Smart people don’t understand risk!
The lack of basic statistical insight is worrisome, not only the understanding of statistics but also the application of statistics in real life situations. It has come to my attention that especially intellectuals seem to lack in this regard far more than the average layman who uses common sense to evaluate risk. In general common sense is still better than risk assessment by an “intellectual ignoramus”. Two of the most heard remarks about the threat of Islamic terrorism is:
“The majority is peaceful & The chance of dying from a terrorist attack is smaller than the chance of being struck by lightning”.
Instead of going into detail on the mathematical aspect of statistics let me just explain it by using easy to understand examples.
Imagine having a bowl of M&M’s of which 5% are poisonous. Would you eat from the bowl? Of course not you aren’t going to take the risk. But but… the majority of M&M’s is ok! You see when the risk becomes personal your views change, you wouldn’t even accept a 5% chance of being poisoned.
Not only common sense but also history shows us that the majority is irrelevant. I don’t like to draw parallels to Hitler because Reductio ad Hitlerum is often used to silence a debate and overused. But this isn’t a comparison to Hitler to destroy a valid argument but rather as an example why majority is irrelevant. In the election of 1932 the Nazis won 37 % of the vote, this basically means that 63% of all Germans didn’t support Hitler. The moderate parties would hold all but 3 of the government posts. These 3 went to the Nazi party and one of these would be Hitler as Chancellor. We all know what happened next. Revolutions are also mostly started by a minority that gathers momentum over time. Fidel Castro landed with 82 men in Cuba on 2 December 1956. 82 men! In 1913 the British controlled 23% of the world population and 24% of the land mass in the following years. Now was the British population (the ones living on the British isles) a majority in numbers in the world? Of course not they just dominated because of other reasons, not because they were a majority.
As you can see a majority is not needed to change the course of history or to have significant impact, therefore saying the majority is peaceful is a nonsensical statistic that has absolutely no meaning because a majority is not a requirement for change. It wasn’t a majority that invented airplanes, electricity or penicillin and changed our world. When you look at history and societal changes over the course of time you’ll notice that the biggest changes come from a tiny minority of people.
“The chance of being struck by lightning is higher than the chance to get killed by terrorism” is another example of using meaningless statistics.
In pre-war Iraq this was a valid statistic. As an Iraqi citizen you were more likely to die by lightning than by terrorism yet now that risk is completely reversed (https://www.statista.com/statistics/202861/number-of-deaths-in-iraq-due-to-terrorism/). So again this type of statistic in a debate is completely useless because there is very little variability in amount of lightning strikes over time unless some serious climatological changes occur but the likelihood of terrorism attacks increasing over time with a change in demographics, politics, economics or war is very likely. Not only that but lightning doesn’t pose a threat to our way of life, our democratic system & our society as a whole, while terrorism can bring a country into civil war or total chaos.
Statistics like these are just photograph from a point in time and should not be viewed as a predictor of future events because they change when the underlying conditions change but very few people seem to grasp that.
Let me give you another example. The average croc attack per year in Australia albeit on the rise is still way lower than the deaths resulting from using ladders.
In just 1 hospital in Australia they report 15 people who died as a result of being in contact with ladders.
Knowing this would you conclude that based on this statistic it’s less dangerous to put a crocodile in your garage as opposed to a ladder? Of course not!
… the bulk (81%) of attacks occurred when people were either swimming, wading, or at the water’s edge …(https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2013/aug/27/crocodile-attacks)
The amount of deaths from crocodiles is low because not meany people go into the natural habitat of crocodiles, it’s not because crocodiles aren’t inherently dangerous to humans.
Increasing the amount of ladders would not substantially increase the amount of deaths. It’s not as if there would be twice as many deaths if we double the amount of ladders. Ladders are only used out of a necessity and that necessity will not double if we double our amount of ladders.
Comparing ladders & crocodiles based on absolute numbers as an argument in a debate to asses the relative risk without looking at the type of correlation there is and ignoring the nature of what you are comparing, is a useless as carrying water in a sieve .
Another statistic that you’ll see online is about rape statistics and Sweden.
“Sweden is the rape capital of Europe”.
Sweden arguably has lots of problems because of their lenient attitude towards migration and refugee intake. But it’s useless to compare rape statistics around the globe. Because some of the inappropriate sexual behaviour that in Sweden is classified as rape is not always considered to be rape elsewhere. Sweden is also a very feminist, egalitarian and open society so there is less taboo on going to the police and it’s more likely a woman will be taken serious when filing a complaint.
Even when comparing rape stats in the same country but over a period of time from let’s say the 60’s till now we have still to be careful since the definition of what is considered rape has changed over the last few decades and the taboo of reporting it has become less. So it’s almost logical that the statistics will show an increase over time.
So comparing rape statistics between nations or over a time period without corrections or footnotes is absurd as the data represents different things. But even if we take a conservative approach to the data coming from Sweden it’s still problematic and rape is a serious offence.
This lack of insight in how to deal with statistics is why our left-leaning politicians and left-leaning intellectuals vastly underestimate threats but also the right-leaning ones tends to exaggerate certain threats for the very same reason, confirmation bias. It’s very hard for people to change their pre-existing beliefs, emotional thoughts usually takes precedence over rational thoughts.
People in power use facts to base their policies on without actually knowing how to interpret these facts and as such make wrong choices when it comes to asses the risk associated with their choices. The German Senate ordered a study to determine why refugees were vastly over-represented in their crime statistics (http://www.maz-online.de/Home/Polizei/Zuwanderer-oefter-als-Verdaechtige-in-Polizei-Statistik). Ask any layman and he will explain you why without the need of a study because he’ll use intuitive reasoning, the kind of thinking that helped us survive for centuries. Yet intellectuals seem to be completely oblivious to this and need data to back it up without actually knowing how to read this data corrrectly. In many cases there is an inverse relationship between (pseudo-) intelligent people and basic risk assessment.