Passing the Laugh Test

Early in my college career I learned that I needed to check my work if I wanted to pass the courses. I am pretty sure it was one of my engineering professors who recommended that I develop a way to quickly estimate the answer as a way of confirming my answer. He said I was far more likely to receive partial credit if I could show an estimate that was close to the actual answer as part of my answer. From his viewpoint a correct estimate showed that I had a clue how to solve the problem even though my calculations may of come up with the wrong answer. I called this process,  “Passing the Laugh Test”.  On the other hand if my answer was way off and I could not demonstrate that I had a clue about what the answer should look like, I was out of luck. If I tried to go to the professor and ask for partial credit, I was going to get laughed at. It was cruel but it worked. Creating a “Laugh Test” estimate on a variety of problems has kept me out of a lot of embarrassing mistakes over the years.

That brings me to one of the great chuckles of the week. NASA screwed up the temperature graphs again. Despite anecdotal incidents of cold weather in the Northern hemisphere such as snow on the same day as the Parliament debate on global warming last month, NASA reported a 10 degree temperature jump in the October temperature data from Russia. I cannot imagine what the NASA folks were thinking. They had to know that the folks over at Climate Audit are going over their data with a fine tooth comb and NASA cannot implement a simple “Laugh Test” to avoid public humiliation. Any college sophomore could have created a simple year to year comparison test to avoid this problem. It did not take the folks at Climate Audit very long to come to the conclusion that NASA was using exactly the same temperature data for September and October. They knew that NASA’s answer was wrong and they had a pretty good idea how NASA made the mistake. If the folks at NASA making the mistake were college sophomores trying to scrounge up some partial credit on a missed answer, they would have been laughed at by their professor. They failed the “Laugh Test”. The only folks not laughing is the coal industry and the electrical utilities.

One of the best explanations of the blunder comes in this article from the Telegraph, The world has never seen such freezing heat.