Perception and Reality, by the Numbers

Do you enjoy thinking about statistics? Probably not. As Alan Smith puts it in this week’s TED Talk, “Why you should love statistics,” statistics is the part of math that even mathematicians don’t like! In my case, he’s right. I studied math at Harvard College, and I loved almost all of it. But I didn’t love statistics. I didn’t even like statistics.

Smith argues, however, that we are looking at statistics the wrong way. In his view, statistics show us the difference between perception and reality, and teach us to understand ourselves. They can inspire us and surprise us, and they can help us to live Eyes Wide Open. That’s something I like a lot!

For Smith, statistics reveal the substantial gap between what we know and what we think we know. The numbers don’t lie: on the whole, we’re very poor “intuitive statisticians.” That is, we’re bad at quantifying the characteristics of our societies.

Smith offers numerous examples from survey data, including: British respondents estimated the Muslim population of England and Wales to be 24% when it was truly 5%, And they estimated that 15% of teenage British girls became pregnant every year when the true number is around .5%. Saudis guessed that around 25% of their population is overweight, when it’s closer to 75%. And the Japanese thought that about half their countrymen lived in rural areas, when only 7% did.

As Smith puts it, when it comes to understanding our societies, we’re blind to the obvious. That is, we’re ignorant of the observable. More significant, however, is that we’re “blind to our blindness.” We do not realize that what we think about ourselves is often very wrong. That’s where statistics find meaning for Smith. They can show us. Statistics is not the science of uncertainty, Smith concludes, but rather the science of us. It’s a science worth careful study.

What do you think? What’s your favorite Ted Talk? Join the discussion and let me know. I want to hear from you!

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