Page Two

By Peter Coffee  |  Posted 2003-04-14 Print this article Print

Its a dangerously mixed blessing, moreover, that statistical tools are constantly getting easier to use. When anyone can find the best straight-line fit to a collection of data points, its inevitable that more relationships will be "found" that actually have no statistical significance--and even more whose statistical significance says nothing about a cause-and-effect connection. The other major problem in statistics is everyday misuse of the expression, "the law of averages." Im constantly surprised to hear people use this phrase to suggest that because things have gone one way for longer than we would expect, theyre soon bound to swing in the other direction to even things out. This is bad enough when people think that a coin that comes up "heads" four times in a row is somehow more likely to come up tails the next time; its worse when they dont even consider the possibility that this coin might have heads on both sides, and that the information theyve gathered so far about its behavior should be used to adjust their model of the process.
Ive previously suggested that biology, rather than physics or mathematics, may be the pure science that has the most to offer to our thinking about our future IT systems. If theres one thing that biology researchers can do, its define a "null hypothesis"--a statement that what they hope to find is not, in fact, the case--and then set themselves to the task of proving that null hypothesis wrong. Id rather see a software company, for example, prove that a system is not insecure, rather than demand that skeptics show them where its vulnerabilities lie.
Getting smart about risks, uncertainties, bursts of demand and burdens of inference from data is a professional challenge that deserves our determined response. Tell me how you measure what you dont know.

Peter Coffee is Director of Platform Research at, where he serves as a liaison with the developer community to define the opportunity and clarify developersÔÇÖ technical requirements on the companyÔÇÖs evolving Apex Platform. Peter previously spent 18 years with eWEEK (formerly PC Week), the national news magazine of enterprise technology practice, where he reviewed software development tools and methods and wrote regular columns on emerging technologies and professional community issues.Before he began writing full-time in 1989, Peter spent eleven years in technical and management positions at Exxon and The Aerospace Corporation, including management of the latter companyÔÇÖs first desktop computing planning team and applied research in applications of artificial intelligence techniques. He holds an engineering degree from MIT and an MBA from Pepperdine University, he has held teaching appointments in computer science, business analytics and information systems management at Pepperdine, UCLA, and Chapman College.

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