Sunday, October 07, 2007

Why people don't care about statistics   posted by Razib @ 10/07/2007 08:51:00 PM

RPM points to a Language Log post which discusses and highlights the human ignorance of, and disinterest in, statistical thinking. Assman put up an interesting comment. I will say this:

1) There are some basic tools which many intelligent people are just plain ignorant of. On this weblog one reader, a medical doctor, was surprised by Bayes' rule, but immediately understood its relevance. This happens to all of us, there are amazing tools out there which we haven't encountered for a variety of reasons. And most of us are happy to pick up the tools if we see clear utility.

2) But, there's another problem, and that is the fact that statistical and probabilistic thinking is a real damper on "intellectual" conversation. By this, I mean that there are many individuals who wish to make inferences about the world based on data which they observe, or offer up general typologies to frame a subsequent analysis. These individuals tend to be intelligent and have college degrees. Their discussion ranges over topics such as politics, culture and philosophy. But, introduction of questions about the moments about the distribution, or skepticism as to the representativeness of their sample, and so on, tends to have a chilling affect on the regular flow of discussion. While the average human being engages mostly in gossip and interpersonal conversation of some sort, the self-consciously intellectual interject a bit of data and abstraction (usually in the form of jargon or pithy quotations) into the mix. But the raison d'etre of the intellectual discussion is basically signaling and cuing; in other words, social display. No one really cares about the details and attempting to generate a rigorous model is really beside the point. Trying to push the N much beyond 2 or 3 (what you would see in a college essay format) will only elicit eye-rolling and irritation.

Note: And as Assman noted, the above isn't really relevant for most people who are probably too light on the g.