It was a big story a few days ago. The (UK) Daily Mail and Metro revealed that a British researcher had uncovered evidence that the prehistoric people of Britain possessed an uncanny “navigational sense,” but without benefit of modern technology. The Daily Mail and Metro story was big news (WebCite cached Mail article and cached Metro article):

Ancient man had his own form of ‘sat nav’ that helped him find his way across Britain, according to new research.

The sophisticated geometric system was based on a stone circle markers [sic].

Our ancestors were able to travel between settlements with pinpoint accuracy thanks to a complex network of hilltop monuments (from Mail story).

It sure looks like a stunning discovery.

Or was it?

It turns out, as Gertrude Stein once said, “there’s no ‘there’ there.” Ben Goldacre at the (UK) Guardian breaks the bad news (WebCite cached article):

Every now and then you have to salute a genius. Both the Daily Mail and the Metro report research analysing the positions of Britain’s ancient sites, and the results are startling: primitive man had his own form of satnav. …

That this pattern could occur simply because one site was on the way to the next was not considered.

That’s right. The Mail story assumed that prehistoric Britons could not possibly have moved from one point, to the next, and onto the next, without some kind of heretofore-unnoticed “sat nav.”

Seriously.

Goldacre goes on to explain what this was really about, and also found another similar “pattern” based on different data:

In the Metro [story author] Tom Brooks is a researcher. To the Daily Mail he is a researcher, a historian, and a writer. I hope it’s not rude or unfair for me to add “retired marketing executive of Honiton, Devon”.

Matt Parker, his nemesis, is based in the School of Mathematical Sciences at Queen Mary, University of London. He has applied the same techniques used by Brooks to another mysterious and lost civilisation.

“We know so little about the ancient Woolworths stores,” he explains, “but we do still know their locations. I thought that if we analysed the sites we could learn more about what life was like in 2008 and how these people went about buying cheap kitchen accessories and discount CDs.”

The results revealed an exact and precise geometric placement of the Woolworths locations.

Parker even filtered his data as Brooks had his own:

Parker used an ancient technique: he found his patterns in 800 ex-Woolworths locations by “skipping over the vast majority, and only choosing the few that happen to line up”.

Of course, taking a giant set of data … whether geographic or otherwise … then selectively filtering it, looking for anything “interesting” in it … is not new. Cranks have been doing it for ages. In his famous book Fads & Fallacies in the Name of Science, skeptic Martin Gardner did this with the Washington Monument:

Just for fun, if one looks up the facts about the Washington Monument in the World Almanac, he will find considerable fiveness. Its height is 555 feet and 5 inches. The base is 55 feet square, and the windows are set at 500 feet from the base. If the base is multiplied by 60 (or five times the number of months in a year) it gives 3,300, which is the exact weight of the capstone in pounds. Also, the word “Washington” has exactly ten letters (two times five). And if the weight of the capstone is multiplied by the base, the result is 181,500 — a fairly close approximation of the speed of light in miles per second. If the base is measured with a “Monument foot,” which is slightly smaller than the standard foot, its side comes to 56½ feet. This times 33,000 yields a figure even closer to the speed of light. (Ch. 15)

Any sufficiently large dataset can cough up all sorts of apparently-meaningful conclusions. That they can be found, though, and that they appear to have meaning, doesn’t actually mean there’s anything to them. Combing data is easy; actually making a discovery amid it, is not.

The lesson here is that, sometimes, there’s an obvious explanation for things that you may not be paying attention to, and that sometimes, a coincidence is just a coincidence.

Hat tip: Fallacy Files.

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