Pinker on Statistical Literacy

Better Angels, indeed:

In a question and answer session on Freakonomics Radio, Pinker was asked what people can do to help society “resist the urge to think things are worse and worse and the world is less and less safe when this is manifestly not the case”.

Pinker’s answer was interesting: “One necessity is greater statistical literacy among the population and especially among journalists.

“People need to think in terms of proportions rather than salient examples, to appreciate orders of magnitude, to distinguish random blips from systematic trends, and to be aware of — and thereby discount — their own cognitive biases.

Pinker is right, of course. Higher education is relatively meaningless if its graduates cannot reply to the quoting of a raw statistic with the simple question “Out of what?”

To not deal with such deficits in understanding is to risk many of the very real and profound gains we have made in the past couple hundred years. The peculiar nature of a democracy is that it’s no use graduating brilliant climatologists if the row of business majors behind them at graduation believe the early snow this year shows it’s all bunk anyways. We’re only as good as the voting public lets us be.

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One thought on “Pinker on Statistical Literacy

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