Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Thursday, May 27, 2010


As I've been saying now and again (and again and again) a major reason why so many people believe in so much stuff that just isn't true is innumeracy. Orac discusses an editorial in Vaccine by Gregory Poland and Ray Spier. I link to the good doctor because the editorial itself is behind a subscription wall and at least he gives you an idea of what's in it. I'm just going to quote a bit -- this is all about why people believed in the fraudulent link between the MMR vaccine and autism, as promoted by psychopathic charlatan Andrew Wakefield.

An innumerate (the inability to use and understand numbers and mathematical concepts) press and public resonated with each other. An innumerate person or organization uses such phrases as "I don't care what the data show . . . I believe . . . ". The answer to innumeracy is a slow and long-term one -- better scientific and public education.

Well okay, but how can we accomplish that? This web site is trying, but after rooting around in it for a while I don't think it really works -- partly because it depends on the user to find her or his own way around, instead of beginning at the beginning and muddling through to some definite end; partly because it just doesn't have enough material that will really get through to people. There is some on-site content and a lot of links out, but the links out are all a pig in a poke.

At least it helps me realize more about the task. I probably jumped in too hard here getting straight to the binomial distribution and all that mathy hoo hah, when in fact a lot of people just have the wrong idea about how the world works qualitatively.

The gambler's fallacy, that a number is "due" to hit, has emptied many a wallet.

Then there is the ubiquity of coincidence. An immense, effectively infinite number of events come to our awareness every day. There are bound to be apparent patterns and associations among them, and our brains are wired to see them. But there is no way to know if they are real unless we see them repeated many times and never violated. Alas, due to a psychological proclivity called confirmation bias, we are relatively unlikely to notice or remember violations of our original hypotheses. That's how superstitions develop.

For these and other reasons, we need to investigate problems systematically, and use disciplined means to overcome the sloppiness of our intuitions. This requires structured ways of stating and evaluating questions, which is really what mathematics is all about. Math doesn't necessarily have to be mainly about numbers, although numbers are very helpful in structured thinking and sometimes necessary.

But what people really need to be able to do is not so much learn about mathematical theorems and memorize formulas. People need to learn how to think. Reality reveals itself to those who know how to interrogate it. Because so many people do not know how, we end up with all these critical debates over matters which simply are not in doubt. There aren't two sides to every question, and not every controversy should be taught. Yet people on both sides of every false controversy "know" they are correct.

The issue is that they "know" in different ways. My way keeps winning out in the end -- as Copernicus and Hubble, Crick and Watson, and yes, Darwin can attest. But people still don't get it.

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