BRITISH economist, author, journalist and Oxford alumnus Tim Harford writes a column for the Financial Times, a newspaper that endorsed Obama, Hillary and Biden in U.S. presidential elections. His column is also syndicated in Slate, a left-leaning online magazine. He has appeared on the Colbert Report and other popular radio and TV programs in Britain and the U.S. His latest (nonpartisan) book, “The Data Detective: Ten Easy Rules to Make Sense of Statistics,” should be on the reading list of policy-makers and concerned citizens.
Data, Harford reminds us, are crucial to understanding the world we live in. However, he added, data, specifically statistics, can also be used to confuse and mislead.
“You can ‘prove’ anything with statistics, it seems,” he writes in the book’s introduction titled “How to Lie With Statistics.” He says it’s also the title of a 1954 bestseller authored by American journalist Darrell Huff. It sold over a million copies, Harford says, and is perhaps the most popular book on statistics ever published. It gives “a peek behind the curtain of statistical manipulation, showing…how the swindling was done so that [we] would not be fooled again.”
Harford says in the same year, 1954, two British researchers, Richard Doll and Austin Bradford Hill, “produced one of the first convincing studies to demonstrate that smoking cigarettes causes lung cancer.” For years, they had collected and studied statistics before arriving at a glaring conclusion: smoking causes cancer and heart attacks. In this case, statistics persuaded a lot of people to quit smoking; countless lives were saved.
As for best-selling author Darrell Huff, he appeared, in the spring of 1965, before a U.S. Senate committee that was considering a proposal to put a health warning on packets of cigarettes. Huff was the expert witness…of the tobacco lobby.
Yes, Harford says, “it’s easy to lie with statistics — but it’s even easier to lie without them.” Of course, he adds, “we shouldn’t be credulous — but the antidote to credulity isn’t to believe nothing, but to have the confidence to assess information with curiosity and a healthy skepticism.”
First of all, he says, we should acknowledge that “when it comes to interpreting the world around us, we need to realize that our feelings can trump our expertise.” “Feelings” — that is, our political and other biases. For example, what some of us call “forecasting” may be “wishcasting.” Our judgment is strongly influenced by what we hope would be true.
“Psychologists call this ‘motivated reasoning,’ ” Harford says. “Motivated reasoning is thinking through a topic with the aim, conscious or unconscious, of reaching a particular kind of conclusion. In a football game, we see the fouls committed by the other team but overlook the sins of our own side. We are more likely to notice what we want to notice.”
Hence, Harford adds, we “often find ways to dismiss evidence that we don’t like. And the opposite is true, too: when evidence seems to support our preconceptions, we are less likely to look too closely for flaws.”
In politics, he says, we want the politicians we support “to be smart and witty and incorruptible. [We’ll] go to some effort to ignore or dismiss evidence to the contrary.” And if you’re highly educated or even an expert, you will “have no trouble summoning up reasons to support [your] conclusion.”
Moreover, many of us tend to believe highly credentialed experts. Harford says “people with deeper expertise are better equipped to spot deception, but if they fall into the trap of motivated reasoning, they are able to muster more reasons to believe whatever they really wish to believe.”
Here’s another problem: the more extreme our emotional reaction to an issue, Harford says, “the harder it is to think straight…. It is not easy to master our emotions while assessing information that matters to us.”
We need to pay close attention to our emotions, he adds. “Ask yourself: How does this information make me feel? Do I feel vindicated or smug? Anxious, angry, or afraid? Am I in denial, scrambling to find a reason to dismiss the claim?”
Harford says “our emotions are powerful. We can’t make them vanish, nor should we want to. But we can, and should, try to notice when they are clouding our judgment.”
Easier said than done, to be sure.
To be continued
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