In a passage highlighted by Flip Chart Fairy Tales, Stephen Pinker, in an interview in The Observer last week, argues that statistical ignorance is our intellectual culture’s great failure.
I think that a failure of statistical thinking is the major intellectual shortcoming of our universities, journalism and intellectual culture. Cognitive psychology tells us that the unaided human mind is vulnerable to many fallacies and illusions because of its reliance on its memory for vivid anecdotes rather than systematic statistics. Yet pundits continue to hallucinate trends in freak events, like the Norwegian sniper (who shot all those young people on an island) and make wildly innumerate comparisons, such as between Afghanistan and Vietnam, or between today’s human trafficking and the African slave trade. It’s a holdover of the literary sensibilities of our science-flunking intellectual elite, who would be aghast if someone didn’t know who Milton was, but cheerfully flaunt their ignorance of basic science and mathematics.
I largely agree with him, though the English major in me rebels — and I think a world where everyone understood stats but no one read good literature might still be a less moral place. (I could be wrong on this.) But Pinker is not pressing us to dump Milton, of course, but to gain competence in understanding statistics and scale. He’s dead right, and what makes his argument interesting is that he’s insisting our ignorance of statistics, amid our joy of reciting flabby or misleading numbers, can make us ignorant about moral questions.
It’s a good interview, as most with Pinker are. He’s smart, articulate, and complicated in ways that lead to surprises. You get a chance to see him talk, do so.
Trivia find: Pinker has a profile and several entries at IMDB, the movie database, where he is listed as “miscellaneous crew” (and adviser) on several films. He also shoots some nice photos.
Our science-flunking intellectual elite | Flip Chart Fairy Tales
Steven Pinker: fighting talk from the prophet of peace | Science | The Observer