Ask a ScienceBlogger: Lies and Damned Lies

This week’s Ask a ScienceBlogger question from On High arrived while I was out of town (see also last week’s results), and I’ve held off answering because I had a huge stack of papers to grade. Of course, time for responding has almost run out, so I guess I ought to say something…

The question of the week is:

“If you could shake the public and make them understand one scientific idea, what would it be?”

Most of the other answers have come in already (and I’m too lazy to link them all), but they divide into two basic categories: answers dealing with the process of science, and answers dealing with the tools of science. There are excellent arguments for both sides, but I’m going to go for the “tools” category, and say “Statistics.”

(Expanded answer below the fold.)

By this I don’t mean things like regression analysis and t-tests and the Central Limit Theorem (“Everything’s a gaussian”), I just mean basic ideas of statistics like the difference between “mean” and “median” and some elementary probability analysis. I realize this is still a pretty broad category, but the ways in which some elementary knowledge of statistics would improve life in general are almost too numerous to count.

Study after study has shown that, as a species, we’re really, really bad about assessing probabilities. It’s well known that people grossly overreact to the threat of horrifying but highly improbable events, while ignoring much more likely dangers that feel less scary. One of my favorite examples was my grandmother’s belief that radon in the basement led to my grandfather’s lung cancer, despite the fact that he mostly went down there to smoke cigarettes.

But if there’s a wrong way to approach a statistical matter, you can count on the general public to find it. Studies showing tenuous links between things will be latched onto as graven-in-stone TRVTH, with no attempt to account for reasonable error bounds, while solid, responsible research will be brushed off as just so much fuzzy math, because, after all, you can prove anything with statistics. And the manipulations needed to deceive people are rarely complicated or subtle– strategic choice of mean vs. median values is usually about all it takes.

Huge swaths of public policy would quickly become much more sensible if only the voters had an elementary grasp of statistics.

Of course, I say this as someone who gave a “How to Lie With Statistics” talk for a class on the election of 2004 (there’s also grainy QuickTime video of a news story about the class, if you scroll up from that post). I also just (finally) got around to reading Freakonomics while waiting for my flight out of Knoxville on Saturday, so I’ve sort of got statistics on the brain at the moment.

9 thoughts on “Ask a ScienceBlogger: Lies and Damned Lies

  1. More generally, I’d wish for number literacy; a general understanding of magnitudes and other basic numeral relations. Hofstadter had a good example, a cost estimate “between one million and one billion”. Too many people would have no feeling for the magnitudes involved, and would not see just how meaningless that estimate is.

  2. I would definately have to vote for the scientific method. For some reason, most people think that the scientific method means that you have to be in science class with an array of beakers in front of you. Probably need saftey goggles, too. I’m always trying to explain to people (pre-med students, my little sister) that I run multiple experiments every day, using the scientific method. Problem: The dryer isn’t drying any clothes. Hypothesis: The dryer gets warm, but isn’t spinning. Experiment: Take out the clothes and insert a few pennies. Run the dryer. Results: No noise from pennies crashing into the side of the dryer. Conclusion: Dryer doesn’t spin!

  3. You answer might be the best of the bunch. Statistics, numerical literacy, logic, critical thinking: these are all topics that get short shrift, yet are crucial life skills.

    Rather than relegating it to a specific course, these things should be integrated into most high school classes.

    Many teachers try to do some of that, but it seems to be rather haphazard. Some students get enough, but most do not.

  4. Clark, have you shown conclusively that spinning actually is necessary for drying action to occur, though? After all, drying cabinets do dry textiles without spinning.

    Methinks you should disable the motor in the new dryer as well, to see if it makes a difference 🙂

  5. I agree with your choice of statistics. I’ve had many jobs in several different fields over the years since I had a college statistics course in 1959. That course remains the only one that has had direct application in every job I’ve ever held, not to mention helping me understand what’s going on in the world around me and spotting those who bend and twist statistics to their own ends.

  6. I was just reading a post over on Daily Kos that included a link to this article that notes that 19% of Americans think they are in the top 1% in income….
    I tend to agree that a basic “feel” for numbers is terribly lacking in the public at large. Much as I would like to see a better public understanding of science, I think a better public understanding of numbers *and graphs* would have far more impact on science (including science funding) as well as on the world in general. I agree that having a grasp of basic statistical concepts would help enormously, but a) I think it’s less important than having an intuitive grasp of the difference between a million and a billion, and b) I think getting a grip on statistics is far easier if you start out by being comfortable with numbers, especially with approximate numbers and “order of magnitude” comparisons.

  7. Jordin Kare: 19% of Americans think they are in the top 1% in income…..

    Oh, that’s nuthin’. 90% of Americans consider themselves to be “above average” drivers.

    Yes, a bit of numeracy would certainly be welcome.

    But “If you could shake the public and make them understand one scientific idea, what would it be?”

    How about: There is no “Truth”.
    All knowledge comes with error bars. If people understood that simple bit of epistemology, a lot of good outcomes would follow.

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