quotes

all time favorite

It is a popular fact that nine-tenths of the brain is not used and, like most popular facts, it is wrong. Not even the most stupid Creator would go to the trouble of making the human head carry around several pounds of unnecessary gray goo if its only real purpose was, for example, to serve as a delicacy for certain remote tribesmen in unexplored valleys. It is used. And one of its functions is to make the miraculous seem ordinary and turn the unusual into the usual.
— Terry Pratchett, Small Gods

most bs-y in print

"My gut feeling, and it's nothing more than that," he says, "is that there's a 20 percent chance we're living in a computer simulation."
— Nick Bostrom, a philosopher at Oxford University (as quoted in a NYT article by John Tierney, 8/14/07)

most irrelevant to the nominal scientific point

a set of stimuli composed of three rounded parts - a base, body, and head - one on top of the other, with protrusions that are readily labelled penis, nose, and ears. Unfortunately, these rounded, bilaterally symmetrical creatures closely resemble humanoid characters, such as the Yoda (in Return of the Jedi).
— Biederman, I., & Kalocsai, P. (1997). Neurocomputational bases of object and face recognition. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 352(1358), 1203-1219.

most self-defeating about one's own discipline

On my bad days, I sometimes wonder what philosophers are for.
— Jerry Fodor, TLS Review of Adapting Minds by David J. Buller

big data

Big Data: Data that is cheaper for a system to store than to sort into information, bullshit and noise (my modification of a definition due to George Dyson).
An Information Age Glossary by Venkatesh ("Venkat") Rao

Big data is like teenage sex:
 everyone talks about it, nobody really knows how to do it, everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, so everyone claims they are doing it...
— Dan Ariely (quoted at a Big Data Initiative Launch for UW/Berkeley/NYU)

statistics

Please grant me the denominator to accept the errors I can’t explain, the numerator to explain the errors I can, and the degrees of freedom I need to find a difference.
— Copyright 2012, Laurie Heller

Besides almost all dogs don't talk. Ones that do are merely a statistical error, and therefore can be ignored.
— Terry Pratchett, Men at Arms

It could not be happening because this sort of thing did not happen. Any contradictory evidence could be safely ignored.
— Terry Pratchett, Jingo

Susan Borman recalls being told by a NASA official, "You know, Susan, I think we’ve got a good 50-50 chance of getting them back," to which she replied, "Oh, thank you, because that’s a lot better than what I was thinking."
— As reported in a Discovery Channel special on the the Apollo Moon Program

If you're ever struggling to explain why the degrees of freedom on a t-test is N-1 and not N, consider these words of wisdom: "The best example to explain the concept of degrees of freedom is farting in an elevator. If there are only two of you (one degree of freedom), you both know who did it. If there are more than two, you're uncertain …"
— courtesy of Gordon Logan

science

Every good scientist is half B. F. Skinner and half P. T. Barnum.
— Principal Skinner, The Simpsons

This isn't right. It's not even wrong.
— Wolfgang Pauli

In science, if an idea is not falsifiable, it is not that it is wrong, it is that we cannot determine if it is wrong, and thus it is not even wrong.
— Michael Shermer, Wronger Than Wrong in Scientific American, Nov 2006

To substitute an ill-understood model of the world for the ill-understood world is not progress.
— P. J. Richerson and R. Boyd in The Latest on the Best, Dupré (ed.)
[My coda on this: To substitute a bad model of the world for the ill-understood world is also not progress.]

Neuroscientists—well intentioned as they are—are gathering soil samples from the foot of a mountain that magicians have mapped and mined for centuries. MRI machines are awesome, but if you want to learn the psychology of magic, you’re better off with Cub Scouts and hard candy.
— Teller (of Penn and Teller)

As for my own views, they’ve of course evolved over the years. This conception of ‘renouncing beliefs’ is very odd, as if we’re in some kind of religious cult. I ‘renounce beliefs’ practically every time I think about the topics or find out what someone else is thinking.
— Noam Chomsky, as quoted by Gary Marcus in his blog for The New Yorker

There are only 10 types of people in the world: Those who understand binary, and those who don't.
— Unknown, as seen on a t-shirt

There are, it has been said, two types of people in the world. There are those who, when presented with a glass that is exactly half full, say: this glass is half full. And then there are those who say: this glass is half empty. The world belongs, however, to those who can look at the glass and say: What's up with this glass? Excuse me? Excuse me? This is my glass? I don't think so. My glass was full! And it was a bigger glass!
— Terry Pratchett, The Truth

Such faculty members run at least three or four research projects at a time, and "that turns that investigator into a grant-writing machine perhaps more than a doing-of-science machine," Dr. Collins said.
— Excerpt from an interview with NIH Director Francis S. Collins (Feb. 2010)

And more than they, my son, beware; making many books has no end, and studying much is a weariness of the flesh.
— Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) 12:12 (Old Testament Quote that I think applies well to the current state of over publishing - and then having to try and read it all)

In the long run my observations have convinced me that some men, reasoning preposterously, first establish some conclusion in their minds which, either because of its being their own or because of their having received it from some person who has their entire confidence, impresses them so deeply that one finds it impossible ever to get it out of their heads. Such arguments in support of their fixed idea as they hit upon themselves or hear set forth by others, no matter how simple and stupid these may be, gain their instant acceptance and applause. On the other hand whatever is brought forward against it, however ingenious and conclusive, they receive with disdain or with hot rage — if indeed it does not make them ill. Beside themselves with passion, some of them would not be backward even about scheming to suppress and silence their adversaries.
— Galileo (Thanks to Mark Roth for this one)

evolution

…the existence of a badly put-together watch proved the existence of a blind watchmaker. You only had to look around to see that there was room for improvement practically everywhere.
— Terry Pratchett, Small Gods

For animals, the entire universe has been neatly divided into things to (a) mate with, (b) eat, (c) run away from, and (d) rocks.
— Terry Pratchett, Equal Rites

The scientific name for an animal that doesn't either run from or fight its enemies is lunch.
— Michael Friedman

intelligence

To put it as pithily as possibly—and as accurately—the unconscious is a machine for operating an animal.
— Cormac McCarthy (yes, that Cormac McCarthy), see http://nautil.us/issue/47/consciousness/the-kekul-problem

Primates are intelligent, but their intelligence is overestimated.
— Professor and theoretical biologist Charlotte Hemelrijk, as quoted in Science Daily, 1-10-2010, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/01/100107083909.htm

It's not generally realized that camels have a natural aptitude for advanced mathematics, particularly where they involve ballistics.
— Terry Pratchett, Pyramids

Real stupidity beats artificial intelligence every time.
— Terry Pratchett, Hogfather

Stupid men are often capable of things the clever would not dare to contemplate…
— Terry Pratchett, Feet of Clay

Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.
— Douglas Adams (1952-2001), Last Chance to See

because your brain is constructed something like a chessboard.
— "Marketplace" commentator K.C. Cole on why we can't comprehend the meaning of one trillion. (FYI I am still not sure what she is talking about).

"There is no intelligence without context," she continued, watching her hand go through the flame and back. "Just as a magnifying glass effectively casts a partial shadow around the point of its focus — the debt required to produce the concentration elsewhere — so meaning is sucked out of our surroundings, concentrated in ourselves, in our minds."
— Iain M. Banks, Transition

In 1965, the Russian mathematician Alexander Kronrod said, "Chess is the Drosophila of artificial intelligence." However, computer chess has developed much as genetics might have if the geneticists had concentrated their efforts starting in 1910 on breeding racing Drosophila. We would have some science, but mainly we would have very fast fruit flies.
— John McCarthy, AI as Sport

memory/cognition

How is education supposed to make me feel smarter? Besides, every time I learn something new, it pushes some old stuff out of my brain. Remember when I took that home winemaking course, and I forgot how to drive?
— Matt Groening, The Simpsons

David Starr Jordan, an ichthyologist and one of the early Presidents of Stanford University apparently decided that in order to be a good President he needed to learn the names of all the students he could. But he found, to his dismay, that every time he learned the name of a student he forgot the name of a fish.
— various

Why is it that our memory is good enough to retain the least triviality that happens to us, and yet not good enough to recollect how often we have told it to the same person?
— Francois de La Rochefoucauld (1613 - 1680)

face recognition

I shouldn't know you again if we did meet, Humpty Dumpty replied in a discontented tone… You're so exactly like other people. The face is what one goes by, generally, Alice remarked in a thoughtful tone. That's just what I complain of, said Humpty Dumpty. Your face is the same as everybody has ? the two eyes, so ? (marking their places in the air with his thumb) nose in the middle, mouth under. It's always the same. Now if you had the two eyes on the same side of the nose, for instance? or the mouth at the top? that would be some help.
— Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Middle age is when you've met so many people that every new person you meet reminds you of someone else.
— Ogden Nash (1902-1971)

It is the common wonder of all men, how among so many million faces, there should be none alike.
— Sir Thomas Browne, author and physician, 1605–1682

perceptual experience

"The mind knows…that there is an action principle that governs how the world evolves from one moment to the next — that restricts our world's path to points that tell an internally consistent story."
— Neal Stephenson, Anathem

If you could see an eighth distinct color just for a while, and then describe it back in the seven-colored world, it'd have to be… 'something like a sort of greenish-purple'. Experience did not cross over well between species.
— Terry Pratchett, Men at Arms

Seeing, contrary to popular wisdom, isn't believing. It's where belief stops, because it isn't needed any more.
— Terry Pratchett, Pyramids

The truth may be out there, but the lies are inside your head.
— Terry Pratchett, Hogfather

social cognition

It was so much easier to blame it on Them. It was bleakly depressing to think that They were Us. If it was Them, then nothing was anyone's fault. If it was us, what did that make Me? After all, I'm one of Us. I must be. I've certainly never thought of myself as one of Them. No one ever thinks of themselves as one of Them. We're always one of Us. It's Them that do the bad things.
— Terry Pratchett, Jingo

"Good grief!" groaned the ones who had stars at the first. "We're still the best Sneetches and they are the worst. But, now, how in the world will we know," they all frowned, "If which kind is what, or the other way round?"
— Dr. Seuss, The Sneetches

philosophy

One of the recurring philosophical questions is: 'Does a falling tree in the forest make a sound when there is no one to hear?' Which says something about the nature of philosophers , because there is always someone in a forest. It may only be a badger, wondering what that cracking noise was, or a squirrel a bit puzzled by all the scenery going upwards, but someone.
— Terry Pratchett, Small Gods

Seeing, contrary to popular wisdom, isn't believing. It's where belief stops, because it isn't needed any more.
— Terry Pratchett, Pyramids