There are Two Kinds of People in the World …

Posted Aug 24, 2022

Numbers, data, and infographics have become an ever-increasing source for spreading helpful or distorted messages. Of course, attempting to deceive others through manipulating statistics has always been present in our lives. Take this scene from my fifth birthday:

[Opening shot of a boy opening the door to a garden shed. Inside, we find two go-karts. One is slightly used; the other brand new with a big bow on it. Note: these are not battery-charged cars from the toy section of the store. Both are honest-to-goodness, gasoline powered go-karts.]

Dad (proudly): Looks like you’re old enough to race against your brother! Hank versus Little Jeffy!

Little Jeffy (hoping for a round-backed mandolin): Is it safe for me to drive this? Don’t most accidents occur in the home?

Dad: We’re not in the home. We’re outside.

Little Jeffy (staring at his father)

Dad: What?! Besides your mom just burned herself baking your cake, so we’ve used up our chances for accidents, today.

My history aside, there are real dangers associated with poor probabilistic intuition. In the recently published book, Partial Truths: How Fractions Distort Our Thinking, author James Zimring debunks several conspiracy theories (including the “Satanic Panic” of the early 1980s) and reveals marketing strategies that were doomed to fail (A&W’s challenger to McDonald’s Quarter-Pounder). When it comes to our foibles for understanding the likelihood of things, Zimring claims exposure to more data can actually harm rational thinking. Rather than overcoming “proportional reasoning deficits,” people may become more entrenched in their thinking, doubling down on one of two short-sighted perspectives: (a) it has happened before, so it probably will happen again – or – (b) it has already happened, so it probably won’t happen again.

To read an overview of Zimring’s book, see Dungeons & Dragons and Burgers: ‘Really Bad Outcomes’ when We Don’t Grasp Fractions.

[And although my childhood recollection may not be verbatim accurate, the underlying story is real … just like the broken arm I received after crashing into a tree later that fateful fifth birthday.]

Jeffrey Smith, PhD

MAEM Graduate Director

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