. This one supports the practice and this one opposes it. Write a reading response (due Saturday, November 23) consisting of a one-page dialog in which the two authors argue their positions with one another.
    November 19-21
    Racial profiling.
    The topic of the debate is: "Resolved: Racial profiling, broadly defined, is a useful tool in such domains as law enforcement, immigration policy, and daily life."

    The debate will follow a modified Lincoln-Douglas format:
  • The Pro team will present a 12-minute opening argument.
  • The Con team will have 5 minutes for cross examination.
  • The Con team will present a 15-minute opening argument.
  • The Pro team will have 5 minutes for cross examination.
  • The Pro team will present a 6-minute rebuttal.
  • The Con team will present an 8-minute rebuttal.
  • The Pro team will present a 5-minute rejoinder.
  • Note that this format allows one more presentation period for the Pro team than for the Con team; however, the total time allocated to each team is the same (28 minutes).

    November 26
    (Class cancelled.)
    December 3
    Debate preparation, pro team.
    December 5
    Debate preparation, con team.
    December 10
    Debate preparation, pro team.
    December 12
    Debate preparation, con team.
    December 20, 11:30-2:30